Rod McKuen
Rod McKuen; drawing by David Levine

When you are young, pop music is everywhere—has been everywhere for the young since the advent of the radio and the car. Promising promises to the early adolescent and recalling past frissons to those old enough for nostalgia, such music creates its own calendar, memory bank, and even an identity for those inchoate young who take the measure of one another by what they like.

A scene from an early memory: I am six years old, at the seashore for the summer. It is early evening, and from a window I watch my seventeen-year-old aunt ride off in a red convertible with two of her swing era beaux. The roof of the car is rolled back and, from the car radio, the sound of a late Thirties big band hangs in the air until the car is far down the road. The people, the car, the music are a synthesis of the great open world. I don’t even like the music—but I sense that when you do like it, it’s because all kinds of exciting things are happening to you. Another day I argue with this aunt over a radio dial. She wants to listen to Bing Crosby while I want to hear a soap opera. “Mush,” I say. “Bing Crosby is mush.” I am wildly envious of my aunt who trucks in the living room, does the lindy at roadhouses—in short, lives—while I, tuneless, dig holes in the sand and read Nancy Drew.

I was right, then, about pop music. The impetus to be surrounded by it is less related to passion for music than to any number of other things—passion itself not the least of these. At fifteen, still spending Saturday nights at home to hear the Hit Parade, I briefly fell in love with a boy who was studying music at Yale and who loved jazz more than girls. He played a Bunny Berrigan record for me, and I became an instant jazz buff. “Listen,” I would say to people later, playing the same record from my own collection, “listen to what Berrigan does with those high notes.” But what really moved me was the way I had felt about the boy, now forever entangled with the soaring phrases, the lighthearted melancholy lyrics of “I Can’t Get Started With You.”

Looking back, I am aware that much of my life took place to music as if it were a film with a score: phonograph or radio interminably on, conversations held under the sound of music because sometimes when there was no music and we were driving or sitting around or drinking in a bar, an awkward silence hovered. Something necessary was missing. Things did not go on well without music. Then the radio or phonograph or jukebox would come on, and we would settle back into that sound which was a counterpoint to what we were saying—adding depth and nuance, filling in.

Pop culture is, perhaps most of all, a culture of accessible fantasy. Pop music, because it speaks so clearly, has long been the core of this culture. The music evokes the deepest feelings of the shallowest men; perhaps the shallowest of these currently can be found among the enthusiasts of the songs and poetry of Rod McKuen. McKuen is so devitalized a singer, so bad a poet, so without wit or tune—as well as so out of touch with the contemporary pop sensibility—that one can only consider his monumental nationwide popularity as a kind of counter-counter-cultural phenomenon.

Nonetheless, McKuen’s records do wonderfully well, and a Random House ad tells us that over three and a half million copies of his books of poetry and songs are currently in print. The dust jacket on New Ballads proclaims that McKuen “is regarded as…the world’s foremost poet.” These flat little books are collections of such all too accessible verse as this from Caught in the Quiet:

You may puzzle at me when I tell you
that your not loving me
is the most love
that I ever had

But anyone who’s given in to loving will know and understand.

or these stanzas from Listen to the Warm:

Ah the beautiful strangers
who held me for a night
and fell down in the darkness
on pillows soft and white….

I want to be alone with you,
I want my thighs to speak your name
so softly only you can hear.

I don’t apologize for being hard to know I am what I am
sulking will not change that
but apple pies and warm hands help….

McKuen’s recordings are dreary. His weak voice, smothered by strings, has the texture of scattered bird feathers, of puffs of dust in a corner. In concert he sounds no better. The night I saw him at Carnegie Hall he came on stage looking like an ancient nine-year-old boy, dressed in white sneakers, a sweatshirt, and slim-legged jeans worn short to show his white gym socks. At one point in the performance, the conductor patted his head. The audience was largely composed of clean middle-class girls (some with short-haired escorts) and contingents of thirtyish women who might have come from the airline offices, the telephone company, innumerable typing pools. These women responded to his songs of lost pussy cats and fragile love affairs with warm genteel attention. The applause was restrained. Occasionally, flash bulbs went off around the room as they do at the Christmas show at Radio City Music Hall.


There was, in fact, a kind of Sunday school ambiance about this concert. When an admirer of Randy Newman sitting next to me broke up over a line much like the one about talking thighs, the woman next to him turned and reprimanded him, “You are a very rude person!” Otherwise, it was very quiet in the hall.

