An Interview with Van Dyke Parks

Musician and author Van Dyke Parks talks about smoking, collaboration, and commitment, plus: Brian Wilson, William Saroyan, and why "the arts are much more expensive than people think."

Van Dyke Parks

Photo credit: Rocky Schenk.

Is there anything you’ve found that helps get you into a more creative mode?

Yes — smoking is good. Smoking is very helpful. But it’s deadly, so today is my second day without smoking. I stopped smoking on Sunday, having smoked for years.

I think that smoking is a very good thing to do — it’s got the association with the Indians; it’s a peaceable thing. But like much else that the Indians gave us, we abused the privilege. And so, in my case I must simply stop. I’m too old to smoke. But I do believe that nicotine provides a great creative thrust….

In all the work I do, throughout my life, I’ve emphasized how fortunate I am to have people around me, and I kind of confirm what my father once said to the school at Andover when they asked if I showed any signs of creativity. My father wrote a letter to them as they were considering me for admission to that school; he said, no, my son has no creativity, but he has reactive abilities that are phenomenal and very useful. I resented that, perhaps — that my father said that. But I have found basically that it could be true, that I have a reactive ability.

I’ve always characterized myself in press and so forth as the “beta participant.” But in fact, now that we’re alone, I can say without fear or bravado, that I feel humbled and validated that you would ask me about the creative process. It’s almost as if I am a creative person. And I think all of that is just due to the fact that I have a great work ethic. I hammer at it. I sweat bullets. I pursue it. Wanting real talent, I compensate for it with something far more precious — sheer will.

I remember when I was a child in New York, I went to see a play by William Saroyan. I happen to know his wife through a live television show I acted on as an obedient boy. At any rate, I met Saroyan. And I asked him about the creative process. I wanted to know because I was so stunned by his work — he presented a vision of California that helped lure me to California in my later adolescence. And he talked to me about “getting the cat up the tree” — getting something to happen and resolving it, and so forth. And I asked him about how inspired he must be, and he said no, no, it’s all due diligence. Everything is just absolutely irrational tenacity.

To be a constituent in creativity is to learn how to eat crow. It is a lesson in humility, that’s what it is. And if you’re not ready for that, you should get out of the kitchen. You have no place in the arts.

In terms of that tenacity, are there any mental tricks that you rely on to get the work done?

I need to somehow relax about not knowing where I’m going or where it’s taking me…. One time somebody went to Beethoven and said, “Oh Mr. Beethoven, you know what’s going to happen — what a great prestidigitation here, what a tremendous prescience you have.” And he said something akin to the epithet “bulls**t.” Nobody knows before a fact. And that sounds kind of simple, but actually it’s something profound. To remember that. Always.

I consider that a necessity of great works, whether they be literary or visual or auditory or structural — there is an element of epiphany in all of them. And that [epiphany] doesn’t come from an individual who can predict the future…. All the great work that really attracts me is work that feels uncertain. Nothing granitic for me. I need that detergent quality in work that wobbles between despair and great optimism.


For over four decades, Van Dyke Parks has worked as singer, lyricist, composer, arranger, producer, and sessions player on an astounding assortment of projects, collaborating with everyone from Randy Newman, Ry Cooder, Bonnie Raitt, and Bruce Springsteen to U2, Laurie Anderson, Frank Black, and Joanna Newsom. His own albums, starting with Song Cycle (1968) up throughMoonlighting: Live at the Ash Grove (1998) have cemented his reputation as an eclectic, inventive songwriter and performer. Parks is perhaps best known for his work as lyricist on Brian Wilson’s legendary SMiLE, which was begun in 1966 as the follow up to the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds and released nearly four decades later in 2004.

In addition to all this, Parks has been composer and arranger for numerous movie and TV scores, and has written three adaptations of the stories of Brer Rabbit, published by Harcourt Brace — Jump!, Jump on Over!, and Jump Again!

On the Web:

How do you bring that quality to your own work?

Well, I think I do it in spite of my best intentions. My best intentions are always telling me to hide. The thing is to absolutely hide myself. Veil myself from a vulgar public — somebody might find me out. I have all that.

