Reviewed: Songs Cycled by Van Dyke Parks

Revolution in the head.

Songs Cycled (Bella Union)
Van Dyke Parks

In 1968, Warner Brothers took out a fullpage ad in Billboard for Van Dyke Parks’s album Song Cycle, which read: “How we lost $35,509.50 on ‘The Album Of The Year’ (Dammit)”. Two weeks later, it ran another, offering two new copies of the doomed disc in exchange for one used one, for a nominal fee of one cent. The ads were by the maverick copywriter Stan Cornyn, who’d worked out that the less a record sold, the cooler it became – but Parks was always a non-commercial proposition. He is best known for facilitating Brian Wilson’s baroque dreams (and nightmares) as the lyricist for the Beach Boys’ unfinished Smile album. As an LA session man and producer, he spent time in Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention and worked with Randy Newman, Tim Buckley and Phil Ochs, among many others.

His solo work – classical, cabaret, Cal-pop, calypso – was always too esoteric for mainstream tastes: he’s the sort of musician who calls Ry Cooder a “Trinidadian” and doesn’t think that needs any explanation. But in 2013 we love all that stuff and, at 70, Parks is busier than he was at 45, bussed to festivals across the globe to talk with aphoristic economy on royalties, rights and the globalisation of rock like a kind of musical Mark Twain.

He provides unusual angles on the people he has worked with (“Harry Nilsson had detergent depth – tell him the date you were born and he’d tell you what day of the week it was”) and he genuinely believes that the casualties of rock’n’roll (Hendrix, Joplin and so on) “died in their efforts to bring music into a political potency” – which is both quaint and inspiring, depending on how you look at it. Recently, the 25-year-old LA dance producer Skrillex contacted him for a collaboration, declaring that they would “destroy the world together”. Naturally, Parks was sold.

His first solo album in 24 years is a collection of five original tracks, some new versions of old songs and some traditional material, with a title that says: “Here I am, as weird as I always was and maybe for the last time.” It arrives in a very different world from what faced its Sixties namesake: a post-Spotify landscape in which the kind of act that gets on Radio 2 might well play part of Camille Saint-Saëns’s Carnival of the Animals on steel pans (as Parks does on “Aquarium”) – or a titillating country song about a girl named after a herbal tea used in the homoeopathic treatment of chlamydia (“Sassafras”) – and not be considered dilettantish for doing so.

With its combination of pastoral grace and unexpected warps of key signature, Parks’s work as an orchestral arranger always sat well in psychedelia but he’s in essence a classical musician in the school of Gershwin and Bern - stein, with a bit of his former teacher Aaron Copland thrown in. Songs Cycled features several strange mini-musicals of the mind, the most chilling of which is “Wall Street”, a love song about 9/11 “jumpers” who leap hand in hand from the towers, “two flaming birds on fire”, and plummet to the pavement, leaving “no trace of their embrace”. He wrote it not long after the attacks as a response to the US government’s apparent efforts to erase the suiciders from the collective memory – though he couldn’t really release it at the time, having condemned Neil Young for writing a song called “Let’s Roll” about Flight 93. (“A Canadian citizen making a dime on the United States, calling them to war, is the height of stupidity,” he maintained recently.)

“Dreaming of Paris” is apparently a comment on the US bombing of Baghdad, though it must be the only song on the subject to include a mention of crème brûlée. Parks’s metaphors and internal rhymes (“It’s déjà vu, I’m tellin’ you”) tie his songs up in pretty bows, giving the impression that they are nothing but momentary escapes from real life. Given the brow-furrowing exegesis required to draw out their political meaning, it’s sometimes hard to buy his central idea that there is “nothing more precious than the song form to revolutionise popular thought”.

Then again, the notion that protest might be couched in light-hearted music is convincing – that’s the basis of his beloved calypso, after all – and the overall effect of these fleet-footed tunes is indeed one of powerful unease, especially in the tonguetrammelling, Tom Lehrer-style rhymes of “Black Gold”, which is all about the 2002 Prestige oil spill.

Parks attacks his work with a belief in the motivational power of music that seems unusual in this day and age. In his sleeve notes, he writes: “I am a rusty nail just waiting to be hammered down by an intolerant bastard with no room for what isn’t rockin’ or casually elite.” The only thing he’s got wrong is that there’s no one who wants to hammer him down.

Van Dyke Parks with Chad Kimball in 2005. Photo: Getty Images.

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's arts editor and pop critic.

Photo: Getty
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Poo jokes and pessimism – the scatological legacy of British humour

Is it simply a testament to our good nature, or a sign of a darker kind of cynicism?

Many Brits will have amused themselves this summer by packing a tent, stashing their narcotics and heading over to a muddy field in the middle of nowhere to brave the torrential rain at a music festival.

Wallowing in the mud and other more faecal byproducts to the soundtrack of up-and-coming bands is considered the peak of hedonism for many in the UK, and there is something quintessentially British about the way we willfully embrace the general state of depravity that most of our festivals inevitably collapse into.

