Interview with Van Dyke Parks: A Triumph Of The Spirit

From his 1968 Song Cycle debut to his 2013 Songs Cycled, Van Dyke Parks has been many things to many people. He’s been Harry Nilsson’s chief collaborator, Randy Newman’s go-to guy and, of course, when the Evil Beach Boy Mike Love wanted Brian Wilson to keep pumping out “Surfing USA” his whole life, he was the provocateur who holed up with Brian in 1967 in an effort to produce Smile (intended as the follow-up to 1966’s Pet Sounds). The pressures, though, of management, label and band atrophied the adventure and helped Brian go mad. (Smile, the brilliant “teenage symphony,” was eventually released 38 years later). In the interim, Parks has recorded seven of his own albums in 45 years, appeared in 16 movies, and cultivated his own legend as a Hollywood eccentric, debonair raconteur and the kind of singer-songwriter who totally transcends the Southern California oeuvre. There was never a precedent for Van Dyke Parks.

Congratulations on Songs Cycled, a wonderfully captivating synthesis of music, art and literature. It’s rare that a CD package could contain so much to read and look at as well as hear. Just fascinating!

The essays are amazing. I loved Klaus Voormann’s essay, but I think South Africa’s Stanley Dorfman—the man singularly responsible for the careers of Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba—despite fear of imprisonment for helping black people advance in the age of apartheid, is somebody to listen to. Throw away any thought of what people perceive as “famous” or “important.” I had to do what I felt I had to do: let it take me wherever it went. It’s a habit of mine. I may break it someday. I don’t know.

It’s been 19 years since your last studio album.

That’s not through any decision I’ve made.

Songs Cycled is unique. Nothing else out there sounds remotely like this. It all works so beautifully. The arrangements…the orchestrations…the worldbeat passages, the cinematic excess, like music to a movie that doesn’t exist. And your voice, at 70, seems to have strengthened.

Well, that’s what music is, essentially, a soundtrack to our lives. Music must do more than appease the dancers on the floor. It should approach the light. I hope that doesn’t sound arrogant.

You wrote “The All Golden” when you were 24. It was on your debut. Here, you play accordion, piano, sing and say in one of your own essays that you “made every mistake one could possibly make” the first time you recorded it. Why?

My debut was too thick with ideas. It was foolish to expect an audience to put it all together. And it’s so hard to interpret now from this distance…this wide chasm of time. Back then, in 1968, I was just discovering myself…and grieving over the loss of my brother. Plus, that album was such a product of its time. Aah, the ‘60s. So many people think back then everything was about the dope. And it was, to a degree (laughs). We were rebelling, in a way, against the previous generation’s over-fondness for alcohol. Yet I smoked no dope just to get that album done. It took eight months. I was criticized for that. It took $34,000 to complete. I was criticized for that too. That was a lot of money in 1968. Hell, I had just come from working with Brian Wilson who spent $64,000 on one song, “Good Vibrations.” Warner Brothers complained how expensive Song Cycle was, but it gained them entry into the counter-culture. I was their token counter-culture boy. Although I was preceded there by The Kinks and the Grateful Dead, they weren’t office boys. I actually became a Warner Brothers office boy.

I think Songs Cycled is superior to your debut for many reasons, one of which is its pure sound. Had I not wanted to read every word of every essay, or gaze fondly at the amazing artwork within its booklet, or even contemplate the meanings of its songs, it works simply on an aural level. Your orchestrations are delightful.

You’re very kind. I think Ray Charles might have agreed with you. About a month before he died, I got a phone call from his manager. She called from Paris to say, “Mr. Charles would like to hear your string reel.” I didn’t know what a string reel was! I had to ask my agent. But I put together what he wanted: a sampling of my string arrangements. I was so moved that Ray Charles wanted to hear my work, I started to sob. It was a validation that no golden idol at a Grammy event could achieve for me. Of course, I’ll never know what he thought of it because he died shortly thereafter, but I had had that moment! You can’t buy something like that. So Songs Cycled, the new one, became something of self-determination. Nobody asked me to do this record. I had to fight for it.

Your steely resolve comes through most effectively on the back-to-back tracks of “Money Is King” and “Wall Street.” On the former, you sing, “If a man has money today, people do not care if he has cocobe [leprosy]. He can commit murder and get off free and live in the governor’s company. But if you are poor, the people tell you, `shoo,’ a dog is better than you.” It’s done as a calypso with your arrangement for five cellos and mandolin. The latter is your 9/11 song: “I can see nothin’ but ash in the air/Confetti all colored with blood/The Jewel-encrusted mud-flattened Hudson/She’s been beaten & battered & buttressed & broke/Dining on dregs gone begging.”

(Long pause) People paid more attention in the ‘60s. Warner Music Group belongs to some Russian billionaire now. Does anyone even know this? Selling out was never my interest. Sure, I’m extremely liberal. And at the same time I’m extremely conservative. I believe that the last great conservative was Teddy Roosevelt. He was really into conservation. He believed that the world wasn’t something we inherited from our fathers. It was something that we borrow from our children. And we should treat it that way. Think about that!

