Van Dyke Parks: The musical hipster speaks (and hits the road)!

Trust in fate and sweet inspiration. . .

VAN DYKE PARKS HITS THE ROAD – By Peter Ames Carlin

The Oregonian – January 31, 2010

The pop music geek in your life knows all about Van Dyke Parks.

Chances are they’ll dig right into their (vinyl) music collection to spin a copy of Parks’ 1968 solo album, “Song Cycle,” while reciting chapter and verse of the VDP fable.

But first, listen: to the intricately arranged keyboards, guitars, synthesizers, horns and processed tapes; to the strains of bluegrass, psychedelia, ragtime, chamber music, jazz and art song. Then there’s Parks’ idiosyncratic lyrics and absurdist sense of humor. Notice how the song “Public Domain” is credited to Parks, while the next, “Van Dyke Parks” is copyrighted to the Public Domain. “Pot Pourri” ends the album in true Parksian style: Time is not the main thought from under the rain wrought from roots that brought us coots to hoot and haul us all back to the prime ordeal, he sings. Dust off Pearl Harbor time.

How does it even occur to a guy to write lyrics like that? Maybe it starts with having a life that seems perpetually on the verge of the surreal.

Parks started his career in the 1950s as a child actor featured in “The Honeymooners” before branching into movies with the “The Swan,” which starred Grace Kelly.

He also soloed with the American Boys’ Choir (then called the Columbus Boys’ Choir) in venues including Carnegie Hall and sang in the kitchen of Albert Einstein, during an impromptu recital that included the genius accompanying him on violin.

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 A classically trained pianist who turned himself into a multi-instrumentalist, Parks began his professional musical career in folk groups, then moved in the early ’60s to Los Angeles, where he played at recording sessions for the Byrds (although he refused their subsequent offer to join the group), Cher, Judy Collins and many more.

When Parks suggested adding a cello to the arrangement of the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations” in 1966, Brian Wilson invited him to co-write their next album. “Smile,” shelved by Wilson in 1967, spent nearly 40 years as rock’s most well-known unreleased album before being released as a Wilson solo album in 2004.

In the early 1970s Parks took an executive job at the Warner Bros. label, founding an “audiovisual” department through which he proposed making short films to promote a band’s latest single. It would take the idea a decade, and the invention of MTV, to take off.

Meanwhile, Parks produced a variety of solo albums in extremely varied styles (one featured a Caribbean steel drum band, another had classical Japanese instruments, another interpreted the Br’er Rabbit stories). He also produced and arranged music for artists including Little Feat, Bruce Springsteen, U2, Silverchair and Rufus Wainwright, and composed soundtrack music for films ranging from “The Jungle Book” to “The Two Jakes.” In the early ’90s Parks returned, briefly, to acting, playing a lawyer in David Lynch’s TV series, “Twin Peaks.”
 
The one thing Parks hardly ever does is perform live, which he’ll be doing on Wednesday, Feb. 10, at Mississippi Studios.

And what can anyone, hipster or average guy, expect to hear?

“It’s important to realize I don’t work blue,” Parks said the other day, as if he were a nightclub comic. More seriously, he promised to perform songs from each of his solo albums, some of them with accompaniment from the members of Clare and the Reasons, who will open the show.

“The problem with my music is that it’s generally thick with thought. It takes an athlete to play what I play, pianistically. I have images I want to be part of the musical quilt work, to provide some dream or escape, so people forget I have a lousy voice.”

Count on hearing at least one song from each of Parks’ solo albums, including “Orange Crate Art,” the mid-’90s reunion with Brian Wilson that at the time seemed like the closest anyone would ever get to hearing “Smile.”

What Parks won’t do, however, is play any of the songs he has written but hasn’t gotten around to recording.

Also don’t count on hearing any songs from “Smile.”

“I spent a lifetime of condemnation in the shadow of its incompletion,” Parks said.

He calls the finished album “adequate” but bemoans the absence of artist Frank Holmes’ original cover art (which inspired the songwriting process, Parks said). Other than calling him in to finish a few lyrics, Parks said, Wilson’s camp didn’t consult him on any decisions regarding the finished “Smile.”

Such indignities, along with the absence of his own entertainment-fueled fortune, are the payoff for spending his career following his own idiosyncratic path.

“I’ve decided to go out and flog a lifetime of unpromoted song,” he said. “I think they are durable goods. They still fascinate me and draw me into the world as an antidote to the present tense.”

Van Dyke Parks
When: Wednesday, Feb. 10; doors open at 8 p.m., show begins at 9.
Where: Mississippi Studios, 3939 N. Mississippi Ave.
Also appearing: Clare and the Reasons
Tickets: $20 in advance, $22 day of show; www.mississippistudios.com