In response to:
A Lost Pop Symphony from the September 22, 2005 issue
To the Editors:
Re: “A Lost Pop Symphony,” by Scott Staton [NYR, September 22, 2005].
For forty years, in numerous print articles, Brian Wilson has repeatedly stated he contributed music only to Smile. As well, I’ve maintained I only provided lyrics. Although I truly appreciate Scott Staton’s take on the work, I must disabuse him of Brian’s having envisioned the album as “an affectionate critique of America’s mythic past” etc. Manifest Destiny, Plymouth Rock, etc. were the last things on his mind when he asked me to take a free hand in the lyrics and the album’s thematic direction.
Music expresses feelings. Words, thoughts. In combination, they make songs. Still the most portable of all cultural goods, songs have consoled, amused, and even stirred peoples to nationhood. This broad potential of the song-form dates from the time of David to the present.
Brian sang: da da da da da da da da dah. I wrote “Columnaded ruins domino.” I’ve lived to regret it for the majority of my adult life. Now, I’d like to enjoy it justly. Still, I thank Scott Staton for the print. Many more deserving talents never get a whit of recognition in their lifetimes. We got lucky, I guess.
Van Dyke Parks
Los Angeles, California
Scott Staton replies:
I’m disappointed that Van Dyke Parks feels I mischaracterized his collaboration with Brian Wilson. My piece did make plain Parks’s important lyrical contribution to Smile. In describing him as a crucial participant, I referred to him six times and suggested that his departure from the project made it difficult for Wilson to complete it. I also referred to his first two solo full-length recordings as “minor masterpieces of idiosyncratic Americana,” and much of the piece closely considered the substance of Parks’s lyrics.
Despite these acknowledgments, Parks apparently feels that he wasn’t given just credit in my piece. This is surprising, because past remarks of his have clearly indicated that he was hired by Wilson, with whom he shared an interest in American themes, and that he worked with him in a collaborative but subordinate role. As I understand it, his task as lyricist was to illustrate images that Wilson’s music evoked. This is suggested by recent comments of his that are available on-line, in “audio portrait” sound files at the Web site of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (www.ascap.com/audioportraits/vandykeparks.html).
In these comments, Parks says of his collaboration with Wilson: “I was trying to follow his instincts, unquestioning, like a dog. Just be devoted and work hard to try to provide words to the phrases he came up with.” He says that the music of Smile is “anecdotal, fragmentary, schizophrenic…and the lyrics were required to follow suit…. What comes first, the music or the words? In this case, it was the music.” He continues: “Melody, it seems to me, provides the most fundamental, the deepest feelings, and I think feelings trump thoughts any time.”
Parks goes on to describe Wilson’s music as “image laden,” and explains that “we just kind of wanted to investigate…American images…. Everyone was hung up and obsessed with everything totally British. So we decided to take a gauche route that we took, which was to explore American slang, and that’s what we got.” Parks’s liberal use of the word “we” to describe Brian Wilson and himself implies that they shared an understanding of the album’s thematic direction.
In an interview with Parks published by The Guardian in 1999, he stated that Brian Wilson “was completely in control.” On the topic of possibly reviving Smile for release, he said, “I would like Brian to address this particular dilemma of his own life. If Brian would want to work on it, then I would be involved in that. But I don’t want to be paid to go to the embalming room. It was his baby.” For his part, in his 1991 autobiography Wilson recalled playing early recordings of Smile songs at a dinner and explaining the material to his guests. “The whole album is going to be a far-out trip through the Old West,” he said. “Real Americana. But with lots of interesting humor.” In spite of his failure to complete the work in 1967, it seems Wilson had an idea of Smile’s thematic underpinnings.
None of this is to diminish the significance of Van Dyke Parks’s contribution to Smile. I hold his work in very high regard and much appreciate that he wrote lyrics for Smile. He has every reason to be proud of them, and deserves recognition. However, the way Parks characterizes his collaboration with Wilson in his letter contradicts comments he has made elsewhere, and risks oversimplifying the creative process they shared.