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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.

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.

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