By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
Van Dyke Parks does not talk. He speaks, pronounces, proclaims, mumbles and grumbles, chuckles and chortles. But he does not merely talk to waste his words; every syllable has meaning, every breath great implication, every silence great weight. Wearing a red-and-blue striped polo shirt and penny loafers (with pennies in them, lest he be thought an impractical man), Parks sits in a publicist's empty office in the Warner Bros. Records headquarters--the chalet in Burbank--drinking bottled water and shifting comfortably and uncomfortably on a couch.
Though his hair is cotton-white and he is a bit expanded above the belt, Parks looks much younger than his 53 years; when he signed his name in the Warner Bros. Records visitors log, he wrote under the heading "Firm"--which asks for your company's name--only the word "Very." His voice--the clear, charming voice of the transplanted Southerner who refuses to shake his natural accent--rings even in a whisper. It is often said that Parks loves to intonate and orate, that he can expound on any subject with the sagaciousness of a professor and the kindliness of an uncle, but today he pauses often to collect his thoughts before they tumble all over the floor.
The subject at hand is a rare live performance for him, one he is recording for posterity using a string section, a guitarist, a drummer, and a harpist. Parks will, of course, sit behind the piano and sing and dazzle with the sort of remarkable wit that makes you think he's either the smartest person alive or you're just the dumbest. He has been preparing the show for months, writing out every single note for every single musician, compiling what he refers to as his "music paper."
"I've got a sequence of songs I like very much," he says. "They have a relationship to one another that will be, I think, more fully understood after the program has taken place. I pretend like I know what I'm doing, but I have no idea. I think I've studied this material, I'm very hesitant about it. I have a proper degree of gratitude for putting this music paper together, which is going to help support me and my family.
"I am slouching toward this infinite thing--this wonderful, more definitive reality that music is. It's a wonderful thing. I'm having fun doing it with these strings. It means a lot. It's been my pleasure to hear songs that I wanted to find a way to exalt what seemed to be a common melody or something somebody else had forgotten or never listened to, a song that deserved to be framed for our times. And I have found songs to do that.
"There will be songs I've done on records and songs that haven't been done on a record at all and some instrumentals. I plan to do some work by Gottschalk, an American pianist of note from New Orleans. This morning I got the bright idea of inviting Dr. Jack Kervorkian to the audience because of the fright that I attach to the very idea of singing." He grins, then chuckles. "It's going to be one of the great evenings of musical moments in Los Angeles for some time." It's the defiant proclamation of the self-deprecating man who knows he's as good as it gets.
Parks' name and sound and halo are affixed to so many Los Angeles myths--from Brian Wilson and Smile to Randy Newman to Ry Cooder to the Byrds--yet he remains the odd man out, the guy whose rare and brilliant records (including 1968's Song Cycle, 1975's Clang of the Yankee Reaper, and 1984's Jump!) sold for squat and who preferred to work behind the scenes as a producer and arranger. (His brief Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll entry concludes: "Parks remains an enigmatic figure.") Maybe that's why he's so revered: You can't tarnish your legend when you're invisible.
From Song Cycle through last year's Orange Crate Art--his first album with Brian Wilson since working on the Beach Boys' aborted and infamous Smile in 1967--Parks carved out a career as a marvelously idiosyncratic singer and songwriter who longed for a horse-and-buggy past while standing still in traffic. Song Cycle was a perfect counterpart to Randy Newman's own recorded debut that year (Newman even wrote a song, "Vine St.," just for Song Cycle): Both albums were fables and warnings filled with beautiful Tin Pan Alley melodies and the acerbic words of men coming of age in the late '60s, when the petals were off the rose and all that was left was thorns. Songs like Parks' "Laurel Canyon Boulevard" and Newman's "The Beehive State" were nostalgic, bitter, optimistic in sound, and cynical in intent--like golden-age Hollywood soundtracks cast in cold steel.
Parks' records sold poorly (he made Newman, himself no superstar, look like the Beatles), but he never gave up: He experimented with Trinidadian steel drums on the wonderful Discover America in 1972, put a decade in between Clang of the Yankee Reaper and the Brer Rabbit-themed Jump!, and explored relations between America and Japan on Tokyo Rose in 1989. He refused to tour for years, preferring instead to raise his children and protect them from the mean streets of Los Angeles; he recorded every now and then for himself and for films (including Popeye and Wild Bill), arranged for dozens of musicians (from Victoria Williams to Sam Phillips to St. Etienne), and played out only rarely (including a delightful set in June 1986 at McCabe's).