An Original Arrangement

Some musicians spend their lives touring, performing in everything from “bucket of blood” dive bars to legendary concert halls. If they are lucky, they survive the lifestyle and possibly get a chance to live the less arduous life of a session musician, singer-songwriter, arranger or even producer. Celebrated musical polymath Van Dyke Parks has worn all of the aforementioned hats and even sported a few weird crowns of his own design. Over the past four decades, Parks has worked with artists like Brian Wilson, Grace Kelly, Frank Zappa, Lowell George, Delaney Bramlett and Joanna Newsom. And while his peers are basking in the trophy glow of various lifetime achievement awards, Hall of Fame nods and boxed sets, the 69-year-old Parks is hitting the road. His upcoming appearance at The Florida Theatre with Billy Joe Shaver gives local music fans a rare chance to see this famed iconoclast. And it also gives Parks a homecoming of sorts.

“My father used to run that route,” Parks told Folio Weekly in a phone interview from his home in Los Angeles. “He went to North Florida frequently — Jacksonville, Tallahassee and so forth.” Parks’ father was a neurologist/psychiatrist and an ardent supporter of civil rights, aiding efforts to integrate the hospitals of the South. “He attended legal proceedings because they found it unforgivable for what he did,” says Parks. “But he followed his conscience and I have tried to follow suit.”

That journey has provided Parks with a career, resume and life story that’s one part William Faulkner and two parts Philip K. Dick. Born in Hattiesburg, Miss., Parks was raised in a musical family. When he was nine years old, he attended the prestigious Columbus Boychoir School in Princeton, N.J. One Christmas season, while caroling with some school friends, Parks serenaded another local resident, Albert Einstein. The Nobel Peace Prize winner and father of modern physics was so impressed by Parks and his cohorts singing that he fetched his violin and jammed along with the kids. “He played beautifully,” Parks recalls. “We went into their kitchen for an hour and they fed us cookies. They were wonderful people.”

A natural at both musical and theatrical endeavors, Parks became a child actor, and eventually appeared on 80 TV shows, most famously in a recurring role as Little Tommy Manacotti in “The Honeymooners.” During this time, Parks also worked under the great conductor Arturo Toscanini at Carnegie Hall. He even appeared in the 1955 film “The Swan” with Grace Kelly and Alec Guinness.

After a brief stint at Carnegie Tech to study composition, Parks was hanging around the L.A. folk scene, and began getting hired to compose and arrange music (most famously for the song “The Bare Necessities” for Disney’s 1963 classic movie, “The Jungle Book”). While Park’s peers were turning on and dropping out, he was tuning up and honing his musical skills.

“Buffalo Springfield and all of these other fringe-wearing bands didn’t even know how to mount a horse!” says Parks of the de rigueur grooviness of the day. “Growing up in the South I did know how – but I didn’t want to make a career out of it!”

Parks was soon pulled into the bizarre orbit of Brian Wilson, the chief Beach Boy who was also open-minded about the possibilities of pop. The pair were soon cloistered in Wilson’s home in a haze of hash smoke and amphetamine-fueled musical experimentation. Their fertile union produced such groundbreaking pop tunes as 1967’s LSD-barbershop quartet of “Heroes and Villains,” the transcendent “Cabinessence” and also fermented the doomed “Smile” sessions. Parks is perhaps best known for his work with Wilson and seems accepting of that label. “I’ve never seen someone carry their mental illness with such finesse,” Parks jokes, while adding that the Wilson-Parks 1995 reunion album “Orange Crate Art” is “one of the best things I’ve ever done.”

In the ‘70s and ‘80s, Parks had has antennae spread wide, producing the debut albums of both Ry Cooder and Randy Newman, while lending his mercurial skills to acts ranging from Tim Buckley and Harry Nilsson to The Byrds, Cher and Phil Ochs. “I didn’t want to be somebody” says Parks of the creative decisions that seemed almost hardwired to keep him out of the spotlight. “I ended up becoming what my son called a Totem of Obsolescence.”

Parks released a series of solo albums informed by influences as diverse as Calypso music (“In the 1962, I was friends with the first Calypso players to ever come to L.A. in Hermosa Beach”), orchestral music, the Great American Songbook and even electronic music. Parks’ 1967 solo album “Song Cycle” sold so poorly that Warner Brothers actually used its dismal sales figure as a de facto selling point. Yet while regular rock fans seemed deaf to Parks’ “American Gothic” style, like-minded musicians embraced his visionary defiance. “The greatest interest to me,“ says Parks “is the song form as a political weapon.” The last two decades he has honored his Impressionist agenda, working with fans-turned-collaborators ranging from Aussie grunge poppers Silverchair to Danger Mouse to freak-folk diva Joanna Newsom.

Parks is as unapologetic as he is blunt about the earthly consequences of his creative calling. “I am in economic peril to this day in trying to bring beauty into the world.”

Parks has a new label (bananastan.com) and has released six new vinyl 7” releases, each with original cover designs by legendary visual artist friends like Art Spiegelman and Ed Ruscha. As he approaches 70, he’s both optimistic and realistic about his future as a composer-turned-touring musician.

“Musicians are walking around in an imploded industry,” he says, “and touring is the only opportunity left for a real musician.”

About FOLIO

X
X