Story by Erik Himmelsbach
Van Dyke Parks lives on the fringes of the city, up the hill in the northeasternmost nook of Pasadena. He's comfortable there; it's a geographic mirror of his own five-decade career as a culty wingman whose fingerprints are conspicuous on several gargantuan moments in pop history. He's been a recording artist, film scorer, producer, arranger and, most famously, muse to Brian Wilson during the doomed Smile project.
Now 68, he's asserting his own body of work through an avenue of the record racket that has mostly escaped him during his five-decade career: live performance. “Being in a room, working without a net, flying like a Wallenda, acrobatically, with this thing that fascinates me, the song form,” he says.
The urge struck him last year at the least likely of venues: Michigan's Grand Rapids Ladies Society Clubhouse, where he performed before an audience of 40. “That's outside the box. That is what's called discovering America. That's what I deserve. I know that.”
Soon after, he performed before tens of thousands more at Denmark's Roskilde Festival, where he encountered a booking agent who told him he should tour with new material.
Parks has released seven albums, from 1968's lushly psychedelic Song Cycle to 1995's love letter to Northern California, Orange Crate Art.
But rather than tackle the expense — and expanse — of a long-player this time around, he now works with a smaller canvas. “A single represents a novella,” he explains. “It's the short, short form in music, the through line. That's where I decided to put my faith.”
For the past months he's been putting out a series of six singles on his own Bananastan imprint, with sleeves designed by a disparate crew of artists, including Ed Ruscha, Klaus Voormann, Billy Edd Wheeler and Frank Holmes (who designed the cover for the unreleased Smile album). The idea came when Parks asked New York artist Art Spiegelman to design the logo for his label. Parks played Spiegelman “Wall Street,” his take on the events of 9/11; Spiegelman in turn showed the musician some artwork he'd created that was oddly simpatico, and, voilà, a concept was born.
“I sent a blanket letter to the artists, saying I have no money,” Parks says. “I said, I'm not a man of property and I would like you to … give me some sleeve art, to bless my work with your gift, which I admire. Not one red cent. Will you do it?”
No one turned Parks down. While Spiegelman's “Wall Street” cover mirrors the song's lyrics, Ruscha's contribution to the “Dreaming of Paris” single was a riff on a simple sketch he'd knocked off in 1963. The third release, out Oct. 18, is a heavenly orchestral take on “Amazing Grace” called “Amazing Graces,” which features cover art from the sculptor Charles Ray. Ray created two life-size sculptures of the musician. Ray told Parks that one was how he sees him; the other is how he sees himself.
For his part, Parks was an uneasy guinea pig. “I stood in a tube that was like a pharaonic claustrophobic experience. I wanted to press a button. Get me out of here. Twenty minutes. And I got scanned like I'd never been scanned in a hospital or an airport.”
Now an artist with new material to flog, Parks recently completed gigs opening for Fleet Foxes; he performs Nov. 5 at the Getty with Inara George, for whom he arranged and produced 2008 album An Invitation.
Even better, Parks says, is the possibility that his singles will be on view at the Whitney Museum's upcoming Biennial — not as part of an exhibit but as items for sale. “If I can't get into the Whitney through the front door,” he says, “I'm happy to go through the gift shop.”
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