Valentine's Day At McCabe's Guitar Shop II -- Van Dyke Parks

Valentine’s Day At McCabe’s Guitar Shop II — Van Dyke Parks

Van Dyke ParksVan Dyke Parks takes his piano bench. He’s friendly-looking, wears a neatly trimmed mustache and Country Time Lemonade suspenders. He looks to the untrained eye like the gentleman smart-ass Samuel Clemens or Tennessee Williams was, a piano-playing Brer Rabbit. And so does his first bit. There’s no question he’s a marksman of piano: each time he throws his fingers down on the ivory, a black quarter note on his sheet music gets a hole blasted through it. He cries out “Now!” and the whole song turns madcap, or falls apart, with a nod to high society and true ragtime authorship. The Reasons (who back him up on violin, cello, and bass) move right there in formation with Grant Geissman, his favorite guitarist (and author of two hardbound books on the history of Mad magazine).

get the idea that he knows where the music comes from and where it goes and how deep it is and how charming it is, and can pilot us through his professional waters with a great respect for everything we’re discovering for the first time. His resume could make Randy Newman blush, from Leo Kottke to Fiona Apple, from Keith Moon to the Buena Vista Social Club. Broadway, Disney, Rock, Folk, and Calypso are in his repertoire, and Clare and the Reasons is a latest triumph. I don’t know if he wrote everything he played, or covered it, or alluded to it, but most of it is like being on a desert island with a cool breeze and a rum drink. Sometimes he speaks about songs he found yellowing under a second year piano book in the mezzanine of the Hotel Dixie. The audience knows “FDR in Trinidad”. Sometimes it’s like he’s performing comparative studies of the “Hold your head up, you silly girl” part of “Martha, My Dear.” He’s been arranging for so long, his ideas are essentially the ones I listened to or collected at some point. Maybe he invented all the things l like about lush pop chamber arrangements. His lyrics are whimsical and self-referential. Songs he wrote and arranged at twenty-four begin like Debussy piano concertos until he starts singing. They at times “go saloon”. Bounce around a bit all discordant, meandering, indulgent. I hear stretches that sound like a budding Gershwin, others seem to cry out, “Help, I’m drowning in chocolate… chocolate juleps!” Lots of songs about traveling by ship. Lots of songs about water or rain. Lots of passages about American History. (Special ’ups for mentioning King Kamehameha.) At last, the piano pumps out a lyrical C-H-I-C-K-E-N spells chicken, and we call out letters warmly.

He encores with Harry Nilsson’s “He Needs Me” (From the movie Popeye), with Clare returning to do her best Shelley Duvall, and Van Dyke Parks returning as Hoagy The Piano Player.


“I’ve suffered like hell for my music for years. Now it’s your turn.”

“That guy couldn’t ad-lib a bell chap at a radish dinner.” (In reference to a jazz musician who couldn’t improv.)

“I’m going to play you a song of my youth just to let you know what I was doing when I was a brunette.”

“I love this new motto that I’ve heard arise from Shakespeare and I embrace it fully: old age and treachery will overcome youth.”

“I mentioned that business about Clare inviting me on a tour with her, and uh, I just remember once when I was a kid I was in France and I, I gave my first bidet. Uh. Splat. Throwing the water on the ceiling. But uh, this is a Saint Valentine’s Bidet is what I meant to say. Hope you all feel like you’re in love.”

Van Dyke Parks
McCabe’s Guitar Shop |