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As the kind of obsessive, detail-oriented person who sits through a movie until the final credit flashes on screen, I once made a habit of studying record labels, back in the days of vinyl LPs and 45s. I was curious about such minutia as the music publisher, whether the song’s airplay and record sales were tracked by BMI, ASCAP, or SESAC, and, most important of all, the song’s composer, the name of whom was printed right below the song’s title. It was on a 45 from Columbia Records that I first saw the name of Shel Silverstein. The recording was by Johnny Cash and the song was “A Boy Named Sue,” a number two Billboard hit for the Man in Black in 1969. Shel Silverstein was a songwriter, I concluded, a fact reinforced when I spied his name again as co-writer, with Kris Kristofferson, of “The Taker,” the B-side of a Waylon Jennings recording in RCA’s Gold Masters series. Then, in the early 1980s, I noticed Shel Silverstein’s name again, this time as the author of a New York Times bestseller, A Light in the Attic, a collection of poems and drawings, a “children’s book” to be exact. Interesting, I thought, that this songwriter had written a book for the kiddies.

 

Later, I realized I had it backward. The songwriter had been writing children’s books for some time while also contributing to Playboy, even living for a time in Hugh Hefner’s fabled Chicago mansion. “There was at least three sides to Shel,” country singer Bobby Bare, Sr., explained, “and one of them was writing songs.”

 

Years later, I was a bit startled by Silverstein’s author photo on the jacket of another of his children’s books, Where the Sidewalk Ends. Bald, bearded, and brooding, with his hand propped on the neck of a guitar and a bare foot aimed at the camera, the only person less likely to pass as an author of children’s books was Charles Manson. As Publisher’s Weekly described him in 1975, “He is a strong, well-muscled, fit looking man who wears blue jeans and a big cowboy hat.” Folksinger Judy Henske, noting the Silverstein named his music company Evil Eye, said “He considered himself the evil eye who stares everybody down. That was what Shel did, he terrified people. Everyone was afraid of him.” That included some parents and teachers. A Light in the Attic was banned by several schools and libraries because it was thought that a few of the poems encouraged disobedience and that a lot of them were, well, weird. Some of them dealt with death and other unpleasant realities. The presence of supernatural entities like devils and ghosts in a few of his poems didn’t sit well with them either.

         

To categorize Silverstein’s work as “children’s literature” does it a disservice, anyway. Most “children’s literature” is childish, but, like Peanuts, whose creator, Charles Schulz, always insisted was not written with children in mind, there’s a subtle depth to Silverstein’s rhymes that might make them seem subversive to many (adult) readers. To be clever is almost an act of rebellion in itself, since a sharp wit is at odds with a world in which dull conformity is the rule. “He had no tolerance for society,” remembered playwright David Mamet. “He wouldn’t go to a party, didn’t want to meet new people. He came to my wedding in the same outfit he wore everywhere: impossibly baggy, vaguely military trousers, a sort of Indian shirt, unbuttoned to the navel, a 1970's down-market leather jacket.”

         

“I never planned to write or draw for kids,” Silverstein said. “I do eliminate certain things when I’m writing for children if I think only an adult will get the idea. I would hope that people, no matter what age, would find something to identify with in my books, pick up one and experience a personal sense of discovery.”

         

Sheldon Allan Silverstein was born into a working class Jewish family in Chicago, Illinois on September 25, 1930. “I couldn’t play ball, I couldn’t dance,” he told Publisher’s Weekly. “Luckily, the girls didn’t want me; not much I could do about that. So I started to draw and write.” At age five, he taught himself to draw by tracing Al Capp’s Lil’ Abner comic strip. “Al Capp knew how to draw people, shapes, bodies, hands. He knew how to draw well, so I learned to draw well.” Stories to accompany his illustrations emerged when he was alone. “I didn’t have a lot of friends. I just walked around a lot and made up stories in my head.”

         

He was always at odds with his father who wanted him to work in the family’s struggling bakery and considered art an interest for idle daydreamers. Silversteen didn’t get along too well with his peer group at school either. A committed non-conformist, he was not interested in their approval or acceptance. “When I was a young kid, about once a year we had to buy some new clothes and I’d pick out a new coat or suit. Someone would always ask if I was sure this is what they’re wearing this year. Well, who is this ‘they’ and what difference does it make what they’re wearing? I’ll wear what I want to wear.”

