“Come with me/What wonders we’ll find,” sings Rod McKuen to open his lilting waltz “Kaleidoscope” in his recognizable sandpaper voice. But the more revealing lyrics come later, when the poet-singer-songwriter asserts, “You’ll look in my eyes and see you.” Over a career spanning seven decades – but particularly during a purple patch in the late 1960s and early 1970s – McKuen’s loyal legion of fans saw themselves in his deceptively simple art. His empathetic words conveyed the beauty of everyday life, and his comforting pop melodies offered a balm for troubled times. At the time of his death on January 29, 2015 at the age of 81, his books numbered over thirty. They had been translated in 11 languages and sold a reported 65 million copies, making him the best-selling poet in publishing history. His songs, including perennials like “If You Go Away,” “Jean,” “Seasons in the Sun,” and “Love’s Been Good to Me,” numbered roughly 1,500. Always possessing the courage of his convictions, McKuen bucked trends to create art on his own terms. So why was he the perpetual target of critical brickbats? How did he go from a household name to a near-obscurity? What drove him to proudly stand for gay rights while obfuscating his own identity? These are just some of the many questions tackled by Barry Alfonso in his engrossing new biography A Voice of the Warm: The Life of Rod McKuen.
As a poet, an author of prose, and a songwriter, Rodney Marion McKuen returned time and again to the same subjects: love, sex, solitude, abandonment, alienation, the lure of the open road, the search for one’s true self. He delivered platitudes and observations without condescension or pretension. But though McKuen appeared to lay his soul bare as an artist, he was more circumspect when it came to sharing the truth – or at least, the full truth – about his own life. Alfonso had an immense task at hand in untangling a web of romanticized exaggerations and outright fabricated stories offered by McKuen in his many writings and interviews.
The author sets forth McKuen’s life story in a chronological and largely straightforward fashion, presenting the facts as he’s determined them from extensive research and interviews. The stuff of McKuen’s early years was certainly dramatic. He escaped from a hardscrabble childhood with a single mother and abusive stepfather to lead an itinerant life of his own invention. He survived a sexually predatory aunt and uncle as well as three years at a teenage detention center. He worked as a ranch hand, rodeo performer, lumberjack, and teenaged hustler. This is a marked contrast to the middle-class background of his contemporaries such as Bob Dylan – a writer frequently dubbed as “authentic” whereas McKuen was derided as a cheap sentimentalist. (A Voice of the Warm recounts a story from Chuck Herman of Rod’s onetime-backing band The Keytones in which Dylan was busking for change outside the Café Wha? and the Bitter End at the time Rod was playing those venues. Alas, he didn’t recall McKuen and Dylan ever meeting.)
Alfonso draws upon McKuen’s own memoir Finding My Father in addressing issues like Rod’s relationship on the cusp of his teenage years with a myth-like older man. With a clear eye, the writer questions whether the tale of “Leonard” was romanticized by McKuen while still treating the subject’s own account with respect. Showbiz fans will savor the improbable chain of events that led to McKuen’s eventual stardom. Making his radio debut in 1950 at Oakland, California’s KROW, he bonded with a young copywriter and “continuity gal” named Phyllis Diller. (He and the future comedy superstar would become close lifelong friends.) Ever ambitious, he began writing poetry at this time and finding his voice as a singer, too. He was still in Korea as a U.S. Army serviceman when his first book was published. Rugged good looks and pure chutzpah got him quickly signed to a seven-year contract at Universal Pictures and a deal at Liberty Records. Alfonso reveals that McKuen was always his best self-promoter, going so far as to write fan letters to himself.
His early LPs like Beatsville placed him in a hip beatnik bag, but the chameleonic Rod never stayed in one place for long. His earliest albums for labels such as Decca, Epic, Kapp, Horizon and Jubilee were in various styles from folk to R&B to calypso to spoken word and even mild erotica. (By 1964, when a collection of his compositions was issued on Capitol Records, he had already well over a dozen albums.) His New York club act caught the attention of the powerful gossip columnist Walter Winchell, no small feat. This is just one of the fascinating tidbits that peppers the biography.
In broad strokes, the author touches on various strands of McKuen’s life: his affinity with the French, his canny knack as a merchandiser, the fish-out-of-water quality that saw him as a countercultural figure in the 1960s that couldn’t have been more different than the prevailing counterculture of hippies and flower power. The facts about his career are astonishing. Alfonso writes that “as of January 1971, he had sold over three million volumes of poetry. As co-publisher of various Stanyan Book titles, he racked up an additional 1.25 million in sales. All told, his books accounted for 4 percent of [Random House’s] total sales volume for 1970.” An astute critic himself, Alfonso chronicles this rise to unprecedented fame with a clear eye, placing his works within the context of their era and exploring the valid notion of McKuen as a proto-self-empowerment/self-help guru. One can’t help but recognize his prescience in “branding” his literary and musical empire long before such terms were in vogue. In stylish, often conversational prose, the book also details Rod’s sometimes-complicated relationships with friends and collaborators such as folksinger Glenn Yarbrough, Nashville arranger-artist Anita Kerr, literary icon Gay Talese, Rock Hudson, and Frank Sinatra.
