We probably need a Rod McKuen now more than we ever did.
In what seems to be an increasingly polarised world (at least in the middle class secular west) we need him to show that all men aren’t pricks and that they can be observant, sensitive and attentive to the feelings of others*.
In this way he is no different to Ray Davies, Brian Wilson, Albert Hammond, Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen and those greatest of non-composers Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley.
They all had the ability to communicate the vicissitudes of personal relationships on a micro level and in a way that seemed they were only singing to you.
They also, all, wore their hearts on their sleeves.
Romantics, lost romantics, emotional empaths.
Rod was the uber romantic.
But, despite having written a memoir, songs that are autobiographical and answered his own blog McKuen was a private man. His songs deal often with love and love lost but not often in a sexual way. He talked about his sexuality and love infrequently and then in atypically McKuen-esque way:
“Am I gay? Let me put it this way, Collectively I spend more hours brushing my teeth than having sex so I refuse to define my life in sexual terms. I've been to bed with women and men and in most cases enjoyed the experience with either sex immensely. Does that make me bi-sexual? Nope. Heterosexual? Not exclusively. Homosexual? Certainly not by my definition.
I am sexual by nature and I continue to fall in love with people and with any luck human beings of both sexes will now and again be drawn to me. 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. I'm attracted to different people for different reasons”.
I don’t need to examine it any more than he has outlined, and he probably wouldn’t want anyone to.
Perhaps his ability to see things from both sides gave him an edge in singing about emotions honestly (as it did Tennessee Williams in the written word) though that doesn’t explain those other singers, who have the same gift, mentioned above.
No, I think McKuen’s ability to get to the heart of things is based around his ability to listen and observe, and then express what he has heard and seen, frankly, without prejudice, or fear.
To listen and to observe doesn’t require any gender, sexuality, cultural, racial or religious requirements. The skills are available to anyone, and, people who have those skills can be found in all of the groups above.
His songs are heavy on the aforesaid observation and sometimes a little presumptuous about people feelings though he is describing what he sees through his eyes and based on his world experiences (don’t we all?). He pigeonholes some of his subjects, repeats himself occasionally, and everything is overlayed with a melancholy air which is wrapped up in trad pop which can be sensitive or incredibly kitschy.
The beauty though is in the delivery, the mood and the honesty. His frankness, in relation to himself, is everywhere in his music though not always explicit. His attitude is, perhaps, best encapsulated in his song title (on this album), “I'm Strong but I like Roses”. His singing style is conversational and it seems as if he is talking to you in a bar or a coffee shop, or rather, a European coffee shop where they serve alcohol.
It’s hard not to be moved by the music, especially if you are a middle aged male and half tanked. And yet, women love him also, if the countless blog responses are anything to go by, but, they must, for totally different reasons. Mustn't they?
McKuen, here, in 1966 had not reached the peak of his career but he was an influential bubbling under type of guy.
Within three years Sinatra would record an album of his songs, “A Man Alone & Other Songs Of Rod McKuen” (1969), he would receive two Academy Award nominations as a composer for “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie” (1969) and “A Boy Named Charlie Brown” (1969), his “Lonesome Cities” album of readings would win a Grammy for Best Spoken Word Recording in 1968, he would host a major network TV special (1968), and his books of poems would become best sellers with his books selling over one million copies in 1968 alone apparently.
This album seems to be a collection of recently written (circa 1966) McKuen songs which I assume are all recorded for this album.
All his usual themes are here fully formed and the music is lush without the soft around the edges treacle that would dull the sharp edges of similar trad pop music in the 70s. Don get me wrong there are heavenly backing vocals, strings and all sorts of things here but there is a crispness in the production which is the result of 60s recording techniques. In the 70s, with technological advancement the sounds would become a little duller, and accordingly the music a little blander (perhaps).
Yet he is soft, relaxing and melancholic romantic. If you like quiet words that paint a picture and love a soft, slight raspy voice sung in an almost conversational tone … then this is perfect.
Tracks (best in italics)
- The Hurtin' – (Rod McKuen – Mort Garson) – Mort Garson was a Canadian-born songwriter, composer and arranger who worked with a lot of trad pop and easy listening stars. This is a great song that captures one of McKuen's usual themes.
- You – (Rod McKuen) – mush, but superior, glorious mush about the narrators love for another.
- Before The Monkeys Came – (Rod McKuen – Lincoln Mayorga) – Lincoln Mayorga is an American songwriter, pianist, arranger, and conductor who worked in all sorts of style and recorded with every one from Andy Williams to Frank Zappa. Thematically, this is a weird song that sounds like a theme song to a Hollywood film, where people have dropped acid. It has something (everything) to do with love and sex.
- The Summertime Of Days – (Rod McKuen – Mort Garson) – a ballad.
- The Women – (Rod McKuen – Brel – Louannest) – Jacques Brel was an old friend of McKuen’s who Rod stayed with when living in Paris in the early 1960s. Brel’s French version was called “Les Bitches’. Take from that what you will though McKuen says, on the liner notes, the song is a praise of women not a damnation. It may be an ode to women but it is certainly brutally honest. I'm not sure if you get away with this today in the mainstream music.
- Zangra – (Rod McKuen – Jacques Brel) – McKuen describes this, in the liner notes, as a "typical Jacques Brel song", and it is. A chanson given a 19th century feel it comes across as an art song or a leftover from a 1930s period musical). Any song that starts like this isn't western mainstream:
My name is Zangra and I’m lieutenant
At the Belonzio fort overlooking the plain
One day the enemy will come and make me a hero
- Down At Mary's Old Time Bar – (Rod McKuen – Mort Garson) – recorded live apparently, this is a zippy song McKuen says was "conceived as an "art song"". It certainly changes tempo and narrative lines freely. A novelty but a pleasing one.
- Meantime – McKuen's familiar ballad style. That is, a ballad with a gentle bounce and lots of lyrics about "us". It's always pleasing.
- Open The Window And See All The Clowns – Rod would like a clown song, of course, but who are the clowns?
- I'm Strong, But I Like Roses – Rod's statement of who he is.
- The Statue – (Rod McKuen – Jacques Brel) – Brel's familiar cynicism as he takes the point of view of a heroic statue. Now, that's putting yourself into someone else's shoes! Of course the statue refers to both the inanimate object and the flesh and blood narrator.
- Ain't You Glad You're Livin', Joe – McKuen says (in the liner notes) he included this song to show "all my songs aren't about the dead and dying, the loners and the lonely". Beautiful. Fluffy and perfect for a late 60s musical. They should have had him write the songs for "Doctor Dolittle".
- Loneliness In Crowds – (Rod McKuen – John Addison) – Addison won an Oscar for his score for English film "Tom Jones" (1963) and went to California, as you would. This sounds like a song from a 60s musical film about a man with a mid life crisis. And it works.
One of McKuen's best albums … I'm keeping it.
Before The Monkeys Came
Down At Mary's Old Time Bar
Open The Window And See All The Clowns
I'm Strong, But I Like Roses
Ain't You Glad You're Livin', Joe
Loneliness In Crowds
a video biography
- Arranger and conductors are Mort Garson, Anita Kerr, Lincoln Mayorga and Tommy Morgan. Featured instrumentalists are Terry trotter (piano), James Helms (lead guitar), Stephens La Fever (bass).
- Rod was know for his large collection of records. The liner notes here (1966) indicate he lives in a big house in Southern California with his 8000 records.
* or maybe they are pricks that are but observant, sensitive and attentive to the feelings of others which would make them partial pricks
RIP: Malcolm Young (1953-2017)