Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Gene Ween, Roses Are Red

Beverly Hills, Calif.

Robust and energetic, Rod McKuen welcomes a visitor into his home and quickly proves the ideal host. Now 79, Mr. McKuen is no longer the angular, towheaded young man he was in the 1960s, when he was a dominant presence in pop culture with his albums, concerts, film scores and poetry—an experience that's filled him with rich stories about Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand, Perry Como and others who have covered his tunes. His beard gray, hair in retreat, and wearing sneakers and jeans, Mr. McKuen exudes humility. "I felt that some of my work was OK," he said. "If I could do it over, I'd do better."

[WEEN] Getty Images

'Marvelous Clouds,' by Ween's Aaron Freeman, covers Rod McKuen's songs with charm and reverence.

Mr. McKuen stays away from the spotlight these days, but is back for an unexpected and delightful reason. Aaron Freeman, better known as Gene Ween of the band Ween, is releasing an album of McKuen songs this week: "Marvelous Clouds" (Partisan), a loving review of Mr. McKuen's most familiar compositions, performed with charm and reverence.

"This came out of the blue," said Mr. McKuen, sitting before an Andy Warhol portrait of Richard M. Nixon with the words "Vote for McGovern" scrawled underneath. Before Mr. Freeman visited here in March, the two musicians had never met. And until producer Ben Vaughn played a few of Mr. McKuen's records for him, the 42-year-old Mr. Freeman had not heard much of Mr. McKuen's music, though he knew the composer had something to do with Terry Jacks's 1974 hit "Seasons in the Sun." (Mr. McKuen wrote the lyrics based on a song by his friend Jacques Brel.) A self-styled "child of the '80s," Mr. Freeman is too young to recall the McKuen phenomenon, when singers clamored to record his tunes. In 1969, Sinatra released "A Man Alone," an album of McKuen compositions.

During their sole meeting, Mr. Freeman recalled, "I said to him: 'You're part of the Great American Songbook.' He said, 'Oh no. That means I'm old.' But he's part of the culture whether you know him or not."

On "Marvelous Clouds," Mr. Freeman made the album's 13 songs his own. Featuring Ryan Maynes on celeste and harpsichord—giving the arrangements a retro feel—Mr. Freeman's band creates an unobtrusive backdrop for his tender, straightforward vocals. "We kept it simple," he said by phone from his New Jersey home. Mr. Freeman overdubbed all the parts for the vocal harmonies. On his leads, he emphasizes the lyrics and thus the composer's intent.

"Here was a guy who really did it in his own voice," Mr. McKuen said. "He didn't copy anybody."

In "Jean," a massive hit in 1969 for the singer Oliver, Mr. Freeman eases his voice over a nylon-stringed guitar and Mr. Maynes's warm orchestration. "The Lovers" gallops along on Kevin Jarvis's double-time drumming. (The Arctic Monkeys' 2009 version is truer to Mr. McKuen's original arrangement.) With his reading of "A Man Alone," Mr. Freeman doesn't aim for Sinatra-style swing; he lets the song float above guitars and chiming keys.

Mr. McKuen said he appreciated Mr. Freeman's respect for his lyrics. In these melisma-crazy times, singers can distort a writer's intent with vocal trickery. A poet in an era when overt expressions of emotion seemed a rebuke to the World War II generation's stoicism, Mr. McKuen wrote without filter; though he used imagery and metaphor, he never disguised a sensitive, sentimental heart and a restless mind. Once Mr. Freeman began studying the lyrics, he felt an affinity with the composer. "It was clear he meant every word," Mr. Freeman said. "He really didn't care what you thought. He was doing his thing and would write about it and sing about it."

"For many people, I was a phase, a part of the period of growing up," Mr. McKuen said. "People ask me why I connected. It was presumptuous of me to say, but I'm Everyman. The difference is I put my thoughts into words."

In his glory days, Mr. McKuen took a beating from critics who found his work, particularly his poetry, treacly and affected. Even in Mr. Freeman's renditions, the songs can seem mawkish and obvious, especially the spoken-word interpolations. But, as "Marvelous Clouds" reveals, any objective exploration of the McKuen canon will present a writer groping for a way to explore and understand his experiences and in turn share his joy in simple pleasures. In a period of social upheaval, Mr. McKuen gave a gentle voice to a cultural earthquake.

Mr. Freeman said he believes Mr. McKuen's work trumps its critics' harsh assessment. "You can think it's cheesy, but as long as the man stands behind it, you can believe in it," he said. "He gets the last laugh."

Mr. Fusilli is the Journal's rock and pop music critic. Email him at jfusilli@wsj.com or follow him on Twitter: @wsjrock.

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