Van Dyke Parks’ mantra these days is “My greatest victories are ahead of me, not behind.” And that’s saying something considering the musical track record the composer, arranger, producer and lyricist has amassed to this point.
Probably best known as Brian Wilson’s chief collaborator on the aborted “SMiLE” album, Parks’ resume also includes Randy Newman, the Byrds, Ringo Starr, Grace Kelly, Harry Nilsson, Loudon Wainwright III, Rufus Wainwright, Ry Cooder, Keith Moon, Silverchair and others — as well as another team-up with Wilson for 1995’s “Orange Crate Art.” “There’s great validation in the associations I’ve had,” Parks, who’s also scored several films, tells Billboard.com.
But more recently Parks has been concentrating on making music under his own name; since compiling some of his previous work on “Arrangements Vol. 1,” he’s been releasing a series of six 7-inch vinyl singles, each sporting specially created art by Billy Edd [cq] Wheeler, Klaus Voormann, Sally Parks and other artists. The final release, “Sassafrass” b/w “The All Golden,” came out in March, but Parks promises there’s more new music coming. He recently worked on a new song called “I’m History” — “Which, of course, I think is my best song,” he says — and Parks fully intends to keep his pen busy.
“The old songs, I think, are evocative, almost nostalgic,” Parks acknowledges. “But I think I have a winning formula here, and that is not to rest on any imagined laurels. I want to see what I can do to bring things of value forward. I have that obligation. I want a song to matter, to move people, to agitate — not only to console them, but to make them think. And I am hoping that it will lead to some illumination, my own and anyone else’s.”
But Parks adds that “I don’t have a huge marketing scheme or radio airplay designs. I have no five-year plan — I can’t at this age (69). I’ve just been following my nose. I must be compelled to make music.”
Parks’ focus on his own work has also led him onto the road. He’s assembled a trio which allows him to touring extensively — and for the first time in his life. “I’ve played an occasional festival, but the idea of going out on the road and having an organized tour and an agent, that’s all new, and quite an adventure,” Parks notes. “A lot of my peers, especially people like Randy Newman and James Taylor, Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt…you just look around at the people I know well that have enjoyed being able to perform, and I stayed in Los Angeles, hermetically sealed, working in a studio…and basically comfortable in my anonymity. My mother once observed that she and my father marveled at how I put my retirement before my career. So I guess you can say it feels like I’m coming out of retirement. If I’d have known how rewarding it is…”
Parks’ work on “SMiLE,” meanwhile, has had its day in the sun with “Brian Wilson Presents Smile” in 2004 and “The Smile Sessions” box set in 2011. Parks notes the “very clever redundancy in some of the reissues” but says he nevertheless feels “good about it. I feel as I did 40 years ago, when I walked away from the project. It’s been an entire success, and from my standpoint…it was a great success for a couple of kids in their mid 20s to be able to hear their music in the face of the fact that there are so many musicians who never get to hear a damn note.
“To me, the best way illustrate my contentment about ‘SMiLE’ is to remember that Vincent Van Gogh had sold only one painting when he died — and that was to his brother. I have had a lifetime of great fortune, and I’m very grateful for it. But I don’t feel that the past can possibly provide what the future promises. The rearview mirror is so much smaller than the windshield that I am looking through now.”