Genius and patience in the music of Van Dyke Parks
Van Dyke Parks -- who'll be perfoming Fri/12 at Swedish American Hall  -- boasts an outstanding resume as an arranger, producer, lyricist, and studio musician for the likes of the Byrds, the Everly Brothers, Randy Newman, Tim Buckley, Phil Ochs, Rufus Wainwright, Frank Black, the Doobie Brothers, Sonny and Cher, Joanna Newsom, Ringo Starr, Saint Etienne ... the list goes on. Under the heading "additional experience," Parks could include actor: he was a minor child star, appearing in the Grace Kelly vehicle The Swan 1956), and in 1990, he showed up on David Lynch's Twin Peaks. He's also written film scores.
Considering this array of accomplishments, it's surprising that Parks is still primarily renowned as a musical whiz within niche circles. Perhaps this is a consequence of his intricate and somewhat inaccessible solo albums, commercial failures to roughly the same the degree that they are creative successes. Whatever the case, he has a keen awareness of his legacy. "I prefer not being celebrated because I think that it brings only dangerous results," he says, when the topic is broached during a recent phone interview. "It brings a self-importance. The best thing I can say is that I've created some works that I think have a shelf-life that is longer than a jar of yogurt."
Born in Mississippi, Parks gravitated toward music early in life. He was deemed a child prodigy, and his interests led him to Carnegie Tech (now Carnegie Mellon) in Pennsylvania. But California is his "adopted reality," the place where he's lived for more than 40 years. He began to fill up his now extensive resume as a studio musician, arranger and, songwriter in Los Angeles. In 1966, Brian Wilson commissioned him to write lyrics for the now-legendary SMiLE (Nonesuch). In 1968, at the age of 24, Parks released his first solo record, Song Cycle (Warner Bros.).
This year, Parks is finally adding "touring" to the "additional qualifications" section of his resume. For the first time, he's going on the road with his material, from Song Cycle to Orange Crate Art (Warner Bros.), which was released in 1995.
When I called Parks to interview him, one of the first things we touched on was the similarity between our names. For me, multiple names make for a confusing mouthful. VDP explained that he was named for his paternal grandmother's "beloved" cousin, who was killed over the English Channel by the Nazis the same week he was born. He also said he's never sobered up — I think this was a joke — because he can't take his name to AA meetings. Hearing this, I realized that the complications of having a two-part first name might be more inconvenient than a three-part last name. After VDP initiated questions about our names, he continued as an interviewer and asked me my musical tastes and my age, at which point we established that we have 43 years between us.
"My goal is just to try and create things that will stand the test of time, Parks said. "That's always been my goal. I have a great work ethic, and I put my heart into everything I do hoping it'll be my life-defining moment." At the moment, Parks is finishing a new album that he hopes to put out at the end of the summer. It's been more than 15 years since he has released any of his own material. "I believe my work is better than it's ever been," he asserts. "And in a town [L.A.] that celebrates and worships youth at the expense of any other consideration, I think I'm going to be able to prove that my best work is ahead of me — and that's what gets me up every day."
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