Rod McKuen was a just plain, awful poet. That’s a specific complaint, when you read about his life -his father disappeared when he was born, his step-father was a violent alcoholic, he was sexually molested by an aunt at 9; raped by an uncle at 10; ran away from home at 11 (yet still sent money home to his Mom). But for his art as a poet, it just didn’t help much: his mix of spirituality, naturalism and love was so mediocrely Hallmark that it didn’t change anything.
Some more about Rod, he was a member of the LGBT(no q in the 70s) community -an act of bravery in those years. And as a songwriter he gave bathetic melodicism a bad name. Certainly as an interpreter and translator of French lyrics he was responsible for the terrifying words to Jacques Brel “Ne Quite Pas” -you know it as “Seasons In The Sun” , getting the world to sing along to “goodbye my friend, it’s hard to die.” is, what word to use?, an achievement.
Frank Sinatra was in the mood for European pop after the success of “My Way” (here), and Rod was a mix and match from the singer songwriter who wrote a breaktaking 1500 songs in his career. In 1969, Frank released his 48th album, A Man Alone, covering Rod and including spoken word interludes and the bottomline remains: the song’s aren’t good enough: how to go from Gershwin to McKuen (or from Nelson Riddle to Don Costa)? It is the second rule of thermodynamics in action. Frank sings the songs well enough, but what can be done with “Lonesome Cities” which lurchings in like a rewrite “Someone TO Watch Over Me” and then falls apart? Or the title track? The only possible winner is “Love’s Been Good To Me” with its dreamy bridge (Johnny Cash also covered it). But there is only six songs anyway, so it doesn’t survive as anything but an interesting diversion (though a necessary learning experience before Watertown).
Sinatra is a good actor, and I don’t just mean “From Here To Eternity” either, and the poems are given moving performances but the words are bad:
I can just about get through the day
But the night makes me nervous
Not for any reason
Except maybe that it catches you unaware
And follows you the way a woman follows
When she wants something
I don’t know what that is but it is drear and dumb, the night makes me nervous?
Everything here doesn’t much work but even so, Frank sings it like nobody else could, a disquieted sadness permeates his voice and he doesn’t strain yet his softness is so melodic he doesn’t need to; this is a vocal tour de force from the man who learnt hushness on Wee Small Hours and uses it to great effect.
None of that saves Frank here and yet without it he couldn’t have been able to have the artistic breakthrough of his first album in the 1970s. As for McKuen, I still don’t like his poetry or songs but I sure do respect him
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