Literary critics never had much love for Rod McKuen, who passed away on Jan. 30 at age 81 in Beverly Hills. Not that it mattered to his legions of fans.
McKuen’s volumes of poetry, including Stanyan Street and Other Sorrows and Listen to the Warm, sold 60 million copies. In addition, McKuen was a prolific songwriter whose lyrics were interpreted by performers ranging from Frank Sinatra and Barbra Streisand to Johnny Cash. His own gravelly, breathy recording of “Jean,” which he composed for the 1969 film The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, was nominated for an Academy Award for best song.
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Here are some facts you might not know about McKuen.
- He once competed as a rodeo horse roper, and also had jobs as a ranch hand, railroad worker, disc jockey and newspaper columnist.
- He was a propaganda scriptwriter for the U.S. Army during the Korean War.
- In the 1950s, he performed at San Francisco’s Purple Onion nightclub, where Beat Generation luminary Allen Ginsberg debuted his poem “Howl.”
- He briefly had an acting contract with Universal Pictures.
- He got his trademark raspy voice by permanently damaging his vocal cords during a brief stint as a rock-and-roll singer. (“Someone said I sound like I gargle with Dutch Cleanser,” he once joked.)
- He wrote at least 1,500 songs during his lifetime, many of them on pieces of shirt cardboard while soaking in a bathtub.
- He was performing 300 concerts a year when he stopped touring in 1980.
- He was an outspoken advocate of gay rights long before it was a popular position.
- The “Stanyan Street” of his poetry and song titles is the name of a street in San Francisco.
- Fans once brought McKuen, a big lover of animals, what a 1968 Life magazine profile described as “a menagerie of live dogs, cats, hamsters, guinea pigs, chickens, raccoons, turtles and even a goat.”
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Here’s a video clip of McKuen on Johnny Cash’s TV show in 1970.
Credit: Michael Putland/Getty Images
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