The Inimitable Legacy of Van Dyke Parks: A Life’s Journey Through Song

“The song form is a great central theme in a life well lived.” – Van Dyke Parks

Van Dyke Parks occupies a very distinct corner of the 20th century. His is a world of imagination, wonder, and the sublime. His stylistic interests pair a considerable appreciation for the music of the past with an almost complete disregard for current trends and marketing sensationalism. Not one for the spotlight, nor particularly driven as a solo performing artist, if you’ve never heard his name before, you’re not alone.

Yet his influence on contemporary song form, on recording technique and production experimentation, and on the lush instrumental arrangements of over 40 years of pop music cannot be understated.

Parks was born in 1943 in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. His father, Richard Parks, a doctor specializing in psychiatry and neuroscience, was the first to accept African-American patients in a white Southern hospital. Richard was also a part-time clarinetist, so early American Vaudeville and Tin Pan Alley music made a lasting impression on young Van Dyke.

He attended the American Boychoir school in Princeton, New Jersey, and paid his tuition as a child actor, appearing on screen with Grace Kelly in The Swan, as well as in recurring television roles on Bonino and The Honeymooners.

Parks studied music at the Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh, focusing on guitar and developing an interest in Mexican music. He quit studying guitar, however, after he felt that it had become too commonplace. Here we see two themes that would remain consistent throughout his life in music: an interest in and willingness to internalize foreign music and a disregard, even disdain, for what was popular at the time.

As a young man recently relocated to Los Angeles, Parks reacted negatively to Beatlemania. “I lived under a billboard that said, ‘The Beatles is coming,’ and I got the sense that it was a plague and that it was going to have cultural implication throughout the world… It’s almost like the vestigial functions, the appendixes of the musical life that I had just begun to have a scant association with were being excised from the body of music with the advent of folk music gone electric. So I started to learn piano.

Being able to see through the haircuts, the hype, the backbeats, and the chimey Vox amplifier sound took a certain type of courage. Parks didn’t want to let go of the beauty of the arrangement, the tonal palette at the disposal of the creator when music isn’t homogenized and neutered. It doesn’t take long scrolling through contemporary playlists to see that, despite the great music that’s been made, he was absolutely right to feel skeptical. Audiences are simply not aware of what they’re missing by neglecting the orchestral and harmonic capabilities of so much music that had come before 1965.

Despite his unfavorable opinions on anglo-pop music, Parks did become more interested in songwriting and landed a hit with his song “High Coin” when it was recorded by San Francisco beat group the Charlatans.

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The Charlatans – “High Coin” (from The Charlatans)

He signed an artist deal with MGM and began working consistently as a songwriter, producer, and arranger. It was during this time that Parks befriended longtime collaborators Harry Nilsson, Randy Newman, and Brian Wilson. Parks was offered positions as a member of the Byrds and Crosby, Stills, and Nash, both of which he declined. He was briefly a member of Frank Zappa’s group the Mothers of Invention but left after a short while.

Parks eventually landed his first arranging job for “The Bare Necessities from Disney’s The Jungle Book. By this point, Parks considered himself a veteran who had grown increasingly frustrated with the trends in rock music, so he pitched his brother Carson’s song “Somethin’ Stupid” to Frank Sinatra. It would become Sinatra’s first multimillion-selling record.

+ Read more on Flypaper“The Statistical Analysis of the 70 Most Popular Disney Songs You’ve Always Wanted”

Terry Gilkyson – “The Bare Necessities” (from Disney’s The Jungle Book)

And, in 1965, he was introduced to Brian Wilson.

Van Dyke Parks would become Brian Wilson’s muse, although due to Wilson’s increasingly deteriorating mental state, the fruits of that labor wouldn’t reach audiences for decades. Parks was invited to Wilson’s home to hear a preview of the Beach Boys’ forthcoming single “Sloop John B.” He was fond of Pet Sounds and thought that it might have a shot at pushing back against the army of British Invaders that had infiltrated the American rock scene.

