VAN DYKE PARKS: REASONS TO “SMILE”
By Paul Freeman
Genius often goes unrecognized in its own time. Well, the time has come to fully appreciate the musical genius that is Van Dyke Parks.
In addition to masterworks of his own, Parks has contributed to our musical lexicon by producing and arranging countless classic albums. He was Brian Wilson’s lyricist for the legendary “Smile.”
Parks played piano on “The Movies,” the brilliant debut orchestral pop album by Clare and The Reasons. He has consented to join the band for a mini-tour.
Muldaur’s father, singer-songwriter Geoff, is a longtime friend of Parks. “Bob Dylan didn’t want to be Woody Guthrie. He wanted to be Geoff Muldaur. Geoff was the Big Man On Campus... still is,” Parks told The Daily News.
“I was quite touched and honored that Clare asked me and that I’m able to associate with another generation of musicians and not feel sidelined. At risk of being considered old and in the way, I like to be put to use.”
Parks effortlessly tosses off insights, non sequiturs and self-deprecating witticisms. His conversation brims with delightful surprises, as does his music. Endlessly innovative and truly independent, he’s extraordinarily honest and outspoken.
He hesitates to qualify his work with Clare and the Reasons as collaboration. “To me, collaboration is a highfalutin word It may even have legal consequences, It certainly did in the age of Nazis. So you’ve got to be careful,” Parks chuckled. “Collaboration expresses a completely level playing field and completely equal co-responsibility.”
Any musician would be fortunate to have Parks involved with their creations. A musical prodigy, the Mississippi native played clarinet from age four. He took a detour into acting, appearing with Grace Kelly and Alec Guinness in “The Swan.” He played neighbor boy Tommy Manicotti in “The Honeymooners.”
“When I was a child, I acted so I could afford to go away to boarding school to study music. Music has always been my love.”
In 1963, at age 20, Parks came to California to play clubs as a duo with brother Carson. “We played world beat music - Mexican boleros, South American music, dressed-up parlor blues. It was a new game for me. It was un-serious music that I wanted to be serious about.”
Through producer Terry Melcher, Parks landed studio work, first with guitar, then keyboards. He played on hits by Paul Revere and the Raiders, The Byrds and Sonny & Cher. “It gave me a chance to be out of the limelight, but in the action.”
Parks earned a reputation as an imaginative arranger. “Sometimes that’s just as a beta male in an anonymous role, hoping that the music can be beautiful and that I will be part of that inventive process. You get to do a lot of interesting projects, but you’re not left holding the bag.”
Through Melcher, Parks connected with Brian Wilson. “Smile” was conceived in 1966 as a Beach Boys album. Wondrously ambitious, it combined Wilson’s magical melodies and Park’s fascinating journey through Americana. The work was so inventive that resistance formed, notably from Mike Love.
Other than the hit single “Heroes and Villains,” the songs largely remained on the shelf until Wilson and Parks completed the project as a Wilson solo album in 2004. Originally scorned as a fiasco, the album was later viewed as mythic and, finally, as a masterpiece.
“The public be damned,” Parks said. “I don’t think you can do anything constructive in life, certainly not in the arts, if you’re bootlicking and seeking adulation for your work. You have to proceed with only one tenet and that is to do the right thing. And I did the right thing. For that, I was punished for a long time.
“It made me feel like going back and rereading the book of Job. And I did. I’ve often wondered how people who work in the creative field have survived such public condemnation.”
Parks’ own great albums, such as the exquisitely eccentric “Song Cycle,” the Uncle Remus-themed “Jump” and the Trinidadian-flavored “Discover America,” ignored thoughts of commercial appeal.
“I don’t plan songs. They come to me. I would like to think that my work shakes up the status quo. I want it to entertain. But it should also agitate and maybe provide more questions than answers.”
When he produces other artists, Parks doesn’t ponder whether to capture their essence or to put his own imprint on the project
“Serving someone else, as well, is doing the best in self-service. I believe so mightily in the golden rule. You get what you give. I’m a man of very modest means. But the regard that any peers have for me, is ultimately satisfying. That’s my reward.”
Parks worked with such artists as Randy Newman, Ry Cooder, Bonnie Raitt, Bruce Springsteen and U2. Now he’s in demand with a new generation, including Joanna Newsom, Danger Mouse, Silverchair and Clare Muldaur.
“I’ve found a great life force. I’m nearing the swan song. But I’m not ready to sing one yet. I still feel that my best work is ahead of me. So every day I try to open my heart and put my shoulder to the wheel, in a musical way. At 67, I’m in the process of self-reinvention. I’m going out on the road to find the intimacy and companionship that a roomful of people can experience during the hazards of live performance. It’s something I’ve never done.
“I’ve never promoted anything that I’ve ever recorded. I’ve led a pretty private life in Los Angeles. There’s not too much celebrity messing things up. I’m grateful for that, because celebrity can be a dangerous thing. Yet, I love to travel. So my wife and I are now looking at a new chapter in my life, where I’ll be going out,. My motto is, ‘I’ve suffered like hell for my music. Now it’s your turn.’”
At www.bananastan.com, you can catch some vibrant Van Dyke videos, as well as info on his new series of 7-inch vinyl singles, graced with striking cover art. Of course, they’re also available in downloadable format.