Saturday, January 31, 2015

In Memoriam Rod McKuen: "Love's Been Good To Me"

Rod McKuen's death on Thursday at the age of 81 was another one of those all-too-frequent-these-days John Donne moments, as in Donne's famous meditation on the connectedness of all people that climaxes with "Therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee." That funeral bell tolls perhaps rather more loudly for McKuen than it may well do for many of the rest of us, because for several decades McKuen was a major force in U.S. popular culture, with his songs selling tens of millions of copies (generally recorded by higher-profile artists than McKuen was like Frank Sinatra, Andy Williams, Judy Collins, Glenn Yarbrough, Madonna, and many more) and his books of simple, emotional poetry appearing ubiquitously for some years on high school and college campuses throughout the land. By his own count, McKuen had recorded over two hundred albums and earned 63 gold and platinum records worldwide. In television and film, McKuen also racked up an impressive list of credits, as his IMDB page indicates HERE, and I recall seeing him quite accidentally and surprisingly one late night as an actor in a B western from the late 1950s. Yet though his death was treated as a major event in national newspapers and websites, it was often accompanied by the sort of "I always wondered what happened to him" reaction, or less kindly, "I didn't even know he was still alive."  This was due in part because McKuen's fifteen minutes of fame had expired decades before, but also because a major bout of clinical depression stemming from an abusive childhood engulfed him in the 1980s, in his early mid-life when he had been at his most productive, and he disappeared from the public eye for some time. He emerged from that shadow later in the decade, but times and styles had passed him by. McKuen continued to work - to write, to score, to perform - right up until shortly before his death, though on a smaller stage and with less public acclaim.

McKuen's name has appeared in the posts on this site with some frequency, primarily because the pop-folk groups of the late 1950s and early 1960s like the Kingston Trio, The Limeliters, The Brothers Four, and others were the first to record and attract wide attention to his songs, including tunes profiled on this site "Seasons In The Sun," "Doesn't Anybody Know My Name?", and "The World I Used To Know".  I'd like to crib from myself a bit here from those earlier articles because they express better than any rewrite could what I have thought of McKuen through the decades. First -

While I am not a fan at all of McKuen's attempts at poetry, I hold him in high regard as a composer and lyricist, one whose musical vision in both songs and orchestral compositions was so idiosyncratic and so out-of-step with the pop culture of his times that an artist whose songs sold tens of millions of recordings (and "Seasons In The Sun" as done by Terry Jacks is one of only a handful of single records with certified worldwide sales of ten million or more units), who had arguably the greatest pop vocalist of the last century record an entire album of his compositions (Frank Sinatra's 1969 A Man Alone), and who sold millions of books when a genuine bestseller scores in the tens of thousands in hardcover - this artist is nearly anonymous today, despite being a healthy and active senior citizen. So much for the glory of the world....Part of the problem with McKuen's legacy, and here I mean the fact that this artist whose works in different genres were wildly popular in their day (even though he never evolved into a leading performer himself) is so largely unknown to younger generations today and forgotten by his own, is that McKuen's music was never quite either fish or fowl - never traditional-sounding or protest-oriented enough to be remembered as folk but never quite complex enough to bear comparison with the work of great pop songsmiths like Cole Porter or Johnny Mercer.

And more to the point of today's song - 

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 siècle 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...

"Love's Been Good To Me" is as fine a song as McKuen ever wrote at expressing quietly a sense of  passing time and its attendant loss, and as such makes a fine eulogy for its composer. It is in its chord structure and lyric sensibility most definitely a mainstream pop number, and of course the best-known version was as a middling hit for Frank Sinatra, recorded for the aforementioned A Man Alone album.  Yet interestingly, the song comes across most effectively in the roots-y performances below by Johnny Cash and the Kingston Trio, both of whom respect the song's pop origins but present it with minimal instrumentation and without the lush orchestrations common to most other versions - and as we will see at the end, it is this simpler and less ornate approach that McKuen himself took with the song in his later years.

McKuen first recorded his song in early 1964:

McKuen was self-taught as a musician, and in his early years as a performer in the late 1950s in San Francisco's North Beach clubs like The Purple Onion, he accompanied both his singing and his poetry reading with a simply-played guitar. However, his time in Paris with Jacques Brel from about 1960 through 1963 became for McKuen a kind of education in music theory and arrangement, and when he returned to the U.S., he did so with sufficient knowledge to score the orchstrations on many of his albums, as he did here.

The first cover version of the tune was by the Kingston Trio, at the end of 1964 about six months after McKuen's original:

The lead here is by Bob Shane, quite naturally since he had the best voice in the group and because he was the member most comfortable with pop numbers and Broadway tunes and the like. The Kingstons had never liked being characterized as "folk," and from their first album six years prior to this recording and on from there, the Trio had always included pop-styled selections, sometimes to the chagrin of their record labels Capitol and (here) Decca, which were trying to market the band as "folk." As wrong-headed as that was, it did have its advantages for the companies: neither label had to hire anyone to score and play orchestral arrangements to back the group, and the guitar-only accompaniment for this track enhances the effect of McKuen's quiet if sentimental lyricism.

Johnny Cash had long been an admirer of McKuen, which might strike one as strange at first given Cash's identity as a country/rockabilly/roots artist - but The Man In Black responded most strongly to and recorded many of McKuen's earlier and folkier creations, and Cash featured McKuen several times as a guest on the former's long-running and highly-rated television show. It is no surprise then that Cash included a couple of McKuen tunes in his last studio sessions, the widely-lauded "American Recordings" for the label of the same name. In fact, the fifth album in the series is A Hundred Highways, the title clearly derived from the lyric of this song:

Cash's aged, craggy voice at this late point in his life and career is perfect for the lyric, and I find it singularly affecting, as are many of Cash's other tracks from those last years of his life.

Clearly, you can't talk about "Love's Been Good To Me" without including Frank Sinatra's rendition. Sinatra was so taken with McKuen's compositions that the A Man Alone LP includes only RM numbers, and "Love" was chosen as the flagship single from the album:

The 45rpm reached only #75 on the Billboard Hot 100 but scored a number eight position on the adult/contemporary charts. The orchestration here is somewhat muted by Sinatra standards; Ol' Blue Eyes generally went for accompaniments that in many cases might today be described as over-done or schmaltzy...

....which is why I especially like what McKuen is doing with his song here, in the television show from 2009 at Royal Theatre Carré in Amsterdam:

There is a clear connection here to what Johnny Cash did with the tune. McKuen's vocals had always been throaty, but the addition of a few decades of wear and tear to his voice helps here to transform a ballad that might have seemed to be the superficial sentiments of a callow playboy when sung by a youth into a far more moving and reflective retrospection by an older man on a life now all-but-over. That is why for my money this last version and Cash's are the best ones ever waxed and help to transform a middle-of-the-road pop composition into something deeper and more satisfying.

McKuen enjoyed a career that could be fairly described, like the artist himself, as bi-polar. He sold over a million books of poetry in 1968 alone - in an industry in which even then selling fifty thousand units would make a book a number one bestseller - but he was excoriated by serious critics with a savage vituperation that I have seldom seen launched at any other artist in my lifetime. As a lifelong devotee of poetry, I have never had much use for McKuen's verse - but did he deserve this, a day after his death?

"Rod McKuen, The Cheeseburger To Poetry's Haute Cuisine"

I think not. Neither his music nor his writing might be to everyone's taste, but his compositions of both spoke deeply to millions of people throughout the world, and that counts for something in my book - quite a lot, really. And so it was that I was pleased to see that McKuen may well have written his own epitaph in an interview in 2001 when he observed that, "I battled my way back to some kind of sanity by finally realizing I had absolutely nothing to be depressed about...I’ve had and am having a great life and I’ve never been happier. Besides, who knows how much time I have left on this earth? I have too much to do and too many things started and unfinished to afford the luxury of being unhappy."

For that - good on ya, mate.