Van Dyke Parks

Little demand for genius

Producer and composer Van Dyke Parks and producer Lenny Waronker (left) work in the studio on April 17th, 1968 in Los Angeles, California. Credit: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

Los Angeles—When Van Dyke Parks' album Song Cycle was released, it was hailed as a major step forward in pop history. In terms of sales it was a bomb, and this, strangely, is what the creator is worrying about. The album cost $40,000 to produce and to date under 10,000 copies have been sold—not enough to make expenses.

"It's depressing from my standpoint," Parks said the day I visited him in his green and brown house on the top of a mountain in Hollywood. "A totality of purpose was to sell records. That's the standard I have to have to look at this thing. I gotta be honest about it. My motivation was in large respect economic."

So Song Cycle was Van Dyke Parks' "commercial" release. It was, apparently, in his own unique and complex fashion, an attempt to produce something that would sell. It didn't, and although nearly a year has passed since its release, Parks still believes it will.

"I think the album can sell millions," he said. "I listened to it today. I don't listen to it often. Of course when the scenery changes, it enhances something. The scenery was changing and it really sounded great. I really loved it. I think the reason I'm committed to it is not only because I continue to be touched by it—and I know no more clumsily self-effacing person than myself—I think that it's just fucking great. And I think that the people who don't buy it just haven't come to their senses yet."

Van Dyke Parks is no egotist. He words, in print, betray his meaning and humility.

"It (the album) becomes vital through participation," he said. "It's not a possessed thing. I'm lookin' to continue with it. I haven't the best voice, but I think the whole situation is tolerable, entirely tolerable. In other words, I'm askin' for some support as far as the album is concerned."

It may be only just that Parks request support, for he has built a reputation in music for lending able support to others. He produced records for Harper's Bizarre and the Mojo Men. He appeared cloaked in the phrase "studio musician" on albums for the Byrds. His presence was noticeable as an arranger for Phil Ochs' last album, Letter from California. His lyric talent was a part of the Beach Boys' "Heroes and Villains" and "Vegetables."

At 25 years of age, he positions his slender frame in a wooden rocker like an old man, arms on armrests, head hung between hunched shoulder blades, eyes pointed at the rug, as a complex structure of prose comes slowly, almost painfully, tumbling from his lips. He speaks in ornate phrasing from the distant past, of a world in the distant future. He describes his home as a "post-war, middle-class construct" and when he talks of a friend with several college degrees, he says his friend has "an abundance of cultural baggage to wonder about." He is a man who deals in weighty concepts and in the words of Les Crane (on whose television show he appears periodically), he is "the only man I know who speaks in stream-of-consciousness."

So it is difficult to follow his talk. Yet, he does not fail to communicate.

Sitting in his furnished home, his wife Durrie at his side, he talks again of his album: "The record is the most fragile manifestation of a profound sociological phenomenon, an immediate relativity to the general. It's intended to be approached by anyone who can be approached by it. I wouldn't say that it's so artful a supplication as Bob Dylan's most artful resort, John Wesley Harding. Entered by necessity in the way of a super-production. What'd we have to sell? Were we selling my education? In other words, was this a selfish gesture? I wanted to represent as much as I could and in the full exercise of my talents. I can say that I did my best.

"I made the album out of words that represent my most contemporary feelings and that recognize as much as I can my own spiritual extents. More than that, more than have any pre-requisites in the way of reaction, or even expecting to elicit any reaction. I wanted to design the album for continued and responsive participation. I think that I did that well in ways of organizing sound. I have seen no one that I know more susceptible to the extents of the experience of folk. I'd like to go to all the provinces..."

He pauses between phrases and bits of imagery, and the waves of verbalized thought project a patchwork picture of search on a screen. He is a verbal cul de sac, a street that runs cross-town, suddenly disappearing and then reappearing two blocks on, a little confusing, but somehow pointed and continuous.

There is also a continuity in pop music history to be considered. It has been noted that the concept of the pop idol is changing, that the audience that moved rock and roll from the dance floor to the concert stage is now seeking idols less physical and more mental. So whereas Parks' horned-rim glasses, scholarly vocabulary and fragile intensity made the old style stardom he sought impossible, perhaps now the times are changing so he may find mass acceptance after all. Parks remains concerned with acceptance and rejection, but no longer is he in a time when, as he once said, "I wanted to be a rock and roll star like David Crosby and Jim McGuinn of the Byrds."

This desire for stardom came to him when he was behind the scenes as a producer and writer, although he had acquired some public recognition in the years before that. He had appeared in nearly 100 network television shows such as "Studio One" and "Alcoa Theater" and was a featured member of a folk group called the Greenwood County Singers. (He had also been a popular clarinet player at Polish weddings while studying classical piano and composition at Carnegie Technical Institute.) It seems logical, then, that such a variant background would keep his mind open to all developments in the performing arts; he does.

