Best known for working on The Beach Boys’ Smile, Van Dyke Parks talks to Etan Smallman about his new album, Songs Cycled
If you want to make Van Dyke Parks bristle, just refer to the fact that he is about to release his first proper solo album in 24 years.
“Are we fact checking the questions as well as the answers?” he asks testily, “because I can’t corroborate that. In 1995 I did a record with Brian Wilson.”
I point out I used the words solo album, but could also have mentioned that his record company describes Songs Cycled as “the American’s first new material since 1989”.
Parks replies with increasing impatience: “Well, no album is solo – every album takes a bunch of people. I would call [Orange Crate Art, his ’95 album with Wilson] an album of mine.
“Music is in my everyday. You see, I don’t play golf, I don’t have hobbies. As a matter of fact, the last two good balls I hit were this morning when I stepped on a garden rake,” the singer, songwriter, composer and producer says with deadpan expression.
“But seriously though folks, I don’t relax. A barren day is a day without Bach. I like dead white guys’ music; I like classical music; I like popular music; I like every kind of music that’s good.”
In pursuit of creating some more “good” music, the man who tried to shift the Beach Boys away from surf and summer finds himself in the land of sun and sand.
Parks, perhaps most famous for his collaboration with Wilson on the Beach Boys’ Smile album, is in South Australia to perform with Kiwi and honorary Aussie Kimbra and Silverchair lead singer Daniel Johns at the world-renowned Adelaide Festival of arts.
Sitting in the presidential suite on the 24th floor of Adelaide’s InterContinental hotel, Parks riffs on why, at 70, he still feels compelled to perform.
“Songs are the potent political tool,” he says. “Look at the Marseillaise, the Jews’ Hatikvah, We Shall Overcome – the answer, my friend, it’s blowin’ in the wind.
“I see songs as that important. Why am I risking a public hanging to come out and sing songs? It’s because I believe the song is the epic opportunity to make a change in the world.”
Can the stakes really be that high for someone who (as a precocious 10-year-old) sang to the accompaniment of Albert Einstein’s violin in the physicist’s kitchen and (during his time as a jobbing actor) appeared in Grace Kelly’s final film?
“I certainly think that the risks in performance are absolutely enormous,” he contends. “It’s life threatening, it’s a hydra.”
Turning his fire on me again, he adds in a booming voice: “But I was just asked by this celebrated interviewer, ‘what’s new… and I notice you haven’t done something for 55 years…’
“The tendency of youth, with its undistinguished libido, is to always want to know what’s new. So what we have is a whole bunch of film directors whose musical knowledge goes back to Elvis Presley, if we’re lucky.
“I didn’t come here to change the world, I came here to preserve the planet. I came here thinking about my legacy. That doesn’t mean that I need to be a celebrity, I’ve escaped celebrity and found great opportunity in anonymity. I really have, I’m a lucky guy.”
Parks says in a self-penned biography on his website that he “peaked” in the “glorious 1950s”. But today he points out his favourite musical decade was undoubtedly the ‘60s.
“In 1963, when John Kennedy was assassinated, I think that that’s when American youth decided they would take matters into their own hands. That’s when we had a generation gap. That’s when we had a counter-revolution and a revolution.
“I realised that that was my opportunity in ‘63 and I worked diligently for the next 19 years.”
He refers to “the pictures of the flaming babies who were bathed in American bombs and their napalm” and “Negroes being shot by water cannon or rifles in Selma, Alabama”, adding: “We had so much to do, we were rebels with a cause. And this is 180 degrees different from the smug rock arena.
“It wasn’t the good life in the ‘60s, it was dangerous, it took courage, it took invention and it took empathy.”
Just in case the legendary, eloquent and outspoken Parks doesn’t make an impression in person, his almost legendary business card certainly does. It reads: “Mr Van Dyke Parks apologizes for his behaviour on the night of … and sincerely regrets any damage or inconvenience he may have caused.”
However, the musician is reticent to reveal what kind of antics he feels the need to make amends for.
“I don’t need to apologise for anything,” he insists. “And I’m totally without apology. My calling card, which has an apology on it, was my daughter’s idea. She is out of hand, but it’s the only card I have and you might notice, it’s embossed, 50 cents a piece, a very expensive card,” he says with a smile.
Parks may be without apology, but after seeing his concert at Adelaide’s Thebarton Hall, I feel he may be waiting for one.
My innocent opening question grated so much, he felt the need to refer to it on stage more than 24 hours later.
After an audience member took some photos of his performance, he berated the companies and individuals “with no respect for artists and their struggle. Like people who take pictures in theatres” – before continuing forlornly: “Yesterday, an interviewer in Australia had the temerity to ask me what’s new.
“Why is no one interested in what’s old?”
And his final word on the subject? “The older I get, the better I was.”
Songs Cycled is released by Bella Union on May 6.
Official website: VanDykeParks.com