On January 29, 2015, we lost a true American original with the passing of Rod McKuen, 81. Poet, composer, lyricist, singer, author, artist; there were few mountains that McKuen didn’t climb to great success. An Oscar and Pulitzer nominee, and a Grammy winner, McKuen also was among the earliest to champion the works of Jacques Brel, and was a longtime advocate for gay rights. “It doesn’t matter who you love, or how you love, but that you love,” McKuen once said. In his own recordings and those of his songs by Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand, Petula Clark, Dusty Springfield, Johnny Cash and countless other legendary artists, McKuen openly and honestly spread that love.
We haven’t had very many opportunities since the founding of The Second Disc to reflect on McKuen’s discography and legacy, but in early 2013, Real Gone Music reissued a pair of McKuen albums on CD. To celebrate the life of this singular renaissance man whose music and words offered so much comfort to so many, we’re republishing our look at Listen to the Warm and Sold Out at Carnegie Hall which first appeared here on March 4, 2013. Rest in peace, Mr. McKuen.
The words speak for themselves. In the 1973 liner notes to Rod McKuen’s album Listen to the Warm as reprinted in full for Real Gone Music’s new reissue, Gerry Robinson matter-of-factly states that “Listen to the Warm is not only the best-selling volume of poetry in current times – other than the Bible, it is the best-selling book in hardcover as well. It has outsold such titles as The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, Gone with the Wind, Jonathan Livingston Seagull and all the modern day novels and reference works, including the Random House Dictionary of the English Language.”
Yet this wasn’t mere hyperbole; since his heyday, McKuen has sold some 65 million books of poetry, reprinted in eleven languages. His musical career has been nearly as distinguished. McKuen translated Jacques Brel’s “Le Moribond” into “Seasons in the Sun,” and wrote an entire album for Frank Sinatra. His songs have also been sung by Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings and Dusty Springfield, and sampled by Madonna. He has two Academy Award nominations, a Golden Globe and a Grammy. Yet despite all this adulation and great popularity, Nora Ephron, in her capacity as a literary critic, once called his poems “for the most part…superficial and platitudinous and frequently silly,” while U.S. Poet Laureate Karl Shapiro (1946 and 1947) commented, “It is irrelevant to speak of McKuen as a poet.” Was McKuen, still alive and well and writing, an easy target of critics because of his own success and popularity? You can judge for yourself on two newly-expanded reissues from Real Gone Music of 1967’s Listen to the Warm (RGM-0125) and Sold Out at Carnegie Hall (RGM-0124).
First released in 1967 on RCA Victor and reissued in 1973, Listen to the Warm tied in with McKuen’s best-selling book of the same name and even its groovy cover artwork echoed that of the book. There’s plenty of warm(th) on this album, which blends traditional songs with poetry. Everyman poet McKuen’s breathy recitations are set to tasteful arrangements of his own music by Arthur Greenslade (who also conducted). The poems, and lyrics, are impressions and reminiscences of universal themes like love, loss, animals, weather and nature. They’re frequently gentle, unabashedly sentimental and always delivered in McKuen’s hushed, measured and staccato tone. Think a noir narration, minus the femme fatales and hard-boiled dicks. New York is very much a character in these pieces, too, with McKuen adopting a calm voice against the bustling backdrop of the big city. More than simply that, though, Listen to the Warm was a respite from the turmoil enveloping the country during a tumultuous era, and also from the sea change happening in musical styles.
Greenslade, a British musician who also worked with leading lights such as Shirley Bassey and Dusty Springfield, plays a prominent role on the London-recorded album. He provides a cocktail piano and smoky saxophone to support the spoken-word pieces like “To Share the Summer Sun” (“Your thighs make over all the scales/And so I hurry home to you, to use your belly as a cape/To cover up the day”) and navigates the shifting moods of the groovy “Midnight Walk.” Greenslade also brings variety and color to the proper songs. Despite the limitations of McKuen’s reedy singing voice, he brings emotion that’s matched by Greenslade’s lush charts for songs like the bossa nova-inflected title track (“With love, it’s either famine or a feast/You’ve got to learn to smile at least”), and the pretty “Where Are We Now.” Strings swell on the dramatic “I Live Alone” (“Still, it’s nice sometimes to open up the heart a little and let some hurt come in…proves you’re still alive”). Other compositions, like the carnival-esque “Round and Round,” blend both spoken word and song into a satisfying whole.
