Rod McKuen, who died Thursday at age 81, was one of the most successful songwriters of 1960s. It’s been reported that his compositions resulted in the sale of more than 100 million records. Yet when I visited him at his Beverly Hills home in 2012, he told me, "I felt that some of my work was OK. If I could do it over, I'd do better."

McKuen was a cordial host, leading a guided tour for one through his rambling home that was overstuffed with memorabilia that documented a remarkable career. He shared stories about Perry Como, Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand and other vocalists who covered his songs, and Jacques Brel, whose songs he translated to English. He spoke frankly about his long battle with depression.

The occasion for the visit was the release of “Marvelous Clouds” by Aaron Freeman, who is better known as Gene Ween of the band Ween. With a nod toward the era in which they were composed, Freeman covered McKuen songs that had been hits for the Kingston Trio, Johnny Mathis, Oliver, Nina Simone, Glenn Yarborough and Sinatra, who, in 1969, released the album “A Man Alone: The Words and Music of Rod McKuen.” The songwriter, who hadn’t met often with media in recent years, agreed to a visit to support Freeman’s project.

McKuen, who left home at age 11 to escape a brutally abusive stepfather, also composed orchestral works and was a popular concert artist – he sold out venues including Carnegie Hall well into the ‘70s and, beginning in 2001, returned to New York to perform an annual birthday show. For many years, he served as executive president of the American Guild of Variety Artists, an entertainment-industry union.

He also was a commercial success as a poet; in some circles, he was better known for his poetry than for his musical compositions. But he was often chided for lyrics and poetry that were considered mawkish, kitschy and idealistic. Some reviewers seemed to take delight in mocking him, as if ad hominem attacks were a legitimate form of criticism. A wire-service obituary used the term “king of kitsch” in its lead paragraph.

A poet at a time when overt expressions of emotion seemed a rebuke to the World War II generation's stoicism, McKuen wrote without filter; though he used imagery and metaphor, he never disguised a sensitive, sentimental heart and a restless mind. The McKuen canon presents a writer groping to explore and understand his experiences and in turn share his joy in simple pleasures. In a period of social upheaval, Mr. McKuen gave a gentle voice to a cultural earthquake.

As Freeman told me, "It was clear he meant every word. He really didn't care what you thought. He was doing his thing and would write about it and sing about it."

When we met, McKuen indicated he knew he was part of popular music’s past. "For many people, I was a phase, a part of the period of growing up,” he said, adding, “People ask me why I connected. It was presumptuous of me to say, but I'm Everyman. The difference is I put my thoughts into words."

I found him to be a gentle, considerate man. He met me in his driveway of his Spanish-style mansion when I approached and chided me for arriving early. When he raised the subject of his depression, he spoke with affecting gratitude of how Mike Wallace, the late CBS newscaster, helped him seek treatment. At one point, he indicated he would be interested in finding an academic institution to house his vast archive, which is said to include the world’s largest private record collection. On his behalf, I contacted an archivist I’d met at the University of California at Santa Barbara, who was eager to speak with him. But, as far as I know, McKuen never followed through. I don’t envy whoever has to organized the McKuen collection, but it no doubt contains countless gems that document an era and a writer and musician who was incomparable in his time.

Freeman paid tribute in 2012 to McKuen’s honesty and willingness to present his emotions in stark relief. "You can think it's cheesy, but as long as the man stands behind it, you can believe in it," he said. "He gets the last laugh."