More than a decade after his death of a heart attack at age 68, Shel Silverstein's career avoids any defining label. Millions of children have anointed him to beloved status thanks to poetry books like Where The Sidewalk Ends and A Light in the Attic, and a visit to the website run in tandem by Shel's estate and his longtime publisher, HarperCollins, might convince you that his work for kids is his primary legacy.
Doing so, however, neglects the full spectrum of what made Silverstein tick as an artist. It rubs out the more than 40 years he spent in the bosom of Hugh Hefner's Playboy empire, a veritable court jester at Mansion gatherings when not traveling the world as the magazine's cartoon-capturing foreign correspondent (see Shel Silverstein Around the World, a coffee table-style compendium of reports from places like Moscow, Spain, and Fire Island) or producing epic poems like "The Perfect High" or "Hamlet As Told on the Street".
Sticking only to the school-age side of the road means ignoring his prodigious work as a songwriter (Johnny Cash's "A Boy Named Sue"? Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show's "The Cover of the Rolling Stone"? The Irish Rovers' "Unicorn"? The Oscar-nominated "I'm Checking Out" from Postcards From the Edge? All penned by Shel), his one-act plays for Off-Off Broadway venues (which attracted the attention, and later friendship, of David Mamet) and a tentative foray into crime fiction that, if not for his premature passing, might have blossomed into something greater.
But the most remarkable element of his non-children's-lit career was Silverstein's nine albums worth of songs he recorded—and especially the album's worth of unreleased material that might even surprise fans of Shel's adult side.
As a recording artist, Silverstein brought a raspy vocal style (not unlike Tom Waits's satanic older cousin) that came from his teenage years as a Comiskey Park hot dog vendor. And his firsthand knowledge of various scenes (Greenwich Village Beats, the Chicago folk music world, Nashville's Music Row) led to a varying array of song styles and production values. By the late 1960s, this songwriting acumen helped Silverstein move into rock circles, thanks in large part to the New Jersey-based Dr. Hook & The Medicine Show.
Dr. Hook also backed Shel on his most commercially successful album, Freakin' At the Freakers Ball. "Commercially successful" is a relative term for a group of raucous and risque songs like Masochistic Baby." Shel sweetly intones that ever since his baby left him, "I've got nothing to hit but the wall." Dr. Hook gave it as much oomph as its own, Rolling Stone-cover-worthy album Sloppy Seconds, adding a sense of gleeful disconnect to the whole musical affair. The album cracked Billboard's Top 200 and recording label CBS provided a marketing budget, something beyond Shel's resources at the time. The one-sheet ad featured Shel, clad in a jean jacket, patterned shirt and cowboy boats, and what can only be described as a piratical beard, trumpeted as some sort of heir apparent to Gilbert O'Sullivan (!)
But Freakers Ball was likely the compromise point on a series of songs Shel recorded a couple of years before the final album was released, songs with eye-popping titles like "Fuck 'Em", "I Am Not a Fag" and "I Love My Right Hand.". Some of these songsare available on YouTube. Others may wish to seek the bootleg.
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.