After 38 years, Van Dyke Parks has a reason to Smile | Music Feature | Indy Week
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After 38 years, Van Dyke Parks has a reason to Smile 

"Reconstructed" album gives lyricist a chance to look back

As an unapologetic Beach Boys fan for life, I scanned the May 18 press release from Nonesuch Records with a skeptical sigh. "Brian Wilson Readies All-New Recording of Legendary Smile," the headline screamed, citing the most famous unreleased recording in the history of rock 'n' roll. Waxed in the wake of the Beach Boys' acclaimed Pet Sounds (1966), Smile was intended to be a high-minded collaboration between Wilson, the band's boy genius, and lyricist Van Dyke Parks. Yet Smile never appeared on the marketplace in its entirety, scuttled by in-fighting among Beach Boys and the fragile nature of Wilson's mental make-up. Erased by a swirl of substance abuse and record company deadlines, Smile became the Great Lost Album.

In February, I'd heard about the premiere of Smile performed in London by Wilson and his enterprising big-band--and then recoiled upon reading the subsequent hype. "We knew we'd witnessed a miracle of sorts," trumpeted one excitable and untrustworthy Brit scribe.

"A miracle, my ass," I snorted, remembering the oceans of ill-advised ink spilled over four decades, clippings that compared Smile to Sgt. Pepper, Citizen Kane or--worse yet--the Titanic.

As it turns out, I shouldn't have fretted, because the refurbished Smile meets the hoopla head-on, bubbling up like the proverbial cork on Brian's ocean. By turns, the ambitious 47-minute, three-part suite segues with clock-like precision from cut to cut. Whimsy and ingenuity commingle. Childlike silliness gives way to adult melodrama, like a sonic smile turned upside down. Tracing a zig-zag of Parks' quips and puns, the cartoon Americana of Smile bounces from Plymouth Rock to the heartland and beyond, before concluding in Hawaii. A strange trip it is, and strangely accessible.

When Wilson's familiar doo-wop-meets-surf choir ascends like the arc of a perfect wave, the music sounds just like it was supposed to way back in 1966-67. But often, the unpretentious art-rock of Wilson-Parks belongs to no era whatsoever.

"Is the music timeless?" one asks. Well, only time will tell.

Other than Wilson himself, no one has more insight into the chaotic story behind Smile than Van Dyke Parks, a SoCal legend who emerged from the project's apparent failure 38 years ago to hammer out a fantastic career as an ace arranger-pianist to the stars. To this day, Parks is a peerless studio cat, an enlightened mercenary who fires up sessions by heavyweights like U2 as well as talented enigmatics like Victoria Williams and Rufus Wainwright. Unlike many of his contemporaries who emerged circa the Summer of Love, Parks remains unfailingly fresh. Recent recordings with the Thrills, guitar hero Bill Frisell and film director Robert Altman (The Company) speak to his unfailing relevance as a musician.

Meanwhile, Parks' own discography as a leader contains ear-catching pop of a decidedly different bent, a quirky signature influenced by Broadway sensibilities more than anything strictly rock 'n' roll. His debut, 1968's Song Cycle (Warner Bros.), has fueled nearly as much crit-acclaim as Smile, cursed by its unshakable description as, ahem, "an eccentric masterpiece." My fave Parks disc, however, is the precious Orange Crate Art (Warner Bros., 1996), which stars Brian Wilson as the singer of California-inspired vignettes penned by Parks, the composer-lyricist.

Inspired by the discovery of Smile's lost treasure, I interviewed Parks, who was typically articulate and urbane, at his Los Angeles abode on Oct. 5 via telephone.

The Independent: Are you surprised at the massive buzz that Smile is generating?

Van Dyke Parks: Please forgive what may sound like a cynical approach to marketing Smile, but there are two stories: the music and the man. Smile refers to many things that people can relate to, like the turbulent '60s. There's also a curiosity about a survivor of the '60s, this man in crisis, Brian, a Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin-like figure from another era. I think that's why this project is getting noise.

You've said many times before that it's difficult for you to go back and listen to your own recordings, much less something as weighty as the aborted Smile project. It had to be difficult to dig up these bones.

Getting used to Smile is an ongoing process for me. I know it is for Brian as well. But it's a great personal moment for him. It doesn't have anything to do with art or public acceptance. It has everything to do with Brian's courage.

Something that is not being mentioned in regards to the project is that Brian and I worked very hard on Smile the first time around. Very hard. We had a solid work ethic. I was working for a man that I thought had a certain sense of piety that some would not associate with that era. Brian was no hedonist, no sybarite. His feet were not on the joystick. We worked hard and the work, I think, shows.

Can you describe the music of Smile?

The music has a certain cartoon consciousness. It has a tragic-comic quality--like Roadrunner pushing Wile E. Coyote off a cliff-face. It's filled with small anecdotes all couched in an American musical slang. And that's what it is: small potatoes, a most personal aside.

Does Smile contain any hits? Nope, no hits, but I don't think it contains any real errors, either. What I do think is that the music should have been encouraged in its time. It wasn't. Now, of course, I'm relieved that it's out there.

