Rod McKuen Bio Author Gets ‘Warm’ at Book Soup Signing July 16

Author Barry Alfonso will guest at a launch party for his new Backbeat book, 'A Voice of the Warm: The Life of Rod McKuen,' at Book Soup on the Sunset Strip in West Hollywood on Tuesday, July 16.
Author Barry Alfonso will guest at a launch party for his new Backbeat book, 'A Voice of the Warm: The Life of Rod McKuen,' at Book Soup on the Sunset Strip in West Hollywood on Tuesday, July 16.

backbeat books mckuenNoted pop culture journalist, hit songwriter and Grammy-nominated liner notes writer Barry Alfonso will celebrate the publication of his new book, “A Voice of the Warm: The Life of Rod McKuen,” with a signing event at Book Soup on the Sunset Strip on Tuesday, July 16, starting at 7 p.m.

Alfonso will host readings, conversation and performances of McKuen’s songs, and sign copies of the first-ever biography of one of the 20th century’s most popular and misunderstood pop-culture icons.

“A Voice of the Warm: The Life of Rod McKuen” was published by Backbeat, a Hal Leonard imprint, on June 29.

Book Soup is located at 8818 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood 90069.

Who Was Rod McKuen?

In his 1960s-1970s heyday, Rod McKuen was a phenomenally popular singer-songwriter as well as the best-selling poet in publishing history.

To his legions of fans around the world, he was a voice of compassion and healing as much a prophet as an author/entertainer. McKuen songs like “If You Go Away” and “Jean” earned him massive hits, while books like “Listen to the Warm” sold millions of copies.

McKuen’s huge sales and devoted following didn’t stop the critics from calling his work sentimental kitsch cranked out for the money.

Who was this enigmatic artist who aroused so much love and hatred?

Drawing upon extensive research and more than 100 interviews, Alfonso tells how McKuen overcame childhood physical and sexual abuse to become a teenage radio host, film actor, and Beat-style poet before connecting with a vast audience as a writer and recording artist. McKuen’s role as a pioneering gay rights activist who bridged the ’60s generation gap with a message of love and tolerance help to make his story uniquely relevant today.

Notes on ‘A Voice of the Warm’

• Rod McKuen’s career touched nearly every aspect of pop culture from the 1950s through the 1970s. He wrote songs for Frank Sinatra, shared stages with and satirized the Beat Generation, sang folk music and disco tunes, collaborated with the great French songwriter Jacques Brel and conducted his own symphonic works.

McKuen campaigned with Robert F. Kennedy, was an animal rights pioneer, fought against anti-gay laws at the risk of his career. The sheer scope and diversity of his improbable and complicated life is traced for the first time in this book.

The Politician and the Poet: Robert F. Kennedy and Rod McKuen.
The Politician and the Poet: Robert F. Kennedy and Rod McKuen.

• McKuen’s recordings and poetry books sold in the tens of millions – and received scathing reviews from critics. He was treated like a teacher/prophet/guru by his fans and considered a con artist by his enemies. By turns sentimental and steamy, he was an eroticized Mister Rogers for adults, a voice of gentle liberation for Middle America and beyond.

Who was this enigmatic artist who could inspire such passionate reactions pro and con? Why did so many people love him – and does his romantic, often nakedly confessional work have meaning for today?

• McKuen was a pioneering LGBTQ activist in the 1950s, an era when exposure could lead to arrest and a ruined career. He was a key early member of the Mattachine Society, the first gay rights organization in America.

At the height of his fame, he waged a public fight against Anita Bryant’s anti-gay crusade in Florida. He coined the phrase “It’s not who you love or how you love but that you love” – yet he refused to label his own sexuality.

McKuen was sexually fluid/non-binary decades before the terms existed. How he navigated the repressive gender landscape of his time and celebrated love in all its forms makes his story uniquely relevant for today.

Rod McKuen gets warm with a feline friend.
Rod McKuen gets warm with a feline friend.

• McKuen was born out of wedlock to a single mother working in a dance hall in the Great Depression. He suffered physical and sexual abuse from his stepfather and other relatives as a child. He ran away from home, spent time in a brutal reform school, spent time as a cowboy, lumberjack and sex worker before he was 18.

By 19, he was a popular local radio host on his way to becoming a movie star, a hit recording artist and the best-selling poet in history. The story of how this damaged, street-savvy kid grew up to be a pop culture visionary is nothing short of fascinating – and inspiring.

• Among other things, McKuen was a brilliantly innovative entrepreneur. Starting in the mid-1960s, he self-released his albums and published his own poetry books at a time when almost no one successfully did so.

With only a minimal education, he learned to be a shrewd, tough negotiator with huge entertainment companies and publishing houses. He had no manager or producer shaping his image, no marketing genius packaging his products – he did it himself.

Rod McKuen was the first recording star/ best-selling writer to make his name into a BRAND that could sell books, music, greeting cards, calendars, clothing and more. His casual, diary-like writing style anticipated blogging – he turned his huge fan base into a social network.

How he built a multi-million-dollar empire on his own terms is a story in itself.

Rod McKuen in 1970. Photo: Parkenings/WMC 4.0.
Rod McKuen in 1970. Photo: Parkenings/WMC 4.0.

Barry Alfonso Q&A: ‘A Voice of the Warm’

“A Voice of the Warm: The Life of Rod McKuen” author Barry Alfonso grew up in San Diego, where he began his career as a music journalist for publications like the Los Angeles Times, LA Weekly and Rolling Stone.

