Parks' manner of speaking has a similarity with the music he creates, nonchalantly integrating influences from far and wide. Explaining himself, he blends in metaphors and proverbs: "I'm a black ant on a watermelon." "It's like going from zero to hero." "There may be snow on the roof, but a fire rages within." When making music, he moves through and fuses musical genres from every direction, finding new points of entry and exit. In 32 minutes, Song Cycle spans almost every American musical genre, from bluegrass to jazz to show tunes. It's an idiosyncratic soundtrack of America's musical history.
Parks' solo work has the feel of a soundtrack, or even a Disney score, with its oddball yet familiar style of joining orchestration and instrumentation (i.e. strings with banjo and harmonica, or French horn with mandolin). The literate and witty lyrics — "Palm Desert" turns L.A. into Never-Never Land; "San Francisco" is a lovers' paradise "with a gate so golden" — conjure vivid imagery like a film projected onto the inside of one's skull.
Perhaps VDP is a culture-sponge. As he says about his musical tastes, "I like it all. I eat everything that's good." But his gift is more complex than a talent for simply absorbing sounds and spitting them out again. He has a tendency to find connections in unlikely places and among unusual things. One man's genius is another man's idiot, or however it goes. But Parks doesn't care what either of those guys think — he just wants to make songs.
"A song is the lightest piece of cultural goods," he says. "You don't need to pick it up in your hands. You can take it out in your head. It encourages you to do something, hopefully the right thing. It's why we shall overcome. It's what gives peace a chance. The song moves people to political or social action like nothing else because it has melody. And melody creates feelings, and the words, of course, address the thoughts. And no kidding, I want to keep writing and being surrounded with song forever. I want to bop till I drop."
As the saying goes, genius is patience.
VAN DYKE PARKS
Feb. 12, 6:30 p.m., $22/25
With Clare and the Reasons and Josh Mease
Swedish American Hall
2174 Market, SF