Seeing Van Dyke Parks live is a fascinating experience.
I believe I’ve seen him at every solo show he’s done in the UK (I’ve not seen the appearances he’s made on multi-artist bills or at the Meltdown and All Tomorrow’s Parties festivals), and they’re a marvellous example of how to marry spontaneity and an almost ritualistic precision.
The setlists Parks performs are near-identical every time — last year’s show included a few extra songs from Song Cycle, but otherwise they all follow the pattern of his Moonlighting: Live At The Ash Grove album from 1998. So while this show was ostensibly to promote his new album Songs Cycled (actually a compilation of the six vinyl-only singles he self-released two years ago), the only songs from that album he included were the two remakes, Hold Back Time (originally from his collaboration with Brian Wilson, Orange Crate Art) and The All-Golden (originally from Song Cycle).
In fact, to the best of my memory, Hold Back Time is one of only three songs in Sunday’s set that he didn’t play last year or in 2011, the other two being a version of Gottschalk’s Night In The Tropics and a quick solo stride piano busk through of Anything Goes at the end. And similarly only three songs from the 2011 set (his Beach Boys collaboration Heroes And Villains , new song Black Gold, and the madrigal The Silver Swan) didn’t make the set this time.
But what a setlist it is. Parks is one of the great songwriters of the last century, worthy of comparison with names like Gershwin, Porter, McCartney, Wilson or Ellington, and he shows it with the originals here, drawn mostly from the Orange Crate Art album, which are about as good as songwriting gets. But he is also a generous musician, who wants to introduce the music he loves to a wider audience, whether that’s the music of his friends like Harry Nilsson or Lowell George, or of musicians from previous generations, such as Gottschalk or the calypsonian Attila The Hun, and so their songs are incorporated in the set as well. It’s a tribute to Parks both as performer and as composer that these pieces fit in so well with his own.
But while the setlists remain the same, every Van Dyke Parks show is a new and different experience, because he constantly varies the arrangements. The first time I saw him was with guitar and bass supporting his piano, the second time had indie-pop group Clare And The Reasons providing backup on a variety of instruments, last year he had the whole Britten Sinfonia, and this time he had a four-piece backing band providing drums, double bass, cello and harp.
(It was also the first time I’ve seen Parks playing an electric keyboard rather than a full-size piano — the Borderline is very unlike his usual venues, being an underground, standing, sweaty rock club with a small, cramped stage).
This line-up sounded a little off on the first couple of songs — I suspect that Parks is used to the bands he works with taking their tempo from his fluid piano playing, while the band here were taking the time from the drummer — but quickly settled in and gave excellent performances all round, and once again hearing these familiar (though never over-familiar) songs played in a new arrangement gave me a fresh set of ears with which to listen to them.
The other thing that is never the same from one Parks performance to another is his stage patter. Parks speaks naturally in an elegant, elliptical style that most of us couldn’t achieve after months of honing our prose, and I suspect he would be incapable of introducing a song the same way twice. This time he was in an elegaic mood, seemingly prompted by his realisation that he is now seventy years old, and spoke a lot about the past. This was most notable when talking about dead friends such as Nilsson, George or John Hartford (the writer of Delta Queen Waltz), but even when telling a recent anecdote about working with Bob Dylan, he looks to the past, saying that the previous time they had met was in 1964, in Phil Ochs’ flat, when they’d had a row about the use of electric instruments in folk music.
The audience were clearly mostly unfamiliar with Parks’ work, other than maybe Smile and Song Cycle — every Parks show is mostly to people who’ve heard of him, rather than heard him, but he always wins them round very quickly. Their unfamiliarity showed when he spoke about Gottschalk (the great 19th century pianist and composer who influenced him perhaps more than any other) — when he mentioned that Mac Rebbenack is a fan of Gottschalk, Rebbenack’s name got more recognition than Gottschalk’s did. But the number of people walking out with CDs and vinyl — many of them asking each other “Did *you* know he was that good?” — showed just how well he can get a crowd onto his side.
After the first time I saw Parks, I thought I’d never see him live again, and it took twelve years until the next time. Now I’ve seen him three times in less than three years, and each time has required a round trip of over four hundred miles, and I’d still gladly make the same trip, to see him singing the same songs, every time it was on offer. Because every Van Dyke Parks show is a unique, life-affirming experience. One of the main themes of Parks’ introductions this time was homogenisation and commodification of music, the way “wherever I travel in the world, someone will play me a Ry Cooder lick” (he made a couple of exceptions to this rule, his “favourite living songwriter”, Loudon Wainwright III, who was in the audience, and the folk guitarist Martin Carthy). His own music points to a road not taken, incorporating folk, Gershwin, Gottschalk, ragtime, R & B, calypso and vaudeville in a gentle, civilised, *human* blend that has absolutely nothing to do with rock and roll but everything to do with what’s good in humanity.
