The Spiritual Forebear of Lana Del Rey
Review of A Voice of the Warm: The Life of Rod McKuen
A Voice of the Warm: The Life of Rod McKuen, Barry Alfonso’s biography of the late, polarizing poet/singer/songwriter who met with commercial success and critical disdain in the 1960s and ’70s, argues for a reassessment of McKuen’s place in pop culture history. A poet who sold millions of copies of books and a gold-certified recording artist, the “world’s most famous self-proclaimed loner” scored films, earned two Oscar nominations, and played Carnegie Hall. Writing “about commonplace things, ordinary scenes, passing incidents and moods” (like “butterflies in the summertime and snowy Christmas mornings”), McKuen won over a popular audience but earned a critical reputation as the “King of Kitsch.” Scathing takedowns (including Nora Ephron’s famous pan in Esquire magazine) calling him “the voice of Middle America” only strengthened his fans’ support. As Alfonso points out, “critics looked down upon not only McKuen but his audience as well.”
While singular in many regards, McKuen’s cultural equivalent today might be singer Lana Del Rey. Accused early in her career of being a phony, Del Rey established an ardent fan base that supports her successful recording career, vehemently defends against her critics, and seems eager to share her latest offhand musings on social media: images of hand-typed pages of “freestyle” poetry inspired by the likes of Beat poet Allen Ginsberg with titles like “Quiet Waiter-Blue Forever,” all intended for her forthcoming, handbound collection, Violet Bent Backwards Over the Grass.
In a 2018 interview with BBC Radio 1’s Annie Mac, Del Rey explained, “I’m working on a little book of poetry, I think I’m just going to self-publish it and put it out … which is kind of random [laughs]. It’s kind of another one of those things I just want out there just for me. Like, I literally might just drop these little books off at some bookstores in [the] Silver Lake [neighborhood of Los Angeles] and beg them to sell them.”
In Del Rey’s poem “happy,” the speaker is on the phone with her lover, thinking back to the last time “we made love,” and
how the noise from the cars got louder and louder during rush hour
until it sounded like a river or a stream
and it felt like we were swimming
but it wasn’t just a dream
we were just
How you feel about the sentiments in this poem and how well you think they’re expressed is a good predictor for how you’ll feel about McKuen’s work, if you’re unfamiliar with it. His most famous poem, “A Cat Named Sloopy,” is about a “midnight cowboy” living in New York City who stays out too late one night and comes home to find that his faithful feline has deserted him. McKuen writes,
perhaps she’s been
the only human thing
that ever gave back love to me.
Profound or simple-minded? What makes poets like McKuen and Del Rey polarizing is audiences’ reaction to them: They either think the poet’s the second coming or a schmuck. But bear in mind, as Alfonso points out with McKuen, they’re also bringing poetry to the mainstream. In McKuen’s case, this combination of “autobiography, folk wisdom, tips for self-healing” found “a readership among people who didn’t typically make a place for poetry in their lives.”
McKuen’s breakthrough collection was Stanyon Street & Other Sorrows, poems largely depicting “afternoon encounters and one-night stands,” which he initially sold by driving up and down the California coast, selling them to bookstores (anticipating or inspiring Del Rey’s current marketing plan).
Whether McKuen should be taken seriously as a poet is a conversation that can’t happen without a serious examination of what he wrote. In A Voice of the Warm, we only get a line or two here and there. Alfonso sticks to a straightforward biographical trajectory. McKuen was conceived after his parents met in a California dance hall during the Great Depression. He never knew his father, and was beaten by a drunken step-father and molested by an aunt and uncle. At eleven, McKuen ran away from the Pacific Northwest to a Nevada ranch and fell in love with an older rancher who was killed crossing the street. McKuen was then sent to a juvenile detention facility, joined the rodeo, got work in Portland as a lumberjack, and started hustling. Sometime after moving in with his mother and half-brother in California, he discovered popular Austrian poet Walter Benton, whose work Alfonso describes as “mixing paeans to sunsets, flowers, and favorite meals with dreamy erotic imagery—all hallmarks of the poetic style Rod was beginning to cultivate.”
