February 10th, 2010 5:33 pm | by JEFF ROSENBERG Music | Posted In: Columns, Columns

Extended Q&A with Van Dyke Parks, Part 2

van-dyke-parks Here is the second half of Jeff Rosenberg's extensive conversation with the pop-music Zelig who goes by the name of Van Dyke Parks, in which they discuss his lyrical style and subject matter, musical tastes, political opinions, and (yes) a little bit about Smile.

WW: In your newest work, do you still write lyrics with the same sort of verbal density and dexterity that you have in the past?
Van Dyke Parks: Yeah, and the same economy, as well. I think that my lyrics -- I think the loudest inconvenience that I managed to inflict upon myself and the audience that faced it was Song Cycle, the first album, and I'm famous for that. People like to think about the density or the heavy thought in my work; in fact, a lot of them, of course, compare that to -- it's all a matter of relativity, but as being comparable to... Bob Dylan. You look at Bob Dylan's early work, you find the same thick thought, and he survived those condemnations with great alacrity. I've managed to do it with a smaller body of work as an artist, but, Hell's bells, to me, my primary obligation is to the muse -- music. But as a songwriter, yeah, I think that my songs have a tendency to agitate, and I don't think that I'll ever lose sight of the fact that the arts have an obligation to foment change, to inspire change, to make the world a better place. And in the process, they risk making people believe that they're thinking too much. So naturally, in my next ouvre, the first album I've done since 9/11, I'll explore 9/11 on my own terms. And I don't think they'll be comfortable for any self-satified Western mind.

Well, that's really exciting to hear, because, as you said, the focus of your work has been on "how we got here." I don't want to use the word "nostalgia" in a perjorative sense, but certainly Jump!, Tokyo Rose, and Orange Crate Art have been largely backward-looking, with the exception of Tokyo Rose's song "Trade War," which sort of brushes up against the present.
Well, you know, it's true, they say that honey draws more flies than vinegar. It's true that I try to keep a cosmetic front of contentment and a placated approach. But, in fact, I think that it can be fairly said that one of my primary motives for Jump!, for example, was that I railed against what I felt were the dangers of censorship. The tales of B'rer Rabbit were being ripped off the shelf; people were interested in bowdlerizing the work, and they still do that.

Yeah, and you still can't rent Song of the South on video, for that matter.
Exactly. Well, to me, Song of the South had an overriding detrimental effect on what Mark Twain once called "our most precious piece of stolen goods." The Rosetta Stone of American culture which are the tales of B'rer Rabbit. I agree with Twain on that and so much else. It was anger that drove me into that highly individual obsession with the morality tales of B'rer Rabbit.

Well, that [1984] was the height of the "political corectness" era. Did you face any explicit criticism for drawing from that source?
Well, the first thing I got after the issue of Jump!, in the press, was the St. Petersburg Times, in which the editor of the book section reviewed the record, and he branded the work as "racially irreproachable." I can't tell you how satisfying that was to me, who have always wanted to see civil rights a front-burner issue. Yeah, and then there were people who took a passing glance at the work who, of course, associate it with what erroneously is called nostalgia. Nostalgia is nothing content. Nostalgia, in fact, means "pain of home." That's what it means. There was a tremendous pain, and still is, I think, in thinking about home. It's not so much to find a missing sense of place, which that and the other works somehow achieve. You mentioned Orange Crate Art. Yes, there is something of that, trying to find a sense of place, but there's also -- I think I have an obsession about what is truly in decay. Decadent. Things that are passing from our world, and still have enough instructive value that they should migrate to another generation's consideration. That's what Jump! did. It helped migrate a work which was threatened with extinction.

That's what the Jim Kweskin Jug Band did, for that matter.
Absolutely. So to me I'm always kind of like, finding -- the patient -- It's trying to pull up into my times a breath in cases of extreme distress or decay, and study them. To me, I don't think that that is so outta hand. I mean, autumn is my favorite season, seeing things in decay, studying people who are old and in the way, trying to find out why elephants go to the graveyard. To me, this is all about what we should be doing. And trying to find out what we should be lugging forward with us. And, to me, I mean, I have brought as much urgency as I can to the issue without a damaging heavy hand. I've tried to do it with a light hand.

Yes, well, certainly, your stuff is not didactic by any means.
And, you know, I'm satisfied with the general areas of commitment I've made. It has got me into trouble. You know, its a funny thing. There's a country, it's called Japan, where they build their entire social structure on corporate relations. Indivuality is despised. The place is crowded, of course, so there are reasons to defend against individuality. And they have an expression, the nail the sticks out gets hammered down. Americans have always been smug, I think, about how highly prized individuality is. But I think on closer view, you find that this is not the case. Individuality is punished here. And it's punished in the arts. People want pablum. People want their music, are satisfied with their music, champion music that has the life expectancy of a pint of yogurt. It's more convenient! The arts are a nicety. The arts aren't supposed to be urgent, the arts aren't supposed to make us think, they're just supposed to be, well, beautiful. Like a parlor piano. They're supposed to be beautiful. In spite of the fact that I put a lot of design -- and I must tell you, a great deal of effort -- into making the works that I've recorded attractive to the casual observer, I think a lot of people would toss 'em off as just things that are pretty, in a way. Or maybe they dismiss 'em with the idea that they're too thick with thought. It's true that, when I was coming up, a record had the iconic, well, onus, almost, of being an entire experience. something that could be indulged from top to bottom. A record album did that. But with the emergence of a shuffle mentality, and a magazine consciousness, and an audience with a short attention span, all of that is, is -- impossibly retro. So l just say that to punctuate the idea of how honored and touched I am that Clare and the Reasons asked me to come out on the road with them. It's nice, isn't it?

