PRINT October 2011


Van Dyke Parks

Cover art (front and back) by Charles Ray for Van Dyke Parks’s seven-inch single “Amazing Grace” b/w “Hold Back Time” (Bananastan Records, 2011).

“WE REMEMBER A TIME when historical continuity in music was still a viable thing,” Ry Cooder once told an interviewer researching his friend Van Dyke Parks, a patently idiosyncratic fixture of the LA music scene. “Yet both of us have always lived and played very much in the present. There’s no paradox in that!” Active since the 1960s as a composer, arranger, keyboardist, and producer, Parks tends to work within the mainstream and with rising young artists, but his sensibility—one that encompasses George Gershwin–inflected pop-classical pluralism as well as indigenous and global folk memes—has been perpetually out of step with musical trends and generational divides. Rock-era pop, for Parks, becomes the pretext for reimagining older genres.

As a result, Parks is one of the music industry’s ultimate outsider insiders. He has produced debut albums by Cooder and Randy Newman, has rubbed elbows with everyone from Stephen Stills and Goldie Hawn to Rufus Wainwright, Joanna Newsom, and the members of Silverchair, and remains legendary for his work with Brian Wilson on the Beach Boys’ aborted 1967 album Smile (his impressionistic lyrics led to a notorious confrontation with Beach Boys vocalist Mike Love, who demanded an explanation of what they meant). Yet as a solo artist Parks remains at the margins of the record business, recording only six albums under his own name in five decades and regrettably tagged as a nonstarter after a Warner Bros. Records trade ad proclaimed that the company had “lost $35,509.50 on ‘The Album of the Year,’ (Dammit)”—that album being Parks’s highly touted debut LP, 1968’s Song Cycle.

As with many cult artists of the ’60s and ’70s, Parks’s record sales would be respectable by indie rather than major label standards, and so he has now created his own label, Bananastan, which is in the process of releasing six new seven-inch singles by him over the course of this year. The series is handsomely packaged in old-fashioned tip-on sleeves, with full-color cover art contributions by Ed Ruscha, Charles Ray, Art Spiegelman, Frank Holmes (creator of the unused Smile cover art), Billy Edd Wheeler, and Sally Parks. As an arranger, Parks himself could be compared to an illustrator, responding to a song’s melody, harmony, and lyrics with his own interpretive instrumental fills, and he has said that he’s deliberately seeking a synesthetic response to the records (the art credits are even included on the singles’ labels). The first two seven-inches are already out, with the third scheduled for release this month.

The front cover of “Dreaming of Paris” b/w “Wedding in Madagascar (Faranaina)” reproduces Ruscha’s drawing Paris, 1963, in which the word PARIS is stenciled plainly in elongated orange-red capital letters on an irregularly cropped square; the back provides an annotated sketch Ruscha made, addressed to Parks, of an idea (barely less stark) to modify the original image for the cover. The rough, unadorned quality of Ruscha’s drawings doesn’t quite jell with the music’s intricate, lush arrangements—a disappointment, as one might reasonably have presumed that both men’s deep associations with LA (Parks was surely composing Song Cycle’s “Palm Desert” and “Laurel Canyon Blvd.” at virtually the same time that Ruscha was photographing every building on the Sunset Strip) would engender a more satisfying collaboration. Comic artist Spiegelman’s Towers, a topsy-turvy rendering of Wall Street workers tumbling out of skyscrapers, and Excess, a two-faced rich man/poor man, on the second single make a better fit, even given the tacky citations in the former of Munch, Picasso, and a middle-aged Tintin. The record itself is a concept 45 par excellence, neatly bookending the Bush years in two jaunty tunes. Written the week after the WTC attacks, “Wall Street” lyrically conjures 9/11 with “love letters lost in space, now smoking” and “confetti all colored with blood”; on the B side Parks excavates “Money Is King,” a 1935 calypso tune penned by the Growling Tiger (Neville Marcano), letting it reverberate in the lingering aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the 2008 financial meltdown.

The singles are cheerfully anachronistic objects—while vinyl is making a comeback, seven-inches are still largely outmoded (the songs are also available for download). Warmly produced, and performed almost completely on acoustic instruments, the songs themselves sound truly at home on vinyl, and the labels even feature the same green color found on vintage Warner Bros. pressings. The seven-inch format also brings Parks full circle to his first solo 45 efforts of the late ’60s, and Bananastan is releasing a CD, Arrangements, vol. 1, which collects these rarities as well as early album production and session work. Expertly programmed, Arrangements traces the genesis of the Parks touch, whether bolstering a Calypso Rose cover by Bonnie Raitt, translating Buffalo Springfield’s “Sit Down I Think I Love You” into quasi-vaudevillian terms for the Mojo Men, or reimagining a song by Bahamian folk great Joseph Spence as a bridge between a Salvation Army band and a philharmonic. The album concludes with a ragtime-inspired 1967 jingle for the Ice Capades that Parks realized on a then newfangled Moog synthesizer. In his Expanded Cinema (1970), media guru Gene Youngblood ascribed such combinations of the futuristic and the traditional to “the new nostalgia” that arose with the alienating effects of the era’s technological advancements. But more likely what Parks had in mind was a new Americana in a postwar environment where entertainment was becoming the great equalizer. It may be that now, in his old age, Parks is allowing himself a nostalgia he never fully embraced before.

Alan Licht is a musician, writer, and curator based in New York.