Rod McKuen, despite for many years being, for better or for worse, America's best-known poet, doesn't get much respect. As it turns out, even from me, for when I noted that today was his birthday (and a happy 79th to him), my mind turned to "Ballad of the Sad Young Men," and I thought, "well, he did write at least one beautiful thing."
Except he didn't. This lacerating little number was in fact recorded by McKuen, during his phase as a kind of folkie poet-cabaretiste, but he didn't (despite what I and, judging from Google, many others have always thought) write it. It's actually from a curious little 1959 musical called The Nervous Set, by Fran Landesman, with music by Tommy Wolf. After a very short Broadway run, it seems to have more or less disappeared forever, leaving behind only this song and the jazz standard "Spring Can Really Hang You up the Most."
Well, anyway, it's a curious way to mark the man's birthday, but there's never, really, a bad reason to listen to Dame Shirley, is there? "Ballad of the Sad Young Men" was long a part of her act, and here she stretches it out, reaching through camp to beyond camp to something very like art. It's not my favorite version of the song - that must always be Mabel Mercer's*, sadly not YouTubeable - but it's very wonderful. Beyond Bassey, Mercer, (and McKuen, of course), it's also notably been done by Roberta Flack and Jane Monheit, among many others.
Back in my bachelor days in Manhattan, or rather those bachelor nights spent, so many of them, in low nightspots on side streets (ah, for the joys of 88s, of the Five Oaks, of Don't Tell Mama - oh, for the tawdry splendors of Marie's Crisis on a cold winter night!), I thought this song was just about the ne plus ultra of worldly melancholy. I'm still touched, in a way, by the wry, weary lyric -
Autumn turns the leaves to gold,
slowly dies the heart;
Sad young men are growing old -
that's the cruelest part...
is, in its way, up there with Dorothy Parker in her less vinegary mode. It's a kind of song, though, that hits one most before one actually does start to grow older, when that prospect still seems a formidable and disconcerting possiblity, rather than just one more damn thing to put up with. It's a song for someone of 34 who's just discovering a gray hair or two, perhaps, or someone 36 who suddenly sees 40 looming. I still like it, mind you, but happily sailing toward senesence, don't take it nearly so seriously.
And those Sad Young Men? Don't quote me, but I wouldn't be at all surprised to hear that they're that way...
* Gosh - even that seems like sort of a slap at poor Rod. He's the Rodney Dangerfield of half-forgotten middlebrow demi-legends...