by Kim Cooper

Many people think they get the "joke" of Rod McKuen. Do you? It's easy to feel superior to McKuen:
schlockmeister extraordinaire... self-made poet laureate of a sanitized Haight Ashbury... author of
innumerable gift poetry books that line the walls of America's Salvation Armies, their raw-nerve ball-point
inscriptions a source of minor amusement to you and your post-sentimentalist pals. Well, I've got news for
you, buddy: Rod McKuen could wipe the floor with you when it comes to sardonic cultural criticism and
natural cool, to say nothing of manly good looks. The evidence is clear; you're just too busy cracking
yourself up to see it. Take a deep breath and another look. And consider this... It's early 1958, and the
theme of THE BEATNIK (coinage via S.F. Chronicle columnist Herb Caen's inspired fusion of Kerouac's
"beat" with Kruschev's "Sputnik") is blanketing the American scene. And why's that? Because sloth, dirt
and self-conscious "hipness" is really funny. Sure, an argument could be made that the Squares choose to
laugh at the Beatnik because they were threatened by the implicit criticism of mainstream values he
embodied, but the fact remains that not since the stumblebum drunk or the backwoods hayseed had there
been an American icon better suited for parody. For a bit of light entertainment, and to quickly delineate the
role that they occupied in the popular imagination, here are a few Beatnik jokes, guaranteed original and of
the time: 

Did you hear about the wealthy beatnik who hired a maid to keep his pad dirty? 

It was a gay, mad party in Greenwich Village. The women were mad because the men were gay. 

There was the East Village couple who had three children -- one of each. 

Those beatniks are really something -- hairy, smelly, wearing the same sweater for weeks on end -- and the
boys are even worse! 

Everyone has seen those "Guess your age" and "Guess your weight" stands at the fair. In Greenwich Village
they have a guy who's introduced a new version. For a quarter, he'll guess your sex. 

Before there were Beatniks, there were Beats. These are the cats whose paperbacks and romantic
brooding photographs are still held sacred by people who aren't from around these parts. The
Kerouac-Ginsburg crowd were articulating things in their writing that they'd experienced in earnest in the
immediate post-war years, largely in New York, occasionally in quasi-rural retreats like Texas, Mexico,
Morocco, Big Sur. By the time Ti-Jean found a publisher for his speed-fueled butcher's wrap of prose and
started making the rounds as TV's favorite wacky drunk guy, the original Beat Generation was settling into
a discomforted middle age. Thus the clichéd image of the 1950s Beatnik-- that black-clad, goateed,
beret'd, ballet-slipper-wearing, be-boppin', pill-poppin', boo-huffin', work-shirkin', free-lovin',
bath-avoidin' denizen of SF, Venice, the Village and the Universal lot -- represents something entirely apart
from the original cast of characters. And while the literary output of the first Beats was certainly noteworthy,
and continues to hold sway over credulous young folks to this day, the "Maynard G. Krebs" (cf. Bob
Denver's memorable character on The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis) school of Beatnik has left us very little
save some amusing greeting cards and highly-collectable decorative figurines. [note: There was however
one place in which the Beatnik archetype managed to creep deeply into the psyches of girls born between
approximately 1960 and 1970-- in the person of the "dud" date in the Mystery Date pantheon of
masculinity. Ask any gal who has played this popular board game which fella she longed to find waiting at
her door, and 9 times outta 10 the answer will be that rumpled schlub in the sweatshirt and jeans. Hell,
some of us are still looking for him!] A decade before San Francisco would serve as a beacon to a million
smelly hippies, it was already attracting those who naively responded to the media's skewering of the Beat
lifestyle and sought to make that life their own. These kids gravitated to North Beach, an old Italian
neighborhood that had recently seen the opening of a number of nudie clubs, City Lights Books, and hep
hangouts like the Co-Existence Bagel Shop, The Cellar, the hungry i, and The Place. It is this crowd that
McKuen chronicles in his quietly parodic masterpiece, Beatsville (HIFIRECORD Album R419). These
neo-beats certainly lent themselves to parody. Whatever the reality, it appeared that individual interests
were quickly absorbed into a vast amorphous wash of "cool" behavior. Naturally all good Beatniks wore
black, dug jazz, were promiscuous, engaged in some creative activity--usually with minimal skill-- displayed
nary a hint of race prejudice, avoided honest labor and soap and water, smoked reefer and owned at least
one set of bongos. It appears that to be a Beatnik required a certain level of commitment. Even in those
economically healthy times, the purchase of the requisite equipment must have cost the newcomer dearly.
While the girls were keeping their local drug stores in business with regular orders of rice powder and
mascara, the boys were down at the art store stocking up on big tubes of oil paint (and sometimes vice
versa). Abstract expressionism, baby: big canvases, big ideas, lots and lots of pigment. North Beach
beat-doll Jay DeFeo's famed The Rose was so caked in paint they had to knock out a wall when it came
time to move it out of her pad. This was the first generation to seek out second-hand clothing when they
could have afforded new things --and a few years later the hippies would be raiding the thrift stores for
"groovy" Edwardian morning coats and Victorian gowns, hand-painted '40s neckties to sew into skirts, tiny
silver spoons that they'd bend into bracelets and rings, all of which they'd sport while dancing like retarded
apes in the mud at rock festivals and be-ins, the crumbs... but I digress. A fundamental change had
occurred in America. The children of privilege suddenly saw all their parents had worked to give them as
nothing more than a huge seductive rat trap. For a moment, at least, they rejected the birthright that had
been so hard won on their behalf. (Most hurried back to reclaim it before long.) Certainly the Beatniks
were not the first Bohemians in America; but theirs' was the first movement to be so widely disseminated
through the mass media, almost instantly available for all to see and scoff. Was there any truth to the
clichés? Did there exist a single soul who betrayed all of the classic Beatnik attributes? Who knows? The
folks that lived through it can't be trusted to be objective in their recollections, and such documentation as
has survived paints an inevitably vague and biased picture. This is why Beatsville is such a valuable
document. McKuen's madcap and poignant verses, carefully crafted to amuse both the locals and the
slumming hoi polloi, have more truth in them than any attempt at a just-the-facts-ma'am reportage. On the
cover, Rod retreats to the gentlemanly background, where he broods on a candle-flame and tragically
empty glass. Foreground's full up with a sloe-eyes Beatnik gal, black bangs over Cleopatra brows, pug
nose betraying her freckly middle class origins. The backdrop is a vast, lousy painting, low-rent AbEx,
traded, most likely, for a spaghetti dinner and a jug of dago red. Take the weighty Hi-Fi vinyl out of its
sleeve and put on "Co-Existence Bagel Shop Blues." Over a frenzied, nervous drum, Rod talks about some
of the people he knows. 