Glenn Yarbrough and others covered the song “Listen to the Warm,” but the album’s most famous piece just might be the spoken-word “A Cat Named Sloopy.” It isn’t quite story and isn’t quite pure poetry, but rather a hybrid of both. Though the more cynical among us will find its charms easy to resist, it’s nonetheless easy to see why the sad tale tapped into the emotions of any pet owner who’s ever lost a loved friend as McKuen sadly recalls of his cat, “perhaps she’s been the only human thing that ever gave back love to me.” “Sloopy” is quintessential McKuen: intimately, conversationally delivered, tapping into familiar feelings that might have otherwise been left unexpressed. (A delightful drawing sent to McKuen by Charles Schulz, for whom McKuen wrote his Oscar-nominated score to A Boy Named Charlie Brown, is reprinted in the booklet. In the drawing, Snoopy quizzically wonders, “’SLOOPY?’”) One’s mileage might vary on McKuen’s poetry, but the songs have aged beautifully as vintage MOR orchestral-pop nuggets.
Which bonus tracks will you find on Listen to the Warm? Hit the jump! Plus: a full rundown of the deluxe Sold Out at Carnegie Hall!
Real Gone’s reissue more than doubles the length of the original album, adding seventeen bonus tracks to the original fifteen. These additional tracks, which in effect create a Listen to the Warm – Volume Two, were first released on Bear Family’s exhaustive 2006 chronicle of McKuen’s RCA Victor years entitled If You Go Away after his famous translation of the Jacques Brel song “Ne Me Quitte Pas.” Underlining the theatrical nature of McKuen’s material there’s an extended instrumental rendition of the deliciously breezy “Listen to the Warm” as an Entr’acte, along with a couple of other versions of the song. A reprise of “Round, Round, Round” also didn’t make the cut the first time around. These bonus tracks are very much in the vein of the poems and songs present on the original album. Things take a turn for the gothic with the poem “Sunday in November” and reflective with the song “The Warm and Gentle Girls,” accompanied by Greenslade’s lightly baroque orchestration. The spirit of Sloopy is alive and well on the sweet song “Me and the Cat” which has some melodic touches reminiscent of McKuen’s “Love’s Been Good to Me” as recorded by Sinatra and so many others.
“Love’s Been Good to Me” is just one of the many songs featured on Real Gone’s companion release, a 2-CD deluxe set based around the 1969 Warner Bros. double-album set Sold Out at Carnegie Hall (RGM-0124). This is “the full McKuen,” so to speak. The great Peter Matz conducted the orchestra for McKuen’s 36th birthday concert at the storied New York venue on April 29, 1969, and the sensitive troubadour obliged his cheering and appreciative fans with a wide-ranging set emphasizing his pop music rather than his poetry. While also a souvenir of the concert, it’s nonetheless a fine introduction for fans to the man’s considerable songwriting talents.
The fare on Sold Out at Carnegie Hall manages to be introspective yet big enough for the concert hall audience. A charmingly self-deprecating McKuen apologizes early on, first for his singing voice, explaining why he sings his own songs (“With a voice like mine, why screw up somebody else’s material?”) and then for his very evident hoarseness caused by a cold. Yet he’s at his most endearing on this live recording, supported by the lavish orchestrations of Greenslade, Matz, Eddie Karam and Billy Byers. The music is more varied than on Listen to the Warm. “Gee, It’s Nice to Be Alone” has a relaxing lounge vibe, and “Joanna” is positively swinging. “Kaleidoscope” (“K, I, Kaleidoscope/Love is another color for hope/Pain is a separate color from joy/How many colors there are to enjoy?”) is lyrically very much of its time, but its jazzy melody still proves enjoyable. “The Things Men Do” ironically offers a jaunty tune, and the audience sings along, but the sentiment is sober-minded and sadly still relevant all these years on as McKuen wonders “why terror rumbles in our land…It makes me cry to see the things some men do to one another.”