Alfonso went on to write songs for films including “All the Right Moves” (starring Tom Cruise, 1983) and “Two of a Kind” (John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John, 1983), and co-wrote singer Pam Tillis’s No. 3 country hit “In Between Dances” (1995). He received a Grammy nomination for writing the liner notes for the Peter, Paul & Mary box set “Carry it On” (2004).

Peeples: You’ve written about scores, if not hundreds, of artists, actors and musicians over the years. What inspired you to write about Rod McKuen?

Alfonso: I was fascinated that he could be loved by so many fans and yet so disliked by critics, academics and the supposedly hip. The gap between these two reactions seemed significant and worth exploring. The more I researched him, the more I wanted to tell his complex, often painful and sometimes inspiring personal story.

McKuen suffered abuse as a child and overcame the stigma of being born out of wedlock to become one of the most famous pop culture figures of the 20th Century. I felt his personal tale was meaningful and deserved to be told.

Peeples: What research did you do? What was your concept for laying out the story? How long did it take to write?

Alfonso: The book took about three years to write. I interviewed more than 100 people and had access to videotaped interviews with McKuen and others who were no longer alive. Though McKuen’s personal papers no longer existed, I was able to delve into the archives of Random House that contained extensive correspondence and memos relating to Rod.

My overall concept was to follow a linear narrative while diverting into specific aspects (his recordings, his business dealings, his love life). It was fun, fascinating and challenging all at once.

Rod McKuen gets warm with a canine friend.
Rod McKuen gets warm with a canine friend.

Peeples: Did you ever meet McKuen? Interview him? See him in concert? Buy his records?

Alfonso: I only spoke to Rod once briefly on the phone about 20 years ago. I never saw him perform. I had been aware of him since childhood, however – he was constantly on TV when I was growing up. It became a kind of guilty pleasure to enjoy what he did as an adult music fan. He remained an object of interest of mine over the past four decades.

Peeples: Talk about his relevancy now, as a pioneer of the LGBTQ movement.

Alfonso: While still a teenager, Rod was a member of the Mattachine Society, the first significant gay rights organizations in America. This was in the early 1950s at the height of the “Lavender Scare,” when being labeled a homosexual could mean losing your job, jail time or worse. As he grew famous, McKuen quietly but persistently pushed the boundaries of gender conformity in his songs and writing.

In 1977, he went public and risked his career to push back against Anita Bryant’s anti-gay crusade in Florida. He was active in AIDS-related causes in the following decades. For his own part, Rod refused to label himself – as he said in 1972, “I think the straights, gays and bi’s all do themselves a tremendous disservice by putting themselves into any kind of category. I don’t believe that there are only three kinds of sexuality any more than there are three kinds of need of any kind.” McKuen’s ideas about sexual fluidity and non-binary identity were remarkably ahead of their time.

Peeples: What else do you hope readers will get about McKuen?

Alfonso: I hope readers find his story to be in the great American tradition of overcoming tremendous odds and obstacles to gain success. That said, there are complexities and nuances to his tale that show the pitfalls of fame and fortune.

Rod was a born loner who brought comfort and healing to millions around the world. In many ways, he prefigured Oprah Winfrey in his ability to combine the roles of entertainer, writer, entrepreneur and self-help teacher. Yet he always remained apart and never escaped the shadows in his life. There is a very human story here, one that crosses boundaries between music, movies, pop culture and social change.

Peeples: Final thoughts?

Alfonso: Rod McKuen remains controversial – people still love and hate him. His place in pop culture history has been overlooked, if not deliberately ignored. I tried to make it clear that McKuen wasn’t a saint or a villain – he was both an obsessively confessional artist and a shrewd, driven businessman who sought to monetize his own alienation. He was tremendously important to many, many people around the world and his life and work are worth a second look.

Santa Clarita journalist and Grammy nominee Stephen K. Peeples was raised by career newspaper journalists and music-lovers in Miami and Los Angeles. His first music industry gig was as an Associate Editor at Cash Box magazine in Hollywood in 1975. He was the original, award-winning producer of “The Lost Lennon Tapes” radio series for Westwood One from 1988-1990. He earned a Grammy nomination as co-producer of the “Monterey International Pop Festival” box set (Rhino/MIPF, 1992) with Lou Adler and Geoff Gans. Peeples was a record company Media Relations-PR executive for Capitol Records (1977-1980), Elektra/Asylum Records (1980-1983) and Rhino Entertainment (1992-1998). He was Rhino’s first web editor (1996-1998), then elevated to content editor of Warner Music Group websites (1998-2001). In the Santa Clarita Valley just north of L.A., Peeples was the award-winning Online Editor for The Signal newspaper’s website from 2007-2011, and wrote-hosted-co-produced SCVTV’s WAVE-nominated “House Blend” local music show from 2010-2015 (archived online and still airing in reruns). He is now a News Editor at, Editor/Features Writer for Wealth Wisdom Wellness magazine, and VP/New Media Emeritus for Rare Cool Stuff UnltdFor more info and original stories, visit exclusive behind-the-scenes interviews, subscribe to his YouTube channel.

Article: Rod McKuen Bio Author Hosts ‘Warm’ Signing at Book Soup July 16
Category: News and Reviews
Author: Stephen K. Peeples
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Rod McKuen Bio Author Hosts ‘Warm’ Signing at Book Soup July 16