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Ballad of Narayama

"The Ballad of Narayama" is a Japanese film of great beauty and elegant artifice, telling a story of startling cruelty. What a space it opens…

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Interview with Rod McKuen

Rod McKuen was in Chicago to plug the record album for Walt Disney's "Scandalous John," for which he wrote the score.

"You hold the album cover this way," he was explaining, "and it's a horse and rider against the sunset. But then, when you turn it upside-down, the reflection in the water turns out to be...Don Quixote and Sancho Panza!"

His voice got serious and a little huskier.

"I think that says something," he said.

He looked about as much like Rod McKuen as you could reasonably expect him to. He was wearing black basketball shoes, old slacks, a blue sweater and a nylon windbreaker with white stripes down the arms and two flags over the heart (one American flag and one ecology flag) and he looked ready to scuff down lonely sidewalks any old time.

McKuen has been interviewed maybe 25 times in the last few years by our Chicago newspapers, judging by the clippings in The Sun-Times library, and all the official facts about him have been reported and commented on.

We know that he is 38 years old, that he's a loner, that his books of poetry have sold three, or four, or six million copies, that he used to be a lumberjack and a dishwasher, that he had an unhappy childhood and all the rest of it. Not since his former classmates and neighbors in Whittier began remembering Richard Milhous Nixon for the tape-recorders of the Library of Congress has the mythology of an American childhood been so superficially stripped bare.

Still, still...I was curious about McKuen, and I jumped at the opportunity to interview him. I'd just finished Nora Ephron's Esquire article about McKuen and Erich Segal and the New Nostalgia and the Rebirth of Romance and all that, with the magnificent double-truck painting by Jean-Paul Goode of Segal and McKuen at tea, backdropped by an infinitely tragic sunset, salt tears dripping from their eyes. Never before have so few made so much from so little.

In the article, McKuen was described as the kind of speaker who would start a sentence with every good intention of completing it in this life. But then he'd get caught up in a train of thoughtfulness, and his mind would start pitching and yawing in the tempest of Important Issues that always blows there, and a sentence that started out about kittens would turn out, later in the afternoon, to be about ecology and loneliness.

McKuen could not be said to have enjoyed the Esquire article very much.

"I didn't read it, but I had parts of it read to me," he said. "Things I didn't say. I call that smart-aleck journalism. I read Nora Ephron's book, Wallflower at the Orgy. Well, maybe one of the reasons the lady was a wallflower at the orgy was that the lady tells lies."

That was pretty strong stuff, coming from the poet of loneliness and empty sidewalks and scuffed shoes. After a moment, he back-pedaled a little.

"Don't get me wrong," he said. "I don't hate her. I mean, I don't hate anybody. I mean, I can muster a dislike for somebody..."

He sighed and wriggled his toes in his basketball shoes. It was time for an insight.

"You know," he said, a little wistfully, "in a way, I wish I could hate a little more. It would make me a more rounded personality."

In this series of comments, McKuen had, in fact, spoken in exactly the way Miss Ephron said he did, starting with the specific, edging out to the general, back-tracking to tone down any language that might have seemed overwrought and concluding with an apology that had the form of self-criticism but was really sneaky self-praise. Isn't there a little something ingenuous about apologizing for not being able to hate well enough?

Well, McKuen was in a down mood. When I got to him, he'd just flown in from San Francisco and taped Kup's Show, and this was on the tag end of a two-month tour during which he'd given 60 concerts in 70 days.

"I have bronchial pneumonia," he said, "and let's not kid around, I don't feel too well. But I went on this publicity tour, which is the first one I've ever done, because I believe in 'Scandalous John.' I really do."

I asked him for a synopsis, McKuen-style, of the movie's plot. That's what he gave me:

"It's, ah, kind of a love film, about a man who loves his country, and hates to see the kind of progress that pollution and land development bring. He doesn't believe he can change the world, but then, who can? It seems to me that it's every man's obligation to make what contribution he can. You live each day as best you can. That, to me, is what makes life interesting. I can't understand people who give up and commit suicide. If I have a bad day, I figure tomorrow will be better. And even if it isn't, at least, it isn't any worse."

Now that I had the plot of the movie all figured out, I asked McKuen about his score. It turned out to be the first scoring job he accepted, after turning down maybe 35 offers to do scores for movies that were too much like "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie," his most famous score so far.

The theme song, he said, is "Pastures Green." I asked him to recite a little of it, and he recited it all. I didn't get everything down, but these are the key phrases: "Each man must find a pasture green...freedom ringing in his ear...fenced in by pavements cold and drear...tied by the silver thread of time...love can come to each man..."

"I try not to put messages in my songs," McKuen said. "My only message is man's communication with his fellow man. I want to narrow the gap of strangeness and alienation."

Isn't that sort of ironic, since you're a self-professed loner? I said.

"It certainly does seem ironic," he said.

What was it like to be a lumberjack?

"Dangerous work," he said. "One of the reasons you have people killing each other is that there are so few hazardous occupations left, like lumberjacking. Of course, now I couldn't think of being a lumberjack. The thought of cutting down a tree, when there are so few trees left..."

He shook his head and sighed.

What other occupations might you take up, should you retire from song and poem writing with your millions? I inquired.

"I want to drop dead when I go out," he said. "I don't want to retire. Of course, tomorrow may change your mind. I might wind up being a piano tuner. But you know.

His face took on a lopsided nostalgic grin.

"When I was a kid, I wanted to be two things: Mickey Mouse, and a cowboy. Now I've had the best of both worlds, scoring a Western for Disney."

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