January 08, 2020
Rod McKuen is the Odd Man Out in the history of American pop culture. Music encyclopedias almost never included him even though he released albums for over 40 years. Surveys of contemporary literature overlooked him despite (or perhaps because of) his enormous sales. Rod’s work as a musician and poet didn’t lend themselves to easy categorization. Over the decades, he was associated with the San Francisco beat poet scene, the Twist dance craze of the early ’60, the folk revival, the Great American Songbook school of pop, the early days of New Age environmental recordings and 20thCentury classical music. Yet none of these genres or movements claim him as even an adjunct member. He remains sui generis by his own choice or otherwise.
His fans didn’t care. Try to see him as they saw him at the height of his fame: a rumpled, slightly stooped 30-ish man with lemon frosting-colored hair ambling into the spotlight to the sound of orchestral fanfare. Inevitably, he is dressed in a sweater, jeans (or chinos) and high-topped sneakers – no amount of success could change his outfit. There’s a laid-back cowboy charm about him, as well as the romantic melancholy of a French cabaret singer. He laughs bashfully, gives wistful sideways glances, rises from quiet murmurs to emotional crescendos. Now close your eyes and hear his voice – hoarse, pitted, compelling in its imperfection. It adds to his pathos and his sexiness.
That voice could be clearly heard on the printed page as well as live and on record. He wrote about commonplace things, ordinary scenes, passing incidents and moods. McKuen seemed to be whispering in your ear however you took in his words. His unabashed nostalgia for old-fashioned pleasures like butterflies in the summertime and snowy Christmas mornings contrasted with his frank celebrations of a lover’s thighs or the soft glow of a post-coital reverie. On albums like Lonesome Cities and in books like Listen to the Warm, Rod found a way to make an erotic encounter in a steamy back room seem as wholesome as a basket of puppies or kite flying on a windy hillside.
McKuen’s critics – and they were legion – wouldn’t have any of it. They refused to concede that this “King of Kitsch” had an outstanding talent for anything except fleecing his customers. When TV host Dick Cavett cracked that Rod was “America’s most understood poet,” he was voicing the agreed-upon opinion of the cultural tastemakers of the time. To the likes of poet/teacher Karl Shapiro and journalist Nora Ephron, Rod was a clever hack who cranked out treacly songs and superficial poems like Hostess Cupcakes with utter cynicism. His sensitive poet act was a con, a snare for the mentally lazy and the aesthetically stunted. This last line of thinking is important to note, because these critics not only looked down upon McKuen but his audience as well. That anyone would lap up such cloying pap was prima facie evidence of Middle American mediocrity. That these fans seemed to worship Rod as something more than an entertainer and writer of greeting card verse only reinforced their indictment.
Rod just didn’t smell right to these press pundits and academic arbiters of good writing. There was something less than legitimate about him – it was as if he snuck into respectable circles by slipping past the guard at the gate (which, according to McKuen, is how he got a screen test at Universal Pictures as a young man). He was a feral sort of talent, ill-bred, wily and looking for the main chance. Big record companies and major publishing houses embraced him for a quick buck, betraying their responsibility to maintain high standards. They de-legitimized themselves by promoting his products and spreading his fame.
His defenders were many as well – they just weren’t part of the cultural establishment. To them, Rod McKuen was a hard-working, kind-hearted voice of the People, a dedicated artist who rose from poverty without forgetting his roots in unglamorous everyday America. He learned the trades of radio broadcaster, songwriter, movie actor and nightclub performer – but what set him apart was his willingness to share his desires, fears and often painful memories through his lyrics and poems. Rod was not the voice of the cultural elite or the fashionably hip. He wrote and sang about love, loss, momentary daydreams and longings for the past in ways that anyone could grasp. “I don’t think someone should have to have a 12-foot bookshelf to understand a poem I’ve written,” he said. His work offered an outstretched hand to the lonely and broken-hearted in need of comfort and healing.
Those were the polarities in the debate over the merits of McKuen’s work a half-century ago. Issues of culture and class swirled around this slouching figure in cashmere and denim that continued long after he left the spotlight. Rod spoke for a vast constituency with a directness and sincerity millions responded to. He embodied shifting attitudes about sexuality, personal freedom and man’s connection with nature. As much as Bob Dylan, Allen Ginsberg, Timothy Leary and other voices of the counterculture, Rod McKuen spoke for his times.
More than that, his life and work anticipated changes to come. McKuen presented himself as sexually fluid many years before the term came into vogue. At a time when male and female identities were still rigidly defined, he was a man willing to confess weakness and vulnerability without shame. As an entrepreneur, he innovated new forms of personal branding and self-promotion that were imitated decades later. His diary-like poetry resembled blogging in its free-flowing commentary on life lived moment by moment. (Rupi Kaur and other members of the currently popular InstaPoet movement owe something to Rod’s brevity and simplicity of expression as well.) A born loner and outsider, he figured out ways to bring far-flung readers and listeners into a greater community that resembled the social networks of today. Rod did all this after surviving a harrowing childhood, a stretch in reform school and intermittent years of poverty. He was a damaged, street-savvy kid who grew up to be something of a visionary.
We live in a time drenched in irony and fearful of expressing genuine sentiment. Rod tried to touch the chords of emotion directly, without apology. His aesthetic choices and merchandizing excesses might be questioned, but what he meant and still means to people should not be. He wasn’t fooling when he famously wrote, “It’s not who you love or how you love but that you love.” That was his core message, pure and simple – too simple for the critics to believe.
Yet that simplicity concealed something deeper about the man. Those who knew Rod often found him to be “enigmatic,” a “chameleon” who “juggled personalities.” As his former assistant Rose Adkins put it, “There was a mystery to who he really was as a person and I don’t think anybody will be able to solve it. I don’t think he himself could solve it.”