Standing In the Shadows of the Beach Boys

    But the undeniable masters of this art-as-pop tactic are the Beach Boys. With the looks of a dweeby, all-male Brady Bunch and a simplistic attitude toward beach culture that made any real surfer scoff, surely it was easy to forget that they were making some of the most innovative music of the time. 

    In the early ’60s, Van Dyke Parks was one of these scoffing surfers. This was when, at age 24, he was already busy sprinkling his signature off-kilter arrangements on Disney’s “The Jungle Book” (one could make the case that “Bare Necessities” was Parks’ first and only hit). But that was before he met Brian Wilson in 1966. That was before he reinvented and then broke up the Beach Boys (it’s still a wonder Parks hasn’t received as much unwarranted shit from delusional fans as Yoko Ono did in 1970). And that was long before he earned a legacy that has still, for whatever reason, remained one of American music’s best-kept secrets. 

    When the long-awaited SMiLE Sessions were finally released last year, Beach Boy fans marveled at out how such an enormously influential blend of contemporary psychedelia, heartfelt songwriting and Americana runoff could go 45 years without seeing the light of a proper production. 

    The problem is, it didn’t. A year after SMiLE’s colossal undoing, Van Dyke Parks went to work synthesizing the sound and lyricism he leant to Wilson with a remarkable, genre-defying solo debut. Parks’ 1967 now-cult classic Song Cycle is a creative whirlwind like no other — an album with the scope of Sgt. Peppers, the structure of an experimental jazz record and the instrumental arsenal of a Busby Berkeley film. It also had — despite its prestigious Warner Brothers production stamp — terribly disappointing sales upon release, failing to approach the record-breaking $35,000 spent making it. 

    But what makes Van Dyke Parks’ invisibility truly perplexing is the fact that he’s still at work. Five years after Song Cycle, Parks’ released the spectacular Discover America — a Hollywood-meets-Trinidad pop epic that mastered the art of “sampling” from the public domain a decade before the birth of hip-hop. Since then, he’s released six more solo albums, donated his arrangements to everyone from Harry Nilsson to Rufus Wainwright and even made a cameo appearance on “Twin Peaks” (episode #2005, for my fellow megafans). In 2006, Parks contributed his stunning arrangements to Joanna Newsom’s Ys — a work that I’ll go ahead and call one of the greatest albums of the decade, but that frightened away hordes of potential listeners with its dense, avant-storybook of a lyric sheet and 15-plus minute “movements.” 

    But Parks was most likely never destined for mainstream acceptance. While the Talking Heads and Velvet Undergrounds of the past have buried artistic revelation under radio play, Parks has walked the exact opposite career path — his universal classics hidden in the shadowy corners of underground obscurity. It’s a shame for the casual music lover, but an immensely satisfying treasure for those of us willing to dig. 

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