The voice of America

A debt-paying album is not the oddest thing Van Dyke Parks has done. By Bill Scanlan Murphy
Click to follow
In the summer of 1966, Van Dyke Parks was living in a friend's garage, leaping the turnstile at a nearby gas station when nature called. His career was, as he now puts it, "seemingly preparing me for a lifetime in a fundamentally dissimilar endeavour". Then, at a party at producer Terry Melcher's house, he met Brian Wilson. The Beach Boy heard of Parks's poverty and gave him $5,000 - "the simple generosity of genius". After more than a year in the studio, Smile was abandoned - the Beach Boys loathed Parks's lyrics - but Parks has never forgotten Wilson's gift. Nearly 30 years on, Parks is sharing his new album, Orange Crate Art, with Brian Wilson, who has newly, if shakily, emerged from two decades of widely- chronicled torment. For Parks, the album is a debt of honour.

Van Dyke Parks is nobody's idea of a rock star. Now a dapper, uncompromisingly middle-aged man, he peers professorially through little round glasses and speaks in an unmistakable Mizz'ippi drawl that he never tried to lose. Deeply religious and almost painfully polite, he is definitively and spectacularly the Southern gentleman. But then he starts talking. It is the authentic, lexically free-falling voice of one of rock's few genuinely unique lyricists:

"It's time for confabulation - interspectorial cross-ferment of minds, I should avow. That's where the truth is."

Parks's music is like nobody else's. What started in the Sixties as proto-Zappa - slightly genteel Beefheart with echoes of Brian Wilson and the suffering ghosts of the classics - has metamorphosed over the years into a defiantly American musical amalgam of Burl and Charles Ives, liberally overlaid with steel bands and whorehouse piano, all at the service of lyrics that read like James Joyce on amphetamines (as Parks was by 1966). Not surprisingly, this rather unstable concoction has not always sold well.

When Smile collapsed, Parks nevertheless managed to parlay his association with Brian Wilson into a contact for an album of his own. The ultimate cult album, Song Cycle came out in November 1967. The ads declared: "You are about to become involved with Van Dyke Parks." It didn't happen; sales were not only low, but barely detectable. Lyrics like "Juxtaposed to B.B.D. and O. beyond San Fernando on hillside manors on the banks of toxicity" made little impact on the Monkees generation. Parks admits the album was more than a little opaque: "I still can't make heads or tails of it," he says. "But it didn't come from the psychedelic meat-market or the bom- di-bom of the Brill Building. I demand respect for it on that behalf and to that extent."

Warner Brothers couldn't give Song Cycle away: a free-copy promotion received barely 50 replies. Parks began producing other artists, launching the careers of Randy Newman, Phil Ochs and Ry Cooder.

One of his less successful ventures was the Andre De La Battiste Steelband. One night in August 1969, he took a tape of their just-completed album to what he thought was still Terry Melcher's house. The door was answered by actress Sharon Tate, who told him Melcher had moved, but invited him in. Fortunately, he had a date. Barely an hour later, the Manson family struck, and everyone in the house was dead. "Satan," he recalls, "reached out to where, by grace and favour, I was not."

Parks continued to plough his own eccentric furrow through the unforgiving rock landscape: Discover America, an all-too-Parksian epic of steelbands and fractured calypsos on such non-hip topics as Bing Crosby and Jack Palance, died the death in 1972. Clang Of The Yankee Reaper went the same way, weighted to the bottom with an outrageous rock arrangement of Pachelbel's Canon. Only it isn't - it's the Lutheran chorale Ein'Feste Burg. It took 20 years for anyone to spot the error - "audience attention sampling," as Parks now calls it.

Finding himself on what he now calls the ragged edge of poverty, Parks turned to writing film music to survive, several abstruse Disney telemovies paving the hard road to Hollywood. Jack Nicholson - "Mr Jack, and a damned fine man" - recruited him for Goin' South in 1978. Then another catastrophe - Popeye was going to be the film of 1980 - and so, as Parks himself ruefully observes, it was. But the discipline of composing for films made Parks simplify his music: the psychedelic Varese became the surrealist Percy Grainger.

The result was Jump!, his 1984 album. The uncompromisingly American subject matter (Brer Rabbit), the deep South locale ("the music drew me home - ah, home!") and the need for joyous melody drew the best from him: "The rabbit jumped from soul to symbol, and God let me testify: it sings".

The album didn't sell (of course) but a line had been crossed. In a completely new venture, Parks produced an exquisitely illustrated book of retellings of the Brer Rabbit stories "to cleanse, for my children and all, this American gem, this race won against race". He suddenly found himself on the best-seller list with a shelf groaning with awards.

Tokyo Rose, dealing with Pearl Harbour and the internment of Japanese Americans during the Second World War, went, as usual, straight to the remainder bins but, to everyone's astonishment, it roared to the top of the Japanese chart.

Probably the chief beneficiary of his prayers is Brian Wilson. Parks has been his dogged, loyal friend through all the horrors of Wilson's protracted mental implosion. In 1993, Parks started to plan a new album, originally to be called Voice of America.

"And what is Brian Wilson, if not the voice of America? I gladly awarded him the palm, if such it be, of being the voice of my America."

The album became Orange Crate Art. Especially in the Stephen Foster-like title song, Wilson's voice adds a startling dimension to Parks's deceptively simple, homely melodies: the Beach Boy harmonies, delivered in Wilson's now worn and fragile voice, add a genuinely upsetting layer of specifically American nostalgia to the music, reinforcing Parks's vision of a strangely sophisticated Grandma Moses America: "The lyrics convey a sense of America as protagonist. America is a feature of my work at a time when an American is a brave thing to be."

Parks talks like he writes; Wilson sings like he is. Brian Wilson's own music, perhaps more than any other, once represented the American dream. In Orange Crate Art, his present, frail state itself becomes part of Van Dyke Parks's musical evocation of the same dream - tottering, but still believable. Ever the enigma, just this side of the accessible, Parks sums it up: "A record should be the dream, the escape. It takes inspirings; it takes departures. That's what my music is to me - a troubadour's lament. The trifle of a grenadier."