Saturday Single No. 431

About three years ago, having run across an obscure single by Rod McKuen in a Billboard Hot 100 from 1962, I remembered seeking out a couple of volumes of McKuen’s poetry in high school:

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 . . .

And I still feel that way about the work of McKuen, who passed on in California two days ago at the age of eighty-one. But that’s (mostly) the dismissive assessment of an adult. As an adolescent, as I noted in that piece from three years ago, I found many of his works affecting, and – especially when filtered through the voice of Glenn Yarbrough – touching. Sentimental? Yes, I still think so, but I’m also aware that the reliance on sentiment – by McKuen and other writers alike – is one of the things that pushed me toward being a writer, toward using the events and feelings of my life as foundations of my own work.

And there we come to one of the points of this blog: How the music I’ve loved over the years has brought me to where I am, as a writer and a person. And the fact that I have come to be far more critical of McKuen’s work in the forty-five years that have passed since I was a high school junior does not negate the value I found in some of McKuen’s work then nor its influence since those days on my writing and my life.

That value and that influence came most of all from Yarbrough’s album The Lonely Things. So to remember Rod McKuen and to acknowledge his place in my life, here’s one of the pieces from Yarbrough’s album that I found most affecting in 1970. Even as I recognize the song’s flaws today, I still find the combination of McKuen’s words and Yarbrough’s voice a potent mix, which only means that I am both sixteen and sixty-one as I listen to it this morning. Here’s “Stanyan Street, Revisited,” today’s Saturday Single.


2 Responses to “Saturday Single No. 431”

  1. Tim McMullen says:

    My first wife, Jan Stirling, and I (she was also a singer/songwriter) used to go to the Troubadour, the Ash Grove, and The Golden Bear all the time. In fact, though I had known her since the seventh grade and had a crush on her pretty much instantly, I did not ask her out until we had a class together our senior year, and I asked her out for our first date on graduation night. Instead of going to Disneyland with our class, I asked her to go to The Ash Grove to see Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and the Chambers Brothers. She accepted, and although we did go on one evening outing prior to that, Grad Night was our first official date.

    That was just a little sidelight. As for McKuen, he was the headliner at the Troubadour, but we had gone to see the opening act (which was often the case—Billy Joel, Danny O’Keefe, Ian Matthews, Patrick Sky, and many others we originally saw as opening acts at the Troubadour). I can’t remember who we had actually gone to see (maybe Phil Ochs), but I do recall that we had really enjoyed their performance, and we debated whether to stick around for Rod McKuen. We knew enough of him to know that we were not terribly interested. Still, we had paid for the tickets, and we were both actually into poetry, so we said, “How bad can it be?” and agreed to stay.

    After about the first four lines we grimaced at each other, then I began to get the giggles, which was pretty bad because we always sat in the front row at most of these venues (right at the artist’s feet). The reason that I was laughing and that Jan was laughing was because I began finishing the ends of his ridiculously obvious, cliché-ridden lines before he said them, literally line after line. She then pitched in, and for the next three poems we amused ourselves by whispering the upcoming ends of lines in each others ears. After the third or fourth piece, we looked at each other, and without saying a word, we got up and left, trying very hard to stifle our outright laughter as we wended our way through the crowd of rapt admirers. We both burst out laughing, nearly uncontrollably, until the tears ran, when we reached the bar and closed the door to the main house.

    I have only walked out on maybe three performances in my life, and I have no idea who the other two were or why, but I still have a pretty vivid memory of the Wit and Wisdom of Rod McKuen up close and personal.

  2. Dat Big Fish says:

    I, too, have only walked out on a couple of performances, first was Cheech & Chong, just two guys sitting on folding chairs doing an album I’d heard many, many times, second one, Grand Funk Railroad, left because it was so loud I couldn’t hear a thing, just noise, deaf for two days afterwards.

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