Wednesday, April 29, 2015

National Poetry Month—Reassessing—Gasp!—Rod McKuen

Rod McKuen at his height.

By any measure Rod McKuen was the most fabulously commercially successful poet in the English language in the 20th Century.  He sold over 60 million copies of his poetry collections.  Hardbound copies not only flew off of the shelves of bookstores but from the impulse buy displays at Walgreens—and at the full cover price.  As a singer, songwriter, and composer he sold 100, 000 million albums world-wide.  He received two Academy Award nominations for Best Song and no less than Frank Sinatra commissioned McKuen to write a whole album for him.  He was associated with one of the most admired European songwriters of his generation, translated his songs, and made him a household name in his own right. For a few years in the late ‘60’s and early’70’s his raspy, breathy voice, bleach blonde hair, and acne scarred face were as familiar on television as the biggest celebrities.
So, of course, the cultural Guardians at the Gate hated him with a burning passion that was breathtaking to behold in it viciousness.  Pulitzer Prize winning US Poet Laureate Karl Shapiro said, “It is irrelevant to speak of McKuen as a poet.”  Nora Ephron, whose own later success as a screenwriter of fluffy rom-coms would attract the same kind of scorn in her direction, sneered, “McKuen’s poems are superficial and platitudinous and frequently silly.”  Chicago critic Julia Keller preemptively squelched a rumored comeback with, “so schmaltzy and smarmy that it makes the pronouncements of Kathie Lee Gifford sound like Susan Sontag,”
McKuen understood what was going on.  Late in life he told his old hometown paper the San Francisco Chronicle, “Before the books were successful, whether it was Newsweek or Time or the Saturday Evening Post, the reviews were always raves.”  The critics would shoot back that he cited a litany of middlebrow journals that reached just the same audience that later snapped up his books.  Surely no respectable literary journal echoed the praise. 
I am probably risking what little street cred I have established with the literary crowd for the last few years of these National Poetry Month posts by even hinting that maybe McKuen wasn’t that bad or evil.
I once gleefully joined in the bashing.  I made several snide comments about McKuen in the early ears of this feature, probably just to try and convince people that I knew what I was talking about.  Early on, however, I had not been so harsh.
I first heard of Rod McKuen from my way cooler non-identical twin brother Tim when we were living in the unfinished basement of our parent’s house in Skokie, Illinois.  We were in high school and Tim and transformed his room created by partitions of old bedspreads by painting the cement walls black and lighting it with strings of Christmas tree lights and lava lamps.  He had a good radio and one of those old stereo record changers built to look like a suitcase with little speakers attached by hinges.  And for a while on that record player he was playing Rod McKuen over and over.  I was hooked by osmosis. 
I knew even then at the Poet of Stanyan Street was not the equal of say Bob Dylan or Simon and Garfunkle—I had written my major APP English paper on the poetry of S&G—but McKuen certainly resonated with a young nerd like me whose sex and  romance life existed only as frustrated longing.  So while my brother mostly played the records, I went out and bought the books.
It wasn’t until a few years later that I joined the lynch mob.  I think it was the later albums with the Anita Kerr Singers and lush strings that drowned me in schmaltz.  Or maybe it was seeing his mug turn up once too often on the tube in the Hollywood Squares.  Whatever else he once may have been, McKuen was most definitely no longer cool.
McKuen’s biography as authentic as could be imagined.  Nor writer I knew of had a more Dickensian childhood.  He was born on April 29, 1933—the nadir of the Depression in an Oakland, California charity hospital.  He never knew the biological father who abandoned his mother.  McKuen’s search for him in his middle age years became the gist for a bestselling memoir Finding My Father.   He was raised by a mother he adored and a violently abusive alcoholic step father who beat him repeatedly, “staving in my ribs and breaking my arm.”  Worse, and aunt and uncle in whose care he was often left, repeatedly sexually abused him.  He talked freely of the beatings, but only came publicly to grips with the abuse after many years.
By age 11 McKuen finally succeeded in one of his many attempts to run away.  There after he was on his own and his formal education had ended.  For the next dozen years he roamed the West like an earlier son of Oakland, Jack London hopping freights, thumbing rides, hooking up at first with whatever sympathetic grownups would put up with him.  That, of course, made him pray for more sexual abuse and may have led to the fate of many street kidsprostitution.  He also found all sorts of jobs—ranch hand, surveyor, railroad worker, lumberjack, rodeo cowboy, stuntman, and radio disk jockey, always sending money home to his mother when he was able.
Deeply embarrassed by his lack of education, McKuen began picking up books where ever he could find them, haunting public libraries and the paperback racks of drugstores.  He began keeping a journal of sorts and by his late teens and early 20’s was beginning to fill it with attempts at verse. 
However he accomplished it, his writing skills improved enough so that he was hired to write anti-Communist propaganda scripts for Red Scare and Korean War era documentary films.  It was just a job, not a reflection of any personal ideology.  Later he drifted into newspaper work and even had his own column in a small paper for a time.
By the mid-‘50’s McKuen was settled pretty much in San Francisco, the city with which he various opportunities.  He fell in easily with the burgeoning beat scene and was accepted by it.  Soon he was reading his poetry in coffee houses, often sharing the stage with the likes of Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti.  If his work was less political than theirs, well, there was plenty of room for his intimate and personal style.  He began setting some of his poems to music and accompying himself of guitar debuted as a singer at the legendary Purple Onion.
McKuen was a minor West Coast celebrity and good enough looking in a California way with his bleach blond hair that he became a contract player at Universal Pictures.  He was groomed at first to play a bad boy niche similar to young Dennis Hopper.  He had parts in Rock, Pretty Baby in 1956, Summer Love in 1958, and the western Wild Heritage the same year.  He abandoned the film career to concentrate on music in San Francisco.