You can stream Parks’ latest album here, but it’s definitely worth buying a physical copy, for the cover art for the singles (including work by people like Art Spiegelman and Frank Holmes) and the essays for each song by both songwriter and painter.
Setlist (from memory, so possibly inaccurate)
Opportunity For Two
Orange Crate Art
Hold Back Time
Wings Of A Dove
Delta Queen Waltz
Night In The Tropics
FDR In Trinidad
He Needs Me (with Gaby Moreno)
Sailin’ Shoes (with Gaby Moreno)
I have a feeling I’ve missed at least two songs out there, but I can’t think what they were.
Very, very sad to hear that Ray Harryhausen, one of the great filmmakers of all time, has died aged 92. Normally I’d post a selection of YouTube moments from his films here, but I don’t have the bandwidth to look for them. Anyway, if you’re anything like me, the best moments are burned into your brain.
The films he worked on were often flawed — the directors and actors in the live-action parts were nowhere near his level of talent — but Harryhausen’s stop-motion animation elevated them. His creations were beautifully crafted, but more than that they had real character — he learned well from Willis O’Brien.
I was lucky enough to see Harryhausen talk about his work at the Media Museum in Bradford six or seven years ago, and to briefly tell him how much I loved his work, and though he must have been at least eighty-five even then, he still had the recall and vitality of many people half his age.
He’ll be missed.
Thanks to Dave Page, I now have something approaching an internet connection at home — a borrowed cast-off smartphone acting as a wifi hub, which gives me a very small level of connectivity.
Sadly the comment on the Mindless Ones list (“Just think how much he’ll be writing without the net to distract him!”) couldn’t be further from the truth. Without any ability to research anything, and with so much time taken up with talking to incompetents at phone companies, coupled with the extra time every day lost to commuting to work, thanks to not being able to work from home, I’ve written precisely nothing in the last week.
Emailing BT’s chief executive got an immediate response, and got me in touch with someone who appears competent, who is working on getting the phone and net back, but that probably won’t be til the middle of next week.
Emailing TalkTalk’s chief executive got a ‘goodwill’ offer of £15.60, when we were paying £19.20 per month for their tenth-rate broadband service, along with me being told “I’ve listened to the call and it was only twenty-one minutes” (note “the call” singular — there were at least four to TalkTalk alone).
When I said my goodwill could not be bought so easily and that I considered this insulting in the extreme, I was asked if it would make any difference if the offer was put in writing.
So, in conclusion, TalkTalk are incompetent and actively customer-hostile from the lowest call centre worker right up to the chief executive, and there is no possible way ever of resolving a problem with them, and if you’re with them your best bet is to change ISPs as quickly as possible. BT, on the other hand, *may* have at least one competent person working for them — the jury’s still out on that.
Meanwhile, I *may* be able to read my emails occasionally over the next few days, if this smartphone keeps working, but am still not contactable by telephone.
(Also, I’ll be in That London on Sunday/Monday, watching Van Dyke Parks).
Since I still have no home net access, I’ve decided to use my lunch break to post this tribute to two very different writers, since I can’t submit it to any more markets for a while.
GUYS AND DHOLES
by Andrew Hickey
With apologies to HPL and DR…
I am sat in Mindy’s one morning, about three bells, partaking of some cold borscht, which is a thing I do on occasion because the doctor has told me that beets are good for my blood pressure, and because the borscht at Mindy’s is more than somewhat tasty, when in walks Charlie Fishface.
Charlie Fishface is called Charlie Fishface because he has a face like a fish, which is all the more surprising because his mother is a great looker in her day, and for several days afterwards, come to that. It is generally assumed around Broadway that Charlie Fishface must take after his father, but this assumption cannot be proved as nobody knows who his father is.
Now, at this time I am not looking to have any dealings with Charlie Fishface, because my doctor has also told me that dealings with such guys as Charlie Fishface is liable to be so bad for my blood pressure that I will have to eat many beets indeed before it gets better. In fact, it is a known fact around Broadway that many guys who spend much time around Charlie Fishface croak all of the sudden, and so nobody’s doctor is recommending they spend much time around Charlie Fishface at that, for doctors do not like it when their patients croak all of the sudden, seeing it as an encroachment of their territory.
Now, at such an hour as three bells, many citizens are normally sitting around in Mindy’s, talking of one thing and another, and making the acquaintance of the many dolls who are normally present. But it so happens that of late Johnny Brannigan, the detective, has been making it his business to go to Mindy’s around this time of the morning, and many of the population do not enjoy the company of coppers, who are known to one and all as nothing but trouble, and so many citizens make it their business to be elsewhere at this time of the day.
