Thursday, February 5, 2015

Rod McKuen (1933-2015)

Rod McKuen, a well-known figure in music, literature and popular culture, passed away on January 29, 2015. The opening sentence for his entry in The Encyclopedia of Popular Music sums up the man very well:
One of the revered poets of the late 60s love generation, Rod McKuen is also a highly acclaimed singer, songwriter and soundtrack composer.
Of course, San Francisco was the locus of the "late 60s love generation," so it's not surprising that the poet and songwriter had strong ties to the San Francisco Bay Area.

Phyllis Diller, in a memoir, remembered McKuen as a co-worker and friend who had a prime time radio show on Oakland radio station KROW (later KABL) in the early 1950s.  He would talk on-air with teen listeners about their romantic problems.  Diller later helped McKuen get his regular gig as a folk singer at the Purple Onion nightclub in San Francisco's North Beach.  He became loosely affiliated with the Beat poetry scene (page 94 of his memoir Finding My Father includes a photograph of McKuen taken by Jack Kerouac). He later sojourned through Los Angeles, New York and Paris where he rubbed shoulders with creative people in all fields.

Though he was often described as a troubadour, he was an outsider to the American folk revival scene.  This is probably because he did not consciously look to American folkways for inspiration.  Furthermore, he did not lend his voice to the major social and political movements of that era, such as opposition to the Vietnam War or Civil Rights.

He was considered a serious enough musician to be included in Ruth Anderson's Contemporary American Composers, which lists 7 orchestral works and notes that he has received 11 ASCAP awards.  As recently as 1992 he was listed in the Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians; however, he was dropped from the "Centennial edition" of the dictionary in 2001 - the first one to be published after long time editor Nicolas Slonimsky's death.  Presumably Slonimsky himself wrote this colorful put-down of McKuen:
...he appeared as a folksy balladeer in San Francisco nightclubs; obtained a music theory book and learned to write tunes ... eked out a posh living by crashing parties and gorging himself on choice comestibles.
Slonimsky then dismisses McKuen's output:
He became a roving poet, dispensing a plethora of facile country-style songs with monosyllabic assonances for rhymes and a simple appeal of scenes of non-obscene free love against an artificially flavored pastoral landscape.
Nora Ephron famously skewered McKuen (along with Eric Segal of Love Story fame) in her 1969 essay "Mush" (anthologized in the collection Wallflower at the Orgy).  She inadvertently hits on what might be the main cause for such fervent negative criticism - McKuen's sheer success.  She quotes him saying that he had sold 5 million books ("but who's counting") and had an annual income of three million dollars - undoubtedly grounds for resentment.  Ephron goes on to enumerate the source of this success:
[P]oetry is only the beginning.  There are records of Rod reciting his poetry, records of Rod's music, records of Rod singing Rod's lyrics to Rod's music, records of Rod's friends singing Rod's songs--much of this on records produced by Rod's record company.
This is not to mention his concerts, film soundtracks, and television specials.  By 1969 Rod McKuen was really big.

McKuen's impact can be located in surprising places.  A search for the name Rod McKuen in the Ancestry Library Edition database (a subscription database only viewable at San Francisco Public Library branches) brings up a large number of results.  But few of them concern McKuen directly.  The Ancestry Library Edition has scanned many high school and college yearbooks -- the yearbooks from 1968-1972 are filled with quotations of McKuen's poetry and lyrics.

David Ewen, in Popular American Composers, remarked that McKuen's "songs often touch upon his experiences in love and travel, his loneliness and volatile moods, his reaction to social currents..."  Reviewing a 1970 performance at Philharmonic Hall, New York Times music critic John S. Wilson described McKuen's songs as "sentimental laments of loneliness, some with an implication of hope, some carrying a sense of defeat."  It's easy to see how people coming of age during that time could see something of themselves in this kind of personal expression.

San Francisco's Stanyan Street held some kind of personal hold over McKuen.  It's a song title, the title of a poetry collection (Stanyan Street & Other Sorrows) and is also the imprint for a sizable amount of McKuen's creative output - Stanyan Music, Stanyan Books, Stanyan Records.  The song's lyrics culminate in the phrase "As life falls apart in a little room on Stanyan Street." If read autobiographically the words suggest the loss of some form of meaningful intimacy.  The exact context of "Stanyan Street" remains elusive, but Ken of the official Rod KcKuen website has written the following:
I'm not sure if Rod actually lived on Stanyan Street but as we all know he certainly spent time there and I'm guessing that would have been during the early 60's. Special meaning? Well, it was a very special love affair. One point of interest is that Rod is on record as saying that only two people know the exact location of that little house on Stanyan Street.
 In a 1975 San Francisco Chronicle article, Blake Green wrote that the Stanyan Street was, in fact, a "long-ago demolished Victorian."

After a slight from Chronicle critic John L. Wasserman, McKuen threatened never to perform in San Francisco again.  He did not keep that promise and his name is still hard to dissociate from San Francisco of an earlier era.  We'll let Rod McKuen bid us adieu with his song "So Long, San Francisco."

Songbooks by Rod McKuen at the San Francisco Public Library

Rod McKuen at Carnegie Hall (Warner Bros. Music, 1970).

Twenty-Three Rod McKuen Songs: for voice, piano, uke, guitar, etc. (Stanyan Music Co., 1968).

The World of Rod McKuen (Random House, 1968).


Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians by Nicolas Slonimsky (Maxwell Macmillan International, 1992).

Contemporary American Composers: A Biographical Dictionary, compiled by E. Ruth Anderson (G.K. Hall, 1982).

The Encyclopedia of Popular Music [4th edition], edited by Colin Larkin (MUZE : Oxford University Press, 2006). 

Finding My Father: One Man's Search for Identity by Rod McKuen (Cheval Books, 1976).

"Flight Plan for 16 July 2003," Rod McKuen, A Safe Place to Land (website).

Like a Lampshade in a Whorehouse: My Life in Comedy by Phyllis Diller (J.P. Tarcher/Penguin, 2005).

"The Many Sorrows -- And Successes -- of Rod McKuen," by Blake Green, San Francisco Chronicle (January 6, 1975), 16. [from the Art, Music and Recreation Center Newspaper Clipping File]

Popular American Composers from Revolutionary Times to the Present; A Biographical and Critical guide. 1st supplement, by David Ewen (H. W. Wilson Co., 1972).

"Rod McKuen," in Current Biography Yearbook 1970 (H.W. Wilson Co., 1970).

"Rod McKuen Offers Poetry and Songs To Sold-out House," by John S. Wilson, New York Times (April 29, 1970), p. 49 [available through the New York Times Historical database]

"Unusual Response by Rod McKuen," by John L. Wasserman, San Francisco Chronicle (December 30, 1974), 34. [from the Art, Music and Recreation Center Newspaper Clipping File]

Wallflower at the Orgy by Nora Ephron (Bantam Books, 2007) - originally published in 1970.

"What? A Best-selling Poet?," by Jack Fincher, Life (February 9, 1968), pp. 35-38 [scanned on Google Books]

No comments: