Van Dyke Parks
Born in Mississippi in 1943, Parks was extraordinary even as a child, a musical prodigy and actor who later became a session musician, composer, producer, arranger, lyricist, and singer. His own music is as cinematic, fantastical and even phantasmagorical as it is from the heart. Song Cycle was less conventionally pop, in verse-chorus fashion, than Smile; the mood was something like a baroque psychedelic dream filtered through Disney and music hall. Discover America was a major departure, with most songs written by pre-war Calypso musicians from Trinidad & Tobago but given Parks’ highly individual spin. Clang Of The Yankee Reaper further wove New Orleans, classical and pop strains alongside Calypso and Caribbean rhythms.
There have been more albums since, plus film scores, children’s books and arrangements for a dizzying array of talent (including Bruce Springsteen, Bonnie Raitt and Rufus Wainwright), but the jewels in Parks’ legacy remain those first three albums, slices of musical history both of their time and truly timeless.
In 2013 Bella Union will release Super Chief and Songs Cycled. Read Van Dyke Parks’ own words on Super Chief below:
The Super Chief
It’d be a long ride from Princeton Junction on the Pennsylvania Rail Road. I rocked to sleep in my compartment. An escapist delirium evaporated any promises I may have made to faculty to keep on crackin’ the books. I’d been sprung from the pen, like some feral truant from my Boychoir boarding school. It was hidden in a massive, columnated Greek revival mansion on an old 250 acre wooded estate, once the home of pharmaceutical baron Gerard Lambert. Lambert had made a killing with Listerine, the first oral antiseptic (named for Brit scientist Joseph Lister). His ads had created a mass American phobia about the social hazards of halitosis, shortly after W.W. I. By October, ’29, he’d folded his executive tent, divested himself of all his stocks. That, a prescient choice, sparing him consequences of Wall Street’s collapse. Lambert then gaily pursued his passion for sailing, and captured The Americas Cup forthwith.
It was in no way hellish at the Columbus Boychoir, as if reminiscent of “If” (Lindsay Anderson’s brilliant dark comedy about boarding school insurrections, starring Malcolm McDowell). I found immersion there on that wooded estate, in the music of dead white guys of the Age of Enlightenment to modernists like Schoenberg (alive then). The school was worlds away from, yet just close enough to NYC. That offered us a chance to perform with such great conductors as Toscanini, Stokowski, Ormandy, and Beecham. Vienna and Saint Thomas had nothing on us. We were great in the 48 States, and toured them all, annually. The woods surrounding us offered up sassafras roots, arrowheads, and blue berries. I’d take my turn to trundle down to the kitchen, before a cold dawn’s early light, to stoke Mammy Dozier’s coal burning kitchen stove. Mammy was big on grits and pone. Black as a Tar Heel, with eyes as bright as the Dipper. We knew no racial divide.
Deer gathered at the base of the esplanade, at the salt lick. Past the rose garden statuary, we’d cross and delve into the forest primeval. The Steinway with Die Welte Vorsetze would insinuate its Chopin faintly down from the Big House to the edge of the woods. That piano bore Rachmaninoff’s signature on its harp.
On moon-lit nights, a Seminole Indian class-mate and I would go gigging for frogs’ legs, down at the crick. It was easy pickings, floating along in our USS Cement Mixer. Huck and huckster, we’d pole down the quiet waters. Every time I’d catch the mesmerized eyes of a giant bull frog in the beam of my flashlight, Roger would plunge the tines of his trident into the hapless sucker, and in one fell swoop, relieve him of his legs with a machete he’d brought from Florida. That Roger Manton was way ahead of the curve. Our choir master’s wife, Mrs. Bryant, loved to pan fry them in garlic butter, and Mr. Bryant would fork out 50 cents a pair. We delivered them to their chambers. Two or three frogs later, Roger and I both had made enough to hitch-hike into town. Maybe take in a movie on a Saturday night in nearby Princeton.
Once in ’53, we took in the macabre “House of Wax”, starring Vincent Price. There was a guffaw directly behind us, and we turned to see Albert Einstein in stitches and 3D glasses. Priceless, really! Nope. It was never hell in that boys’ boarding school, from ’52-’57. Nor never boring. It was simply the center of the universe. I was in God’s pocket.
Yet, the tuition was costly enough that my parents welcomed my opportunities to pick up some acting fees. It all just fell into my lap. I started out in ’52, with a live t.v. starring Ezio Pinza. The Honeymooners, Kraft Theater (w/Walter Matthau), Mr. Peepers (w/Wally Cox), Studio One (w/John Cassavetes, directed by Sidney Lumet), plays directed by John Frankenheimer, Reginald Rose, live theater directed by Howard Clurman, stages designed by Joe Mielziner. I was in operas (a street urchin in “La Boheme” at the Met, and as Amahl at the New York City Opera), holing up at the Algonquin, sipping cold Senegalese Soup in the dining room, within ear shot of tables with Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, Fred Allen et al, in various stages of functioning alcoholism. Party invitations volunteered, at places like Gloria Vanderbilt’s digs. It sure wasn’t hell. Hell, I’d have done anything gladly, even acting, to pay my way through such a musical education.