         

While attending the Art Institute of Chicago, he sold hot dogs at the ballpark. “I learned (people) like mustard. And they like a hot bun. It paid my way through school, and kept me going.”  He didn’t hang around to graduate, preferring to head for New York to hustle his cartoons to publishers. He remembered a meeting with the cartoon editor at Collier’s who “looked through a hundred cartoons, the greatest ones ever drawn - at nineteen I was doing only great cartoons - and he bought none.” Returning to Chicago, he described himself as “a complete failure,” but he was recruited by the Volunteers for Stevenson Committee which was dedicated to electing Adlai Stevenson to the presidency. That, too, was a failure, but “I was made art director because they had nobody else to do it. And there was no loot.”

         

Then, in 1953, he got drafted. It was while serving in Korea that he got his first real break when his cartoons were published in Stars and Stripes. In 1956, the cartoons would be collected in Take Ten, a paperback published by Ballantine Books. Soon, his work was also landing in the pages of Look and Sports Illustrated.

         

One of his most famous cartoons depicted two emaciated and obviously doomed prisoners shackled to the wall of a dungeon. One says to the other, “Now, here’s my plan.”

         

“A lot of people said it was a very pessimistic cartoon, which I don’t think it is at all,” Silverstein said. “”There’s a lot of hope even in a hopeless situation.” Alcoholics Anonymous seemed to agree. They used the cartoon to illustrate courage, while many psychiatrists turned it into a Rorschach test to gauge the reaction of patients. Its impact surprised its creator who said, “I had an idea for a funny cartoon and I drew it. That’s it. You do something, you make it simple, and everybody else starts loading it up with deep meanings.”

         

In 1957, he submitted his work to Playboy, the “magazine for men” whose first issue, published in 1953, was a hit, but not yet the famous brand that would bring Hugh Hefner to national prominence. Hefner, a cartoonist himself, liked what he saw and personally purchased several of Silverstein cartoons on the spot. Playboy sent him around the world, publishing his sketches and musings in a feature called “Shel Silverstein Visits. . .,” which would become as much a part of the magazine’s identity as the fiction, lifestyle tips, and, most famous of all, the nude centerfolds. His travels took him to a nudist colony in New Jersey, the hippy colony of San Francisco’s Height Ashbury district, the gay bohemia of New York’s Fire Island, the Chicago White Sox training camp, a Swiss village where he attempted mountain climbing, and Spain where he tried his hand at bullfighting. 

         

Several collections of his cartoons were released in book form, and, in 1961, there was Uncle Shelby’s ABZ Book, a book of new cartoons for adult readers. Many critics mistakenly took it for a children’s book, but Silverstein cautioned that “children really shouldn’t see it at all.” Much of the content mocked what passed for children’s literature, a genre he despised.

 

“See the baby play,

Play, baby, play.

Pretty, pretty baby,

Mommy loves the baby,

More than she loves you.”

         

In an interview with The Realist, he elaborated on his distaste for children’s books. “They have modern-type illustrations - some girl does a series of silly illustrations. She tries to imagine how a six-year-old would draw, and no six-year-old wants to look at illustrations that look like they’re done by a six-year-old. So they come up with this modern type of children’s book that is a real atrocity.” He was also aware that “Kids don’t buy books, mothers buy kids’ books, so if you give a mother something that she considers charming and ideally what kids want, she’ll buy it.”

         

It was Ursula Nordstrom, an editor at Harper & Row whose stated philosophy was to publish “good books for bad children,” who suggested Silverstein write a children’s book. He thought she was joking, but he took up the challenge, and Uncle Shelby’s Story of Lafcadio, the Lion Who Shot Back was published with little success in 1963.

         

The Giving Tree was rejected by Simon & Schuster who concluded that it was “not a kid’s book, too sad, and it isn’t for adults, too simple.” In 1964, Harper & Row published this story of a tree that honors a boy’s every request, from a branch to swing on, a shade to sit under, and apples to munch on. In the end, the tree is reduced to a stump with nothing more to give.

         

“Is this a sad tale?” asked a professor of Religious Studies at Stanford University. “Well, it is sad in the same way that life is depressing. We are all needy, and if we are lucky and any good, we grow old using others and getting used up.”

