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Breaking Open Silverstein's Shell
(Chicago Tribune, March 4, 1973)
 
By Lynn Van Matre

"Freakin' at the Freakers Ball" is Shel Silverstein's seventh album. If you never heard of the first six, you are not alone. The seventh, well, it slithered from position 158 to 155 on the Billboard Charts last week, and the single "Sahra Sylvia Cynthia Stout Would Not Take the Garbage Out" [sic] has turned up on some FM and AM radio playlists. Meanwhile, Dr. Hook has a hit with Silverstein's "Cover of the Rolling Stone." But Silverstein is still far better known as the cartoonist he was than the rather prolific songwriter is or the singer he really isn't.

"Well, nobody gives me any static about my voice," he mildly protests. "They just aren't charmed by it. I don't see anyone running out and buying my records, but I like the way I sing."

"Freakin'" [Columbia] is one side of Silverstein--the weird one with the shaven-headed singer-songwriter softly rasping songs such as "I Got Stoned and I Missed It" or "Don't Give a Dose to the One You Love Most," also sung by Dr. Hook on the VD Blues television special. Most are satirical, or ridiculous, though an underlying thought sometimes barbs its way to their surfaces, others are what Silverstein calls "just fantasies."

"Don't Give a Dose" sprang from Silverstein's days in Haight-Ashbury, which has since left for a houseboat in Sausalito, Cal. 

"I wrote that song for a druggist in Sausalito--Fred's his name, he's into every kind of cause. Anyway, there was a big VD epidemic in Sausalito, and Fred was working in some sort of educations campaign then, and he wanted me to write a song for it. So I was thinking.

"I used to live in the Haight when that was happening. It was a beautiful time then, very educational before it started to go bad. But that's a sidetrack. . . anyway, there were lots of slogans written all over the Haight. Beautiful slogans. And one was 'Don't give a dose to the one you love most.' So I made up the song about that. It was less than a year ago that I wrote it, and within a month they asked if they could use it on 'VD Blues.' That's pretty quick. Usually you wrote songs and they stay around for years.

"'Sahra Sylvia Cynthia'--well, when I was a kid, taking the garbage out was what I hated to do. All kids do, I imagine. But it's just a fantasy, like a lot of my things. Originally it was a poem from a book of verse and drawings for kids I'm doing [ed. it was "Where the Sidewalk Ends"(1974)]. I have a kid of my own, a little girl, 2. I never married, which poses certain hassles. . . if you ever had to sum up an unbelievable hip soap opera, you could do it around that situation. . ."

Silverstein's music tends toward the absurd, satirical sort of songs that fill "Freakin'," or, curiously enough, country and western--which someone aptly enough termed the art of the three-minute soap opera set to musicf. Sometimes the two styles overlap, as in "A Boy Named Sue," which Johnny Cash turned into a hit. Other times, the distinctions are clearer cut, as in "The Taker," which Silverstein wrote with Kris Kristofferson and Waylon Jennings recorded, or "One's On the Way," a hit for Loretta Lynn.

Silverstein grew up in Chicago and was visiting friends here the day we talked. But most of his friends these days have Nashville adresses. "I've been into country all my life," he says. "I was always listening to the country and western stations when I was growing up.

"Now, country music and other kinds of music are getting together more. Rock people are picking up country, and country people are picking up rock rhythms. And people in the south aren't necessarily 'country' fans anymore. The young ones are rock 'n roll fans. I know some people that are concerned about all the merging, but on the highest creative level, usually the really talented musical people love all good music if it's done well, you can appreciate c&w, or even a good polka. 'Love this, hate that', that's usually the fan talking, not the musician."

Silverstein's assessment of himself as musician runs toward reality. "Well, for the voice I've got, I like what I do with it. My tunes are okay, nothing that special. My guitar playing's terible. But my lyrics are pretty good. And these tracks are the best I've ever done on an album.

"Next time, I'll probably do a very gentle album. I run into difficulty because people want to find a nice clean handle for everyone, and you can't do that for any creative person. Nobody has only one side. You want people to allow for all of you.

"In all the art forms, I've had trouble finding acceptance in new areas. I've done a lot for Playboy magazine, so people say, 'Oh, you're the Playboy cartoonist.' But I write music, too, and children's books. . . I had a place in cartooning for a while, I guess. I created a certain style and it was well received. Now I'm interested in finding out about the music industry. I used to think I was above it all, that I'd just write the songs and that was it. Now I want to find out more about the business. . .I don't think I have a real "place" in it. For that, you have to have a great acceptance for what you do. As long as you're underground, you don't really fit into any slot."

Silverstein's involvement--or whatever--with the music industry has included all the songs that turned into hits for other people from Loretta Lynn to the Irish Rovers, a first album of traditional songs for Elektra, another for Chess, a turn or two with RCA, and some time spent on the obscure Riverside label. There is also one record that never made it to the shrinkwrap stage ["too dirty"], just as one book of cartoons has never seen print ["too dirty"]. Then there are the liner notes.

A couple of years ago Silverstein filled the back of a Rambling Jack Elliott album cover with an account of Elliott as rambling as Jack himself, full of the folksinger's bad luck and trouble with women--so continual as to be comic--and his incredible naive resignation to it all. They were the funniest liner notes I'd ever read, and as far as summing up what Jack Elliott seems to be about, they got that down too.

"You know Jack? Well, he asked me if I'd write those liner notes. I said I don't analyze music; I'll just tell people about you, but I'll have to write the truth. Jack said dynamite. So I did the liner notes. I said, 'You may not like them,' but Jack flipped out. He was so proud and said, 'These are the first liner notes I ever read that really tell where someone's at.' When the record came out Jack was appearing at the Gaslight in New York City. So I went to hear him. When I walked in he was reading the liner notes to the audience, off the back of the record, just going on and on and on. You know, they don't call him Rambling Jack because he travels. It's because he never stops talking.

"Anyway, later on I ran into him. I said, 'Jack, you've got a nerve, reading your own liner notes to people on stage.' and he said, 'But they're so honest, so good, I want people to know. . .' Then I ran into him about a month later.

"He looked really downcast and I asked what was the matter. Jack said, 'Well, guess you heard my wife Polly left me.' There's an endless stream of chicks that leave him. You'd blame the girls, unless you knew Jack. Then you know you can't blame anybody. I told him maybe she'd be back. 'No,' he said, 'she took the baby and all. She's gone.' So I said, 'Well, I guess you just didn't get along and that's all there was to it.'

"'Oh, we got along all right,' Jack said, 'It was those goddam liner notes. She read all that stuff about me and my other girls and got mad.' He was trying to tell me the reason his marriage broke up was over those liner notes he'd liked so much and said were so honest. I was so furious I had to just walk away.

"I was supposed to do some liner notes for Kristofferson's first album and Bill Cosby's, but I didn't have the time. Sometimes I think I shouldn't do any at all. Sometimes I think I shouldn't ever talk about my friends. Maybe there's something they don't want people to know."

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