[I had totally forgotten about this guy, but he’s the best-selling poet of our lifetimes. I’ve posted a link to the full article, but it’s long and I didn’t want to waste that much of your time. Just enjoy a nostalgic reminder of the vapidity of our culture. SB SM]
Rod McKuen Was the Bestselling Poet in American History. What Happened?
He sold 60 million books and 100 million records. Why was he forgotten?
BY DAN KOIS
OCT 10, 2022
published originally on Slate.com
n OnApril 29, 1969, Carnegie Hall was sold out. The artist who filled the fabled performance hall wasn’t a symphony orchestra, or a Broadway belter, or a jazz star. It wasn’t a rock band or a folk singer or any hero of the counterculture taking the stage just a few months before Woodstock. On that night, more than 3,000 fans filled the Main Hall on 57th Street to see a placid blond man wearing a sweatshirt and sneakers. He stood before a microphone on his 36th birthday and performed a poem about a lost cat named Sloopy.
But once upon a time
In New York’s jungle, in a tree
Before I went into the world in search of other kinds of love
Nobody owned me but a cat named Sloopy.
His name was Rod McKuen. He was the most popular poet in American publishing history.
Rod McKuen sold millions of poetry books in the 1960s and 1970s. He was a regular on late-night TV. He released dozens of albums, wrote songs for Sinatra, and was nominated for two Oscars. He was a flashpoint in the battle between highbrow and lowbrow, with devotees revering his plain-spoken honesty and Dick Cavett mockingly calling him “the most understood poet in America.” Every year on his birthday, he sold out Carnegie Hall …
od RodMcKuen was a born liar. Let’s say: a storyteller. “It made my job very, very hard,” said Barry Alfonso, the author of the only serious biography of Rod McKuen, called A Voice of the Warm. “He was a fabulator,” Alfonso told me. “He made up lots of stuff about himself.” McKuen claimed he was employed as a cowboy as a preteen. He claimed he made movies in Japan no one has ever seen. He even claimed he had two children, which he did not.
What drove his predilection for self-invention? “Having a terrible childhood and a sense of inferiority,” Alfonso said. “A sense of never being legitimate.”
Rod McKuen’s mother was unmarried when she gave birth to him, in a charity hospital in Oakland, California, in 1933. McKuen would never know who his father was. When he was little, his mom left him with her sister for months while she worked in San Francisco as a taxi dancer, charging men a dime a dance in nightclubs. When she returned, she took him to Nevada, where she’d married a violent, hard-drinking man who abused McKuen physically and sexually. The family bounced from town to town. McKuen became a chronic runaway and a street hustler. Eventually, he was sent to a brutal reform school.
By the time he was a teenager, he was desperate to get famous. If he couldn’t get love, respect, and validation from his family, he was going to get it from everybody else. He got his first shot before he even turned 20, when he got a job as a DJ on Oakland’s KROW radio station, doing a show called Rendezvous With Rod. It took him a while to figure out the right formula. He started out doing zany comedy sketches. Then he tried spinning popular records. But one day, KROW listeners tuned in and heard a young man murmuring sweet nothings into the microphone. “Last night I felt a sharp pain of loneliness,” went a typical episode of Rendezvous. “Tonight, with you here, the loneliness is gone.”
his is not the way poetry sells now, and it wasn’t the way poetry sold then. Poetry held a slightly more exalted place in the culture in the 1960s, but it was never a huge moneymaker. Sometimes poets for children, like Shel Silverstein, got big. But serious poets printed by adult publishers, even cultural heroes, didn’t sell like Rod McKuen. Take Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, the most famous of the Beat poems. That book took nearly 50 years to sell a million copies. McKuen sold a million in his first year at Random House alone.
Thus began the incredible peak of Rod McKuen’s fame. “From about 1969 through ’72 or so, Rod McKuen was just literally unavoidable,” said Barry Alfonso. Each year McKuen published two or three books and released as many as 10 albums. He was profiled in Life, McCall’s, the New York Times Magazine. He won a Grammy for Best Spoken Word Recording, got an Oscar nomination for a song from the Maggie Smith movie The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, and got another for the music he wrote for a Peanuts film. Artists from Perry Como to Dusty Springfield sang his songs. Frank Sinatra, desperate to connect to a younger audience, recorded a whole album of McKuen tracks. And if you turned on a TV, there he was. Game show contestant, panel personality, and talk-show guest par excellence.
Hilariously, Nirvana with band members swapping instruments, covered one of his songs:
[Read the full article if you are interested. I couldn’t to it, but I did enjoy being reminded about what a phenomenon Rod McKuen was and how deeply he has been forgotten. SB SM]
Don’t tell a soul, but Grendel, Part 2 is Out
Relive the endless summer as Greg and Del continue on their paths to fame and glory. Go to the home page of http://www.SilverbackDigest.com and click on the page for “Grendel: Part 2 – Summahtime”
“Vapidity” is the right word. For a while, RM was king of a trend which included Ed Ames doing “Desiderata,” Nehru shirt and all, and “McArthur Park.” 😖
Someone left the cake out in the rain. I don’t think that I can take it, but it took so long to bake it, and I’ll never have that recipe again!