Friday, September 25, 2015

Happy Birthday, Uncle Shelby!

Born on September 25th, 1930, Shel Silverstein would have turned 85 today. The brilliant and irreverent author, illustrator, and songwriter died in 1999, and though a lot of people I know grew up with his work, particularly his children's books such as The Giving Tree and Where the Sidewalk Ends, I think that many, particularly in my age group, are not aware of the breadth of his body of work, how influential he was, and just how "not for kids" he could be.

For the most part, I, too, was blind to this when I was younger. When I was a kid, my favorite books were his books of children's poetry (though I would argue that the surreal, humorous, and whimsical pieces would appeal to all ages). Some of my fondest memories of that time of my life were of my parents and brother and I reading aloud, trading lines from poems such as "Ickle Me, Pickle Me, Tickle Me Too" and "The Meehoo with an Exactlywat." It is not an exaggeration to say that worldview was shaped by his sense of the fantastical and the absurd (the cynicism came later). My sick sense of humor largely came from the fact that parents didn't know that Uncle Shelby's ABZs, a parody of a reading primer, was not supposed to be read by kids. Pieces like "G is for Gigolo" and "K is for Kidnapper " ("Tell the nice kidnapper that your daddy has lots of money. Then maybe he will you ride in his car") gave me my first inkling that not all of Uncle Shelby's work was meant for "tender young minds."

When I was in college I discovered his adult oriented works. This included cartoons and poems that he did for Playboy Magazine from the late 1950s right up until his death. I found out that he was also a playwright and through the staging of his theatrical works he became close friends with David Mamet, with whom he co-wrote the screenplay to the underrated mob comedy, Things Change. Furthermore, they shared a double bill in an evening entitled Oh, Hell!, pairing Mamet's Bobby Gould in Hell with a stage adaptation of Shel's crass epic poem The Devil and Billy Markham (originally published in Playboy in 1979 [click for text]).

And while he was doing all of this, he managed to sustain a career as a prolific and idiosyncratic songwriter.  

See there are two kinds of Shel Silverstein fans: Those who are amazed to find he was a brilliant and off-kilter songwriter whose works had been performed by dozens of musicians (most notably by his friend, Johnny Cash), and those who are amazed that anyone didn't know that. I'm not ashamed to admit that I was in the first category for years.

I'm not sure at what point I found out that Shel had written Johnny Cash's "A Boy Named Sue." I was amazed that I didn't know all along. I mean, it's so obvious when you think about it. After that, I started noticing his names in the songwriting credits on albums by Emmylou Harris and Marianne Faithful.

Also, hearing his own albums, I was shocked by the sheer uniqueness of his own voice, which, from breath to breath would change from a blustery blues man's howl, to the menace of a psychotic sideshow hawker, to a taunting bratty child. It was a good thing that artists were able to take his work and bring their own unique voices to it, because Shel's own voice was singular, inimitable, and inexplicable.

To help bring his work more into the mainstream, he collaborated with Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show, the white trash hippie Bacchanalian band for whom he wrote the majority of their early material, and who backed him on his own early 70s albums (and whose lead vocalist, Dennis Locorriere, would later be the performer of the Billy Markham piece in the Lincoln Center staging of Oh, Hell!). They were perfectly at ease singing his most heartfelt country ballads while enthusiastically diving deep into the most crass and lascivious material that Silverstein had to offer.

Most notably, Shel wrote "The Cover of Rolling Stone" for them... and it got them (not him) on the cover of that hallowed magazine.

Shel Silverstein died right at the end of my senior year of college. Fittingly, my mother broke the news to me. I still think that Rolling Stone should have put his picture on the cover as a tribute, if not for writing "Cover of Rolling Stone," how about for "A Boy Named Sue," or "25 Minutes to Go," or "The Ballad of Lucy Jordon?" I guess the editors of Rolling Stone were too busy at the time trying to figure out how they could turn their once venerable magazine into a glorified Entertainment Weekly.

In any case, Happy birthday, Uncle Shelby. And thank you for creating a body of work so vast and diverse that I am still able to discover new things over three decades after I first opened up Where the Sidewalk Ends.

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