The Mystery of McKuen

I was puzzling over this a few months ago. What was the deal with Rod McKuen? For a minute, in the late sixties and early seventies, he was the most popular poet in the US.

When I started working in a local bookstore (local to me, in Texas) in the mid-eighties, there were still dozens of McKuen poetry books in print, and we carried them all.

They were, and remain, horrible.

A few months ago I wondered if I simply didn’t have the perspective to understand the hidden beauty of Rod McKuen. Perhaps there was some charm the callow teenage me couldn’t appreciate.

Nope. Pure dreck. Bad. Like…really, really bad.

The reason I’d gone back to reconsider McKuen is because I learned he’d translated the songs of Jacques Brel. If you know the english version of the song “If You Go Away,” or “Seasons in the Sun,” you know a Brel song translated by Rod McKuen. (While he often kept Brel’s references to taboo topics, he sanitized “Seasons in the Sun” for an American audience.)

I didn’t realize until this year that the guy writing that abyssmal poety was the same person that helped introduce Brel to an American audience. Not only that, but before his arrival in the upper echelon of fame and fortune, he did readings with Ginsberg, and Kerouac, and performed at the Purple Onion. Later, Sinatra would commission McKuen to write a whole album. (Which just goes to show that drugs and alcohol can have a profoundly negative affect on your taste levels.)

Anyway, The Neglected Books Page was also recently puzzling over the mystery of McKuen, and did a deep dive into his life and work.

It’s worth reading just for the choice quotes he finds from those unimpressed by McKuen’s talent.

McKuen’s books, he wrote, belonged in “the lachrymose quagmire of the KMart poetry section.”

“language is not his strong point”

I thought about dropping in a McKuen video, but saw this live performance of “Jackie” by Scott Walker and decided to end with it, instead. This is Brel translated into English, but not the McKuen translation.

Scott Walker singing a Jacques Brel song, but this one is translated by Mort Shuman

Jackie

And if one day I should become
A singer with a Spanish bum
Who sings for women of great virtue
I’d sing to them with a guitar
I borrowed from a coffee bar
Well, what you don’t know doesn’t hurt you
My name would be Antonio
And all my bridges I would burn
And when I gave them some they’d know
I’d expect something in return
I’d have to get drunk every night
And talk about virility
With some old grandmama
Who might be decked out like a christmas tree
And though pink elephants I’d see
Though I’d be drunk as I could be
Still I would sing my song to me
About the time they called me “Jacky”

If I could be for only an hour
If I could be for an hour every day
If I could be for just one little hour
Cute, cute in a stupid ass way

And if I joined the social whirl
Became procurer of young girls
Then I would have my own bordellos
My record would be number one
And I’d sell records by the ton
All sung by many other fellows
My name would then be handsome Jack
And I’d sell boats of opium
Whisky that came from Twickenham
Authentic queers
And phony virgins
If I had banks on every finger
A finger in every country
And all the countries ruled by me
I’d still know where I’d want to be
Locked up inside my opium den
Surrounded by some China men
I’d sing the song that I sang then
About the time they called me “Jacky”

If I could be for only an hour
If I could be for an hour every day
If I could be for just one little hour
Cute, cute in a stupid ass way

Now, tell me, wouldn’t it be nice
That if one day in paradise
I’d sing for all the ladies up there
And they would sing along with me
We’d be so happy there to be
Cos’ down below is really nowhere
And if my name were Juniper
Then I would know where I was going
And then I would become all knowing
My beard so very long and flowing
If I became deaf, dumb, and blind
Because I pitied all mankind
And broke my heart to make things right
I’d know that every single night
When my angelic work was through
The angels and the Devil too
Would sing my childhood song to me
About the time they called me “Jacky”

If I could be for only an hour
If I could be for an hour every day
If I could be for just one little hour
Cute, cute in a stupid ass way

One thought on “The Mystery of McKuen

  1. McKuen was also a singer himself, not entirely untalented.
    He edited a multi-volume collection of WWII music which we picked up from a Signals catalog, back when those were a thing, and he included himself singing something on several albums, I think, but the whole thing is still quite a time capsule, culturally. Inludes the original “So Long Mama, I’m off to Yokohama” that Tom Lehrer parodied, as well as the immortal “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition.”
    My favorite bits may be the occassional interstitial commercials, like Kraft Mac&Cheese “only one ration point!”

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