Monday, October 31, 2005

Shel Silverstein

Saturday morning. Three a.m. I woke up with an earworm, and no one to blame it on.

Usually, Manfred, Jr. places them there by continually (and some might even say maliciously) singing a snippet of a song over and over. He really is diabolical -- my son, my spawn, my shot at immortality. When he was in elementary school, he'd come into my bedroom and sing "Good Morning, Starshine" before I was fully awake. I'd have that damn song in my head all day as I worked, shopped, stood in line at the DMV -- you name the place and the most annoying soundtrack on earth was right there with me.

But on this particular Saturday morning, Manfred, Jr. was blameless, and the song was "True Story", sung by Bobby Bare and written by the superbly-almost-obscenely talented Shel Silverstein:

This morning I jumped on my hoss and went out for a ride/but some wild outlaws chased me and they shot me in the side/I crawled into a wildcat's cage to find a place to hide...

And? And?

I crawled into a wildcat's cage to find a place to hide...


Not only was this an earworm, this was an earworm that demanded the whole text of the song, would not be satisfied with only a snippet, would not let me rest until I played THE WHOLE DAMN SONG in my head. I lay in bed, cursing as the tune played interminably over and over on that last line, my tired brain trying creakily and failing mightily to pull up that elusive file. Every cell in my body was screaming at me to get out of bed and hie my pajama-ed ass over to my office to the computer to surf for the missing lyric. I grimly waited it out till daylight and tried in vain to give myself a different earworm with The Ramones' "I Wanna Be Sedated", but it was hopeless.

After a couple of futile searches, I finally located the stray line of verse but some pirates found me sleeping there and soon they had me tied... finished playing the song in my head, and retired that particular earworm. I'm glad I contracted it though, because it started me thinking about Shel Silverstein.

Most people have experienced Shel Silverstein (1930-1999) as the funny and quirky author of many volumes of poetry that are geared towards children and parents to read and enjoy together. I'm more familiar with Silverstein as the outrageous, earthy and sometimes pungent storyteller-songwriter of country/crossover tunes such as "Sylvia's Mother", "One's On The Way", "The Unicorn" and "A Boy Named Sue". It feels really strange for me to be extremely familiar with and a fan of an author and also barely acquainted with him in book form.

I became familiar with Silverstein's work because "Unicorn" and "A Boy Named Sue" were wildly popular when I was way down in elementary school, but what really defined him for me was the release of country singer Bobby Bare's album, Lullabies, Legends, And Lies when I was in 7th grade. My parents bought this record and it was hardly ever off the turntable for almost a year. Simutaneously, selections from LL&L were getting heavy airplay on Armed Forces Radio. The album had an embarrassment of riches on it: "Marie Laveaux", "Daddy, What If?", "Mermaid", "Paul", "True Story" "Winner" "Shiloh" and "Rosalie's Good Eats Cafe" among other gems by Silverstein.

I have paged through the Silverstein classics such as A LIGHT IN THE ATTIC, THE MISSING PIECE, and THE GIVING TREE. While I recognize many of the aspects that characterize Silverstein's poetry, it doesn't feel like real Silverstein. It feels like a dimension is missing, and the whole effect seems curiously flat.

My Shel Silverstein is the one from LL&L: Fanciful and slightly raunchy. A wonderful example of this exists in "Paul", Silverstein's take on Paul Bunyan:

Talk about women/that man was so lusty/he needed a woman every hour/just to keep from gettin' rusty/the young ones run/and the old ones crawl/to Paul .

For a middle-schooler, this was wickedly funny stuff. When my earnestly sober and polyester-clad grandparents came to visit, I "innocently" asked, "What's 'lusty'?" just to see them squirm.

Another example, even more hilarious, can be found in "Mermaid": The narrator falls in love with your traditional, garden-variety mermaid, but is vaguely dissatisfied:

...from her head to her waist she was just my taste/but the rest of her was a fish.

Eventually, she leaves him and he mourns until:

...her sister, she swam by and set my heart a-whirl/'cause her upper part was an ugly fish/but the bottom part was a GIRL!/Yes, her toes are pink and rosy/and her knees are smooth and pale/and her legs, they are a work of art/and I love that girl with all my heart/I don't give a damn about the upper part/and that's how I end my tale!

Equally satisfying was "Marie Laveaux", the Louisiana voodoo queen who exacted the revenge on no-good Handsome Jack that he so richly deserved:

GRREEEEEEEEEEE! Another man done gone!

There's also the very funny and multiple-versed "Winner"-- a chronicle of every contest the infamous Tiger Man McCool won, including stealing his wife from another man:

That woman, she gets uglier and she gets meaner every day/but I got her boy, and that's what makes me ...

[the slightest pause with an upwards inflection, deliciously delivered by the inimitably laconic Bobby Bare]


For maximum comic effect, Silverstein piles up a list of Tiger Man McCool's ailments and injuries that strain both credulity and the Merck manual. Tiger Man matter-of-factly tells his latest challenger:

If it wasn't for this glass eye of mine/I'd shed a happy tear/to think of all you're gonna get by being a winner,

Also Silverstein is a master at creating pictures with words as evidenced in "Bottomless Well":

[Jesse] sits in his big white wicker rocker/eatin' candy-coated cashews/sippin' orange lemonade/while that sweet young thing/fans the flies from off his eyebrows...

At least that's until Jesse meets a mysterious and untimely end:

But it ain't murder/'cause he ain't dead/he's still a-fallin'/fallin' down down forever in the bottomless well! /Bye, Jesse!

Silverstein fans whose gentle sensibilities aren't too easily offended are in for a real treat if they can procure Lullabies, Legends, and Lies or a halfway decent Dr. Hook compilation CD. Even more fun is this website (which is where I found the missing line my pesky earworm demanded) that has links to most of Silverstein's lyrics:


Anonymous said...
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Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

He really was "superbly-almost-obscenely talented!" What a perfect way to phrase it!