Rod McKuen was labeled ‘The King of Kitsch’ by critics and “McGoon” by academics (a label that included Bob Dylan too) and hated by the hipsters. And yet, Richard Hell borrowed McKuen’s “Beat Generation” for his own punk anthem “Blank Generation” and for more than a decade (1965-1975), McKuen was everywhere, as bestselling author, TV personality and platinum-selling recording artist, with a who’s who of pop music covering his songs (Frank Sinatra recorded an entire album of McKuen songs; Glenn Yarbrough recorded 5 full albums!). Ultimately, though, Rod was an enigma—a gay pioneer, a sex abuse survivor, an ‘illegitimate’ child, a shape-shifting personality and self-mythologizer. PKM spoke with Barry Alfonso, author of a new biography of the elusive Rod McKuen.
In the 1960s, To Tell the Truth was a popular TV game show on which a panel of minor celebrities (Orson Bean, Peggy Cass, Don Ameche and the like) would interview three unknowns (“the team of challengers”), two of whom were imposters. At the end of the questioning, the panel would vote on who the real person was. The more wrong votes, the more $ the challengers split. The climax of the show came when the host, in a stentorian voice, asked, “Will the real Hunter S. Thompson please stand up?”
Indeed, in early 1967, an unknown Hunter S. Thompson was a challenger on To Tell the Truth.
Likewise, even after finishing Barry Alfonso’s weirdly fascinating biography A Voice of the Warm: The Life of Rod McKuen, I kept expecting to hear the game show host command, “Will the real Rod McKuen please stand up”. If you thought David Bowie was a master at changing identities, he had nothing on the so-called “King of Kitsch” Rod McKuen, shape-shifter supreme.
“The Beat Generation” by Rod McKuen (Bill Haley & The Comets/Bob McFadden are the backing musicians):
“Blank Generation”- Richard Hell and the Voidoids:
First, the numbers, which cast some light on just what a cultural phenomenon McKuen was in the 1960s and 1970s. For a stretch of more than a decade, he annually sold millions of books of his verse—4 million copies, alone, in 1970, and his projected income from writing in 1973 was $30 million. You could not avoid him back then at the pharmacy or grocery store, where his Stanyan Book of Cats, for example, was on the rack alongside Fun With Fondue. At one point, he was practically keeping both Random House and Simon & Schuster afloat with a nearly endless stream of verse, which came tumbling out of him.
If you thought David Bowie was a master at changing identities, he had nothing on the so-called “King of Kitsch” Rod McKuen, shape-shifter supreme.
In addition to the books, there were the 60 gold and platinum records. Five albums alone by Glenn Yarbrough consisted of nothing but Rod McKuen covers; even Frank Sinatra released an album of McKuen numbers, called A Man Alone.
Rod McKuen’s “Love’s Been Good To Me,” covered by Frank Sinatra:
And then there were covers by a who’s who of middle-brow pop artists, not to mention Rod’s own albums, more than 100 of which were released on both major labels and his own label, selling like hotcakes to his fans.
How is this even possible? Did this all occur in some parallel universe from the one that rock & roll fans inhabited?
From the evidence presented in Alfonso’s book, it appears that McKuen was the first celebrity to understand and fully exploit the concept of “self-branding.” It didn’t matter what the product was. If it had McKuen’s name on it, along with the unverifiable boasts (“the bestselling poet of all time”), his fans would buy it.
Charles M. Schulz likely saw what was going on, and his Peanuts strip suddenly went the same direction, with gift books like Happiness is a Warm Puppy, greeting cards, lunch boxes, umbrellas, coffee mugs, etc. In some ways, McKuen, the person, was as hard to pin down as was Schulz [see David Michaelis’s equally fascinating if far more controversial biography Schulz and Peanuts]. Not coincidentally, the two merchandising giants collaborated on A Boy Named Charlie Brown in 1967, with McKuen writing three songs for the production, with Vince Guaraldi supplying the rest.
