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Turntable: Across America by Train

I sometimes mention music on this blog, but I never thought of doing a proper series of posts about music that somehow intersects my interests and the themes of this blog: travel and exploration, the Orient and the old pulps, fiction and writing.
Who knows, maybe someone would be interested…

It would be sort of an extension of my Radio Karavansara tag. I’d cover jazz and soundtracks, ethnic music from the Silk Road, and the occasional storyteller-turned-singer (or viceversa). I could call it Turntable, and the typical post in such a series would probably look like this…

I discovered Van Dyke Parks when I was in my first year in university. At the time the big record stores in Turin (Maschio, Ricordi and Rock & Folk) were clearing their warehouses of the vinyl LPs to make room for the CDs that were flooding the market.
As a result, one could find a lot of strange and unusual records, oldies and new releases alike for real cheap. Within a year, we’d see the 3 x 10.000 lire offers – three brand new LPs for roughly 5 euro. I got myself a fair share of the GRP Jazz catalog that way. All I had to do was skip lunch.
I was browsing the stacks when I saw a cover that gave me pause: there was a scantly clad Asian beauty trying to harpoon a whale. The record was called Tokyo Rose. I bought it for the price of a cappuccino & croissant.

Tokyo Rose, it turned out, was a work by a composer and arranger that had worked for Hollywood (scoring, among other things, the Robert Altman movie version of Popeye featuring Robin Williams) and had also worked with bands such as the Beach Boys and Little Feat. He also appeared as an actor in various productions (including Twin Peaks) and curated reprint editions of classic American folk tales.
A true renaissance man.

Tokyo Rose had been recorded and produced in Japan in the early ’80s, and it charted the last century of relationships between the USA and Japan, and Uncle Sam’s expansion across the Pacific. It was historical fiction in music, featuring Commodore Perry, the Nisei concentration camp in Manzanar, the trade wars of the Reagan era, th eAmerican baseball players finding a new home in Tokyo… it was beautiful and bittersweet, it sounded like the soundtrack to a classic movie, with bits from old ’40s post-war musicals, even possibly a bit of vintage Disney, and I was hooked.
Currently, I own the record both as that old LP and as a CD.

Van Dike Parks would resurface in a lot of records I found out later, as producer or arranger, from Ute Lemper to Kimbra, but his own works were always hard to find. Indeed, one of the first purchases I made on Amazon when they started carrying records was a Van Dyke Parks record.

And a few nights ago, while I was browsing Spotify (I have just discovered the pleasures of streaming music – no, I’m not very cutting-edge), I found a record by Van Dyke Parks I did not know existed. It’s called Super Chief: Music For The Silver Screen, and it’s a collection of music for movies that Parks composed through his career, arranged to form an ideal travel from the east coast to the west coast, roughly in 1955.

The instrumental tracks cover a wide spectrum of genres – from bombastic main-titles pieces like the title track, to Western-movie-like music, to folkish bits, to short vignettes defining a character, or a situation. It’s music for stories, and the pieces were written as such, but are now presented without the stories themselves, and arranged as a loose narrative, so that we can supply our own characters, our own plot, our own dialogs.
A look at the titles might give you an idea or two…

The Super ChiefGo West Young ManThe Dining CarThe Pleasure DomeBar TalkJoan CrawfordLast CallInto The GloamingCrack Of DawnFlats As A PlatteOld Joe ClarkThe Water Is WideI Ride An Old Paint HorseIron HorseTeepee MotelBy CampgroundForgotten Not GoneThe Continental DivideJust YonderVirgin TerritoryA Spanish KitchenBolero ToreroThe Road Runner And RattlerBed Of StonesSo Long Santa FeCrossing The ColoradoA Date With ValentinoA Short Chat With Miss CrawfordThe Joshua TreeChateau Marmont

The record has a nostalgic vibe that I’ve come to associate with Van Dyke Parks’ music and is a perfect example of what I usually describe as “music that tells stories”. The sort of music I like – because it’s a different form of storytelling from the one I practice, and I am always looking for other angles, other approaches.

This is what I think is called occasional music – or at least it was conceived as such. Part of a soundtrack, whose purpose was to highlight, underscore and enhance the look and feel of a scene. Probably for this reason it is so “scenic” and so suggestive.
The production adds sparingly a few sound effects, so that if you are in a darkened room, with your headphones on, it’s really like there’s a movie going.

It makes for great background music if you are writing noir or something in the North-by-Northwest manner… A lone man on a train, leaving his life behind, trying to understand why he is being followed, and then meets a beautiful woman…
It’s interesting trying to sketch a character based only on 90 seconds of music, but also using the whole record as the engine for a story is a good experiment.
I know it works, I tried doing it.
Now I have 3000 words I’ll have to find a way to finish, and then try and sell somewhere.

As I mentioned, I found a nice selection of the Van Dyke Parks discography on Spotify, so you can check out if Super Chief works for you as an inspiration, or as a soundtrack, or just as a way to listen to a story being suggested instead of reading a story from a page.
You might like it.

And this is how a typical post on my new series Radio Karavansara: Turntable could look.
What do you say? Should I do a few more?
Let me know in the comments.

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