Occapella: Musings on Van Dyke Parks, Allen Toussaint, Lee Dorsey, Ringo Starr & Barack Obama [Updated]

December 18, 2009

Firing a little shot out there about this song I’ve recently fallen in love with. It’s called “Occapella,” an Allen Toussaint tune, and I came across it on Van Dyke Park’s phenomenal 1972 calypso-ish rock celebration of the American melting pot, “Discover America.”

“Occapella” was originally made famous by Lee Dorsey, the great R&B crooner backed by The Meters, and was released on his 1970 singles collection “Yes We Can.” The album may or may not have inspired the Obama 2008 campaign slogan, but it was definitely mashed-up with one of Obama’s speeches.(Listening to the Yes We Can speech right now, almost a full year after Obama’s first year as president, can be a maddening experience. Are we still fired up and ready to go?)

Lee Dorsey’s version of “Occapella”

“Discover America” begins with a minute-long fraction of the song “Jack Palance” by The Mighty Sparrow, “The Calypso King of the World,” and then meanders through a handful of tracks about Bing Crosby, J. Edgar Hoover, F.D.R., and others. It’s all very zen, my brothers, without falling into some deep hippie ditch dug out by David Crosby. (On “Discover America,” Van Dyke Parks also covers the Lee Dorsey / Allen Toussaint tune “Riverboat” from “Yes We Can.”) In 1974, Ringo Starr included a version of “Occapella” of the song on his fourth solo album “Goodnight Vienna,” recorded with the help of John Lennon and Harry Nilsson (another Parks coconspirator) during Lennon’s infamous “Lost Weekend” in Los Angeles. Ringo delivers the song as a more straightforward, polished jam, and his vocal delivery feels stolid and lacking in effervescence. In another time, someone might have dared to call the performance “too white,” but it is Ringo fucking Starr we’re talking about. He doesn’t really add anything to the Lee Dorsey arrangement, and one concludes that he recorded the song just because he thought it would be fun to do, but I’d like to know if there was more to the intention.

Ringo Starr’s version

Pardon me, but you could use it
We’re goin’ to make a little music
You got soul now don’t you lose it
We’re goin’ to make a little music
Everything’s going to be mellow
People just a singin’ occapella

Parks’ version of “Occapella” is propelled by the same peppy Nawlins bounce, weighed down by a brash and brassy horn section, the unrefined outbursts of a marching band with its feet planted firmly on the ground. Even though he doesn’t deserve the credit on writing the song, Van Dyke Parks guides the song on an ethnomusicological journey, tracing its funky odor back to a fresh and mellow Caribbean point of origin.  As cerebral as that may sound, the end-result feels fresh and visceral, and there’s an excitement to the exploration of sounds – the brass contrasting with the wooden block percussions, for instance – as if the sonic collage is quite literally a way of understanding the complicated puzzle of Western Hemispheric culture. His album-length intrusion on a style of “global” music prefigures Paul Simon’s “Graceland” by a good dozen years, and Parks’ never falls prey to bouts of preciousness, nor is the album plagued by accusations of theft. On the contrary, “Discover America” projects the composer’s childlike sense of wonder that, at least to me, feels like an act of self-humbling before the history and songbook he’s engaging. There’s no pretense of authenticity. And if I may bring it all back to Barack Obama somewhat elliptically, the album makes a simple comment about American culture as a whole — the beautiful, complicated mess we are always in the process of discovering.

Van Dyke Parks talking about god knows what

Video of Brian Wilson performing songs from Smile in his Bel Air home, 1966, with Van Dyke Parks narrating and commenting in the interstitials. “Surf’s Up,” he says, “Was the first song Brian and I wrote for the album Smile.”

V.D.P. has left an incredible legacy that’s as intriguing, confounding, and puzzling as Tom Waits’, in a lot of ways. How does one sum up who he is? I’ll try by mentioning the unpredictable, eclectic collection of artists he’s worked with over the years. Perhaps best known for his early collaborations with Brian Wilson (<– you should click that link!) he left an indelible impression on the sound of Los Angeles in the 1970s and beyond, working with artists as varied as Harry Nilsson, Ringo Starr, Ry Cooder, the New Zealand band The Chills, Joanna Newsom (he arranged the strings on her album “Ys”), Little Feat (whose terrific song “Sailing Shoes,” V.D.P. covers on Discover America, and was then later covered by Robert Palmer on his chill as fuck blue eyed soul album “Sneakin’ Sally Through The Alley,” named for a Lee Dorsey/Allen Toussaint track), and many others. Following V.D.P.’s credit trail leads to a number of wow’s, so I highly recommend keeping an eye out for his name. (He’s making a rare performing appearance this winter at the Allen Room at Lincoln Center.) Allen Toussaint has left a similar mark on rock, funk, soul, and jazz music, one that I’m only just beginning to really absorb. He even released the #2 album of 2009, according to the esteemed managing editor of Dusted Magazine. Both Toussaint and Parks probably have greater insights on the trajectory of American pop music than any other living musician, artist, or composer. We’re drinking beers and having burgers at my dream BBQ.

But anyway, this was just supposed to be a bunch of links to some YouTube videos, not an extratextual exegesis on one of the most poorly understood and under-rated rock albums of all time. And I’ve dragged it out for far too long already. And now the sad news. I can’t find a single track from “Discover America” on the internet to post here. Sorry!

Robert Palmer’s “Sailing Shoes”

Van Dyke Parks and Brian Wilson, 1966 likely, though date unknown

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