Sunday, February 1, 2015

Rod McKuen was a childhood hero of mine... only I didn't know it

Man with a turtleneck: Rod McKuen on the cover of one of his many, many, many albums.

Rod McKuen died this week at the age of 81. He is mostly remembered as the creator of very popular, very corny poetry that was loved by the general public in the 1960s and 1970s but mocked and hated by literary critics. As a songwriter, his tunes were covered by artists ranging from Frank Sinatra to Madonna. But he's best known for Terry Jacks' "Seasons in the Sun," a maudlin but catchy tune about death that occasionally turns up on lists of the worst and most detested hit songs of all time. (Once, on a long car trip, that song came on the radio, and I improvised my own alternate lyrics: "We had joy, we had fun, we had fingers up our bums.")

John Waters made sure to include McKuen's name in his article "Hatchet Piece (101 Things I Hate)." In its obituary, NPR somewhat uncharitably called Rod McKuen "the cheeseburger to poetry's haute cuisine." Clearly, for such a gentle and easygoing guy, McKuen attracted a lot of vitriol. Personally, I don't really care one way or the other about McKuen's hippy dippy poetry. It has had no real effect on my life, and if others have derived comfort from his words, well, more power to 'em. What I learned as an adult, however, is that Rod wrote and recorded two of my favorite songs of all time. And they were on opposite sides of the same 45 RPM record, no less!

I've written about this before, but my real introduction to popular music came through a stack of very worn-out vinyl records my mother had owned as a child. Her own parents had operated some bars and restaurants in northern Michigan, and she got the records from the jukeboxes when her folks were done with them. Those same 45s were eventually passed down to me and my sister. I still have them -- or most of them (kids are tough on records) -- neatly alphabetized in a shoebox in my bedroom closet.

Anyway, one of my favorite platters was a novelty number from 1959 called "The Mummy," credited to "Bob McFadden and Dor." McFadden (1923-2000) was a cartoon voice man. You may know him as Snarf from Thundercats. Dor, naturally, was the backwards-running pseudonym of Rod McKuen. "The Mummy" is a weird damn record -- not quite a song, not exactly a skit. McFadden plays a meek, neurotic mummy ("I was born one-thousand, nine-hundred, and fifty-nine years ago!") who terrifies everyone he meets... until he encounters McKuen, who portrays an unflappable and utterly unimpressed beatnik. I can still recite every word of their strangely low-key conversation. ("Aren't you afraid of me? Aren't you gonna scream?!" "Oh, yeah. Like, help.") In retrospect, this record also serves as a snapshot to late-'50s culture, with references to Dave Brubeck, George Shearing, the Modern Jazz Quartet, and "Kookie, Kookie, Lend Me Your Comb."

The flip side of "The Mummy" is maybe even better. It's called "The Beat Generation," and it's a musical manifesto for beatniks everywhere. Like the A-side, it's written by Rod McKuen and credited to Bob McFadden and Dor, but this time I can't hear McFadden anywhere. It's all Rod, man. I honestly don't know how sincere this song is. For all I know, it's meant as satire, intentionally playing up every negative stereotype about beatniks in order to exploit "square" people's fears about them. But when I was a kid, I took it 100% literally, that's for sure.

When I was four or five, this song seemed very adult to me and more than a little dangerous. Suave, confident McKuen coolly expresses disdain for everything Americans are supposed to want: a wife, a nice house, and a good nine-to-five job. I still don't want any of that stuff either, and maybe this record is to blame for my lack of material success. I certainly listened to "The Beat Generation" enough during my formative years to have it permanently affect my thinking. Give it a listen and make up your own mind.

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