Monday, 30 May 2011

Van Dyke Parks in Mojo

Old interview, I know. See:

Van Dyke Parks' Singles Club
9:00 AM GMT 05/05/2011

Van Dyke Parks, songwriter, arranger and the co-creator of Brian Wilson's legendary Smile project, will play a rare London show next month in support of new vinyl singles project - six 7-inches are confirmed for release. Speaking to MOJO from his home in Pasadena, Califronia, Parks, in his inimitably cinematic style, talks of his loathing for the CD, his love of sleeve art, the courage of the pioneering musician and the not-so-small matter of the soon-to-be released Smile Sessions. "Religion, to me," he tells MOJO's Ross Bennett, "is music."

Your new singles project kicks off this month. Where did the idea come from?
Well, I did my first short tour last year and some reporter had the audacity to say to me, "What have you done lately? What's new?" It was like Moses being asked for an 11th Commandment!

What was your immediate response to that?
This is it! I've decided to record! Of course, I'm totally redundant to the record business, but I love the song form so much. It is my obsession. It meets my need and my attention span very well. I'm putting these records out on my vanity label, Bananastan; my wife had a stall on a flea market in Paris for six years, and it's named after that. Now it's time to put out some product. Well, I don't have an album in me. Also, I don't believe people have any patience for a through-line or an exposition. They want it now. A shuffle mentality, that's what I'm dealing with. Perhaps people will just listen to part of a song. The times have changed and in this staccato environment, I decided to put out some music.

And you've decided to put it out on vinyl...
I despise the CD. I despise the form. It's ugly. It's impossible to catalogue easily on a shelf. It is, as Ry Cooder would say, "taking up too much space, man." So I got the irreducible minimum in the highest fidelity that we can bring, in a stereo 45rpm vinyl disc. There will be two songs on each single and each will be beautifully sleeved. With vinyl you're taking a sharp picture of a sharp object. You can only take a fuzzy picture of a sharp object if you have a CD! My dad once told me he didn't care which church I went to; he said, "Just put your hand on a stone somewhere." To me, that's like holding a record. But to avoid being precious, I decided to make a big career decision. I'm going to make sure that the songs are downloadable and convenient for the casual observer.

Which visual artists have contributed to the project and can you talk about some of the songs you've written?
Ed Ruscha - worth a Google. Art Spiegelman, who absolutely captured the moment of 9/11 that changed my life, and the song I then wrote called Wall Street, wherein a man and woman fall in love holding hands, as they flame their way through a rain of confettied blood. Art Spiegelman captured that beautifully. There's Money Is King - a great calypso song that I have eviscerated. It was by that Growling Tiger [AKA Neville Marcano] and came out in 1937. It's time for us to have songs that agitate for a change of heart. How much is enough for anyone to have in an age in which an undeveloped world aims its planes at towers.

There I am, agitating! I am an uncloseted liberal who speaks peace in our time. That shows in the songs. I came to my senses to discuss what has been happening in my own life. Of course, not just 9/11, but there was [Hurricane] Katrina. I was born in Mississippi. The hospital where I was born was blown through entirely. That's eighty miles from the shore.

There is another artist called Charles Ray - worth a Google. And we've got Frank Holmes who did the original Smile artwork that so inspired me and Brian. To complete that dangerous, reckless thought of a folie à deux, craziness of two people... it was three! It was a troika. And Frank Holmes' artwork was very much a part of that.

You've been involved in the marriage of the audio and the visual before. In the early '70s, you held a position at Warners as Audio/Visual Director. What exactly did that involve?
The artists at that time were being pushed into narcotic roadwork. There's Janis, Jimi... there are other lesser-knowns who are of great importance to me, like Lowell George, people who actually died in pursuit of making ends meet. They signed record contracts that made little. I came to understand what those contracts were and I was amazed. I figured, "Let's have a new income stream for these artists." I managed that each artist would get 25 per cent of the net. That was absolutely unheard of. Of course, they did something entirely different after I left that office. The artists ended up getting nothing. In 1910, a song would sell for 10 cents, five of it went to the author, and the other five went to the publisher.

