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rod on the couch
There was a common thread running through the hundreds of questions e-mailed to Rod following the recent highly successful launch of his web site, "A Safe Place to Land". Webmaster Ken Blackie took the opportunity of posing some of these, plus some of his own, to Rod in his first interview in over a decade!
KEN Rod, the foremost question in everyone's mind is a multipart one - where have you been for the last ten years and what have you been doing?

ROD I never planned on retiring at least not at first. About a dozen years ago I came off the road after a particularly tough tour, too many cities in too short a time. Began to think about what I'd known for a while, I've been everywhere and seen practically nothing. Airports, motel closest to the theater I'd be performing in, junk food on the way to a sound check, concert - nearly always exhilarating because I love the one on one of performing with an audience no matter how small the theater or large the arena. Back to motel to bed most usually alone, too late for room service, not much sleep because it takes awhile coming down from the concert adrenaline rush. Up early; drive to airport, flight to next town and on and on.


Dinah

 

Took awhile off. A while turned out longer than I planned. I love my house, puttering about, growing my own vegetables, and doing all the cooking for my brother Edward and myself. Getting to know the animals again, playing a lifetime collection of records and discovering new old songs and familiar musical friends I'd forgotten about. Books to read. More puttering. Avoided the telephone and answering mail. Got my first Mac, but with no computer friends it became a project to teach myself how to make it work.

With no new records and books and so nothing I wanted to talk about, I stopped giving interviews. We live in a world where if you've had a fairly high profile and you're gone from TV or the papers for twenty minutes people start to forget about you. This suited me fine and since music and musical tastes were changing I doubted my own ability to draw an audience. Nobody came banging on the door pleading for me to go back on the road and what offers did come in I ignored and asked Edward not to even show me. I was happy and didn't feel I needed much attention.


Edward Habib with Rod

I  did go through a difficult period of clinical depression. That was really hell. Not much was known about it for awhile but then people like Mike Wallace and William Styron began to talk about their own bouts with it. And I had the example of a dear friend, Jeri Southern to lean on and bring me around. At a time when I was at my very lowest, I got a "courage" letter from Dan Rather, who must have known that something was wrong. This is the first he'll ever know of just how much that letter meant and how it helped turn me around. Prozac helped enormously. Edward was there and though we are the Felix & Oscar of our neighborhood; the real "Odd Couple",[him being The neatnick, me the slob]. He got me through it and even cheered me enough to get me to clean up my room a couple of times.

What have I been doing?

I never stopped working I continued to write because I like to, poems and songs and 'stuff'. Every writer wants an audience, because he feels he has something to say, but I had a pretty unsatisfactory relationship with my last publisher so I saw no need to turn my poems into books. Did quite a few commercial voiceovers. It's easy and I like it. And what's that old joke about masturbation; you don't have to dress up, comb your hair or please anybody but yourself.

I did the voice of Archamedes in a TV episode of "The Little Mermaid", where I had a chance to work with wonderful voice talent like Kenneth Mars and Mark Hamill. I had a cartoon walk on as myself on "The Critic" and even sent my image up in a series of ads for NBC. I narrated for IMAX & PBS, coproduced some AIDS spots I'm proud of. Joined the Buddy Program for HIV patients and volunteered at Hospice but got burned out after awhile because of my own Clinical Depression problems.

A few years ago I started producing a series of CD's, based on the recordings from my own Stanyan Music Group for DCC. They included film soundtracks which I own ["Spellbound", "For Whom The Bell Tolls","The Nuns Story", Korngold scores and the first stereo recordings of music from "Gone With The Wind"]. Recently I did about 200 successful albums for a mass-market company called LaserLight, among them 10 CD's entitled "Songs That Won The War, which I'm as proud of as anything I've ever done. A Great American Composers series, an American Legends set of 30 CD's in cooperation with The US Post Office, using their stamps as our album covers, A Some of the Best/More of the Best series that featured the great artists from what I call "The Golden Age of Music" and 30 Christmas CD's . . .and on and on. There was plenty of Stanyan material to draw from and the tracks we didn't own we were able to lease. These recordings, by the way, barely touched the major catalog of Stanyan owned vintage masters. Oh and for the last 15 years I've been president of The American Guild of Variety Artists and I'm very proud of what the team I've assembled there has been able to accomplish. Especially in terms of health care for performers. If this seems like a long answer, Ken, it has been a dozen years. .


