Words by Sean Moeller, Illustration by Johnnie Cluney, Recording engineered by Jon Ashley, Recorded at Echo Mountain in Asheville, N.C. in October 2010 during MoogFest
There is almost no reason to actually write about what Van Dyke Parks has done in the past. It's superlative. It's incredible and his back-story is filled with the kind of serendipitous moments that can only be dreamed, but then again the Los Angeles of his 20s was a different Los Angeles and he took advantage of it along with it taking advantage of him. He accidentally met Brian Wilson, for the first time, on the front lawn of Terry Melcher's house during a party. It's the same house that Charles Manson and his creeps murdered Sharon Tate. The meeting led to collaborating with the Beach Boy on the long-lost or shelved, then resurrected "Smile" album, but Van Dyke Parks would be a story all his own if he'd never written a single song. He's a fascinating study of a man, whom you will never quite know what to make of. As we met Parks here in Asheville, N.C., there as a tribute to Bob Moog, performing at last Halloween's first ever MoogFest, he was a man of endless insight - of the kind of conversation that, even at its pithiest or most random, was always engaging, always inspiring and always full of the sort of spirit that we'd like to say is found in a person 40 years his junior, but we all know that most young men these days aren't spirited, engaging or spirited. Parks lectures the young moderns, as we came to believe is his tag for any of the weird young people that he sees at his shows, that he senses a whole lot of his younger self in, gives to them his thesis reports - about oil, about Roosevelt long after he's been gone, about women, about men, about growing old, about staying young -- and it all dances off his tongue and flickers from his eyes with astounding originality. He seems to be a man who undeniably feels his age and just as undeniably feels nothing like his age. He seems to be able to be anywhere but here, whenever he wants, through his wordiness, his intelligence and through his whimsical attachment to beauty and melody. He will come up to you, if ever meet and he'll pull from his blazer a plain white business card, with black, embossed lettering, that apologizes in advance for any of his misbehaviors or affronts that may occur in your presence on that particular night or that particular day. He must feel it's a precursor or an insurance policy, though it's hard to imagine that Parks can be anything but charming as all hell. On this day in Asheville, Parks felt good to be back in the relative south (born in Mississippi and raised largely in Louisiana), and he and his wife were celebrating her birthday. He came to the studio with friends, tour mates and collaborators Clare & The Reasons (performing with him on these recordings) and the mood surrounding him was lively and chatty. The storyteller in Parks is never far from the surface and having just completed Richard Henderson's contribution to the incredible 33 1/3 album book series - examining Parks' solo record "Song Cycle" - my curiosity got the best of me and I needed to know more about when he caroled with Albert Einstein as a young boy. It was an anecdote that had apparently appeared in a Reader's Digest in the 40s or 50s which Henderson had dug up, but what was striking about it, were all the extra pieces that Parks remembered when I brought it up again and in doing so, he reinforced what he's greatest at as a writer: those succulent details. He remembered - with the help of another member of the boys choir that he ran into recently - that Einstein had invited them into his kitchen as he went to fetch his violin. It was a scrap of the memory that made Parks giddy to have back as it had been erased almost completely from him. He gave me a short lecture about his need to corroborate his memories and about how we all should write down what things tasted like, everyday. We should describe what we taste, what we feel, the second we eat or feel. It was evident that he relied desperately on both that need and that burden and it's what makes him one of the most interesting songwriters of the modern era.