Shel Silverstein's Secret, Raunchy Recording Sessions

The titular track, so to speak, is astonishing. It starts out like a dirge, with Shel intoning that he's "all strung out, his money spent/couldn't even tell you where last year went/But I've given up payin' my bills for lent/and now the landlord, he wants his rent..." a litany of staggering and despairing proportions that demands only one answer: "Fuck 'Em." What follows is a playful series of shrieking, baleful grouses and complaints until Shel is at death's door, doing an uncanny imitation of a tubercular cough, waiting to become "the Devil's favorite pet." Then a strumming coda erupts, dissipating into a knowing chuckle and "how's that" to the obviously amused producer behind the glass door. Listening now, "Fuck 'Em" is all too apt for today's turbulent economic times, when it would be great to dismiss mere trifles like bills and rent and relationships knowing full well it isn't so simple.

A good two decades before the Divinyls teased a mass audience with "I Touch Myself", Silverstein mined similar masturbatory territory in "I Love My Right Hand" with considerably more bluntness. Rhyming "Some men prefer adolescents" with "sexual acquiescence" is rather ballsy, not to mention off the beaten phrase track. That said, considering the song peters off into patter after about two minutes - admittedly, deliberate, amusing patter about threatening to amputate the right hand for daring to stray with other limbs and objects—it does feel like a warmup for the similarly bawdy "Get My Rocks Off" performed with deadpan aplomb by Dr. Hook's basso profundo George Cummings (and later covered by Marilyn Manson, perhaps the last person one would associate with Silverstein) and the biggest laugh of "Everybody's Makin' It Big But Me", when nerdy Rik Elswit sings "they got groupies for their bands/all I've got is my right hand."

Other tracks offer additional clues to the recordings' origin and time frame. "Sausalito Witch," about a pansexual being among the Northern California town's houseboat community, required firsthand knowledge of this area, which Silverstein wouldn't have gleaned until about 1969, when he bought a boat and conducted a brief affair with the Playboy bunny who would become the mother of his first child, Shoshanna, born the following year. A near-verbatim demo of "Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout (Would Not Take the Garbage Out)", which appeared in final audio form on Freakers and immortalized two years later as text in Where the Sidewalk Ends, tuned a half-tone down and sounding as distant as a several-generation-removed copy, which suggests this track, and the others, may have been recorded for what became Freakers. And "Dope", with another bravura hacking cough performance, has the same cheerily moral tone of another Freakers track, "Don't Give a Dose to the One You Love Most." That song was written in the late 1960s after Shel spent time in the San Francisco neighborhood of Haight-Ashbury and later performed by Dr. Hook as part of a television special about the perils of venereal disease.

My favorite track, though, isn't a song, but an outtake. "Julie's Working" is a fine enough ditty about a henpecked guy sitting at home growing increasingly frustrated as his wife earns the bread, but the outtake reveals a lot about how artists fail, try again, fail harder, and eventually succeed. Silverstein strums his guitar but he can't quite get the words to start off the song, hemming and hawing and bursting into guffaws to the point where the laughter overtake the music. Then he gets the line, only to forget the next, collapsing once more into infectious laughter.

Silverstein's manic laugh is the key to these tracks' true intent. Over the days or weeks these studio sessions took place, Shel Silverstein was just a guy having a great deal of fun. There's an unnamed, open-voiced producer as an audience, and perhaps a few suits who weren't as charmed by the material was never intended to see the light of day. Such things hardly mattered, for Silverstein didn't concern himself with entertaining a specific audience or worry whether he offended people. He simply produced what his creative impulses demanded at any given point in time.

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Sarah Weinman writes about books and publishing for the Wall Street Journal, The Daily, and the Los Angeles Times, among other places.

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