ABOUT THIS ITEM
If you need an entry point to Van Dyke Parks’ extraordinary solo albums, you only need to know his life story. A musical prodigy and child actor, a session musician, composer, soundtrack writer, arranger, lyricist, and singer, he’s been a significant contributor to several decades' worth of classics, including a handful of unassailable masterpieces. His own music is as cinematic as it is from the heart, a fantastical, even phantasmagorical trawl through a uniquely eclectic and daring landscape.
The American, now 69 years old, perhaps best known for penning the lyrics to The Beach Boys’ legendary masterpiece ‘Smile’. More recently, his arrangements helped turn Joanna Newsom’s second album ‘Ys’ into an epic. But the true riches of Van Dyke Park’s legacy remain his first three solo albums: Song Cycle (1968), Discover America (1972) and Clang Of The Yankee Reaper (1975). This trio of acclaimed records defined Americana decades before the term was invented. An expansive Americana that didn’t merely tap the post-war roots in folk and country music that we expect from the genre, but an all-embracing vision that included ragtime, vaudeville, jazz, bluegrass, psychedelia, classical and calypso, unified by a singer-songwriter spirit as much in line with Randy Newman and Harry Nilsson as Park’s collaborator Brian Wilson.
Born in 1943 in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, Parks first learnt clarinet while his brothers played trumpet, French horn and Euphonium. Aged nine, he boarded at New Jersey’s Columbus Boychoir School, but he also acted as a way to pay his tuition, amassing over 80 TV appearances and select theatre and film roles, acting opposite Hollywood royalty such as Lillian Gish, Grace Kelly and Alec Guinness. In 1962, seeking a hiatus from studying composition at Carnegie Tech, Van toured California’s coffee houses with his brother Carson before winning his first arranging job, none other than the legendary "The Bare Necessities" for Disney's Jungle Book movie.
Park’s first recording contract was with MGM but after playing on The Byrds and Judy Collins albums and arranging for Tim Buckley, he signed to Warner Bros in 1966 while also writing with Brian Wilson, who’d put word out for a more adventurous lyricist than Pet Sounds collaborator Pete Asher. Under pressure from his band (Mike Love accused Parks’ lyrics of “acid alliteration”) and his own drug problems, Wilson was forced to shelve the hugely ambitious and ground-breaking Smile, but Parks picked up the baton and embarked on a song cycle of his own.
Lyrically, Park claims the “free-relating lyrics” of Song Cycle were influenced by, among others, the Beat poets, James Joyce and Bob Dylan.” Musically, the stylistic variety was, “a natural product of my wide experience, at age 24, of many musical genres. I was just following my own understanding of what music could reflect.”
Song Cycle was less conventionally pop, in verse-chorus fashion, than Smile; the mood was something like a baroque psychedelic dream filtered through Disney and music hall, with what Parks calls a, “flamboyant and a more flaming individuality. You can't reach anything great without that kind of courage. I love the Liverpool taxi cab drivers' motto, "Boldly going forward because we can't find reverse." That's become my philosophy!”
1. Vine Street
3. Widow's Walk
4. Laurel Canyon Blvd
5. The All Golden
6. Van Dyke Parks
7. Public Domain
9. The Attic
10. Laurel Canyon Blvd
11. By The People
12. Pot Pourri