Forelock and Foreskin

Fields of Wonder, by Rod McKuen. W.H. Allen, £1.00
Twelve Years of Christmas, by Rod McKuen, W. H. Allen, 80p.

19720901-10Two slender volumes of lyrics from the man who, according to the blurbs, must be something like the eighth wonder of the world. A thousand popular songs he’s written. Academy Nominations have crossed his path and there’s a string of major classical works too. He’s the world’s best-selling poet, it sez here.

The few times I’ve seen Rod McKuen perform (on television) he turned me off like nobody since Michael Parkinson. He was, it struck me, a case where sincerity was at once too much and not enough. Too much to tolerate – that intense gaze beneath the white-blonde forelock, an arm buried elbow deep in sheepdog, the introspective muttering. Not enough – to explain and excuse an inability to sing: to carry a tune, hit a high note, project.

In one of his Christmas verses he writes:-

There was the year I first heard Brel and cried
because I thought I’d never sing that well

Does he think he sings that well now, I wonder. But this seems to be how McKuen casts himself, as a transatlantic Brel, a chanteur in an essentially European tradition. But Brel has musical guts and dynamism, he looks outwards. McKuen looks inwards, the introspective loner in faded jeans, riding the range of the recording studios and babbling, like Falstaff on his death bed, of green fields.

In these sequences McKuen throws himself on the world like an open sore and records the pain and balm that come his way. He is passive from the opening stanza :-

“. . . I travelled not to Tiburon or Tuscany
but battled back and forth
between the breasts and thighs
of those who fancied for a time
my forelock and my foreskin.”

Always he is the innocent: “Fields of wonder/ are the places God goes walking,/ I found them by mistake and I’ve trespassed.” And he makes his position clear:-

Love I wore
As open as a wound
a mad mistake I know
but love, like Lent,
only comes to those of us
who still believe.

We are not, in all honesty, so far away from the wonderful world of Patience Strong (“A smile is a light in the window of the face that shows that the heart is at home”) and even in pain the quiet, consoling voice preludes sleep. He has added a tentative awareness of sexuality to this simplistic view of life (“I have in common with all men/a lump in swimming trunks”), but it seems a faintly embarrassing itch, lost beneath sententious, didactic clumsiness when the message is rammed home.

Only a few of these collected verses are intended as lyrics for music. But they are often ridden with the kind of imagery that sounds probing when murmured through a microphone but which fails to survive reading: “There were fences that I leapt/and some that I slid under,/even when I knew I’d tear my pants.” Now and then, though, McKuen does come up with the goods as here: “The sawdust made/by two lives rubbed together/is as useless in the cover up/of changing feelings/as the kind spread thinly/on the floors of butcher shops …”

Twelve Years of Christmas is a collection of annual messages to his friends between 1958 and 1969. They are summings up of the past year, very personal and idiosyncratic. Ironically, their very intimacy makes them far more immediate and interesting than the pomposities of the bigger sequences. Here, in such verses as The Jazz Palace and El Monte Rod McKuen does indeed nearly approach the quality of Jacques Brel. The style of these Christmas messages is less effortful, the lines more fluent, the experiences more relevant than in Fields of Wonder.

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