EVEN BEFORE WE have a chance to talk, Van Dyke Parks lets his suspicions be known. "You're most kind... so far!" reads an email he sends my way. During our interview, he warns in an aside, "I think the truth should be avoided at all costs—certainly in terms of publicity."
So for a while—via Parks' natural skepticism—I'm cast on the wrong side of rock history. It's the side that, in 1967, bullied Parks out of his first high-profile collaboration, as Brian Wilson's lyricist on Smile. It's also the side that used the low sales figures of Parks' solo debut, Song Cycle (1968), in a sardonic ad campaign detailing the money it lost Warner Bros. ($35,509.50). Maybe Parks suspects I'm one of those who feels he should be quarantined with the likes of Joanna Newsom (for whom he arranged 2006's Ys) in a harp-plucking, Wordsworth-quoting art-song colony off the shore of Alcatraz. Maybe I'm a philistine, a twat. Or worse: maybe I'm Mike Love.
Despite my best efforts, I never completely convince Parks of my support. But I can't hold it against him. To carve out a career like his takes a lot of certitude—right or wrong. This was the gist of the advice Parks, as a precocious child actor in New York, received from writer William Saroyan in the 1950s.
In college, Parks studied piano but dropped out to play clarinet for Art Linkletter. The gig didn't pan out. But the move to California fired Parks' imagination. By the mid-'60s, the expanse of his songwriting visions rivaled the Pacific Coast Highway. After cobbling together a respectable résumé as a session pianist, Parks struck up his collaboration with the Beach Boys' Brian Wilson, hot on the heels of Pet Sounds. The work that followed, the legendarily stalled Smile (begun in 1966 and finished in 2004), remains the definitive episode of Parks' career. Which is a shame, because Song Cycle is in some ways twice the achievement at half the scale.
With Song Cycle, Parks set out to make the Great American LP. What he came up with is far more difficult to describe and best summed up by writer Timothy White, who called it "the aural equivalent of Groucho Marx in Charles Ives' pajamas" in Musician magazine. Parks tried a different tack on his second album Discover America (1972), which consists primarily of public domain songs arranged in Afro-Caribbean styles. What could have resulted in a stodgy musicological exercise stands out today as Parks' other masterpiece. For the rest of the '70s, Parks was "entrenched in bureaucracy," holding down various positions at Warner Bros. He spent the '80s adapting his pair of children's books into an LP musical called Jump! The ambitious Tokyo Rose (1989) album rounded out the decade.
Brian Wilson returned to the collaborative fold with 1995's "paean to California," Orange Crate Art. The album arrived with the same fanfare as Wilson and Parks' '60s work but garnered less acclaim. The duo's reputation was restored with 2008's mix of standards and spoken-word, That Lucky Old Sun.
Yet, the tally of wins and losses doesn't shake Parks' convictions. "Anybody that wants to be fully creative must reserve the right to fail," Parks says. "Nothing can be achieved without such a hazardous course."