Music: The greatest collaborator

Van Dyke Parks has worked with Brian Wilson, Grace Kelly and Albert Einstein. Does that make him a genius or a hustler?
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Van Dyke Parks knows people who know. He always has. He has the CV of Woody Allen's Zelig, is in the corner of the picture as the flashbulb popped on some of the greatest, most peculiar and purely strange musical conjugations of the post-war years. Who was it singing "Silent Night" with Albert Einstein on violin, aged 8 on the father of nuclear physics' back porch, Christmas, 1952? It was Van Dyke. Who appeared as a child actor in Grace Kelly's last film, named Buffalo Springfield, played the blistering organ solo on The Byrds' "Eight Miles High"? Made a key contribution to the Beach Boys' most complete single, "Good Vibrations" and, notoriously, worked with Brian Wilson on the follow-up album Smile, till Wilson went insane, erasing tapes, retreating to a sandbox in his house? And who was waiting with an album's worth of songs about the California they'd both helped define, 30 years later, for the best record Wilson's appeared on since the Sixties? Take a bow, Mr Parks.

His solo records are, if anything, stranger, a purer clue to this pop music shadow - his debut, 1967's Song Cycle, especially. It begins in the middle of some Appalachian twang, is cut off by the singer's apology, and proceeds to dance and twist frenetically through forgotten arcadian byways of pre-rock'n'roll American music, a cul de sac shielded from the foment of the times, even as the compacted lyrics comment on them in ways that seem obscurely offensive. Parks views it now as "an unanswered question".

"Van Dyke Parks is a genius," Brian Wilson said then, much the line Parks - dismissed as an "LA music hustler" by Nick Kent - was taking in self- penned puffs: "Van Dyke Parks is real, valid, and 22!"; "Van Dyke Parks is where it's at!". His music isn't a genius's, though there's none quite like it. Like one-time Warner labelmate John Cale, he's a facilitator. He slips inside the music of others to pull out pearls.

If he's a genius at anything, it's as a raconteur. In London last week - where he'd touched down to add his lush orchestrations to Bryan Ferry and others as they covered Harry Smith's field recordings of American folk, climaxing Nick Cave's Meltdown - he rolls anecdotes and asides into tottering, rhythmic cathedrals of gossip and sly bragging, never drops one name where two will do. He's disappointingly undandified, short and white-haired, 56. Folk songs on his mind, it's in the countryside that he begins.

"I've spent a lot of my life in a place in the Smokey Mountains of North Carolina," he says, in a voice like a less effeminate Truman Capote. "I never had to turn to a Harry Smith collection to get a lesson in Appalachian folk music, because I was surrounded by it. Harry Smith wouldn't have dared to step into Waynesville, North Carolina with a microphone. They would've laughed him out of town. We had 86 clog teams in our county last year. I mean, 86! The teenagers aren't listening to rap, they don't care about that. They're dancing in formation."

A prodigious child musician, Parks abandoned the South, lasering in on Los Angeles in 1964, the year it displaced New York at the record industry's heart. He has a love of his adopted state that's lasted, caused wonderful, mythic confections like that last Wilson collaboration, Orange Crate Art, and equally mythic debunkings - he scored friend Jack Nicholson's dark Chinatown sequel, The Two Jakes. Among his less colourful acquaintances is the man whose cement built the freeways that have choked LA. Orange Crate Art was its obituary. He remembers all that's gone.

"I've been around LA," he confirms. "I first went there in 1955, stayed at the Chateau Marmont, I stayed next door to Eartha Kitt. She greeted me one day after calling me from the Mickey Mouse Club I was watching, went over to see her in a peignoir, standing next to her butterfly screen. Being in California then was an eye-opener, that is my first impression, and that picture is still with me like a thousand words. You don't miss something that you never had. But if you did have it once, there's a sense of regret."

Though Parks came to LA with the example of Bob Dylan ringing in his head, rock'n'roll is starkly absent from his solo career. He reacts angrily to the suggestion that he turned his back on it; enabling others in electric rock, he simply, controversially refused "to coopt the music of a race that was not my own". He still tore at the Sixties energy. Like many older than him then, he saw it as a decade filled with darkness, violent urges.

"They were a very painful time. I was working in the Sixties, I worked all the time. In 1968 I was involved in co-producing (the expression that we used) Arlo Guthrie, Ry Cooder, Randy Newman, Gordon Lightfoot, participating with Little Feat, making promotional films, in the first office in a record company to do so. It sounds braggadocios to say it, but there was a sense of urgency in my life, and of mortality."

Where from? "It was from my brother's death, the death of the Kennedys, and Martin Luther King. It was a very difficult time. A lot of people are defensive looking back, and embarrassed, embarrassment of course being the mildest form of fear. I choose not to indulge in it. I'm proud of what I did in the Sixties. I was turned upside-down."

The most upside-down moment of all may have been his time working with Brian Wilson on Smile, that doomed "teenage symphony to God". Wilson was surrounded with stoned hangers-on, imagined his music was conjuring flames in surrounding streets, relied on Parks, yet tried to rule him. Collaborations that survived Wilson's tape-wrecking collapse - "Heroes and Villains", "Wonderful" - are among the Beach Boys' best. Yet, all these years on, Parks simmers.

"I found that my working with Brian at that time was impossible," he says shortly. "I had a feeling I was redundant, so I fired myself. I didn't want to do it. It was his project, and I was not aware of what his vision was. I have no axe to grind, I have no wish to say anything more while people are still living.

"But it was too bad. Because what we had taken on could have been a wonderful thing. It's the most under-achieved event in pop music history."

Orange Crate Art frustrated, too, Wilson refusing to do more than sing. It at least allowed Parks to start healing their wounds. "I got a chance to register with him that I was grateful for what he had done for me, or to me, some 30 years prior. I saw Brian a little over a week ago. He came out in the yard to greet us. He flagged me in as if I were landing on an aircraft carrier. It was so sweet, and so funny, he took us in, sang us a beautiful song, that practically reduced me to tears. He's happy."

As for Parks, he works. An opera on the death of the American comic-book with Maus cartoonist Art Speigelman is in the offing. But it's the American pop song that awes him. He once called it "an epic opportunity. Every nation is known by its songs." What does he think America's songs say about it now? When he turns on the radio, what does he hear? "Well, I've stopped listening, to tell you the truth," he says, somewhat embarrassed. "Life is too short for that."

Van Dyke Parks' first three albums, `Song Cycle', `Discovering America' and `The Clang of the Yankee Reaper' have recently been reissued on Rykodisc