His life story reads like the Forest Gump of counter-culture, he was one of the best-selling poets in American history, he performed on the Tonight’s Show and was nominated for two Oscars and still I bet most young people have never heard of him. Rod McKuen, American poet and singer/songwriter, passed away yesterday.
Rod McKuen was born in Oakland, California in 1933. He never knew his father and had run away from his mother and abusive step-father for good by age 11. In his teens and early 20’s he was a ranch hand, a disc jockey, a railroad worker, and rodeo cowboy. He began keeping a journal, which led to his first poems, and took jobs as a newspaper columnist and a propaganda script writer during the Korean War. He settled in San Francisco and in the early 50’s began reading his poetry in coffee shops alongside Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. Soon after he started to sing covers and occasionally originals, performing at the famed Beat-era club The Purple Onion. Before the end of the decade, he’d released several pop albums on Decca Records and was briefly signed as a contract player at a major Hollywood studio, appearing in a few films.
In the early 60’s McKuen moved to France where he met and became lifelong friends with Belgian singer Jacques Brel. McKuen would translate Brel’s songs to English, some like “If You Go Away” and “Seasons In The Sun” became hits. The two continued to work together until Brel’s death in 1978. In the late ’60’s McKuen started publishing books of poetry which became hugely popular with the younger generation. In 1968, he won the Grammy for Best Spoken Word Recording and his books sold over a million copies.
McKuen is said to have written over 1,500 songs, released 200 albums and 30 books of poetry. He was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, won a Golden Globe, and was twice nominated for an Oscar. His songs have been covered by everyone from Barbara Streisand to Waylon Jennings to the Kingston Trio. In 1969, Frank Sinatra released an album of McKuen covers called “A Man Alone.” But even with the great popularity, critical success eluded him and his work was called “schmaltzy” and “superficial” and earned him the nickname “The King of Kitsch.”
Rod McKuen passed away yesterday in Beverly Hills. He was 81.
It’s amazing to me that someone with such a fascinating story could be so quickly forgotten. His career begs some obvious questions about popularity vs critical acclaim, writing for the history books and writing for a hungry audience. But strangely his resume reads like someone greatly revered. Check out this recording of his poem “My Friend By The Sea.”