Van Dyke Parks

mikethep's picture
The Borderline W1
May 5 2013
Somewhat to the relief of me and my mate Sean the gig at Ally Pally, which would have involved standing through hours of who knows what, was cancelled, and this intimate gig put on instead. It's a real treat to listen and talk to a legend in such surroundings. Looking spry and cheerful and anything but 70, VDP ran through his back catalogue: Jump, Sail Away, Cowboy, FDR in Trinidad, as well as a couple of things by Gottschalk, who was rockin' that New Orleans piano a century before Mac Rebennack. Discreetly backed by harp, cello, double bass and drums, he put on a great show. At the end he brought on a young chanteuse called Gaby Moreno for beautiful duets on Nilsson's He Needs Me and Lowell George's Sailing Shoes. Brian Wilson wasn't mentioned.
The audience: 
Beardy Garth Hudson lookalike in a Monkees t-shirt who knew all the words; beautiful dark haired girl there on her own who listened gravely with absolute concentration to every note; me, Sean and similar; and Loudon Wainwright.
Food & drink: 
Drink. What else to say.
It made me think: 
That VDP isn't a marginal rock figure, he's a great American composer in a direct line from Gershwin and Porter. He has a new album out which ideally will sell in huge numbers, but I doubt he's expecting that.


"Super Chief" is a splendid, aural movie for the ears that you can listen to. A big plus is the complete absence of vocals. Oh, I know, he's the male equivalent of Joanna Newsom. Fey warbles. It took me years to get into Song Cycle (do you have this, tigger?), but that album is one of My Top Ten here at "G Towers", a sheerly beautiful and beautifully odd piece of work. The arrangements on Super Chief don't have the gossamer shimmer (good stuff, Burt, go it) of Song Cycle, but the kitchen sink approach ensures an engrossing ride through its thirty - count 'em - short tracks, which all flow into each other in a very propelling way. Bravo, Mr Van Dyke. I once wrote a pastiche of his work, a fake song, and someone showed it to him and he said he'd forgotten that he wrote it (the "adobe, a-do, adobe, a-do" tag had him convinced) before being told it was not so. We exchanged some very pleasant emails but he never sent me the three thousand bucks I asked for.

EDIT: Did he really perform lying on his back with his legs in the air, Mike?

Or posting on the top deck of a 73 bus, more like...

Haven't listened to the album yet.

However, like you, it is taking me a while to fully appreciate its charms. I link it with Gene Clarke's No Other & Terry Reid's The River in that respect. They feel fabulous in the palm of my hand and they have a gorgeous aroma but there is a small disconnect between ear & brain. My impression is that most people who loathe Joanna Newsom are experiencing the same problem.

It's been a constant companion for me for decades now. Love it to little tiny pieces.

I have dipped my toe (so to speak) into Joanna Newsom - I don't loathe her, don't mind the sound of her voice particularly (it seems her natural way of singing, unaffected) but her lack of vocal range is a real limitation, and leads her to places her voice shouldn't go. And she does go on a bit. Neither love nor loathe, then. I can see why she attracts a passionate following, though. She's a PLEB in the grand tradition (Posh Literary Eccentric Bint) - more power to her harp elbow.

I posted further penetrating thoughts about VDP and his place in the great American continuum, but I seem to have pressed the wrong button. No matter. I'm enjoying a splendid pint of Harvey's over the road from the British Museum in the sun.

My favourite is his "Tokyo Rose" album: not only is his singing perfectly suited to the far-east-flavoured songs, but the whole album is brimming with beautiful melodies and his genius orchestrations. And if you prefer Jodie Foster on vocals try this:

(It also includes the whole half-hour suite without narration - it's Stravinsky meets Disney meets Offenbach. Fantastic.)

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