Though he never sought the role – nor does he wear it comfortably – Van Dyke Parks is something of a cult figure in music. An idiosyncratic musical storyteller of all he surveys, remembers and imagines, Parks filters his ideas through a distinctly American sensibility, one that exists resolutely outside of the rock and pop music milieu. For his efforts he’s earned a reputation as a critical darling, but that hasn’t always reaped commercial dividends.
Decades into his career – and some 30 years after helping make Smile, the most famous album-that-never-was – Parks rekindled his working relationship with then-reclusive Brian Wilson to make Orange Crate Art. On the occasion of the album’s expanded reissue (June 19, 2020 on Omnivore Recordings), Parks takes a look back at that album and its creative context.
Starting with 1967’s Song Cycle, each of the composer-lyricist-musician’s albums would be built around a theme, concept or conceit. 1972’s Discover America and The Clang of the Yankee Reaper from 1976 explored his interest in Calypso music. Parks’s 1984 album, Jump! is a musical recasting of Joel Chandler Harris’s “Uncle Remus” tales. “My work is clearly more reactive than creative,” he says. He believes that each of his albums is reflective of the people, events and issues around him. By way of example, he says that “Since Song Cycle with its ‘banks of toxicity,’ each album has, to a greater degree, had a subtext of eco-consciousness.”
Parks sees himself as a chronicler of his unique observations and areas of interest. “To quote Phil Ochs, I try to write ‘all the news that’s fit to sing,’” Parks says. “In every collection of songs, I want to forge a lens that clearly offers a depth of field to the present tense, often with matters beyond our time.”
His work is nothing if not eclectic. Over the course of his musical career, Parks has applied his talents to the work of artists from Paul Revere and the Raiders to Skrillex, from the Mothers of Invention to Fleet Foxes, from Ringo Starr to U2. And his background in Hollywood – as a child actor he had a recurring role on The Honeymooners and appeared in films alongside Grace Kelly and Cary Grant – has given him insight that makes his work an ideal complement to moving visual images. He wrote music for the 1967 Walt Disney film Jungle Book, the Robin Williams vehicle Popeye and Sesame Street Presents: Follow that Bird.
Underscoring his well-tuned sense of humor, he successfully parodied his Smile-era work with “Black Sheep,” a song he wrote for the Walk Hard soundtrack. But it takes a lot to move him to discuss his older projects. “I don’t spend too much time reviewing my work,” he says. “My own harshest critic, I still take comfort in the fact that I’ve always done my level best.”
While he hasn’t released a new album under his own name since 2013, Parks remains busy and forward-looking. “I’m arranging a chamber group around Veronica Valerio, a solo harpist-poet-songwriter from Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula,” he says. “I am convinced it’s my best work yet.”
But despite Parks’s impressive body of work (“I’m looking for a better body right now,” quips the spry 77-year-old), he is best known for his work on Smile, the fabled Brian Wilson album that was left unfinished in the middle 1960s. For a host of reasons that could fill several books – arguably including but not limited to Wilson’s deteriorating mental state, drug use, lack of support from the Beach Boys and other factors – the project was abandoned, with reels and reels of tape left unheard by the wider public. The unfinished Smile nonetheless influenced the Beatles as they began work on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and the leaked bootleg tapes influenced future generations of musicians on a par with that of cult acts like the Velvet Underground and Big Star.
After their collaboration on the scuppered Smile album project in 1966, Van Dyke Parks and the Beach Boys’ Wilson largely fell out of touch. Following on from a busy period in which he worked behind the scenes, Parks launched a critically-acclaimed solo career with the release of his 1967 debut, Song Cycle. He continued as a recording artist (and occasional performer) through the following decade and beyond.
At the same time, Wilson entered a troubled period marked by withdrawal from music and then re-appearance under the control of psychoanalyst Eugene Landy. Save for a brief re-connection in 1972 when they collaborated on writing “Sail On Sailor” for the Beach Boys album Holland, Parks and Wilson led wholly separate lives. They wouldn’t get together again until more than 20 years later, but when they did, the creative product of that reunion was Orange Crate Art.
While his albums can sometimes seem grand in their ambitions and scope, Parks claims more modest goals. Noting the high cost of housing in his adopted home of Los Angeles County, he says that his career “more often than not has been simply to get musicians I know, love, or admire enough work to pay their rentals.” And in the case of his mid-’90s album Orange Crate Art, his motivation was in part about getting an old friend out of bed.
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