Music & clubs

“I just kept my eyes on the prize”

FROM THE ARCHIVES: Legendary American lyricist Van Dyke Parks, best known for his work with Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys, will participate in a public panel on May 10 at 19:00 at HKW's The Whole Earth festival. Revisit a chat with him from 2009...

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Photo by Sebastian Bolesch © HKW 2012

Best known for his lyrical contributions to the Beach Boys’ legendary “Smile”, Van Dyke Parks is a protean musical maverick whose accomplishments are too vast to enumerate here from producing Randy Newman’s first record to creating the intricate arrangements for Joanna Newsom’s “Ys”.

His own releases delved deep into calypso and American roots before anyone else really cared, and he’ll be participating in a panel discussion at HKW’s The Whole Earth.

So…The sixties…

…A complicated question. My position in that decade was totally counter-counter-culture. I was there, but I didn’t go along with much of the program. I came and left the society pages because I wanted to profit in the long run. I didn’t try to chase money and freeze-dried social acceptance. I just kept my eyes on the prize, serving as many artists as I could (as studio musician, arranger, producer). I learned much by overlooking the foibles of the times, finding focus in musical challenges. Many albums of that era bear my anonymous stamp.

Which explains why you turned away from pop.

As to ‘pop’? I secretly thought it tasted ‘Petit Bourgeoisie’. I am still uncomfortable with young, urbane, well-fed Western songwriters exploring the psyche in a self-pity of faux blues. It’s ‘navel-gazing’. To escape that, I turned to the confirming excellence of calypso’s lyrics and melodic force.

You were a primary mover in the Warner Brothers Records art-pop mafia of the late 1960s.

If that’s a stab at branding the work as elitist, or ‘intelligent’, or ‘arty’, you should be spanked. I suspect you were just being flip to see if I’d take the trip. No dice! I view the work we did as absolutely courageous, and without pretence. As for ‘mafia’? It’s true I met Frank Sinatra several times, imploring him to record my brother’s tune “Something Stupid”, with his daughter Nancy. He did so, and it was his first gold album. Certainly, I was aware all during my time at Warner Brothers that Frank Sinatra founded Reprise, and that music was essential to some serious money laundering.

Living in Hollywood in the1970s, how did punk register?

I felt ‘punk’ was just that – and its youthful arrogance and bravado struck me as a total bore. I drilled, but came up dry.

How does one get close to Brian Wilson? He seems like a difficult person to get to know. If only you could have sold Mike Love on the ‘Smile’ concept.

I didn’t feel I needed to explain myself to Mike Love. I felt Mike was the second luckiest person in show business, after Ringo. Speaking of Ringo. I wrote lyrics for his new album. But I don’t know Brian Wilson. The only time he made himself available to me was when I initially worked on Smile, in ‘68. He has a habit of surrounding himself with people who seem to isolate him. Brian doesn’t return my phone calls. Wie schade!

The Whole Earth discussion with Van Dyke Parks, Detlef Diederichsen, and Anselm Franke May 10, 19:00 | Haus der Kulturen der Welt

Originally published in issue #77, November 2009.