Yesterday, poet and songwriter, Rod McKuen, passed away at the age of 81.
For me, music is like a time machine that takes me back faster than almost anything. And, in a flash, Mr. McKuen’s words return me to when I was a girl in the ’70s, hovering in the chasm between “ew, that’s gross” and “oh, how romantic” when it came to love.
My mother used to listen to Rod McKuen constantly, especially when my father, an Air Force pilot, was stationed overseas. While driving, she liked to listen to his poems set to the music of the San Sebastian Strings. I think it might have been her way of escaping the insanity of trying to raise five children, by piling us all in the car around bed time, then driving around until we fell asleep, lullaby by Rod McKuen.
But before drifting off, I would watch my mother’s face, so deep in thought as she listened, and I wondered what in the world she liked about the silly words, the melancholy music so heavy with cello. I’m sure I rolled my eyes at the mushiness of it all. Of course, there were so many things that gave me cause to roll my eyes at that age–like when I couldn’t get one of my four siblings to scoot over to her side of the back seat.
Silly as I thought Mr. McKuen’s serenades were, as an adult, I came across the very same album my mother used to listen to, and in a whoosh of sentimentality, purchased it. I was tickled to find I’d memorized many of his poems and even remembered them decades later.
At twelve, the “ew” factor often kicked in with excerpts like this one from “The Storm”:
I’d like to crawl behind your eyes sometime and see me the way you do. Or, climb through your mouth and sit on every word that comes up through your throat.
But today, I’ve been there–in relationships where I’ve struggled to figure someone out. I understand and think back to watching my mother’s face, and wonder what thoughts it brought to her mind as my parents’ marriage was falling apart.
When he wrote that he “worried when you laugh too loud,” I remember thinking, “Huh? Why would that worry you?” Now, I understand.
Still, as a young girl who dreamed of one day being a writer, and especially who dreamed of being in love, many of his words gave me shivers, placed me in a state of awe, like this excerpt from “Do You Like the Rain?”
Sail the rain that falls upon the sea tonight. We’ll ride the rain to France and back and see the world through European windows.
In my opinion, The New York Times described Rod McKuen perfectly.
Some may have never outgrown the feeling of “ew” over Rod McKuen’s mushy poetry. Maybe I love his poems now because I’ve lived some of his writing. Maybe it’s because his words take me back to my childhood and cast a different light on what I saw happening to our family then.
My first thought is to say I’ll miss him. But, the power of words is that they’re always here with us. My day will be filled with songs of The Sea and all the memories it brings back.