In the case of Rod McKuen, "prolific" might well have been an understatement. Before he turned 35, McKuen had already lived many lives - from farm hand, lumberjack, rodeo cowboy, disk jockey, and U.S. Army veteran to singer, songwriter, actor, and the most commercially successful poet of his time - or any other. Despite an enviable career that saw him receive two Academy Award nominations and Frank Sinatra dedicate an entire album to him, the songs of Rod McKuen frequently haven't received their due, and even after his death, he remains an oft-misunderstood and critically-derided figure.
There has been a mini-McKuen renaissance on CD as of late, with the releases of Reflections: The Greatest Songs of Rod McKuen (full disclosure: I wrote the liner notes for that collection) and his soundtrack to A Boy Named Charlie Brown from Varese Sarabande, and The Sea/The Earth/The Sky (his collaboration with Anita Kerr) from Cherry Red's El Records. Now, Ace Records has curated a splendid overview of McKuen's rich legacy of song with the latest entry in its Songwriter Series. Love's Been Good to Me: The Songs of Rod McKuen brings together 25 tracks from a "Who's Who" of international song including two Sinatras, a host of country, folk and soul superstars, and of course, Rodney Marvin McKuen himself. In doing so, it places a singular oeuvre in perspective.
The title song of this collection, a world-weary look back has been famously surveyed by artists including Frank Sinatra and the late-in-life Johnny Cash. Here it's Welshman Tom Jones who, in his 1970 rendition, touchingly brings to life McKuen's wistful reflection of a lifelong "rover." Jones has long been able to blur genre lines between pop, country, blues and beyond, but it's no surprise that many pure country artists such as Cash and Waylon Jennings have been drawn to the McKuen catalogue. Here, Jennings is heard with his 1966 recording of "Doesn't Anybody Know My Name," like so many of McKuen's songs a backward glance at old flames and family, but with some surprising lyrical twists as to the narrator's identity. Though academics struggled to comprehend McKuen's appeal to the masses, many underestimated the power of the universal sentiments he eloquently and simply put into words: themes of love, loss, and longing; of man's connection to nature and animals; of feelings of loneliness and solitude. When writing songs, the musical polymath set his lyrics to compelling, accessible melodies. Glen Campbell's emotionally direct voice proved a perfect match for the songwriter on 1967's gentle "The World I Used to Know," as did the perennially relaxed Perry Como on 1971's beautiful "I Think of You" (co-written by McKuen and film composer Francis Lai).
Belgian composer-lyricist Jacques Brel was known for his unflinching musical honesty. McKuen befriended Brel, a fellow outsider, while living in France, and discovered a kindred spirit in the songwriter, whose hauntingly dramatic chansons frankly addressed such then-taboo topics as death, sex and abuse. Most interestingly, Brel's works were marked - in stark contrast to McKuen's - by a lack of sentimentality. Yet in his adaptations of Brel, McKuen artfully tapped into the core truths expressed by his friend even as he brought a less bleak, more humanistic worldview. Among the songs he transformed were 1961's "Le Moribond" into "Seasons in the Sun" and 1959's "Ne me quitte pas" into "If You Go Away." The former is presented on Ace's anthology in Terry Jacks' chart-topping 1973 rendition, still one of the biggest-selling singles of all time. The latter charted in 1966 for Damita Jo and in 1974 for Jacks, and has been recorded by everyone from Barbra Streisand to Scott Walker, but the honors here go to the one and only Dusty Springfield. Brel is further represented on Love's Been Good to Me by his adaptation of McKuen's "The Lovers" into "Les Amants de Coeur."
Love's Been Good to Me also touches on the subject's politically-engaged side. The Gateway Trio's 1963 recording of "Soldiers Who Want to Be Heroes" leaves no question as to McKuen's views on war; his pacifist stance made him popular among a generation of folk artists. Other popular folk musicians heard here include Glenn Yarbrough, one of McKuen's most prolific interpreters, with "I've Been to Town," Yarbrough's old group The Limeliters ("The Importance of the Rose"), The Kingston Trio ("Ally Ally Oxen Free") and Barry McGuire ("One by One"). McKuen's social consciousness and activism also led him to vocally challenge the policies of President Nixon and speak freely about his sexuality at a time when there were ramifications to doing so. He challenged the notorious anti-gay crusader Anita Bryant in both word and song. In his later years, he offered his experiences with depression as another inspirational touchstone for his fans.
No McKuen compilation would be complete without a track from Frank Sinatra's 1969 Reprise LP A Man Alone, written for the Chairman by the composer-lyricist-poet. One of its highlights, along with "Love's Been Good to Me" and the title track, is doubtless "Lonesome Cities," also the title of one of McKuen's era-defining poetry volumes. Don Costa arranged the track in classic barroom style, tinkling piano and brushed drums against a backdrop of serene strings, while Sinatra wrung every ounce of truth out of the portrait of a restless man who "can't run away from me." The author's familiar imagery of trains and travel recur, but sound new as conversationally delivered by Sinatra.