Personalised transport!

KEN What prompted you to go public again?

ROD I've had a series of Macs all these years but never got on line, guess I thought like composing on a computer it was one more thing I didn't need to get into. Still I kept hearing about all these reports about me on the Internet. Depending on which search engine you pulled up you could learn that Rod McKuen was seriously ill, walking with a cane, was bitter and disillusioned, gaga, cut, uncircumcised, Straight, Gay, BI or had gone bye-bye completely. Nothing, of course, that I hadn't heard before.

But there was more. Literally hundreds of people were using quotes from my poems and songs on their home pages and web-sites. Some quoted me correctly. There were even sites and pages devoted totally to my work: A very active McKuen Message Board, beautifully designed pages of my poetry typed and punctuated accurately, a listing of McKuen Collectibles that put anything I had tried to get together to shame. Lots more too. And, I had had absolutely nothing to do with any of it. People I didn't know and hadn't met were spending all this time and energy and expense keeping my work and me alive.

I got on line pronto and saw it for myself. I was humbled, thrilled, amazed, exited. I laughed and loved it and I wept too. I don't know if you can imagine what it is like for someone who walked away from a career for whatever reason to turn a corner and have all these people asking you to please come back. While I was still discovering all this, Ken, you tracked me down with a long fax telling me why I should have my own web-site. I faxed back twice as many pages questioning the idea. Well I wasn't very convincing, especially to myself. And here we are.

KEN Do you feel that you've become reclusive in any way?

ROD Oh sure. Eccentric too. There have been months when I never ventured out of the yard. I don't like the telephone much and used to just not answer it. I still owe Thank You notes for past Christmas and Birthday presents. That isn't reclusive and eccentric, it's ungrateful and rude. I'll get better, I'll straighten up, and I've got a big life ahead of me to do it in.


In concert

KEN The next most popular question from visitors to your web site concerns your future plans. What projects are on the drawing board and do they include a return to live performances?

ROD Oh, I have to perform again. I've always missed that. I'll tell you how much I love the audience interplay, if I've got the crowd completely with me it's sometimes fun to loose them for a little while just for the hard work it takes to get that audience back. Don't know where I'll work or when, have no agency representation, but I'll do it again. You can bet on it. There are lots of things I still want to record, including new songs.

KEN After some of the poems from "A Safe Place To Land' were published here on your web site, one of the questions on the majority of peoples minds seems to be, when will the completed book be available?

ROD That's a good question. While the book is completed and ready to go, I have no agent and since I haven't dealt with publishers in more than a decade I'm not sure where to start looking for a publishing company.

I want a home not just for this book, but future works and a place where my past books can be issued in omnibus form, paperback or whatever makes sense. Then too with "A Safe Place To Land" I'd like the book to have an edition that is slipcased with a companion CD. Since both of these mediums have done so well for me, it seems only fair to the fans who have stuck by me all these years to release "A Safe Place To Land" in a special way. It should also come out the same time around the world.

KEN That seems like a good idea. What about your songs, you own most of them don't you?

ROD Well, I'll certainly entertain proposals along those lines. Frankly if I found the right committed international company I'd sell the books, recording rights and publishing of the entire Editions Chanson and Stanyan Music Group catalogues. It would be nice to have the whole thing under one roof. Anyway, I want to concentrate on the creative end and let somebody else handle business. There are lots of capable people out there and the time has come for me to make some major changes in my life.

KEN What are we talking about in terms of copyrights?

ROD Songs like Love's Been Good To Me. Emily, Rock Gently, I've Been To Town, Champion Charlie Brown, The World I Used To Know, The Lovers and hundreds more. My half of all the things I did with Anita Kerr & The San Sebastian Strings, all the songs on the album Sinatra did, nearly all the rights to all of my books, recording masters on dozens of other singers and all the things I bought back years ago from RCA, EMI and Warner Bros. It's a pretty extensive list and frankly I can't handle it any more by myself.

