The man behind the music
Legendary pop composer Van Dyke Parks gives a rare performance for Friends of South Pasadena Public Library
By Carl Kozlowski 02/21/2013
Van Dyke Parks, a composer, performer, producer and arranger who’s been a key force behind some of the greatest pop music of the last 50 years, will be performing Wednesday in an extremely rare concert aimed at raising funds for Friends of the South Pasadena Library.
Parks, who’s worked with such artists as Brian Wilson, U2, Randy Newman, Sheryl Crow, Frank Zappa, Ringo Starr and Harry Nilsson, among many others, has been a Pasadena resident for the past several years. However, being a noted recluse, he’s never performed in the area — until now.
On Wednesday night, Parks, joined by Los Angeles indie singer Inara George and South Pasadena-based cult favorite Joe Henry, comes out from behind the curtain to perform in the Community Room of the South Pasadena Public Library in what promises to be a freewheeling romp through a host of pop styles.
The location of the concert, part of a year-long city celebration of South Pasadena’s 125th anniversary as a city, is fitting. The library’s Community Room was built in 1907 and features historic hand-painted beam ceilings, leaded glass windows and wrought iron and glass main doors — an acoustics-enhancing combination.
“I’m not a performer by profession,” says Parks, speaking by phone with the Weekly a day before a business trip to Norway. “I’m really most comfortable behind the curtain as an arranger, orchestrator and got three kids through college doing that kind of job and producing records.
“It’s a very rare thing to go out and do a show,” he says. “But this is a combination of people who really have affection for South Pasadena, and it’s really all about the library this night.”
While Parks, 70, is a Mississippi native, he has long had ties to Pasadena. He rode the Super Chief train across the country from his hometown of Hattiesburg, Miss., in 1955 and got off in Pasadena “because I was told that was the thing to do.” He stayed in Los Angeles, working as a teen actor until 1960, when he moved to Pittsburgh to major in music at the Carnegie Institute of Technology.
When he came back to Los Angeles in the mid-1960s, Parks found himself in high demand as a musician and arranger, eventually meeting Beach Boys lead singer and songwriter Brian Wilson in 1966 during the contentious creation of the classic album “Pet Sounds.” While he chose to stay out of the behind-the-scenes dramas on that project, he helped Wilson extensively on the group’s follow-up project, “Smile,” until Wilson’s excessive drug use drove him away.
”I think the ’60s were a healthy thing, the counter-revolution with drugs part of it all, was a healthy catharsis,” recalls Parks. “Brian’s passion for drugs was overwhelming to me, and that’s why I left the project when I did. It was a little too much to be of real practical value and would lead to destruction. Of course, it had a great deal to do with his psychological collapse.
“It was a very hard experience, but anyone who lived through the ’60s had a hard experience,” says Parks. “I don’t think you can achieve anything without risking failure. I think you get to a place of great creative and beautiful conclusions through difficulty and adversity. ‘Smile’ is a case in point. It shows a great resiliency.”
Indeed, “Smile” proved to be a project that never died. Parks and Wilson surprised the music world by teaming up on Parks’ 1994 CD “Orange Crate Art” — a key step in Wilson’s journey back to musical prominence after years in the mental wilderness. Then, nearly 40 years after its initial recording sessions fell apart under the weight of Wilson’s mental health and drug use issues, Parks and Wilson reteamed to finish “Smile,” which was released in 2004 to great acclaim from fans and critics alike.
They teamed up again in 2008 for a new Wilson CD, “That Lucky Old Sun,” and just last week “Smile” received a special Grammy for a boxed-set edition that included not only the finished album but multiple hours of outtakes and alternate versions of songs.
“Seeing it get a Grammy is the icing on the cake, but I’ve enjoyed every artist I’ve worked for,” says Parks. “I worked for Harry Nilsson. He was a real genius, a smart, smart man. I also loved Lowell George, Ry Cooder and Randy Newman, and now I’m working with a new generation, going to Oslo in two days to work with Grizzly Bear and Fleet Foxes.”
Parks is proud to declare that he’s working with a new generation “rather than sitting and dreaming who I was in the ’60s,” adding “I believe my best work is ahead of me.” And he’s happy to declare that for the past five years, the home base for his thriving career has been right here in the Crown City.
“What drew me to Pasadena was the eye contact people give you, and the social attitude is a little less pressured than Hancock Park in LA,” says Parks. “And the attitude … I love just driving around this beautiful town and looking at all the houses I pretend that I own — the architecture, the plants and botanical nature of it, my wife is a docent at Eaton Canyon. We love to be on the edge of this super-city of Los Angeles, and Pasadena is an unbelievable combo of all these things.”
“An Evening with Van Dyke Parks” will be held at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Community Room of the South Pasadena Public Library, 1100 Oxley Street, South Pasadena. Tickets are $20. Visit vandykeparks.eventbrite.com for tickets, and advance purchase is recommended. Call (626) 403-7340.