Sunday, April 29, 2018

Born Today in 1933, Poet, Singer-Songwrier Rod McKuen

Rod McKuen was born today, April 29, in 1933.  He was a poet, singer-songwriter, and actor. He was one of the best-selling poets in the United States during the late 1960s. Throughout his career, McKuen produced a wide range of recordings, which included popular music, spoken word poetry, film soundtracks and classical music. He earned two Academy Award nominations and one Pulitzer nomination for his music compositions. 

McKuen's translations and adaptations of the songs of Jacques Brel were instrumental in bringing the Belgian songwriter to prominence in the English-speaking world. McKuen's poetry deals with themes of love, the natural world and spirituality. His songs sold more than 100 million recordings worldwide, and 60 million books of his poetry were sold as well.

McKuen was born in a Salvation Army hostel in Oakland, California. He never knew his biological father who had left his mother. Sexually and physically abused by relatives, raised by his mother and stepfather, who was a violent alcoholic, McKuen ran away from home at the age of 11. He drifted along the West Coast, supporting himself as a ranch hand, surveyor, railroad worker, lumberjack, rodeo cowboy, stuntman, and radio disc jockey, always sending money home to his mother.

To compensate for his lack of formal education, McKuen began keeping a journal, which resulted in his first poetry and song lyrics. After dropping out of Oakland Technical High School prior to graduating in 1951, McKuen worked as a newspaper columnist and propaganda script writer during the Korean War. 

He settled in San Francisco, where he read his poetry in clubs alongside Beat poets like Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. He began performing as a folk singer at the famed Purple Onion. Over time, he began incorporating his own songs into his act. He was signed to Decca Records and released several pop albums in the late 1950s. McKuen also appeared as an actor in Rock, Pretty Baby (1956), Summer Love (1958), and the western Wild Heritage (1958). He also sang with Lionel Hampton's band. In 1959, McKuen moved to New York City to compose and conduct music for the TV show The CBS Workshop. McKuen appeared on To Tell The Truth on June 18, 1962 as a decoy contestant, and described himself as "a published poet and a twist singer."

In the early 1960s, McKuen moved to France, where he first met the Belgian singer-songwriter and chanson singer Jacques Brel.

In the late 1960s, McKuen began to publish books of poetry, earning a substantial following among young people with collections like Stanyan Street & Other Sorrows (1966), Listen to the Warm (1967), and Lonesome Cities (1968). His Lonesome Cities album of readings won a Grammy for Best Spoken Word Recording in 1968. McKuen's poems were translated into 11 languages and his books sold over 1 million copies in 1968 alone.

McKuen wrote over 1,500 songs, which have accounted for the sale of over 100 million records worldwide. His songs have been performed by such diverse artists as Robert Goulet, Barbra Streisand, Perry Como, Petula Clark, Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, and Frank Sinatra.

McKuen's Academy Award-nominated composition "Jean", sung by Oliver, reached No.1 in 1969 on the Billboard Adult Contemporary chart and stayed there for four weeks. In 1971, his song "I Think of You" was a major hit for Perry Como. Other popular McKuen compositions included "The World I Used to Know," "Rock Gently," "Doesn't Anybody Know My Name," "The Importance of the Rose," "Without a Worry in the World," and "Soldiers Who Want to Be Heroes."

During the 1970s, McKuen began composing larger-scale orchestral compositions, writing a series of concertos, suites, symphonies, and chamber pieces for orchestra. His piece The City: A Suite for Narrator & Orchestra, was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in Music. He continued publishing a steady stream of poetry books throughout the decade. In 1977, he published Finding My Father, a chronicle of his search for information on his biological father. The book and its publicity helped make such information more readily available to adopted children. He also continued to record, releasing albums such as New Ballads (1970), Pastorale (1971), and the country-rock outing McKuen Country (1976).

McKuen continued to perform concerts around the world and appeared regularly at New York's Carnegie Hall throughout the 1970s, making sporadic appearances as recently as the early 2000s.

McKuen retired from live performances in 1981. The following year, he was diagnosed with clinical depression, which he battled for much of the next decade. He continued to write poetry, however, and made appearances as a voice-over actor in The Little Mermaid and the TV series The Critic.

2001 saw the publication of McKuen's A Safe Place to Land, which contains 160 pages of new poetry. For 10 years he gave an annual birthday concert at Carnegie Hall or the Lincoln Center. He released the double CD The Platinum Collection and was remastering all of his RCA and Warner Bros. recordings for release as CD boxed sets. In addition to his artistic pursuits he was the Executive President of the American Guild of Variety Artists (AGVA), a post he held longer than any other man or woman elected to the position.

McKuen refused to identify as gay, straight, or bisexual, but once explained his sexuality saying, "I can't imagine choosing one sex over the other, that's just too limiting. I can't even honestly say I have a preference." 

He was active in the LGBT rights movement, and as early as the 1950s, was a key member of the San Francisco chapter of the Mattachine Society, one of the nation's earliest LGBT advocacy organizations. The cover of McKuen's 1977 album Slide... Easy In featured a photo of a man's arm gripping a handful of vegetable shortening; the can was a pastiche of Crisco - then widely used by gay men as a sexual lubricant - with the label instead reading "Disco." That same year, McKuen spoke out against singer Anita Bryant and her "Save Our Children" campaign to repeal an anti-discrimination ordinance in Miami, tagging Bryant with the nickname "Ginny Orangeseed," and also including a song on Slide... Easy In titled "Don't Drink the Orange Juice," referencing Bryant's fame as commercial pitchwoman for the Florida Citrus Commission. He often gave benefit performances to aid LGBT rights organizations and to fund AIDS research.

McKuen lived in Southern California with his brother Edward, whom he called his "partner," and four cats in a large rambling Spanish house built in 1928, which housed one of the world's largest private record collections. He died of respiratory arrest, a result of pneumonia, at a hospital in Beverly Hills, California, on January 29, 2015.

No comments: