A piece of driftwood.
A perfect LP sleeve.
And perhaps a little gay.*
Not to me though.
To me the (almost) middle aged beachcomber depicted is a romantic slightly retreat-ist anti-hero at odds with contemporary society.
McKuen was that person.
I say was because Rod McKuen died earlier this year, on January 29, 2015.
Readers of this blog will see that I have commented on other Rod McKuen albums in the past. Go to those for biographical detail.
McKuen was 81 when he died, and sadly, that revival in his career I imagined could always happen never did.
But the press remembered his place in history:
NEW YORK (AP) — Rod McKuen, the husky-voiced "King of Kitsch" whose avalanche of music, verse and spoken-word recordings in the 1960s and '70s overwhelmed critical mockery and made him an Oscar-nominated songwriter and one of the best-selling poets in history, has died. He was 81. http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2015/01/29/us/ap-us-obit-rod-mckuen.html
The mainstream may have referred to him as the King of Kitsch but within that title, if that title is accurate, he encompassed many tings and took many positions which made him progressive, even in the progressive 60s, and would even still make him progressive by today's standards. His attitudes to the environment, war, the arms race, gender politics, human rights, interpersonal relationships and all sorts of social ills were insightful and accordingly, "progressive". Sure, he lacked the "scientific" rigour to make him a soapbox singer, a political troubadour, or a militant malcontent minstrel but that was intentional on his part. His beliefs were wrapped in a romantic humanism almost religiously spiritual in nature which was always inclusive rather than exclusive.
In the 60s a critic called him a "soft voice in a hard world" and that is pretty accurate. Not so much in actual voice but in themes. He was in his thirties. Those themes were there when he was in his twenties and their when he grew old. He was remarkably consistent in his out look on life.
McKuen's songs are populated by people (lovers, friends, friends who are lovers, strangers, people who meet by chance) who are trying to make connections or maintain connections, and not necessarily sexual ones, in a world that is determined to make it difficult for them. That "difficulty" is a dual one, both manmade and natural. The busy society and the impersonality of technology are all themes hinted at but the movement of time and aging also reoccur in song after song.
Time is always slipping away in McKuen's songs and he is forever trying to stop it or preserve the moment or rather make that moment last, longer than it does.
It is undeniably romantic.
When wrapped in strings, spoken word, with a world weary and throaty voice it is a little kitsch.
It is also ready for rediscovery.
What Rick Rubin did for Johnny Cash on his "American Recordings" he could have done for Rod McKuen.
Perhaps, McKuen was a little "one note" (sic). Certainly, despite the fact that he has sold millions of volumes of poetry I find his music easier to listen to than his poetry to read. In both mediums his themes are re-visited many times but what makes them so appealing (at least aurally) is the delivery. At his best his voice is up front, weary, with retrained emotion whilst behind him he has a small orchestra or large combo.
One thing is for certain, he was prolific, there are many Rod McKuen songs ready for rediscovery.
This record was made on 1967 … I have little detail on it but I assume it was done at the same session as the songs for the "Seasons in the Sun" (1966) album.
This album is firmly of McKuen's late 60s product. His style is well developed. This is the sound that he would, more or less, keep till the end of his career.
Tracks (best in italics)
- I'm Strong But I Like Roses – (Rod McKuen) – yes, and why not.
- Blue – (Rod McKuen – Gloria Shayne) – A smoky late night ballad much in the Sinatra mould. Co-writer Shayne wrote "Goodbye Cruel World", which was recorded by James Darren in 1961.
- Chasing The Sun – (Rod McKuen) – an ode to youth
- Song Without Words- (Rod McKuen – Jacques Brel) – a spoken piece with nice piano accompaniment which is quite sombre and quite French, not surprising given it is written with Brel. (this actually plays as track 5)
- Love Child – (Rod McKuen) – This plays as track 4 not track 5 …odd. In any event it's a devastating song. McKuen had a dysfunctional growing up particularly in relation to his "real" father. This song s partially autobiographical.
