Most of the time, in interviews and essays written about him to this day, you’ll see a recurring descriptor: The most talented person you’ve never heard of. Even if you have, it’s hard to pin McKuen down; in this collection, he switches from some kind of poor man’s Serge Gainsbourg to a performance partner of Johnny Cash to a full-on church leader.
On his television show, Cash gave his friend a number of labels, which can make for a McKuen crash course:
Poet: Although “not often the subject of academic inquiry,” according to the Poetry Foundation, McKuen has published more than two dozen collections of poetry. His reading of 1968’s Lonesome Cities won him that year’s Grammy for Best Spoken Word Recording. And he was the best-selling poet of 1968, surpassing most of that year’s fiction. No big deal.
Composer: While we’re at it, we might as well talk about McKuen as a musician in general, since it’s the arena where he has had the most commercial and critical success. In the early 1970s, he earned back-to-back Academy Award nominations for best original motion picture song (“Jean” in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie) and for best original or adaptation score (A Boy Named Charlie Brown). His composition “The City: Suite for Orchestra and Narrator in Five Movements, Op. 42” received a Pulitzer Prize nomination not long after.
Although originally recorded by McKuen, “Jean” would eventually become more of a hit for pop singer Oliver, whose voice was friendlier to the ears than McKuen’s gruff one. McKuen isn’t the best vocalist, but he makes it work for what he’s trying to do, which often has a spoken-word quality.
And perhaps most interestingly, McKuen used his music in political ways. When singer and Florida Citrus Commission spokesperson Anita Bryant began her infamous tirade against homosexuality, McKuen premiered his song "Don’t Drink The Orange Juice" at a concert in Miami. The lyrics:
I go to Florida a lot because the weather’s nice and hot.
There’s lots of girls and lots of boys,
Lots of Jews and lots of Goy’s,
Lots of Straights and lots of Gays
Yes they get off in many ways.
But Don’t Drink The Orange Juice, I beg you please
Don’t Drink The Orange Juice, I beg you please.
Don’t Drink The Orange Juice, I beg you please
It might lead to all kinds of insanities.
McKuen became an early public crusader for gay rights at that performance. He later wrote to a fan that he heard the song was a major factor in Bryant losing her citrus gig. “I wasn't after anyone's job,” he said, “but I believe in confronting and attacking hate speech and action whenever and wherever it's practiced.”
Actor: Of all his professions, McKuen seems to have had the least to say about this one. There are 11 acting credits on IMDB, mostly from the 1950s, and he’s done voicework too: He was in both The Little Mermaid (in an unnamed capacity) and its spinoff TV cartoon. He also served some time as a Hollywood Square alongside Suzanne Somers and Vincent Price.
Lumberjack: McKuen’s first poem was published while he was a young lumberjack in Oregon, but he kept that fact from his co-workers, who he feared would think he was a sissy. In a 1971 interview, McKuen told Roger Ebert that the job was dangerous work. “Of course, now I couldn't think of being a lumberjack,” he added. “The thought of cutting down a tree, when there are so few trees left..."
Cowboy: Cowboys are an occasional motif in McKuen’s poems and lyrics, but he discussed his rodeo past more thoroughly in 1976’s Finding My Father: One Man’s Search for Identity. In his first book of prose, McKuen claimed that he never was a real cowboy, that he was just pretending, “Filling up the days and nights until something happened.” Still, he broke both of his legs during his stint. Bulldogging was his specialty.
Most Sensitive and Unique Human Being: Not knowing McKuen personally, I can’t really comment on this one, but I will point out that McKuen has been publicly answering questions from fans on the regular since 1998. The replies are posted to rodmckuen.com, where daily updates also feature thoughts, poems from his bibliography, and more.
Susan Cohen decided to leave her career in journalism to go back to school — for journalism. She's still not sure if she made a mistake. Visit susanjcohen.com to learn more about her.