INTERVIEW WITH THE ULTIMATE DREAMER
By Mia Palau
One of the visits to the 10th edition of the Primavera Sound festival in Barcelona brought one truly especial guest: the American composer, musician, actor and overall cult favorite Van Dyke Parks. Mr. Parks is not only the heart and soul of an exuberant collection of beautifully orchestrated songs —both by himself as well as in collaboration with other great artists—, but also he’s also the genius behind the album “SMiLE”, for which he worked alongside legendary Beach Boy Brian Wilson. At 67, Van Dyke Parks has decided to go on tour and he offered a very intimate piano concert at the Forum’s Auditorium in his last visit to Barcelona.
When we meet at his hotel’s lobby, the versatile musician’s serene presence, warm and charming, a head full of white hair and rounded glasses give them the aura of a philosophy professor. He might as well be.
From all collaborations you’ve worked on, it seems to me one of the most eccentric ones might have been your private recital with Albert Einstein. How did that happen?
Well, I met Einstein so I know what a genius is. Einstein was a genius, and also, Einstein made such a powerful mark on the 20th century, both because he taught people how to use the atom… for war. But because his philosophy, his attitude basically was great simpatico out of this man, which really deserves a lot of understanding. Anyway, he lived in Princeton, where I went to school, and he accompanied me on the violin when I sang a German Christmas carol for him on his porch in 1953.
As well, in the next spring, 1954, I just happened to be at the train station coming from New York City, back to Princeton, when he was arriving at the train station to go to the hospital, where he would die within 2 days. He went into a delirium and spoke German for two days, but no one spoke German, so they had no idea what he said. But we do know that I got his last autograph, and I have it on my wall.
Some people might think that it is an old man living a lie, and I myself look back at this, so many years ago, it’s over 50 years now, that I met dear Doctor Einstein. But I was in Holland last year, I did a concert in Holland, and from Amsterdam a man came down to see the concert. And he was a classmate, and I said “you know, the story about Einstein coming out and playing violin for my singing? You know, people think I’m crazy!”.
He said: “I was there”. I said: “You remember this?”. And he said: “Yes! Did you remember that he invited us in the house and we spent another half an hour in his kitchen, singing with him?”. And I had forgotten that! So my point is this: there is somebody who knows that I’m telling you the truth right now. And I have Einstein’s DNA in my wall. But that doesn’t mean that I’m smart. It means that I know how to hold onto an autograph.
So you’ve worked with a variety of artists, from Frank Black, to Joanna Newsom, U2, the Scissor Sisters, and most recently, Clare and the Reasons. How do these collaborations happen?
Well, I’ve never had a manager, so I’m not in show business, like, you know, like, some of the people you think. That’s something I think it’s important to think about, it’s not like I’m uh… I haven’t had a professional life, I just done music, I worked hard, I make music at home, I sit there and I work very hard because I’m not a great musician; I’m a good musician, and I work real hard.
And I get good results from hard work. And that’s with Joanna Newsom or so forth, whoever it is… I always work hard. And then I enjoy so much trying to get a clear picture out of an arrangement. Basically, I’m an old guy who does arrangements. And that’s good! I enjoy that!
But I don’t have a book of phone numbers. I get a call. And if I get it’s cos somebody says “I like your work. Would you work for me?” then I say yes. If I’m not doing anything, I will work.
Will you check the artist’s background before accepting the request?
If I’m not doing anything at all —I don’t play golf; see, I don’t have any hobbies— so if I’m not doing anything at all, so if someone asked me to make a sharp picture of a fuzzy object, I work on that. I try to make an object sharp. And there is nothing that I am above, nothing is beneath me. I believe that the best value in work is going to those places where wise men fear to travel to. I like going to places that no one would want to go. To clean up this mess and make something glorious happen out of very little; to bring something out of the mud. And to me, this is where my opportunity lies.
Is there any artist that you would like to work with?