- Nobody Told Me – (Rod McKuen – John Addison) – John Addison was an English film composer best known for the Oscar winning score to Tom Jones (1963).
- Interlude – (Rod McKuen – Hale Matthews) – a gentle samba type beat. Dream like.
- When Summer Ends (I Think I'll Go Back Home) – (Rod McKuen) – a beautiful song with familiar McKuen themes, and a nice melody line. It reminds me a little of The Elvis Presley song "Let's Be Friends" from 1969.
- The Word Before Goodbye – (Rod McKuen) – "Hello is the word before goodbye"
- Orly Field & Fields Of Wonder – (Rod McKuen) – from "Stanyan Street and Other Sorrows". A poem, spoken, to acoustic guitar.
- I Don't Know Why (Je Ne Sais Pas) – (Rod McKuen – Jacques Brel) – a short (like a fragment of a song?) almost spoken song about lost love.
- I Am What I Am – (Rod McKuen) – If you try you can find a homosexual subtext in just about anything.
- I Wish You'd Stay – (Rod McKuen) – OK, there's anchors being dropped in the bay and restless men at dawn in this song. A good tune.
- Once Upon A Summertime (La Valse des Lilas) – (Johnny Mercer – Michele LeGrand) – Originally done by Blossom Dearie for her "Once Upon a Summertime"(1958) album. Other versions include Tony Bennett 1963 and Astrud Gilberto (1966). A beautiful lost love song.
Wonderful … I'm keeping it.
I find something wrong with the charts when it comes to McKuen. Very few of his LPs appear in the US charts. But yet his albums are everywhere here in Australia (and in the US I assume). Record labels will get it wrong once and have to dump hundreds of thousands of copies of an album on the public but they wont re-finance mistakes and McKuen had to many albums to have mistakes. Over his career, McKuen released over fifty vocal albums, ten spoken word albums, fourteen albums of classical compositions, twelve live recordings, fifteen hits compilations, four greatest Hits compilations, and sixteen albums in collaboration with Anita Kerr and the San Sebastian Strings. So why isn't there more of a chart presence?
I'm Strong But I Like Roses
When Summer Ends (I Think I'll Go Back Home)
a video biography
- *I've just deleted three paragraphs of my rambling. I don't want to give this topic any mileage because McKuen himself didn't want to give it any mileage so I've put it down here. The mainstream press in their obituaries made no mention of his sexuality mainly because, for McKuen, there was no big coming out moment. The alternative press saw a conspiracy because McKuen's sexuality (his "gayness") was not championed in those obituaries. The fact that he wasn't championed by the gay press while he was alive probably says lot about them. When asked, in 2004, at age 70, on his blog, if he was gay he said, in typical McKuen fashion: "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 do identify with the Gay Rights struggle, to me that battle is about nothing more or less than human rights. I marched in the 50’s and 60’s to protest the treatment of Blacks in this country and I’m proud of the fact that I broke the color barrier in South Africa by being the first artist to successfully demand integrated seating at my concerts. I am a die-hard feminist and will continue to speak out for women’s rights as long as they are threatened. These, of course, are all social issues and have nothing to do with my sex life (although admittedly I’ve met some pretty hot people of both sexes on the picket line.)." http://www.rodmckuen.org/
One day he will be rediscovered and his history will be rewritten, no doubt (as it already seems to be … a lot of post death articles refer to him as a "gay icon"?) but he is a most unlikely poster boy for the orthodox homosexual lobby but an effective one for the humanist lobby.
- For more on Rod and media representations of him read: http://notchesblog.com/2015/02/19/not-by-my-definition-remembering-rod-mckuens-queer-life-and-times/
- And anyway, I like singlets.
- This album was arranged by Tommy Morgan, conductor by Jim Helms, Pierre Renault, Tommy Morgan and produced by Dave Hubert, Ed Habib, Rod McKuen.