It occurs to me that McKuen’s great appeal is his passivity. He is the balladeer of what is left of the sensual cowards. It is no wonder that his, at times, openly homosexual lyrics do not get in the way of his popularity with the ladies. The fans know that he will never jump them in the dressing room backstage but will just sit there like the little lame prince, like the sleeping beauty, like themselves—waiting and hoping that someone not rude, not demanding, will come along and just be nice.

* * *

Around 1950, when I was away at school where you could get it on the radio, I first listened to “country music.” The honky-tonk kind, mostly, full of songs about life gone wrong and cheating wives, and the problems that came from living in the newly urbanized grassroots America. My friends didn’t much like it, thought of it as hillbilly, and if they wanted mountain music, they preferred the purer kind—bluegrass bands and folk songs sung by Jean Ritchie which had come down in a straight line from their English-Scottish-Irish sources.

I expect country music’s attraction for me is that it has always seemed an authentic contemporary folk music—much like black blues in its time. Country music has a kind of tight white soul that is often immensely moving in its expressions of cramped horizons, stunted lives, and the need to have somebody. “Country music,” says the Country Music Association, “has become the folk music of the working classes.” There is a hit song, “I Got You,” which has something to say about the boundaries of expectation of that class. It begins:

Don’t get no attention from the people on the street;
They don’t even see us, they just step right on our feet;
Just two little people in this great big world are we,
And when I think about it, I guess that’s all we’ll ever be;
But I got you and you got me….1

Country music also has, on the other hand, a heady vitality in its snaky fiddles, rhythms that echo old clog dances, evangelical pianos, slippery twanging guitars, and the high lonesome notes of its singers. It is the conjunction of this music with lyrics that reiterate the themes of lust, betrayal, hard times, marriages gone bad that gives country songs their unique tension. Listening to country music, one sees trucks barreling down the highways, pretty girls fading, cocktail waitresses on the make and being made, men getting letters in Vietnam. Tammy Wynette, one of the most popular women country singers, has recorded, in her bright, tinny, Southern voice, a number of songs about life the way it is out there.

This, from her album D-I-V-O-R-C-E:

Our little boy is four years old and quite a little man
so we spell out the words we don’t want him to understand
like T-O-Y or maybe S-U-R- P-R-I-S-E
But the one we’re hiding from him tears the heart right out of me
Our D-I-V-O-R-C-E becomes final today….2

Country people are much concerned with tradition. Another of Tammy Wynette’s songs is “Don’t Liberate Me, Love Me”:

Today a group of women came to see me
to convince me women don’t have equal rights,
And they left when I told them
I feel equal to an angel
when my man holds me at night.3

They may be adulterous, but they feel old-fashioned guilt:

We know it’s wrong for us to meet
but the fire’s gone out at home….

And there are songs about the old folks left behind. “Homecoming” by Tom T. Hall is a classic example:

I guess I should have written, Dad,
to let you know that I was coming home
but I’ve been gone so many years
I didn’t realize you had a phone….
You heard my record on the radio?
Oh well, it’s just another song.
I’ve got a hit recorded that’ll be
out on the market fore too long….

No, we don’t ever call them beer joints.
Nightclubs are the places where I work.
You meet a lot of people there,
But, no, there ain’t no chance of gettin’ hurt….4

The Nashville Sound, a book about the country music business by Paul Hemphill, evokes very well the mystique of country music and the raw innocence that still clings to those country music stars who are often one generation removed from dirt farmers and whose time is spent on the road playing dates in small towns, passing out records to radio stations, taking speed to stay awake, fooling around with country groupies. Here, also, are the good old boys who troop into Nashville’s Music Row with a guitar and a packet of lyrics, hoping for the big break—much the way movie-struck girls used to come to Hollywood because, after all, Lana Turner was discovered at a soda fountain.


Listening to some country music (Porter Wagoner’s songs of betrayal and murder; Johnny Cash’s prison performances) one becomes aware of the shaky line that divides the men in prison from some of those outside, including those on stage. Hemphill reports a conversation that took place on Johnny Cash’s television show in which Merle Haggard tells Cash that the first time he saw him perform was at San Quentin.

“I don’t remember your being on that show, Merle.”

“I was in the audience, Johnny.”