It’s funny to me, because my interest is in world beat. And I say “world beat” as a catch-all, as an expression which indicates music which is not yet captured by corporate domination. It’s not a rich kid in the developed world complaining about his car, his girlfriend, his neuroses… I’m not interested in neurotic self-absorbed, navel-gazing, self-adoration. I’m not interested in the world of a narcissist. I’m not interested in that boy, that reflection. What I’m interested in is, basically, music that is roots-oriented, real roots, real rhythms; not fabricated, not created works, but works that reflect a history of experience.
I sometimes feel like my closest relative would be an elephant going to the graveyard to find what this means, what this history means that we have, and pulling it forward and migrating it to another generation, for attention, inspection, consolation, agitation, instruction, survival. And that’s what interests me. And so, when you say, is there anybody that I would like to work with, I… I’m embarrassed to say I don’t know nothing about popular music. I don’t know about it. I don’t listen to it, I don’t give a damn about it. If it’s reached the radio waves, chances are that it’s a mile wide and an inch deep. I’m not interested in this thin work. I would like rather to follow the hungry, the dispossessed; the unincorporated, the unassimilated.
This year, July 4th, I’m going to headline. This old guy! [Tucking on his white hair] I’m going to go headline at the largest rock festival in Europe, it’s called Roskilde. I’m going to have an orchestra! What are we gonna do? Well, I had to think of a topic. It’s all Pan America right now. It’s all the rhythms, the real rhythms, from the ages. Much of it from Africa, from the African Diaspora.
But it’s the world of Spanglish. It’s Spanish with some calypso thrown in, to cross the linguistic barrier – that bifurcated thing. Why? Because Spanish, which I don’t speak – I can sing it [sings a verse in Spanish]. I can sing some of these things, but I don’t speak the language. But that’s irrelevant. I understand that Spanish has been a dormant language, as Spain has been neglected by its own European Community, it looks to me like the Spaniards have been insulted long enough! They’re still trying to forgive them for the Armada, for Christ sake’s that’s so stupid!
The fact is, there is a language here in Spain, Langue d’Hoc, there is a language here that has been dormant and now has insinuated itself around the world in the working force to replace the anglo-complacency, so we have in the US this incredible, exponential search of people speaking Spanish, for the first time. But also throughout Europe, it’s global!
So I found a young Guatemalan girl, I think she’s 27, her name is Gabriela Moreno, and when I first heard her she was singing songs that sounded like James Taylor on a bad day, and I said: “What are you doing?”, and she said: “What do you mean?”, and I said: “This is so boring!”, she said: “What do you mean?”; I said: “Where’s the Jungle Boogie? Let’s get the Jungle Boogie!”; she said: “What do you mean?”; I said: “Well, you know, like saying (sings a fragment in Spanish)” and so she said: “Wow. I love that song!”, and I said: “Yes! That’s 1953, Venezuela”.
So we started talking about clásicos románticos, the traditional retro, we decided to go ahead and do that. I asked her if she wanted to do an album and she said yes, so we’re doing it, see. So, always with a purpose in mind, something to throw me forward through the windshield, not looking in the rear-view mirror – the windshield is bigger! So here I am, looking through the windshield and 67 years old. And I might even learn some Spanish.
Having such an extensive, multidisciplinary career, how do you continue to find creative inspiration?
Creative inspiration for me lies not so much in wanting to be heard, but my desire to serve and relieve the sufferings of others, to point them to the joy of discovery — though our obligation to empathy — our most precious talents.
This reminds me of your kind regard, simpatico… such Good Vibrations! There I am, quoting Brian Wilson!
Critics have referred throughout years to “SMiLE” as the Holy Grail of pop. How was it working with the Beach Boys back in the day and how was it revisiting the album many years later to complete it?
Revisiting “Smile” 40 years later to complete the lyrics was like getting on a bicycle after as many years. Balance was in question — but once learned, a gift never forgotten. I completed the words in two days, loving the reunion and the dream escape. It was as if it were an island, welcoming me back to familiar places.