Best-selling performer and poet Rod McKuen died Thursday at the age of 81, from complications from pneumonia in Beverly Hills. On the occasion of his death, The Advocate's web producer Christopher Harrity reflects on McKuen's formative influence on a generation of gay men:
I was lucky enough to grow up in a family that read books. Now I didn't read books, but I sure listened to them talk about books a lot. My mother, stepfather, and father would all get into heated debates about what real poetry was. My father eschewed Carl Sandburg, my stepfather memorized Keats. My mother loved the lighter verse of e.e.cummings, Ogden Nash, and Dorothy Parker.
But when Rod McKuen began his fantastically successful career in the '60s and '70s, I was enraptured by his looks, his voice, and his very accessible verse. McKuen was the perfect idol for a pre-emo teen boy who felt alone in a high school of cheerleaders, football jocks, and math geniuses. I would wander the streets of Alameda, Calif., late at night in my pea coat and bell bottoms thinking I was a loner like Rod. My parents rolled their eyes at my taste in Rod, but at least I was finally reading books.
In the late '60s McKuen was the best-selling poet in the U.S. His translation of Jacques Brel's songs led to Brel's popularity in the United States. Frank Sinatra, Madonna, Dolly Parton, and Chet Baker all recorded tracks by McKeun. And Rock Hudson didn't just make albums with anyone, you know. McKuen stayed sort of undercover about his sexuality for years, but looking back at his titles, it was like a billboard. For Example: More Rod '77.
He was dubbed the "King of Kitsch" by Newsweek, and even Mad Magazine did a parody on him, but he was a prolific and widely published author, and an especially successful songwriter. Among his most successful were "If You Go Away," the Oscar-nominated "Jean" (from the movie The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie), which he sang over the closing titles, and "The World I Used to Know."
From what we can find, there is no big coming out moment for Rod. He was generally assumed to be gay, had a production company and cut an album with Rock Hudson, and gay culture claimed him as their own with profiles and articles in The Advocate and After Dark.
When I was a sophomore in high school, I had the expected misfortune to fall in love with an out-of-work actor in San Francisco. I would go to his tiny studio apartment at the base of Nob Hill, and he would read McKuen's poetry to me in bed all afternoon as the summer fog drifted in off the bay. I still get a wistful pang when I hear the titles of his two best selling collections: Stanyan Street and Other Sorrows, and the most popular middle-class poetry collection of all, Listen to the Warm.