DIARY - 6 OCTOBER 2003
SILVERSTEIN REBORN ON AUSSIE TV
former Playboy cartoonist, Grammy award winning hit writer, actor and
children's author Shel Silverstein makes his posthumous debut on Nu Country
TV on Saturday October 11.
But it's not the cartoons - but a 34-year-old soundtrack of Silverstein
songs - that find Shel featured in response to a question posed by Lawrie
Weir on Ask The Guru about recently deceased Melbourne folk singer Glen
Weir, regular segment question collator, quoted a question by a viewer
who was bemused by an obituary in The Age on the death of Glen at 74 on
The obituary claimed Tomasetti appeared on the soundtrack of the 1969
Tony Richardson directed Ned Kelly movie.
We conducted an investigation and the answer is revealed after 8 pm on
DIED A HAPPY MAN
died alone at 66 on May 9, 1999, exactly 30 years after being embroiled
in an Australian movie storm.
Shel was found in the favourite of his four homes - a lavish double decker
conch house in Key West, Florida - after a massive heart attack.
The famed children's author earlier made his name as a cartoonist and
writer of hits for artists diverse as Dr Hook, Bobby Bare, Johnny Cash,
Waylon Jennings, Loretta Lynn, Brenda Lee, Jerry Lee Lewis, Hank Snow,
Marianne Faithful, Emmylou Harris, Buck Owens, Irish Rovers and veteran
group Old Dogs.
Silverstein, whose caricature career began as a soldier in Japan and Korea
in the forces' magazine Pacific Stars & Stripes, earned fame as a
Playboy cartoonist from 1952 and wrote the big Cash hit, A Boy Named Sue
and its sequel Father Of A Boy Named Sue.
But his fame turned to infamy in 1969 when hired to write the music for
Australian movie Ned Kelly, starring English rocker Mick Jagger as Ned.
U.K. director Tony Richardson and Silverstein were vilified for casting
Jagger as Ned and hiring him to sing on the soundtrack which featured
latter day Highwaymen Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson and lesser known
artist Tom Ghent.
Actors Equity and leading Australian thespians slammed the moviemakers
for casting Jagger as the male lead and using an American penned and performed
OTHER SHEL MOVIES AND BOOKS
None of this
deterred Shel who later scored the movies, Who Is Harry Kellerman And
Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me (1971) and Thieves (1977).
He also composed the music for Meryl Streep movie Postcards From The Edge
(1990), with his song I'm Checking Out winning a Golden Globe award.
And he wrote the screenplay for Things Change (1988) - an adaptation of
one of his books.
Shel also appeared in Coal Miner's Daughter in which Levon Helm played
the father of Loretta Lynn.
Ms Lynn recorded a swag of Silverstein songs including The Pill, One's
On The Way and Hey Loretta.
The prolific poet also wrote the play The Lady And The Tiger and his children's
books The Giving Tree, Falling Up, Where The Sidewalk Ends, A Light In
The Attic, Different Dances, Lafcadio - The Lion Who Shot Back, The Missing
Piece and The Missing Piece Meets The Big O.
Where The Sidewalk Ends won a Grammy in 1984 for best recording for children
and helped push total book sales past 15 million.
But his literary launch pad was Uncle Shelby's ABZ Book - first published
in Playboy in 1961 and a spoof of kids books with the warning "for
Silverstein played the macabre narrator whose merry prankster advice included
rhetorical questions "the vacuum cleaner can pick up anything. Do
you think the vacuum cleaner can pick up the cat?"
Characters included brassiere clad camels and walruses in braces.
Shel thoughtfully suggested to kids they should break open their TV sets
and inspect all the cowboys, Yogi bears, Huckleberry Hounds and Shirley
SHEL CREATES HAIRY JAZZ IN 1959
made the first of his 15 albums, Hairy Jazz in 1959, and was discovered
and lured to Nashville by the legendary late guitarist and producer Chet
But he was better known for writing 45 tunes cut by Dr Hook - including
their huge hits Sylvia's Mother and The Cover Of The Rolling Stone.
He also wrote the bulk of 10 of the 20 albums cut by Bobby Bare at his
"He was the most creative person I ever met in my life," revealed
Bare whose Old Dogs recently recorded two albums of Silverstein songs
and whose rocker son Bare Jr included Shel's song I Hate Myself on his
At a Saturday night party hosted by fellow genius Harlan Howard the author
was asked by Bare if he could write an album for him.
On the Monday Shel flew from Chicago to Nashville with enough tunes to
fill the double album Lullabys, Legends And Lies.
"It was so much fun, from then on, any time I wanted to have some
fun I'd just call Shel," Bare recalled.
Silverstein had homes in New York, Martha's Vineyard and Sausalito, California,
but mainly lived in Key West where he composed and wrote at a local restaurant
while dining on almost raw tuna.
The author, frequently compared with Dr Seuss, created writing and drawings
which appealed to all generations.
"Happy endings, magic solutions in children's books create an alienation
in a child who reads them," Silverstein once said.
"The child asks why don't I have this happiness thing you're telling
me about, and comes to think when his joy stops that he has failed, that
it won't come back."
Some of his characters in A Light In The Attic included baby sitter Mrs
McTwitter who erroneously believed the baby sitter was "employed
to sit upon the baby."
