Posts Tagged ‘Poetry’

Rod McKuen: Greatest Hits of Rod McKuen

Friday, November 13th, 2020

Expanded edition of McKuen’s popular 1969 hits album

San Francisco poet and singer Rod McKuen was as popular with the people as he was reviled by critics. The latter labeled his works schmaltzy and facile, while the former bought his books and records, and attended his readings and concerts in tremendous numbers. The gap between his lack of critical accolades and his surfeit of popular acclaim likely hinges on the resonance his plainspoken words of isolation and spirituality struck with an audience who might otherwise not read poetry. The raspy earnestness of his vocal performances was often parodied, but the loneliness that threaded through his songs struck a deep emotional chord with listeners, and his uplifting messages provided hope.

Despite the sales of his records, McKuen’s chart success as a musical artist was limited; more successful were his songs, which were recorded by 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”), Waylon Jennings (“Doesn’t Anybody Know My Name”), and many more. Other writings – notably “Listen to the Warm” and “A Cat Named Sloopy” – remain fan favorites in both their original poetic form, and when subsequently set to song. The former is included here as a bonus track, the latter, unfortunately not.

This 1969 collection was unusual for its time, as rather than anthologizing existing recordings, McKuen re-recorded a hand-picked collection of his most popular songs with new arrangements by Arthur Greenslade. The album was among the most popular of his catalog, selling gold, but eventually falling out of print. A 1996 CD release by Laserlight also fell out of print, after which an anthology by Varese Sarabande filled the gap. But Real Gone has now reissued the 1969 album with original cover art and six added tracks, including McKuen’s bittersweet theme song for the movie The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, the late-night jazz love song “Rock Gently,” and a duet with Petula Clark on the oft-covered “The Importance of the Rose.” As when originally released in 1969, this collection is an excellent introduction to McKuen’s popular charms as a poet and singer. [©2020 Hyperbolium]

Rod McKuen: Reflections – The Greatest Songs of Rod McKuen

Friday, January 15th, 2016

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]

Archive of Rod McKuen’s Home Page

RIP Rod Mckuen

Thursday, January 29th, 2015

Hey… let’s do something bizarre, like walk into Vesuvius in our underwear smoking black cigarettes. Crazy. And we’ll throw pennies at the tourists… I’d like to meet the rich lady with the wart. She looks like she could use a friend. So could I, I’m a tourist too. What do ya say for kicks we hop in your Volkswagen and tear off for Watsonville? I mean, can you imagine a more out place for two in people? I’ve got eyes for a little fresh air anyway. Like it’s Bartok time and this party’s had it. -Rod McKuen, Beatsville

Cold Satellite: Cavalcade

Thursday, July 11th, 2013

ColdSatellite_CavalcadePoetic lyrics set to blues-tinged country rock

The second collaboration between singer-songwriter Jeffrey Foucault and poet Lisa Olstein is more musically upbeat than their self-titled 2011 release. The band returns with its original lineup of Billy Conway (drums), Jeremy Moses Curtis (bass), David Goodrich (guitar, piano) and Alex McCollough (pedal steel), though their music is more forceful and electric than the contemplative folk-blues of their first outing. Foucault rises to the occasion with soulful and impassioned vocals, but his easily imbibed melodies and the band’s rootsy playing can find itself at odds with the impressionism of Olstein’s lyrics. “Necessary Monsters,” for example, rolls along on the drums’ shuffle and terrific bursts of blues guitar, but if the lyrics have a sad story to tell, they’re not giving it up easily.

Closer to the surface are the anguished loss of “Careless Flame” and resignation of “Sleepers Wake,” and the band cranks up some rock ‘n’ roll to accompany the hail storm of “Silver Whips.” You can hear the influence of Nivrana (or is it Pearl Jam?) in the grungy “Pearlescent,” with guitars that wash with distortion as Foucault bays Olstein’s cautionary warnings. The mid-tempo title song sounds like something Ronnie van Zant might have written as a deep album track, and there are Bad Company and U2 influences in “Bomblet,” with lyrics that find a poetic image among smartphones on a concert floor. Foucoult has a knack for setting Olstein’s poetry to riveting music, but listeners may want to keep an ornithology reference handy to look up “guillemots” and “auklets.” [©2013 Hyperbolium]

