Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

R.I.P. Rod McKuen, popular poet and prolific songwriter

Illustration for article titled R.I.P. Rod McKuen, popular poet and prolific songwriter

The L.A. Times is reporting the death of Rod McKuen, a poet, singer, songwriter, and composer whose works were full of longing and loneliness, but which drew a huge crowd of fellow sensitive, soul-searching types of the late 1960s, when he became one of the best-selling poets of that or any era. McKuen was also a prolific songwriter, penning more than 1,500 tunes that were recorded by the likes of Frank Sinatra, Perry Como, Barbra Streisand, Johnny Cash, and Madonna, recording dozens of his own solo albums, and composing orchestral works and the Academy Award-nominated soundtracks for films like The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie and A Boy Named Charlie Brown. McKuen died after suffering from pneumonia at the age of 81.


In McKuen’s oft-mythologized childhood, he ran away from an alcoholic stepfather at the age of 11 and made his own way, Horatio Alger-style, working odd jobs as a lumberjack, rodeo cowboy, railroad worker, stuntman, and radio DJ as he rambled through the West. Certainly that mythology played into the reception of his poetry, which he began reading before San Francisco audiences of burgeoning beatniks in the 1950s, captivating them with stanzas full of love and goopy smears of Americana—and incensing critics who derided him as “the King of Kitsch.” Still, while McKuen was never respected in highbrow literary circles for his schmaltz, he was certainly beloved by the masses. His live readings drew huge, rock star-like crowds, and he far outsold contemporaries like Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. He remains one of the most successful poets of the 20th century.

McKuen also performed as a folk singer and released his first album in the late 1950s. He wrote a newspaper column, and acted in movies like Rock, Pretty Baby and Summer Love. He moved first to New York, to create music for The CBS Workshop, then to Paris, where he met chanson singer Jacques Brel—a kindred spirit in McKuen’s brooding, ruminative view of romance. McKuen was the first to translate Brel’s works into English, beginning a practice that led to covers of Brel’s songs from artists like Scott Walker, David Bowie, and most directly Terry Jacks, whose hit “Seasons In The Sun” was based on McKuen’s version of “Le Moribond.”

McKuen’s own compositions were incredibly diverse, ranging from his early 1950s pop songs—including the novelty single “The Mummy” he co-wrote with Bob McFadden (which some of you may recognize from its cover by The Fall)—to folk and country tunes he recorded in his own strained, tentative rasp, like “Doesn’t Anybody Know My Name?” (but made more famous by The Kingston Trio, Johnny Cash, and Waylon Jennings), to sweeping concertos and chamber music he composed for classical orchestras, including the Pulitzer-nominated The City: A Suite For Narrator And Orchestra. Frank Sinatra commissioned an entire album of McKuen songs that was released as A Man Alone: The Words And Music Of Rod McKuen, featuring the popular “Love’s Been Good To Me.” Far more recently, Gene Ween (aka Aaron Freeman) recorded Marvelous Clouds, a collection of McKuen standards.

Throughout the late 1960s and 1970s, McKuen was a familiar presence on television. In 1969, NBC gave him his own TV special, and he spent the next decade regularly turning up to sing on Ed Sullivan and The Johnny Cash Show, to chat with Dick Cavett, David Frost, Mike Douglas, and Johnny Carson, and even to play Hollywood Squares.

McKuen continued to perform regularly at sold-out shows worldwide until 1981, after which he announced that he’d been diagnosed with clinical depression. An inveterate loner, he lived by himself with his cats and what was said to be one of the world’s largest record collections, continuing to write and publish poems, with his last collection arriving in 2004. He also made the occasional voiceover appearance, turning up in Disney’s The Little Mermaid and (as himself) on The Critic.

McKuen’s work spans dozens of books and albums, thousands of songs, and countless impressions on a generation that—literary know-it-alls be damned—embraced his sentimentality with the same unapologetic wholeheartedness he did. Up until his death he continued to communicate with fans on his official website, where he offered them his daily affirmations. McKuen’s final “Thought For Today,” published on January 29: “No matter how great or small your ego, you are probably better than you think you are. Our natural instinct is to aspire to greatness.”