Appropriately, a few chansons composed by the great French troubadour Jacques Brel are present, such as “If You Go Away,” “Seasons in the Sun” (just a few years away from its hit recording by Terry Jacks) and “Amsterdam,” the latter better-known in a different translation by Mort Shuman. Along with Shuman, McKuen deserves substantial credit in bringing Brel’s unusual songs to a wide, English-language audience. His populist approach to poetry and music might have obscured the fact that McKuen was quite brave and certainly forward-thinking in championing Brel’s outré songs. He takes a couple of political jabs of his own introducing “Do It Yourself Protest Songs/The Protest Waltz” in which he jokingly inserts a couple of topical names as he asserts, “I’m no Mrs. Miller or Tiny Tim!”
There are a couple of other collaborative tracks, too. Gilbert Becaud (“What Now My Love,” “Love on the Rocks”) wrote “Merci Beaucoup” with McKuen, and Henry Mancini composed “We” with McKuen for the film Me Natalie. (McKuen sang the lovely song on the Columbia Records soundtrack, as well. That LP has finally been reissued on CD as part of Mancini’s The Classic Soundtrack Collection from Legacy Recordings.) Also in a cinematic vein, there are a couple of tracks from McKuen’s score to The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie including his Oscar-nominated ballad “Jean,” popularized by the singer and Bob Crewe protégé Oliver.
Real Gone has rounded out its reissue by including much, but not all, of the 1973 Warner Bros. album Back to Carnegie Hall. McKuen expands his focus here to interpret the songs of others, including David Gates’ “If,” Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn’s “Time After Time,” and Tommy Wolf and Fran Landesman’s sober, affecting “Ballad of the Sad Young Men.” He’s also the recipient of another impromptu rendition of “Happy Birthday,” as on the 1969 set. Eddie Sauter, a talented orchestrator of Broadway musicals such as 1776, is credited with “musical control” for the 1973 portion of the program. A fun highlight is the McKuen Retrospective medley, during which he revisits his silly, punning “Oliver Twist” from the twist-crazed early sixties and even makes a spirited attempt at Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say” with his male Rodettes! (Though listed as one track on the artwork, the medley’s songs have in fact been sequenced individually on the disc itself.) No songs or poems are repeated from the 1969 set, and celebrating his fortieth birthday at the show, he sings his “Forty Without Fear.”
These 1973 tracks are all worthy and in the spirit of the 1969 program; McKuen himself wished them to be included on the reissue as a special bonus. Yet their inclusion only serves as proof that Back to Carnegie Hall deserves its own reissue rather than the incomplete one here. Some might notice that two tracks from the original Carnegie Hall LP – “Trashy” and “Champion Charlie Brown” – are absent from the CD reissue, too. Unfortunately, tapes for these two songs are missing from the vaults. “So Many Others,” a previously unreleased track cut from the 1969 LP, does appear here, however.
For certain, fans of McKuen’s wistful brand of pop – melancholy yet ultimately uplifting – will find plenty to savor on Real Gone’s reissues, hopefully the first two in a series. The label’s customary attention to detail is evident in the replica RCA Victor and Warner Bros.-Seven Arts CD labels, and Michael McDonald has remastered both albums. Highly unusually for Real Gone, there are no new liner notes. Edward Habib’s Carnegie Hall notes have been briefly updated, but retrospective words from Rod or a historical look back at the albums would have been a major plus. The booklet, however, is nicely illustrated with photographs and vintage clippings.
These two reissues are welcome reminders of an artist with the courage of his convictions, who flew in the face of critics and trends to create art on his own terms. “It doesn’t matter who you love, or how you love, but that you love,” writes McKuen on the homepage of his own website. It’s a credo he repeats on the final track of Back to Carnegie Hall. It epitomizes the kind spirit of the music and poetry contained on Listen to the Warm and Sold Out at Carnegie Hall. His fans will find a lot of love on these singular recordings, back on CD from Real Gone Music.