“I have fallen in love with the world And I am aware that I have chosen the most dangerous lover of them all.” Rod McKuen
I was sifting through some books recently deciding what to keep and what to donate (always a dilemma) and I came across a volume of poetry; Seasons in the Sun, by Rod McKuen. It got me to thinking about what factors best determine how well a person’s cultural legacy holds a sheen, because recorded history can be kind or it can be cruel.
Rod McKuen died in 2015 at eighty-one. On balance, he is well remembered today, but it wasn’t always so. There are blots on his reputation, that are, for the most part, undeserved. But for the fresh-laundering power of the Internet, those decades-old ink stains cruelly spilled on his accomplishments back then would have remained permanent. After almost fifty years they have not quite bleached out, but they have now faded to a tolerable gray and may disappear altogether in a few more years.
In 1974, Rod McKuen was a cultural phenomenon to be reckoned with.
If you were born after 1980 or have an interest in poetry, classical music or the 1960s & 70s pop culture scene, Rod McKuen’s name may not even be a blip on your radar. But in 1974, which was when Seasons in the Sun was published, he was a cultural phenomenon to be reckoned with.
At forty-one, McKuen was at his peak as a musical composer, lyricist; screenwriter and international performer. His songs, both classical and popular, were recorded by the biggest-selling artists of that time. He traveled around the world giving more than 250 concerts a year and thousands of media interviews. He was nominated for (and won) major film and music awards. He made a wheelbarrow load of money. He had a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. He was also the best-selling poet in America, and possibly in the English-speaking world.
But the atmosphere and tone for the general media coverage that would follow him for the rest of his life was set in an article by Paul D. Zimmerman in the November 4th, 1968 (no mistake on the date, I have a copy) issue of Newsweek magazine. Zimmerman was a critic for Newsweek at the time, as well as a screenwriter.
It was subtly embedded with vicious little barbs of journalistic condescension.
The article was a factual but flippantly-written piece based on an interview with the poet, and ostensibly a review of McKuen’s newest book of poetry, Lonesome Cities. It was subtly embedded with vicious little barbs of journalistic condescension. Zimmerman described McKuen’s poetry as “scraps of sentiment..” and “…verse that drawls in country cadences from one shapeless line to the next, carrying the rusticated innocence of a Carl Sandburg thickened by the treacle of a man who prefers to prettify the world before he describes it.”
The broadaxe that left the deepest wound and the most visible scar on McKuen was the title of the review, “King of Kitsch”, which was cynically referenced again in the body of the piece. Giving the blade a final thrust, he described McKuen as having developed a “sagebrush chansonnier style.” after having collaborated with songwriter Jacques Brel and others in Paris. The article ran a full two-thirds of a Newsweek page, the other third being taken up with an advertisement.
… a critic’s opinion, for good or bad, had the force of a cultural tsunami.
In the pre-Internet days of 1968 Newsweek was a media force unto its own. It was one of the most influential media platforms for a general audience in the world. A single copy cost .50 cents (about $3.50 today). It had bureaus in other countries, was published in many languages, and had a circulation of more than two million copies. It was not, however, without the human biases of its time. In 1970 a group of female Newsweek employees made their own news when they issued a formal challenge to the magazine that its employment policy would not allow women to work as reporters.
The women won their case and things began to change, but in 1968 a Newsweek endorsement gave the subject cultural omnipotence and an indictment was potentially the kiss of death for anyone with a public profile. The magazine had that kind of virtually unchecked power and influence. So a critic’s opinion, for good or bad, had the force of a cultural tsunami.
Frank Sinatra commissioned an entire album of McKuen songs…
The Zimmerman article seriously wounded McKuen but didn’t quite bury him, as it might have done to a lesser talent. By that time he already had momentum and money and contacts. His books became best-sellers, his records charted at the top, his concerts sold out and his friends supported him.
Frank Sinatra, no stranger to media attacks himself, commissioned an entire album of McKuen songs, which, the poet and songwriter said in a 1980s’ interview, helped him immensely. But, mainly because of that single vicious review with its mean-spirited headline that became the poster lead for lazy journalists everywhere, McKuen was forced to defend his work to the mainstream media until the end of his days. To his credit however, it did not make him cynical, as video of his later concerts and interviews show, right up until his death.
Both men were screenwriters.
Rod McKuen was thirty-five-years-old when the Newsweek article was written. Paul D. Zimmerman was thirty. Both men were screenwriters. Make what you will of that.
It is a fatuous exercise to attempt to second-guess the specific reasons for any journalistic hatchet job. They existed in 1968 and they continue to take place in media today. The practice is one of the great failings of journalism writ large and can probably be attributed in good part to human nature—with its abundant share of crab mentality —being essentially unchanged at the core. It is one thing to bear down heavily on people in politics who form governments and thus exert power over other people’s lives, but attacking someone like a writer or an artist because they have become wealthy and popular seems among the pettiest forms of human malevolence and sadism.
McKuen’s career trajectory very much coincided with that of Leonard Cohen.
It was encouraging to read the coverage of Rod McKuen’s life in The New York Times’ obituary of his passing. It was reasonably well-balanced, but showed that the vicissitudes of life as well as timing play a large part in determining one’s cultural legacy. Although their early backgrounds were different, McKuen’s career trajectory very much coincided with that of Leonard Cohen.
Both men were poets and songwriters, were close to the same age, and their work was commercially successful between 1965 and 1980. Although perhaps not attacked with the force of a Newsweek article, critical response to Leonard Cohn’s poetry was also supposedly in decline, as claimed by academic Stephen Scobie, presumably for similar reasons as McKuen’s, their success as a songwriters.
McKuen retired from public life in 1981, wealthy and at the top of his game…
McKuen essentially retired from public life in 1981, wealthy and at the top of his game, citing burnout as the reason. He gave a birthday concert at Carnegie Hall or the Lincoln Center each year for a time, and continued to write and publish songs and books, but otherwise remained low-key.
Leonard Cohen, on the other hand, was thrust squarely into the public eye in 2005 at age seventy-one when his financial circumstances suddenly became dire. He sued his manager for misappropriating more than $5 million from his retirement fund, but was unable to collect. He subsequently went back on the road and completed two world tours, the first one running from 2008 to 2010 and the second in 2012-13, which began when he was seventy-eight years old. That exposure made him an international star.
In his lifetime, Rod McKuen’s songs and poetry brought love, joy and hope to millions of people…
In his lifetime, Rod McKuen’s songs and poetry brought love, joy and hope to millions of people around the world. It would be a fine thing to believe that his substantial body of creative work will also be taken up, closely examined and fairly judged by future generations. REG
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