Rod McKuen Appears in the Desert

The once-famous, sentimental poet of the ’60s and ’70s still plays to packed houses. Our reporter attended his Palm Springs show and lived to tell the tale.
In the '60s and '70s no poet was more sensitive or more famous that Rod McKuen. Flash forward to the present and he's still at his old game, only now a little grayer, older, and in Palm Springs. Claire Dederer takes a trip to see what all the excitement used to be about.

Allison and I are driving from Los Angeles to Palm Springs on a hot Saturday afternoon. We’re headed east on the 10. It has rained this past week, and you can see the San Gabriel Mountains to the northeast. Allison tells me this is unusual.

I have come from Colorado to see the poet Rod McKuen perform at a place called Dale’s Lost Highway Supper Club in Palm Springs. I have no idea what to expect. For one thing, I’ve never been to Palm Springs. For another, Rod McKuen is one of those formerly famous people who no longer occupy space in the public imagination. He used to be an icon; then he was a joke; now he’s just gone.

McKuen was, in the late ’60s and early ’70s, a huge hit. When I was a kid his books were everywhere, like poetry detritus: on wire racks in drugstores, on shelves in rented vacation houses, in my babysitter’s purse. I know he is by some accountings the most popular living poet. I know that in 1968 he had three books on the best-seller list at the same time.

I also know that Rod McKuen, burdened by best-sellerdom as though it were a Chinese curse, became a punch line, his name a shorthand for ’60s sentimentalism. Just one example: In 1999, New Orleans’s Times-Picayune ran a list of the worst ideas of the past century, and there was Rod McKuen, sandwiched between the Edsel and The Jerry Springer Show.

* * *

This is not going to be one of those articles where I reread the maligned work and discover that lo, it is actually pretty good. Because I did, and it’s not. Here’s some of the poetry I read when I was able to track down McKuen’s books, which took a bit of doing: “I cannot bear the thought of you / in someone else’s arms / yet imagining you alone is sad.” And “I know / that if you keep the empty heart alive a little longer / love will come.” And “I’ve been a stranger all my life / to everything and everyone.” And “I only own myself, but all of me is mine.” The poetic imagery is straightforward and of its moment. Fog, San Francisco, cats, and empty rooms all figure largely. In his jacket photos, he often wears an Irish fisherman’s sweater, which, as you may or may not know, is ’60s sign language for “sensitive yet virile.” His poems are the stuff of adolescence. Handy to have around, one imagines, for ’60s teens, but pretty useless for a contemporary grown-up.

* * *

Because I have read and reread the poetry, my hopes for tonight’s entertainment are on the low side. When I spoke on the phone with McKuen and his manager to set up my visit to Palm Springs, they warned me about Rod’s crazed fans. I imagined a few old ladies clutching first editions and demurely waiting for autographs. I pictured McKuen and his manager as two lonely hepcats, white hair blown by the wind, planning a show in some creaking, shitty dive out in the desert. McKuen told me, “Usually I play crowds of thousands of people in Europe. I’m looking forward to making love to people I can see.”

Now, as Allison and I drive through Pomona, I think about Rod McKuen and his delusions. Europe? Thousands? And, really, making love?

* * *

Palm Springs, when we come to it, is a vibrant, watered, green place. The buildings are low and pretty, and the streets teem with people. It’s not what I expected. Allison and I drive along, watching the promenade, looking for a place to eat. The sun shines—not a thin, high Colorado sun, but a viscous, permanent California sun. I realize I feel deeply relaxed, as if I could go to seed. “I feel like nothing is expected of me here,” I say.

“You got it!” says Allison. She slaps the steering wheel with the palm of her hand. “I can’t believe you got it right away. Nothing is expected of you in Palm Springs.”

Night falls early. As we head to the show, we pass bar after bar thronged with handsome gay men, or at least I guess they’re gay. Forty-nine percent of the population of the town of Palm Springs is. I’m not making that up. These men wear pastel Izods and cute ringer tees and crisp white shirts and give off an aura of disinterest as far as we are concerned. This adds to my general sense that nothing is expected of me.

“Oh, this used to be a taqueria,” says Allison when we spot Dale’s Lost Highway. No more. Now it’s a club: stylish, ironic. We enter through a bijou wood-paneled bar which, despite its veneer of chic, has the hard buzz of a room where serious drinking is being done. A man and a woman clutch at each other in a way that might be sexual, or they might be holding each other up.

We find our seats in the supper club at a tiny table, the white tablecloth illuminated by a candle in a low orange glass holder. Though we’re early, the place is packed. The crowd is older, and they seem clearly excited. They are dressed in satin. They are ordering champagne. “My 20th time,” I overhear someone say. I turn to see a 60ish woman with a face that gives evidence of some hard living. She’s talking to another woman of just the same description. In fact, all the women in the room seem to fit this description.

Pairs of genteelly dressed men are interspersed among the older couples. Two young men with floppy, punkish black hair hunch silently over a table at the front. They are wearing black turtlenecks and berets. Allison and I watch them, appreciating their nod to McKuen’s beatnik past.

The owner has been told I’m a journalist and comes over to say hello. He tells me he has never really seen anything like this. Sold out. Packed. People coming from all over the country, even some from Europe.

* * *

We are drinking our wine, and suddenly there’s a hush. Rod McKuen strides through the room. Immediately the crowd rises to its feet, applauding. A (60ish, hard-living) blonde in a red sequined top rushes up to him with an enormous bouquet of roses. Rod catches her in a dip and kisses her on the mouth. The crowd goes nuts. He takes the stage, his band poised behind him, and waits for a moment of silence.

Then, plunging his hands deep in his pockets, he begins to sing, “Rock gently, go slow / take it easy, don’t you know.” His face is rueful, his eyes are shut. His hair and beard are white; his suit is black; his tie is a shiny red. He looks like the most elegant sea captain ever. “Baby, take it slow,” he sings, and then he mutters with perfect eccentric-old-man timing, “Don’t break anything we might need later.” He gives a big-eyed mug to the audience.

Over the next two hours, McKuen expertly unspools his personae before us. There’s the Beat Poet Lite: He reads his poems quietly, accompanied by soft, plinking jazz from his very fine band.

Then there’s the Frenchman: Over the years, McKuen has composed music with Jacques Brel and many other Europeans. He sings his own songs and a handful of standards with the emotional vibrato of a chansonnier, coloring the music with quaking heartache and near-tears grief. (He is a man who is unafraid to stretch his hands into the air in a gesture of helplessness.)

And there’s the Coy Androgyne: He letches gently after his young male guitarist. He adores his young female pianist. He makes a joke about his bearded bass player: “The bears in the audience will think this guy’s hot.” He performs the goofy-sweet standard “An Occasional Man,” with this wonderful couplet: “If you’re on shore leave and your face is kinda cute / perhaps by your leave I can be your passionate fruit.” He cracks up. He tells us, “It doesn’t matter who you love, or how you love, but that you love.” (He has, I learn later, a longtime companion he refers to as his brother.)

* * *

During the break, I find that the room has dissolved into drunkenness. Women are weeping in the bathroom, shrugging off their husbands’ attentions at the bar, or blowing lovelorn smoke rings in the courtyard. “I adore him,” they sigh. “I know,” they sigh back. They ping-pong back and forth the names of the venues where they have seen him: the Purple Onion, the hungry i, the Hollywood Bowl. I hear at least four women with perilous mascara confess that they used to write poems, but then they stopped.

* * *

After the break, McKuen appears in full Maynard G. Krebs getup: sweatshirt, dungarees, and sneakers. This look goes well with the humanistic, Family of Man–style existentialism perfected in a song he wrote for the show “A Boy Named Charlie Brown”: “People after all / start out as being small / and we’re all Charlie Brown.” McKuen is giving us a show of maudlin authenticity that ought to be laughable. Except somehow it’s not. I begin to see that his heart-on-his-sleeve authenticity is undergirded by a lot of art. He works hard at presenting himself as a creature of spontaneous emotion. His gestures, his costumes, his words look offhanded but are the product of a lifetime of practice and experience.

He started as a backup singer for Lionel Hampton, and made his solo debut at the Purple Onion in the early ’50s, at the behest of his friend Phyllis Diller. He name-drops Ennio Morricone in his conversation and Mel Gibson in his poetry. He’s been standing on a stage singing songs and reading poems for 50 years. The man knows exactly what he’s doing.

Tonight when he sings “If you go away / Leave me enough love to fill up my hand,” his voice breaks as he gazes at his outstretched palm. It’s an utterly contrived, even hokey gesture. Yet it moves me. It’s not the fact of his emotion that gets me, but the way his emotion led to the construction of this protective carapace of performance. I am watching an old man make art, using all his wiles and all his well-learned, antique moves to bring the audience closer to him. It’s quite a sight.