McKuen sings this song, which he wrote, in A Boy Named Charlie Brown:
All the while McKuen was doing his thing, a countercultural, rock & roll, and political revolution was going on in the U.S. But you would not have known it if all you did was immerse yourself in McKuen’s dreamy, gently melancholic universe where wisdom came in bite-sized chunks (“Strangers are just friends waiting to happen”).
Since the late 1980s, of course, you could not go to a book sale, yard sale or thrift shop without tripping over a box full of discarded volumes of McKuen’s verse and inspirational “gift books” or a pile of his vinyl records splayed out on lawns or inside Dumpsters like discarded dinnerware from a picnic.
He was a chameleon, first as a young radio deejay, then a poet with Beatnik affectations, then a bit-part actor, then a songwriter, then a chanson singer, then a superstar with hippie affectations, then a veritable guru to millions of Americans.
All of this is undeniable proof of McKuen’s unprecedented popularity. And yet, that is the least interesting part of his story. The fascinating part of McKuen’s story is where he came from and how he got to that level of popularity. And here is where I am forced to admit something I never thought possible: Rod McKuen deserves respect. Not Rod McKuen the poet, whose verse is little better than Hallmark Card quality (an opinion Alfonso’s book does little to change). Not Rod McKuen, the singer songwriter—though I did warm up to a few of his tunes—particularly the material inspired by, and partly written for, Jacques Brel—once Alfonso provided the back stories.
“If You Go Away” was a collaboration between Brel and McKuen:
No. My respect is for Rod McKuen the man. You think you had a lousy childhood? McKuen’s would give Charles Dickens serious pause: born in a Salvation Home for Unwed Mothers in Oakland in 1933; beaten so badly by an alcoholic stepfather as a boy that his arms were broken; an itinerant boyhood in WPA work camps throughout the West; sexually molested by an aunt at 9; raped by an uncle at 10; an amazingly resourceful runaway at 12, allegedly foraging like a feral child and working as a ranch hand; three years in a juvenile detention facility (with the usual assaults, psychological, physical and sexual) and on and on. It’s a wonder he didn’t turn out to be another Charles Manson.
Rather than harden him, the experiences appeared to create a soft spot inside his heart, which he then filled with a manic productivity of books, songs, albums, gift books, inspirational posters, calendars, a clothing line, even a copyrighted Rod McKuen Marriage Ceremony. Despite such crass commercialism, McKuen also deserves respect for his early championing of gay rights. At a time when it was dangerous to do so, he joined the Mattachine Society at age 19 and became an active member. He also was a defender of fluid gender identity, supporter of victims of child and sexual abuse, animal rights, and other assorted benign causes that were lost in the critical shuffle and endless hustle to sell product, no matter how banal, and make himself one of the richest entertainers in the world at his death. His impact on American culture was, all things considered, considerably more benign than that of contemporaries Timothy Leary and L. Ron Hubbard—two self-appointed gurus who misled millions in ways that McKuen never did.
Nonetheless, McKuen had one troubling tendency: He was a fabulist. Not just a crafter of white lies or publicity stunts, but an out and out liar about things big (claiming to have two children in France by a woman he never married; mother and children have never been located) and small (claiming to have invented slogans like “Make love, not war”). And then lies about all the things in between, claiming to have written novels and operas, released albums, and starred in movies and stage productions that never existed.
At times, he seemed to be one step up from a con artist—having perfected the techniques as a psyops specialist in the U.S. Army during the Korean War. He was a chameleon, first as a young radio deejay, then a poet with Beatnik affectations, then a bit-part actor, then a songwriter, then a chanson singer, then a superstar with hippie affectations, then a veritable guru to millions of Americans, as he pioneered the “branding” of his personality that undoubtedly greased the skids for Oprah, Martha Stewart and Joel Osteen’s empires.
You will notice that Rod never wished to label himself “gay” or anything else, though. He was sexually fluid / nonbinary decades before these terms were invented.
Though it’s hard to take Rod McKuen seriously as a creative artist, it is fascinating to read about his life. His seems to have a peculiarly American pathology—the need to be famous and loved by millions to fill a void that can never be filled. Like the title character in Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, no amount of money, fame, possessions, praise or damnation could mollify the wounds that were inflicted during his childhood.