Have you always had a visual relationship with music?
When I was a kid, I was in live television shows in New York City. Back then everything was dialogue-driven and people even thought things! In one of these events [a Campbell Playhouse episode called The Corner Druggist, 1954] I was nine years old and I was the star of the show. There was an old woman by the name of Lillian Gish. Lillian Gish was reduced to a cameo role in a thing that I was starring in. Lillian Gish was one of the girls who made the film industry! The director told me, "Son, you be nice to that woman."

I turned to her - I'm nine, she's probably 80 - and I said, "Ms. Gish, I hear that you were a great actress and that you made an industry with your beauty in the silent film era." She said, "Oh, that's very nice of you, young man." I said, "Ms. Gish, weren't you apprehensive when you heard that talkies were coming?" I was going to get Ms. Gish on her Achilles' heel. She turned and said, "That's a very good question. Actually, when we heard that sound was coming to film we didn't call them talkies. We all just assumed that when sound came to film, it would all be music." That is the power of it to me. That is the place to be.

Your debut album Song Cycle has become a touchstone for some of today's most experimental artists. How do you feel about your early solo work today?
You know, I find people seem to be more flexible now. I work for people like Joanna Newsom and they make me feel like the Rock of Gibraltar. In other words, there is more tolerance for... for the flamboyant and a more flaming individuality. And that's very healthy. You can't reach anything great without that kind of courage. I think that's contagious. One thing that is not false or overpublicized is the thing that drew me to Brian Wilson - his courage. That's the same quality I saw in Harry Nilsson when he reinterpreted those old songs. I mean, he aced it! But absolutely going retro was so counterculture and it took courage. You know, I love the Liverpool taxi cab drivers' motto, "Boldly going forward because we can't find reverse." That's become my philosophy! I'm here so I'm going to go ahead.

The Smile Sessions are finally being released in September. When somebody mentions Smile, what's the first thing that pops into your head?
Crows over a cornfield [a reference to the Parks-penned line in Smile's Cabinessence]. I hear the box set is going to be absolutely beautiful. It will be very comforting to see that it's finally commercially available.

How has your relationship with the songs on Smile changed over the years?
I really think they're fine. I don't see any septic quality in them at all. In fact, the unvarnished truth is that they are without malice. Please bring that into the contemporary framework! But I wish, darn it, that it hadn't had so much celebrity. The celebrity of it got in the way. Otherwise, it would have been fine.

Religion, to me, is music. What Brian brought to the table was a closeted understanding of low-church hymns. I knew that that man had a divine regard. That's what really made me want to serve his interest with all my heart. We were coming from entirely separate arenas - he from right-wing comfort and me from the left-wing shock therapy of being out in Los Angeles with no money. I think our common thread was that we shared that music.

Smile is a kind of fevered reimagining of Americana...
One time I was at college, studying music, and Aaron Copland came into the room to teach. I was the only undergraduate composition major. I got an A and a pat on the ass. The point is, Mr. Copland was asked during that class, "What is American music?" He said, with a shrug, "American music is anything written in America." I thought that was unforgettable. I like that.

What can we expect from your upcoming British live shows?
I'm 68 years old. I'm not going to pretend to be Mick Jagger. I don't want to jump around like the sea of wrinkles. I can't do that. I'm not an athlete! I have to carry my own bags. I'm just shooting the dice where I think they should be shot. I'm emphasizing what I can. I'm bearing witness to some truth. My preference is a small room where there are people participating. I'm amazed and touched that I'm getting what I think is a proportional response. It has been different. Here, one day, I was sitting at a restaurant, couldn't get served. I was the oldest thing in the room. My friend Elliot Ingber from the Mothers Of Invention was sitting there. Finally, the foxy lady, the waitress, was circling and everybody else was getting served. So Elliot went to the waitress and said, "Hey lady, you don't know who he used to be!" I thought that was great, because right now I am very happy that anybody might regard me for currency in the present tense. I am in and of it, to be sure.

I know my best work is ahead of me. That's the only thing that gets me out of the decrepitude of my advanced age. Every day the hand is farther from the head! Just to play the things I played when I was a brunette, I want to tell you, it ain't for sissies! And I beat the shit of the piano!

Interview by Ross Bennett

Van Dyke Parks played London's Union Chapel on May 16.

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