Born in a charity hospital, McKuen ran away from home at age eleven to escape an abusive alcoholic father. He did a lot of odd jobs and hung out with and read alongside the Beats in San Francisco. He appeared in three films. He won a Best Spoken Word Grammy for Lonesome Cities in 1968. He was endorsed by W.H. Auden, who said, "Rod McKuen's poems are love letters to the world, and I am happy that many of them came to me and found me out." At one point McKuen was on tour 280 days per year, and his songs—covered by the likes of Johnny Cash, Barbra Streisand, Madonna, Dolly Parton, and Frank Sinatra—have reportedly accounted for the sale of over 100 million albums worldwide and were twice nominated for Academy Awards.
Susan Polis Schutz). One of the best signs of the massive gap that continues to exist between popular and academic histories of American poetry, McKuen was a postwar version of Edgar Guest, who, in his own time, found similar popular success in print, sound, film, and spoken-word formats, who was a constant target of critics' scorn, and who also gets scant mention in histories of American poetry. (Like McKuen, Guest had a best-selling female counterpart as well, the prolific newspaper poet Anne Campbell.)
Noftle: Not quite—I'm at twenty-eight by my last count. But I think I only own more records by Bob Dylan, Miles Davis, and The Fall.
P&PC: You realize that not many people would 'fess up to that, don't you?
P&PC: So, how did your collection begin?
Noftle: Over the next few years, I moved around a lot—to a different house in Davis, out to my post-doc in North Carolina, and back out to the west coast again when I got a faculty position in Oregon. This meant I moved my ever-increasing record collection multiple times and thus had the opportunity to reorganize it several times. I settled on a loose organization by genre—including a large rock section, a disco section, an old country section, a French section, a jazz section, and an experimental section, among others. Well, I also ended up with a Rod McKuen section.
Noftle: When I first brought home a McKuen album and found out I already owned it. That happened a few times, actually. I'd accumulated so many I couldn't remember which I owned. Sometimes they had vastly different cover art, but sometimes not. Also, as I learned more about his catalog, I became aware of albums that didn't show up regularly in the cheap bins of record stores—records that I became very curious about. I ended up buying a couple online for $20 or so, including his gently satirical send-up of hippies, Rod McKuen Takes A San Francisco Hippie Trip (pictured above). I still haven't sought out Beatsville (pictured here), his earlier send-up of beat poets, a scene he was connected with to some extent.
Noftle: Quite odd. I have a few of his classical albums, but my collection is mostly dedicated to his vocal work. His typical vocal album consists of a combination of his own spoken poetry with musical accompaniment, his own songs, and a cover or two—often a Jacques Brel song. He was the most prolific translator of Brel's songs into English and apparently spent a lot of time in Paris with Brel. Across his catalog, perhaps the modal musical style is orchestral in the style of Sinatra or even Lawrence Welk, but McKuen covers a lot of ground; many backings are minimalist and range from jazz to country to folk to soft rock and even to a sort of easy listening-style disco. When he reads his poetry, his tone is typically a whisper or at least quite soft. When he sings, his voice is gentle and crooning but with a certain gruffness. I've never heard McKuen's vocal style repeated. It's as though he's somehow the offspring of Mister Rogers and Tom Waits. It's not really gravelly. It's more that it sounds husky and slightly strained.
Noftle: I have at least two. One is Lonesome Cities from the late 60s (pictured above). It's a great mix of spoken word and songs, a few of which were tackled by Frank Sinatra on his McKuen covers album A Man Alone. (Yes, you read that correctly—Sinatra did an album of McKuen covers [pictured here].) Another is Slide...Easy In, McKuen's disco-era album that includes a protest song called "Don't Drink the Orange Juice." This track is an enjoyable jab at Anita Bryant who was a spokesperson for Florida Orange Juice and outspoken against gay rights. McKuen resisted labels and as far as I know never came out as gay or bisexual but certainly was a lifelong advocate within and for the queer community.
P&PC: What does your spouse think about all this?
Noftle: Jess has predicted that one day I will come home and she'll tell me, "Oh no, honey, someone broke in to our house but all they stole was your Rod McKuen albums!" She clearly agrees that I'm sitting on quite a treasure trove.
Noftle: I have lots of recommendations but I'll limit myself to one: the singer Scott Walker (not the Wisconsin politician). Walker (pictured here) is a generation younger than McKuen but had a similar admiration for Brel. Scott first found fame as a member of the not-actually-fraternally-related The Walker Brothers, a 60s pop group. Walker left the band in 1967 and released a series of astounding orchestral pop solo albums that shared a dark, sardonic tone (Scott, Scott 2, Scott 3, and—you guessed it—Scott 4). "Scott" started out with a mix of Brel tunes, other 60s-era pop and folk covers, and a few of his own compositions. By the time of Scott 4, all the songs were written by him and were peppered with an unholy cast of characters including a fading duchess, a soldier returning from Vietnam, Stalin, and even Death—straight out of Bergman's The Seventh Seal. The songs explored themes of romantic dissolution, decay, and existential crisis but were beautifully sung by Walker and arranged by Wally Stott. Not surprisingly, his teenybopper fan base quickly dried up across the course of those albums and Walker disappeared into schmaltz in the 1970s. But in the decades that followed he began releasing stranger and stranger albums that are very difficult to classify—they're kind of like a marriage between Puccini and post-rock. His current work features a deep soaring baritone, intriguing, obscurist lyrics about topics such as Elvis's stillborn twin and recent genocides in the Balkans, and the musical backings include some very odd percussive elements like the sound of a bag of meat being punched. His most recent album is a collaboration with drone metal outfit Sunn 0))). Far out stuff.
Noftle: Yes. The aforementioned Slide..Easy In album's outer gatefold (pictured here) is a muscular, hairy, man's arm reaching down into a vat of Crisco whose "Cr" has been changed to a "D" to read "Disco." Very clever. Oddly, it was released with an alternative cover featuring a blonde lady in silver lame pants (pictured below). Um, I have both versions. The album Rod McKuen Takes a San Francisco Hippie Trip both lampoons and perfectly captures the day-glo popular at the time. It's a real wonder. But there are several gems.
Noftle: I'll follow McKuen's lead. "What I have to say about this album is on the record—I hope you like it.—Rod McKuen, London, June 1968" (liner notes on the back of The Single Man, RCA, 1968).
P&PC: Touché! Where does your collection go from here?
Noftle: Onward and upward—and if Jess has anything to say about it, it might float away in a hot air balloon.
Noftle: Yes indeed, but I also feel like I've just gone through something. I will return the favor: "Soft. Listen to the warm. The night is almost gone. We can listen to the warm" (McKuen, Listen to the Warm, RCA, 1967).
Editor's Note: Noftle's McKuen-themed homage to the cover of Dylan's Bringing It All Back Home pictured near the beginning of this posting was made possible in part by P&PC contributor and organic chemistry consultant, Drew Duncan, who served as photographer.