Nora Ephron, later the successful screenwriter of romantic comedies like Sleepless in Seattle and When Harry Met Sally, attempted to take down McKuen in a cutting 1971 Esquire article entitled “Mush.” But Ephron missed his subversive aspects entirely, particularly in his writings about individualism and desire. McKuen’s outreach to all races, creeds, and sexuality is traced by Alfonso to his earliest days. He became a member of The Mattachine Society, the group founded in 1950 to advocate for gay rights. His membership was dangerous at the time, and altogether imprudent for a rising star in show business. While Rod’s membership ended when he was drafted in 1953, his belief in equality continued.
Some good friends knew of his sexuality; others (such as Barry McGuire) had no idea, as he was still cultivating committed (if seemingly platonic) relationships with women. Yet Rod resisted labels. His biographer quotes him in The Saturday Review circa December 1972: “I don’t consider myself as being of any particular sexual persuasion. There are as many sexual attitudes as there are people. I’m turned on by people.” Four years later, he told The Advocate, “I think the straights, gays, and bis all do themselves a tremendous disservice by putting themselves into ay kind of category. I don’t believe that there are only three kinds of sexuality any more than there are three categories of need of any kind. I think you’ll find there are as many different kinds of sexual needs as you will find intellectual needs.” It would take decades for those kinds of thoughts to become commonly accepted.
Most famously, Rod took on Anita Bryant’s anti-gay “Save Our Children” campaign. When a spokesman for the organization branded him a “pervert” and “homosexual,” he responded by daring them to prove his homosexuality and bringing up his 16-year old son. Indeed, for the entirety of his life, he professed to have two children – the existence of which Alfonso and dozens of interview subjects cannot verify. The book also delves into his decades-long relationship, a marriage in anything but name, with the late Edward Habib. Rather than acknowledge their partnership, however, McKuen insisted on describing Habib as his brother, which only led to further questions. These contradictions can’t be explained by Alfonso, but he presents them in vivid fashion and allows readers to make up their own minds as to McKuen’s true intentions. Rod’s crusades took on other shapes and forms, too. Crucially, he championed the losing cause to allow adoptees access to their birth records, a cause that was near and dear to his heart.
Some of the most heartbreaking moments in the book deal with McKuen’s withdrawal from the realm of celebrity as he fought lingering self-doubt and severe depression. He sat out much of the 1980s, save for a few compilation albums released via mail-order on his Stanyan imprint, his final mass-published poetry and an occasional TV appearance on talk shows and a celebrity-themed Family Feud. It wasn’t until the next decade that he emerged from the shadows. Before his 1994 suicide, Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain expressed his fondness for the McKuen discography. In 1998, Rod began blogging as a way to stay in touch with the loyal fans who had waited patiently for his return. Alfonso reports that “[the blog] attracted between 20,000 and 30,000 visits per week at its peak.”
He continued blogging through 2011, dispensing inspirational nuggets and the wisdom he’d won over the years, and directly answering questions about his life and work. He returned to performing onstage and lived to see his songs reevaluated and recorded by artists including Johnny Cash (“Love’s Been Good to Me”), Cyndi Lauper (“If You Go Away”), and Madonna (“Why I Follow the Tigers” was sampled as part of “Drowned World/Substitute for Love”). McKuen reactivated his Stanyan Records label to reissue his classic LPs (to which he’d cannily retained rights) on CD, released a new album with old friend Petula Clark, and oversaw a lavish and comprehensive Bear Family box set celebrating his halcyon mid-1960s years on the RCA Victor label.
A Voice of the Warm ends on a sad note as Alfonso addresses the chaotic aftermath of McKuen’s death, including the destruction of much of his archive. But ultimately, his music and poetry will outlive such present-day drama, as the universal feelings McKuen wrote about in accessible terms will never go out of fashion. A “Selected Discography” closes the book which is a helpful reference point for those wishing to explore more McKuen, though there is still the need for a truly comprehensive discography of this staggeringly prolific artist. The book also boasts a perceptive foreword by Michael Feinstein and numerous photographs.
Rod McKuen might remain an enigma, but you’ll feel much closer to him thanks to Barry Alfonso’s exhaustively researched and compellingly written account of his singular life.
For the perfect soundtrack to A Voice of the Warm, check out the two Rod McKuen releases coming from Real Gone Music in January: