McKuen, one of the best-selling poets in US history, was also a singer and songwriter
January 29, 2015
Rod McKuen, the husky-voiced "King of Kitsch" whose music, verse and spoken-word recordings in the 1960s and '70s won him an Oscar nomination and made him one of the best-selling poets in history, has died. He was 81.
McKuen died Thursday morning at a rehabilitation center in Beverly Hills, California, where he had been treated for pneumonia. McKuen had been ill for several weeks and was unable to digest food, said his half brother, Edward McKuen Habib.
Until his sabbatical in 1981, McKuen was an astonishingly successful and prolific force in popular culture, turning out hundreds of songs and poems and records, including the Academy Award-nominated song "Jean" for the 1969 film "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie."
Sentimental, earnest and unashamed, he conjured a New Age spirit world that captivated those who didn't ordinarily like "poetry" and those who craved relief from the wars, assassinations and riots of the 1960s.
"I think it's a reaction people are having against so much insanity in the world," he once said. "I mean, people are really all we've got. You know it sounds kind of corny, and I suppose it's a cliche, but it's really true; that's just the way it is."
His best known songs, some written with the Belgian composer Jacques Brel, include "Birthday Boy," ''A Man Alone," ''If You Go Away" and "Seasons In the Sun," a chart-topper in 1974 for Terry Jacks. He was also received an Oscar nomination for "A Boy Named Charlie Brown," the title track for the beloved Peanuts movie.
Frank Sinatra, Madonna, Dolly Parton and Chet Baker were among the many artists who recorded his material, although McKuen often handled the job himself, in a hushed, throaty style he had honed after an early life as a rock singer cracked his natural tenor.
He was born in Oakland on April 29, 1933, his father left when he was a baby, and he was terrified of his alcoholic stepfather. “He used me as a punching bag, so I ended up running away” at age 11, he told the San Francisco Chronicle in a 2002 interview.
During his teens he worked as a cowhand, lumberjack and ditch digger to railroad worker and rodeo cowboy. In his free time, he wrote poetry.
At 15, Mr. McKuen rejoined his mother in Oakland, where the high school dropout became a disc jockey at KROW. Thanks to a fellow KROW employee named Phyllis Diller, Mr. McKuen got a singing gig at the now-defunct Purple Onion in North Beach.
His break as a poet came in the early 1950s when he read with Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg at the Jazz Cellar in San Francisco. He sometimes wrote a poem or song a day. He had no formal musical or literary training and prided himself on writing verse that anyone could understand as he bridged the Beat Generation, the hippies and the subsequent New Age of personal transformation.