In spite of his ignorance

Van Dyke Parks, the eternal odd man out, finally comes out to play

"I am 53 years old, and I've spent as much of my life as a parent as I could in town guarding my children," Parks says. "This has been for the last 20 years or so, and there's one thing I've never really done, and that's perform. I don't go out. I don't have the charisma, warmth, and charm down. I can't slouch over a piano like Hoagy Carmichael or Randy Newman and have it be entertainment. I might enjoy it, or someone might walk through the room while I'm enjoying it, but I wouldn't think that it's something more than that.

"So what I did recently was decide I want to go out on the road. You know, anytime you get an offer to do something, you have to think about it, OK? I do, because you can never tell who might be Elijah at an open door. Let that person into your life; that person might be a prophet. So I keep that in mind whenever I'm asked to do some work in music. But there's one thing I've never done, and that is pursue performance.

"I have a history of record production, and the records are always viewed as oddities and somehow jarring because of the amount of information in the music. It's almost like, 'Is this classical or what?' And I always get in trouble because of its mass and my acoustic ideas. I'd like to think of them as revelations, that's what I hope for. If I can reflect what I have seen and felt, I'd be a communicator of worth. So I try to do a lot to put my feelings into my arrangements."

Parks, who was born in Mississippi, came to Los Angeles as a kid to take up the life of the child star, and he became as much a part of the L.A. landscape as smog. Parks first met Brian Wilson in February 1966 at the infamous Benedict Canyon home of Byrds producer Terry Melcher--the Cielo Drive setting for the murders of Sharon Tate and Jay Sebring, among the handful of others killed at Charles Manson's command. The story goes that Wilson was looking for someone to help him write lyrics, an intellectual sort who could put into words the things Wilson only felt in his tortured heart and heard in his topsy-turvy head.

Brian was a genius with melody and production, and in Parks he found a kindred spirit--another sort of aberration among L.A.'s musical lot, another eccentric lost soul out of time and out of place. As Barney Hoskins reports in his wonderfully thorough new L.A. musical history, Waiting for the Sun, Wilson wanted Parks on his side in the good fight because Van Dyke's "intellectual passion and esoteric way with words seemed to mesh with the way I was feeling."

Parks fit right in with Wilson for the same reasons he would later connect with Randy Newman: All three men were these odd-ball perfectionists who heard big sounds in their heads, would-be classicists working within a "rock" context though they imagined themselves as modern-day Cole Porters and Beethovens and George Gershwins. To paraphrase Brian Wilson, they just weren't made for these times.

They loved how complex arrangements could communicate simple emotions, and they layered opulent and dense orchestrations over these wordy and wonderful lyrics. Unlike the Byrds or Love or even the Mothers of Invention or any other great L.A. rock bands of the late '60s, Wilson, Parks, and Newman were the perfect products of the Los Angeles music scene--"pop" songwriters who wrote soundtracks for the dazed imagination, scoring films only they saw.

"People wonder why the movie Emma is such a big hit," Parks is saying, trying to explain how he has approached music throughout his career. "People want to see what it was like when people felt an affection for one another, and it shows in the music and in the dances of the era...

"You know, in spite of my ignorance, I think what you hear in my work isn't so much optimism as it is that the work is primitive in a way. My work is primitive. I realize that. It's just a big deal to me that I read music, and so I sit at the easel, and because I do that, the only understanding of where these notes could go keeps me in the game. My work shows that there's a greater force working here, and that's my stupidity. I think it shows that what I'm trying to do is refresh an idiom with my ignorance and hope that there is wisdom in the fool. That's how I approach it."

Wilson and Parks began working together on "Good Vibrations" 30 years ago, but Parks did not write a note of the epic 3:32 pop masterpiece; he only came in to play keyboards and marimba. They began working together--drugs being their other partner--on a record initially called Dumb Angel that later became Smile, which ended up as the most sought-after bootleg of all time. Even now, after the record has leaked out in bits and pieces for 30 years on boxed sets and other official releases, Capitol hints it will one day issue Smile in its entirety as a boxed set--though the Pet Sounds box still languishes months after its completion.

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