Then, of course there are the Stanyan Master Recordings that despite all the production work I've been doing still contains unavailable recordings by Dinah Shore, Marlene Dietrich, Jo Stafford, Ellington and of course just about all of the masters I've recorded over the years. We have original albums by divas like Chris Connor, Sylvia Syms, Eartha Kitt and Alice Faye, the great Fox musical star who died over the weekend. All in modern Stereo. Our international masters include artists such as Jacques Brel, Leo Ferre and Greta Keller. Our classical tapes are extensive and most of those have never been made available anywhere. And all of the production work I've done reverts to me as well, so there's a pretty good package out there for somebody.


Thanks Ken !

KEN Describe a typical "Day in the Life of Rod McKuen" circa 1998.

ROD Busy as hell since The Site went up. As The Loveable Old Webmaster you know how many letters I've got to answer & I'm plowing through them. Up early, feed the cats, coffee then head for Mac & electric mail. Used to go back to bed for an hour or so & read the papers. No time for that now. You're in South Africa, ten hours ahead of me, so at both ends of the day we're chatting on line, or by IM or e-mail. Work at answering more mail. Write for 3 or 4 hours early in the day, correct and rewrite yesterdays work late in the afternoon mix a very dry martini to drink while I'm making dinner. Used to watch all the Law and Order and Sienfeld reruns after dinner while skipping local news - too depressing, no time now. Back to the Mac. Putter; web surf a bit, work at one thing or another till 2 or 3 AM. Pretty busy day. I like it.

I love The Internet; it's like radio. Every woman is beautiful and every guy's a stud. Imagination is everything on the Internet just as it was in radio. When I was a kid Jack, Doc & Reggie were a lot more interesting and real to me than all the whining sitcom stars on TV. So were Corilis Archer & The Lux Radio Theatre, Grand Central Station and Our Miss Brooks. As for my own adventures on the WWW, they might curl your hair.. .But they might not, after all it is the World Wide Web. There's a lot of screwballs, but loveable people out there & I'm glad to be one of them, in whatever guise I take.


Rod with Petula Clark


KEN We know the profound effect the chansonniers had on your approach to your music during the sixties and seventies. Who, or what, influences you these days?

ROD I'm still wound up in European music and I've never lost my taste for American Folk Music & Jazz. Still nuts about classical music and opera. My Gods and Goddesses of music haven't changed much over the years, They're still Mercer, Larry Hart, Pete Seeger, Rachmaninoff, Jo Stafford, Brel, Becaud, Aznavour, Leo Fere, Andre Previn, Marilyn "Jackie" Horne & Lena too. Petula Clark is still the most underrated singer in the world. Her intonation, breath control, attention to lyrics, musicianship. Don't get me started on Pet. Sinatra, all the big bands and band singers of the 40's. And all the singers and musicians past and present who have been so nice to my own songs.

KEN What is your opinion of "today's" music?

ROD I knew that question was coming. And I wish I had a good answer for it. Don't listen to the radio much, why bother when the house is full of records to choose from? Still crazy about The Jersey Boys Springsteen, Billy Joel and Sinatra-again. Once wanted to get them all together to do a version of "Take Me Out To The Ball Game. Smashing Pumpkins have some good stuff, like Elton John a lot, Squirrel Nut Zippers are fun and I'm dying to hear some records by a contemporary British group-- don't even know their name alas, who've been doing some old songs of mine like "To Die In Summertime." Please somebody, tell me who these guys are & send me a CD. I've met a young musician recently named Matt Baron, I hope we can work on some things together. And, God, be good to me, can I work with Madonna face to face this time?

KEN All songwriters occasionally hear a song and think, "Gee, I wish I'd written that!" Tell us about the songs that have impressed you down the years.

ROD Jo Staffords favorite is "All The Things You Are." That's a hard one to beat. Johnny Mercer's English lyric to La Valse de Lila. "When The World Was Young" is a thrilling song. Mercer never wrote a bad or even mediocre song, I love anything by him and anything by Rodgers & Hart, particularly "It Never Entered My Mind" and "My Romance."

KEN You've worked with most of the big musical names, as well as some not so well known, during your career. Who would you most like to have collaborated with, but didn't ?

ROD I've kicked myself for years because I couldn't get out of a tour that prevented me from writing an album of Christmas songs with Charles Aznavour. At one point I wanted to do an album where I wrote the lyrics and my contemporaries did the music - unfortunately, they all had excellent lyric partners who were not amused by the idea. The musicians included Bacharach, Bowie, Elton John, McCartney, Tony Hatch it was a pretty impressive list. One can only imagine what it must have been like to work with Kern, though Mercer told me he could be difficult.

