Live: Van Dyke Parks Threatens Violence At The Bell House (Pics, Setlist)
Better Than: A full-semester course in American Studies.
"For whom the bell tolls," announced Van Dyke Parks as he sauntered over to the upright piano he manned for an evening as richly encoded with allusions as that first tossed-off remark. A pretty amazing album akin to, say, electric saxophonist Eddie Harris' The Reason Why I'm Talking Shit could/should be cobbled together from Parks' free-associative song introductions. "This is just far enough away from the progress of profit to maybe mean a god damn," he said by way of introducing "Orange Crate Art," title track to his 1995 album with Brian Wilson ("Heroes and Villains" arrived later). "Because there's something to be said for supreme irrelevance," he added. "And yet the song is the most portable piece of cultural goods that we have. It's the thing that we don't have to carry with us when we leave. It contains the memory, and melody. It's wonderful."
With the exception of the occasional Hal Willner-esque event, Parks hasn't brought his songs to our town in a quarter-century or so. Which is nothing less than a tragedy, considering the small yet tremendous catalog he's accumulated since collaborating with Wilson on Smile and unleashing his own youthful psychedelic-Americana masterpiece, Song Cycle, in 1968. Parks has released a mere handful of albums since then, but bubbled back into the Zeitgeist in recent years via his stellar string arrangements for Joanna Newsom's Ys, an underappreciated collaboration with Inara George, and, now, a tour and upcoming album with Brooklyn band Clare and the Reasons, who ended their own meticulously arranged, twig-decorated opening set with Parks on piano, performing the great Harry Nilsson tune "He Needs Me," which he'd arranged for Robert Altman's Popeye.
Three Reasons then joined the maestro onstage for most of his own set, providing a loose yet lively string-band counterpoint to Parks' rockingly romantic Tin Pan Alley piano. With his Captain Kangaroo 'stache, loose-fitting jeans, and shock of white hair, he looked every inch the California cousin of another great Southern eccentric, Col. Bruce Hampton. And the South rose again from the get-go, in the quartet's brisk take on "Jump!" -- the instrumental title track to Parks' brilliant musical reimagining of Joel Chandler Harris's Brer Rabbit stories -- followed by "Come Along."
His set began all warm and joking ("I don't want to intimidate you, but we received a very warm reception from the Grand Rapids Ladies Literary Society"), but Parks managed to work himself into something of a lather as the darkness lying dormant in so much of his music emerged. A new song, "Black Gold," is ripped literally from a Los Angeles Times account of Europe's first oil spill. A troubled recollection about performing at the Bohemian Grove, the California retreat where the white male elite meet annually to drink and carouse, led to the story behind "The Attic," a crepuscular highlight of Song Cycle. "And please, if you are a rock reporter and write this in a paper," Parks warned, "I will leap at you and rip out your jugular. Do not repeat this beyond this room." OK, I won't -- though it wasn't that scandalous a confession.
Parks invoked protest singer Phil Ochs more than once to bolster his disgust at the dilution of the Jeffersonian dream into a hegemonic "McWorld." He gave us the American century in all its ambivalence, from the conquest of Hawaii in "Cowboy" (from his nearly forgotten Tokyo Rose) to the California honeypot questioned in "The All Golden." But don't look to him for guidance -- he's just another fool musician. "Everyone wants to get on the Americana thing because it's so eminently marketable and definable," he noted, railing against unnamed "Nonesuched" and "corporatized" icons of same. Yes, Van Dyke Parks was pissed. "Be kind to one another," he urged on more than one occasion. "Or I'll kill ya!"
Critical Bias: VDP once performed his still-unrecorded gem "I'm History" for me during a memorably civilized early-'80s afternoon at his Hollywood home.
Random Quote: "Please don't take any flash photos of me, because it reminds me that I have more chins than a Chinese phonebook."
Van Dyke Parks setlist
Orange Crate Art
Delta Queen Waltz (John Hartford)
Heroes and Villains