Sunday, July 21, 2013

Van Dyke's Advice

I had a Steinway Grand upright piano, a marvel of instrumentality, better than playing an actual grand, where strings are parallel to the ground. Once the top of a grand piano is opened, the sound all goes off to the player's right. This is better for the audience but worse for the player. With my Steinway, the strings were perpendicular to the ground, so if you took the front panels off, which I did, the sound all went directly to the pianist. It was like playing piano IN a piano, and anyone else around who wanted the full impact of each note had to stand behind or sit on the bench right next to the player. Any musician who ever entered my house was drawn to it immediately.

John Belushi brought Van Dyke Parks over and I'll have to stop right there. You know who John Belushi is and how he got to my house, but Van Dyke Parks, wow, Van Dyke was a hero, scorer of films (The Two Jakes and Popeye), Brian Wilson's writing partner (Heroes and Villains), musician extraordinaire (That's him playing cello on Good Vibrations), one of the founders of Warner Brothers Records, produced Ry Cooder and Randy Newman's first albums, but most importantly, his own Song Cycle, a major masterpiece, the most expensive album ever made at the time, giving new meaning to the words eclectic, dynamic, double entendre, and overproduced, a full orchestra and more, a new sound every second, among the best lyrics ever written, as some anonymous writer says at Wikipedia, "a head trip of orchestral textures and traditional Americana-meets-psychedelic pop song structures."

Song Cycle came out in 1968 and unfortunately there was no lyric sheet or internet to look them up in, so I sat at my typewriter and transcribed the whole album, I don't even have to look at it to quote whole passages: "I (I echo) came (came) west (west) unto Hollywood, never-neverland juxtaposed to BBD&O beyond San Fernando on hillside manors (manners?) on the banks of toxicity, those below and those above the same. Dreams (dreams) are (are) still (still) born in Hollywood. I don't understand, just suppose the youngster knows he's had it good, fear and fortune and up through the babble on the fair banks complicity, by your leave or stay beyond the game. Head your head to the ground round." When I told him what I had done, he told me he'd lost his only copy and asked for mine. I gladly complied which is why mine's missing. Only in typing his words, feeling them flow from my fingers, did the depths of his imagination emerge. Did he say "by Palm Desert springs often run dry" or "buy Palm Desert springs off and run dry?"

His next two albums, Discover America and Clang of the Yankee Reaper went off in whole other directions, exploring calypso and other island music. His most famous compositions are certainly on the Beach Boy's Smile, which has just been re-released (for the first time - long story).

He got one look at the Steinway and asked if he could give it a try. By all means. He immediately immersed himself into one of the greatest performances it's ever been my honor to witness. Once he stopped, I can't have said anything but "Oh my God, what was that?"

It was Souvenir of Puerto Rico, one of the greatest solo piano compositions of all time, by Lois Moreau Gottschalk.


And Van Dyke told me the whole story...

Lois Moreau Gottschalk was the very first American composer, unless you want to get technical about it. Benjamin Franklin composed a few ditties. You must listen to Franklin's compositions but once to understand not only why Franklin isn't known for them but why you'll never listen to them again. Why Gottschalk isn't well known is something we must put a stop to right now. Considering the fact that the composers he influenced, everyone from Aaron Copeland and Stephen Foster to Scott Joplin and Randy Newman, are so well known, it's rather startling that someone in the eminent position of "First American Composer" languishes in obscurity. Maybe because he's Jewish? Maybe because his piano pieces are so incredibly difficult to play?

He was born in New Orleans in 1829 to a German Jewish sailor from London and a white Creole Haitian mother, and he quickly grew from child prodigy to the most famous pianist in the New World. After studying with Franz Liszt at the Paris Conservatoire, he spent much of his time touring the world, including Cuba and Central and South America, where he was incredibly influenced by the indigenous music. His compositions ended up containing elements of Creole, African, minstrel, South American, Spanish, Mexican mariachi, West Indian and Cuban melodies and rhythms. He returned to America in the 1860s, and despite being born in the south, he supported the Union during the Civil War. Gottschalk became the first Bob Hope, touring battlegrounds during the war doing solo piano concerts for Union soldiers.

In 1865, he was forced to leave the United States as the result of a scandalous affair with a student at the Oakland Female Seminary. During a concert in Rio de Janeiro, he collapsed from a burst appendix and died three weeks later. His remains were returned to the United States and are presently interred at the Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York. His burial spot was originally marked by a magnificent monument which has eroded considerably over the years, and the Green-Wood is actively seeking donations to restore it.

Picture if you will a Civil War battlefield, a horse-drawn cart pulls a grand piano into a gathering of troops, and just before the soldiers march off to sacrifice their lives, Gottschalk rolls up his sleeves and proceeds to play a magnificent piece of music, and then please tell me why there's never been a movie or even a tacky History Channel special about him.

I ran to a classical sheet music store, bought a book of Gottschalk's piano pieces, and dived into Souvenir of Puerto Rico. By the next time Van Dyke came over, I had the first two thirds down and played it for him. A smile and a "you got it" was all I needed and all I got. We became pals and I ended up shooting his wedding.

Tony Martin Jr., Van Dyke Parks, Sally Parks, Harry Nilsson, Jack Nicholson, plus two ladies and a bishop.