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Odd Man Out

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

Van Dyke Parks does not talk. He speaks, pronounces, proclaims, mumbles and grumbles, chuckles and chortles. But he does not simply talk to waste his words; every syllable has meaning, every breath great implication, every silence great weight. Wearing a red-and-blue striped polo shirt and penny loafers (with pennies in them, lest he be thought an impractical man), Parks sat in a publicist's office in the Warner Bros. Records headquarters in Burbank, California, drinking bottled water and shifting comfortably and uncomfortably on a couch.

Although his hair was cotton-white and he was a bit expanded above the belt, Parks looked much younger than his 53 years; when he had signed his name in the Warner Bros. visitors log, he wrote under the heading "Firm" -- which asks for your company's name -- only the word "very." His voice -- the clear, charming voice of the transplanted Southerner who refuses to shake his natural accent -- rang even in a whisper. It is often said that Parks loves to intonate and orate, that he can expound on any subject with the sagacity of a professor and the kindliness of an uncle, but on this day he paused often to collect his thoughts before they tumbled all over the floor.

The subject was a show on the Santa Monica Pier last September. It was a true rarity; despite being a legendary figure in the Los Angeles music world, Van Dyke Parks has only occasionally played for a live audience. The event was recorded for posterity utilizing a string section, a guitarist, a drummer and a harpist. Parks, of course, sat behind the piano and sang and dazzled with the sort of remarkable wit that makes you think either he's the smartest person alive or you're just the dumbest. He had prepared the show for months -- assembling a collection of songs, writing out every single note for every single musician, compiling what he referred to as his "music paper." That paper will make it to disc sometime this summer, if all goes according to plan. Appropriately enough, the CD is tentatively titled Moonlighting, and features such tracks as "Orange Crate Art," "F.D.R. in Trinidad," "Chicken" and "Delta Queen Waltz."

They're curious songs from the repertoire of one of the more curious songsters in pop history. "I am slouching toward this infinite thing -- this wonderful, more definitive reality that music is," Parks said in way of describing what he attempted in Santa Monica. "It's a wonderful thing. I'm having fun doing it with these strings. It means a lot. It's been my pleasure to hear songs that I wanted to find a way to exalt what seemed to be a common melody or something somebody else had forgotten or never listened to, a song that deserved to be framed for our times. And I have found songs to do that. [These are] songs I've done on records and songs that haven't been done on a record at all and some instrumentals." Parks grinned, then chuckled. "It's ... one of the great evenings of musical moments in Los Angeles for some time," he said. It was the defiant proclamation of the self-deprecating man who knows he's as good as it gets.

Parks's name and sound and halo are affixed to many of L.A.'s musical landmarks -- from Brian Wilson and Smile to Randy Newman to Ry Cooder to the Byrds -- yet he remains the odd man out, the guy whose rare and brilliant records (including 1968's Song Cycle, 1975's Clang of the Yankee Reaper and 1984's Jump!) sold for squat and who preferred to work behind the scenes as a producer and arranger. His brief Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll entry concludes, "Parks remains an enigmatic figure." Maybe that's why he's so revered: You can't tarnish your legend when you're invisible.

From Song Cycle through 1995's Orange Crate Art -- his first album with Brian Wilson since he worked on the Beach Boys' aborted and infamous Smile in 1967 -- Parks carved out a career as a marvelously idiosyncratic singer and songwriter who longed for a horse-and-buggy past while standing still in traffic. Song Cycle was a perfect counterpart to Randy Newman's own debut that year: Both albums were fables and warnings filled with beautiful Tin Pan Alley melodies and the acerbic words of men coming of age in the late '60s, when the petals were off the rose and all that was left were thorns. Songs such as Parks's "Laurel Canyon Boulevard" and Newman's "The Beehive State" were nostalgic, bitter, optimistic in sound and cynical in intent -- like golden-age Hollywood soundtracks cast in cold steel.

Parks's records sold poorly (he made Newman, himself no superstar, look like the Beatles), but he never gave up: He experimented with Trinidadian steel drums on the wonderful Discover America in 1972, put a decade in between Clang of the Yankee Reaper and the Brer Rabbit-themed Jump!, explored relations between America and Japan on Tokyo Rose in 1989. He refused to tour for years, preferring instead to raise his children; he recorded every now and then for himself and for films and arranged for dozens of musicians from Victoria Williams to Sam Phillips to St. Etienne.

"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."

Wilson could not have done it without Parks, and as Orange Crate Art proved two years ago, theirs remains an imperfect yet infallible partnership built upon the frail ego of misunderstood genius. As Parks wrote and Wilson sang on Orange Crate Art's "Movies Is Magic": "When you're living in your dreams / And you wake up / It's over."

"As I get older, I see that my music is to entertain," Parks said at the Warner Bros. headquarters, shifting in place and looking at the floor as if to find an answer. "This is very hard to talk about. This is why I make music: It is basically to entertain. But you know, there is something secret about it all beneath that jest, that veneer of ... this ... uh ...." Parks's voice trailed off as he searched for the right words.

"I would like the music to serve as a social force," he continued suddenly, hopping back on his train of thought. "I'm not sure if that means I want to tell people how to vote or whether they should smoke grass. I've never done that. And my embarrassment with Christianity is that there is a mission in it, and that's to convert someone who isn't a Christian, and I don't have those persuasions. I can't do that. But I do know that music could be a force for improving all experience, and that's what I want it to be.

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