A couple of articles have recently appeared on the net which raise some very interesting points about the career of an archivist / artist like Van Dyke Parks, and the nature of pop music itself. One, written by Ned Raggett at http://www.netcomuk.co.uk/~tewing/squeal.html , quotes VDP during his first London show in 20 years, which I saw at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on 15th December 1999: "I like to rebel from the present tense and get away from the here and now. I'm interested in music that is inappropriate to this time".
Now, on the surface one might question comments like this, might suspect that those who think in such terms have a desire to stop music from going forward, to turn it into a museum piece. Ned Raggett describes the quote as "the equivalent of a sign saying 'I'm not alive anymore, though my vital signs indicate otherwise". The general slant of Raggett's article is that Van Dyke Parks, far from being the celebrator of pop music that he is to me, is in fact one of a number of people stultifying pop, stripping it of its lust for the moment and turning it into a long list of reference points, mulling over the past but failing to construct a future. Suggesting that Parks bases his music around "discarded pop, pop that no longer is - ragtime, Tin Pan Alley tunes and so forth", he concludes by arguing that "Parks has the advantage of fuzzy nostalgia". Elsewhere Raggett suggests that Parks is trying to trap us by guilt into liking particular music, "the horrendous by-product of the culture of consensus which presumes the primacy of the most generic Beatles B-side over the entire corpus of Depeche Mode or Giorgio Moroder or Dallas Austin". This is a bit rich considering VDP's consistent refusal of Rock History: The Accepted Version.
In fact Van Dyke Parks, equal parts artist and archivist, creator and curator, seems to have been a predecessor to the age of "Ark-ists" we're living in. In his ability to take ancient American forms and somehow, miraculously, reanimate them, wrest them from the hands of the protectionists who would curate them forever (listen to 1972's "Discover America" - for every tribute to Bing Crosby or the Mills Brothers there's an of-the-time guitar riff on "Sweet Trinidad" or "Occapella") he might have been the original Beck.
And what, in principle, is wrong with basing your music around "pop that no longer is"? Aren't Ned Raggett's accusations based around the same flawed principle that underpins Tony Blair's waffling, content-free speeches, the religion of "modernity" for its own sake becoming more important than the encouragement of creativity and individuality? I find myself agreeing with Ed Baxter's brilliant piece, at http://www:l-m-c.org.uk/texts/parks.html , which says it all about VDP's fondness for ambiguity and multiple meanings, and his collaboration with Brian Wilson on the most celebrated of unreleased albums, 1967's "Smile". You get the feeling that, ever since then, Parks has been haunted by visions of what might have been, that as Ed Baxter says "In its shadow, pop music post-"Smile" fitfully appears as a straw-man which would be blown down by the anticipated hurricane that never in fact arose". This awareness that it could have been a brilliant career, that he and Brian Wilson never managed to hone their vision 100%, seems to have given VDP a certain inferiority complex, but also a desire to rage against what he never quite achieved in '67 (and what came out was tempting enough - "Heroes and Villains", which he co-wrote, is for me the finest Beach Boys single, and one of those rare pop singles that must have completely overshadowed the rest of the music when first heard, that made you wonder why anyone else bothered).
Elsewhere Ed Baxter suggests (and I suspect he might be thinking of the likes of Ned Raggett) that those who dislike Van Dyke Parks are in fact frustrated rockists who have failed to widen their vision: "It's true that certain sensibilities are repulsed by the sheer lushness of its musical vision. Its nostalgic (i.e. longing for home) qualities are mistaken for kitsch, its palpably luxurious qualities are interpreted as contrary to the spirit of rock music, to the urgency of youthful appetites and to the raw authenticity of palpable convulsions craved in big crowds, dark rooms, loud noise. His is the music of troubled pleasure, lucidly rapturous, profound, unsettling even as it draws the listener insensibly into the realm of naked, even wacky, entertainment."
And he's right. If VDP suffers from anything, it is the stupidity and closed minds of those who feel that "American identity" in pop / rock can only be expressed in Springsteenian grunts.
So the show itself ...
The High Llamas, with Sean O'Hagan never seeming awestruck to be playing with someone he obviously admires so much (their relationship is a long way from the hero-worship Noel Gallagher shows towards John Lennon), provided a perfect warm-up. I could moan about Van Dyke Parks's actual set. Too much sitting down at the piano, no orchestra, too much from "Orange Crate Art" (the ultimately disappointing 1995 reunion with Brian Wilson, which had some wonderful moments but smacked too much of a reunion for the sake of a reunion, rather than for a deeper reason), not enough from "Discover America". But we had "Sailin' Shoes" and "FDR In Trinidad" and "Occapella", and a superb version of Donovan's "Colours" and he was a wonderful raconteur and he so clearly loves everything he's doing and I've got "The Eagle and Me" and "Palm Desert" on repeat play and, and, and ...
Robin Carmody, December 1999 / January 2000
Ned Raggett took issue with some of my comments here, and we had a very interesting email conversation in February. So I think I'll take this opportunity to acknowledge that he is no fan of Bruce Springsteen, that he is hardly a Rockist, and that he acknowledges that Parks does not attempt to enforce Rock History: The Accepted Version to the extent that, say, Noel Gallagher does. I still think, though, that he equates an appreciation and deep, personal sense of drawing from the past, with a desire to copy it and steal its every move. I still feel that Ned perceives "re-animation" as merely revitalising a corpse, whereas I see it as a means of restoring life.
Still, he's a very good writer and I would probably share his feelings that My Bloody Valentine's "Loveless" was the most perfect album of the 90s. But I wonder why he objected, in an alt.fan.momus posting, that "South Park" was shown in Britain when he claims to like it on his own website ...
Robin Carmody, 21st April 2000
Tom Ewing's view: