Rod McKuen was one of the most revered Poets of the late 1960s Love generation. Rod was also a highly acclaimed singer, songwriter and soundtrack composer. It could also be said a very shrewd businessman.
As all those remaining fans of Rod’s know he was shy, quiet, volatile at times and a loner. Being a loner made him a target for those who harboured such intense bitterness, hatred and total jealousy against him. Why , well simply he made a lot of money and Poets do not become millionaires, but Rod did.
Rod McKuen was villifiled in life as he was in death. Born on April 29, 1933 in Oakland, California, or as Rod put it “I was born in Oakland, California at The Salvation Army Home for Unwed Mothers on April 29, 1933. The doctor delivered me for $5. My father had left my mother before I was born”. Rod was not born with a Silver spoon in his mouth, quite to the contrary, he was born to a single mother who struggled but made sure her Son had all she could afford at the time of The Great Depression. One of the many sadnesses that seemed to haunt Rod was that he never knew his Father, and his Mother never would tell him anything about his Father. His Mother many years later married and he had a step Brother, but instead of this blond haired gentle little boy, Rod McKuen having a stepfather that would be kind and caring to him, his stepfather drank too much and took against this gentle little boy that he would drag the child from his bed and beat him so much to the point the child suffered broken arms and legs.
The beatings and brutality was something that Rod at a tender age had to cope with, but prior to his acquiring a new Stepfather, Rod’s Mother had left him in the care of her Sister and Brother-in-Law for several years. It was on a Camping Trip that this trusting, and tender little boy went with his Uncle, only for the Uncle to Rape and scar this beautiful little boy for life. The child was subjected to physical and sexual abuse from both of them whilst his Mother was absent. As Rod himself would later say “the physical scars heal but the mental scars remain”. To those who have suffered physical abuse, sexual abuse how those words one can echoe.
Rod would continually run away from home, being caught and sent back but eventually at age 11 years he made his longest trip, moving on his own to the Nevada towns of Ely and Elko, where first he worked as a milk boy carrying pails of milk between the barn and kitchen of a farm, he was paid seventy cents a week, plus room and board. “It was while tending cows that I began to write. First on scraps of paper, little more than words or thoughts that I couldn’t make sense of or understand until I got them out of my head and on paper. This led me to keeping a journal”. After a couple of years on the ranch, Rod was tracked down by the authorities and institutionalized at the Nevada School of Industry, which he characterized as “a reform school without walls.” After three years, he was released and used skills he’d learned on the ranch in Elko to become a rodeo cowboy. Two broken legs after a horse fell on him ended his rodeo career, though he then went onto something as dangerous. Moving back to the Pacific Northwest to work as a lumberjack. “Of all the jobs in a lumber camp that I liked, I think belting up, shimming up the trunk to top trees, then bumping, edging, thunking downward to the ground again was best, It was fun too to get out on the river and dance a logjam free – two, three men yelling warnings back and forth at each other, trying to be heard over the river’s roar.” This is what so many of his critics did not like that Rod McKuen fought through, did every job he could travelled the road, never forgetting his mother, sending money home to her and when he could writing poetry keeping it to himself. He was rodman on a surveying team, laborer, ditch and grave digger, help in soup kitchens, lumberjack and railroad man, stuntman, disc jockey, newspaperman, actor. In the Fifties Rod recited his poetry in the coffee houses of San Francisco with the likes of Kerouac and Ginsberg at the Jazz Cellar in Frisco. He then joined up with the War effort in Korea where he would write scripts for the Army’s Korean Civil Assistance Command. When he finished his Military bit his close friend and mentor Phyllis Diller helped with pushing him along in his career which led to a debut performance at The Purple Onion in San Francisco.
Scouts got him signed up at Universal Studios where he appeared in films, writing the movie score for one and the lyrics for another film. He appeared alongside Maureen O’Sullivan where she played his mother in “Wild Heritage”. He also sang for The Lionel Hampton Band and gigging in clubs. CBS Workshop brought him to New York where he cranked out the beginning proliferation with his grand and a half tunes like “Rock Gently”, “Love’s Been Good To Me” and “The World I Used to Know”. In 1966 Rod’s Stanyan Street and Other Sorrows hit the shelves and I suppose one could say “the rest was history”.