The boys in their berets are drinking lattes and singing along to every word. A 60ish, hard-living woman is waving her fist in the air, rock concert style. Two more 60ish, hard-living women have literally fallen out of their chairs. As far as I can tell, Palm Springs is a town full of old people, and drunk people, and gay people, and people doing our best to go to seed. Here we all are in this room, and Rod McKuen is making us believe in love and art.

The concert ends, but the crazed fans don’t leave for hours. McKuen and his manager are selling $175 German boxed sets of his work, and people are buying them in stacks. Women are kissing him, and getting their photo taken with him, and falling down drunkenly on top of him. They stand in line to meet him, and after they’ve met him they get in the back of the line to do it all over again. When I shake his hand, he seems diminished by their love—his eyes are tired and watery. It must be exhausting: to have old women become adolescents in your presence.

Allison and I leave Rod there, surrounded. We get in her Corolla and cruise up Indian Canyon Drive and back down Palm Canyon Drive. Yellow lights gleam from shop windows, and men’s white shirts shine from the tables at the sidewalk cafes. There is that gorgeous, open feeling you get in a car on a main drag in a Western desert city.

Illustration by Marianne Goldin.
Originally Published: March 28th, 2007

Claire Dederer lives in Seattle and writes about books and culture for the New York Times, Newsday, and many other publications.

  1. March 30, 2007
     Richard Birdsall

    The author resists the altogether understandable impulse to write this piece as high if not over-the-top camp. Instead we get a sense of the commercial appeal of McKuen. Claire describes McKuen's act as I would imagine a Branson headliner would be described.

    I remember McKuen's popularity in the 60's and heard his albums playing everywhere I went. Everyone I knew seemed to have a copy.

    Thanks for publishing this piece.

  2. March 31, 2007
     Brian Finnerty

    Well done. This is a smart and humanistic portrayal of a person who could be parodied all too easily. Kudos for avoiding the temptation to fall into yet another jaded, oh-so-superior review.

  3. April 5, 2007
     Charlotte J.

    It is apparent to me you don't understand that it is the simplicity and common image that makes Rod Mc Kuen's work enduring. Unlike the forgetable poets of to day There for, like Whitman, Shakespere, Lord Byron and others, he may be mocked by this generations lack of knowlege but he will become legendary. Rod Mc Kuen is the last rock star of poetry.

    Personally, I think it would have been great if you had wrote more about Mr. Mc Kuen and less about your friend and how gay Palm Springs is. I am not sure what agravates me the most, your lack of knowlege on the subject matter or lack of english skills (ie. using present tense words in a past tense paragraph)

  4. April 10, 2007
     Richard Jensen

    Astonishing piece. The author undoes her pretensions and just tells us what it is like to witness love. I've read it completely three times since it was published and each time: tears. It is not so simple, being simple.

  5. April 11, 2007

    Though absolutely not (Do I need to say it?) a McKuen fan, I thoroughly enjoyed the article. It reminded me of the time when McKuen shared the spotlight with the likes of the Keane family, those popular painters of huge-eyed children holding huge-eyed puppies or kittens, of that transitional period when beats were evolving into beatniks, then fringies, then hippies.

    As for jacket photos, I think many contemporary poets play the same sign-language game -- nature poets posing in front of driftwood with a backdrop of Mt. Rainier, or poets using 20-year-old photos of their younger, longer-haired, bosomy selves. And then there's the haughty glare often seen on the covers of Poets & Writers magazine, that seems to say, " I am smarter than you are," a look most effective when shot in black-and-white. Thank goodness the day of the required pipe (for male poets) is gone.

  6. April 11, 2007
     Lois Lord

    I liked Rod McKuen; I still do. We need more writers who can say it plainly. Are you ... mmm


  7. April 12, 2007

    Are you people serious?! Rod McKuen is disgusting! The purpose of his work is to push your buttons of sentimentality or using language just because it sounds deep. His 'poetry' is cheap, and he's degrading you as a reader.

    "Listen to the Warm"? Will someone please explain to me what the warm sounds like?!

  8. April 13, 2007
     James Robison

    "Comments that contain offensive or abusive language will be edited or deleted."

    I wonder why this is not applied to the articles posted to the web site.

  9. April 16, 2007
     Peter W

    Nice article, sorry I missed the bash. While I understand focus and word limits, I grieve she didn't see the rest of us here in Palm Springs, The local poets, retired grand dames, elegant matinee idols, Tuxedoed soirees abound, glitz, glamour, AND lots of great restaurants that showcase all the others. Half of Hollywood has a second home here and no one cares that they do.

    C'mon down. You'll love it.

