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Van Dyke Parks Lights Up Songs From Inside

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Van Dyke Parks Lights Up Songs From Inside

Van Dyke Parks Lights Up Songs From Inside

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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The pianist, arranger and composer Van Dyke Parks is known best for his collaborations. The 70-year-old musician has worked with artists ranging from the Beach Boys and Bonnie Raitt to U2 and Skrillex. But every now and then, he steps aside to focus on his own material. This week, Van Dyke Parks released his latest solo album. It's called "Songs Cycled." Alex Cohen of member station KPCC visited Parks at his home, and brings us this profile.

ALEX COHEN, BYLINE: Van Dyke Parks moved to California to pursue a career in music in 1962. That was the same year The Rolling Stones formed and The Beatles had their first U.K. hit. Unlike many young people at the time, Parks was less than impressed by the looming British invasion.

VAN DYKE PARKS: There was such an antipathy toward all things American. And I thought it would be really squaresville to embrace this thing called America.

COHEN: So, Parks did just that with his music, bringing traditional Americana influences to modern pop music. You can hear it in his 1968 debut solo album, "Song Cycle."


PARKS: (Singing) (unintelligible) swinging on the (unintelligible) of sun. Am I secure? Self-righteous and sure why these things say that the people would stay to hear...

COHEN: Though the record was a critical success, it was a commercial failure. But Parks was never really looking for fame. He was more inspired by the protest music of the time. And perhaps more than anything, Parks was most interested in making music.

PARKS: I didn't see myself as an artist, I saw myself interested in the studio and wanting to learn what the studio was all about and how I could bring studio technique in the apogee of the analog recording happening on my watch.

COHEN: Apogee of the analog recording - that's a pretty classic turn of phrase for Van Dyke Parks. His language is peppered with assonance and alliteration. His sentences are closer to poetry than conversation. These attributes intrigued fellow musician Brian Wilson, who asked Parks to write lyrics for the Beach Boys album "Smile."

PARKS: I chased his musical syllables with words. And I was seeing Brian as a person who was looking for validation. And I found validation in his work and wanted the lyrics to reflect that.


THE BEACH BOYS: (Singing) The music hall a costly bow, the music all is lost for now to a muted trumpeter swan...

PARKS: I think they fit well with the work.


THE BEACH BOYS: (Singing) Carriage across the fog two-step to lamp lights cellar tune.

PARKS: Carriage across the fog and dance two-step to lamp lights cellar tune - the laughs come hard in "Auld Lang Syne." It's really good stuff.

COHEN: Not everyone in the Beach Boys thought so. Parks clashed with the band's Mike Love and eventually left the project. But he went on to work with plenty of other notable musicians.

RY COODER: I don't know the year anymore, but it was the in the '60s, when I first ran into Van Dyke on a session playing piano like I'd never seen it played.

COHEN: Grammy-winning guitarist and composer Ry Cooder.

COODER: And I thought, well, who's this fella? He makes the piano sound like a bunch of guitars. I'm not used to this. So, I look over and he's got his left and his right hand playing real close together on the keyboard, if you can picture that, like one hand with 10 fingers on it, you see - (makes sound) up and down, just lighting up the inside of the song.


PARKS: See, it's been so long since I've played all these pieces. I'm too busy making music to play, unfortunately.

COHEN: Parks sits at a Steinway Parlor Grand Piano tucked away in the corner of his living room. To his right, another musical memento sits on the mantle.

PARKS: I keep the baton of my great-grandfather. It must have played its way through a lot of Sousa and Strausses in a bandshell. The living room always had two nested pianos in it. This is one of them. Came into the family March 11, 1911.

COHEN: Parks studied music formally for years, paid for in part by a brief career as a child actor. In 1956, he landed a role in the film "The Swan," opposite Alec Guinness.


ALEX GUINNESS: (as Prince Albert) This boy's gonna be something in the world - probably an assassin.

PARKS: (as George) You could all get in, cousin Albert. It's a game the children play in the villages. The professor made it for us.

COHEN: Even though his acting career was short, Parks' relationship with Hollywood has continued. He has arranged and composed music for dozens of film and television projects - from the kid's series "Harold and the Purple Crayon" to Martin Scorsese's mafia film "The Departed." Over the course of a nearly five-decade career, Parks has managed to release an album under his own name roughly every five years.


INARA GEORGE: I think his music is beautiful and challenging all at once. And I think that's what's so amazing about it.

COHEN: Singer and songwriter Inara George is known for her solo work and as half of the duo The Bird and the Bee. She joins such bands as Fleet Foxes and Grizzly Bear from a younger generation of musicians that's collaborated with Parks.


GEORGE: (Singing) All the words sound so accidental, rise and fall like an old balloon. All my words...

COHEN: Parks arranged George's 2009 album, "An Invitation." She says he has an uncanny ability to hear a musician's influences and to draw beautiful orchestrations out of the simplest of tunes.

GEORGE: That's the thing he does in the arranging. It's not just the sound of it. If you listen to the music, you can hear him making comments about the lyrics.


GEORGE: (Singing) Lining up the little dust before they start to scatter off. (unintelligible) stories. Lining up the words they say before they try to explain.

COHEN: Parks recently took a break from his work with other musicians to put together his first album of new material since 1989.


COHEN: In true Van Dyke Parks fashion, the complex orchestrations of "Songs Cycled" sound cinematic. But unlike other projects, this album gave the musician the opportunity to speak his mind about issues, from the greed he sees on Wall Street to his concerns about Prestige oil tanker, which sank in 2002.


PARKS: (Singing) She broke up (unintelligible) a ridge of oil, just a ridge of oil from the soil (unintelligible) and she went (unintelligible) beneath the waves into her grave down in the gloom.

This article about eco-catastrophe was on page 18 of the L.A. Times. I thought there's something wrong with this picture.

COHEN: Parks realizes there may not be much of a market for music with this sort of political agenda these days. But he says the need for such songs may be even greater now than when he first started making albums in the 1960s.

PARKS: It's time to question authority like never before. And so I think that it's OK to have elements of anarchy in work. And I have that in my work. And sometimes it makes it dense with thought. I can't help it.

COHEN: That's just who Van Dyke Parks is. For NPR News, I'm Alex Cohen.


WERTHEIMER: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

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