He worked with Jacques Brel for almost two decades, his song written for Brel by him “If You Go Away” garnered the honor “Song Of the Millennium” by the French Performing Society for that momentous event. Rod was Nominated Twice for an Academy Award for his scores on the Maggie Smith film The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and the comic strip to big screen A Boy Named Charlie Brown. His talents were sought and used by so many orchestras with or without him, including The City where his narration won him a Pulitzer Prize in Music, a forerunner of which was seen with his Grammy in 1968 (beating JFK and MLK’s nomination for their orations) for that years Best Spoken Word album Lonesome Cities. When the next decade rolled in and Rod was receiving more Awards, he took on more public service work. He worked against separate seating during his Concert in South Africa, South Africa’s Apartheid. Rod won Two Medals from the Freedoms Foundation
Rod’s mental and emotional state was spiraling downward, maybe there was a hint of some of the problems that could be seen in his 1977 prose book Finding My Father. “Having been born a bastard gave me an advantage over all those people who spend their entire lives becoming one. It’s nice to have a head start.” It is because of this book that the UK passed Laws giving adopted children access to their medical records.
By 1981 Rod was in reclusion. “I never planned on retiring at least not at first. About a dozen years ago I came off the road after a particularly tough tour, too many cities in too short a time. Began to think about what I’d known for a while. I’ve been everywhere and seen practically nothing. Airports, motel closest to the theater I’d be performing in, junk food on the way to a sound check, concert – nearly always exhilarating because I love the one on one of performing with an audience no matter how small the theater or large the arena. Back to motel to bed most usually alone, too late for room service, not much sleep because it takes a while coming down from the concert adrenaline rush. Up early; drive to airport, flight to next town and on and on. A while turned out longer than I planned”. He was Clinically ill and seemed to lock himself away. He did return in the 90’s and with his online site he had, it was the most visited site of all, Rod would answer questions frankly. He did appear again perhaps in smaller venues, but he never stopped writing or working.
For Rod McKuen was Special, did he fully recognise how special he was? For those of us that followed him buying his books reading his words over and over. Listening to him singing and buying his records, going to his Concerts, if we were lucky. Rod went onto sell over 60 million of his Books and 100 million of his records Worldwide.
From all the Awards Rod Won or was Nominated for, the jealousy of those people that resented him went on. In particular US Poet Laureate, Karl Shapiro, was quoted as saying that, “It is irrelevant to speak of McKuen as a poet”. It seems most peculiar that he ridiculed as a poet but praised for his lyrics. Yet Rod McKuen’s poetry is frequently taught in high schools and universities throughout the World. Rod McKuen was the recipient of the Carl Sandburg Award and the Walt Whitman Award for his outstanding achievements in poetry. W. H. Auden had been cited as saying that “Rod McKuen’s poems are love letters to the world and I am happy that many of them came to me and found me out.” Perhaps the greatest singer of all times The Chairman of The Board, Frank Sinatra commissioned an entire Album of Rod’s songs that was released as A Man Alone: The Words and Music of Rod McKuen. Sinatra never commissioned anyone else to write an entire album for him. The Worlds biggest selling Poet to date.
A man that had a tough start, who worked hard as a boy and as a young man. A man that with the help of a couple of music theory books he proceeded to train himself as a songwriter. In New York he hung on barely when the CBS Workshop folded. He sold six pints of his blood in one month and became adept at crashing parties in order to get to the hors d’oeuvres, this lifestyle involved him in bouts of ptomaine poisoning. Finally in order to stay alive he writes a put-on of Chubby Checker called the “Oliver Twist”. It became a sensation, selling over a million copies and launched McKuen on a brief career as a rock belter. After he toured for two months with a five-piece combo he was put to bed for six weeks, under doctor’s orders not to open his mouth. When Rod got up he discovered his vocal chords had been permanently fogged over.
Without doubt Rod McKuen was a unique man, who worked hard and enjoyed working hard, he seemed to live for work. Perhaps those of us who have admired him for a long time and those that may just be discovering the works of Rod McKuen, we can all say that we learned something from him, that he left us with a gift, the pleasure we find in the written or spoken word, the pleasure of seeing what we ourselves produce.
Rod McKuen was more than just a Poet he was indeed a very Special Man, Rod was a Gentle Soul, a kind man who wanted to be loved. – “It doesn’t matter who you love, or how you Love, but that you Love”.
“Here on the far side of time we’re near the end of the line. Our days have grown withered and small like the ivy that clings to the wall” – “We’ll go wild into the noon to find what love there is to find an angel on the bedpost or a demon in the mind….”
Rod McKuen – Born April 29, 1933 – Died January 29, 2015
Rod McKuen – The World I Used To Know – The Art of Catching Trains