However, this day, I hear that Johnny Brannigan is down with the old ’flu, and so he will not be in Mindy’s today or maybe ever in the future, which would be no bad thing at that. But it seems this news has not reached the citizenry of Broadway, and so when Charlie Fishface walks in and looks for somewhere to sit, he decides to come and sit with me, for I am known to one and all as a guy who will listen while you bare your soul, if I cannot get away fast enough, and Charlie is a man who looks like he has a problem.
“What is the problem, Charlie? ” I ask, though I do not, in truth want to know, because knowing other people’s problems is never a good idea, as they are liable to want you to fix them, and this usually involves you lending them fifty bobs, and I do not have any fifty bobs going spare, and if I did have any fifty bobs going spare I would not be lending them to Charlie Fishface.
“It’s my doll, New England Nancy,” replies Charlie, whose face is even more fishlike than normal, which is more than somewhat. “She leaves me today, and I will never see her again.”
Well, naturally, I am not surprised by this news, because nine times out of ten when a citizen has a problem it is because of a doll, and the tenth time it is because of scratch, and Charlie Fishface is never short of the do-re-mi. Personally, I am never going to shed any tears over dolls, as I consider them a commodity where supply exceeds demand, but I do not say this to Charlie Fishface, as he is such a guy as will be more than somewhat upset at this statement.
Instead I say “It is indeed a tragedy, the age in which we live, in which dolls leave guys in such a way.” Personally, if I am a doll such as New England Nancy, who has a very nice shape, I will leave Charlie Fishface too, for while Charlie Fishface does have plenty of scratch, there are many guys with scratch out there who do not have faces like fishes.
“She goes back home to Innsmouth, MA,” continues Charlie, “where she is to get married to some guy named Cool Luke. She is saving herself for him all her life, she says.”
Personally, I am surprised at this information, because there are very few dolls in this town who save themselves very long before they get spent, and if such a doll goes on to become some citizen’s ever-loving wife, all the worse for that citizen. I do not say this to Charlie, though, because my doctor tells me lead in my stomach will not help my blood pressure.
“In fact,” says Charlie, “you and I are going to Innsmouth this night, to stop this marriage, and to make Nancy my ever-loving wife.”
Now, I hear tell of this Innsmouth as a place in which the coppers take more than somewhat of an interest, as there are often found many items of a very illegal nature there, such as whisky, rum and wine, as it is a port town where many boats are arriving from Europe and France and other such places.
As I am a law-abiding citizen I have no interest in such illegal activities, except for occasionally when I am thirsty, and I am worried that should I go to this Innsmouth with Charlie Fishface, then some of the coppers might see me in such company in such a place and come to the wrong conclusions, and there is no profit in having coppers coming to wrong conclusions about you, especially if the wrong conclusions happen to be correct.
However, there is also no profit in being unfriendly towards Charlie Fishface, because Charlie Fishface is a man who values friendliness very highly, and so I do not disagree with Charlie when he says I am coming to Innsmouth with him. However, I must look somewhat upset at the prospect, as he says to me:
“Do not worry about Innsmouth. I know the coppers are there last year and arrest many guys, but the heat has died down now, and I hear that part of MA. is lovely this time of year. Why, my own mother is from there, and so might my father be for all I know, and she tells me many stories of the beautiful harbor and the swimming that is to be had there. Why, it is probably the finest place in the world, and it will no doubt do wonders for your health to have a holiday in such a place! ”
We go down to Innsmouth by way of bus, for there is no railroad there, and on the way Charlie Fishface explains to me why I am coming with him.
You see, Charlie Fishface is such a guy as never goes out during the daytime. This is not remarked upon, because there are many guys who do not like to have their faces seen about the town during the daytime, and if I have a face like Charlie Fishface I will keep out of the sunlight, too, so I do not cause babies to cry and dogs to attack me.
In fact, when Charlie Fishface is forced to go out during the daytime, he always wears a big hat, and sunglasses, and a muffler wrapped round his face, even when it is by no means chilly outside. The citizens of Broadway consider this remarkably courteous of Charlie Fishface, and an example which could be followed by many to the general benefit.
But it turns out that the reason Charlie Fishface keeps his face away from the sunlight at all times is that he has a rare skin disease which makes the sun burn his skin and causes him more than a little pain. So he needs me there to go out and about this Innsmouth to speak to the citizens and find the location of the church in which Charlie’s doll is having her wedding, so we can go there and stop the doll from making a mistake, though it seems to me she does not make that much of a mistake at that.
So presently we arrive at the Gilman House, which is the hotel in Innsmouth, and which is very nice if your tastes run to dust and you do not mind there being no running water, and Charlie Fishface takes himself to bed, while I go to look around the town.
Now, I am such a man as is used to the comforts of city life, and so I am not very impressed with this Innsmouth, and I very soon become convinced that I will not give a pound note for all the scenic beauty of Innsmouth, even if you throw in all the fishes in the town, too.