"I have a friend named Phyllis who likes truck drivers and garage mechanics she had a black eye when I
saw her yesterday, but she said it was worth it that's all right baby, swing some things are better than
sleeping pills." 

Rough trade Phyllis is tame compared to the threesome that swiftly develops between a fire-eater (with
sores in his mouth), a "colored boy," and some anonymously Beat girl. It isn't easy to be a Beat girl, either.
Take the one with the mustache that Rod ran into one day on Jasper Place (around the corner from The
Cellar) who told him she just came from St. Louis, and would he lend her a fin to get her furs out of hock,
in exchange for some "decent company." He lent her his razor instead, and now she gets more work than
anybody. (Poor chick.) Nor is it easy to be a Beat boy, especially if you're sensitive and a little passive, like
Rod. Check out "Haiku Poems," here quoted almost in its entirety for its striking view of the dark side of
the lifestyle, and the surprising vision of redemption in the normalcy of getting up to go to work in the
morning. Rod sounds a little nervous, but he plunges right in. For full effect, imagine hearing this read in a
cellar club, surrounded by characters like those in the poem. The music shifts from tense, scary drums to
sexy bass and sweet piano as the scene unfolds. 

"Just for kicks we all went to the Self-Realization Cafe and had mushroom burgers and made up haiku
poems. Then one of the others got the bright idea to roll somebody -- and I got panic and I didn't want
them to know and I held onto the table so I wouldn't tremble and we went in this bar by the bus depot and
waited for somebody to come out and they grabbed him and he only said "no no" and he didn't have a
chance. They beat him up good. His face was bloody and his eyes were white and they left him in a little
pile like a dung heap, and I watched it all. Going home, the one called Sailor said "Did you see his eyes?"
And Dave passed me the bottle and said, "Whattsa matter kid, no guts?" and I felt like they were all coming
up then. When I left them, I walked for a while and it was early in the morning and this big old water truck
came by and sprayed the sidewalk and the gutter down and the water smelled good and the sun was just
coming up above the few trees there are in our neighborhood, below Coit Tower, and through the fog it
looked like an eclipse. Going to work were all the people I never see at night, including some waitresses in
bandannas... and I went home and listened to the radio and made up haiku poems." 

That's the tough stuff. Rod knows to follow it up with something quick and funny. He calls this one "No
Pictures, Please." 

"I try to be a good beatnik, but it's hard! I mean, like, I don't dig turtleneck sweaters, I can't grow a beard,
and I catch cold in sandals. But I got a pad with a torn Picasso on the wall and a dirty red tablecloth... and
all the Lenny Bruce records. I even bought a book on Zen. And if you come home with me I'll give you a
cheese sandwich and wine in a cracked porcelain cup. [long, sad pause] Oh... my white bucks gave me
away." 