McKuen dropped out of technical high school, worked a variety of odd jobs, and landed a radio show. “Rendezvous with Rod” alternated playing “the lovelorn hits of the day with yearning verse straight out of his notebooks.” Alfonso describes the show as “a kind of guided visualization session for the lovelorn, blurring the lines between storyteller, poet, confessor, and therapist.” It was a big hit in the Bay Area.
After being drafted into the army during the Korean War (where he claims to have come up with the slogan “Make Love, Not War”), McKuen returned to Oakland, published his first book of poetry, and, through his friend, comedian Phyllis Diller, got into the nightclub scene. He went to LA, recorded an album, started to further hone his “loner persona,” and made his big-screen debut, writing himself fan mail to boost his studio appeal. Heading back to San Francisco, he recorded Beatsville, “positioning himself as a sort of beatnik fellow traveler who mingled with the hipster crowd while staying true to himself.”
Alfonso continues to faithfully follow McKuen’s adventures and his development through his Greenwich Village and San Francisco Beat periods, his Los Angeles Troubadour folk period, along with his introduction to Belgian songwriter Jacques Brel (for whose songs McKuen would pen the English lyrics, including the hit “If You Go Away”), and relays the story of how McKuen, as an untrained singer, destroyed his vocal cords, creating his signature “husky whisper.” McKuen famously says, “‘It sounds like I gargle with Dutch Cleanser.’”
The book falters whenever Alfonso tries to amplify the meaning of what McKuen is doing. Citing McKuen as “an early member of the San Francisco chapter of the Mattachine Society, the first sustained gay-rights organization in America,” Alfonso also admits McKuen “never mentioned the group in any of his published writings. The important thing is that he was there at the dawn of the modern gay-rights movement.” But is that the important thing? And to whom?
McKuen allegedly was the first to write, “It’s not who you love or how you love but that you love,” and Alfonso holds this up right at the beginning as if to celebrate McKuen as a hero, later trying to make the case that McKuen was some kind of pioneer in sexual fluidity. But McKuen, by Alfonso’s own account, wasn’t living an out-and-proud lifestyle (the exception perhaps being the artwork for his 1977 album Slide … Easy In, showing a porn star’s hairy arm with a fist full of Crisco). McKuen publicly alluded to relationships with women, and maintained, until the end of his life, that he had fathered two children. (“There is no information that confirms that Rod McKuen ever had children,” Alfonso writes.)
Despite using the opening of the book to set up McKuen’s relationship with Edward Habib as “a loving, tormented, but ultimately enduring relationship that would last over fifty years,” Habib makes but a few paragraphs’ worth of appearances. (McKuen publicly referred to Habib, with whom he lived, as “my brother.”) Alfonso writes that “no one will probably know for certain what Rod McKuen and Edward Habib meant to each other as they approached the ends of their lives,” but isn’t that why we read books like these? To find out?
Barry Alfonso’s biography of the late, polarizing poet/singer/songwriter who met with commercial success and critical disdain in the 1960s and ’70s, argues for a reassessment of Rod McKuen’s place in pop culture history.
Occasionally overreaching, Alfonso tries to establish other kinds of corollaries, writing, for example, “it would have been only natural for [McKuen] to become involved with the burgeoning local poetry scene of the early 1950s,” then admitting a paragraph later, “It’s unclear if Rod had any dealings with the Berkeley Renaissance poets.” While it sometimes makes for less spectacular storytelling, I admire Alfonso’s fidelity to the truth, and throughout the book, he does an excellent job policing McKuen’s own accounts. While McKuen claims he wrote other collections of poetry under pseudonyms which were met with rave reviews, Alfonso almost sadly admits, “There is no hard information to verify that these books were published or reviewed.”
A Voice of the Warm feels like the start of a deeper investigation, not just into a poet, but into the cultural moment that was so receptive to what he had to say. “Strip away the accrued soil of judgment and misunderstanding, and underneath you will find a pure and shiny patina,” cabaret star Michael Feinstein asserts of his friend in the book’s foreword. But a patina is still a surface, at which this biography can only scratch.
REVIEWED BY MICHAEL QUINN
Michael Quinn reviews books for Publishers Weekly, literary journals, and in a monthly column for the Brooklyn newspaper The Red Hook Star-Revue, as well as for his own website, mastermichaelquinn.com, under the heading “Book Report.”