Does 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 country 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 on 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.
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.