Another side of Rod McKuen

Rod McKuen, who died earlier this week, is rightly celebrated as a poet and songwriter.  Less frequently noted in his obituaries, are his talents – instincts, maybe — as a businessman. As he became successful, McKuen formed his own Stanyan Records label; issuing albums by himself and by artists he admired including singers Greta Keller, Noel Coward, Chris Connor, Hildegarde, Dinah Shore, Felicia Sanders and several film composers.– either produced by Rod himself or leased from other labels. (The current Stanyan catalog is limited to several of McKuen’s own recordings, with a couple of exceptions).

He was clearly not doing this for the money – the artists weren’t well-known and the label’s distribution was largely by mail order – but out of his love of music.

Also less known is McKuen’s launch as a successful poet – not through an established publisher, but on his own, in what some people might consider a (harmless, to be sure) hustle. When I was writing the notes for a boxed set of McKuen’s RCA recordings (issued on the German Bear Family label and still available), I spoke with many people who had worked with him through the years, including singer Glenn Yarbrough. Once a member of the Limeliters “folk” vocal trio, Yarbrough embarked on a solo career.

Here’s an excerpt from those liner notes.

“I had just become successful on my own,” Yarbrough explains, “and had ‘Baby The Rain Must Fall’ and several hit albums. I’d recorded one or two of Rod’s songs – ‘Isle In The Water’ and ‘The Lovers’ among them. I’ve forgotten now how I got them, but I’m pretty sure I didn’t know him at the time.

“One day he came walking down my driveway in the Hollywood hills, dropping sheet music and all sorts of stuff. He didn’t drive, so he’d taken a cab up there. He wanted me to hear his material. I prefer to have songs sent to me, but I couldn’t just turn him away. He sang some songs for me, and I offered a three-year contract to work with him exclusively. We set up a publishing company together, and he lived in a cottage on my property.”

Yarbrough decided to record an entire album of McKuen songs. “I was going through a bitter divorce, and was kind of down and out anyway – well, down, but not out. The songs on ‘The Lonely Things’ were so depressing, I didn’t think anybody would want to hear them. It turned out to be the biggest album I’d ever made.” A highly productive partnership was born; and the success of his songs had persuaded RCA to follow [RCA a&r man Neely] Plumb’s urging, and sign the songwriter to his own contract.

Something else happened, according to Yarbrough. “The album was put together and released while I was in Europe. When I came back, I discovered that he’d written on the album cover that the lyrics were from a book, and gave an address. I asked him what book he was offering, and he replied that he didn’t have a book yet. I told him to sit…down and start writing. We started a book publishing company. And before long I had 20 secretaries sending books out.”

The book‘Stanyan Street And Other Sorrows’ was also available through some stores, Rod explains. “My [half] brother Edward used to drive up the California coast, selling them to bookstores. We went through 70,000 copies before we sold the title to Random House. They gave me a $350 advance for ‘Listen To The Warm,’ which has now sold 31,000,000 copies, worldwide.”

Published in: on January 31, 2015 at 10:02 am  Leave a Comment  
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No beard, no job

I can’t remember the year, but I had finished my first job in The [music] Industry, as a copywriter at the Capitol Record Club. The label had sold the club, whose new owners relocated them, but not me, to New York.

Having no prospects, or even any contacts outside the Club (which at the time was located about 45 minutes from label headquarters), I went to an employment agency in what became the Record World building, a high-rise on the southeast corner of Sunset and Vine. I choice it because Sunset & Vine was as much in the center of Hollywood as you could be, and because I was ignorant of the kind of trade publications (MAC was one) that could point me to jobs in advertising.

After a long talk, during the course of which I outlined my credentials (such as they were), the salesman  career counselor said he couldn’t do anything for me until I shaved my beard. “But,” I sputtered, I want to stay in creative, in the entertainment industry — lots of people have beards!”

He remained adamant (I suspect he was thinking of sending me to loan offices, where there was a high turnover, rather than advertising agencies or whatever). I had grown the beard soon after departing from the Army; in part (well, in great part) to try to disguise my weak chin. I liked my beard, and I didn’t much like this guy. So I countered with what I thought was a point that couldn’t be argued. “But,” I pointed out to him, accurately, “YOU have a beard!”

“Yes,” he replied, applying the coup de grace. “But I also have a job.”

So I left the office with no idea for the future other than that I was under no conditions going to write loans to poor people, counting on them to default and surrender their collateral. While in the neighbodhood, I decided to go cater-corner to see what was up at at the hallowed retail outlet Music City. Then I noticed another door in the building, with the sign “Dot Records.”

(A historical note: Capitol Records had been located above Music City before relocating up the street to the Capitol Tower. Dot, a feisty independent, now occupied the former Capitol offices).

Thinking I had nothing to lose, I went in and spoke to the receptionist, downstairs. “Who handles your publkcity?” I asked. “Norman Winter,” the woman told me. “Can I speak with him?,” sez I.

Amazingly, she (and he) let me upstairs. The sign on the office door read “Norman Winter and Associates”/”Joe X. Price and Associates”, Joe being an independent publicist sharing the space. As it happened, there were only three people in the office: Norman, Joe, and office manager Patti Wright. The sign might have as accurately added “Patti Wright and Associates.”