One internet meme that perfectly epitomises the difference between British and American festival culture shows an image of a woman at a US event pulling a sad face as she reveals the worst thing she’s seen: “Spitting on the ground.” On her right, a British man slumped in a camping chair holds up his sign, reading: “A man covered in his own shit sniffing ketamine off his mate’s unwashed scrotum.”

There’s a cheerful pride with which Brits embrace bodily dysfunction as a part of our comic culture, and a common trope of British humour involves undermining the stiff upper lip attitude associated with English people, often with an act of complete depravity that dispels any illusion of class and respectability. Britons have always been partial to a good old-fashioned dose of scatological humour, from Chaucer’s bawdy fabliaux that celebrate obscenity, to Shakespeare’s Falstaff, or Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or Swift’s "Scatological Cycle".

Much of the comic effect that these writers create derives from undermining high-brow intellect or spirituality with the low-brow of the rear end – for example the part in Chaucer’s Summoner’s Tale, where the division of an old man’s fart into 12 serves as a parody of the descent of the holy ghost at Pentecost.

Faeces has long since been ingrained in our past literary and historical culture – after all, as the great Shakespeare was writing some of the western world’s most seminal pieces of English literature, his chamber-maid was most likely throwing pieces of his own faeces out of the window next to him.

In English literature, scatological humour can be juvenile, but it has also been used to represent wider social anxieties. In turning bottoms up and exposing the rear end, "shiterature" is often about breaking taboos, and exposing the dirty underbelly of society. Part of the "civilising" process that societies perform to reach a high level of sophistication involves distancing oneself from one’s own excrement, and scatology reverses this by shedding a light on our dirtiest natural habits. Swift’s excremental vision asked us to peel back the mask of genteel individuals, revealing their true and disgusting selves.

Scatology can also represent collective self-disgust, and has been used to question the integrity of a British national identity that has in the past denied its colonial wrongdoings. In Tristram Shandy, the protagonist's porous and leaking diseased body has been interpreted as a metaphor for the British Empire, and indeed the whole being of the Shandean gentleman is sub-textually supported by British colonialism, being as they are descended from merchants who profited from eastern goods sold to the European bourgeois and aristocrats.

Scatology has been used to represent hypochondria, the crisis of the aristocracy, self-disgust and sexual disgust – incidentally all things that we might find at an English festival.

The onslaught of the modern era hasn’t managed to dispel our fondness for injecting sophisticated comedy with snippets of scatological humour. In Peep Show for example, a show largely appreciated for its dry wit and irony, a hilarious scene involves Mark suffering from uncontrollable diarrhea as his boss watches on in disgust. Another brilliant scene is where Jeremy’s employer at the gym confronts him with a plastic bag filled with a human stool, which Jez had used to frame another employee for pooing in the pool.

In a similar vein, one of the most famous scenes in The Inbetweeners is where the uptight Will manages to poo himself during one of his A-level exams. In the second movie, there is another disgusting poo in the pool scene.

In the dark comedy series The Mighty Boosh, characters reference "taking a shit" on objects ranging from a salad, to a swan, to even "your mum". Almost all of these characters (Mark from Peep Show, Will from The Inbetweeners and The Mighty Boosh's Howard Moon) see themselves in some way as representative of a modern British gentleman – prudish, well educated and well spoken. Each of them at points embarrasses themselves and their image with reference to their bowel movements.

It’s a cliché that British humour is about losers, and that we are more prone to self-deprecation than our friends across the pond – a cliché that is not without some truth. 

Admittedly nowadays, much American humour similarly relies on self-deprecation and laughing at the sorry fate of "losers", but cynicism and irony are more fundamental to British comedy. On commenting on the difference between the American and British versions of The Office, Ricky Gervais once said that in the UK: "Failure and disappointment lurk around every corner… We use (irony) as liberally as prepositions in every day speech. We tease our friends. We use sarcasm as a shield and weapon." 

It is certainly true that in Britain, we are particularly pre-occupied with laughing at the failures of the self, and this can manifest itself potently through deprecation of the body.

Maybe the general sense of pessimism that is alluded to so much in the UK is due to our dismal weather, and maybe our ability to laugh at ourselves and our dysfunctions is a simply a testament to our good nature, and something to be applauded. Perhaps it is just something in the air rising from our manure-ploughed green and pleasant lands that inspires in our British comedians the desire to return time and time again to the scatological trope. Or perhaps, if we dig a bit deeper into our dung-fertilised lands, we might find that an anxiety about the foundations of British identity is behind the relentless desire to represent the permeability of the personal and national body.

Should we be embracing our tendency towards self-deprecation, or does it lead to a more problematic kind of cynicism that is restrictive, making us resistant to the idea of radical change? Perhaps we are destined to remain stuck in the mud forever, grumbling about the bad weather as we desperately shelter from the rain under a gazebo, sipping on the dregs of warm beer, pretending we’re having a good time – and who knows? Maybe this is what a good time looks like. Swift once told us to bless the "gaudy tulips raised from dung" – British comedy continues to do so quite literally.