[22 September 2005]
Like many other Americans who grew up in the 1970s and ‘80s, I will forever associate Shel Silverstein with my childhood. Silverstein’s poetry collections Where the Sidewalk Ends (1974) and A Light in the Attic (1981) are among the few childhood books I’ve held onto, and to this day, his “My Beard” is the only poem I can recite from memory. But there was much more to Silverstein than his whimsical poetry and illustrations for children. A native Chicagoan, Silverstein was a longtime illustrator for Playboy magazine and a prolific songwriter and recording artist. Silverstein soaked up the Greenwich Village coffeehouse scene in the ‘50s and ‘60s, making connections with prominent folk musicians. He began recording his original compositions in 1959, and artists like Judy Collins and the Smothers Brothers started covering his material in the early 1960s. It wasn’t until the Irish Rovers sold a million copies of “The Unicorn” in 1968, however, that Silverstein showed up on the mainstream radar. His credentials were firmly established a year later when Johnny Cash recorded “A Boy Named Sue” on his famous live album At San Quentin; it was not only a feather in Silverstein’s cap, but the only gold-selling single of Cash’s long career. The hits kept coming when Silverstein entered into partnerships with country crossover artist Bobby Bare and countrified sleaze-rock band Dr. Hook in the early ‘70s; for the former, he wrote hits like “Marie Lavaux” and “Daddy What If”; the latter charted with “Sylvia’s Mother” and “Cover of the Rolling Stone”, among others.
It might seem odd that the beloved author of classic children’s book was also the man who wrote Dr. Hook’s deranged, druggy hits, but all of Silverstein’s work shares the common elements of a skewed sense of humor and great storytelling. That’s what holds together The Best of Shel Silverstein, a compilation of songs and poems written by Silverstein, not just those performed by him. The compilation spans 1965 to 1985—not Silverstein’s entire career, but certainly his best years. Among the selections are a dozen poems from Silverstein’s mid-‘80s recordings of Where the Sidewalk Ends and A Light in the Attic, including classics like “Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout Would Not Take the Garbage Out” and “Ickle Me, Pickle Me, Tickle Me Too”. Although Silverstein’s readings are colorful and dramatic, his screechy voice might not appeal to everyone. His singing is limited to just three tracks, “A Front Row Seat to Hear Ole Johnny Sing”, “I Got Stoned and I Missed It”, and “Plastic”. The latter, a track from Silverstein’s 1965 album for a subsidiary of Chess Records, is one of his typically humorous songs with a twist, musing on a termite’s attempt to eat a plastic floor and a gorgeous woman’s plastic, um, assets.
The remaining tracks are devoted to other artists who recorded Silverstein’s material, and they are many and impressive: Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings, Bobby Bare, Kris Kristofferson, the Irish Rovers, and Dr. Hook & the Medicine Show. “A Boy Named Sue” and Bare’s “Marie Lavaux” are rootsy and funny, while Kristofferson’s “The Taker” and Nelson and Jennings’ “A Couple More Years” demonstrate a more serious side of the songwriter. “The Unicorn” falls somewhere in between; it’s a whimsical but ultimately touching story that explains how the unicorns disappeared after being shut out of Noah’s ark. Dr. Hook’s “Cover of the Rolling Stone” and “Freakin’ at the Freakers’ Ball” are comical if somewhat dated send-ups of fame and the counterculture, respectively. Although Marianne Faithfull’s plaintive take on “The Ballad of Lucy Jordan” is missing, all the cornerstone songs of Silverstein’s career are collected here.
Putting Silverstein’s musical work alongside his poetry for children is a great way to see the breadth of his talent, but it might put some listeners off. Parents looking for a collection for their children probably won’t want their toddlers hearing about “the greatest of the sadists and the masochists” at the freakers’ ball, and country fans attracted by names like Bobby Bare and Johnny Cash might not be thrilled by a reading of “Homework Machine”. The collection will probably appeal most to the children of the ‘70s who remember the poems from their books and the songs from the radio. Still, those who approach the material with an open mind and a sense of humor will find a treasure trove of great American storytelling here.