It’s been a few months since poet Rod McKuen (1933-2015) passed away and it seems only fitting that the Eden’s Island Blog pay tribute to his influence on the world of spoken word recordings, of which Eden Ahbez also partook.
A few days ago, I typed in a search box the words “rod mckuen” and “eden ahbez,” and not surprisingly came upon this:
It’s a post from October 2001 on Rod’s own website, which he updated almost daily for the last twenty years.
The post starts out with a letter from a male who identifies himself as Robert Ward, and who recounts a book signing in Montrose (near Glendale in Southern California) for McKuen’s best-selling collection of 1967, Listen to the Warm. (The poems were also recorded by McKuen himself for a mellow album of the same title.)
Ward then recounts Eden Ahbez sitting in the audience next to himself, to which McKuen responds with a series of fond memories of meeting Ahbez too.
My first thoughts about this are that (1) it would have been around the same time-frame that Ahbez was photographed in the recording studio with Beach Boy Brian Wilson.
Secondly, McKuen had just released the first of four album-long song suites with the San Sebastian Strings, under the banner of The Sea. Both Ahbez and McKuen, however, were preceded in pop culture by a few seafaring poets who’d laid down earlier spoken word LPs. A little background.
The first exotica poet to mix his written verses with a musical backdrop was likely the Roaring Twenties autodidact Don Blanding. His best-selling book, Vagabond’s House (1928), like McKuen’s Listen to the Warm, later became an album during the early 1950s, though little, besides its subject-matter, could be likened to the spoken word albums of Eden Ahbez or Rod McKuen; Blanding’s A Group of Great Poems from ‘Vagabond’s House’ is a wind-swept, overly-dramatized affair, filled with blustery strings behind an elderly Blanding, who sounds like the deep-voiced narrator of a ’50s movie trailer.
Far better (and rarer—my god!) is the Blanding tribute LP by salty-dog Paul Page from the early 1960s. Titled I Remember Blanding, it compliments well the aesthetic direction of Eden’s Island and the recorded output of Rod McKuen.
Another pre-Sixties album that showcases that special blend of jazz and beachcomber poetry is Buddy Collette’s Polynesia (1959).
Collette was a flute- and sax-man who’d recorded with many of the top ’50s cool jazz artists in L.A., including Gerry Mulligan and Chico Hamilton. The final track on Polynesia is narrated by Robert Sorrels, whose apocalyptic, near-hallucinatory poem sounds like a shipwrecked-seaman-gone-mad, and is the perfect dark-side counterpoint to Ahbez’s more optimistic “The Wanderer.”
By 1959, McKuen too had recorded a few of his poems for the Yellow Unicorn LP (Imperial Records), which collects a number of pop-style poets from the L.A. beatnik scene and backs them with stock ’50s jazz. McKuen also had his own solo LP, titled Beatsville (1959), on Hi-Fi Records, the same label as exotica legend Arthur Lyman.
Ahbez’s lone solo album, Eden’s Island, came the next year on Del-Fi Records. It sold less than 500 copies.
McKuen’s bevy of solo albums went on to sell millions, though their reputation has not aged well. They are considered mainly campy relics of a bygone era and are found easily in thrift store bins these days. (Anything more than a buck and you’ve been had!)
But back to that time in 1967 when Ahbez attended one of McKuen’s book readings:
Rod himself responds to the letter on his website, saying that Ahbez was one of the first songwriters he met when he came to Southern California in the 1950s. “Even then,” recalls McKuen, “he looked like a wizened old man, though he was probably only in his thirties [ed. mid-forties].”
He goes on to say of Ahbez: “He truly was the ‘Nature Boy’ of his most famous song, leather-skinned from a perennial suntan, long unkempt hair, a beard of many colors that went halfway down his chest and clean but very old clothes.”
McKuen compares Ahbez in Hollywood to New York City’s famed street musician Moondog, and claims the spirited nature boy “haunted recording studios and publishers offices seldom finding anyone who would listen to him or his songs because they were so put off by his outward appearance.”
Finally, McKuen says of Ahbez’s post-”Nature Boy” years: “When I met him the royalties from his one big hit in the 1940s had long been spent. He was back to pounding the streets with little success. We would run into each other now and again as I too knocked on West Coast publisher’s doors. As I became more successful I lost track of him and many of the other real characters I met on the streets of Hollywood. Like Eden, I didn’t drive at the time and walked or hitched everywhere. The people I met that befriended this young songwriter were varied and many.”
McKuen tells another story about Ahbez during the late 1980s, who was still haunting the studios around Hollywood and inadvertently found out that Natalie Cole had re-recorded “Nature Boy,” and that a new cache of money was owned him. McKuen calls it a “very happy ending to the life story of a by then homeless and forgotten songwriter.”
Thanks for the memories, Rod. Looking over the long stretches of life’s ups and downs, I’m reminded of one of your own optimistic verses, which said: “All our lives we had fun, we had seasons in the sun.” Rest in peace.