McKuen's first poetry album, 1959--laying claim as a Beat.

In 1958 McKuen was signed by Decca Records and he began to release his first albums including, Beatsville, his first spoken word album in 1959.  He also toyed with novelty songs which had some success.   Under the pseudonym Dor working with Bob McFadden he released The Mummy which reached No. 39 on the Billboard pop chart in 1959.  Two years later he reached No. 76 with Oliver Twist co-written with Gladys Shelley. 
During this period McKuen worked so frequently in clubs that he permanently injured his vocal chords giving him the hoarse, breathy quality which became his signature.  At first he thought his career as a singer was over, but soon learned to adapt his songs to his narrowed range and explored it for its dramatic possibilities.
In the early ‘60’s McKuen took a life-changing pilgrimage to Paris trying to recapture the expatriate magic of that city between the wars.  He might not have found that but he did find the Belgian chanson singer Jacques Brel.  The two became fast friends and soon collaborators.  McKuen translated Brel, as well as other leading French language songwriters, into English.  If You Go Away was an adaptation of Brel’s Ne me quitte pas and became an international hit.  Back in the States Glenn Yarbrough’s album of McKuen’s translation of Brel’s song helped make Brel famous in the states.
McKuen’s own songwriting was influenced by his friend and took a more soulful, narrative turn.  The two were so close that in 1978,  “When news of Jacques’ death came I stayed locked in my bedroom and drank for a week. That kind of self-pity was something he wouldn’t have approved of, but all I could do was replay our songs (our children) and ruminate over our unfinished life together.”
On his return to San Francisco, McKuen was poised for his breathtaking, “overnight” success with the publication of a string of popular poetry collections and their coordinated spoken word albums with matching cover art including Stanyan Street & Other Sorrows in 1966, Listen to the Warm in 1967, and Lonesome Cities 1968.  The album of Lonesome Cities drew a spoken word Grammy nomination that year.  Albums of new songs, some of them based on poems in the books, also sold briskly.

Sinatra and McKuen in the recording studio, 1969.
McKuen was in hot demand as a songwriter.  Yarbrough recorded a whole album of the songs.  Artists as diverse as Barbra Streisand, Perry Como, Petula Clark, Waylon Jennings,  Johnny Cash, Dusty Springfield, and Greta Keller laid down cover tracks or made original recordings of his songs.  In 1969 Sinatra commissioned original material for A Man Alone: The Words and Music of Rod McKuen which featured most prominently Love’s Been Good to Me.  The same year he drew an Oscar nod for writing Jean, the theme from the admired film The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. And then there were those dreadful Anita Kerr Singers collaborations, the less said about the better.
The poems and songs of this period are characterized by melancholy and/or wistful love ballads.  McKuen often seemed to be the Poet Laureate of unrequited and disappointed romance.  But sprinkled amongst them were sometime poems that might be called spirituality lite, perfect for elegant greeting cards and regarded by some critics as a precursor to the New Age movement.
With such success came TV, including his own TV special on NBC produced by Lee Mendelson, of the Peanuts specials.  That would lead to McKuen writing the music for the film A Boy Named Charlie Brown which earned another Academy Award nomination.  He also became a frequent guest on the Tonight Show couch and on day time talk/variety shows like Dinah Shore and Merv Griffith.  He even began to show up regularly on game show panels, perhaps the final signal that he had lost his cool and was now the creature of Middle America.
By 1970, by any measure still at the height of his popularity, McKuen recognized that he was falling out of sync with the times.  Not only was his folk and soft jazz influenced musical style being eclipsed by Rock, but his lack of political content in the face of massive social unrest was making him irrelevant.  Perhaps it was understandable in an artist a full generation older than the pop and protest stars.
In an effort to catch up in 1971 he released an anti-war single—pretty damn late in the game—Soldiers Who Want to Be Heroes—which was moderately successful here but a huge hit in Europe, especially The Netherlands where it became a No. 1 hit and where street protestors sung it en masse in the marches.
About this time, McKuen changes his appearance, stopping bleaching his hair and growing a beard.
As critics turned against his poetry and popular music, McKuen turned increasingly to composing serious music and he enjoyed some surprising success. He wrote orchestral compositions, including a series of concertos, suites, symphonies, and chamber pieces for orchestra. The City: A Suite for Narrator & Orchestra was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in Music.
McKuen continued to perform regularly, including annual Carnegie Hall concerts and record new songs during the ‘70’s.  But in 1980 he announced his general retirement from performance.  A year later he was diagnosed with serious clinical depression and spent much of the next decade in seclusion, emerging only for his annual Carnegie Hall shows for his most devoted fans. 
For those familiar with his work even at its most popular, a diagnosis of depression should have come as no surprise.  The swings from melancholy to occasional near euphoria seem classically bi-polar.  Add the life experiences of a troubled and abused childhood and you get predictable self-esteem issues and a crippling need for withheld love and approval.

