Van Dyke Parks, who turns 70 today, is one of the very greatest songwriters alive today, as well as being a great arranger and producer. He’s best known for his work as a lyricist on the Beach Boys’ Smile, and a handful of other tracks for them (he also played accordion on Kokomo, a slightly less artistically satisfying role for him), and he’s also had a Zelig-like role in musical history. No matter what style of music you like, you’ve heard his work — he’s worked with everyone from Ringo Starr to Skrillex, by way of Disney cartoons (his first work as a musician was as arranger on The Bare Necessities on The Jungle Book), U2, Ry Cooder, Joanna Newsom, Silverchair, Randy Newman, Rufus Wainwright and The Barney Movie (though he asked for his name to be taken off that one).
But his best work has always been on his own albums, which he puts out every five to ten years and which are wonderful confections of distinctly American music, influenced equally by Charles Ives, George Gershwin, Louis Moreau Gottschalk, Little Feat, classic Calypsonians like The Mighty Sparrow and singer-songwriters like his friends and collaborators Randy Newman and Harry Nilsson. A Parks song or arrangement is distinctive from the very first note, and always a pleasure.
He’s also a true gentleman, too. I’ve had very occasional email correspondence with him. About once every five years I’ll send him an email asking him a question — the first one, when I was a teenager, was basically “your songs are dead good and stuff, how can I write dead good songs like what you write?” — and his replies are always far longer, politer and infinitely more generous than the questions deserved. I simply cannot speak highly enough of him from our brief contacts, even though he’s no more likely to remember them than I am to remember the name of the woman who served me in Starbucks last month.
That said, here’s some YouTube footage to celebrate the career of this remarkable man. First, here’s Heroes & Villains, the hit he co-wrote with Brian Wilson for the Beach Boys, as he rearranged it for the show I saw him do last year with the Britten Sinfonia
And here, from the documentary I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times he accompanies Brian Wilson on Parks’ song Orange Crate Art
And finally, here’s a full concert from 1992, with a full orchestra:
The word genius is so overused as to have become meaningless, but if it has a meaning, it must encompass this man.