Autumn 1999

The sound of an elegant enigma

Palm Desert

By Rudy VanderLans, Emigre, California

This curious and quite elegant little book and short (twenty-minute) album originated in the packaging design for a CD of adaptations of ‘Palm Desert’, from the seminal 1968 album Song Cycle by Van Dyke Parks. The tracks from this project are included on the CD accompanying the book, along with the original song which inspired the whole enterprise.

Essentially, the book represents a fan’s homage to one of the finest minds operating on the margins of contemporary music, via a series of photographs and essays, two of which are by other hands. VanderLans’ introductory essay is quite touching and his photographs combine the precision and obliqueness of their source material. Like his subject, VanderLans is an outsider looking quizzically at the idiosyncrasies and mythologies of California. Parks is immensely knowledgeable on the subject of old ‘orange crate art’ – the subject and title track of one of his recent albums – and VanderLans captures a good deal of the flavour of this obsession in his photographs.

Unfortunately, the other two essays – and the three interpretations of ‘Palm Desert’ lyrics – miss the point by a long way. There are several books that need writing on Van Dyke Parks and this may well be one of them (provided it is not the only one!).

The range of his work and the diversity of his career is astonishing. VanderLans refers to most of his achievements, though he misses what is perhaps one of the most strikingly oblique: a brilliant cameo appearance in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. Now that could have pointed the author in a few other directions …

First published in Eye no. 33 vol. 9, 1999

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