And there was Gink, a quick digesting giant lizard, and the Dragon Of
Grindly Grun who complains that "lunches aren't very much fun, for
I like my damsels medium rare and they always come out well done."
THE SONGS - EVEN SLIM DUSTY
as humorous but catering for a slightly older audience were tunes from
his 15 albums with titles such as Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Snout Would Not
Take The Garbage Out, Don't Give A Dose To The One You Love Most, I Got
Stoned And I Missed It, Cover Of The Rolling Stone, Freakin' At The Freakers
Ball, Never Bite A Married Woman On The Thigh and Polly In A Porny.
Silverstein's tune Queen Of The Silver Dollar - the saga of a drag queen
- was a hit for Emmylou Harris and he and Kristofferson penned The Taker
In Shel's folkie days he also penned The Unicorn for the Irish Rovers
and the fatalistic 25 Minutes To Go.
And he gave the late Slim Dusty permission to localise The World's Last
Truck Driving Man for his Neon City album.
Other hits included Once More With Feeling (Jerry Lee Lewis,) Wrong Ideas
and Four Poster Bed (Brenda Lee,) I'm Still Moving On (Hank Snow) and
Your Time's Coming (Faron Young.)
OLD DOGS GAVE SHEL FINAL BITE
the Chicago born, latter day Floridian was undergoing a creative rebirth
with the success of the Old Dogs double CD - featuring Waylon Jennings,
Jerry Reed, Bobby Bare and Mel Tillis whose daughter Pam toured here in
Highwayman Jennings, died at 64 on February 13, 2001, but outlived Silverstein
who is survived by a son Matthew, now 19.
Although Shel wrote a brace of new tunes for this 1997 project Old Dogs
also included the classic Me And Jimmie Rodgers - saga of the Singing
Brakeman - and Time which was also cut long ago by Bare.
"It's got all my heroes in it," Bare told me in 1983, "Jimmie
Rodgers, Audie Murphy, John Wayne, Joe DiMaggio, Judy Garland, Marilyn
Monroe and Gary Cooper."
Many of those heroes have gone to God but luckily the Old Dogs are still
in the kennel with enough humour to ignite the Silverstein catalogue.
The social comment is dripping with vitriol in tunes such as Cut The Mustard,
Young Man's Job, I Don't Do It Any More, She'd Rather Be Homeless, Elvis
Has Left The Building and the self parody of Still Gonna Die.
Silverstein may have spent plenty of time at Hugh Heffner's Playboy mansion
but he didn't lead the life of a big spending Svengali.
ONE FOR LESTER FLATT
One of his
best serious songs - Rough On The Living - was reprised recently by the
Old Dogs after being cut originally by Bare who revealed it parodied posthumous
exploitation of Lester Flatt who died at 64 on May 11, 1979.
Bare said in the 1983 interview that his version on his 1980 disc Down
And Dirty was censored - but not by him.
"At the end of the song I said 'this is for Lester' but the record
company asked me to take it out and I did."
Ironically, it could be the estate and royalties of the author that find
life again imitating art - his death created huge interest in the U.S
but barely a whimper here in the unlucky radio country.
Shel's tribute to Lester portrayed the hard reality of ex-wives, producers
and managers and their cloying crocodile tears.
"His picture was in all the papers, they said that a legend had passed/
the late evening news did a special report, and swore that his memory
would last/ they're playing his records all weekend, praising the life
that he lived/ Nashville is rough on the living, but rarely speaks well
of the dead."
FINALLY HONOURED SHEL
was in good company when he was inducted into the Nashville Songwriters
Hall Of Fame on November 4, 2002.
Shel, Bob Dylan, and Dean Dillon were inducted at a banquet with performances
by George Strait and Tompall Glaser.
Silverstein was represented at the event by sister, Peggy Myers, and nephew,
Dr. Mitch Myers.
Glaser, Bare and fellow sardonic singer-songwriter Don Henry sang a sampling
of Silverstein's best known music.
Glaser, an original member of the Outlaw movement, kicked off the medley
with 'Put Another Log on the Fire' - a hit for him in 1975.
"We got him out of hibernation," Bare said of the reclusive
Bare and Henry joined voices on 'Marie Laveau,' - a No. 1 for Bare in
Henry proceeded by reading Silverstein's poem, 'Hug of War,' and continued
by singing segments from 'The Unicorn,' 'Queen of the Silver Dollar,'
'A Boy Named Sue,' 'Sylvia's Mother' and 'The Cover of the Rolling Stone.'
Henry and Bare rounded out the set with the withering 'Nashville Is Rough
on the Living (But She Really Speaks Well of the Dead).'
Acknowledging that different people perceived Silverstein differently
- as a Playboy cartoonist, writer of children's books or as a songwriter
- Bare said Silverstein's great joy was "hanging out" with his
He said he was always jotting down notes - on the top of menus, in the
white spaces on the sports page and even on his own hand.
"Sometimes," Bare observed, "he'd write on your hand. The
thought of Shel Silverstein having a career was hilarious."
Bare said the words "dead" and "Silverstein" simply
didn't go together.
"We've got to ask ourselves," he concluded, "did he leave
too early or have we stayed too late?"
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