I want to do all kinds of things now. I never wrote with Andre Previn and I'm crazy about the song cycles he's been doing for classical artists. I'd love to write something with Andre for Thomas Hampson [what a voice] or anybody else Previn might have in mind. Andre is so musical in everything he does. Ned Rorem crafts interesting and intelligent arte songs and if he ever runs out of poets, maybe he'll turn to me. Fortunately I was able to write some unusual, but still not recorded things with Jeri Southern. I did several songs with Mercer and about a dozen works with Brel that nobody has ever heard, but one day when the time is right for these kinds of songs again, everybody will. I haven't written my last lyric or my last piece of music and of course the perfect collaborator for a guy like me is someone who knows something about both.


Rocky

KEN One visitor to the web site commented that his perception of Rod McKuen was of this solitary figure walking the beach, thinking profound thoughts, trying to solve mankind's communication problems. It's an attractive picture but I know there's a lighter side in there somewhere! Tell us about your lighter side and some of your interests outside of work.

ROD As anyone who's attended a concert knows, I've got a pretty good sense of humor. I laugh a lot and if I were better at staying in touch with people I'd be a better friend. I suppose the thing I'm proudest of is that over the years I've been a confidant to many and I can honestly say I don't think I've every betrayed a confidence or told a secret entrusted to me. I take life pretty easy. The animals that own me endlessly amuse me. I love old movies, don't like parties much, make the best martinis in the world [well maybe Waldo's are almost as good.] As for mankind's problems, they're a bit more than I'd like to take on this week.

KEN In your lifetime you've achieved more than the average person has. What's left? What about your unfulfilled dreams and future goals?

ROD More music, more poetry. And, I have only one really unrealized dream. I want a barn. Yes a big barn, three stories high with shelves from floor to ceiling where I can have all my records, CD's, tapes, books and videos in one wonderful library. There will be a stairway that rolls around the room on a brass bar so I can stop anyplace and find anything. The floor will probably be tile so I can hose it down. Five or six gigantic pine tables will be the principle furniture so that I can leave projects I'm working on out and to themselves until they're finished. There will be comfortable chairs and a well stocked bar. On one side of the room, a story up, will be a loft bedroom behind shelves that swing open [can't sacrifice any of that shelf space.] I'll have all kinds of sound equipment and all the latest Mac stuff & I'll know how to work it all. Aside from the fact that this is a real passion for me, Edward deserves it. We've lived together for 30 years and I've managed to turn a house he was awfully proud of into rooms and rooms of what he calls junk & I call stuff. I want to get out of our space, which he somehow feels has been taken over by me and into my own. I must have my barn, there's lots of room for it out back and I will have it. So you see, I have to go back to work or find somebody who'll trade me a barn for my copyrights.

KEN Without exception, your fans claim you're able to articulate feelings and emotions they've experienced but never been able to express. How does it feel to know that you've played such an important part in their emotional development?

ROD On the contrary, there are millions of people all over the world who have made it possible for me to have had a long, good life. Not just by coming to my concerts, reading my books or buying my music and records but by laying their own emotions out there to tap. I see in them myself; we're in this thing together. It's a joint journey


Rod with Wade Alexander

KEN Ed Habib and Wade Alexander, amongst others, have played such an important part in your career to date. Do they continue to do so and who else is important in your life right now?

ROD You bet. They are my closest friends. Always have been and if I'm lucky both will always be there. Wade is an articulate intelligent man who can go to the heart of a problem and immediately offer up solutions. He's a walking encyclopedia on everything to do with entertainment. He has been involved with every phase of m career and that of the Stanyan Music Group. Manager, roadmanager, editorial writer, president of Stanyan and co-producer of some of my best and most important records. He's proof read all of my books for as long as I can remember. He's sincere, sweet and a true gentleman. A ladies man who will surely go to hell for the way he can bamboozle women, but they love him for it.

Edward is my partner in everything. Brother, friend, even father figure. Honest, smart as a whip when it comes to finances, which is the only thing we ever argue about. I can trust him with anything and I do. Our life together, in addition to everything else, is a family business. He and Wade are loyal and know exactly when to tell me bad news. Wade, Edward and I have a short hand language that cuts through bullshit and everything else. I can't imagine making an important decision without their advice, and I don't.

