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Van Dyke Parks returns with the long-awaited 'Songs Cycled'

Musician Van Dyke Parks at home.
Musician Van Dyke Parks at home.
Henry Diltz
Musician Van Dyke Parks at home.
Musician Van Dyke Parks at home.
Jacob Margolis
Musician Van Dyke Parks at home.
Van Dyke Parks and Take Two host Alex Cohen.
Jacob Margolis
Musician Van Dyke Parks at home.
Van Dyke Parks in his home.
Jacob Margolis
Musician Van Dyke Parks at home.
Van Dyke Parks in front of South Pasadena's library
Kevin Ferguson/KPCC
Musician Van Dyke Parks at home.
Van Dyke Parks, Inara George and orchestra provide Pacific Standard Time delights at the Getty.
Steve Hochman

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Long before Van Dyke Parks worked with Ringo Starr, The Byrds or Fiona Apple, he worked with two other notable stars: Grace Kelly and Alec Guinness.

When he was just a kid, he was lucky enough to land a role in the 1956 film "The Swan." He appeared as George, a young boy who teaches a prince, played by Guinness, how to play a rustic game with a wooden paddle.

"It was a wonderful adventure. I was very fortunate. I had a great childhood," said Van Dyke Parks. 

That childhood began in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, but Parks spent several of his adolescent years here in Hollywood, appearing in TV shows like "The Honeymooners." Now 70 years old, Parks is a short man with snow white hair, a neatly trimmed mustache and round spectacles.

He says his early acting gigs helped him afford training for his true calling: Music. Today, Parks plays a Steinway Parlor Grand piano tucked away in the corner of his living room. The instrument is more than a century old, one of two pianos Parks and his siblings grew up with.

He says music is in his family's DNA. 

"I played clarinet, my next brother played trumpet, my next brother played french horn and the oldest brother played a double barrel euphonium," said Parks. 

Parks fine-tuned his skills at the American Boychoir School in Princeton, then at Carnegie Tech University in Pittsburgh, but eventually, he found his way back to the West Coast: moving to California once again in 1962.

That was the same year The Rolling Stones formed and another British band called The Beatles had their first hit with the song "Love Me Do." Unlike most young people at the time, Parks was less than impressed by the British invasion.

"There was such an antipathy toward all things American. and I thought it would be really squaresville to investigate this, embrace this thing called America," said Parks. 

So Parks did just that with his music, bringing traditional Americana sounds and influences to modern pop music, with a twinge of psychedelia. In an era of rock stars, he was turned off by the notion of fame. He was more inspired by the protest music of the time. but perhaps more than anything, Parks was most intrigued by the process of making music. 

"I didn't see myself as an artist, I saw myself interested in the studio and wanting to learn what the studio was all about," said Parks. "How I could serve as a person bringing studio technique in the apogee of the analogue recording happening on my watch."

"Apogee of the analog recording" is pretty classic turn of phrase for Van Dyke Parks. His language is peppered with assonance and alliteration and his sentences are closer to poetry than conversation.

These attributes intrigued fellow musician Brian Wilson who asked Parks to write lyrics for the Beach Boys album "Smile" in 1966.

"I chased his musical syllables with words and the idea was I was seeing Brian as a person who was looking for validation," said Parks. "I found validation in his work and wanted the lyrics to reflect that."

They might have been good lyrics, but not everyone in the Beach Boys agreed. Parks clashed with the band's Mike Love and eventually left the project. Soon after Parks put out an album of his own material on the Warner Brothers label, a 1968 work called "Song Cycle."

The album was a clear result of the southern California landscape surrounding him, with songs like Vine Street, Laurel Canyon and this track Palm Desert. The lush orchestrations on the album did not come cheap. "Song Cycle" was one of the most expensive pop recordings made in the '60s. 

The album didn't sell so well at the time and reviews were mixed, so Van Dyke Parks used his musical expertise for other endeavors. He worked regularly as a session musician and began making a name for himself as a producer and arranger.

"I don't know the year anymore, but it was the in the '60s when I first ran into Van Dyke on a session," said Grammy-winning musician Ry Cooder. "I thought, who's this fella? He makes the piano sound like a bunch of guitars."

Cooder is just one of many notable musicians Parks has worked with over the years. The list ranges from long time legends like Frank Zappa and Randy Newman to recent indie acts like Grizzly Bear and Fleet Foxes.

"He walks this fine line between being very traditional and very progressive. And sort of the combination of it is really amazing," said singer-songwriter Inara George, who is known for her solo work and as half of the band The Bird and the Bee. She collaborated with Parks on a 2009 album called "An Invitation."

George says Van Dyke Parks has an uncanny ability to hear a musician's influences and to draw beautiful orchestrations out of the simplest of tunes.

"That's the thing he does in the arranging, not just the sound of it, he's actually commenting," said George. "If you listen to the music, you can hear him making comments about the lyrics."

In addition to his collaborations with artists like George, Parks has kept busy over the years arranging and composing music for dozens of film and television projects. Everything from the kid's show "Harold and the Purple Crayon" to Martin Scorsese's mafia film "The Departed."

Still, even with all these creative outlets, Parks recently found himself itching to make music of his own again.

Parks recently put together a new album called "Songs Cycled," his first album of new material since 1989. In true Van Dyke Parks fashion, "Songs Cycled" sounds cinematic and features complex orchestrations. 

But unlike other projects, this album gave the musician the opportunity to speak his mind about issues, from the greed he sees on Wall Street to his grave concerns about the Prestige oil tanker which sank in 2002'

"I read about the sinking of a ship that sank off the bay of Biscay," said Parks. "This article about eco catastrophe was on page 18 of the LA times. I thought there was something really wrong with this picture."

Parks realizes there may not be much of a market for music with this sort of political agenda these days. But he says the need for such songs may be even greater now than when he first started making albums in the 1960s.

"It's time to question authority like never before, and so I think that it's okay to have elements of anarchy in work," said Parks. "I have that in my work, and it makes it dense with thought. I can't help it. This is who I am."