Norm was Dot Records’ publicity guy. He was also doing press, gratis, for the Recording Academy. It was Grammy season (1969, as I recall), so he was especially busy with his pro bono job, which doubtless contributed to his hiring me me on the spot.

It was part-time, he explained. I’d work a couple days a week writing press releases and such. The rest of the time would be mine; I could use the office and phones for whatever it was I was doing on my own. Plus, I could spend that much more time in the company of the lovely, personable and smart Patti. I didn’t spent a long time pondering my decision.

Which almost* moved me from “advertising” to “publicity” (or dealing with publicists) for the rest of my life. Of course the job turned out to be much more than a couple days a week, and I had no time to do anything else — or to look for something else to do. But it was interesting work; Norm and Joe were good guys; and of course there was Patti.

That job didn’t last long — I couldn’t afford to work for Norm — but he and I remained friends, and to this day his widow, Joy, and I are Facebook friends.

* I also worked in the advertising department of Liberty/UA Records, also in Hollywood, for about a year; brought in by Jim “Vit” Novy, whom I had worked with at the Record Club.

Published in: on January 27, 2015 at 9:22 pm  Leave a Comment  

Crime Story, part 2: Mugged!

I was once held up in the parking lot of a Las Vegas hotel.

In town to interview Mel Tillis for something-or-another, I was staying for the night at the hotel (Frontier?) he was playing. Set to leave the next morning, I decided to load most of my luggage into my car during the commercial break between Johnny Carson’s monologue and the rest of the Tonight Show. So that’s what I was doing in the parking lot, suitcase in hand and trunk open, when the young man approached me.

His hand was in his jacket pocket; holding, he told me, a pistol. I chose not to dispute him, and he told me to get into the car, where we wouldn’t be seen. Once there, he asked for my wallet and emptied it.  Fortunately, me being me, there was only $80 or so, plus some minimum-limit credit cards. He ran.

Within seconds, a car carrying two of  the hotel’s parking lot security people rolled by. I flagged them down, described the guy and told them what happened, and motioned in the direction of his escape. They directed me to the security office deep in the bowels of  the hotel and drove off.

Before long, the radio in the security office came alive, with the patrolmen reporting that they’d caught a suspect and were bringing him in. “Before they do,” I told the officer in charge, “let me describe him.” For a mugger, he wasn’t too smart: wearing an easy to remember, easy to identify, red windbreaker (maybe he was a fan of James Dean in “Rebel without a Cause”).

artist's poor rendition(artist’s poor simulation of mugger)

(Sometimes this picture — James Dean — shows; sometimes not. If you have to, use your imagination)

I gave them a few other identifying signs, and told them how much money he’d taken. Sure enough, he was wearing the same jacket and had the same amount of money. And, as I’d suspected, no artillery; the “pistol” had been his finger in his pocket. Security didn’t keep the cash as evidence, thankfully; they Xeroxed it and handed it back to me.

I was back in my room in time to catch the end of Carson.

Crooks love tourists, because we tend to go home and aren’t available to testify against them. On the other hand, Las Vegas casinos want your money, and don’t encourage competition from amateurs. With that in mind, the Las Vegas district attorney offered to fly me back and put me up in a hotel if I’d testify. This would be in a few weeks.

One day, my home phone rang and it was…the mugger. Somehow he’d got my name and number, and was trying to get me to withdraw charges. He was a young guy, never did it before, had a wife and kid to support, yada yada.

I was terrified: if he had my name and address, odds are that he had — or could get — my address. Even though my phone was unlisted.

I returned to Vegas. The hotel wasn’t, shall we say, Caesars Palace. Not even the Frontier. Rather, it was a nondescript (but clean) motel somewhere out of the way of anything even potentially interesting. I didn’t go out that night.

The Las Vegas courtroom was very small, and I wound up sitting, unwittingly at the time, next to the guy’s wife. We didn’t exchange pleasantries. The whole thing went by pretty much as quickly as this paragraph.

The mugger plead out, so I didn’t have to testify. But from then on, I made sure that I kept my doors at home locked, and never did discover how he had got hold of my phone number.

 

(part 1 here)

Published in: on December 5, 2014 at 11:35 am  Leave a Comment  

The most useful class I ever took

I took typing as a class in summer (high) school. We had to repeat the same exercise — a sort of fairy tale — over and over, presumably increasing our speed and accuracy each time. Before long, I was typing so fast that out of boredom I started supplementing the original story with my own additions.

Taking me aside, the teacher explained that while I was typing faster and more accurately than anybody else in the class, he’d have to fail me because I was still hunting-and-pecking. Graciously, he added that were it in his power, he would have given me an “A” in creative writing.

He let me drop out, giving me an incomplete, which didn’t work against me as a “fail” would have.

Which is why when I was drafted into the Army, I figured I’d wind up as a clerk-typist, as the required typing speed was something like 12 wpm. But that’s another story, with no typing — and a lot of floor-mopping — involved.