When Cash sings, “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die,” and the Folsom prison auditorium erupts in cheers, one understands that this is indeed a “people’s” music, a music quite different from that of Charles Reich’s kids. James Taylor’s “Knocking Round the Zoo,” a song about his confinement in the expensive psychiatric hospital to which he committed himself straight from Milton Academy, is from a much much smaller world than Johnny Cash’s “San Quentin” (“What good do you think you do? / Do you think that I’ll be different when I’m through?”).

* * *

It has been a bad time, lately, for pop culture, and mainstream pop music in particular. After having been the central exhibit for more than a decade, pop music has begun to sound unimportant. The cries are out all over: Rock is dead! Pop is dead! Freaks are dead! Some of the falling rock stars have died recently as pop mythology would have had them die—well before middle age. Their end also coincided with the closing down of the Sixties and its extravagances. What remains now of the gorgeous costumes of the freaks, the young, are only patches on the ass of worn-out jeans. Ideas are threadbare under a little left-over flash.

So, for that matter, is Freakshow, Albert Goldman’s collection of essays on the rock-pop-jazz scene written during the Sixties. Goldman has always seemed less a true pop culture buff than a man looking for something to write about. He notes in his Preface to Freakshow,

Sad to say, with all my eagerness to find new things I generally arrive on the scene as the party is ending…. Too late for Bird. Almost too late for the “sicks.” The one exception is rock music, which I got into when it was hitting its peak in 1967.

One shouldn’t hit a man with his own confession, but Mr. Goldman was forty years old when he became a rock critic, and it is very likely that this is among the things that make him an unconvincing pop enthusiast when contrasted with, say, Richard Goldstein (who is young enough to be pop to the core) or Alfred Aronowitz and Ralph Gleason who are of Goldman’s generation but who have been more genuinely involved with pop for many years.

Perhaps because he is uneasy in his role as a pop authority, Goldman tends to make grand statements which turn out to be silly. In an essay on Aretha Franklin in which he extols her erotically liberated singing style, he writes,

None of the famous women of Negro song has epitomized the normal female soul or the free expression of the full range of feminine feeling. The old timers like Bessie Smith or Ma Rainey…were massive matriarchs with the grand composure that accompanies that role.

What is Goldman saying about young, glowing Bessie Smith who sang blues like “I Want a Little Sugar in My Bowl” (“I want a weenie in my roll”)?

Goldman attempts to perform pop writing, sometimes in Tom Wolfe’s manner, but without Wolfe’s sense of style. Frequently, when Goldman imagines he is being boldly analytical, he is only patronizing. His description of a night at the Apollo is vivid, but uncomfortably close to a 1920s tale of slumming in Harlem where they really shake it.

Writing about jazz, Goldman is often petulant, endlessly complaining that this performer or that had slighted the press, the audience, Goldman—making one finally suspect that a musician had only to fluff Goldman in order to get a bad review. Reporting the Fillmore appearance of Miles Davis, who has been, for two decades, the most lyrical as well as the most influential of trumpet players, Goldman writes:

Miles played his usual sneers and fleers…. His greatest appeal, as usual, was his physical appearance—mauve leather pants and body shirt.

But would they have been “sneers and fleers” had Mr. Davis been properly deferential to Professor Goldman?

In the case of Lenny Bruce, another prominent figure in the book, one wonders why Goldman chose to be the unpaid factotum he says he was to a man whom he characterizes in the course of three essays as an infantile, whining junkie, as a con man who was talented—but no more, really, than Goldman and his friends who did the same bits back home in the living room. There is, of course, some truth in what Goldman writes about Bruce and some accurate descriptions of his more aberrant behavior. But nowhere is there any sense of what there was in Bruce that made hearing him so joyful when he first began to work in New York, late in the Fifties. Once again, Goldman was a bit late hooking on to Bruce. Goldman, however, is now working on a full-scale biography of Bruce, strewing magazine excerpts along the way—which underscores Goldman’s own much-quoted 1968 line, “Live, Lenny was a problem. Dead, Lenny is a property.”

There are, in Freakshow, a number of energetic re-creations of the Sixties, but something is usually a little askew. Goldman performs like a bad drummer with a good group: thumping along, smiling and bobbing his head, making noise—and all the while staying out of time just enough to make the whole thing impossible.

This Issue

November 4, 1971