Randy Newman – “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today” (from Randy Newman)

After Pet Sounds was released, Parks was recruited to write lyrics and arrange music for Wilson’s next project, to be titled Smile. In 1967, however, Parks retreated from the project. In an interview with The Guardian, Parks said, “It just got too much for me. It was an expensive decision for me not to continue my association with the most powerful artist in the music business at the time, but I made the only decision I could. I walked away from that funhouse.”

The Beach Boys – “Heroes and Villains” (from The Smile Sessions)

Listen for the dense orchestration, the classic American vibe, the classical elements, and the lack of backbeat.

In the aftermath of the Smile period, Parks would go on to release his first solo album, Song Cycle. Song Cycle is a circus act of pop sensibility coated in nostalgia, a display of distinguished American modernism. In the age of freaks, beats, and weirdos, Song Cycle plays it straight. Parks is depicted on the cover dressed in a suit with a bemused look on his face, a pretty hefty yodel from the flower-power vibes of his contemporaries.

Van Dyke Parks – “The All Golden” (from Song Cycle)

Listen to the experimental elements of the track, from the intro with serious tape warble to the intense trumpet mutes, stacked dense brass, strings, and pitched percussion. This was pre-Sgt. Peppers, a time when most studios were only equipped with four-track tape recorders and sounds like these could only be created by someone with a take-no-prisoners imagination and relentless work ethic. Wild, unpredictable song structures are a definitive characteristic of this album.

Song Cycle was also one of the most expensive pop albums of the era. Parks spent over $35,000 on production alone, valued at $240,000 today.

+ Learn more on Soundfly: Explore the uniquely American vernacular of the blues and how it continues to shape many forms of music in our free course A Conversation with the Blues.

Parks was one of the first people to own a prototype of the Moog synthesizer and used it to record a few advertising jingles as well as contribute to some session work. Imagine hearing this song in a promo spot for a Datsun car commercial:

In the early 1970s, Parks was given his own division at Warner Bros. and created what would become the first audio-visual department at a record label. Parks had the foresight to use video as a promotional tool for musicians, although little of the work he did during this period has survived.

Check out this 1970 mini-documentary made for 23-year-old Ry Cooder, which demonstrates Cooder’s phenomenal playing ability as well as early music-video techniques such as lip syncing and staging. This was Parks’ first project as the Director of Audio Visual Services at Warner Bros.

In 1973, Parks was solicited by Japanese rock band Happy End to produce their third album. According to Parks, he was asked to give their music the “California Sound.” He initially refused because he was busy with his own sessions creating his second album, Discover America, which was heavily influenced by West Indian music, but eventually agreed after seeing a briefcase full of crisp, 100-dollar bills. The band claimed that Parks was often drunk during production and tried to lecture them about World War II and Pearl Harbor.

Happy End – “Sayonara America, Sayonara Nippon (さよならアメリカ さよならニッポン, ‘Goodbye America, Goodbye Japan’)” (from Happy End)

The band was discouraged by the “America” they found and had already said “sayonara” to Japan. Here they said “goodbye” to America as well. They broke up two months before the album was released. Not quite the happy end.

Parks remained active despite a several-year period battling substance abuse. He collaborated with Brian Wilson again for Orange Crate Art, released in 1995, and contributed arrangements to the music of Silverchair, Joanna Newsom, and Skrillex.

Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks – “Orange Crate Art” (from Orange Crate Art)

In 1990, he reprised his acting career in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks as attorney Jack Racine.

VDP as attorney Jack Racine in Twin Peaks.

In an interview with the Twin Peaks Archive, he gave this quote, a fitting end for a profile of a man with such eccentric history:

Twin Peaks Archive: Do you plan on writing an autobiography?

Van Dyke Parks: I’ve thought about it. Still, there’s something highly co-optive about it. Most autobiography by celebs in the music racket draw a pretty thin line between fact and fiction. Consider this possible entry:

“… So, I was at lunch one day with Berry Gordy, Jr. It was my treat.
I liked the guy. So I said to Berry,
Easier to pronounce… Good ad-speak.’
Barry turned to me, astonished. He said:
‘… Gee Van Dyke… That’s brilliant. Can I use it?’
I said ‘Sure, Berry, no prob. Be my guest’.”

The rest is history.

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