Van Dyke Parks plays Portland tonight. Immediately tweet the following peeps: 1) Beach Boys/Brian Wilson obsessives, 2) students of rock history and 3) anyone interested in the intersection of popular and classical music. Talk about a rare opportunity: Though Parks has made records since 1966, this is the Los Angeles composer/arranger/producer’s first concert tour—and it’s only four dates long. Even in L.A., Parks seldom performs in public.
Parks’ résumé reads like a survey of American entertainment in the second half of the 20th century: He was a child actor with a recurring role on The Honeymooners, a session musician for such ’60s legends as the Byrds and Tim Buckley, lyricist for legendary “lost” Beach Boys album Smile, and producer of Randy Newman’s and Ry Cooder’s first albums and Phil Ochs’ last one. Later, Parks headed Warner Bros. Records’ Audio-Visual Department, inventing the concept of “music television,” and composed scores for film and TV.
His dark-side-of-Disney arrangements have endeared him to modern musicians, from Joanna Newsom to Silverchair—and, notably, several artists whose parents Parks knew, such as Rufus Wainwright and Lowell George’s daughter, Inara. He’s accompanied on this mini-tour by Clare and the Reasons, a band led by folk-bluesman Geoff Muldaur’s daughter. Parks’ own albums include his debut, Song Cycle, a baroque-pop mad-scientist masterpiece replete with puns both verbal and musical; Discover America, beating worldbeat by a decade-plus in introducing Calypso rhythms and repertoire to American ears; and Jump!, which revived the Old South fables of B’rer Rabbit at the dawn of the P.C. era.
Following are excerpts from a conversation with the 67-year-old Parks, by phone from his L.A. home.
WW: What about Clare and the Reasons’ music inspired you to join them on tour?
Van Dyke Parks: I knew her father. I met him in 1964 when I lived in Cambridge, Mass. He was the most adroit of the white blues singers, with a viselike grip on the blues. I like Clare’s music because it’s outside the box.... I am 67, with a great deal of effort behind me in film and television scoring, and a lot of arranging. And basically, just staying in my cubbyhole, I have managed to put three kids through college, which I think is a wonderful thing for a musical racketeer. When she said, “How ‘bout it? Come out on the road!” I thought, well, why not? I didn’t have a reason to refuse.
Besides Clare, you’ve worked with other kids of your old cohort, like Inara George and Rufus Wainwright.
In both those cases, I can fairly say, there’s no resemblance in the focus of parent and child, which amazes me. My favorite blues singer was Howlin’ Wolf, as was Lowell George. I don’t think you’d hear a growl from Inara that’s close to the blues-centered obsession that was Lowell’s trademark. Rufus Wainwright is escapist in his work, highly entertaining, but hardly so fact-bound as Loudon.
Is it nature, nurture or nepotism that’s gotten them this far?
I think it’s absolutely the opposite of nepotism. I think these kids make it because they want desperately to escape the long shadow that fame brought their parents.
SEE IT: Van Dyke Parks plays Mississippi Studios on Wednesday, Feb. 10. 9 pm. $20 advance, $22 day of show. 21+.