Van Dyke Parks: return of a musical maverick

He tried in vain to move the Beach Boys away from surf and bikinis. Today artists from Rufus Wainwright to the Scissor Sisters are queuing up to work with him

As the small, white-haired, bespectacled man in a sleeveless cardigan took his seat a few rows from the front of the stalls in London's Royal Festival Hall one night in 2004, several dozen people among the already packed house greeted him with a standing ovation. Those who did not recognise the seemingly insignificant figure were soon apprised of his identity and importance: this was Van Dyke Parks, the former wunderkind who, almost 40 years earlier, had supplied the lyrics to the work whose world premiere the audience was about to hear: Brian Wilson's SMiLE, the album designed for the Beach Boys at the height of the 60s but abandoned in despair and left to acquire the status of myth.

Reconstructed under the supervision of its authors and a small orchestra of acolytes, SMiLE turned out to be, if not quite the "teenage symphony to God" that Wilson had promised during the album's original gestation period, then a compellingly original symphonic portrait of America, studded with brilliant moments of pop fantasy. At the conclusion of the performance the lyricist stepped up to share another ovation with his old friend, relishing the belated acclaim for a work that had once been engulfed in acrimony.

As a child chorister and actor in the 1950s, Parks had sung under the batons of Toscanini and Beecham, performed Silent Night to the accompaniment of Albert Einstein's violin, and appeared in Grace Kelly's final movie. Yet his first substantial contribution to pop music was initially met with incomprehension and disdain when Mike Love, the lead singer of the Beach Boys, took angry exception to the wordy, allusive, double-punning lyrics being supplied by Parks to Wilson, the group's chief composer and resident genius.

While Love and the rest of the group had been on tour abroad in the middle of 1966, singing their songs about cars, girls, surfing and high school proms to an adoring public, Wilson – who had retired from the road – and Parks began their collaboration. The approach they took was very different from that enshrined in "Surfin' USA" or "I Get Around", and more ambitious even than the romantic tone poems of Pet Sounds, the Beach Boys' previous album. Now each individual song was a dazzling patchwork of movements featuring lyrics that resolutely avoided mention of beaches and bikinis.

Their endeavours were fuelled by a mutual enthusiasm for mind-altering drugs: speed, hash and LSD. During a conversation five years later Parks recounted how, on first arriving in California as a teenager, he had been falsely arrested on a charge of possessing marijuana. "I'd never heard of it at that time," he told me in 1971. "After that I took plenty of opportunities to find out what it was that I'd been arrested for. And I found out. I stayed in a stupor for some time." Not the sort of daze, however, that could dull the edge of a sharply inventive intellect.

"Hung velvet overtaken me / Dim chandelier awaken me / To a song dissolved in the dawn," Parks wrote for a song titled, with conscious irony, "Surf's Up". "The music hall a costly bow / The music all is lost for now / To a muted trumpeter swan." The vaulting melody seemed more appropriate to a cathedral mass than a rock gig. When Wilson sang it, alone at a piano, on a national TV show hosted by Leonard Bernstein, the great conductor called it a masterpiece.

Love didn't agree. On the group's return to Los Angeles, where they joined Wilson and Parks in the studio to add their voices to the new songs, profound differences of opinion emerged. Love had written the words to several of their earlier hits, including "Surfin' Safari" and "Good Vibrations"; resenting the switch to a direction he neither understood nor appreciated, he challenged Parks to "explain" a line from one of the new songs: "Over and over the crow cries uncover the cornfield."

"It was an American Gothic trip that Brian and I were on," Parks would recall 10 years later, in an interview for a Beach Boys documentary, but his reaction to the challenge suggested that he knew he was up against superior forces. "I said, 'I don't know what these lyrics are about. Throw 'em away.' So they did." Having spent months helping to construct such complex songs as "Heroes and Villains", "Cabin Essence", "Wonderful" and "Surf's Up", he walked off the project, which was soon abandoned by a dejected and increasingly reclusive Wilson.

By the time Parks took his seat in the Festival Hall to witness its re-emergence, he had long been accepted as a kind of benign enfant terrible of pop. In recent years he has composed for film and television, written books for children, and worked as an arranger with Rufus Wainwright, Saint Etienne, Scissor Sisters, Laurie Anderson, Inara George – the daughter of his late friend Lowell George, the leader of Little Feat – and Joanna Newsom, whose widely praised second album, Ys, he orchestrated.

Born in Mississippi in 1943, Parks spent part of his childhood in Louisiana before going as a boarder to Princeton's American Boychoir school – where Einstein, a neighbour, heard him sing and joined in – and thence to the Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh, where he studied music. Acting work in theatre and television as well as Hollywood paid for his tuition, but he had no real commitment to it. Music was his passion, with a scope ranging from classical composers such as Louis Moreau Gottschalk and Percy Grainger, who absorbed folk motifs into their work, through the theatre songs of Porter, Gershwin and Brecht and Weill and the pop songs of Hoagy Carmichael to the music of the Caribbean islands.