Yeah, it's thrilling, really.
It is! I mean, i never would have done it. and I feel like its armed me with enough courage that it's almost triggered my curiosity as to how i could maybe make this something that will get me and my wife on the road again.

Yes, well, your old pal Brian Wilson only beat you to touring for the first time by ten years or so.
Well, I'm watchin' his back!

Well, let me close by asking --
It's too late to clarify, and you know that! [Laughs]

But you talk about how music's retreated from that social obligation, you've talked about what we carry forward into the next era, so let me ask you about "Surf's Up", which is maybe one of the compositions you're best known for, that lyric. And it is such a lyric of epochal change, but in a really oblique way -- it's certainly not Jefferson Airplane saying, "Up against the wall, motherfuckers!", but the message resonates the same, with that whole generational mandate. And I wonder if -- has there been a retreat from that, or do you feel that we're still on the verge of that transformation? Is the surf still up?
Well, I think so. You know, if you're trying to pry into my attitude, how I feel about things in general, I honestly think that -- aside from all the rigamarole about how the arts will survive, etc., post-George W. Bush -- which, we took a great hit. You must realize, now we have a population, only 34 percent of the American populace believe that Charles Darwin had a tenable theory. Only 34 percent! This is in a time when we have a Pope in Vatican City that's on the floor, flagellating himself. Which some people would say is highly religious; other people might -- and I would agree with them -- that that is insane. Fundamentalism is a big problem now. With the tectonics of Isalm and Christianity, you can see it. And I'm worried about it. I mean, it's not something, that, to me, is "thick with thought," it's just a matter of immediate concern for my own survival. And this is post 9/11. It's in our face. We've got some problems here. And they have to do with the way the news is softballed, they have to do with the way people don't think, they have to do with the very content and nature of our entertainment, our celebration of youth and Eros at the expense of everything else. And there's nothing -- I agree with John Sebastian that its nice to look at a young girl, I think that that's not a bad thing to do, but there are other things to think about as well. And in spite of all that, I'm tremendously optimistic about things. As far as music is concerned, I'm hearing better music now than I ever have in my life. I mean, its available to me. Of course, I gotta admit, I love worldbeat. I love music that makes me feel immediately like I'm leaving the box. That I'm having an out-of-the-box experience. I like news in my music. I like refreshments of new rhythms, and melodies, and languages, and attitudes. I like things beyond Portland and Los Angeles. And I seek them out. My favorite music right now is cumbia and fado. Europe, by the way, I think, has entirely succumbed to an American cultural hegemony. They've lost their music because they've -- they've been McWorlded.

Right. And EuroDisney'd.
Yeah. And EuroDisney'd. And their music reflects that. It has a rock sensibility. And it's funny to me, because I heard this almost prescient remark in a Phil Ochs lyric ["I'd be in exile now, but everywhere's the same," from "One Way Ticket Home"]. Because, you know, I produced a record for him called Greatest Hits [Note: Ochs' final studio album, not a best-of compilation]. And Phil, to me, the work he did is still a litmus, he's still an eminence gris over my shoulder. When I write a lyric and I'm worried about things like some journalist saying, "Isn't your work thick with thought?" I think I have Phil over my shoulder saying, "Trousers forward." And, "Carry on." And, "Do the right thing." And follow your compulsions, and follow your madness, and take it where it may -- let it take you where it may. And that's what happened to me. You see, the creative process is, to me, entirely involuntary. I have never had a concept of a record. I think it's very funny when people use that term, "concept album." I've never had a concept, and I've never believed in it. Because I've been around the arts all my life, and I've always had an affectionate, a most affectionate regard for the artists who made us tremble in the uncertainty between faith and despair. People who knew how to wobble. It's what made Van Gogh go [Note: He pronounces "Van Gogh" in the Dutch way, rhyming with "mach," to subvert the obvious pun.] It's what makes me think that I'm in touch with the infinite when I can hear someone confess these deep uncertainties publicly. And that's what art should do. It should make people wobble. So, I hope I would [laughs], I hope I would accomplish that when I come to Mississippi Studios!

Nice homespun name there, eh? [Parks was born in Mississippi.]
Yeah, back home! I am a member of the Mississippi Music Hall of Fame, you know. I was inducted with Howlin' Wolf, the same year. And, of course, Howlin' was dead, his daughter was next to us. My wife leaned over to me and said, "Keep it light, honey." And just then, Howlin' Wolf's daughter was asked to get up, and she started to sob and said, "All my dad wanted was a spoonful of something to eat!" And the audience went grim. But we got down there to give those kids hope, and that's why I'm a member of that Hall of Fame, so that they think that they can get out and do something that will reach a tolerable amount of acceptance, something that matters.

Well, congratulations on your continued success...
[Laughs] Well, dear heart, there's nothing -- like I said, I'm not kidding, my best work -- I believe it! -- is ahead of me. And it must be, because I'm not -- I have no laurels to rest on! And I know that. And you are most kind to take notice of my coming.

Well, we're really looking forward to it. I introduced my girlfriend to the world of Smile and Brian a few years back, and the convert has since far surpassed the teacher in terms of fandom there.
Well, I feel very fortunate that I had those eight months working for him, and I'm real happy with everything that happened for him.

Yes, it's really beautiful to see, on that Smile documentary [Beautiful Dreamer; Brian Wilson and the Story of Smile] to see the circle be closed, and your reaction's very moving.
Well, finally. I guess, if anything, what it teaches us is to be patient, and to keep on dancing as if no one's looking.

Well, in terms of that hip cachet, there's one band up here named Heroes and Villains, and another called Cabinessence, so your reputation precedes you, sir.
[Prolonged laughter] Those poor kids!

Van Dyke Parks plays tonight at Mississippi Studios with Clare and the Reasons and Josh Mease. 9 pm. $22. 21+.

Van Dyke Parks
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