Rod McKuen: The Best-Selling 70s Poet and Songwriter Barely Remembered Today

Rod McKuen: songwriter, recording artist, poet, author, and actor. In 1972, he was the best-selling author in America and the best-selling poet in history. He had over 60 gold and platinum records. Artists like Frank Sinatra, Johnny Cash, and Nina Simone recorded his songs. 

According to his biography, A Voice of the Warm: The Life of Rod McKuen, by Barry Alfonso, McKuen was associated with San Franciso Beat Poetry Scene, the dance craze The Twist, the Great American Songbook School of Pop, New Age environmental recordings, and twentieth-century classical music. He was a real-life Zelig, yet, today, he’s forgotten.

What happened to him? Why did he disappear from the public eye? Let’s take a deep dive into the fascinating life and times of Rod McKuen, and explore the reasons behind his meteoric rise to fame and his subsequent fall from grace.

Rod McKuen’s Early Life

Rod McKuen was born in 1933 as an illegitimate child to a single mother named Clarice Woolever in Oakland, California. The mystery of his father’s identity was always shrouded in secrecy, leaving Rod to piece together the puzzle of his origins. In his captivating book, Finding My Father, he recounts the emotional journey of his search to uncover the truth about his father. Despite his efforts, he could be only partially sure. Still, he eventually identified a possible candidate. 

His early home life was grim. His mother married a violent, hard-drinking man who had no interest in raising someone else’s child. Rod became a victim of physical and sexual abuse from his stepfather and other family members. The family was destitute, constantly moving from one unstable living situation to another.

Rod retreated into a world of imagination and storytelling to escape from his harsh reality. He spun tales about his “real dad” and created other fictions about his life. As he grew older, Rod continued exaggerating his achievements. Many of his supposed accomplishments, such as performing at a Kennedy state dinner, could never be verified.

Rod ran away from his unhappy home life at age 11 and found work as a ranch hand. Unfortunately, the authorities caught up with him, labeling him an incorrigible runaway, which landed him a three-year stint in juvenile detention. After his release, he continued his nomadic ways, working in various odd jobs, including rodeo gigs and lumberjack work. 

Rod continued telling untruths to promote himself throughout his career. This newswire puff piece, almost certainly put out by Rod to hype his beginning acting career, says that while he was in the army, he “became a Tokyo night club star and then a leading actor in five Japanese movies! With time left over to write songs, complete a book of poems, and to be decorated by Korean President Syngman Rhee ‘for promoting international good will.'”

McKuen’s Early Career

At this point, nobody would have predicted any kind of greatness for this poor kid with very little education. But Rod had a life-long love of reading, especially poetry, and he had learned to sing cowboy ballads while on the rodeo circuit. He kept a journal on the road, experimenting with writing poetry.

Rod was a likable kid, a quick learner, and–above all–a hustler. At 16, Rod transformed a humble doorman job at a local theater into his radio show on San Francisco’s KROW.

Even at the beginning of his career, Rod diversified. While working as a DJ, Rod began reading his poetry in San Francisco clubs alongside Beat poets like Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. He also started performing as a folk singer in local clubs, often performing his own music. He released several albums in the late 1950s. And he started acting, appearing in small parts in a few movies.

In 1961, Rod had a minor hit with the song “Oliver Twist,” an interesting take on the Chubby Checker Twist dance craze that brought Charles Dickens into the mix. It only got to #76 on the Billboard Hot 100, but, showing his characteristic tenacity, McKuen released an entire album of “Oliver Twist”-themed songs. He parlayed this into extended gigs with his backing band, The Keytones.

He ruined his voice by shouting out the chorus of his dance songs night after night. From then on, he could only sing in a raspy whisper. “It sounds like I gargle with Dutch Cleanser,” he famously said.

Collaboration with Jacques Brel

In 1962, Rod created an unauthorized English translation of Jacques Brel’s song “Le Moribond.” Brel’s original lyrics are terse and honest (“Goodby, Antoine, I did not like you very much”) McKuen took a more sentimental approach. (“Adieu, Papa, please pray for me”) and retitled it “Seasons in the Sun.”

The Kingston Trio recorded the song, and Rod included his own version on an album as well. Brel heard his version and returned the favor by having a french translation of Rod’s song, “The Lovers,” on one of his albums.

Stanyon Street & Other Sorrows

Ever the hustler, Rod worked with anyone he could, ensuring his name got out there. Glen Yarbrough released over a dozen albums featuring Rod’s songs, including the 1966 album The Lonely Things: The Love Songs of Rod McKuenThe album featured some poems by McKuen. The positive response encouraged Rod to self-publish a book of poetry, Stanyon Street & Other Sorrows.

The book was a surprise hit. Like McKuen himself, it shouldn’t have succeeded. It was a book of poetry, never a popular genre. It was initially sold only by mail order from a mention in the liner notes of The Lonely Things. 

Rod had a friend reach out to bookstores in California, asking if they would carry just one or two copies of the book. The bookstores started ordering additional copies. Eventually, the book sold over 65,000 copies, unheard of for a self-published book of poetry.

McKuen’s Career Peak: 1967 – 1974

Stanyon Street opened the door to the fame Rod had been seeking his whole life. His collaboration with composer Anita Kerr, The Sea, was on the Billboard charts for 143 weeks. 

Random House published Rod’s next book of poems, Listen to the Warm, which contained his most famous (and probably most critically reviled) poem, “A Cat Named Sloopy.” 

