Friday, September 24, 2010

Rod McKuen's "Doesn't Anybody Know My Name?"

I never really thought of Rod McKuen as having anything directly to do with folk music, and I kind of doubt that he did either. That is no kind of criticism at all - he is what he is, and that is a fine pop songwriter who writes rather more in the French cabaret tradition of pop music than in the American Kern-Gershwin-Berlin-Cahn-Bacharach/David tradition. And though pop folk groups like the Kingston Trio and the Limeliters had a lot to do with propelling McKuen's earliest songwriting efforts into the national consciousness, his staying power as a songwriter has come from the large number of pop vocalists who have recorded his tunes. Frank Sinatra's 1969 album A Man Alone is comprised entirely of songs by McKuen, the only time in Sinatra's long and legendary career that Ol' Blue Eyes paid any songwriter (and he worked with all the great ones) that kind of compliment.

I discussed McKuen's controversial career as a poet a year and a half ago when I wrote about his freehand rendering of Jacques Brel's song "Le Moribond" as "Seasons In The Sun: - but some of the exact points at which he is vulnerable to (often savage) critiques as a poet are precisely the points that stand him in good stead as a lyricist. His words are often simple, transparent, and emotional verging on the sentimental. This may or may not make for good poetry, depending on your tastes, but these qualities make for often very effective lyrics when set to the kind of reflective, often Brel-sounding melodies to which McKuen sets them. Now 77 years old, he still writes and performs, singing in that peculiarly affecting throaty baritone of his.

I always thought that McKuen the composer was at his best when, as with French writers like Brel, his lyrics and melodies were tinged with a kind of fin de siecle melancholy, a sadness as gentle as an autumn mist. Think, for instance, of the lyric derived from William Butler Yeats in McKuen's "Isle in the Water" - the subtle changes he makes to Yeats' poem and his original lines make even this love song quietly wistful. "Love's Been Good To Me" is one of the 60s best reflective ballads, and "Rusting in the Rain" is surely one of the loveliest of all laments for the passing of time and the inevitable changes that it brings.

McKuen's "Doesn't Anybody Know My Name?," also known as "Two-Ten, Six-Eighteen," falls right into line with the songs cited above. Like "Rusting in the Rain," a large part of the emotional impact of the song comes from an individual returning to a familiar place and finding that it has become most unfamiliar due to the changes wrought by the inexorable passage of time. That fact that the returnee is an American soldier coming home from an unnamed foreign war to a people who have forgotten him and his sacrifices on their behalf makes this tune about as close to a "protest" song as McKuen would write.

McKuen composed "Doesn't Anybody Know My Name?" in the 1960s, which could lead easily to a misinterpretation of it that would both undermine its universality and do it a great injustice. It is not about the Viet Nam war, though it is eerie how clearly McKuen's lyric anticipated what would become the experience of many a returning VN vet in the decade following its 1962 composition. Given McKuen's age, if there IS any specific conflict motivating him, it is far likelier the Korean War that was fought largely by men his age. In 1962, the U.S. had a smallish military presence in Southeast Asia - perhaps 25,000 soldiers then compared to the 600,000 at the height of the war - and U.S. participation in the growing conflict still at that point enjoyed fairly widespread popular support.

Part of the song's effectiveness is that it takes no political side about any war. It relates the experience of the return home through the eyes of the soldier. In his mind, he has "nearly died/To keep us free" - and perception in this case is the equivalent of reality. McKuen's comment that no returning veteran should be nameless and shunned is one that could and does apply to any war, any where, any time.

Our first version of the song is from McKuen himself, here from about 1970:

This is McKuen's original lyric, one that the Kingston Trio shortened by an entire line in each verse in their version. Once again, I'm using the 1963 concert version of the song from the 2009 CD Flashback because I think that Bob Shane's vocal is greatly superior to the studio version from the album Sunny Side:

Johnny Cash was gifted with a voice whose timbre lent itself most naturally to songs of melancholy and loneliness, and though the Man In Black was most often characterized in his lifetime as "country," he is more properly appreciated as what today is called "roots," which means with a healthy pure folk influence as well - which you can hear in this version remarkable a capella version of McKuen's composition by Cash:

No genre-identification problem with the next two artists. Return with me now to those thrilling days of yesteryear when country music really was country music, first with one of the genre's all time greatest artists, Waylon Jennings:

and Hank Williams, Jr. from 1963:

Both of these last two are solid, professional efforts. I think that Jennings does the greatest justice to the song of all the versions presented here.

A final thought. The peroration or grand conclusion of Abraham Lincoln's second inaugural address, arguably the greatest speech ever written by an American, looks past the awful cataclysm that any war is and urges the nation of his time - and really all nations in all times - "to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations."

All you can say to that is "Amen."

1 comment:

Sam Sharp said...

Thanks Jim. Its not my favourite McKuen song but for me almost anything by Rod is worth listening to. Apart from the beautiful melodies he composed, he is the first artist whose lyrics I somehow felt compelled to listen to. And I first found him by noticing that many of my favourite KT songs were his.