In the winter of 1976, I committed the professional and personal faux pas of giving a poetry reading with Rod McKuen. It took place at the Veterans Auditorium in downtown San Francisco and was supposed to be a benefit for the San Francisco State University poetry program. Lewis MacAdams, my friend and fellow resident of Bolinas, the radical seacoast town at the western edge of Marin County, was just then employed as director of the program. I had wanted a reading in that year’s series, of course, but Lewis and I were poetry competitors as well as friends. (I should say that poets, generally perceived as ivory tower dreamers and underpaid to the point of extinction, are among the most vainglorious and unforgiving in the matter of readings, appointments, anthologies, and the like, none of it amounting to a hill of beans.) In the months prior to the McKuen/Saroyan slate being set, my suspicion was that Lewis wasn’t going to include me on his schedule of readers, and this despite all the stuff I’d published recently, including full-page poems in Rolling Stone, New Age, The Village Voice, and The New York Times Sunday Magazine.
Is it any wonder I was copiously engaged at that moment trying to switch into more welcoming genres, from book reviews and magazine articles to a novel and a biography? Rolling Stone had printed the first of my full page poems several years before, and I had built on a relationship with the magazine, specifically with its editor-in-chief, Jann Wenner, to aid me in discovering a path into the open air of modern America, so to speak, and out of the tiny, vituperative sandbox of American poetry. In that ill-appointed domain you had the fortunate few sitting on little perches—castles in the sand indeed—and, otherwise, endless lunatics with pails and shovels, erupting water and sand fights, booze, blood, piss and mucous, carrying on 24/7, bitching, yelling, punching each other, crying, marrying their students, bragging, getting knocked unconscious by their younger wives, and soiling themselves. Did I leave anything out? This is simply the American literary life, sub-genus Poets. Gregory Corso, an outlander, said it beautifully I think: Poetry is great; it’s the poets who fuck it up.
One of the ideas I got for Rolling Stone was that I should interview Rod McKuen, at the time the world’s best-selling poet as well as a singer- songwriter recently celebrated for his hit song “Jean” from the film The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. McKuen seemed to me an interesting subject for a number of reasons, which I ran by Wenner over the phone. That he was enormously popular and also versatile was a given. At the same time, his poetry was dismissed—by most of my friends, for instance, so that it constituted a little postural shift for me to sign on as the interviewer, in effect giving McKuen what he obviously needed not in the least, the validation of a younger poet’s attention. Still, he was strictly from the wrong side of the tracks. If he’d been to Iowa City, home of the famous University of Iowa Writers Workshop, it was probably for a cocktail lounge one-nighter on a long-ago record tour. On the heels of my second book of minimal poetry with Random House, I had passed through myself and visited my friends Ted Berrigan and Anselm Hollo, and spoken to the students in their classes, but had been unceremoniously denied a poetry reading there by George Starbuck, who told me sheepishly that he wasn’t sure he liked minimal poetry. As much as I could applaud this soul-searching on his part, I thought he might have given me a chance to argue my case.
McKuen’s work was plainspoken, romantic, and of course completely out of the academic loop. There’s a species I think of these days as “poetry church mice,” perennially going their appointed academic rounds on campuses all across America. On glancing into McKuen’s books, I felt that while he didn’t personally mesmerize me in the way he did the millions who were his fans, he was just as good or better than dozens of these cozily tenured others. Here was a guy, after all, who started writing things down when he was a second-bill folk singer with little hope of receiving any literary reception whatsoever. And several million copies of his books later, he was seemingly a bigger pariah than he had been at the start. This interested me. He wrote sincerely out of his own need, which wasn’t the worst reason to pick up a pen. That he captured the attention of so many people testified to something, I thought, that made the matter larger than adolescent lovelorn jottings, if in fact that is what they were, and perhaps offered a window into the national psyche.
Wenner, a quick study, held the issues of his magazine in mind like a super-computer. I once had the sensation that he was doing a quick “search engine” review of his universe in front of my eyes as I sat opposite him at a table in his office one afternoon decades before the internet. It seemed clear that his brain worked a good deal better than mine, at least at this appointed task.