The performance of "Heroes and Villains" on The Tonight Show (Sept. 28) was superb. I was struck by the juxtaposition of Brian, the reluctant star singing nervously, and this firecracker of a band that was simply riding the electricity of the moment. It was obvious how much the young players adored Brian. They would have followed him anywhere.

That's justice for you, you see. He exhorts the troops in a very kindly way. He doesn't govern most. He governs least. Therefore he governs best.

Here's the point: After all the years, he has the opportunity to travel with people who embrace his music honestly without any sense of rank display or sibling rivalry. Now Brian can hear his music played well by wonderful musicians--and that's the way it should be. Artists should be able to hear their own work without them being co-opted by some public editorial process.

Out here in Hollywood, we have what is called the director's cut. And Smile is Brian's edit. Justice delayed, but justice served.

Would you mind reliving the moment last year when Brian finally called you up and said: "Van Dyke, I can't quite make out some of your handwriting in this dusty notebook of Smile lyrics. Would you mind coming over and clarifying a few things?"

As I drove up the hill to this meeting with Brian [and bandmember Darius Sahanaja], of course I was afraid of what I might hear; some youthful folly, perhaps. Remember, when Smile was written, Brian was only 22 and I was 23.

I was apprehensive about it, naturally, because I hadn't listened to the music for 38 years. From time to time, people would come up to me with bootleg copies of Smile and adoringly ask me to sign them. Sometimes they would give me a copy. I always signed and accepted ungrudgingly, but I never brought myself to listen to the music again.

So you didn't prepare for the meeting by revisiting the music or lyrics?

Oh no, didn't do a damn thing. I haven't worked a day in my life and I'm not going to start for Brian Wilson (laughter).

Actually, we got back to work and did so for five days. We worked extemporaneously with a great fluency of communication and immediate reengagement of trust in what Brian called "a time for healing." I had no trouble at all just reengaging that little world we visited so long ago, our version of the American century.

Was that the original theme of Smile?

Yes, it was my conscious thought to write about the American experience--not fawningly, perhaps, but with a good deal of questioning. I wanted to come up with words that were essential to Brian's experience and his music. And you can hear his demonstrable talent to confirm what is good. You can hear it in his romance. You can hear it in his humor. He doesn't need a victim for any joke.

After all is said and done, Smile could be a shiny Honda Civic--or a bottom-of-the-line Buick with blackwall tires. I'm not sure exactly what the significance of Smile is. What I do know is that it's wonderful music.

Can you characterize the music of Brian Wilson as a composer?

I've always been interested in music that sounds like a collective performance, and Brian's music has that quality, a sense of community. He heard that sound in barbershop music and he made a living by composing music in that tradition, just standing there and singing distinct lines in madrigal-like fashion.

You can hear the magic in the voices of "Our Prayer," the opening to Smile. It's wonderful to hear all that craft take to the sky in perfect formation. A flamingo takes off--and pretty soon you see an entire pink cloud. That's what it's like to hear Brian's music.

By the way, I don't believe I contributed to Smile; I only reacted to the music of Brian Wilson. I never had so much fun being a beta male.

Pardon this, a question from a lifelong Beach Boys fan. Regardless of past personal differences, would it have been appropriate for the surviving Beach Boys (Mike Love, Al Jardine and Bruce Johnston) to participate on the new Smile sessions? The singing on the CD is lovely, but some of the flavor of the trademark Beach Boy vocal sound has been altered.

I hate to say it, but it's true: The guys are just not musical enough. What can I tell you? This is very difficult music. And this is not said with any derision. Smile contains music of great athleticism, and I'm so happy that Brian has found the right people to play it.

Had Smile been completed in 1967, how would it have differed from today's version?

(Pause) I don't think it would have differed much at all. There is a new lyric [in "Mrs. O'Leary's Cow"]: "Is it hot as hell in here or is it me? It really is a mystery." Otherwise, the rest of the presentation was the result of non-invasive surgery, really.

The new disc concludes with "Good Vibrations," Brian's illustrious "pocket symphony." Was it always originally conceived as part of Smile?

"Good Vibrations" represents the beginning of my relationship with Brian. I played piano on it--and only the notes I was told to play, by the way. Brian also asked me to write new words to replace Mike Love's lyric, but I wouldn't do it. I didn't want somebody else's job. It just put me in too difficult a position. So those are not my "excitations," but I still get excited every time I hear "Good Vibrations."

Other than the resurrection of Smile, what is your most recent musical thrill?

The music nearest and dearest to my heart is last week's work. I simply walked into a large recording session at Warner's biggest soundstage. The room was filled with 50 string players, arguably some of the best in the world.

First, I listened to music written by two other arrangers, and I thought it was incredible. Then it was my turn--and I did my work. I had written my arrangement so dutifully. I always put my shoulder to the wheel. Everything comes with effort. I'm not a natural musician. I sweat bullets. Then, at the end of the piece, the musicians put down their bows and applauded.

To think: at the age of 61, the future is still blessed and full of promise. I am a very fortunate man.

  • "Reconstructed" album gives lyricist a chance to look back

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