         

A happy ending, so typical of children’s literature, was not Silverstein’s style, nor did he consider it appropriate to force feed a young reader. “The child asks, ‘Why don’t I have this happiness thing you’re telling me about?’ He comes to think, when his joy stops that he has failed and that it won’t come back.”

         

Praised by ministers as an effective depiction of unconditional love, The Giving Tree would eventually sell more than eleven million copies. It was translated into more than thirty languages, and later inspired a short animated film. Silverstein also adapted it into a song recorded by Bobby Bare.

         

Those who knew him as a Playboy cartoonist or a writer of children’s books were not always aware that songwriting was another of Silverstein’s talents. It was in 1968 that one of his songs became a hit: “The Unicorn” (“There were green alligators and long-necked geese, some humpty-backed camels and some chimpanzees”), a song filled with Biblical imagery and sounding like an ages old Irish ballad, was recorded by the Irish Rovers and went to number two on the charts.

         

Silverstein also recorded his own songs, releasing more than a dozen albums beginning with 1959's Hairy Jazz.  The liner notes described his voice as resembling “the noise - the yelp - made by a dog whose tail has been stepped on.” Country singer Bobby Bare, who would record many Silverstein songs, told NPR that Silverstein “couldn’t sing. He screeched.” But Bare, who worked with Silverstein on more than twenty projects, also praised him as “the most brilliant, creative person I’ve ever met.” In 1973, Bare had a number two country hit with “Daddy, What If?,” a duet with his son that was something of a parody of a saccharine children’s song. Sample lyric:

 

“Daddy, what if the sun stopped shinin,’

what would happen then?

If the sun stopped shinin’ you’d be so surprised

You’d stare at the heavens with wide open eyes

and the wind would carry your light to the skies

and the sun would start shinin’ again.”

         

Silverstein’s most famous song is unquestionably “A Boy Named Sue,” which he wrote after his friend, Jean Shepherd, the humorist (and author of A Christmas Story), told him of the teasing he endured as a child because of his gender-neutral name. Johnny Cash introduced the song during the concert that produced the bestselling Johnny Cash at San Quentin album, and, the singer recalled, “the laughter just about tore the roof off.” Released as a single in 1969, it became Cash’s biggest hit. It also won Silverstein a Grammy for best country song.

         

A year later, Ned Kelly, a film about the Australian outlaw with Mick Jagger in the lead, featured Silverstein songs performed by Waylon Jennings. A veritable who’s who of pop and country artists would eventually dip into the Silverstein songbook, including Jerry Lee Lewis, Loretta Lynn, Marianne Faithful, the Smothers Brothers, Belinda Carlisle, Peter, Paul, and Mary, Willie Nelson, the New Christie Minstrels, Gram Parsons, and Judy Collins. In 1986, even Bob Dylan joined the club, singing Silverstein’s “Couple More Years” in the disastrous Hearts of Fire (“I wrote that for you,” Dylan’s fictional alter ego tells his co-star, Fiona, after serenading her with the song. “Never finished it.”) More than a decade earlier,  Silverstein was one of the select few for whom Dylan auditioned the songs that became his classic 1975 album, Blood on the Tracks. Silverstein would earn both Oscar and Golden Globe best song nominations for “I’m Checkin’ Out,” from the 1990 film Postcards from the Edge, and in 2002 he would be inducted, posthumously, into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame.

         

Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show were playing gigs in New Jersey bars when they were hired to perform the songs Silverstein wrote for Who Is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me?, a 1971 comedy with Dustin Hoffman as a paranoid folk rock musician. The movie bombed, but Silverstein recognized the group as ideal interpreters of his songs. Their next collaboration, “Sylvia’s Mother,” was a huge hit in the summer of 1972. The song, in which a man begs a Mrs. Avery for a chance to talk to her daughter before she marries another man, was based on an actual incident from Silverstein’s life. “I just changed the last name, not to protect the innocent, but because it didn’t fit.”

         

“The Cover of the Rolling Stone,” was another smash, and the wish expressed in the song, to make the cover of the music publication, came true for the group a few months later. It was also one of the few Silverstein songs on Dr. Hook’s second album that commercial radio could play without bleeps to censor the references to drugs and sex.  “Freakin’ at the Freakers Ball” even worked necrophilia into the lyrics. Another song warned against passing venereal disease onto a loved one.