What do you do to overcome that instinct to hide?

Well, I don’t want to overcome that. [laughter] I want a hiding place. But it turns out, I think inevitably, that your work doesn’t do that — it doesn’t let you hide. I’m sixty-four so I can remember Jack Kennedy admonishing a generation of American college graduates, when he was touting the social values of the Peace Corps, and he said to a generation, “You cannot hide.” And I thought that was great.

I swear to you, that is the amount of personal commitment I have in everything I do. I feel exalted and violated and all those things — the gamut — because of the personal sacrifice that I know is in the work. And that’s where my heart is. It’s in the work.

Have you gotten any advice about the creative process that you’ve found particularly useful?

The first thing I remember is Brer Rabbit. He says, if you’re slow, start early. When I get my marching orders to do something, whether I’m demanding it of myself or I’m by necessity a slave to someone else’s unreasonable schedule demands, I always prepare to jump in feet first. Totally committed. Nothing else matters. Not food, not drink, not sleep. Nothing.

I recently did a Meryl Streep movie and had ten days to deliver the score. I had two all-nighters. And I don’t take any stimulants other than a Diet Coke, but Al Gore drinks Diet Coke so it should be considered the proper thing to do.

I remember one morning my wife looked at me and she said, “You know I think you should stop working.” But I won’t do it. I will never stop.

You’ve worked with an extraordinary number of people over your career. What draws you to the collaborative process?

Well I don’t play golf. I don’t have any hobbies. And I love — well, I don’t love working so much because it’s usually frightening — there’s so much at stake…. But it’s amazing isn’t it, how many different people I’ve worked for?

It’s a little mind-boggling.

They’re all different, you see. That’s the thing. There is no similarity in any job. I can say truly that there’s nothing pat about what I do. And truly, and I think you know this better than I do because you’re steeped in the topic, but I do not believe that the way can be told, I think the way must be found. But there is something really wonderful about being accessible to other people’s works too. And I am. That is, I’m very curious and always heartened by other people’s efforts.

I think that there is so much transferable in the qualities of the work — the very idea that courage is contagious, that you can get refreshment and even necessary nourishment from what the arts have to offer. And there’s a reason that they’re nurturing, and that’s because they have an emotional expenditure of some sort. They require that. The arts are expensive. Much more expensive than people think.

What do you think makes for a successful collaboration?

To make a collaboration succeed there can be no visible contusions or abrasions. For the collaboration to succeed, the relationship must be nourished and survive. That is absolutely essential for a collaboration to succeed.

So the relationship is at the core?

Yes. The relationship must survive that event. I really mean that. I’ll tell you why: Because collaboration, if it’s two people, it’s absolutely adversarial in nature if it’s good. And that invites a lot of problems. But at the same time it’s a relationship that celebrates the enthusiast in all social affairs. It is the most enthusiastic way to do something for others.

With your collaboration with Brian Wilson on SMiLE, what was it like revisiting a project that you’d started nearly four decades before?

It was the easiest, least portentous, pretentious, or otherwise momentous moment in my life. It was just kid stuff. It was so easy. It was so smooth. It took a few hours of hard work, I would say. I think three days.

Why do you think it was it so easy?

It was not finishing the work that was hard on me — knowing that the work had not been presented or finished. And so I think it came as a great relief to me to do it finally.

Did you find that your approach to writing lyrics changed dramatically from the ’60s?

Well I don’t think so — I’m still living with the same demons. The same problems, basically. Working out the terms and conditions of my big-bang-birth.

For non-songwriters, what’s the biggest misconception about the songwriting process?

[There’s] that famous line of Ted Turner’s, “It only looks easy.” I think that’s a very big misconception, because the song is not the singer. The song is only the residue of a great desire. Song is like looking at something that says “Kilroy was here.” It’s just the residue of a great big story, of a realization, and all that concomitant personal sacrifice.

Is there any other advice you’d offer fellow artists?

I think just to survive is creative. So I don’t think people should spend any time questioning their creative gifts. And I think it’s important to range freely about how [those gifts] are applied.