But this is okay, because it seems that Innsmouth will not give a bob for me, at that. In fact I walk around all day trying to engage the citizens in conversation, but they all turn away with sour expressions on their pusses, apart from one elderly character with a bushy white mouser, who shouts “Ia! Ia! Cthulhu ftagn! ” and other words like that and makes a remarkable noise indeed.
Eventually, though, I find one guy who is willing to give me the time of day. He is a bum, and is such a character as will talk for whisky, and he tells me of the town, and of its history, and of the great old ones, who do not sound so great to me, and of many other things which are not as interesting as he thinks, and most of which sound like the old phonus balonus.
Once he stops telling me all his facts about the history of Innsmouth, I ask him about New England Nancy and her impending nuptials. His face immediately gets an unpleasant expression, and it is not so pleasant to look at even when he is cheerful.
“Damn ye,” he says, “ye durst not interfere en matters that are greater then ye c’n imagine, for strange eons’r comin’ to an end, an’ the great marriage heralds the dawn o’ a new and deadly epoch fer mankind.”
Now, it is true that I do not like to interfere, but Charlie Fishface is known as a great interferer, and I point this out to the old man. I also point out that I am holding the whisky bottle, and he tells me that the wedding will take place that night, in the Order Of Dagon Hall, on Federal Street, across the Manuxet River from the hotel where we are staying.
So I go back to the hotel, and I eat a bowl of vegetable soup and crackers, because I have eaten nothing since the borscht and it is now late in the evening, and then I go and wake up Charlie Fishface, who is sleeping soundly and making the kinds of snores that only a man with as strange a schnozzle as he has can make.
We wait until it is pitch black outside, for we have been told that the wedding will be at midnight, which I think is a strange time for a wedding, at that, but which Charlie says is probably just a rural tradition. Personally, I do not care for this tradition, as it seems to leave little time for a wedding night, but then I am not planning on getting married, and if I do get married it will not be in Innsmouth.
We walk through the town square, and towards the bridge over the Manuxet River, and it is so dark that my eyes seem to play tricks on me, for I am sure I see something rising up out of the water, but Charlie tells me I am drunk on bootleg hootch, and this may indeed be the case.
We cross the river, and continue down Federal Street, and I hear much singing coming from the wedding party. It is not the singing that you normally hear in a wedding, for it is not even slightly in English, and I wonder if perhaps Nancy is slightly Jewish and that is why she does not marry in the churches we pass.
When we get to this Order Of Dagon Hall, we hear chanting coming from inside, such words as the elderly citizen with the mouser shouts earlier – “Ia! Ia! Cthulhu ftagn! Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn! ” and such shouting as that. This seems most strange to me, as this is not a normal sound for a wedding, even one in a town with as much bootleg whisky as Innsmouth has.
The door to this hall is locked, but there are windows up high, and I give Charlie Fishface a boost up so he can see into the hall. I am just beginning to wish I was lifting something lighter, like an elephant or the Rocky Mountains, when he calls out “My God! We have to stop them! ”
He jumps down, which I am extremely glad about, and then shoulder-barges the door. When the door still doesn’t open, he pulls out the old equalizer and lets off three shots into the lock, which seems to work, though I think it is bad manners to pull out the old equalizer at a wedding.
When we get inside, though, I see why he does this, for a pretty young doll is on the altar, wearing not very many clothes, and showing her figure to all and sundry, and a very nice figure it is, too, if you go for figures.
And standing over her is the old bloke with the mouser, and he has a knife in his hand, and he is saying many words I cannot understand, and then he brings this knife down.
“Stop! ” yells Charlie Fishface, and then the strangest thing I ever see happens. The old guy drops the knife, and all the citizens in the hall run up to Charlie Fishface and fall to their knees. They start yelling all kinds of things about “the son” and “the chosen one”, and they ask Charlie Fishface what they should do.
“Well,” says Charlie Fishface, “you came here for a wedding. How about we have one? Pastor, how about you marry me to Nancy here? ”
And they do this, and within the hour there is a normal wedding, with a bride who is wearing clothes, or at least as many clothes as most brides wear nowadays, which is not so many clothes as that, and I never do figure out how Charlie manages to persuade them to do this, until Charlie’s ever-loving wife tells me on the bus ride home that they have mistaken him for the son of this Cool Luke, who they think sends him to the wedding in his place.
And this is all very nice, and everyone lives happily ever after, not least New England Nancy, who thinks after all that being married to Charlie Fishface is better than being sacrificed to an octopus dragon creature, though I am not sure I agree with her.
But I do have strange dreams, in which I see the shape rising out of the water, but much more clearly than I see it at the time, and I see it sink back when the sacrifice is halted, back in to the depths it comes from.
And I think, actually, that Charlie Fishface does take after his father, at that.