Odd Man Out

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.

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky