Entertainment » Books

A Voice of the Warm

by Sam Cronin
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Friday Aug 16, 2019
A Voice of the Warm

Rod McKuen may not be a household name anymore, but at the height of his fame, he was one of the best-selling poets and most beloved crooners to his cadre of fans. Conversely, he drew intense disapproval from critics in both literature and music. In his personal life, he was an early champion of gender and sexual freedom, as well as one of the first people to talk about sexual fluidity. His life, from his childhood abuses and listlessness to his almost guru-like status among fans, is worth reading about.

Barry Alfonso sought with "A Voice of the Warm" to give McKuen a place in the annals of music and poetic history, and to prevent his legacy from being forgotten. That's one of the things that distinguishes this biography from many like it, and endeared me to Alfonso from the introduction. He didn't write this as a superfan. This wasn't a project conceived to get close to an idol or to profit from an existing obsession. Alfonso began with a simple question: "Singer-songwriter-poet Rodney 'Rod' Marvin McKuen (1933-2015) is arguably the most successful popular artist of his time who has never had a biography written about him. Why?" From the get-go I respected his intentions, and wanted to learn the answer.

Alfonso paints a "warm" portrait of this eccentric, stubbornly individualistic and profusely prolific artist in "A Voice of the Warm." His descriptions of McKuen are compiled from countless interviews with Rod and his many friends and business associates over the years, and seem to portray if not the full person, as many sides of him as he showed publicly. Reminiscent of the classic unauthorized Neil Young biography "Shakey," "A Voice of the Warm" effortlessly intersperses little quotes and characterizations into the overarching narrative of McKuen's life. This serves to keep the reader interested, and to keep pace, as there's never so much description or dialogue at once to get boring. McKuen's life seemed to move forward in stages, and Alfonso knew just how to box them up neatly.

In fact, that's just the crux of what makes this biography, and McKuen's life, so interesting. Contrary to so many celebrities, McKuen was an intensely personal and guarded figure, and one who seemed to take pleasure in derailing the media. Alfonso deftly shows both sides of his life, the one he put forward to people, and the one those people around him pieced together from knowing and working with him. The two didn't always line up, and so Alfonso does his best to entertain McKuen's narrative version of his life while always following up with the best facts and evidence available.

If there's one fault in the book, it may have to be Alfonso's quickness to excuse McKuen for his fantastical stories. For instance, when describing a long-distance relationship Rod claims to have had that may have been made-up, Alfonso finishes by saying "Whether there was a Helen or not is less important than the choices Rod pondered in stories like this" (Alfonso, p40). McKuen also claimed to have had two children, but no hard evidence seems to back that up. Whether or not these stories were made up, Alfonso seems more interested in what the narratives meant to McKuen and less in the sheer absurdity of them, if false. McKuen's tendency to augment his history with false narratives is one of the bizarre quirks that makes him so peculiar to study, and perhaps a point that could've gotten more attention in "A Voice of the Warm."

Learning about McKuen's creative process was deeply thought-provoking, because it seems different from many other obsessive creatives I've read about. His life was characterized by both a seemingly endless stream of creativity and periods of withdrawal from art and public life. Reading about how he overcame bouts with depression, or at least peared out over the edges of them enough to function, was deeply affirming.

His keen eye for the world, expressed through plain, direct, stream of consciousness poetry and songwriting, also appealed to me. Perhaps that's how he kept up his pace of pumping out art almost daily for most of his life. He seemed to live by "don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good," a message I, and perhaps many of us need to heed.

McKuen was an artist who seemed to brush up against nearly every popular movement in art from the 50s onward, but never fit into any of them. In a way, he seems like a Forest Gump-type character, bumping into all kinds of historical events and people. His interactions with Rock Hudson and Frank Sinatra were particularly interesting to read about. As Alfonso writes: "McKuen was in the folk scene, but not of it. Once again, he found himself the Loner who didn't quite fit in with the crowd" (Alfonso, p67). In the end, McKuen found a dedicated group of fans who stuck with him through all the artistic moments and bouts of inactivity, and left behind a huge body of work. I'd better start listening, then.

"A Voice of the Warm" is a comprehensive look at an artist I had never heard of, and one I now consider something of a friend, as did so many others in his lifetime. Alfonso brings great context and hindsight to this study of a star-studded and exciting life; one full of mistakes and missed opportunities as well as successes. Edge highly recommends this biography, available now from Backbeat Books.

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