February 9 - February 15, 1995


Rod Who?

By Dave McElfresh

SIXTIES SINGER/SONGWRITER/poet Rod McKuen has for the most part been banished from the history of popular music--an odd status since in his heyday he released more than 200 albums in 38 years, one of them becoming the bestselling recording in the history of Warner Brothers. He also wrote more than 1,500 songs that, having been recorded by the likes of Frank Sinatra and a slew of foreign artists, have sold 180 million records.

And, believe it or not, McKuen is the best-selling poet in modern publishing history. His 35 books of poetry have sold over 40 million copies.

Yet only one of a dozen significant contemporary music reference books even makes mention of his name. It seems as though the man is being punished for something.

No clues regarding his offense can be found on the five CDs recently re-released on the Laserlight label. All are pleasant, sometimes very engaging collections attesting to the variety of his output. Early Harvest tracks his beginnings in folk music and At The Movies revives popular soundtrack tunes like "A Boy Named Charlie Brown" and "Jean." The French Connection is an impressive group of songs written with some of the best French balladeers, including Jacques Brel. Most representative of his career are Speaking Of Love, a disc of his popular poems, and a 25th anniversary edition of Rod McKuen At Carnegie Hall --the perfect personification of McKuen onstage.

Most of the 111 songs, chosen for re-issue by McKuen himself, explain why the man experienced two decades of popularity. McKuen was in his mid-30s when the hippie era exploded, with Pete Seeger and beatnik poetry of equal interest to him and his fans. Combining the essential lonesome-and-on-the-road theme of the folk music era with the introspective verse of the beret crowd, McKuen added a smooth orchestral background to his mix of song and poetry. The result was a musical haven for a slightly older age bracket not entirely comfortable with the brashness of psychedelia.

Adding to his popularity was the fact that McKuen in person proved to be a very memorable presence. With his messy blond hair, pockmarked face and black hi-top tennis shoes (long before they were popular), McKuen came across as a very un-starlike star. He was regularly featured on the Tonight Show, sitting on a stool and, with a permanently ragged voice damaged earlier in his career by too many performances, reciting poetry to audiences that otherwise never indulged in the medium.

McKuen's output was attractive to a wide audience: amateur poets feeling themselves capable of his grassroots level of writing, couples preferring his romantic music to the extremes offered by Jefferson Airplane and Mantovani, women in need of fawning and lonely seclusionists who found his verse reason to believe that reaching out was as futile as their fears had concluded.

All were responsible for the success of 1967's The Sea, a collection of orchestrated paeans to bodies of water and the bodies of women. The music industry was shocked by the gargantuan sales.

But bad news soon surfaced--the poetry community was unable to contain their contempt for his popular books. McKuen had sold 40 thousand copies of his first volume, Stanyan Street & Other Sorrows, out of his basement prior to Random House buying the rights, with the following two volumes of McKuen verse upping sales to over two million. Copies were selling better over the course of a few months than Whitman and Keats racked up in a decade.

This writer saw him at Iowa's Drake University in 1970. In an after-concert discussion, two university professors admitted having written a slam on McKuen's latest tome but hoped he would understand and accompany them to dinner. McKuen told them to go fuck themselves.

Five years later, his phenomenal popularity had disappeared. Several follow-ups to The Sea had been released, The Earth and The Sky, neither matching the mood or melodic content of the original. When Warner Brothers dropped him, McKuen developed his own small label, Stanyan Street Records.

Of several elements contributing to his decline in both audience and reputation, the most damaging was the input of the poetry community. Writers had always judged McKuen's verse as infantile--compared to the reading requirements of the average junior high English class--thereby slamming the intelligence of the McKuen fan.

The variety of his five compilation discs, which together make a fine non-boxed box set overview of his career, attest to his damning versatility.

How ironic that his most praised book turned out to be Finding My Father, a moving nonfiction narrative of a search for family that was given great reviews by a number of prestigious critics.

Reissues aside, it has been a long time since any new McKuen material has surfaced in either book or recorded form. For the few remaining fans, a newsletter of poems is presently available through his record label. McKuen, who turns 62 this April, continues to wear the black hi-tops, but these days walks with a cane.

If we dole out any sympathy maybe it should be for the music industry, which, while relegating McKuen to the status of a purveyor of corny and embarrassing romanticism, touts the equally lightweight but more hard-edged verse of singer/poet Henry Rollins. When time and changing trends blunt the era of cynical music and allow reconsideration of the possibility that maybe love really does conquer all--you and Rollins and I will stand in line for some bedroom advice and great career stories from a man presently in exile.

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February 9 - February 15, 1995

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