Cold Satellite’s Home Page

Jack Kerouac with Al Cohn and Zoot Sims: Blues and Haikus

Wednesday, December 12th, 2012

Period performances of Jack Kerouac with Al Cohn and Zoot Sims

Although Jack Kerouac was the “voice of his (beat) generation,” it was his his writing – rather than his speaking – voice that’s well-known. His three albums of spoken word poetry and prose, two from 1959 and one from 1960, received little circulation or critical notice upon their initial issue, and have only been spottily reissued ever since. Rhino’s 1990 box set The Jack Kerouac Collection included all three albums, as does the recent The Complete Collection, and individual album reissues have been available as imports. Rock Beat now adds domestic reissues of Kerouac’s first two albums (originally released on the indie Hanover-Signature label), Poetry for the Beat Generation and Blues and Haikus.

Where Poetry for the Beat Generation was an impromptu session with Steve Allen tinkling piano melodies behind Kerouac’s recitations, Blues and Haikus is more of a conversation between Kerouac and his accompanists, Al Cohn and Zoot Sims. Rather than reciting across background music, Kerouac trades riffs with Cohn and Sims, each responding to the tone, rhythm and content of the other. Even Cohn’s piano sounds more responsive to Kerouac than did Allen’s improvised backings. Kerouac sounds more comfortable in this environment; as Gilbert Millstein’s original liner note suggest, this second effort is less tentative and more authoritative than Kerouac’s previous recorded outing. Kerouac even feels free enough to warble part of “Hard Hearted Old Farmer,” and his expressiveness transcends his limitations as a singer.

This is more polished effort than was Poetry for the Beat Generation, and in that sense, it’s also more performed than simply exhaled. Each is worth hearing, particularly if you’re a fan of Kerouac’s writing, but this one is the more musical experience, and one that you’re more likely to return to. Like its predecessor, this album drew little attention or sales upon its original release, and became a collector’s item over the years. But with Kerouac’s legacy having only grown over the decades, it’s available once again to fans. RockBeat’s reissue augments the album’s original four tracks with two lengthy bonuses from the original sessions, and includes the original liner notes by New York Times reviewer (and early Kerouac proponent) Gilbert Millstein. If you’ve enjoyed reading Kerouac’s writing, you’ll be further enlightened by the voice and rhythm he gives to these readings. [©2012 Hyperbolium]

Jack Kerouac and Steve Allen: Poetry for the Beat Generation

Wednesday, December 12th, 2012

Period performances of Jack Kerouac reciting poems to the piano of Steve Allen

Although Jack Kerouac was the “voice of his (beat) generation,” it was his writing – rather than his speaking – voice that became well-known. His three albums of spoken word poetry and prose, two from 1959 and one from 1960, received little circulation or critical notice upon their initial issue, and have only been spottily reissued ever since. Rhino’s 1990 box set The Jack Kerouac Collection included all three albums, as does the recent The Complete Collection, and individual album reissues have been available off and on as imports. Rock Beat now adds domestic reissues of Kerouac’s first two albums (originally released on the indie Hanover-Signature label), Poetry for the Beat Generation and Blues and Haikus.

Poetry for the Beat Generation teams Kerouac with jazz pianist (and television personality) Steve Allen for fourteen poems, several of which were unpublished at the time. The album was inspired by an impromptu pairing of Kerouac and Allen atNew York’s Village Vanguard, and the subsequent single-take studio session lasted only an hour. Allen’s improvised backings are lyrical and nearly sentimental in their melodiousness, more background late-night tinkling than challenging bop. Kerouac’s recitations roam more freely, powered by the strength of his rhythmically riffed words. His poems are percussive stories that break through any regulation of punctuation, paragraph or stanza, and his New England-accented voice is animated and rye.

Originally recorded for Dot, the album was dropped by label-head Randy Wood, reportedly due to concerns about the edginess of the content. But having your counter-culture expression suppressed in the 1950s wasn’t exactly news, and the album quickly found distribution through an independent label. Yet even with Kerouac’s literary fame in full flower (he’d published On the Road in 1957 and The Subterraneans and The Dharma Bums in 1958), his debut album was little known, and for many years, a rarity. RockBeat’s reissue includes the album’s original fourteen tracks and liner notes by New York Times reviewer (and early Kerouac proponent) Gilbert Millstein. If you’ve enjoyed reading Kerouac’s writing, you’ll be further enlightened by the voice and rhythm he gives to these readings. [©2012 Hyperbolium]