  10. April 17, 2007
     Nick Demske

    Last year I inherited upwards of 20 Mckuen books and even a record too (in the traditional sense of the word), if you're really interested in, as we say in hip-hop, peeping his ish. I really dug this article. In truth, I can't stand the point where it makes me sick...but I found that interesting when i inherited the books and, since realizing it, have been considering composing a manuscript where the project is somehow based entirely on interacing with Mckuen works. It would take alot of intestinal fortitude, but this article seems to have reached such peaceful closure with the big Micky K that I find it reinspiring andmay be catalyzed. thanks.

  11. April 19, 2007
     Bob James

    What a great article. I thought that Mckuen was dead. Now he is performing in Palm Springs and Europe (?). I couldn't help but remember those nights laying on the apartment floor in Virginia while it snowed outside, listening to those soft words while seducing that beautiful young lady whose name I cannot recall. Oh! The memories, where has the time gone.

  12. April 27, 2007
     Lea Reimers

    The most beautiful rendition of Rod's poetry I ever heard was the recording of "The Sea," done, probably in '69 or so. "the way the sun follows you when you're riding in a car. . .," "the sea, rolling over in its beach-bank sleep. . ." The music, the words. I can't wait for my copy to get here. Rod is definitely an imagist, physical and emotional. That's what we were back then with all the turmoil of the wars, Viet Nam, gender, race. I think we still are.

  13. May 17, 2007
     Guy Sands

    I was at this show. I drove from Seattle to see it.

    And I hope he's not refering to my friend and I as

    the "two young men with punkish hair,

    turttlenecks and berrets..." Because if he is he's

    lying. I didn't see any such ridiculous stereotypes

    there and we had to be two of the 4 people under

    50 there. We're both 21. And actually were not

    gay. Rod rules.

  14. June 4, 2007

    Excellent piece. I appreciate the restraint of the writer in not giving into the temptation of some to celebrate their pomposity where McKuen is concerned. Thank you.

  15. June 6, 2007
     Valerie Trueblood

    This is a wonderful piece, but people in their

    sixties are not old.

  16. June 9, 2007

    Being English and of a certain age, I did not grow up listening to Rod Mckuen, I had not even heard of him. I was fortunate to 'discover' his work whilst living in Amsterdam and seeing a second-hand record that I liked the album sleeve of. Since then I have acquired many albums and one book of poetry. To me, his words make more sense in the context of lyrics to music. Lea Reimers mentioned 'The Sea', composed with Anita Kerr, this album evokes so many images and feelings that I feel would be somewhat lost through written word alone, it is a truly beautiful piece of work. Anybody who has written an entire recording for Frank Sinatra ('A Man Alone') should have major respect, getting Frank to do spoken word rather than singing on some of the tracks? Genius.

    I am glad that Claire wrote the piece she did, because even though your head suggests you should not like Rod Mckuen, your heart takes you somewhere else..............

  17. July 9, 2007
     Chris Acker

    My memories of Rod McKuen are tangled up with other visceral memories of the 1970s: "grokking" Robert Heinlein's "Stranger in a Strange Land," plotting the demise of my inconvenient virginity during an evening's earnest conversation about Caesar Chavez, and arguing earnestly, endlessly, for the validity of solipsisms.

    I haven't been hard-living for a couple of decades now, and I'm not yet 60 -- but I appreciate your tribute to a man and a time which could both be easily, wrongly, mocked.

  18. July 17, 2007
     Michael Coulson

    I have just returned from a great week staying on the Isle of Capri; a visit prompted by Rod McKuen's evocative piece on his album with Anita Kerr 'The Earth'. So though it's years since his days as an icon he continues to touch people's lives. As to how good his work is, I think he can be counted as a great lyricist and a very good chansoneur. However, sadly there is little room now for the heart on sleeve honesty and yes sentimentality (not always a bad thing) which was at the centre of his songwriting and his poems. As to his poetry, well he did write a great deal and some of it will inevitably be ordinary, even poor, and repetitive but I think there's enough there to suggest that he had genuine talent even if he's no Tennyson! I would have loved to have seen him in Palm Springs but I had no idea he was performing, and even if I had the thought of having to crawl through US Immigration might have put me off. However I did see him in London in the 70s at the Albert Hall and The Palladium and he did play in front of thousands, and was a very fine performer.

  19. July 26, 2007
     Crystal Smith

    I was introduced to McKuen's poetry when I was a senior in high school. Through the years my enjoyment has only increased as I've grown older. I am neither a hard drinking over 60's woman, nor am I an "old" lady trying to relive my youth, which you seen to think are his only fans. But I remain a loyal fan who still enjoys his poetry, the same as I do the music of my lifetime, and the emotions and memories they evoke.