PKM spoke with Barry Alfonso, a longtime freelancer for Rolling Stone and the Los Angeles Times, as well as a songwriter, about McKuen’s life and legacy.
PKM: I was surprised by how fascinated I was to learn about the life, particularly the childhood, of Rod McKuen, a writer and musician whose work I avoided like the plague when he was popular. Did you go into this project with a certain preconception of who he was, only to have that turned on its head?
Barry Alfonso: McKuen-Fear was endemic among the hipper circles of pop criticism when I was just starting to write about music. Nobody wanted to talk seriously about him or examine his work closely. The fact that he was so popular among the “wrong” kind of people seemed to preclude that. Because I was a songwriter as well as a fledgling critic, I respected his ability to tap into primal emotions and write a strong hook. I retained these impressions over the years and brought them to the task of writing a biography of him.
PKM: Be honest, were you one of the legion of people, back in the day, who made fun of McKuen without actually having heard his music or read his poetry? Or did you seriously listen to his music and read his verse for pleasure?
Barry Alfonso: A little of both, I suppose. Rod’s vast creative output invites a range of responses. I found myself adjusting my critical lenses when listening to him or reading him. For me, my fascination with how and why he connected with people transcended whatever aesthetic standards I chose to apply to him. I can say I had loved his songs “Jean” and especially “Love’s Been Good to Me” since childhood. Rod could seem like the classic guilty pleasure, like certain flavors of ice cream or (in some circles) ABBA.
PKM: His traumatic childhood was almost beyond belief, beyond anything Dickens could have created. How much detail from that horrific period of time were you able to verify?
Barry Alfonso: Not as much as I would have liked. As I mentioned in the book’s introduction, I had to weigh probabilities in assessing what Rod wrote about himself. He was pretty consistent about the details of his childhood. His close friend Ellen Ehrlich told me that Rod often spoke about his childhood and his obsession with finding his biological father back in the late ‘50s/early ‘60s. Rod never contradicted the bleak picture he painted of his youth. Rose Adkins – his friend and employee in the 1980s – mentioned how emotionally overwhelmed he became when called upon to speak about the sexual abuse he suffered. I can add to this that there was a criminal streak in the family of his stepfather. Rod’s half-brother Billy served at least one stretch in prison. Various details like this made me think that Rod’s account of his childhood was more or less accurate.
PKM: Still, even if half what McKuen has written about that time were true, it’s beyond cruel and unusual. Though this has been used as a kind of ‘catch-all’ nowadays, do you think McKuen could have suffered a form of PTSD from these early events, which may have explained some of his behavior?
Barry Alfonso: I think Rod carried psychic scars that never really healed. What he suffered was a factor in his need to make up stories about his life – his claim to have fathered two children is an example of this. His relentless work ethic and his desire to prove his legitimacy as an artist and human being reflected what he went through as a child.
PKM: Did his mother, who lived with him toward the end of her life, ever give any interviews about their shared past?
Barry Alfonso: No, none that I know of, unfortunately.
Rod actually had good things to say about psychedelic rock and even helped the Jefferson Airplane get their RCA deal. (True story!)
PKM: Another aspect of McKuen’s life that impressed me was that he did not go to extremes to hide the fact that he was gay, unlike a lot of closeted men in those days when such openness could have literally gotten him killed, if not imprisoned. Has his life as a gay man been acknowledged by the gay rights movement today?
Barry Alfonso: Yes – I have interviewed a number of LGBTQ historians and journalists who are aware of Rod’s involvement in the early gay rights movement. His status as a member of the legendary Mattachine Society alone makes him a significant LGBTQ rights pioneer. Rod was a teenaged radio show host at the time (1951-53) and he risked his career and personal safety to be part of such a group. You will notice that Rod never wished to label himself “gay” or anything else, though. He was sexually fluid / nonbinary decades before these terms were invented.
PKM: McKuen, the musician and poet, was popular at a time when rock music was at its creative peak, musically, lyrically and culturally. There was simply too much other good music being released at the time to go there. Why should fans of the Beatles, Jefferson Airplane, et al, listen to him? We had Donovan!
