Rod McKuen: Reflections – The Greatest Songs of Rod McKuen

RodMcKuen_ReflectionsGreatestSongsDisparaged by critics, loved by the people

The gap between Rod McKuen’s popular success and his critical station may be larger than any musical artist or poet in history. McKuen sold more than 100 million records and 60 million poetry books, wrote hit songs for numerous A-list artists, brought Jacques Brel to an American audience, scored films, won two Grammys and a Pulitzer, yet critics regularly derided his work as “schmaltz,” “treacle” and “kitsch.” He read his poetry side-by-side with the San Francisco Beats, sang at the famed Purple Onion, appeared in concert and on television, and collaborated with Henry Mancini, but had his work labeled “superficial” and “irrelevant,” and his poems called “facile” in obituaries that followed his January 2015 passing.

Merle Haggard may be known as the “poet of the common man,” but Rod McKuen has probably been quoted more often in love letters and wedding vows. His plainspoken words of isolation and spirituality resonated with an audience that might not otherwise have ever read a poem, and his songs captured the attention of artists ranging from Frank Sinatra to Waylon Jennings. McKuen rasped his way through both vocal and spoken word performances of his own, releasing dozens of solo albums, collaborations with Anita Kerr and the San Sebastian Strings, and more than a dozen film soundtracks, including the Oscar-nominated A Boy Named Charlie Brown.

Though McKuen’s personal accomplishments on the singles chart were meagre (including only the 1959 Bob McFadden and Dor novelty “The Mummy” and 1962’s “Oliver Twist”), his songs were hits for Oliver (“Jean”), Terry Jacks (“Seasons in the Sun,” an English translation of Jacques Brel’s “Le Moribond”), Damita Jo (“If You Go Away,” a translation of Brel’s “Ne Me Quitte Pas”), Perry Como (“I Think of You,” co-written with Frances Lai), Frank Sinatra (“Love’s Been Good for Me”), Perry Como (“I Think of You”), the Kingston Trio (“Ally Ally, Oxen Free”) and others. McKuen’s own versions of these hits are included here, along with poems, such as “Listen to the Warm” and “A Cat Named Sloopy,” which were set to original music.

McKuen sang in a hushed, hoarse tone – a byproduct of oversinging rock bands in his youth – that made his words feel like the confidence of a friend. Joe Marchese’s liner notes dub McKuen “the poet laureate of loneliness,” and though this captures the essence of his songs, the effect of his records is one of connection. McKuen’s writing may have been sentimental, treacly and even schmaltzy, but it voiced feelings that struck a chord with listeners. His remembrance of his cats Sloopy and A Marvelous Cat, is almost painful in its diarist’s sincerity, but it’s remained a listener favorite since it was released in 1967. Interestingly, the song’s invocation of “midnight cowboy”, from which the film apparently drew its title, seems to hint at McKuen’s complex sexuality.

It may have been this sort of intimacy that rubbed critics the wrong way, as McKuen sewed threads of acceptance and hope, if not quite happiness, amid thoughts of melancholy, lost love, abandonment, loneliness and isolation. “Lonesome Cities,” which was recorded by the likes of Frank Sinatra and Nina Simone, speaks to McKuen’s wanderlust, a remnant of his early life drifting along the West Coast in the 1940s. McKuen sings many of the selections included here to lush orchestrations and touches of then-contemporary pop instrumentation. A few tracks, including “Rock Gently,” “A Boy Named Charlie Brown” and “A Man Alone” lean to jazz, “Listen to the Warm” is arranged as a samba, “Kaleidoscope” as a waltz, and “The World I Use to Know” is backed by folk guitar and harmonica.

With McKuen’s earlier greatest hits albums having fallen out of print, this 24-track, 74-minute disc provides a good introduction to his most popular songs (including 1971’s anti-war “Soldiers Who Want to Be Heroes,” which returned to the original lyrics after a 1965 parody), and provides a good helping of the lyrics and poetry whose popularity confounded critics. Having recorded hundreds of albums, fans are left to explore his original and live albums, spoken word and classical recordings, soundtracks, collaborations and collections of his songs recorded by others. Perhaps Andy Warhol’s appraisal of painter Walter (and in reality, Margaret) Keane is the best summation of Rod McKuen: “I think what Keane has done is just terrific. It has to be good. If it were bad, so many people wouldn’t like it.” [©2016 Hyperbolium]

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