My new single, “I’m History” b/w “Charm School,” is revisionist history. We just observed the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John Kennedy. A lot of people think he didn’t have enough time to show what a heavyweight he was. I disagree. I believe we’ve taken steps backwards in our understanding of humanity. Had he, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. lived, I believe we would have a less greedy world today. I know a lot of people think that songwriters have no business talking about anything but entertainment. I disagree. Songwriting should be considered one of the highest callings. That’s why, I’m sorry to say, I had to turn to the issue of greed. It’s why I paired those two numbers.

Your vision of a more benevolent society that those two songs cry out for was almost realized in the ‘60s but we just took too damn much LSD!

Yes, Michael, we wasted our time on so many things back then trying to escape the mundane dogma a previous generation tried to set in stone. It’s amazing to me that the more things change, the more things stay the same. In my work, I try not to scold. I try to be appealing to every political persuasion. I don’t want to get stuck preaching to the choir. I’d like to go out and be able to embrace people who I disagree with. My wife’s mother used to tell me, “To disagree is not necessarily to disrespect.” I try to respect people who I think are arrogant motherfuckers. I try to lead by example.

We have a modest life. My wife and I rent a small house at the edge of a super city [Los Angeles]. George Orwell was right, though, and I’m very afraid of Big Brother these days. They know where we are at all times. If you’ve got an iPhone, they know where you are. The government, I mean. Still, despite that, I tweet my Twitter every morning after I do the New York Times crossword puzzle. It’s @thevandykeparks. I write something which I think has a possibly illuminating life-determining value. It may have to do with ecology or sociopolitical events but I try to leaven it with humor. I don’t treat anything as a trivial pursuit.

I must ask you about Brian Wilson. Smile is as much your album as it is Brian’s. You worked on the original aborted effort back with him in 1967 and, again, on its 2004 finished version.

I enjoyed both so much. It was a true collaboration. I had to encourage him to use certain instruments that were not part of the Beach Boys approach, but I cannot take total credit for that as he had already shown such a gift of inquiry with Pet Sounds. The guy was already on his way. I just pushed him further.


I suggested that a cello play the fundamental triplets on “Good Vibrations.” I suggested the French horn at the beginning of “Heroes And Villains.” We were so easily involved with no particular care for who got credit for what. It was his show, though, make no mistake about it. It did evolve into an important part of my destiny, that project. It was a doomed or failed project at the time. I get a big kick out of that now. You just cannot do anything of any merit if you constantly hang your hopes on what people will think of you.

Martin Mull, a very funny man, once said, “But enough about me, how do you feel about me?” Every time I’m asked about my involvement with Brian Wilson, I think I lean too much in talking about me. Brian and I were lucky enough to have had the product of our passion, Smile, finally released 38 years after the fact, this time without the degrading, snide commentary of everybody from his own band members, label and management to even the lawyers and accountants, was a triumph of the spirit. But, Michael, there’s nothing I can gain from reciting an ancient victory that has been branded, since 2004, as Brian Wilson’s recovery. It’s my recovery as well. I have an obligation to the future. I’m looking through the windshield, not the rear-view mirror.

But you must have been outraged at the response. Smile was to be the follow-up to Pet Sounds. It was experimental, brilliant, evocative, challenging and psychedelic. And they wouldn’t let you do it! That’s like telling Lennon and McCartney in 1964, “You are not allowed to progress past `She Loves You’ and `I Want To Hold Your Hand.’”

All recording artists have this problem. Mozart once advised when someone accused him of repeating a riff, “I’m paid to repeat myself.” Yet artists rebel against that idea. They don’t want to repeat themselves. They want to evolve. True artists, that is. In doing so, sometimes they have to challenge their label. Audiences and label executives have been hard-pressed to allow the artist to move forward. They’re skeptical. It’s a big battle. I’ve often heard how people have been fawning over how wonderful it was that Warner Brothers “gave me an opportunity and was so supportive of my eccentricity.” The fact is, there were battles that I won. I’ve had ideas for albums that I felt could have been very important contributions to American popular culture that were flatly refused. It’s not accurate to say that I have had a “fawning” patronage. Far from it. I was the odd man out as much as Tom Waits or Joni Mitchell were early on. Now, almost 71, my singular significant patronage is from the humanity of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, keeping me from falling through the social net.

You and me both, pal.

I must not show any false sense of gratitude to any corporation. Abraham Lincoln, a sane Republican, said, “Labor is superior to capital. Capital would not exist without the prior efforts of labor. Labor should be given the greater consideration.” I am a laborer. I’m happy in my labor. I’m just not so happy about the corporate reality we live in.


Van Dyke Parks’ latest album, Songs Cycled, is available now through Bella Union. For more information, go to