Genius at work…
Listen – Van Dyke Parks – Vine Street / Palm Desert – MP3
I hope all is well in your corner of the universe.
Things are pretty good in mine (so far).
The tune’s I bring you today are the result of one of those decade-long reappraisals, in which the addition of a certain amount of maturity allowed me to shed my youthful prejudices and truly appreciate something very cool.
I first heard Van Dyke Parks’ ‘Song Cycle’ album back in the 80s. I borrowed (or had it taped for me, I can’t quite recall) it mainly because it was one of those records that seemed firmly wedged in the outer reaches of the 1960s zeitgeist, lauded by many, lip service applied to its classic status by most, who also attested to the genius of its creator.
I mainly knew of Parks via his associations with a number of Los Angeles artists with whom he worked, or was friendly, first and foremost being Brian Wilson, with whom he tried to create the aborted ‘Smile’ LP.
As you might have already guessed, I sat down to listen to ‘Song Cycle’ and my immature, unseasoned brain reacted poorly to it, unable to get a handle on exactly what was going on. The record was neither purely poppy – in the mid 60s Sunset Strip manner – nor was it traditionally psychedelic. That I didn’t ‘get’ it doesn’t really tell the whole tale. My reaction was less quizzical than repulsed, but it is important to mention that at the time I first heard this record, I was pickling my grey matter in a brine composed largely of snotty garage punk.
So, circa 1986, ‘Song Cycle’ gets shelved (or placed in the circular file) and I push Van Dyke Parks right back to the periphery and leave him there for a good long time.
Flash forward twenty-odd years and things are no longer as they once were, my brain newly inflated with all kinds of sounds that I didn’t used to understand, so much so that I was verily starving for more of the same. Those years since I first heard ‘Song Cycle’ were packed solid with jazz, avant garde, sunshine pop, classical music, country and pretty much anything else, up to and including a rapprochement with the music of the aforementioned Brian Wilson and his garcons sur le plage, whom I had never really taken seriously (much to my own detriment).
Part of this new understanding was a bit of serious reading about Wilson, during which I learned a lot more about Van Dyke Parks, so much so that I was compelled to seek out ‘Song Cycle’ and take it out for another test ride.
Once again, as you probably already figured out, the sounds on that particular album found purchase on the rocky shores of my brain in a way that they couldn’t (and didn’t) two decades previous, and my mind was good and truly blown.
‘Song Cycle’ is – however difficult for the uninitiated – is a true work of genius. An odd, eclectic genius, but genius nonetheless.
In a time where most of his contemporaries were getting high and far out, Parks was at work in his lab, blending ragtime, Tin Pan Alley pop, show tunes, modern classical music like Copland and Ives, country and folk into a remarkable, truly original mixture.
It’s important to remember that at the time every so-called ‘genius’ was throwing all kinds of odd sounds at the wall to see what would stick, but very few placed the disparate parts side by side, with enough knowledge and insight to see where the interlocking parts lined up. Parks did that, and then some.
‘Song Cycle’ was an early concept album, tapping into a lost (or fading) Americana, traveling deep into types of music that others merely dabbled with.
Sadly, though ‘Song Cycle’ is the work of a singular, highly developed mind, Parks’ sensibility was unique and far beyond the understanding of the pop audience. It’s like the books of James Joyce, consistently difficult, but ultimately rewarding to those that take the time to plumb their depths. What seems on the surface to be a tangle of oddly assembled bric-a-brac is, after the proper consideration revealed to be a window onto an entirely new approach to seeing things.
This is not to say that ‘Song Cycle’ is not pleasing to the ear, which it is, but rather that it comes at the listener from so many different places, at first listen it seems like some kind of musical slide show.
It is psychedelic, but in a way that opens and expands the mind – via the ears – in ways outside of the standard operating procedure, and one must be immersed, and allowed to soak in its wonders before all is revealed.
The medley I bring you today ‘Vine Street’ and ‘Palm Desert’ are the opening tracks of ‘Song Cycle’. ‘Vine Street’ was composed by Randy Newman – no slouch himself in the Americana department – with ‘Palm Desert’ penned by Parks himself. The ‘song’ actually opens with a snippet of tape with Parks playing bluegrass with an early group of his, morphing into ‘Vine Street’ with a sound like stepping through a time machine into an earlier version of the same scene.
Park’s thin, high voice narrates the song as if it were the first page of a novel, letting you know what you’re hearing, then fleshing out the story with string filled wonder that seems to quote Scott Joplin and Beethoven at the same time (with a little Charles Ives thrown into the mix as well). It really is suite-like, with even the smallest bits of connective tissue endowed with mystery. There’s a twenty second transition that starts around 1:42 that might as well be the musical illustration of the scene in the ‘Wizard of Oz, where Dorothy regains consciousness and first steps out the door into Munchkinland. It sounds like the narrators eyes, and general perception are adjusting and bringing a new scene into focus.
Parks then switches gears into ‘Palm Desert’, one of the finest (in every sense of the word) little musical vignettes you’re ever likely to hear. It is both an ode to the old story of the magical, silver screen Hollywood, and another part of the narrative where you feel you’re with Parks, driving into, and marveling at the sights and sounds of the city, though if you dip into the poetic lyrics, there seems to be the tiniest bit of Nathaniel West-esque tarnish and venom peeking in around the edges of the gilded snapshot.
It really is a remarkable beginning to an equally impressive album, that draws you in to the point where you might find yourself attempting to give it closer and closer listens, so that all of its facets are revealed.
It’s heavy like that.
If you haven’t heard the album, grab yourself a copy. If you don’t like what you hear, file it away and come back to it later. You never know what time might do to your ears.
See you later in the week.