Obituary: Shel Silverstein

Spencer Leigh
Tuesday 25 May 1999 00:02

IN HIS books, cartoons and songs, Shel Silverstein was known for his wry, humorous slant on life; his own life was every bit as eccentric as the characters who peopled his work.

"Most of the time if you tell a true story, you beef it up to make it into a song," said Ray Sawyer, the eye-patched singer from Dr Hook, "but Shel had to bring them down." Take, for example, the sorry tale of unrequited love in "Sylvia's Mother", an international hit for Dr Hook and the Medicine Show in 1972. "The guy that ran off with Sylvia in real life was a bullfighter from Mexico, and he couldn't put that in the song."

Silverstein was born in Chicago in 1932. While serving in Korea in 1952 he contributed to the armed forces periodical Pacific Stars and Stripes. On his return home, he established himself as a cartoonist and writer with Playboy and befriended the magazine's owner, Hugh Hefner. Many of his songs reflect a hedonistic lifestyle and, as the record producer Chet Atkins remarked, "Ol' Shel has probably got the worst voice of anyone alive, but he's also got the run of the Playboy mansion and I'm not knocking anybody with a deal like that."

Silverstein recorded Inside Folk Music in 1962. His first children's book, Uncle Shelby's Story of Lafcadio, the Lion who Shot Back, appeared in 1963, joined the following year by The Giving Tree - about a tree that gives up its branches, fruit and even its trunk to make a boy happy.

In 1969 he passed Johnny Cash a poem the day before he was due to give a concert in San Quentin prison. Cash asked Carl Perkins to set it to music and the result was a million-selling saga of transvestites and bar- room fights, "A Boy Named Sue". Cash also sang Silverstein's witty song about the condemned cell, "Twenty-Five Minutes To Go", while Loretta Lynn topped the US country chart with his song about the restrictions of motherhood, "One's On the Way" (1970). In 1970, he wrote several songs for the film Ned Kelly.

Silverstein met Dr Hook and the Medicine Show whilst working on a Dustin Hoffman film, Who is Harry Kellerman and Why is He Saying These Terrible Things about Me? (1971). The film was every bit as bad as its title but Silverstein realised that the outlandish hippies of Dr Hook were the perfect mouthpiece for his material.

Dr Hook recorded 60 of Silverstein's acutely observed vignettes of American life. He parodied the group's desire for success in "The Cover of Rolling Stone" and "Everybody's Makin' It Big But Me". The group backed Silverstein on his outrageous solo album, Freakin' at the Freakers Ball (1972), and the titles match the contents: "Polly in a Porny", "I Got Stoned and I Missed It", and "Don't Give a Dose to the One You Love Most". "We turned that one down," said Dennis Locorriere of Dr Hook, "We had enough problems with people thinking us a bunch of degenerates. We didn't want them thinking we'd got VD as well."

Silverstein gave Dr Hook a poignant song about the pressures of modern life, "The Ballad Of Lucy Jordan", which was also recorded successfully by Marianne Faithfull. In "A Couple More Years", which has been sung by Willie Nelson and Bob Dylan, he wrote of an older man's love for his girlfriend, and in "More Like The Movies", another hit for Dr Hook in 1978, of the difficulties of satisfying a partner.

Though he became a millionaire, Silverstein never owned a car, and looked for bargains in flea markets. When he found an album by Bobby Gosh, he offered one of the songs, "A Little Bit More", to Dr Hook with the comment, "This is a great song even though no one's ever heard it."

In 1973 he wrote an album, Lullabys, Legends and Lies, for the country singer Bobby Bare in four days. It included a country hit about the witch queen of New Orleans, "Marie Laveau", how you lose even when you're "The Winner", and an eight-minute picture of grotesque characters in a late- night diner, "Rosalie's Good Eats Cafe".

He went on to write two more albums for Bare in quick succession: one of children's songs, Singin' in the Kitchen (1974) and one of "Songs for the New Depression", Hard Time Hungrys (1975). In "Daddy's Been Around the House Too Long" a child comments on her father's unemployment, and even God is in "The Unemployment Line".

Many other classic songs stem from the 1970s including Emmylou Harris's portrayal of a bar-room prostitute, "The Queen of the Silver Dollar", Tompall Glaser's response to Women's Lib, "Put Another Log on the Fire", and Burl Ives' touching look at old age, "Time". Silverstein commented on the hypocrisy behind Nashville's tributes to the bluegrass musician Lester Flatt, in Bobby Bare's "Rough On The Living": "They didn't want him around when he's living, But he's sure a good friend when he's dead."

A restless man, Silverstein tired of writing songs and returned to children's books and cartoons. His books include Where the Sidewalk Ends (1974), The Missing Piece (1976), and A Light in the Attic (1981). His poems share the same anarchic spirit as Spike Milligan: "Oh, if you're a bird, be an early bird, And catch the worm for your breakfast plate, If you're a bird, be an early early bird, But if you're a worm, sleep late." His epic poem about a bad songwriter making Faustian deals, The Devil and Billy Markham (1978), became an off-Broadway musical.

Shel Silverstein's heart disease made him view death as a subject for popular songs. The remarkable result, Old Dogs (1998), performed by Waylon Jennings, Bobby Bare, Mel Tillis and Jerry Reed, happens to be his funniest album for several years. He wrote his own epitaph: "You'd better have some fun before you say bye-bye, 'Cause you're still gonna, still gonna, still gonna die".

Spencer Leigh

Shelby Silverstein, singer-songwriter, cartoonist and writer: born Chicago 25 September 1932; married (one son, one daughter); died Key West, Florida 10 May 1999.

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