I’ll tell you something: You know, I clean the kitchen between each preparation. I clean the dishes. I put a great deal of care into what I do. I just want to remember always that nothing is beneath me. I try not to marginalize any effort. To be a constituent in creativity is to learn how to eat crow. It is a lesson in humility, that’s what it is. And if you’re not ready for that, you should get out of the kitchen. You have no place in the arts.

The one thing that sold me on Jesus when I was a kid, was that he was a man who was acquainted with sorrow…. I think that all of them, from Gandhi on up, all of these people who show that art of survival so neatly and in such saintly proportions while they’re here on Earth, I think that what they share and want to teach — and I think it’s something that it’s incumbent on the arts to friendly persuade the public — is that sense of humility. That’s the ticket at the door.

Category: Music/Dance

13 comments on “An Interview with Van Dyke Parks

  1. Good one. Actually, great. But what does he mean by “detergent”?

  2. These interviews have been wonderful–what a way to learn about the creative process. FWIW, I took “detergent” to mean that those creative works that take you through despair-optimism are cleansing somehow, like they strip some of the protective grime off you. Also, I really loved, “The song is only the residue of a great desire.”

  3. What an amazing interview! The more Van Dyke Parks articulated, the more I wanted to know.
    An excellent set of questions too, Cecil…

  4. well, this really sings–the “absolutely irrational tenacity,” “the residue of a great desire,” “the ticket at the door.” i’ll be reading it again. thank you both.

  5. I need to gush about this interview. As if putting a comment on a blog isn’t already gushing. I need to overgush.
    –First, he’s here.
    –Second, substances. VDP’s the first in this series—or at least the first to list it first—to admit to substances as a spur to creative work. O.K., it’s nicotine and Diet Coke, not junk, but it’s true, & he said it. And they’re bad for you. Writing vs. life: choose writing.
    –Third, creativity. Weird category, weirdly corporatized (vide ‘creative accounting’). VDP slips into “reactive abilities” and “beta participant” instead: happy synonyms.
    –D, phraseology. “Irrational tenacity.” “Nothing is granitic for me.” “Beta participant.” Writing not as self-expression, but “veiling,” a desire to hide. “You cannot hide.” Brer rabbit as avatar. “Courage is contagious.” Art as relationship, not long walks alone with your soul in the park. The relationship must survive the event. Song as “only the residue of a great desire.” “I think just to survive is creative.” Cleaning the dishes as an essential creative act.
    This man is an artist. I’d follow him anywhere.
    I told you I’d gush. I gushed. I loved this one.

  6. inspiring discussion. parks’ passion is blinding. cec, great questions that maintained a wonderful flow.

  7. I believe that he uses the word detergent to convey a sense of slipperiness.

  8. Man, Van Dyke is the coolest person in the world. No doubt about it. This interview is great. Just to give you an idea of how cool and down to earth he is; I sent him some of my music as well as an email telling him how much I respected his work. He actually listened to it and responded. Totally surprised me, but my respect for this guy is through the roof.

  9. Ryan — glad you enjoyed the interview. And nice VDP quote on your MySpace page! I’ll have to revisit when I’m headphone-equipped to hear the tunes.

  10. Happy New Year 2008! I just watched the annual Honeymooners marathon and did a search on little Tommy Manicotti. That search led to this site and this amazing interview which I found just absolutely intriguing and inspiring to say the least. Best wishes to all for a Happy, Healthy 2008.

  11. Great interview. I loved it.

  12. I am stunned how much Van Dyke Parks words are so gorgeous and comfortable and truthful and very human (if that makes sense).
    This interview alone has reaffirmed any doubts I have as a recipient of creative potential.
    What a great soul and a good read, VDP!

  13. Epiphany – yes, it is encouraging that even travelers with decades on the road still find the destination unknowable. “Everything is just absolutely irrational tenacity.” Hanging on desperately, without hope–until the angels appear, in their own good time and fashion.
    An uplifting message for those of us who dream and struggle towards the light in obscurity–thanks to questioner and respondent for the collaboration.

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