Tuesday, 3 February 2015


My obituary of the poet, singer, songwriter and composer Rod McKuen, is in today's paper Guardian, a slightly longer version was online Sunday night. You can link to the online version here. I found it a very difficult obit to write, partly because, in my deliberate ignoring of most of his output, I'd failed to realise how prolific and successful he was in so many areas, and partly because I didn't want to get hyper-critical of the easy-reading, easy-listening product he turned out.

Of course anyone interested in 'serious' poetry in those days would find it hard not to be critical--even as a teenager, and without being overly impressed with 'mainstream' literary critics, it was easy to tear his work apart, as graceless, facile, trite, treacly, and sophomoric (and I understood sophomoric, believe me). There were a number of figures who came out of the west coast with a similar aesthetic approach--and many who'd been allied with the Beats--of straight-forward formlessness and inward focus. I'd think McKuen's influence extended a long way: I wouldn't be surprised if many college professor writing workshop poets had been McKuen fans when young.

But for Rod it was all about the image: he was selling the same sentiments, packaged in verse or in song, in different wrappers.

I looked for a straightforward connection to the Liverpool poets--I've often thought of Roger McGough as the British McKuen--but I couldn't make a strong enough link to include it. You might think McKuen at least showed a path for Leonard Cohen to take, though Cohen is a far more interesting artist his poetry was a let down for anyone who read his two early novels while coming to his music.

The Guardian didn't leave in the snippets of song lyrics I used, for example with 'Jean' (Jean, Jean, roses are red, all of the leaves are turned green) which said more than I could about his songs. I hadn't realised just how prolific McKuen was, and how quick he was to jump on the styles of the Sixties-Seventies era, both musical and personal, to sell his work. But it was an odd mix: the pop star shedding serial skins and the crooner whose work with Anita Kerr reminds me of Sinatra with Nelson Riddle, at his most self-pitying. No wonder Frank loved it.

But it was perhaps that sense of wounded caution that was the crux of McKuen's appeal. I wondered how much of his young life might have been amplified in the telling--but certainly he was a man whose persona was both self-created and forced on him, to ill effect. I read some speculation about his sexuality, which, despite fathering two children in Paris, remained in doubt. He did form a production company with Rock Hudson after Hudson, like Sinatra recorded an album of McKuen songs; there's a real parallel in the romantic leading men. And some of his titles, of albums or books, seem laden with double entendre: The Single Man, Alone After Dark, even More Rod. And there's the cats. And he did a disco album called 'Slide Easy In' whose cover has an arm covered in Crisco, and  with a song aimed at Anita Bryant called 'Don't Drink The Orange Juice'. But it didn't seem fair to deal with innuendo, and really it doesn't matter.

I was convinced it was his telling his own story that led to his breakdown, depression, and his stopping touring. And I could relate to his huge house in Beverly Hills with half a million record albums and over 100,000 CDs. 'I have my books, and my poetry to protect me,' Paul Simon sang. It seemed like Rod McKuen was still looking for protection.

1 comment :

Anonymous said...

Nice. I liked Rod McKuen very much. (But then I like Cliff Richard and prefer Johnny Nash to Bob Marley). Seriously, I think many now ageing intellectuals of both sexes were smitten by him him in their teens, but soon became ashamed of it, ultimately leaving Rod in sad, underrated isolation. Wish he had recorded 'The Windmills of Your Mind'. Mark