Born c. 1942 in Hattiesburg, MS; son of a psychiatrist and musician; married; children: two. Addresses: Record company--Warner Bros. Records Inc., 3300 Warner Blvd., Burbank, CA 91505.
"I have no control over my music," Van Dyke Parks proclaimed in a publicity interview for Warner Bros. in 1995. "I write what occurs to me." Parks's unconventional, eclectic approach as a composer has made him something of a curiosity in the pop world; despite his legendary status among insiders, he has never achieved commercial success on his own. Yet he has worked with some of the most esteemed artists in popular music, most notably Beach Boys leader Brian Wilson. In addition, he has established himself as a gifted film composer, arranger, multi-instrumentalist, and children's author. His own records have appeared once or twice a decade since the late 1960s; Option's Pat Grandjean noted that they "always seem to be the epitome of contemplation. Conceptual in nature, they're chock-full of elusive subtexts as well--getting to the bottom of all the themes they mine is nearly impossible, but it's also impossible not to get caught up in the thrill of the chase."
Parks was born in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, in the early 1940s and grew up largely in the Northeast; later, his clan moved to California. His father was an "avocational musician" and psychiatrist, according to Jay Cocks of Time. While still a child, Parks sang with New York's Metropolitan Opera and had a film role shortly thereafter opposite superstar Grace Kelly. During the 1960s in Los Angeles, he gravitated toward the baroque edge of pop music and found himself working as a session musician and arranger for such seminal artists as folk-rock pioneers the Byrds and singer-songwriter Randy Newman.
Other work for hire he undertook included scoring commercials; in a 1969 Billboard piece he referred to the "new opportunity" that advertising work presented, "an opportunity which should be proffered to more young people with contemporary thoughts." He also signed a recording deal with Warner Bros.--which among major labels was considered the most hospitable to adventuresome songwriters-- and in 1968 released his debut album, Song Cycle. Cocks described the recording as "a heavily layered and intricately rhymed portrait of Los Angeles that is like [postmodern novelist] Thomas Pynchon on vinyl."
Parks's reputation in pop circles, however, rests largely on a project he neither initiated nor was able to complete. Brian Wilson, already suffering from the effects of drugs and other kinds of stress, enlisted him to work on a Beach Boys album that was at first to be called Dumb Angel but later retitled Smile. Though Parks assisted Wilson in the creation of some of his most ambitious work--mostly as lyricist--the album was eventually shelved; a few completed tracks turned up on subsequent Beach Boys recordings, while others floated around for years on bootlegs. Smile acquired near-mythic status not only to Beach Boys completists but to all fans of sophisticated pop songwriting. "We didn't complete it, and I have not had a sense of fulfillment about it over the past 30 years," Parks told Billboard in 1995. "I've lived with only the negative aspects of it. Both Brian and I have lived with the discomfort of having conceived this failure together."
One element of Parks's sensibility that rendered his own work manifestly uncommercial was his fondness for pre-rock music. Perhaps the definitive exploration of such territory was his 1972 album Discover America, which drew heavily on Caribbean music. The album's alternately frenetic and lazy tropical moods sweep over everything from pop songs by Parks's Warner Bros. colleagues Little Feat to the patriotic standard "Stars and Stripes Forever," a steel-drum version of which closes the recording. Neither Discover America nor 1975's Clang of the Yankee Reaper did much to expand Parks's sales, but they enchanted listeners drawn to his expansive and singular musical approach. As Grandjean observed in Option: "To ears more accustomed to the current dominance of sound over substance in popular music, Parks' literacy makes him seem next to impenetrable."
The year 1984 saw the release of Jump, Parks's aural realization of stories by Joel Chandler Harris. Harris, a white author of the late nineteenth century whose whimsical tales of Uncle Remus and Brer Rabbit had by the 1980s been dismissed as racist antiques, offered precisely the high-spirited Americana to which Parks has frequently gravitated. "The work I do takes on a tremendously individual tone, nonclassifiable as it is, because of my interest in things of no great popular interest," he explained in Time. "This has meant commercial embarrassment to me." Yet despite its lack of mainstream appeal, the record was championed by many critics.