         

Drugs and alcohol may have figured in his songs, but Silversteen indulged in neither. “Shel refrained from drugs and alcohol because he felt he had too much talent to waste it by altering his consciousness,” wrote Lisa Rogah in A Boy Named Shel. “Besides, watching his friends when they were drunk or stoned provided him with endless material for stories, songs, and cartoons.”

         

His next collection of children’s poetry, Where the Sidewalk Ends, appeared in 1974.

 

Parents, teachers, librarians and the like protested some of its contents, such as the poem titled “Dreadful”:

 

“Someone ate the baby!

What a frightful thing to eat!

Someone ate the baby!

Though she wasn’t very sweet

It was a heartless thing to do

The policemen haven’t got a clue.

I simply can’t imagine who

Would go and (burp) eat the baby.”

          He also took another swipe at happiness in “The Land of Happy”:

“There’s no one unhappy in Happy,

There’s laughter and smiles galore.

I have been to the Land of Happy -

what a bore!”

         

Silverstein rarely consented to interviews, and refused all requests after Where the Sidewalk Ends was published. “Never explain what you do,” he said. “If you want to find out what a writer or a cartoonist really feels, look at his work. That’s enough.” He nonetheless expressed his annoyance at the hypocrisy of parents and other adults who criticized his work as being unfit for children. “They think the kids shouldn’t hear about giants and a wolf eating somebody up, but they let them sit in front of the TV for twelve hours a day, just to keep them quiet, where they can watch all kinds of horror and cruel murders. But watch out for those fairy tales.”

         

An audio version of the book, read by the author, was released in 1983 and won a Grammy for Best Recording for Children.

         

Where the Sidewalk Ends was followed by A Light in the Attic in 1981 which featured his take on friendship:.

 

“I know a way to stay friends forever.

There’s really nothing to it.

I tell you what to do and you do it.”

         

Falling Up in 1996 would be the final collection to be published in his lifetime, and, like its predecessors, would be a mammoth bestseller.

         

Toni Markiet, who edited many of Silverstein’s books, including 2005's posthumously published Runny Babbit, told Amazon.com that “Shel was meticulous in every aspect of a book. . . the trim size, the paper, the binding, and, of course, the contents. No piece of the whole was too small to consider carefully.” The concern for quality meant that none of Silverstein’s children’s books has ever been issued in paperback.

         

“I think he wanted to be a folk hero,” Hugh Hefner said, “a Renaissance Man, which is exactly what he was.” Although he owned a houseboat in Key West and homes in New York, Chicago, Martha’s Vineyard, and Sausalito, Silverstein never settled down, preferring to come and go as he pleased. He never owned a car, and refused to drive one after a near fatal 1959 accident. Known as a ladies man, he never married, but did father two children. If he seemed footloose and fancy free to others, a man with few responsibilities, he took a different view.

         

“There are plenty of people I know who claim to be independent people,” he once mused. “In other words, they don’t go to work. They don’t earn any money, they don’t contribute anything, but they don’t really want to and they consider themselves free. I don’t consider that freedom. To me, freedom entitles you to do something, not to not do something.”

         

Silverstein did plenty, so much that admirers of his work in one area are often surprised to find that he also worked in others. There was the cartoonist, the children’s book author, and the songwriter, but there was also Shel Silverstein the author of dozens of plays and sketches that are still being performed. In January 2012, Ohio’s Bellevue Society for the Arts is presenting “An Adult Evening with Shel Silverstein,” featuring ten of his one act plays. Their website features a disclaimer: “Some stories contain material and themes that may not be appropriate for young audiences.” Silverstein is also back in bookstores with Every Thing On It, a collection of 145 previously unpublished poems. It closes with a selection titled “When I’m Gone”:

 

“When I am gone, what will you do?

Who will write and draw for you?

Someone smarter - someone new?

Someone better - maybe YOU!”

         

Silverstein was gone by 1999, found dead in his houseboat on May 10 that year. “Sixty-six seems young to check out,” his friend, Rik Elswit of Dr. Hook, observed, “but Shel packed more life into each day than most of us do in a week. He preferred quality to quantity, though he’d always go for both if he could.”

by Brian W. Fairbanks



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