Nina Simone, too, found the simple truths in McKuen's words. The High Priestess of Soul selected "A Single Woman" as the title track of her final studio album, from 1993. At a time when few were recognizing McKuen as an unsung pop music hero, Simone recorded both "A Single Woman" and "Lonesome Cities." Her interpretation is expectedly soul-baring. Another dramatic highlight here comes from Petula Clark, delivering McKuen and Joaquin Rodrigo's "The Wind of Change."
The composer's film output is represented by Oliver's No. 2 Pop/No. 1 Easy Listening single of the Academy Award-nominated "Jean," from The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie; "A Boy Named Charlie Brown" from the film of the same name; and a couple of rarities from the soundtrack of Joanna: Barbara Kay's sultry "Hello, Heartaches" and Michael Sarne's laconic "Ain't You Glad You're Living, Joe."
Three previously unreleased tracks make this collection an essential one. Mary Travers joins the gravelly-voiced McKuen for the pensive "Children One and All," from 1971's The Rod McKuen Show TV special; Nancy Sinatra joins him on the swirling "Kaleidoscope" from a 1969 installment of The Kraft Music Hall. The solo "Because We Love" dates back to circa 1972 features a lovely pop chart with horns and strings and a typically hushed, low-key vocal from the singer-songwriter.
Rod McKuen all but disappeared in the 1980s. He returned a decade later to find his varied catalogue of songs sampled by Madonna and celebrated by Kurt Cobain, even as he engaged fans new and old via an active Internet presence. Love was, indeed, good to Rod McKuen, but moreover, his songs gave words of love, comfort and empathy to those who listened. Ace's compilation, featuring crisply remastered sound by Duncan Cowell and a detailed biographical essay by Barry Alfonso within its copiously illustrated 20-page booklet, is a stellar tribute to the life and work of a multi-faceted artist and true American original.
Various Artists, Love's Been Good to Me: The Songs of Rod McKuen (Ace CDTOP 1481, 2017) (Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K. / Amazon Canada)
- Doesn't Anybody Know My Name - Waylon Jennings (RCA LP LSP-3620, 1966)
- The World I Used to Know - Glen Campbell (Capitol LP ST 2809, 1967)
- Love's Been Good to Me - Tom Jones (Decca LP SKL 5072, 1970)
- Lonesome Cities - Frank Sinatra (Reprise LP FS 1030, 1969)
- A Single Woman - Nina Simone (Elektra CD 9 61503-2, 1993)
- Les Amants de Coeur - Jacques Brel (1964 recording, rel. 1982 on Barclay 200 300 box set)
- Children One and All - Mary Travers and Rod McKuen (rec. 1971, previously unreleased) (*)
- The Wind of Change - Petula Clark (Pye LP NSPL 18370, 1971)
- Jean - Oliver (Crewe 334, 1969)
- A Boy Named Charlie Brown - Rod McKuen (Stanyan LP SR 5010, 1969)
- If You Go Away - Dusty Springfield (Philips LP SBL 7820, 1967)
- The Sea - The San Sebastian Strings (Warner Bros. LP WS 1670, 1967)
- I Think of You - Perry Como (RCA 74-0444, 1971)
- Hello Heartaches - Barbara Kay (20th Century Fox LP S4202, 1968)
- Ally Ally Oxen Free - The Kingston Trio (Capitol 5078, 1963)
- Soldiers Who Want to Be Heroes - The Gateway Trio (Capitol 5045, 1963) (*)
- The Importance of the Rose - The Limeliters (Warner Bros. 7254, 1968)
- Ain't You Glad You're Living, Joe - Michael Sarne (20th Century Fox LP S4202, 1968)
- This is Our House - Shelby Flint (Stanyan LP SR 4014, 1973)
- Kaleidoscope - Nancy Sinatra and Rod McKuen (rec. 1969, previously unreleased) (*)
- One by One - Barry McGuire (Horizon 4, 1963)
- I've Been to Town - Glenn Yarbrough (RCA 47-8498, 1965)
- Because We Love - Rod McKuen (rec. c. 1972, previously unreleased) (*)
- I'll Say Goodbye - Jimmie Rodgers (A&M 842, 1967)
- Seasons in the Sun - Terry Jacks (Bell 45,432, 1973) (*)
Stereo except (*) mono
Barry Alfonso says
Thank you for your perceptive review of the McKuen compilation, Joe. Yes, Rod is an oft-misunderstood figure who received a lot of excessive abuse from the critics of 40 years ago. it has taken decades for his work to come into clearer focus. Your comments are helping achieve that goal.
Joe Marchese says
Thank you for the kind words, Barry, and my compliments on the wonderful essay!