Van Dyke Parks: Shifting Out of Park(s)

Iconic singer/songwriter/producer makes a rare performance appearance at MidPoint

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Van Dyke Parks is not a household name. His recorded catalog, revered by a cultish number of fans, has sold sparsely yet his influence is inescapably broad. Parks’ work as a producer/arranger and the amazing artists he’s worked with over the past four decades has cemented his iconic status. Randy Newman, Ry Cooder, Harry Nilsson, Loudon Wainwright III and, perhaps most famously, The Beach Boys are just the tip of the collaborative iceberg.

Parks was the producer/lyricist for Smile, the most famous and contentious Beach Boys album — so contentious that, while started in 1966, it wasn’t officially released until 2004.

But that was long ago. The occasion for conversing with one of the most esteemed producer/arrangers in Rock history has a contemporary urgency.

Parks is making a rare appearance as an artist at the MidPoint Music Festival, traveling with Clare and the Reasons, who serve as his opening act and backing band. The rarity of this event can only be described bluntly — Van Dyke Parks has never toured as an artist. Sporadic gigs near his California base, yes. Serving as a sideman on other artists’ tours, occasionally. A full blown Van Dyke Parks tour? Never.

“I’ve never promoted an album out on the road,” Parks says from his Pasadena home. “It wasn’t because I was too precious, it’s because I needed to make a living to get my kids through school. I came to the reasonable conclusion that, when applause evaporates, there really is nothing to show for a performance but the memory of it. And that, to me, is asking a lot for an artist, just to count memories. So I’ve always wanted to put my discipline into the studio procedure and that’s what has fascinated me.”

Clare and the Reasons is the reason for Parks’ decision to take his music out for the first time ever, specifically the Reasons’ Clare Manchon. Parks has known Manchon, the daughter of friend and Folk legend Geoff Muldaur, all her life and when she asked him to accompany her band for a series of dates, he could hardly decline.

“Clare asked me, out of the blue, to play a West Coast tour,” Parks says. “We did Seattle to L.A. and there was no bloodshed, no contusions or abrasions. In fact, there wasn’t an untoward word. When I started, I realized they were willing and eager to play with me, and I found myself working with some incredible musicians. They’re all superior to me. They’re musical geeks, they’re tweezerheads. They’re bona fide musicians who take a great deal of interest in musical challenges, and we really raise the dust when we play. And they’re so darn nice, Clare’s so beautiful and they have a sense of fantasm; they’re so far outside the box, they’re a great act for me to follow. They’re totally nuts. They make me look like the Rock of Gibraltar.”

Parks followed with several European dates, including headlining the Rothskilde Festival in Denmark this past spring, playing to a crowd of nearly 20,000 (“They did not come to see me, they came to see music and listen to what the festival directors hand out to them, but I felt safe in doing it,” Parks says), Spain's Primavera Festival and London’s Royal Festival Hall. Having celebrated his 67th birthday this year, Parks felt the time was finally right to present himself in a traditional touring sense.

“I had an epiphany,” he says. “If not now, when? Going on tour does a couple things, in my case. It allows me to promote material that has passed its expiration date. Some hasn’t; some seems like durable goods that’s a challenge to play. I work very hard to keep the athletic tone that I had as a youth on the piano, because I can bang the hell out of a piano. It’s an adversarial sport.”

Parks has had a colorful career to this point. A Mississippi native, Parks was a child actor in television and films who studied clarinet and piano as a teenager. At 20, he learned to play guitar, moved to Los Angeles and started a Folk duo with his older brother Carson; within two years he was an artist, arranger and session musician at Warner Brothers (including a stint as the head of the audio/visual department, the first in the industry to promote new music via videos). Parks met Brian Wilson through The Byrds' producer Terry Melcher and Wilson, intrigued by Parks’ musical range, hired him to write lyrics for Smile.

Parks maintained a sporadic recording career after his 1968 orchestral/psychedelic Pop debut, Song Cycle (“My daughter says I should have named it Song Psycho …”), culminating with Orange Crate Art, his 1995 collaboration with Wilson and his 1998 live album Moonlighting. And 2004 finally saw the release of Smile in the form that Brian Wilson originally intended.

“The United States is exalted as a place where individuals are allowed to be individuals but I don’t think that’s necessarily so in music,” Parks says. “I think I’ve had a hard time because my work is hard to classify. It’s been a high-risk area for me, music, because I don’t fit in any category. But I’m not complaining … I’d like to do it all again in half the time.”

Parks is clearly delighted to be on the road at this stage of his life and career, playing to longtime fans who are thrilled to see his first ever tour and new fans who know him only by reputation and his association with Clare and the Reasons. He is self-deprecating to a fault for a man with his résumé and he is sincerely tickled at the prospect of attracting a crowd.

“Playing (live) is a different discipline and it requires savvy, practice and careful thought, and I can take care of a lot of things with just hard work. The only thing I can’t really do is change my face,” Parks says wryly. “The die is cast. I tell my kids, ‘There may be snow on the roof but a fire rages within.’ And then they say, ‘Oh, Dad.’ ”

And for those who might wonder, Parks is indeed working on material for a new album, some of which he will present at MidPoint, blended with obscure classics from his undeservedly underground catalog.

“I deserve the right to play music that I have never played publicly, but I also feel an obligation to bring novelty to the event, so I’m doing that,” Parks says. “I’ve thought of things since 9/11, I’m with you, I’m living in the present. But I like to avoid it in my work. I don’t like to hit people in the head with a ball-peen hammer when I’m delivering the news.”

VAN DYKE PARKS plays the MidPoint Music Festival Thursday at Blue Wisp Jazz Club. The 8:30 p.m. bill includes Clare & the Reasons and Gaby Moreno. Get show and venue details here. Get all the MidPoint details here.
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