RCA released an album with Rod reading the poems from Listen to the Warm. Both the book and the album were hits.

By 1971, he had sold over three million volumes of poetry. He hosted a T.V. special on NBC and a 6-episode T.V. series in England on the BBC.

He was one of those 70s celebrities who seemed to be everywhere: in the book store, on your record player, in the theater, on the late-night talk shows, on the game shows, and profiled in magazines.

Seasons in the Sun

The biggest break of Rod’s career was Terry Jack’s cover of Seasons in the Sun. The song took on a special meaning for Jacks when a close friend died of leukemia. As discussed in The Worst Songs of the 1970s (sorry, Rod), Terry tried to get the Beach Boys to cover it, but they passed, so he recorded his own version. The song sold over six million copies worldwide. 

Terry Jacks added his own twist on the lyrics by rewriting the third verse. Still, in classic McKuen fashion, Rod capitalized on the song’s success by recording his own recording of the song and a Seasons in the Son poetry anthology.

McKuen’s Famous Accomplishments

This is just a short list of Rod McKuen’s most famous accomplishments.

  • Grammy Award winner for best-spoken word recording for his Lonesome Cities album
  • His album Rod McKuen at Carnegie Hall spent 16 weeks on the Billboard Hot 100
  • Jean” — written for the film The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie — was a #2 hit for Oliver in 1969 and received an Academy Award nomination for best original song.
  • McKuen also received a second Academy Award nomination for original song score for a Boy Named Charlie Brown.
  • Frank Sinatra recorded an entire album of Rod McKuen songs, A Man Alone. 
  • One of McKuen’s translations of a Jacques Brels song, “If You Go Away,” has been recorded by Glen Campbell, Neil Diamond, Dusty Springfield, and Cindy Lauper.
  • He was awarded a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for his recordings.
  • He was (and I have no more information about this surprising fact) the voice of Archimedes in both the movie and the T.V. Series for The Little Mermaid.

Rod McKue: Always the Hustler

Even with his success, he remained a hustler. He took advantage of his name recognition by churning out small gift books written by other people and heavy on illustrations and quotes. (One of his most popular was God’s Greatest Hits, an illustrated collection of Bible quotes.) 

He listed his accomplishments in the front of his books, lest you forget. And he continued to enhance his achievements; He sold over three million books of poetry, but he consistently told reporters it was five million.

He constantly toured, telling the Chicago Tribune in 2001 that he did 280 concerts in one year. He never turned down a talk show or game show appearance.

These were just some of the many ways you could connect with Rod McKuen

Connection with His Fans

For many years, Rod was a beacon of hope and inspiration for his devoted fanbase. His message of love and compassion resonated deeply with countless individuals who eagerly sought out any product bearing his name.

Despite his immense popularity, Rod remained humble and approachable, regularly connecting with his supporters on and off the stage. Whether chatting with them after a show or personally responding to letters, Rod understood that his fans were integral to his success.

Criticism: The King of Kitsch

Rod McKuen’s fans loved him, but the critics did not. Newsweek called him “The King of Kitsch,” a nickname that stuck with him throughout his career. In 1967, Time Magazine called his poetry “sweet love, lonely rooms, silent rain, quiet snow, and lost cats.” 

What’s most telling is the disdain his critics show those who love him. It’s almost as if they are looked down upon for having an opinion different from the literate elites; for liking sweet love, lonely rooms, silent rain, quiet snow, and lost cats. 

As Ephron said in her Esquire profile, “That literary critics and poets think nothing whatsoever of McKuen’s talent as a poet matters not a bit to his followers, who are willing to be as unabashedly soppy as their bard and are not, in any event, at all rigid in their distinctions between song lyrics and poetry.”

McKuen’s poetry and music may not be to everyone’s taste (and honestly, a poet as prolific as McKuen tends to turn out a lot of stuff that could be better). Still, I will say that “A Cat Named Sloopy” is tender, sweet, and beautifully written.

McKuen’s Sexuality

McKuen’s philosophy was “It doesn’t matter who you love as long as you love.”. He lived for a man named Edward Habib until the end of his life but also told reporters about a live-in girlfriend in France with whom he had two children. (This appears to have been one of his inventions.)

In 1977, Rod spoke out against Anita Bryant’s effort to repeal Dade County, Florida’s new ordinance prohibiting discrimination based on “sexual preference.” When Bryant’s spokesman referred to McKuen as a homosexual, Rod responded with, “I’ve been attracted to men, and I’ve been attracted to women . . . You put a label on me.”

Rod McKuen criticizes Anita Bryant for her stance against gays

How it Ended

In the end, Rod McKuen did seem to… go away. His popularity peaked in 1974 and declined throughout the 1970s. Articles about McKuen make it seem like he dropped out of sight in the early 80s, never to be heard from again.

That’s not entirely true. Rod released a book, An Outstretched Hand, in 1980 and turned up in a few appearances and interviews here and there. But, the years of saturating the public eye were over. 

As the decade ushered in new musical and literary styles, McKuen’s sentimental poetry and music began to fall out of favor, making it more difficult for him to maintain his previous success. At the same time, he began struggling with depression (perhaps caused by his fading popularity), which took a toll on his ability to hustle as relentlessly as he had earlier in his career. He faded away from the entertainment industry.

He tried a few times to make a comeback, but the widespread market for his work wasn’t there. He died in 2015 with his faithful partner Edward by his side. The L.A. Times obituary referred to Edward Habib as Rod’s half-brother. The master lier snuck in one lie at the very end.

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