Brian Wilson / Reviews / Van Dyke Parks

Essential Albums — Van Dyke Parks: Song Cycle

I first heard Van Dyke Park’s Song Cycle at the age of sixteen. It was the first “Americana” album I ever listened to. Of course at the time, I had no idea what Americana was. And perhaps my introduction to that album at such a young age, shaped my perspective on what Americana ought to be in my formative years

Lyrically, Van Dyke Parks is a genius. He’s a master wordsmith and  for him, play is the thing. Never before had I heard the word “juxtapose” used in a sentence, much less as a rhyme in a song:

From “Palm Desert”: I came west unto Hollywood, never-never land.
Juxtaposed to B.B.D. and O. Beyond San Fernando on hillside manors on the banks of toxicity those below and those above the same…

But that’s Van Dyke: a one of a kind, American treasure. In my opinion.

As an avid Brian Wilson fan, I first found out about Van Dyke through his lyrical work on the then, legendary myth known as SMiLE. As a teenager listening to tracks like “Heroes and Villains,” “CabinEssence” and” Surf’s Up,” I was exposed to oddly recondite visions of America, which undoubtedly painted the musical landscape of my future.

Of course, during the recording of SMiLE, Mike Love infamously questioned the meaning the lyric “Over and over the crow cries, uncover the cornfield,” to which Parks defended by admitting he didn’t know what it meant and told him to “throw it out.”

Parks, circa 1976 defending CabinEssence

As history would have it, SMiLE was scraped, which left Parks with the release of the much hyped/anticipated Song Cyle. It was a commercial failure that wound up coasting his label $40,000.

Today the record is a cult classic. However, Mr. Parks never reaped monetary rewards for his efforts. Despite being a record which exemplifies artistic integrity, he considers it a “failure.”

The album, which was released in 1967 was by many, considered a joke. To say it was out of place is a gross understatement. It was like Mark Twain at a psychedelic freak-out. A juxtaposition (there’s that word again) of worlds, in the same vein as Tom Wolfe following the Merry Pranksters for the Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.

Years ago, I emailed Mr. Parks with a respectful note expressing my appreciation for the record. In response, he referred to the album as (quoting Shakespeare) a “sweet labor of love.” A few months ago, I had a bizarre encounter with him. I mentioned the album and stated that he made all of his “mistakes on the first one,” (the first one being, Song Cycle). Mistakes (I take it) being his unappreciated, youthful candor.

Song Cycle has a peculiar sound and Van Dyke is a peculiar creature. He’s a dandy from another time and planet. He lives in his own world. The way he speaks, the way he dresses, the way he is.

For instance, he is a grown man who walks around in overalls one would find better suited for a toddler. And he has a poodle named Jubil (I assume a reference to the word “Jubilee”). He’s also been described as the “gayest straight man” one will ever meet. Whatever Parks is, he possesses a rare type of genius that Song Cycle gives us a glimpse of.

Song Cycle isn’t an album that one will get immediately, but eventually (for a certain kind of person), it will go from nonsense to brilliance. In fact, the first time I heard it, I didn’t know what the hell to make of it. Frankly, it struck me as a bit creepy.

There’s a certain show-tuney campiness to his very eerie, twang-tinged voice. His lyrics, poetic, post-modern abstractions that somehow manage to make perfect visual sense. His arrangements, arrangements eclectic sounds of a bygone era. A hodgepodge of Americana.

Over the years, I’ve gotten a lot of shit from people for putting this in my top five albums. For me, it’s a masterpiece. To others, a confusing aural nightmare. After a recent purchase of the Sundazed 180 gram vinyl release of the album, I find it as intriguing as it was ten years ago. But, that’s me. Like I said before, it isn’t for everyone.

Parks performing “All Golden” from Song Cycle.
He is not your run of the mill, garden variety Alabama country fare…

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