Rod McKuen, RIP to the King of Troubadours

150129-rod-mckuen-poet-725p_796b820602c383d4fc91346b42951db1.nbcnews-ux-520-400Does the name Rod McKuen mean anything to you?  It should, if you’re in your mid forties or older and had a mother or grandmother (or were one yourself) with a pulse in the mid 1960’s to late 1970’s.  At that time, a modestly talented San Francisco-based self-styled troubadour played on his ruffled good looks, sandy hair, and unique, scratchy voice to cultivate a beach bum schtick that made the guy millions.  He sold books of cheap, heart-wrenchingly saccharine verse to armies of misty-eyed young women, and toured the a0407909312_10country to sold out shows in large theaters. In short, he was a cultural enigma–an American poet who enjoyed wild popularity and remarkable commercial success who also happened to be a throwback folk/pop singer.  He would later go on to compose, arrange, and conduct classical music.

There was nothing groundbreaking about McKuen’s folk music or poetry–he was more a performer than an visionary, and it is certainly easy to mock his songs as simple and derivative, and his verse as simplistic and more worthy of greeting cards than anthologies–and yet, he wasn’t a “pop” artist in the truest sense of the word.  He didn’t so much tap into the trends of the time as he mined the zeitgeist of the world around him, infusing his performances with soft-focus romanticism and and outwardly heavy-handed humor which, on closer inspection, was a lot more sly than it appeared at first glance.

The three women who live with me derive great pleasure from roasting me over my frustratingly emotional, sentimental, and romantic nature–despite all the efforts of my inner misanthrope to dominate the sniveling dweeb who cries at movies and can’t manage to lie about anything important while maintaining eye contact.  It is a failure I blame urlon my mother, who played Rod McKuen records around the house and had several dozen of his books strewn about here and there, as well as Rod McKuen himself.  If he hadn’t been a sap its quite likely that I wouldn’t be, either.  I mean: look.

And now he’s dead, and it’s a little depressing.  I’ve never returned to those books or songs from my childhood, but when I see them in thrift stores and estate sales, which is almost always given the volume of his retail success and the burgeoning mortality of his fanbase, I smile a little.  To myself.  Indeed, I just read an article that classified him as “a beat poet alongside Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac,” and nearly spit out my whiskey.  It’s difficult to imagine McKuen’s kitsch held up alongside Ginsberg’s Howl, for example.  Kerouac, a more sensitive soul who, like McKuen, suffered from bouts of depression, isn’t so much of a stretch–not if you’ve read some of his verse.

And there’s the fact that Orson Scott Card, that motherfletcher disprected McKuen mightily, which is as good a reference as any.

Or that Frank Sinatra covered his music.  And Neil Diamond.

So, I admit it, knowing full well that my mom is never going to know that I said this after all the crap I gave her over the years: I still think McKuen was a lousy poety, but that doesn’t matter.  I liked the guy, and I’m forced to wonder if I’d love poetry today with the passion and intensity that I do if all that lousy poetry hadn’t been laying around the house when I was a kid.  So thanks, mom.  And to you to, Rod.

If you want to read a great essay about McKuen, check out Claire Dederer’s “Rod McKuen Appears In The Desert.”



About JunkChuck

Native, Militant Westsylvanian (the first last best place), laborer, gardener, and literary hobbyist (if by literary you mean "hack"). I've had a bunch of different blogs, probably four, due to a recurring compulsion to start over. This incarnation owes to a desire to dredge up the best entries of the worst little book of hand-scrawled poems I could ever dream of writing, salvageable excerpts from fiction both in progress and long-abandoned. and a smattering of whatever the hell seems to fit at any particular moment. At first blush, I was here just to focus on old, terrible verse, but I reserve the right to include...anything. Maybe everything, certainly my love of pulp novels growing garlic, the Pittsburgh Steelers and howling at the moon--both figuratively and, on rare occasions, literally.
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7 Responses to Rod McKuen, RIP to the King of Troubadours

  1. It’s so nice to thank one’s Mother, isn’t it?
    For whatever reason, for whatever purpose… 🙂
    Cheers and a lovely weekend to you!


  2. Kate Loveton says:

    Of the dozens of Sinatra recordings I own, the McKuen album is one of my least favorites. Frank was trying to be hip in the sixties. That album is a miss for me.


    • JunkChuck says:

      Yeah, I hope I didn’t sound like I thought McKuen was a genius or anything. The guy did have his schtick down, and knew just what to feed his audience. I don’t listen to his music or read his poetry, but i sure admire the guy for doing what he did so well. I’ve got one Sinatra album–Live at the Sands. I always wonder what Bing Crosby thought, the first time he heard Frank sing–it must have been a lot like Roman Legionaires thought as the goths descended on Adrianople near the end of 4th century: well, it was a good run while it lasted.


      • Kate Loveton says:

        Hi -how’d you make out shopping for those prom dresses? *grin*

        Your comments about McKuen were clear and on the money. It was an excellent post, one I enjoyed. ‘Live at the Sands’ is a great album, by the way.

        Your remark about Crosby made me smile. It’s reported that Crosby once moaned, “Singers like Sinatra occur only once in a lifetime… but why does it have to be MY lifetime?”

        Actually, they got on quite well. First time Sinatra heard Crosby, he was a teenager. He told his girlfriend (later to be his first wife, Nancy), he wanted ‘to do that’ and he was going to be as big as Crosby one day. She didn’t laugh. Smart lady!


  3. I’d forgotten all about Listen to the Warm, which I studied endlessly, lying on my tummy on the bed, as if it held the answers to the universe. Thanks for reminding me.


  4. Anna Cottage says:

    What is it with you people and your endless hatred it appears for the late Rod McKuen. Nasty, vicious comments. If only you had worked as hard as him, or had an early start in life as him, or was the success he was and made all the money he did – and there we have it “the money”, you critics that vilified Rod in life and continue now he is dead, all you say is based on Jealousy of the money, that is all you critics really have against Rod. When you criticise Rod you criticise every fan, every one of us that admired him and still do. Loved his Poetry loved his music, we learned from him. He was a decent kind, caring person, multi talented and a great business man, he achieved far much more than you or your likes.


    • JunkChuck says:

      Wow, over-react much? If you knew anything about poetry at all, and McKuen’s career and popularity at the time, you wouldn’t take what I’ve said above as criticism. I grew up on his stuff–read what I said. The last sentence. I owe a significant debt to him for my love of poetry, despite that fact that his isn’t the kind of work that stands up in an academic seminar. It’s great stuff. And it’s also my understanding that McKuen had a great sense of humor and was well aware of how and where he chose to pursue his gift. The guy sold out performances at major venues wherever he played–that’s a cultural phenomena in an America that really doesn’t give a collective shit about art. Robert Frost never accomplished that, nor Maya Angelou. I’m glad this old essay hit a chord, however–means I’m doing MY job okay.


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