Two of my best friends over the past several years have been Robyn and Michael McDonald. Robyn runs Private Island Trax where I do all of my recording and mastering these days and her husband Mike has reengineered and mastered all of the Stanyan/Laserlight titles. To my way of thinking he's the best engineer I've ever worked with & I've had the best. He's a big gentle bear of a man with an enormous heart. His attention to detail is extraordinary. In many cases we deal with vintage recordings that have never appeared on vinyl, let alone CD, he makes the sound superior without ever sacrificing the original performances. This is no easy trick at a time when the word 'digital' is more associated with sound and fury and less with what it really is, the process of turning music into a new, more easily workable storage code.

I own a few hundred thousand LP's, I still play them, because even after a dozen years of digital sound in all its improvements and modifications, some CD's still sound brittle and musically unreal. I like all the Stanyan CD's that Michael has worked on far better than their LP counterparts, because he keeps the sound AND the music real. His digital mastering of our analog product is not only superior to the original recordings as far as the sound is concerned, but he absolutely never sacrifices the performance in favor of the technology.

Robyn is a sweetheart. I think she hates the recording business, but you would never really know it because of the attention she gives each of her clients. One of the reasons this studio is becoming very famous on the West Coast is that Robyn's in charge and she seems able to handle anybody or any situation. The gold records and album covers that decorate the walls of this labyrinth of studios includes soundtracks from major films, country & western singers like the late and very great Rose Maddox, Rap artists, The Bone Thugs et al, UCLA's music department and important opera and supper club divas. The Monkeys did their new album there. Michael Nesmith does all of his stuff at P. I. Trax and so does one of the most successful producers of Tex-Mex product. I certainly can't imagine working anywhere else.


Tonnerre, France June, 1997

Beyond all that, Robyn & Mike are real friends. I treat them as badly as I do most of my friends--in other words I'm never as attentive and available as I should be, but they work at the art of friendship. They call and write, don't forget birthdays or Christmas. Months go by when they don't hear from me, especially when all I have to report is bad news. I don't like sharing bad news with friends. Why does there seem to be so much bad news? The point is that I could share anything with them and they would understand and always be there. In fact it was Robyn who first suggested I have a WebSite, She even gave me one as a birthday present 3 years ago. I saw a few things she pulled from the web & thought to myself, Gee I'm having such a good time being part of The Witness Protection Plan [only a metaphor folks] why do I want to open myself up to this?

Over the years If I had paid more attention to my friends and less to my own feeling of being undeserving of such friendship and self doubt about nearly everything, I know that I would be further along the road to some kind of perfection in my work and especially my ability to accept friendship for what it is. Selfless. Still I wouldn't change anything in my life, especially if I might have missed having friends like Michael, Robyn, Wade & Edward.

As for new friends and associates, well, don't blush, but "The Webmaster" hasn't been too shabby. Look what he's done in a couple of months. I'm excited about all the things we have planned for the future. Wait till we get to working on the Stanyan House Site. How can I possibly be off handed about someone who's opened a whole new adventure to me? I think it will be the best one yet and we'll take lots of people on the ride.

And, Ken, I'll try not to be as off handed with you and new friends I'm meeting on the web as I have been with those who have stuck around all these years. And those, alas for me, who couldn't be bothered with what seemed to be my indifference when it was really an overwhelming feeling of inadequacy. What a fortunate man I am to have friends who can see through the shell of me into the heart of me and realize, they are not the problem, it's me.


Rod & friends

KEN Rod, one final question. Are you happy?

ROD Deliriously. I don't think I've ever been happier. I just turned 65 and I'm in good health, have all my teeth and haven't lost my hearing yet. As far as I know I don't need Viagra. My waist has gone from 34 to 36 and will never go back, but so what. Who do I have to be slim and beautiful for? [Lets not get into my dreams and wishes here] I could loose a few pounds, but who couldn't? And best of all, guess what, I like me. That took a long time to come about. Sixty-five is nothin', I was Retro when it was Active.

KEN You know Rod, we've used up so much space with this interview, we may have to wait till next week to post the answers to the "Ask Rod" questions.

ROD I was counting on that Ken

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