Van Dyke Parks' 50 year song cycle

Van Dyke Parks holding his companion, Jubal Early.
Van Dyke Parks holding his companion, Jubal Early.
Kevin Ferguson

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Maybe you haven't heard of composer and producer Van Dyke Parks, but have heard his work. During a career that spans nearly 50 years, Parks recorded with The Byrds and The Beach Boys in the '60s ... with U2 in the '80s ... and with harpist and singer-songwriter Joanna Newsom just a few years ago.

Van Dyke Parks spent his childhood acting. Van Dyke Parks spent his childhood acting. You can see him in "The Swan" with Grace Kelly, several live TV playhouse series, and "The Honeymooners." Parks studied music at the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh before heading out west to try his hand at pop music; he couldn't break into the business until 1963, when Parks' brother died.

"He was Vice Consul to Washington and died in his double agency," Parks said. "A compassionate writer from Pasadena as it turns out, his name was Gilkyson, Terry Gilkyson. He had written a song called 'The Bare Necessities' for Disney's Jungle Book. Well, Terry extended himself to us. Not only did he come to tell us our brother had died, but he gave me and my brother a job. My job was to arrange 'The Bare Necessities.'"

That was Parks' first real job in music. "I took it as a burning bush. It changed my life. It planted me firmly in California," said Parks. "Not only as a musician, to make music my honorable pursuit for the rest of my life. But it also gave me my first check. And it had Mickey Mouse waving a friendly suit. And it was so much fun to redeem that check."

Before long, Parks was an established session musician and producer. He worked with The Byrds, Paul Revere and the Raiders, and the Everly Brothers. But then in 1967, he met The Beach Boys' Brian Wilson. Together they wrote "Smile," one of the most important albums of the decade, even though the original recordings never saw a proper release. "Brian was a marked man, generationally. Brian was stuck back in the Eisenhower era, and it was time to move on. And he needed a lyricist and that was to be sure. And I was proposed and I got the job and I did it," said Parks.

But nobody could have anticipated the botched album's warm reception, not even Parks himself. "'Smile' at that time questioned the historical spin on America of the time," said Parks. "It was anti culture, but it was also anti-anti-culture. It was all those things. It was wobbling in its faith in America. But it did so with articulation. I knew Brian Wilson had created very complex music. And I knew that we were not looking at 'Help Me Rhonda' here."

After "Smile" was scrapped, Parks signed with Warner Brothers to produce his first solo album. "Song Cycle" was a homesick slice of old time Americana drenched in '60s studio experimentalism - and with a lavish budget to boot. "Song Cycle" sold poorly at first: Warner Brother famously claimed they'd proudly wasted $35,000 dollars on the record. But that was beside the point for Parks. "If you had asked me during the process if it was opaque, or obscurantism--was another nice word they used--I would argue, no! Highly personal, totally confessional, the entire thing was wrapped in grief, and yet yearning to breathe free. Say something simple, and be encouraging," said Parks.

Part of the reason the album didn't sell that popularly at the time, Parks says, was because "Song Cycle" combined such personal, dark themes with bright, almost cheery compositions. "We're still learning not to laugh at funerals," said Parks. "Especially those of people who are leaving us something. We are supposed to cry. But the arts demands something else, often. Sometimes they suggest uncertainty. And I wanted to create something that would maybe leave more questions than answers. I've always to cloak what is basically tragic with what is certainly beautiful, serene, or conformational. That if it sounds so pretty, if it's ugly, why does it look so damn beautiful?"

Today, "Song Cycle" is a critically claimed album that's just now getting the praise it deserves: earlier this year, music writer Richard Henderson authored a book devoted entirely to the album. "Song Cycle" is available for download -- but if you wait a little, Van Dyke Parks might set off on a concert tour through Southern California, like he did a year ago.