The year was 1993, and I was living in a run-down punkhouse that was prone to hardcore bands playing in the living room, all-night strip poker sessions, and piles upon piles of empty forties in the backyard.
It might seem like an unlikely backdrop to discover the magic of Rod McKuen, who died yesterday at the age of 81, but that's exactly where I first came across his music. One of my roommates, Dan, lived as the house's anti-punk punk, with a disdain for mohawks but a love for mullets, bellbottoms, big-eye paintings and other aesthetic relics from the 1970s.
Dan talked about Rod McKuen a lot, for some reason. I'd only known McKuen from what seemed like an endless supply of his albums in record-store dollar bins, and judging from the albums' covers and abundance, had assumed him to be a dull easy-listening singer.
But one late night, Dan finally played me Rod McKuen—and I still remember the first track he chose, a spoken-word beat-poetry ramble called “Back to Sausalito.”
There are plenty of songs about Sausalito—by Al Martino, the Ohio Express, Diesel and more—but none of them capture the bohemian spirit of the city in the late '60s quite like McKuen, who was born in Oakland and lived for many years in San Francisco. In just a minute and a half, McKuen mentions Sally Stanford, Zen, tattoos, sailing, folksingers, and liverwurst sandwiches, and displays a counterculture unease at the idea of prayer. In the middle of it all, he says, glibly, “I dig Sausalito.”
I'd go on to enjoy the off-kilter sentimentalism of Rod McKuen's expansive output, chronicled this week in his many obituaries. In particular, Frank Sinatra's album of McKuen compositions, A Man Alone, perfectly straddles schmaltz and insight; also, the fact that McKuen's Stanyan Records re-released two collections of essential early Noel Coward recordings, previously only available on long out-of-print 78s, further speaks to his impact on me.
But it's "Back to Sausalito" that I always think of when I think of the man. (And it's the reason why, if you're ever in a car with me driving along Hwy. 101 through the city, you'll hear me drawl under my breath, “I dig Sausalito.”)
When I heard that he'd died, I couldn't find it anywhere on YouTube, so I dug out my vinyl copy and remedied that with the video above. So thanks, Dan, for introducing him to me all those years ago—and thanks to Rod McKuen, for the thousands of songs and poems.