I was somewhat taken aback on first hearing Song Cycle, to find that the sixth track, the final one of Side One of the vinyl edition, somewhat fancifully called ‘Van Dyke Parks’ (in actual fact it belonged in the ‘public domain’), was an almost exact replica of another track on another favourite album. 1971′s Sunfighter, a classic from the late period of San Franciscan psychedelic music’s golden period, by Jefferson Airplane’s Grace Slick and Paul Kantner, contains a track called ‘Titanic’, a brief, rather throwaway impressionistic piece depicting the doomed ship’s last moments, sinking to the music of the resident palm court orchestra. Having lived with Sunfigher since circa 1974, I always thought that it was an original, out-of-character experiment by SF’s finest, although credited to one Phill Sawyer. ‘Van Dyke Parks’ is clearly a lock, stock and barrel facsimile of ‘Titanic’, but precedes it by some three years, and is given absolutely no credit by Slick/Kantner. A minor observation, to be sure, but it somehow encapsulates how little real credit Van Dyke Parks has been given by pop/rock history, despite producing a record that could not, as a work in itself, be copied as easily as the lysergic duo did with the miniature Titanic piece.
Song Cycle is a rich mulch of American song forms, from Charles Ives to Tin Pan Alley. The record ushered in an era in which pop music came of age, whilst acknowledging without any heavy-handed irony or snarkiness, its ancestors and earlier influences. It’s heavy use of strings,brass sections, harp and oblique lyrics was very much ‘not of the moment’, however. The Jefferson Airplane and Grateful mode of po-faced ‘experimentation’and rambling improvisation was at its height in 1968 (Crown of Creation and Anthem of the Sun being, respectively, the prosecution’s evidence in this particular year’s case). Rather ironically, by the following year, what eventually became known as Americana emerged with The Band and the Dead’s change of direction signalled by Workingman’s Dead and, in 1970, the epochal American Beauty. Park’s vocals are an uncanny forerunner of the somewhat ethereal style of later Americana idols such as Mercury Rev and Animal Collective. Sadly, his influence across later American popular music remains mostly unacknowledged, partly, as earlier intimated, by a certain obdurateness in his works, a determination to follow his own muse that would be praised to the skies with artists like Bob Dylan, but remains un-celebrated in his particular case. Maybe his time will eventually come.
In 1970, at the age of fifteen, I couldn’t really afford to make ‘spot purchases’. One of the artists that interested me as I was familiarising myself with the contemporary musical landscape (she appeared on the inner sleeve of CBS records at the time, along with other ‘underground’ acts that the major label was trying to promote) was Laura Nyro. Her 1968 album, Eli and the Thirteenth Confession was one of these CBS contenders that were portrayed on the inner sleeves - great and enigmatic title, beautiful and enigmatic writer/performer, the album remained tantalisingly out of grasp until I could afford to finally buy it several years later. Thankfully, the hype proved not to be ‘hype’, although, sadly, Nyro seems to have disappeared into history to a similar degree as so many of the less worthy acts that appeared on the CBS ad department sleeves have done. In the late sixties, Nyro was one of the names to watch for fans of challenging, yet approachable song writing. Several other bands had hits with her songs, as had been the case with the early Bob Dylan. Perhaps I will blog about Nyro separately (as Richard Williams has done), but suffice to say that Carole King (with the omnivorous Tapestry) and Joni Mitchell (with her peerless ‘run’ of albums throughout 1971-76, one of the greatest in rock/pop music history) appear to have sidelined Nyro in the eye of posterity. Both Eli and the following New York Tendaberry are the equal of the best of her sister’s records (well, maybe not Court and Spark or Hissing of Summer Lawns, but, hey, how many records can really match these? Really?).
The third of our 1968 triumvirate is, like Van Dyke Parks, deserving of some of the long-term kudos and recognition that Leonard Cohen managed to garner in his own life time.