Van Dyke Parks on His Invisible Career, Surviving the '60s and the Role of the Beta Male

Apr 4, 2012 at 12:21 pm

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Van Dyke Parks on His Invisible Career, Surviving the '60s and the Role of the Beta Male
Art Spiegelman

What other plans do you have for your Bananastan label?

My next record is by the New Orleans piano player Tom McDermott, who was actually born in St. Louis. He's a true keyboard genius, and I know keyboard geniuses - I know Allen Toussaint, Dr. John, I knew James Booker. I got him out of jail once. I never thought Elton John was that great of a pianist, but then again, I didn't vote for Nixon.

You're at an odd juncture in your career - your early work has been drawing more respect and attention, but you're clearly not resting on your laurels. What comes next for you?

I really appreciate your kindness - we're here for our powers of empathy. That's nice of you to say. It's quite a wrestle. Ted Turner used a phrase for his book -- It Only Looks Easy. I love that convention. The late, lamented Vic Chesnutt could not afford to stay alive in this country. In the second verse of a song ["Isadora Duncan"] he noted, "There is no shelter in the arts." I wanted to kiss him and comfort him when he said that. It is so true that it is a struggle to find relevance, to be a prism for the human experience. To create that, I can't believe how demanding it is. It takes work to present the song to another person without a stain of apology. I try to make the songs or the pieces of music beautiful to the casual or vulgar observer. The side [of my single] called "Amazing Graces" is just variations on that great tune. There are no words.

About a month before he died, Ray Charles' manager called and asked for my string reel. Ray Charles was interested in the way I arranged strings. I cannot tell you how that evens life up in the most spectacular way for me. I have such respect for the late Ray Charles. My wife and I were in the kitchen and I started to weep. So stuff like that, it's a cottage industry and it's here to serve. And I mentioned before, that trying to do the right thing.

When did your own aspirations to be a lyricist and, later, a front man take over?

Due caution is always there. The fact that I survived the '60s shows that I can be happy with the decisions I made. I really put a lot of stock in this Beta Male role - the idea of being a team player is attractive to me. Arranging is total, it's the most thrilling aspect of music. I have to notate every sound that I hear. That is really an illumination, but it's drudgery. It only looks easy! (Laughs)

I don't care about the recognition. It's not recognition -- you have to keep doing what you think is right. I believe that there's nothing more satisfying that trying to bring out the best in someone else. That's what is at the heart of what music is all about. In the process of being an arranger, I found my briar patch -- where I wanted to laugh or cry. I found a great medium. So that's incredible, beautiful. It still finds a way to surface, having suffered the disregard of the academic world from where I come from. Ask Mike Love if I have any street credibility. (Laughs) So I got street cred. Yet something fascinated me beyond street cred. That was the guys who would take street cred into the parlor.

Look at the cover by Art Spiegelman and you see a man lighting a cigar with a $100 bill, and the other half of the face is torn away. Obviously I took a vow of poverty - that's what my religion taught me to do. I did not come into music for fame or profit. I already knew the joy it was to be a musician and a collaborator. The greatest joy that society can offer is a collaborative hymn. This is the America that I refuse to leave behind.