He said okay. Rod and I did the interview. Annie Liebovitz came to his Beverly Hills house with me to take photographs, and we spent the night there, I in “the room with the ghost,” Rod told me. I woke up in the middle of the night, and sure enough, there it was—ectoplasmic but clearly impalpable and harmless, at the foot of the bed. Annie photographed Rod, and me too. (Maybe they would run a picture of the two of us on the cover of Rolling Stone?)
Then there were delays, and other glitches which have fallen away with time, and for some reason the interview never appeared. In the meantime, though, I had an ace in the hole with my friend Lewis MacAdams, the director of the San Francisco Poetry Center. Would he give me a place in his line-up with Rod McKuen on board? Do it as a fundraiser? My own venality rises, if the gentle reader hasn’t already detected it.
Poor Rod, who was then in his early forties, the late beneficiary of a huge American-style success, but in his bones a Western-style lonesome traveler, someone who’d never known his actual father and knocked around from one end of town to the other, from night clubs to the rodeo, picking up bits and pieces everywhere before he self-published Stanyan Street and Other Sorrows and sold thousands of copies out of the back of his car after his singing engagements.
He was, as Annie Liebovitz immediately noticed, extremely savvy in front of the camera, while I was clearly a novice. (“Aram,” she told me, “don’t smile.”) At the same time, Rod had a kind of disarming homegrown ease in conversation that didn’t actually go very far. Not a devoted reader of contemporary poetry, he was an aficionado of song stylists from Jeri Southern to Frank Sinatra, who had recently recorded an album of his songs. Having lost his voice during a marathon tour for a minor hit during the fifties, he had parlayed the permanent damage into a pleasing sandpaper vocal signature. Rolling Stone interested him, of course, because it was an unlikely venue, and a big one, and he availed himself of me and Annie in a spirit of animated, but, one couldn’t help but feel, guarded engagement.
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As I envisioned it, the reading would reintroduce Rod with an official imprimatur to the town he had celebrated in his first hit book (Stanyan Street is in the Haight-Ashbury district). In retrospect, the mistake was to promote the reading instead of simply promoting an appearance by Rod McKuen. With a miniscule budget, it was hard for San Francisco State to ante up for even a small ad in the San Francisco Chronicle, and so we rather heedlessly relied on the free publicity available through the local radio and television stations, with me along for the ride. It was wrong to go this route because McKuen’s legion fans weren’t interested in poetry per se, but in Rod— period; that is, in the emotion he brought with him of the soulful wounded lover. As word circulated about the reading, with my association and San Francisco State’s a part of the package, my guess is that 99 percent of Rod’s fans decided to give it a pass.
With an auditorium that could hold a thousand or more, we had something over 100 people, a large percentage of them poets, including Michael McClure and Edward Dorn, as well as the local press. Lewis introduced me and then Rod in turn, we each read, and there was a brief question period at the end, but it was clear from the turnout that something had gone wrong. Julie Smith, the reporter for the Chronicle who went on to write detective novels, wrote a piece for the morning paper titled “Rod’s Lonely Night.” After the reading I’d talked briefly with her and got the sense that she was going to go after Rod, but then she really wasn’t the right reporter for the assignment. The story that night was one she didn’t acknowledge, and probably wasn’t aware of: at least two major American poets had come to see and hear Rod, and it would have been interesting to hear the commentary of McClure and Dorn, as well as the young Andrei Codrescu, among others.
Not long afterwards, Rod came to town again for a weeklong singing engagement at the Fairmont Hotel, which also wasn’t well received by the Chronicle. The day after the opening, with the review in the paper, he was unreachable, which to a youngster like myself was incomprehensible. Now I understand perfectly well. He was exhausted. A poet-singer-songwriter who had been trashed twice in a town he’d celebrated, he had a show to do that night and was running on empty. Rod did the show, and after a week of them, went on to someplace else. He was, of course, a consummate pro. Wherever he is—I think he still lives in Beverly Hills, though he keeps a lower profile these days—I wish him well, and apologize.