Barry Alfonso: I think it’s important to look at who McKuen appealed to 50 or so years ago. He reached a vast but mostly undocumented middle ground the included both older and younger listeners/readers, those who stood between the polarized adult and youth cultures of the era. There’s evidence that music fans who listened to soft rock (say, Carole King and James Taylor) included Rod in their record collections. Rod wasn’t trippy (as Donovan could be), but he was “sensitive” and willing to confess suppressed feelings with a quiet defiance that a flower child could appreciate. I should add that some of his best songs never reached a wide audience. I would point you to “The Tamarack Tree,” a subtle folk-style meditation on time and aging that no one else ever recorded.
PKM: At one point, you say his recording The Sea “offered a refuge from the madness of 1967”. What madness? It was one of the greatest years in the history of pop music and certainly a happy time if you were an adolescent (like me) with a record player.
Barry Alfonso: Sure, it was an exhilarating time to listen to music – but a lot of people were shaken up by the cultural changes of the mid-‘60s in ways that weren’t always enjoyable or welcomed. It was a kind of madness that could delight and terrify, sometimes simultaneously. Drugs, broken family ties and shattered moral standards induced bad as well as good vibes. Rod actually had good things to say about psychedelic rock and even helped the Jefferson Airplane get their RCA deal. (True story!)
PKM: One thing that’s most striking about McKuen is his chameleon-like quality, his shape-shifting ability. Do you think in all of that constant change, he found the “real” Rod McKuen? Who was the “real” Rod McKuen and what was his real message?
Barry Alfonso: Rod’s main goal was to “communicate,” to make people feel less alone on the most basic human level. He chose many creative approaches to do this – the form or even the content of his work could seem less important than the attempt to forge a connection with others. He famously said, “It doesn’t matter who you love or how you love but that you love.” That was his real message as much as anything was.
Rod wasn’t born with any standing in this world – he literally didn’t know who he was or to whom he belonged.
PKM: You say “critics could debate the quality of the work but they couldn’t argue with the numbers”. Did you get to see the actual sales figures? He was known for fudging the details of his life at every turn, so why would he NOT goose the numbers of his sales?
Barry Alfonso: There are actual sales figures in the Random House documents I accessed through the Columbia University archives. They are impressive, particularly for the years 1968-72. At least four of Rod’s poetry books sold in the six figures or higher. McKuen made the New York Times best seller list and a number of his records were certified gold in the U.S. and elsewhere. Rod probably inflated and exaggerated the totals, but his book sales were truly unprecedented for poetry collections.
PKM: How did the critical beatings he took at every turn feed into that sense of himself as “illegitimate” (that is, the illegitimate son of a father he never knew)?
Barry Alfonso: The legitimacy issue was a big one for him. Anything that challenged his right to be taken seriously as a creator (or a man) would rankle him. His feuds with Karl Shapiro and Nora Ephron (he complained about both to the press) were examples of this. Rod wasn’t born with any standing in this world – he literally didn’t know who he was or to whom he belonged. He went to great lengths to show the world that he was accepted – hence his claim that he performed for President Kennedy and that he received a Pulitzer nomination.
He famously said, “It doesn’t matter who you love or how you love but that you love.” That was his real message as much as anything was.
PKM: As you point out, shockingly, most of his possessions and personal effects were tossed into Dumpsters after his death. Did any of his manuscripts and material end up housed at a university or library? Given the sparsity of such material, what is his ultimate legacy, do you think?
Barry Alfonso: A small amount of McKuen’s personal papers and memorabilia were either auctioned off or bought by a rare book dealer in Northern California, who hopes they will be purchased by a university eventually. (This dealer was kind enough to share some of this material with me.) I did find a great deal of valuable correspondence in the Random House archives housed at the Columbia University library. There may be more out there. Unfortunately, the fate of Rod’s master tapes is not at all secure. All of this is why I wanted to research his life as thoroughly as possible – because so much has been lost or may be in the future, I wanted to get his story into print as accurately as I could. Ultimately, Rod’s life is a Rashomon-like tale told by the diverse cast of men and women who knew him.