Friday, January 30, 2015

Remembering Rod McKuen (And a Tale Not Yet Told)

Rod McKuen, seen here in a 1960s photo taken for Life Magazine, died this week at the age of 81.

More than a year ago, I came across a copy, on one of my bookshelves, of Stanyan Street and Other Sorrows, a very successful book of poems by Rod McKuen. Curious about this once-famous man, I started nosing about on the Internet to find out what had happened to him. It appeared he was living in quiet retirement in Southern California in a home he shared with his brother. I thought it would be an absolutely delightful thing to find him and interview him again with the idea that his life story would make a fascinating book. 

As often happens with creative impulses we don't pursue, the moment has passed. Rod McKuen died this week at the age of 81. 

My copy of Stanyan Street & Other Sorrows still has the dust jacket and carries a nice stain on it from a coffee cup--a sign that I kept it displayed on my coffee table during the years of my insousiance.

McKuen had enormous success in his life, writing over 1500 songs that account for the sales of more than 100 million records. He won a Golden Globe award, two Oscar nominations and a nomination for a Pulitzer Prize. Despite the almost universal dismay of critics, who called his work full of schmaltz and kitsch, he succeeded at everything he tried from acting, to singing, to writing poetry, pop, folk, and even symphony music.  He had a famous collaboration with the poet Jacques Brel as well as with a wide range of other artists, including Frank Sinatra (who recorded an entire album of his work), Henry Mancini, Johnny Mathis, Al Hirt, the Kingston Trio, John Williams, and many, many others. In fact, there were few stars of the mid-to-late 20th century he didn't work with and know. He had an ear for what was hip and he repeatedly caught just the right wave in American pop culture and surfed it home.

If you've ever seen the Academy Award-winning film "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie" (1969), starring Maggie Smith (now of "Downton Abbey" fame), you may recall the haunting theme from that movie, "Jean." Written and performed by McKuen, it earned him his first Oscar nomination. He wrote the hit "Love's Been Good to Me" for Frank Sinatra and won another Oscar nod for the music he composed for the animated film "A Boy Named Charlie Brown" (1969). If you listen carefully, you can even hear his voice in the 1989 Disney film "The Little Mermaid."

All this success came to a man who had run away from his dysfunctional Oakland home at the age of eleven. He had little education and no formal training in music. Living on the streets, he had begun to write and through his writing began to meet the beat poets of the day, including Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. The story goes that Oakland resident and up-and-coming comedienne, Phyllis Diller, heard him reading his poetry on a street corner one day and helped him get his first gig at San Francisco's famed Purple Onion. 

I met him at the end of the 1970s, when intellectual critics had begun to really savage his work. I was then a rookie reporter at KRON-TV in San Francisco and when I read that he was making an appearance at City Lights, the famous beat SF bookstore, I asked my producer if I could go and do a quick feature on him and ask how he felt about the terrible reviews he was getting. It wasn't a big news day, I guess, so I got to go. 

Someone had given me a copy of his book Stanyan Street when I was in college, so I stopped by my apartment to pick it up en route to the interview. Traffic in San Francisco wasn't quite so paralyzed back then and I lived on Russian Hill just blocks from City Lights' North Beach location; thus, it was not as impractical as it sounds--though I did endure a good razzing for it from the cameraman.

Standing in front of my apartment in San Francisco, on Leavenworth near the corner of Lombard Street. 

McKuen was an absolute delight to interview. Wearing his signature jeans, a turtleneck sweater, and a really expensive-looking sporty tweed jacket, he was handsome in a rough sort of way. I was just starting out in life: he was near the end of his more weary forties. He was wonderful to talk with: self effacing, funny and still full of wonder at the things he had been lucky enough to achieve. He shrugged when I asked him about his critics, saying he figured they just might be right. I was glad I stopped to pick up his book, because seeing it in my hand made him smile, and, like all good authors, he opened it to see which edition I owned. It was the eighth printing--always a lovely thing for a published writer to note. He asked me about my own career and told me he hoped I would one day cover much more important stories than Rod McKuen.

Pulling out a felt-tipped pen from the inside pocket of his jacket he scribbled a little cartoon of his face on the flyleaf. "Robin, stay well," he wrote, and signed his name. 

My signed copy of Stanyan Street & Other Sorrows, from my interview with Rod McKuen.

Not long afterward, in 1981, McKuen retired. He told friends he was suffering from a bleak depression he had struggled with for many years. People who grow up without parental love often feel worthless and don't understand why. Fame in America has a very short half-life and as McKuen faded from the public eye he also faded from its heart. The sheer volume of his musical work must have made for a comfortable retirement. All those ASCAP earnings. Was that enough consolation for a former lost boy?  

McKuen did prove to be right about one thing:  I did cover many so-called "bigger" stories in my career than an interview in a bookstore with Rod McKuen. But few were quite so poignant and I have remembered few of them quite so clearly. I will always feel that the very American tale of his life--from his Dickensian childhood in Oakland, to his huge success in Hollywood, to his quiet fall--would be a great story to write. And to read. I'm sorry I didn't get the chance to meet him again and talk with him about it. 

At KRON-TV, about the time I met Rod McKuen.

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Peter V. said...

Dear Robin:

Thanks for a poignant reverie on an accomplished man.

A good reminder that even the worst of savages know to not eat their own.

We should be as civilized.

Best always,

Pete V.

Robin Chapman said...

I think it is truly sad that the headline in my local paper over his obituary didn't say "Popular 60's singer/songwriter dies" but instead said "King of Kitsch Dies at 81." That just seems lacking in good taste. Nihil nisi bonum etc.

John Rogers said...

Hello Robin. Lovely writing. I too was fortunate to interview Rod but more briefly at a Melbourne airport press conference in 1972 when he came to Australia on one of several tours. His quiet soft voice, joking aside about his hoarseness, impressed me. I had been the owner for a couple of years of The Sea, his lp witb Anita Kerr which had featured on a radio special in Australia when I was an impressionable 21. I was impressed by the prose, bought Stanyan Street and Other Sorrows and although much younger than Rod I identifiec with his feelings in the poetry, perhaps because I was a bit melancholic myself. Rod signed the book flyleaf for me and I still have it today. I became a fan and went to several of Rod's concerts over the years. Time passed and I moved my tastes to the prose of Jackson Browne but I retain some affection for Rod's words and feelings.