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#BornThisDay: Songwriter/ Singer /Poet, Rod McKuen

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Photo by Susan Ehmer, via YouTube

April 19, 1933Rodney Marvin McKuen:

”Now is next to nothing compared to where I’ve been.”

Rod McKuen was a singer-songwriter, musician and poet. He was one of the best-selling poets of the 1960s.

McKuen was born at the Salvation Army hostel in Oakland, California, and he was raised by an alcoholic mother and an abusive stepfather. He was sexually abused by relatives as a kid. McKuen:

”Physical injuries on the outside heal, but those scars have never healed and I expect they never will.”

He ran away from home when he was 11-years-old and traveled around the West Coast, taking jobs as a ranch hand, railroad worker, and hustler. He had his own radio show when he was 15-years-old, and all the while, sending money home to his mother. He kept a journal which he mined for material for his poems and songs.

In the early 1950s, he did readings at a San Francisco bookstore with Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. He tried acting in Hollywood, moved to Paris and NYC in the early 1960s, and then found his was back to California, as so many of us Californians do.

When McKuen died in 2015 at 81-years-old, the obituaries in the failing NY Times, Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post failed to mention McKuen was queer or about his LGBTQ activism. Of course.

Throughout his career, McKuen produced recordings of popular music, spoken word, film soundtracks and orchestral music. He received two Academy Award nominations and a Pulitzer Prize short-list for his music. He translated and arranged the music of Jacques Brel, bringing the Belgian songwriter to the attention of American fans of fantastic songs. He sold sold over 100 million records, and 60 million books.

His books of poetry were found both on middle American coffee tables and in the bedrooms of teenagers, with his reflections of dreamy romantic loneliness and uplifting platitudes. One of McKuen’s biggest hits was the title song for the animated Peanuts film A Boy Named Charlie Brown (1969) for which he was nominated for an Oscar. His other Oscar nomination was for the song Jean, which he sang over the closing credits of The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie (1969). Released as a single, it did not sell well, until it was recorded by the singer Oliver, then it went to Number Two on the US charts. In 1974, Terry Jacks’ cover of Seasons In The Sun, McKuen’s version of Brel’s Le Moribond, became a huge worldwide hit.

His songs have been covered by artists as varied as Frank Sinatra, Madonna, Dolly Parton, Chet Baker, Petula Clark, Johnny Cash, Dusty Springfield, Linda RonstadtJohnny Mathis and Barbra Streisand. McKuen became the first songwriter to have an entire album of new material recorded by Sinatra.

Recording with Sinatra in 1969, photo via YouTube

McKuen was a longtime supporter of LGBTQ rights. In the 1950s, he was part of the San Francisco chapter of the pioneering Mattachine Society. McKuen publicly spoke out against Anita Bryant, giving her the moniker:  ”Ginny Orangeseed”. He did benefit concerts to raise money to fight her. The cover for his album Slide Easy In… (1977), used the arm of gay porn star Bruno, his fist filled with Crisco, hovering above a can with ”Disco” on the label. We called it the ”Crisco Disco Album”, and it had a song Don’t Drink The Orange Juice in response to the Anita Bryant campaign.He wrote a song about his time in France, The Money Boys Of Cannes, and he and Glen Yarborough recorded it, in 1966. It was quite unusual for McKuen to address the subject of being gay at all, much less in a song about hustlers or fisting.

“Slide Easy In…” Discus Studios, photo by JD Doyle

 

He was one of the first HIV/AIDS activists, giving fundraiser gigs for AIDS related charities.

When asked by the press if he was gay, McKuen responded:

”I’ve been attracted to men and I’ve been attracted to women. I have a 16-year-old son. You put a label on it”.

In 1976, The Advocate gave McKuen its dubious Something You do In The Dark Award for not fully coming out of the closet. A bit unfair, McKuen had always been candid about his complex desires. In 2004, a reporter asked McKuen if he was gay, and just like two decades earlier, McKuen refused to label his sexuality:

”Am I gay? Let me put it this way, Collectively I spend more hours brushing my teeth than having sex so I refuse to define my life in sexual terms. I’ve been to bed with women and men and in most cases enjoyed the experience with either sex immensely. Does that make me bisexual? Nope. Heterosexual? Not exclusively. Homosexual? Certainly not by my definition.”

”I am sexual by nature and I continue to fall in love with people and with any luck human beings of both sexes will now and again be drawn to me. I can’t imagine choosing one sex over the other, that’s just too limiting. I can’t even honestly say I have a preference. I’m attracted to different people for different reasons.”

”I do identify with the Gay Rights struggle, to me that battle is about nothing more or less than human rights. I marched in the 1950s and 1960s to protest the treatment of Blacks in this country and I’m proud of the fact that I broke the color barrier in South Africa by successfully demand integrated seating at my concerts. I am a die-hard feminist and will continue to speak out for Women’s Rights as long as they are threatened. These, of course, are all social issues and have nothing to do with my sex life (although admittedly I’ve met some pretty hot people of both sexes on the picket line).”

McKuen had an unconventional relationship with his half-brother Edward Habib, publicly calling Edward ”my partner”. In 2005, a gay male fan wrote a fan letter saying of McKuen’s poem I Always Knew: ”I plan on presenting it to my partner on his 54th. This will be our 8th year together. Thank you.” McKuen responded by comparing his relationship with his brother to his fan’s partnership.

McKuen:

”Relationships take hard work so you both must be doing something right for each other. In case you missed it here is a poem I wrote a few years ago that you might find interesting.  The poem is titled PARTNER / For Edward.”

With Habib, photo via YouTube

Yet, in another interview, McKuen said:

”As for Edward, he is my brother, father, mother, best friend and partner in almost every way. He’s a cute kid all right, but not my lover or my type. Besides, wouldn’t that be incest? ”

When he passed in 2015, most people, even his most fervent fans, knew nothing of McKuen’s queerness. Even today, a Google search using the keywords ”Rod McKuen Gay” offers very little information.

The mainstream press never seemed clued in to the complexity of McKuen’s sexuality. The LGBTQ press simply said McKuen was gay, missing his queerness, or they wrote nothing at all. Christopher Harrity of The Advocate wrote:

”There is no big coming out moment for Rod. He was generally assumed to be gay, had a production company and cut an album with Rock Hudson, and gay culture claimed him as their own with profiles and articles in The Advocate and After Dark.”

San Francisco’s LGBTQ paper, The Bay Area Reporter didn’t even write an obituary for him. Obituaries serve as commemoration, remembrance and celebration of those we have lost. Remembering the queerness of McKuen’s life would have honored his loves and politics.

McKuen toured 280 days a year, but found time to write a memoir, Finding My Father (1976), about his search for the father who abandoned him and the painful upbringing that followed. The book brought a debate on the rights of adopted children to learn about their biological parents. Ironically, although McKuen fathered two sons when he lived in Paris, he left them, admitting that his career was more important.

McKuen wrote that when Brel died in 1978, he locked himself in his bedroom and drank for two weeks. In 1981, suffering from clinical depression, he retired from touring. He lived in a massive Beverley Hills mansion with Edward, where they shared a collection of 500,000 albums. In his last years, he was a bit of a recluse. The 11,00-square-foot home, which McKuen purchased for in early 1970 for $290,000., sold last year for $15 million.

Photo from Realtor.com via YouTube

For 50 years, McKuen proudly advocated for LGBTQ Rights while refusing sexual labels for himself. McKuen:

”It doesn’t matter who you love, or how you love, but that you love.”

 


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