  20. December 14, 2007
     Kimberly Schnizlein

    I've been reading Rod McKuen since I was a young girl,and it's true that he's no ee cummings,Robert Frost or William Shakespeare....But then they're no Rod McKuen! Sentimentality!! What a horrible thing to display in poetry! Is the sarcasm obvious enough?? Rod is a contemporary free verse poet who reminds his readers that love isn't always Valentine hearts and red roses,but that love is always real. Rod wasn't the only poet I read growing up,but I have to say that his poetry made such an an impression on me,that my poetry has a certain flavor of him hiding in its verses lyrics. His new book is no less than any other he is responsible for,and I think that anyone who is looking to read different poetry of different time periods should read McKuen! Rod McKuen is as much a part of the 70's as Meat Loaf and The Rocky Horror Picture Show!

  21. January 18, 2008
     eric thompson

    Big Thanks toall contributors and it made me want to express my thanks to Rod. His poetry has been a big influence on my work as a poet/artist years ago in England and even now in France. No matter how Time moves on Rods work will always bring pleasure and touch many of our emotions which we often like to hide. All you need is Love!!!

  22. March 31, 2008

    Loved the piece. Thanks for the context, as I could never have imagined that this person was still around doing whatever it is that he does. Perform. That's it, I see. It's not about the writing--silly me. No, I had not heard of him when I had my first date at age 13 in 1967 and was informed by this first boyfriend that Rod McKuen was a great, great artist...hmmm, really, I thought, somehow I missed out completely on hearing about that. On and on he went about how great this RM was, on our dates on which I wore my voile dress with the puffed sleeves...perhaps the fashions of the time are better off undiscussed. But the upshot was that by Christmas I had already figured out that we had nothing in common--he thought Goldwater was a great American, you know, and we should bomb the Vietnamese back to the stone age--and now that I wasn't drowning in those really sexy kisses anymore now that he'd moved 1000 miles away, I wanted to get out of this passionate romance this boy had convinced himself we were having. I mean, I was on to JD Salinger, Roger Zelazny, Harlan Ellison's Dangerous Visions, and a last tip 'o the pen to my childhood loves of Jane Langton, Beverly Cleary, and that sort of happy song. A week before the holiday a huge packet like a box of bricks arrived in the mail and it heart sank. A massive multi-LP box set of RM. OK. I would do my duty. I sat down, listened to half a track, or what I guess was a track...strings swelled...the words were unbelieveable. The banality engulfing me made me feel as though I was going to lose breath. Rushing up to the university bookstore I cruised the poetry aisles until I found the perfect return anthology of classical Vietnamese poems. This seemed to do it. I think the boy and I had maybe one conversation after that. The RM box set sat on my record shelf for the next several years, glaring at me, provoking my guilt for having stabbed this really well-meaning boy in the heart with the tool of his own bad art. Eventually I heaved it up and took it down to the used record store and, amazingly, they took it. They took it away.

  23. April 30, 2008
     Ron NaSal

    What poem of Rod McKuen's was the line, "your smile was like a warm wall?"

    Thanks for the help

  24. September 8, 2008

    LOOKING FOR A PLACE TO BUY Rod Mckuen: live in London(double CD) and

    The Amsterdam Concert(double CD)

    I tried to order from Stanyan House and was not able to order by computer. Sent a letter to the address that was on their ad and it came back, the PO Box # was not in service.

    I have not read any of his poetry.

  25. June 23, 2015
     Anna Cottage

    When you insult Rod McKuen in your review you insult all those people who purchased his books and records and enjoyed his poetry and singing. Rod McKuen sadly died the end of January 2015, but he will always remain the most honest Poet and composer, sadly there are those who do not like honest people or understand them, there are those of us who long for that honesty to be restored. Rod McKuen helped so many people and yet he was so viciously attacked by so called critics who had no understanding of Rod's decency all that seemed to concern so many so called news writers was his sexual life which was absolutely no ones business. Those so called critics of Rod were jealous of all he achieved, all the love he received from his fans and the critics constant obsession with the money he made.

    To all of us who admired and loved him, Rod McKuen will always be remembered. How nasty the press has been along with those who vent their pathetic feelings via the internet since Rod has died, it seems even in death there are those still jealous that they refuse to say one kind word regarding Rod, he was a man self educated who worked so hard from age 11, all his life and achieved so much yet there is no mention of all the Awards bestowed upon him. America should be so proud of Rod McKuen instead you discard him how very sad.