After completing his studies, he moved in 1963 to Los Angeles, where he was quickly absorbed into the burgeoning pop scene, its members impressed as much by his eloquence as by his command of several instruments. It was David Crosby of the Byrds who took him to the Benedict Canyon house of the record producer Terry Melcher, Doris Day's son, on the night in February 1966 that he first encountered Brian Wilson (three years later, Melcher's house would be the scene of the first Manson killings). Their rapport was quick to develop. Wilson, desperate to keep pace with the achievements of the Beatles, his greatest rivals, and knowing that in order to do so he had to move far beyond the subject matter that had defined the group's early appeal, discovered a partner who could provide words capable of matching and mirroring the accelerating ambition of his music.

Before and after the collaboration that defined the early part of his career, Parks worked as a freelance musician and producer. Despite the SMiLE debacle, he was welcomed into the coterie of bright young musicians gathering in the late 1960s at the Warner Brothers label, where an enlightened administration encouraged new and sometimes wilfully iconoclastic talent to express itself. He supervised the "sunshine pop" recordings of Harper's Bizarre, and co-produced the first albums by Randy Newman and Ry Cooder. He gave the vocal group Three Dog Night their name, and produced Little Feat's "Spanish Moon". And he launched his solo career in 1968 with an album titled Song Cycle, an extravagant showcase for what the author Barney Hoskyns describes in Waiting for the Sun, his history of the Los Angeles music scene, as his "vaudeville eccentricity and deranged Broadway schmaltz".

A highly wrought, fast-cutting, almost cartoonish mishmash of overlapping voices, strings, brass and tuned percussion, reflecting virtually the entire scope of Parks's musical interests, Song Cycle's dozen tracks made such elaborate use of the overdubbing techniques offered by the then-new eight-track recording machine that the effect was like being trapped in a hall of distorting mirrors. Had it been a film, it would have been directed by Busby Berkeley. But, as with all his projects, it had a serious point. "I wanted to capture the sense of California as a Garden of Eden and land of opportunity," Parks told Hoskyns. "It was a very big deal to me: what was this place? What has it become? What will it become? And what does it mean to be here?"

As it turned out, not many were interested in his conclusions. A lavish and hugely expensive project by the standards of the day, it was launched with a considerable fanfare by a record company that clearly believed it had a replacement masterwork for SMiLE on its hands. The word "genius" was employed in the advertisements. "I'd been promised mutual approval of all promotional material," Parks told me, "and it was in violation of that. I called my dad, who's a psychiatrist, and told him. He said, 'Son, a genius you ain't. It's gonna be a tough act to follow.'" Sure enough, critical raves in the New York Times and Rolling Stone were followed by complete indifference from a public showing no appetite for the album's sophisticated display of whimsical eccentricity.

Stan Cornyn, a former advertising copywriter who had become Warner Brothers' head of creative services, attempted to ride to the rescue of a musician he admired. ("It was nice to meet an artist with a vocabulary," Cornyn told Richard Henderson for his monograph on Song Cycle, published in 2010 in Continuum's 33 1/3 series.) His unorthodox approach involved taking out full-page ads in the music press, headlined: "How we lost $35, 509.50 on 'The Album of the Year' (Dammit)" and urging listeners to give it another listen. A week later, Cornyn tried again with a follow-up pitch: those who already possessed the album could send their copy back, plus a 1 cent coin, and two brand-new copies would be mailed to them by return, enabling them to spread the word by giving one disc to a friend.

That offer also fell on stony ground, as well as further displeasing Parks, but it did not deter the label from putting him in charge of their audio-visual department, helping to pioneer the use of video as a promotional tool, or from subsidising two further solo albums: Discover America (1972) and Clang of the Yankee Reaper (1976), both of which veered heavily towards the music of the Caribbean. Once again the sun-drenched surface of the music camouflaged a seriousness of intent. A much plainer and more clearly focused work than Song Cycle, Discover America featured the Esso Trinidad Steel Band, whose own album Parks produced, and attempted to tease out the geopolitical realities behind the calypso lilt.

Once again public response was minimal, but as the decades went by an interest in one of the maverick backroom boys of 60s pop gradually increased, leading to work with younger artists. It was given a further boost last year when the original SMiLE tapes were finally edited and released.

This month Parks's first three solo albums are being reissued to coincide with a London concert in which their creator, now aged 69, will survey his career with the assistance of the Britten Sinfonia and three guest singers: Robin Pecknold of Fleet Foxes, Daniel Rossen of Grizzly Bear and a regular collaborator in recent years, the Guatemalan singer Gaby Moreno. Meanwhile, the surviving original Beach Boys – including Brian Wilson and Mike Love – recently embarked on a 50th anniversary reunion world tour, scheduled to finish in London on 28 September. Early reports indicate that their repertoire is dominated by songs about beaches and bikinis.

• Song Cycle, Discover America and Clang of the Yankee Reaper are reissued by Bella Union on 18 June.

Contributor

Richard Williams

The GuardianTramp

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