This is what comes of having your own record label.
Best known as a poet and songwriter in the 1960s, McKuen was a trailblazer in the unaccountable fame hall of fame, paving the way for folks like Garth Brooks and Kenny G. While he never wrote another symphony, McKuen did write other “classical” works, including a concerto for four (count ’em) harpsichords and orchestra (something no Bach—JS or PDQ—ever attempted).
McKuen is just as easy a target now as he was when my fellow English majors and I did dramatic readings from Listen to the Warm back in college. Not that it wasn’t deserved: that subtitle, “All Men Love Something,” gives you some idea of the color and precision that marked Rod’s verse. So while his poetry may never be in the Norton Anthology, perhaps his career should be studied at the Harvard Business School. This is, after all, a poet who parlayed his meager gifts into a monster publishing and recording career. I mean, here’s a poet who had his own record label.
Fair play compels me to note that there are far less noble occupations than midwifing Jacques Brel songs into English, and the McKuen-penned A Man Alone is, against all odds, one of the more creditable of Frank Sinatra’s late 1960s platters. Certainly Don Costa’s harmonically sophisticated arrangements aid the songs on that concept album immeasurably. McKuen’s were neither the first nor worst lyrics from which Sinatra would wring Mahlerian depth.* But the Voice found something in those songs worth investing in, and that ain’t nothing.
Rod McKuen, Symphony No. 1 “All Men Love Something” (1970)
First movement: Gibraltar
Westminster Symphony Orchestra
* If you doubt Sinatra’s knack for turning the most dubious of concepts into art songs, check out the McKuen-Brel existential waltz (yes, really) “I’m Not Afraid.”
(Happy birthday, Davey)