Bellingham by the Bay

Rod McKuen: A man for all seasons

When I first met Rod McKuen, the renowned poet-songwriter who died in January, I had to ask him, “What was it like to have Sinatra record one of your songs?” McKuen spun around on his way to the elevator at the KCBS radio studios. “Frank was famous for recording his songs at Capitol with a live orchestra, and doing it all in one take,” McKuen said excitedly. “Woe unto anyone in the band who screwed up. But Frank suddenly stopped the session (he might’ve been recording “Love’s Been Good to Me”), stepped off his dais, and asked me if it ‘sounded all right.’ I could only sputter, ‘Just fine, Frank, just fine.'” Later, Sinatra asked Rod to compose a whole album, A Man Alone. That day at the radio studio 34 years ago began a friendship with the man who sold 200 million albums, and — more astonishingly — sold books of poetry by the millions. With a sly smile, he showed me his name on the Walk of Fame in Hollywood, in front of the former site of a bookstore that sold more of Rod McKuen’s books than any other in its history. His song, “Jean,” from the film, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, was nominated for an Oscar. “No one was more surprised than I that Terry Jacks made a hit out of “Seasons in the Sun,” he said. That’s a song Rod wrote with Jacques Brel. …

At his 70th birthday party, which included a show at Carnegie Hall, I saw the legions of devotees he had captivated over the decades. All sorts of divas, grateful for the tunes that Rod wrote. The unshakable fans included Sherilyn Bottoms of Atlanta, who had seen Rod several times over the years, all over the country. “I first saw Rod at a book signing in Atlanta,” recalls Sherilyn. “He was so warm, the epitome of Southern charm.” Well done for a fellow who was born in Oakland, and who started in radio with a young Phyllis Diller.

While serving in the U.S. Army in Korea, Rod told me he met Bob Hope, who helped him get started in Hollywood. Hope gave Rod his home phone number. And it was on the up-and-up. “Rod is the only ‘star’ to whom I ever sent a written letter (yes, before computers!), and he responded,” said Sherilyn. (He also wrote kind dispatches to Susan Dyer Reynolds, the editor in chief of this newspaper.) Sherilyn’s remarks were similar to others at the Carnegie Hall bash. One woman said that reading Rod’s “Stanyan Street and Other Sorrows” as a teenager saved her life. There was simplicity in Rod’s writing, often mistaken as superficial or trite. He was for real, funny, and generous.

We went to Maui with his manager, Chuck Ashman, where Rod played a priest in a musical. Rod found that amusing. The poet as priest. He said he had to get away to write a book of verse called “Rusting in the Rain.” He hid out for a few days in the rainy, misty mountains of Maui. Sheepishly, I’ll mention that he dedicated the book to me. Oh, Rod loved sheepdogs. As a result, Sherilyn says she’s had six shaggy sheepdogs over the years. In Maui, Rod and I went shopping for ukuleles. It seemed like the appropriate thing to do: “If You Like-a Ukulele Lady, Ukulele Lady Like-a-You.” …

Sherilyn says she shared some of Rod’s writing with a Vietnam vet friend suffering from PTSD. He claims the texts helped him struggle with clinical depression. An encounter with Rod or his work still seems to be a very good thing. Thank you, Rod, for resuscitating the broken-hearted, and for being such a good friend. …

Speaking of things friendly, our Ernie Beyl, the sherpa guide to North Beach, and Marina Times writer, has a book coming out this summer — Sketches from a North Beach Journal — Heroes, and Heroines, the Wise, and the Wily: San Franciscans from the Gold Rush to Yesterday. Berkeley’s Grizzly Peak Press will publish it. Says Ernie: “It’s a series of profiles (short chapters) on larger-than-life characters who have added a lot of pizzazz and panache to our city. That includes Oofty Goofty and Big Bertha, Madam Mustache (early prostitute and madam) … Lola Montez … Black Bart … William Randolph Hearst … Herb Caen … Allen Ginsberg … Lawrence Ferlinghetti … Herb Gold … Richard Brautigan … Lenny Bruce … Phyllis Diller … Carol Doda … Gayln Spiegelman (topless mother of eight) … Sweet Pam and the Cockettes … Michael McCourt … and Tony Serra.” Topless mother of eight? She must’ve been topless a great deal of the time. …

A Friday last month began inauspiciously. A delivery van filled with mattresses backed up and hit me on Ellis Street. Knocked me down. Not to worry. I’m just a bit scraped up. The cops came. An ambulance came. I declined the trip to the ER. The EMT guys were nice, the cops, well, officious, so to speak. I told them not to blame the mattress driver — who stuck around — because I was jaywalking. The cops ran a make on me. The record is clean, of course. But get this — they wrote me a citation for jaywalking. “Wait a minute,” I complained, “I’m your only witness? I have to testify against me?” “Yeah, you admitted it. You can always fight it in court.” Meanwhile there are dope dealers, crack smokers (and even father rapers, as Arlo Guthrie would say) right across the street doing their thing in front of the cops. “We’re tired of taking cases to the DA when nothing gets done. So we gave up,” an officer said to me some time ago. Meanwhile, the gendarmes write tags for jaywalkers and people who sleep on the sidewalks. So the cops are tired, the local denizens are tired, the pedestrians are tired. Does anyone know where we can get a mattress? Uh-oh. I think there’s one headed this way.

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Bruce Bellingham is the author of Bellingham by the Bay. He can be reached at [email protected].

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