Graded on a Curve:
Rod McKuen,
Beatsville

Remembering Rod McKuen on the date of his birth.Ed.

When the ancient Greeks coined the word bathos, I’m pretty sure they had Rod McKuen in mind. America’s most popular–and worst–poet of the 1960s, McKuen produced books of poetry the way Virginia opossums make babies, each and every one of them catering to the tastes of a reading public deeply suspicious of the filthy beatnik likes of Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg.

But on 1959’s Beatsville Mckuen does a remarkable thing–he goes from schmaltz to shtick. While he serves up plenty of his trademark mawk along the way, McKuen–who’s obviously using Kerouac’s spontaneous bop prosody as a model-comes on like Maynard G. Krebs on a Benzedrine inhaler high, and I’ll be damned if his tongue-in-cheek observations on subterranean pads and co-existence bagel shops aren’t hilarious.

McKuen’s point varies–sometimes he’s your standard real gone Daddy-O who considers business suits and underarm deodorants a total drag; at others he’s the wistful black beret wannabe who moans, “I try to be a good beatnik but it’s hard/I don’t dig turtle neck sweaters/I can’t grow a beard/And I catch cold in sandals.”

Backed by some tastefully tasteless musical accompaniment–including a metronome and some really hep finger snaps–McKuen had me at “Every time I got torn up on sneaky Pete or high on Thunderbird wine/I wind up hitching rides to Sausalito.”

On the best tracks the jokes come at you like Neal Cassady in a stolen Hudson. Kranko’s having a party on “R.S.V.P.” and everybody will be there, including “genuine Beatniks imported from Los Angeles,” and Freda “who strips at the drop of a bennie.”

And so it goes with the best of the rest–the cheesy one-liners here will be as welcome at your next loft party as a lid of grass. “It’s Bartok time and this party’s had it.” “You don’t really know someone until you’ve held their head while they vomit.” “Along comes the Good Humor Man with that Dullsville bit.” You also get a couple of good ones about Peyton Place’s Diane Varsi and liverwurst sandwiches.

I never thought I’d have a good word to say about America’s poet laureate of the putrid, but I’ll take the Rod McKuen of Beatsville over the likes of Peter Orlovsky and Lawrence Ferlinghetti any day. You can get your kicks on Route 66. I’ll get mine right here.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B+

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