McKuen in his later years.

Although McKuen was said to have recovered from nearly a decade of incapacitation, he emerged back into a world in which his once blazing fame was fading fast to obscurity, not even rescued by the nostalgia that revived the careers of many artists.  He did resume activity, publishing new books including a poetry collection, A Safe Place to Land in 2001.  He did some animation voice over work including Disney’s Little Mermaid and the sit-com The Critic in which he had a small part as a performer destroyed by the critics.
McKuen, wealthy beyond imagination, spent most of his final decades in the Beverly Hills mansion he shared with his half brother and one of the world’s largest private record collections with more than half a million disks and 100,000 CDs.
He died of pneumonia, in a hospital in Beverly Hills on January 29, 2015 at the age of 81.  His passing was not widely noted.
I don’t argue that McKuen was one of the great poets of his time, only that he was not a terrible one.  And that something about his work touched, at least for a while, millions deeply.  There are worse things than that.
Stanyan Street and Other Sorrows
You lie bent up in embryo sleep
below the painting of the blue fisherman
                             without a pillow.
The checkered cover kicked and tangled on the
the old house creaking now
a car going by
the wind
a fire engine up the hill.
I’ve disentangled myself from you
                           moved silently,
groping in the dark for cigarettes,
and now three cigarettes later
                               still elated
                                      still afraid
I sit across the room watching you -
the light from the street lamp coming through the
hysterical patterns flash on the wall sometimes
                  when a car goes by
otherwise there is no change.
Not in the way you lie curled up.
Not in the sounds that never come from you.
Not in the discontent I feel.
You’ve filled completely
this first November day
with Sausalito and sign language
                            canoe and coffee
                              ice cream and your wide eyes.
And now unable to sleep
because the day is
finally going home
because your sleep has locked me out
I watch you and wonder at you.

I know your face by touch when it’s dark
I know the
profile of your sleeping face
the sound of you sleeping.

Sometimes I think you were all sound
kicking free of covers
and adjusting shutters
moving about in the bathroom
          taking twenty minutes of our precious time.
I know the hills
         and gullys of your body
                   the curves
                             the turns.
I have total recall of you
and Stanyan Street
because I know it will be important later.
It’s quiet now.
Only the clock,
moving toward rejection tomorrow
breaks the stillness.

—Rod McKuen
Soldiers Who Want to Be Heroes
Soldiers Who Want To Be Heroes number practically zero
But there are millions who want to be civilians
Soldiers Who Want To Be Heroes number practically zero
But there are millions who want to be civilians

Come and take my eldest son, show him how to shoot a gun
Wipe his eyes if he starts to cry when the bullets fly.
Give him a rifle, take his hoe, show him a field where he can go
To lay his body down and die without asking why

Soldiers Who Want To Be Heroes number practically zero
But there are millions who want to be civilians
Soldiers Who Want To Be Heroes number practically zero
But there are millions who want to be civilians

Sticks and stones can break your bones; even names can hurt you
But the thing that hurts the most is when a man deserts you
Don’t you think it’s time to weed the leaders that no longer lead?
From the people of the land who’d like to see their sons again?

Soldiers Who Want To Be Heroes number practically zero
But there are millions who want to be civilians
Soldiers Who Want To Be Heroes number practically zero
But there are millions who want to be civilians

God if men could only see the lessons taught by history
That all the singers of this song cannot right a single wrong
Let all men of good will stay in the fields they have to till
Feed the mouths they have to fill and cast away their arms

Soldiers Who Want To Be Heroes number practically zero
But there are millions who want to be civilians.

            —Rod McKuen
A Nocturne for Hermes
Love is mindless.
Give it directions and off it goes.
Provide it with purpose and lose it.
Excuse it for being only love
         and expect a confrontation.
Remind it of its duties
and it will stay in bed asleep.
But let us pretend it’s a bit more balanced,
             just for the sake of pretending.
Suppose it’s a rose forever opening.
A wise little child that won’t grow old.
How do you keep its center
                               from darkening?
Always lean it toward the light.
Give it the afternoon off when you can,
but never a rest in the middle night.

—Rod McKuen

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