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Van Dyke Parks’ existential awakening: ‘This is a time for reimagining’

"This may eclipse the plague in its longevity and make the Okie depression look like a cakewalk," says Van Dyke Parks.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Van Dyke Parks, the 77-year-old songwriter, arranger, producer, Warner Bros. A&R man and expert Tweeter of historical birthdays, has seen a lot.

As a kid he played a street urchin in a Metropolitan Opera production of “La Bohème” as well as the redolently named Tommy Manicotti in the sitcom “The Honeymooners.” After relocating to Los Angeles in the 1960s, he harnessed his lifelong love of the piano to begin writing songs. Most famously, Parks worked with the Beach Boys on their long-gestating post-"Pet Sounds” project “Smile.” (Parks and Brian Wilson co-wrote the song “Heroes and Villains.”)

The mixtapes and mash-ups created by producer Hal Willner, who died from COVID-19, were testaments to erudition, taste and a thirst for adventure.

An expert arranger and session player with too many credits to list, Parks has collaborated with a range of artists including the Byrds, the Mothers of Invention, Skrillex, Randy Newman, Joanna Newsom, Silverchair and Inara George. Parks wrote the parody song “Black Sheep” for the comedic biopic “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story” and had a recurring role in “Twin Peaks.” He also helped produce and arrange “Stay Awake: Various Interpretations of Music from Vintage Disney Films,” one of the late producer Hal Willner’s most enduring releases. Last year Parks and Gaby Moreno collaborated on "¡Spangled!,” an album that couples Moreno’s words and voice with Parks’ oft-gymnastic arrangements.

A witty raconteur, Parks answered his phone by saying, “Yours falsely.” He spoke from his home in Los Feliz, which he shares with his wife, Sally.

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How are you doing, given the circumstances?
So far, so good. No contusions, no operations.

That’s wonderful to hear.
Yeah. We’re in uncharted waters, dear.

It’s surreal.
Tie me to the mast. Show me what you got. I am not moving. There’s a very social aspect to what I do, but also I’m very monastic. What I do is write. And that takes being alone. This solitude that’s being forced on me and my wife is — hell’s bells as it is — just standard operating procedure.

Is it, though? Obviously you went out and socialized before this all happened.
Yeah, but not much. But it’s amazing to me the areas that have been impacted by this as Wall Street spins down. Not being a man of property, it’s of neutral consequence to me. What is beyond the shattering of the economy is really what interests me — the opportunity that we have here to change the system. Honestly, I mean this with all my heart: If this is a civilizing opportunity which brings greater equanimity and justice and social order to this demi-democracy, if this straightens us up, if this is a slap — to me, it’s of biblical proportions.

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And this is to let you know that, yes, I really am a bad trip. I think that this may eclipse the plague in its longevity and make the Okie depression look like a cakewalk.

My condolences on the loss of your friend and collaborator Hal Willner. You worked with him on his series of tribute albums, including “Stay Awake: Various Interpretations of Music from Vintage Disney Films.”
That was a fun project. I’ll tell you another one I did with Hal. That Kurt Weill project. He got me some jobs and he treated me philanthropically. He only knew I would do my best.

Hal was a high-risk guy, and I’m just so damn sorry. These are very insulting times. I mean, John Prine? We will have some famous and not-so-famous people we know who took it with them. And let’s not be misled: They did take it with them.

How do you think this moment will affect you creatively?
This quarantine gives me a more even playing field with Joe Average. I feel, all of a sudden, like I’m a fledgling.

How so?
I don’t know. I just think that we’re all totally isolated. And I’m not frantic about it. As a matter of fact, I want to take [Lawrence] Ferlinghetti’s advice: I want to remain in a perpetual state of wonder. It is a refuge for me to find stasis in the progress of profit.

I’m looking at it all as an enforced period. My theme song for this whole event is [breaks into melody for “Getting to Know You”] “Getting to know me / getting to know all about me.”

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What have you learned about yourself during this time?
That my best work better be ahead of me. I’m so frustrated by my own inarticulate history, and I want to sharpen the American image. I do. I’m ready to do that now and better prepared than ever — while I’m 77. It’s amazing to me.

A doctor recently [gave me] what comes close to a red flag alert on my heart. That is, a murmur, which suggests something louder beyond. And the doctor said, “This is bad,” [but] he looked at me and says, “If you change your lifestyle, I could keep you alive till you’re 100 doing what you’re doing now.”

This was my last visit out to a doctor’s office before this calamitous quarantine. I have engaged a great diet. I’m healthier. I don’t need a glass of wine when I fix a meal, a glass of wine when I eat it and a glass of wine to celebrate that great meal. I don’t need that.

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So I’m really like a stoic. This is disciplinary. This is a time for reimagining. I’m trying to do that, but it requires something fundamental. And that is the ability to reinvent the self, to re-imagine the self.

I feel like a very lucky man.


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