Boy Named Shel
Which Shel Silverstein is your favorite?
The groundbreaking Playboy cartoonist? The celebrated children’s book author? The venerated Nashville songsmith? The gravel-voiced poet of the surreal? The obscure off-Broadway playwright? The Academy Award-nominated screenwriter?
Silverstein led many lives, and biographer Lisa Rogak examines all of them in “A Boy Named Shel: The Life and Times of Shel Silverstein” (Thomas Dunne Books; $24.95; 239 pages).
The truth is, Silverstein will probably always be best known for books like “The Giving Tree,” “Where The Sidewalk Ends” and “A Light in the Attic,” but his works for children were always aimed at adults as well. And some of his lesser-known poems and songs — fueled by his unquenchable libido, his randy sense of humor and his disdain for the pigeonholing of artistic impulses — would make even adults blush.
Silverstein, Rogak emphasizes, refused to be chained to any one methodology, medium, location or relationship. Add to the list above, for example, the fact that Silverstein, who favored art over commerce, was also a serious painter, who rarely showed his work.
He was notorious for exiting gatherings in the middle of a conversation. He never married. He lived in apartments and houses in Greenwich Village, Key West and Martha’s Vineyard, but only when he wasn’t visiting the Playboy mansions in Chicago or Los Angeles, or jetting off to the Orient in search of sushi.
Silverstein was born to Jewish immigrant parents in Chicago in 1930, and his childhood was troubled at best. His mother, Helen, coddled him and his father, Nathan, could never find words to approve of anything young Shel did, especially his drawings.
But Silverstein was determined not to take over the family bakery. Despite his famously bad spelling, he wanted to be a cartoonist, and after a stint lampooning military life in the Pacific for The Stars and Stripes, he found himself on the ground floor of Playboy as it became a defining force of American publishing in the late 1950s.
Silverstein soon inserted himself in the Chicago folk scene (where he penned The Irish Rovers’ eventual smash hit, “The Unicorn,” in 1962), establishing a lifelong pattern of making art of one kind or another out of his observations.
He was never without a notebook, stashed into one of his “grotty” well-worn pirate shirts or bobbling around in his leather satchel.
Soon enough, he was writing one hit song after another in Nashville (including Johnny Cash’s “A Boy Named Sue,” Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show’s “Sylvia’s Mother” and Loretta Lynn’s “One’s on the Way”); hiding out in his Sausalito houseboat; or taking one of his epic head-clearing walks.
Silverstein himself sired two children by different mothers (his daughter Shoshanna died in 1982 at age 11 from an aneurysm, and his son Matthew, born in 1983, is his sole heir), but his peripatetic lifestyle made him less than an ideal father.
He was too focused on living inside the moment to notice much of what was happening outside of it.
All humans are bundles of contradictions. Silverstein was a bigger bundle — a man, who, for example, rarely drank, but would book a red-eye flight for a good banana pudding.
As he aged he typically refused to be trapped by his own legend, stating to old pal Hugh Hefner, “If I’ve created an image of a world traveler, an adventurer and the fact is that I want to sit down and grow roses and live with Suzie Q., then I’m going to do it. I’m not going to be bound by my own (expletive).”
Rogak is diligent in her research (especially considering Silverstein, who died in 1999, refused virtually any media interviews after 1975) and includes remarks from many famous and not-so-famous friends, including singers Judy Henske, Bob Gibson and Bobby Bare, Playboy cartoonist Skip Williamson and playwright David Mamet.
Occasionally,”A Boy Named Shel” feels churned out.
Still, the subject is fascinating, and “A Boy Named Shel” is a revealing peek into the mind behind both “Runny Babbit” and “Freakin’ at the Freakers Ball.”