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It was break time, and I hadn’t even put the guitar down when Shel Silverstein came up to the edge of the stage, took it out of my hand and said, “Rik, I’ve got a song for you.” He headed for the rear of the bar, sat me down at the only empty table, gave me a conspiratorial grin and began:
Ev’ry morning I want you to wake up early,
cook me a great big T-bone steak
Serve it to me in bed, go out on the street and hustle,
Bring me back all money you make
Rub my body with sweet-scented oil
Cool me with a[n] electric fan
And then run to the church, get down on your knees
Say, “Lord, I wanna thank you for that man.”
And I call that Truuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuue Love …
There were three more verses, each more outrageous and less politically correct than the last, and when he’d finished, I was on the floor. “I can’t sing that,” I said. “I’ll get killed!”
“Uh-uh,” he said pointing over at Frazier, our model-handsome bartender. “If he sang it, he’d get killed. You look like a math teacher. You sing it and people are gonna laugh.” His comedic instincts were infallible. I’ve been milking that tune for 30 years.
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Shel Silverstein is best known for his award-winning children’s books, which is ironic, given his lack of patience for children themselves. (His gift was that he never lost touch with what it felt like to be one.) But most of his financial success, I believe, came through songwriting. Everyone knows his tunes even though they may not be aware that he was the tunesmith. One of Nashville’s premier songwriters in the ’60s and ’70s, he got his start in New York’s Greenwich Village folk music scene. His country and pop million-sellers include Johnny Cash’s “A Boy Named Sue,” the Irish Rovers’ “The Unicorn” and Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show’s “Cover of Rolling Stone” and “Sylvia’s Mother.”
In the summer of 1972, you couldn’t flip on the radio without hearing the plaintive voice of Dr. Hook’s Dennis Locorriere begging Sylvia’s mother for the chance to say one last goodbye to her daughter before she went off to marry some other guy. Presumably one with a real job. The names had been changed a little to protect the guilty, but the hit song was actually a thinly veiled bit of Shel’s autobiography: Shel never had much use for a real job. He was an artist, a poet, a cartoonist and a humorist. He lived on his talent, wit and charm, and he was over-supplied in all.
I first became aware of him in the mid-1950s, long before I met him, while surreptitiously thumbing through my uncle’s Playboys. Shel was Hugh Hefner’s best friend, and he was part of the original brain trust that turned Playboy into a cultural phenomenon. His cartoons, rhymes and satirical travelogues were easily the second best part of the magazine. So in 1969, when he started coming by this little Sausalito, Calif., bar to catch my band, I was knocked out and flattered. It didn’t matter to me if it was because he’d had his eye on the pretty brunet who played bass for us. This was a guy who was famous for knowing where the hip scenes and cool people were, and here he was spending Sunday afternoons with us.
He and the bassist didn’t last long, but I got a friend out of the deal. After gigs I’d run into him at Pat & Joe’s, the only all-night restaurant in the area, and pick his brain for tips on living cool. First and foremost, I had to know why women followed him around in packs. Shel was not handsome. He had a shaved head, a hooked nose and a scraggly beard, and he never dressed up. Even in the artistic circles of the ’60s, when sex was just an emphatic way of saying hello, he had vastly better luck than the rest of us. Maybe it was his eyes; they would twinkle and pierce simultaneously, giving you the impression that he knew something you didn’t. For whatever reasons, women hit on him constantly. And hard. Tall ones, short ones, redheads, brunets, that unforgettable set of leggy blond twins from Denmark. They just kept coming. He made no promises or apologies. Yet, they’d all speak warmly of him afterward. He even had a framed needlepoint on his wall that read, “Shel Silverstein made me make this for him.” It was signed by a Playmate of the Year.
Shel had solid faith in his own talent as a songwriter, and he was a legend for being generous with his collaborators. He had what could be generously called an untrained voice, and often needed someone to interpret his melodies.
Bumping into Pete Childs and Jay Kellum, a couple of late-’60s Greenwich Village folk accompanists, on the street, he asked them to check out a new song he’d been working on. They weren’t terribly impressed, but they offered a few suggestions and encouragement before moving on. A few days later Shel asked them to give it another listen. It was much improved, maybe even hit material, and they told him so. “Great,” he said, “I’m cutting you in on the credit.” There was a stunned silence. Partial credit on a hit record can bring you enough money to make a down payment on California real estate. You don’t just give it away. Jay and Pete, having more class than brains, graciously passed. The song, “The Last Morning,” was later used during the opening credits of the Dustin Hoffman vehicle “Who Is Harry Kellerman, and Why Is He Saying All Those Terrible Things About Me.”
The movie bombed, but the song has personal significance for me and several of my best friends. Shel and the producer of the record wanted to have the song recorded by an unknown band, and there was nobody more unknown than these five maniacs calling themselves Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show, who were playing to the drunks in a bar across the river in Union City, N.J. Shel loved them, and they quickly found themselves lifted out of obscurity and hanging out with movie stars. The producer assured them there’d be money in it for them later. It wasn’t the last time he’d be less than truthful to them, but they did get a recording contract out of it, and Shel wrote three albums worth of songs for them. In show business, this is known as a break. When the album was done, Dr. Hook needed a couple more musicians in order to pull it off live, and Shel made sure that I was one of them. We were together for 15 years and had eight gold records in the U.S.
While cutting our second album, I learned the method to Shel’s madness with writing credits. We were sitting around Columbia’s Folsom Street studio in San Francisco, arguing loudly for our respective percentages of a song we’d just finished, when Shel came through the door. He stopped, looked us over and scowled. “What are you guys doing?” he asked. “You can’t quantify magic. How can you possibly figure out what the most important parts of a song are? Art is magic and magic doesn’t work like that.” Then the kicker: “Do you really want to live your life as if this is the last good idea you’ll ever have?” He told us that anyone who wrote with him got equal credit, even if they only contributed one line or one idea. That way, his collaborators went away happy and more than willing to write with him again, and he never had to fight over percentages again.
Later that year, he wrote a lovely country waltz, “A Couple More Years,” that became a staple in our shows. The melody, however, bore more than a passing resemblance to a song that our lead singer, Dennis, had written years earlier called “Moon Tune.” When somebody remarked on it in Shel’s presence, Dennis found himself owning half of a new song. To the delight of both of them, Willie Nelson covered it. And Dennis bought some California real estate.
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Dennis left the news of Shel’s death on my answering machine. He said he’d rather have told me in person, but didn’t want me to be blindsided by hearing it on the 6 o’clock news. It hit both of us like a death in the family. Dennis said he’d seen Shel in the Village a few months back and that he hadn’t looked good. He’d seemed old, and looked like he hadn’t been taking care of himself. Now we know that his heart was going. Sixty-six seems young to check out, but Shel packed more life into each day than most of us do in a week. He preferred quality to quantity, though he’d always go for both if he could.
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I have a favorite Shel Silverstein cartoon. It’s so old that I can’t remember where I first saw it, but it’s photographically fixed in my mind. Two scrawny, flea-bitten prisoners are manacled hand and foot, hanging about six feet off the floor of a cell. Up in the corner there’s this tiny little window, maybe a foot in diameter. And there are bars on it. As you contemplate the utter hopelessness of the situation, one prisoner whispers to the other, “Now here’s my plan …”
There was a sequel to that cartoon that was never published. It was a gift for a friend. Same cell, same dinky little window. But the manacles are empty.
Rik Elswit is a musician and writer living in San Fransisco. He hosts the music conference on the Well, and is currently trying to decide what he wants to be when he grows up.More Rik Elswit.