In spite of his ignorance

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).

"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.

The Parks-Wilson collaborations for Smile are some of the weirdest pieces of music ever put together--these brilliantly subversive things like "Vegetables" ("I'm gonna eat all my vegetables"), the Hoagy Carmichael-esque "Cabinessence," the wacky "Heroes and Villains," the oddly titled "Do You Like Worms," and the heartbreakingly magnificent "Wonderful." They're timeless pieces--the death of the Beach Boys as the voice of summer and the birth of Brian Wilson as the voice of bummer: "Pet Sounds on 20 tabs of acid," as Hoskins writes.

Wilson could not have done it without Parks, and as Orange Crate Art would prove 30 years later, theirs remains an imperfect yet infallible partnership built upon the frail ego of misunderstood genius. As Parks wrote and as Wilson sang on "Movies is Magic" from Orange Crate Art: "When you're living in your dreams/And you wake up/It's over."

"As I get older, I see that my music is to entertain," Parks says, shifting in place and looking at the floor as if to find an answer. "This is very hard to talk about. This is why I make music: It is basically to entertain. But you know there is something secret about it all beneath that jest, that veneer of...this...uh..." Parks' voice trails off as he searches for the right words.

"I would like the music to serve as a social force," he continues suddenly, hopping back on the train of thought. "I'm not sure if that means I want to tell people how to vote or whether they should smoke grass. I've never done that. And my embarrassment with Christianity is that there is a mission in it, and that's to convert someone who isn't a Christian, and I don't have those persuasions. I can't do that. But I do know that music could be a force for improving all experience, and that's what I want it to be.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky