22nd & 23rd April, 2014
Rod & Ken, Johannesburg, 2009
A Thought for Today
One life will always make a difference.
One Does It For Me!
No letters or questions
today, instead a look at one of my favorite albums and the lyrics to one
of my favorite McKuen/Becaud collaborations.
-Ken, Johannesburg, South
Africa, April 22
About This Album
It’s fitting that Rod McKuen should call an album Through European
Windows. Lately he’s been spending nearly half of every year traveling
through Europe writing songs, performing in cabarets and concert halls
and making records in four languages.
His popularity in Europe has grown to a point where he could spend the
entire year working there. That, however, would deprive this country of
some of its best songs and one of the most compelling and individual
vocal talents on the performing and recording scene.
It’s happening now for Rod McKuen, and it’s happening big. His songs are
being recorded by nearly everyone that makes records. He turns down more
nightclub engagements and college concerts than many top performers are
offered, and he has almost single-handedly managed to turn the pop song
into an art form. Even his poetry, read against lush instrumental
backgrounds, has started a new trend in recording. His book Stanyan
Street & Other Sorrows has sold more than thirty thousand copies in a
little over six months, making it the largest selling book of poems in
more than twenty years; and, incidentally, causing Random House to take
on his latest book, sight unseen.
All well and good - but the current attitude toward the work and works
of Rod McKuen has taken more than ten years of hard and very often
unrewarding effort. Rod was born in a Salvation Army hospital in
Oakland, California, thirty three years ago - with nothing. Today, he
claims, he has enough money to buy candy bars when he wants them and
take plane rides when he likes. He made it by himself. There weren’t
many who even wanted to help - or, if they did, they didn’t seem to know
how to go about it.
When he came to Hollywood after an Army stint, an agent thought he
looked a little like the late James Dean and wanted to rename him Dean
James. After Hollywood came New York and a manager that pushed him into
rock and roll and had him screaming over a rock band for more than a
year. That gave him the husky voice that’s now his trademark. He doesn’t
have a manager or an agent now, which deprives him of someone to run
interference but makes him more or less his own master. Now he does
pretty much what he likes, which means spending most of his eighteen
hour day working.
When Rod gets fed up with work or harassed by the demands of his growing
success, he usually takes off for Europe. More than just a change, it
offers him a chance to work with some of the top composers on the
continent. These collaborations have produced one of 1966's biggest
songs If You Go Away, Seasons in the Sun, and more than a dozen songs
Rod has written with Jacques Brel. He was, in fact, the first writer to
successfully translate Brel’s songs in this country, and Rod is the only
writer Brel has elected to translate into French. In the short time that
Rod has been adapting and translating the songs of Gilbert Becaud,
several of their joint efforts have begun the road to becoming
standards. A goodly share of the Brel - McKuen and Becaud - McKuen songs
are included in this album.
The material here includes ballads, songs with a beat, songs that are
happy and sad, poetic and humorous. Here are some of the best works of
Rod McKuen; they afford a closer look at a man himself as seen Through
European Windows that look out on his own special world.
- Ed Habib, Stanyan Music
About These Songs
I wrote many of these songs in Europe last summer, most of them in
collaboration with Jacques Brel and Gilbert Becaud. I once commented to
Becaud, that since he was France’s most admired popular composer and as
Brel wrote the best lyrics in that country, how was it that the two had
never collaborated. “We tried it,” he replied. “When we met it was
Versailles, when we parted it was Berlin.”
It would seem I have the best of all possible worlds being able to work
with each of them individually; however, they are as hard to please as I
am. Since Brel writes lyrics, I try to stay as faithful to his original
idea as possible, in the manner of Gene Less and Aznavour. Often
Becaud’s melodies turn me on to a lyric line far from the original in
Nathalie and I’ll Say Goodbye are the most literal translations of the
Becaud melodies I’ve added words to. I’ll Say Goodbye was written in a
bathtub at the Hotel Crystal in Paris one morning. Nathalie was more
difficult to adapt, and took longer; since it deals with East - West
relations it had to be just right. My version is a little less East -
West and a little more me - she than the original.
There is a point in every Brel concert where he brings out his guitar
and accompanies himself on a ballad, usually Le plat pays, which
literally means “the flat lands”, and it’s a hymn to the countryside he
knew as a boy. I have adapted it into The Far West where I grew up. Both
Brel and I have felt the need to run, only to discover that once away we
were unable to hide from ourselves. To this end Brel has given up
performing altogether in order to concentrate on writing and recording.
It is hoped that his retirement will be like Betty Hutton’s - frequent,
but never permanent. For he is undoubtedly the world’s greatest living
Brel is able to put his finger on a particular kind of bourgeoisie
living in Belgium, his home. As a result many of his songs are banned
there. My translation of Le bourgeois is pretty faithful. Since it is
neither anti-Vietnam nor pro-Repblician it can be played in this country
in Boston as well as in Berkeley.
I have changed Louis Amade’s Mon arbre ( My Tree ) to Paris. The two
lyrics have absolutely nothing in common; I hope Monsieur Amade doesn’t
mind since, in addition to being an extraordinary lyricist, he is also
the Paris Prefect of Police. The melody is by Becaud.
On the Road Again has a contemporary theme. La mer sans soleil is a bit
baroque, and Jacques Brel’s Song Without Words ( Chanson sans paroles )
is ageless in its description of lovers taking one another for granted -
until one gets bored and moves on.
L’amour avec toi was the Number 1 selling record for many weeks in
France by its author Michel Polnareff. It’s what the French call a
‘yeh-yeh” song. I’ve renamed it Baby Be My Love.
The epic song intrigues me. By epic, I mean longer than the standard
thirty two bar phrase. The Lovers, The Women, The Hunters, If You Go
Away and Reflections are among those works of mine that fall within this
framework. Through European Windows changes tempo seven times and has a
continuing story to tell, so it is longer than most songs. It was a
verse and chorus longer, until we edited it. The idea of doing
everything in your lifetime and finding in the end that you’ve done
nothing is not a new one, but it’s seldom employed in song form.
The Ever Constant Sea, Pushing the Clouds Away, Do You Like the Rain ?
and Gifts from The Sea have my words and Anita Kerr’s music.
The arrangements in this album are also the work of Anita. Being a
singer herself she knows how to frame a vocal, never crowding the frame
with excess notes. Her charts always complement and never detract from
the vocalist. To that end, she is the most gifted arranger I’ve yet had
the good fortune to work with, and this is the first album I’ve recorded
in a long time for which all the arrangements were done by one
I like these recordings because they bring to mind some recent and happy
experiences and because they chronicle a particular time in my life.
Maybe this isn’t a very commercial album, so I give thanks to RCA Victor
and Neely Plumb for their indulgence in letting me do something I’ve
really wanted to do for a long time.
- Rod McKuen
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