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Odd Man Out

Van Dyke Parks, the invisible legend of L.A. music, finally goes live

"This has been for the last 20 years or so," Parks said, "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.

"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 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.

Wilson was a genius with melody and production, and in Parks he found a kindred spirit -- another aberration, another eccentric lost soul out of time and out of place. Parks fit right in with Wilson for the same reasons he later connected with Randy Newman: All three men were oddball perfectionists who heard big sounds in their heads, would-be classicists working within a "rock" context even though they imagined themselves to be modern-day Cole Porters and Beethovens and Hoagy Carmichaels and George Gershwins. To paraphrase Brian Wilson (and once and current partner Tony Asher), they just weren't made for these times.

They loved how a complex arrangement could communicate simple emotions; they layered opulent and dense orchestrations over wordy and wonderful lyrics. Unlike the Byrds or Love or the Mothers of Invention or any other great California rock band 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, composers scoring films that only they saw.

"People wonder why the movie Emma is such a big hit," Parks was 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. Music does not have just reflective opportunity in selling popular records. That's not what it's about. What it's about is making it mean something, and to me, it is essential that I rededicate myself to every effort like this [Santa Monica concert].

"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, only the 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" three decades ago, but Parks did not write a note of that pop masterpiece; he only came in to play keyboards and marimba. The pair's true collaboration came on a record initially called Dumb Angel. That 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 box sets and other official releases, Capitol hints it will one day issue Smile in its entirety as a box 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 -- brilliantly subversive things such as "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. They are, as writer Barney Hoskyns has noted, "Pet Sounds on 20 tabs of acid."

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