I’ll have to tell you, though: I have typed pretty much every day of my professional life and beyond. And, other than English (which was a series of classes), there isn’t another class I took that has rewarded me as much.

Published in: on October 29, 2014 at 5:29 pm  Leave a Comment  

Crime Story, part 1: Robbed!

For once, I had made it far enough in the selection process that I was undergoing voir dire — the bit where the prosecuting and defense attorneys try to discover if a prospective juror might be unsuitable for some reason (this usually meaning some sort of prejudice that would affect his or her vote, regardless of testimony).

It was a criminal case, in the downtown Los Angeles courthouse. Some kid was accused of theft.

“Mister Everett,” the defense attorney asked — maybe I imagined the fire in his eyes and the accusatory pointing finger — “have you ever been robbed?”

“Not by this guy,” I wanted to say, motioning in the direction of the defendant.

Instead, I told him another truth.

“I live in Hollywood. The question isn’t ‘have you been robbed?,’ but ‘how many times have you been robbed?'”

In my case, the answer would have been four — or, maybe, seven, if you count thefts outside Hollywood.

The first time, I was parked on Wilcox Street, just north of Sunset Boulevard. I was visiting an office on the other side of Sunset. It was daytime, which didn’t deter someone from breaking into my Volkswagen Beetle and making off with the Rolodex I brought home every day from my trade-paper office to deter my co-workers from appropriating it or the hundreds of phone numbers it held, each on a little card with other contact information.

Another two blocks down Wilcox, as fate would have it, was the Hollywood Division police station. I went in to make my report. As I walked in, one of the officers greeted me: “Have I seen you here before?” No, I assured him, I had never dealt with the police other than the odd parking violation. He snorted and walked away as I approached the desk sergeant. “My car was broken into, just up the street,” I told him.

“Where?” he asked. I told him that it was in front of a liquor store and shady-looking hotel. The desk sergeant gave me one of those “well, what did you expect?” shrugs, and asked what had been taken. “A Rolodex,” I responded. “What’s a Rolodex?” he asked. “Like that,” I sighed, pointing to the one on a shelf behind him.

Not my Rolodex

There’s a happy ending to this story. Knowing that no thief would find much use for a Rolodex filled with names of record company publicists and personal friends, on a hunch I ventured into the hotel. “My car has been broken into,” I told the desk clerk, “and they stole my Rolodex. I’m sure nobody here would have done such a thing, but if maybe one of your tenants spots it in the trash or something, there’s a $25 reward” (this was about 1977).  Within the hour, my office phone rang, Fifteen minutes later, I had my Rolodex but my wallet was $25 lighter.

***

Robbers had broken into two different apartments. The first one was while I was moving from one place to another, and all that was left in my former residence was my record collection. The thief, whoever it was, selected (fortunately) for the most part, things that could be easily replaced — Beatles albums and the like. (In fact, I didn’t buy new copies until compact discs started coming in, and I bought my first set of Beatles CDs). A couple of hours after I reported the robbery — someone had broken the door in, and left quite a mess — a couple bored-looking police officers showed up (in fairness: it’s not like the robbers were waiting to be apprehended) and told me that taking fingerprints or any other such, you know, investigation would be pointless.

The second home robbery, several years after the first, I wasn’t home. It was daytime, they broke in, but were evidently pretty nervous — all they got was a camera and a tape recorder; maybe a couple other things.

Thoughtfully, they left about half a six-pack of beer behind them. The police who showed up, again an hour or so later, much have been the same ones who didn’t think it was worth looking for evidence. Some months later, I learned that a person who lived down the street, one of those older people why stand around seemingly aimlessly, had seen the break-in take place, but hadn’t wanted to get involved.

While I was still living in the old place, someone had broken into my car; then parked on the street, though I had a space in the garage. The thief’s main score was a couple of cassettes I’d made of old rockabilly records. I hope he enjoyed them. I hadn’t bothered the police with that one; I don’t think I even bothered my insurance company.

For the second car break-in, my car was parked in front of Jerry’s Garage, a few blocks away on Argyle, just south of Hollywood Blvd and half a mile or so from my apartment. It was Sunday, and I had left the car on the street so the mechanics could get to it first thing Monday morning. The thief broke in and stole a cheap OM car radio.

All four of those were in Hollywood. The fifth was when I was at a club downtown, enjoying some punk-rock act or another. Some more authentic punks broke into my car. I can’t remember what they got, but I do know I never went to Al’s Bar again.

Sixth, again downtown, was when I was working at the paper on a Sunday afternoon. My car was parked on the street; someone broke in and lifted a battery. This was before the Automobile Club got into the battery-delivery business, so I had to go to Pep Boys, several blocks away. There were other people working at the paper than afternoon; all of them were too busy on deadline to give me a ride. I forget how I got the new battery.

A couple of weeks later, someone broke into my car again. It was parked in the same place; this time, I suppose the thief knew, with a new battery. And that makes seven times while I was living in Hollywood.

Yes, I told the d.a., I’ve been robbed.

I was excused from service.

 

Published in: on October 27, 2014 at 5:10 pm  Comments (1)  
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