He talked about the Moog synthesizers and computers and the public's reluctance to accept machines which he feels, could assist the cause of music enormously: "It (the synthesizer) is so obviously derivative from the Hammond organ it's almost laughable. But it's like the early days of aluminum, and being able to connect. My grandfather told his family it was poisonous, that it poisoned foods, so that's why they didn't connect with it, and I think more people should. The machine can be a fantastic thing."

When Song Cycle was splashed onto the marketplace — with more than Warner Brothers' usual amount of heraldry—it became hipper than thou and guru-of-your-choice; it rivaled macrobiotic foods and meditation in the race for top position in the clique-y conversation of the Los Angeles pop music world.

The album was noted for its complexities. Some of the classics were there—Debussy, Beethoven, Mahler and Ives—standing in the strings of his stage. Which is not to say Parks was a plagiarist. He used the styles of the past sparingly, presenting a cycle of sound that was totally contemporary. He was writing about California and America, as seen by Van Dyke Parks. Songs were called "Widows' Walk" and "Palm Desert" and "Laurel Canyon Boulevard." The approach was orchestral, symphonic at times—the lyrics dotted with fresh use of the cliche and the pun. In "Palm Desert" was the phrase "Palm Desert sages abound" and in "Laurel Canyon Boulevard" he said:

Tracks of the beaten in automobile pound
the nine to fivers round
a long line of drivers wind
to dine in the divers and dandy line.

"I think I'm as good a lyricist as there is," he said when we talked. "I really do. It may be that I should be more servile in my search for topics. Maybe I should be writing lyrics for some superior musicians, cause a lotta people don't like my notes. The lyrics were a stab at pace. The lyrics were intended to be disruptive."

Widows face the future.
Factories face the poor.
The fact remains
the peril strains
the mind a bit.

He ranks himself with the Beatles, something few others have nerve to do, although many are musically qualified. He says he and the Beatles are "at the same place," then delivers a slam that is no slam, but merely puts the Beatles in perspective, something else very few will do.

"There are a lot of things people don't realize about how the Beatles have hired their notes," he said, referring to the help they have had in producing their music. "It's quite true that these are talented people, with whom I've gone to many an altar and many a test. I think the boys are vulgar in many respects and irreverent, which is no skimmed milk to me. But they could do well by guiding their developments in different ways with common folks and the industry at large.

"You know, the boys just signed the Apple agreement. It talks about sweatshirts in those contracts. It talks about hats."

He pauses. "I think I have a lot of hostility toward the Beatles and I think I've spent too much time justifying them."

Perhaps Van Dyke Parks is bitter. Perhaps, too, it is disappointment that drives him to say some of the things he does. He is intense and he seldom smiles when he talks of his concepts. But he has not lost his sense of humor. He talked of his album again: "This album deserves to be an alternative. That means that it needs to be designed into a collection in a living room. And if that's not so, I'm gonna start to get hurt. I'm gonna think people think that I have an ugly voice."

And talking about tentative plans to travel the country, he said, "I've been in a lot of airports. My hair's too long for an airport."

Ego does not permit a man to laugh at himself.

His words come out in gracious shots from the South where he was born. He is an Alabama boy and there is much of the Confederacy in his blood; revolution should be attractive, he said, but so should reverence, grace and simplicity.

At the moment there is all the complexity of simplicity in his life. He and his wife and their dog Winston spend most of their time in their mountain-top aerie with its garden and wraparound view, for there seems to be little demand for this genius today. He co-produced an album for Randy Newman, but has withdrawn from any future alliance because "I know Randy is going to be successful now in many vast and important ways and it's just natural that I should withdraw from participation with him." There was talk of his producing Three Dog Night, a new band on the Dunhill label; this didn't work out. And there are no immediate plans for him to record any more of his own work.

So now he is considering other fields. He wants to make a film, to travel America and record what he sees. (In part, this dream is motivated by a desire to show graphically what he was trying to show aurally in his album—and thus, he said, boost sales.) He expresses a deep concern for the blacks and the have-nots. There is the chance of his becoming involved in a Broadway musical. He is an ardent conservationist, plagued by the sights he sees from his garden: bulldozers leveling trees and mountaintops. When last he appeared on the Les Crane Show he appeared with computer programmers, to "sit and to listen and to learn." He talks of "chemical ecstacy" and "things attached to impulses" and "post-mod God on Main Street thought."

"I want to demonstrate my liberation," he said. "I think it's important to aspire, and not to hide."