I have a feeling that Rod McKuen and Kim Fowley are sharing a laugh in the Afterworld, chuckling over the improbable fact that they were able to construct long careers out of the flimsiest of raw material. Neither possessed with what might be called, in the traditional sense, talent, except that there is something to be said for being an American Hustler, promiscuously flitting from scene to scene. whatever is clicking at that precise moment, and stumbling into a world that embraces and rewards you.
Novelty records, girl group records. “Oliver Twist Meets The Duke of Oil,” “Popsicles and Icicles” (if you didn’t know which one was McKuen’s and which was Fowley’s, the titles would never tip you off). McKuen made an album called Beatsville, and Fowley made one called Love Is Alive and Well, but again, you could swap those out: beatniks, flower children, what’s the difference if all you’re doing is capitalizing on What’s Now? And each one left behind, almost accidentally, some stuff that lasts. They gave us Joan Jett, English translations of Jacques Brel songs for Scott Walker and Dusty Springfield to sing, 45s by The Hollywood Argyles, a not-bad Sinatra album. McKuen has a longer list of cultural misdemeanors — “Jean,” “Seasons In The Sun,” acting roles in Summer Holiday and Wild Heritage, an album featuring the vocal stylings of his pal Rock Hudson — but he also concocted some Bachelor Pad mainstays like the hilarious In Search of Eros (subtitle: “loneliness and love in the age of eroticism”).
For characters like McKuen and Fowley, neither one a “singer” (in McKuen’s case, his default setting sounds like Clint Eastwood’s grainy but soothing patter in the dj booth in Play Misty For Me, and Fowley made Sky Saxon seem like Roy Orbison by comparison), it was all about persona, staying in the game. You’d have to call what McKuen scribbled poetry, I suppose, but only because there’s no other way to categorize the way he organized words on a page. What else could it be? And I guess he took his job seriously, but maybe it was all a joke. Listen To The Warm? How could you write down that phrase, name a whole book Listen To The Warm, and not think, “I’ll have to come up with something better before we go to press, but that’s ok for now?” Maybe it was a con, and that’d be fine, because it didn’t matter. In his first movie, Rock Pretty Baby, he was in a quasi-rockabilly band, he cut standards for Decca, made folk records when folk was in, did the Beat Poet gig, cut the singles “Oliver Twist” and “Celebrity Twist” during that pop moment. Like a lot of ambitious kids (Teddy Randazzo, Paul Simon) he floundered around the fringes of pop before landing on something that worked. He became Kahlil Gibran, simpler, even. He read his organized words on television, sold many books, scored movies, wrote songs for Broadway, became a kind of homespun, road-weary American version of Brel, Aznavour, Becaud, a man alone.
“Alley-Oop,” “Nut Rocker,” “Oliver Twist,” “Seasons In The Sun,” “The Beat Generation,” “The Mummy,” “Papa-Oom-Mow-Mow,” “A Boy Named Charlie Brown,” “Like, Long Hair,” “If You Go Away.” That is one loopy list of songs that Fowley and McKuen have on their resumes in one way or another. With Fowley, it’s often hard to pinpoint what his role was — it’s part of his Genius Mystique — but even if he was mostly an industry facilitator, anyone who can recognize the brilliance of “Papa-Oom-Mow-Mow” has perpetual bragging rights as far as I’m concerned, and “Alley-Oop” is a novelty record that transcends novelty: there were three versions of the Dallas Frazier song on the Billboard chart in 1960, the one that Fowley had a hand in went to #1, and somehow the tune lasted long enough to enter the repertoires of The Lovin’ Spoonful, Dave Van Ronk and The Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band.
Only one McKuen album, a 1969 live one, crept to the bottom of the top 100, and Fowley peaked at an it-had-to-be-a-favor #198 with Outrageous in the same year (they never crossed paths on the same chart), and after “The Mummy” (billed as Bob McFadden and Dor, with Rod being Dor) and “Oliver Twist,” McKuen never had even a minor chart single again. Fowley, as an artist, was hitless. And yet, they made ripples in our culture and thrived through sheer chutzpah. They were determined to leave a mark. I don’t know how Fowley felt about the way he was depicted by Michael Shannon in The Runaways, but my guess is he got a kick out of being a movie villain. One more achievement in a wacky career. Unlike Fowley, McKuen fled from the public eye a long time ago, and the only places you see his books and records are yard sales and thrift stores. His popularity was, in so many ways, inexplicable (“Come out of your half-dreamed dream/And run, if you will, to the top of the hill”: it’s that “if you will” that makes it pure McKuen), but he, like Fowley, forged an idea about himself and mined it for all it was worth. It’s the American way.