From Stanyan Street To The Twist

It was either in late 1969 or early 1970 – I’m not at all certain – when I checked out of the St. Cloud Tech library two volumes of Rod McKuen’s poetry: Listen to the Warm and Stanyan Street and Other Sorrows.

Why? A couple of things contributed, I imagine. I’d been listening frequently to the Glenn Yarbrough album The Lonely Things, a 1966 LP of McKuen’s songs that my sister had received from a boyfriend before he headed off to Vietnam. And there was my embryonic interest in writing my own verse and lyrics. Those two bits of my life united, I think, into the realization that even if matters of the heart did not unwind as I might wish they would (and they did not, though at sixteen, how could they have done so?), something worthy might be salvaged from the sorrow.

So I read the two volumes, recognizing a few of the pieces from the Yarbrough album and dipping into those that were not familiar. I found some of them affecting, I remember, and I found some of them not to my taste. Assessing them from a distance of more than forty years – and not having read many of them for that long – I now see much of McKuen’s work as manipulative, pushing his loved (and lost) one’s buttons, as it were, instead of truly grieving. And his poems and lyrics – even those on the Yarbrough album, which I still love – all too often tap sentiment instead of true emotion.

Hmmm. Until I wrote those words, I didn’t know I felt that way about McKuen’s work. As I used to tell my reporting and writing students: If you want to know how you really feel about something, start writing about it and follow the words. But anyway, back to work . . .

I looked at a few more of his books and listened to a few of McKuen’s own records, but none of them grabbed me. And I don’t know that I spent much more time thinking specifically about McKuen. I knew he’d written “Jean,” which was a No. 2 hit for Oliver in the late summer and autumn of 1969 – just before I began to dig into McKuen’s books – and I liked the record well enough. Hearing the record these days, it’s pleasant as a slice of old times, but taking the time to really think about it this morning, I find it cloying and clichéd in both music and lyrics. Well, that could be said about a lot of the hit records and songs from any generation, and “Jean” hardly ever pops up, anyway.

(But if I’d known back in 1974 that McKuen was responsible for the English lyrics to “Seasons in the Sun,” well, that would have explained a lot.)

I still, however, like The Lonely Things, the Yarbrough album that first introduced me to McKuen. And I like – with reservations about its being over-produced – McKuen’s own 1965 version of his “So Long San Francisco,” one of the tunes that I first heard on the Yarbrough album:

But none of that prepared me for what I found this morning. I was digging into the Billboard Hot 100 for February 3, 1962, and I noticed, of course, that the No. 1 record was “The Peppermint Twist” by Joey Dee & The Starlighters. “The Twist” by Chubby Checker was No. 3. So I began to look for records with “twist” in their titles:

“Dear Lady Twist” by Gary U.S. Bonds at No. 11.
“Twist-Her” by Bill Black’s Combo at No. 26.
“Rock-A-Hula Baby (‘Twist’ Special)” by Elvis Presley at No. 49
“Percolator (Twist)” by Billy Joe & The Checkmates at No. 53.
“Let’s Twist Again” by Chubby Checker at No. 54.
“Twistin’ the Night Away” by Sam Cooke at No. 70.
“Twistin’ Postman” by the Marvelettes at No. 73.
“Twistin’ All Night Long” by Danny & the Juniors with Freddy Cannon at No. 83.
“Oliver Twist” by Rod McKuen at No. 85.
“Tequila Twist” by the Champs at No. 99.
“Do You Know How To Twist?” by Hank Ballard at No. 111.

So what was that at No. 85?

Pulled from an album of twist tunes titled Mr. Oliver Twist, the single peaked at No. 76. The album is out on CD, says All-Music Guide, and “it’s a delightfully goofy and varied collection of novelties full of jokey references to literary figures, actors, and musicians (and constant self-references).”

Well, it might be a better purchase than digging up a copy of Stanyan Street and Other Sorrows, but I’m not sure I’m in the market for either one.

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2 Responses to “From Stanyan Street To The Twist”

  1. Paco Malo says:

    “If you want to know how you really feel about something, start writing about it and follow the words.” whiteray, your guidance to your students is my favorite part of this post. I’d like to add a little nugget from Twain, I think, “Write what you know about.”

    And then when your done writing for the day, ‘twist the night away’.

  2. Paloma used to keep a bag full of cassettes that weren’t labeled in her car and we’d pull stuff out at random. That is how I discovered the music of Rod McKuen on a roas trip to see Plant & Page.

    I think we listened to “Mud Kids” about a dozen times.

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