San Francisco's a great town, but it's always been a little claustrophobic. Any smart Beatnik knows how to
stick out his thumb over by the bridge to hitch a ride to Sausalito. Rod does, and gets picked up by a
gloomy preacher who takes him along to Sally Stanford's club. That's a famous bordello, dig? The
preacher's nearly cottoning to the idea of Zen when a cute little gal comes along and interrupts Rod's
monologue. The preacher gets lucky and our Beat narrator hits the road, pausing to recall his own Sausalito
gal: 

"There was this folk singer chick I was hung on who was getting alimony from her first husband. Between
her alimony and my unemployment checks, we had enough bread for steaks twice a week. [Sadly] No use
looking her up, though... she's AC/DC now, and those kind aren't so hot." 

You can learn a lot about Rod McKuen from listening to Beatsville. In the seemingly autobiographical "The
Bird Boy," Rod confesses "I am unhappy unless I am in love, and unhappy." Later he ruminates on a cute
blonde being leered at on the street, and wishes he too might get some extra attention for wearing too-tight
dungarees. That's nerve, kiddo. Rod was also worried about the hangers-on that were buzzing around the
North Beach scene, trying to find ways to make money off his friends. The freedom that had been so
hard-won by his crowd must have seemed in real danger of being destroyed by an influx of clueless
newcomers, their vision of Beat reality hopelessly skewed by the media's willful distortions. "Steer clear of
that chick-- she's writing an exposé called "Beat Time U.S.A." and she plans to sell it to MCA for a
television spectacular. They're already talking about June Allyson and Charlton Heston starring in it.
Y'know, when the last article has been written, the last movie made, and the final rock and roll hit turned
out about the Beat Generation-- somewhere around 1965 I should think-- will they finally let us out of the
cage?" 'Fraid not, Rod. Guess you'll have to go to Paris and adapt some Jacques Brel songs if you ever
wanna taste that free air again. Actually Beatsville does close with a suggestion that it might be a good idea
to get out of town, although not quite that far out of town: "Whaddaya say for kicks we hop in your VW
and tear off for Watsonville? I mean, can you imagine a more Out place for two In people?" It's a perfect
image with which to close out a wonderful disk. There's typically a built-in obsolescence to records that
relate to a trend or fad. You'd be forgiven for thinking that Beatsville came and went in its season and
represented nothing more than an amusing time-capsule. But there's just a wee bit more to the story, and it
happens to be a hoot. I will now introduce Exhibit B: Rod McKuen Takes a San Francisco Hippie Trip
(Tradition/Everest Stereo recording number 2063 S-3446). This particular copy found late one night in the
alcove outside the Saint Vincent de Paul on Haight Street among a group of some fifty different McKuen
elpees, none of them interesting. Dumbass Art Nouveau cover art, Rod's freaky face mirrored in a swishy
swirl of pink, lime, canary and peach. Vaginal badge between his two sets of lips; far out and psychedelic.
The record, however, is nothing less than our old favorite Beatsville, re-sequenced and bowdlerized for a
less-innocent time. Yes, bowdlerized. The original version is actually more libidinous than the free-lovin'
late-sixties re-issue. Here's much of the text of the centerpiece of both releases, the fabulous "R.S.V.P."
(called "Kranko's Hippie Party" on the second version)-- the boldface lines are those that have been
excised from the latter. 

"Kranko's having a party. At his pad on August Alley. With genuine imported Beatniks from Los Angeles
and everything. Bring your own refreshments-- as long as they wear leotards. It should be a gas. The last
time he had a party it was raided and they carted off two policewomen making it in the back room. Get
there early though, because there won't be enough rollaway beds to go around. You might have to ball with
somebody you've already balled. Kranko knows everybody-- including Frieda, who strips at the drop of a
bennie, and Raffia the poet, who is not only an angry young man, but a dirty old man as well. I like
Kranko-- he has wheels. He once told a proprietor of The Renaissance he was Woody Guthrie-- had him
selling tickets for a folk-song concert.... The cat's not commercial or anything, it's just that even that hole he
lives in costs money. Sometimes he lends his pad to people to ball in and hides in the closet to watch--
when he doesn't join in. Anyway, he's having a party and you're invited. If you've got any Leadbelly or Bird
records you don't have to bring any wine." Rod McKuen. Too earthy for the hippies. Too honest for his
own good. Poet. Gentleman. Millionaire. Teenaged disc-jockey. Orphan. World-class character. Genius?
He's strong, but he likes roses. He's not afraid to appear ridiculous, and he doesn't. But the kids who laugh
at him look faintly absurd now, don't they? 

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