Parks continued to do arrangement and other work for hire, including a stint for rock superstars U2. "I got my 15-year-old daughter's attention for a minute when I did it, too," he quipped in Option. And friend Jack Nicholson, a renowned actor and director, enlisted Parks to score his film The Two Jakes--having given him the same task on an earlier film--and even cast him in a small role in the production. In between was a stint on the road with musician Ry Cooder, another longtime friend, and production and session work for Syd Straw, Victoria Williams, and other songwriters.
"That's all my life is--work," Parks noted in an interview with Rolling Stone's David Fricke. "Nirvana to me is having completed the appointed rounds." Of course, he still found time for his own infinitely complex solo work; in 1989 he released Tokyo Rose, a suite of songs about the troubled relationship between Japan and America. He told Option that his idiosyncratic output would be impossible without the support of Warner Bros. "I'm damned lucky," he declared, "to be able to go to the same corporate trough after 20 years."
Eventually, Parks reunited with Wilson for the highly anticipated Orange Crate Art, a sort of concept album about the mythic lure of California. "It's a California that might have existed in a time just within human memory," he elaborated in a Warner Bros. publicity release. Of the music he mused: "These melodies seem to have sprung up before 1954," before the cultural explosion of rock and roll. Parks wrote and arranged all the material and enlisted Wilson solely as vocalist. "There was a high amount of speculation and skepticism about whether or not we would complete this record," he related in Billboard. "There was only one believer, and that was [then Warner Bros. president] Lenny Waronker. His faith helped us get through the insult of skepticism."
Critics didn't all agree about the album's quality, but the very fact of Parks's reunion with Wilson provoked intense interest. Billboard praised its "ingenious vocal arrangements" and deemed it "a new American pop masterwork," while Rolling Stone considered it "a thing of odd but wondrous beauty." Musician, on the other hand, felt it "[lacked] the timeless resonance of the Smile songs" and suffered from overly slick production.
While Orange Crate Art stayed true to the commercial path of Parks's other albums, it was clear by the time of its release that he had achieved an elevated status in pop history. Ever self-deprecating, the versatile musician expressed his contentment to work in the field he loves best. "What matters to me is work, to try and fulfill my potential as a musician," he insisted in Rolling Stone. "If that is under the aegis of someone else's song, or as a lyricist, or as an executive producer, none of these things matter to me. What matters to me is to make music a constant part of my life. If a day goes by without music, it's a day of oblivion for me."
by Simon Glickman
Van Dyke Parks's Career
Recording artist, songwriter, composer, arranger, producer, session musician, c. 1960s--; sang with Metropolitan Opera, 1951; acted in film The Swan, 1955; appeared in Broadway production of Cold Wind in the Warm, 1957; collaborated with Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys on songs intended for Smile album, 1965; signed with Warner Bros. Records and released debut album, Song Cycle, 1968; produced recordings by Little Feat, Randy Newman, and others, c. 1970s; scored films Goin' South, 1980, and The Two Jakes, 1990, for director Jack Nicholson; acted in The Two Jakes; worked as arranger on recordings by U2, Syd Straw, Victoria Williams, Peter Case, Medicine, and others, c. 1980s and 1990s; Peter Ivers Lecturer on Film Scoring, Radcliffe University, 1990; reunited with Wilson for Orange Crate Art, 1995.
- Selective Works
- Song Cycle, Warner Bros., 1968.
- Discover America , Warner Bros.,1972.
- Clang of the Yankee Reaper, Warner Bros.,1975.
- Jump, Warner Bros.,1984.
- Tokyo Rose, Warner Bros.,1989.
- (With Brian Wilson) Orange Crate Art, Warner Bros.,1995.
- Also contributed to recordings by the Beach Boys, the Byrds, Little Feat, U2, Syd Straw, Victoria Williams, Peter Case, Medicine, and others.
- BAM, December 1, 1995, p. 36.
- Billboard, March 1, 1969; August 12, 1995, p. 1; October 28, 1995.
- Musician, February 1996, p. 92.
- Option, January 1990, p. 46.
- Pulse! November 1995, p. 46.
- Rolling Stone, September 6, 1990; December 28, 1995.
- Time, January 22, 1990.
- Additional information for this profile was taken from Warner Bros.
- publicity materials, 1995.