On one such live t.v. show (“The Pharmacist”), I had the leading role. Sitting next to me, in a break at dress rehearsal, was Lillian Gish, by now, reduced to cameos. I’d been cautioned that Miss Gish and her sister had made, with the power of their charismatic personalities, a global film industry. Although the French had invented the medium, D.W. Griffith codified it in his silent films,and the Gish sisters were his Madonnas of that era.
All was quiet on the set at NBC’s Studio 8 H, at Rockefeller Square. I turned to the elderly, faded actress. Boldly. (I would have been 11 in ’54)…
“Miss Gish, I’ve been told you and your sister made film an industry with your work in the silent era, because everyone loved you all over the world”. Grand pause. “That’s very nice of you. So true…..very nice of you…” I wasn’t about to let the ball drop. I lobbed it back. “Well Miss Gish—when you heard ‘the talkies’ were coming, weren’t you….apprehensive? “Grand pause. “…well, that’s a good question young man. But you see, when we heard that movies would have sound, they didn’t call them ‘the talkies’ right away”. “All of us acting in them naturally assumed that all that sound would be just music!” Those words of hers resonated, and made an indelible impression on me, through my adult-hood.
As a boy, acting was easy, I figured. If I had to cry, I’d just reflect how our dog had died. If Mr. Gleason forgot his lines, I was there to help him toss away a few pages of script and get a few laughs by deception.
By 1955, I was going somewhere. That “where” turned out to be Hollywood, on The Super Chief. So, I played out the Pennsylvania Railroad from Princeton, and changed trains in Chicago. My mother met me there on the platform. We embarked on an epic, sentimental journey. The fabled luxury liner, The Super Chief.
MGM’s chief Dore Shary had talked my reluctant parents into it. Although I was a featured player with a poster credit, “The Swan”, starred Grace Kelly and Alec Guinness solely. It was (but for Louis Jordan, Agnes Moorehead, Brian Ahern, Leo G. Carroll, Jesse Royce Landis, and Estelle Winwood) a cast of two major players in a minor box office romantic comedy.
Bronislaw Kaper, the great Hungarian composer, wrote the exquisite score. He deftly incorporated the Rakotzy March. It was Roots music, all dressed up, for orchestra. Then and there, I was fascinated by the obvious art potential of film scoring. It was as if Lillian Gish hovered over Kaper’s every note. That sound track album was MGM’s first release. For good reason. America played out wide-screen, as we plied west. Past the arable bread-basket, crow cries uncovered the cornfields. The sullen sand hills played out past the prairie grasses. Lands of lost tribes streaked by in a thousand tears, opening up a low fast sky hugging a New Mexican indian territory. I’d seen that Land of Enchantment depicted by the likes of OKeefe and Ansel Adams. Now I was picking up what they’d laid down.
The book I read on that journey? “My Name Is Aram”, by William Saroyan. He gave me a clue about what lay south-west of Fresno. I studied this vast land from the 360 degree panoramic sweep up in the Super Dome.
Another station stop to take on water. Time stood still on the platform in Albuquerque. There, defeated Indians in slo-mo to freeze-frame, sat surrounded by their wampum in the unforgiving heat. Amid their Coral and turquoise silver culture, and months of warp and woof in intricate tapestry, they pawned their goods to the fleeting first world to use for cocktail jewelry and guest house bedding. Indian rugs were all the rage then. I tried to make contact with the noble savages, past the guns, germs and steel that had brought us here. Poor delusional lad. What were they thinking. Were we really forgiven?
The train finally glided to a stop in Pasadena, where the quality folk detrained. Louis B. Mayer had made it policy that none of his stars would be caught dead getting off at L.A.’s Union Station. De classé! Pasadena was the call.
So we got off there, and with the chauffeur who would be my driver for the next eight weeks (“Limey”, from Liverpool), we glided into Hollywood, to Suite 3D, in the Chateau Marmont. That suite was directly across from Eartha Kitt, who was all cosmo and Black Magic. Miss Kitt wore a silken peignoir and had a butterfly screen. She welcomed the frozen dinners I brought over. (They were invented that year, by Swanson). There were afternoons of languid lounges, at a limpid pool-side, with Tony Perkins (on his days off from filming “Psycho”). Naughty Brandon de Wilde and I rolled home-made cigarettes out of The Marmont’s Laurel bush leaves. A year or two older than I, Brandon was un-fazed by his celebrity as child actor in “Shane”. Modest to the core! Others I’ve met since haven’t shown such ability.
I’d sure arrived. In ’55. On The Super Chief.