Off On a Tangent

Random musings from Sarah Weinman, editor of Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives (Penguin, August 27)

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The Shel Silverstein Video Archive

When I started collecting Shel Silverstein material in early 1999, the likelihood of finding video footage of him was slim to nil. It didn’t help that there was a mythology surrounding his supposed “reclusiveness” (he was no fan of interviews, but the famous 1975 declaration to Publishers Weekly that “I’m not going to give any more interviews” was not entirely correct, plus he’d been quite a quotable fellow in the 60s and early 70s) but the larger reason was the more limited capabilities of the Internet at the time. Now we’re six years into YouTube and the amount of video online is staggering, and easy to find if you know where to look.

As a result, a few choice morsels of Shel on TV and movies have popped up, but no one’s thought to put them all together in a single post — until now.

Soundstage, with Dr. Hook — 1978

From 1974 through 1985, PBS aired a nationally syndicated show (originating from Chicago-based WTTV) featuring the top musical artists of the day. By 1978, Dr. Hook had dropped “Medicine Show” from its name, and Shel wasn’t writing whole albums of their work like he did in the early days, but they reunited for an episode of the show. Most of it is Hook doing their greatest hits, including some of the newer disco fare, but the two clips featuring Shel are, in a way, a distilled version of his entire career.

In the first segment, he’s introduced by Ray Sawyer (the man with the eyepatch) and, slouching in a big arm chair with his red shirt slightly open and the acoustic guitar firmly in his lap, launches into a patter about the beach situation in Sausalito (where he lived on a houseboat — remember this, as it will come up later on in this piece) and then rolls right into “Show it At the Beach”, one of the songs on his then-new album SONGS AND STORIES. What’s the thing that people won’t let show at the beach? Well, put another way, “Stacy Brown’s Got Two.”

Then, in the second clip, Shel’s sitting on a regular chair surrounded by children. Loud, quiet, all races and creeds and genders, and most of them are pretty damn enraptured by the bald man with the salt and pepper beard. And why not? He’s singing about being eaten by a boa constrictor and of a girl who simply would not take the garbage out and of the unicorn that was supposed to hitch a ride on Noah’s Ark. It is, simply, a magical clip. Like, if I were a kid, I’d want this man to come over to my house and read me books and be the bestsest uncle ever. At this point, SIDEWALK was a hit, and THE GIVING TREE had roared to life after almost a decade of not doing much at all, and LAFCADIO and the other books had an audience, and THE MISSING PIECE was still somewhat new, but he was still about three years removed from his big breakout book A LIGHT IN THE ATTIC, which stayed on the NYT list for years and years. But this clip truly shows why kids loved and connected with Shel’s work.

So yes, two clips. One he’s the bestest uncle ever and the other, he’s talking about his member. Nobody bats an eye. I love this so, so much.

Houseboat Jam — 1972

The Soundstage footage was a real find, but I figured it would turn up eventually. The Houseboat stuff? Oh hell, no. This was filmed in 1972, when Dr. Hook was riding high with SYLVIA’S MOTHER and about to make it on the COVER OF THE ROLLING STONE. Shel was essentially their songwriter in residence, having discovered them in a New Jersey dive bar a few years before and showcasing them in the 1970 movie WHO IS HARRY KELLERMAN AND WHY IS HE SAYING THESE TERRIBLE THINGS ABOUT ME? (about which more in bit.) Dr. Hook in turn returned the favor by partying the whole way through Shel’s own album, FREAKIN’ AT THE FREAKERS BALL.

And then, Danish TV came calling for a one-hour special on the Medicine Showmen, and what better place to film than on Shel’s Sausalito, CA houseboat? He’d bought it in the late 1960s and would stay there off and on through the 1970s before hightailing it for Key West (his longtime friend Larry Moyer ended up living there rent-free — and, after Silverstein’s death, stayed on. He’s still there, as far as I know.) It was crammed with books and tchotchkes collected from his years of travels for Playboy and for pleasure, not to mention musical instruments — and proved a good acoustic match for Dr. Hook.

So here’s Shel, introducing the band he plucked from obscurity and helped make famous with songs that, by and large, stand up very well today — including CARRY ME, CARRIE and MARIE LEVAUX, which the band performed in this little movie.

The last number they played, however, wasn’t written by Shel, but was a blues number called HIGH FLYIN’ EAGLE. And well, it was the 70s, I’m sure the “heat” and generally being inebriated made this a good idea, but everyone — including Shel — took off their clothes and sang the whole damn thing naked. (Shel is on harmonica.) The clip is censored, allegedly the NSFW version floats around the Internet for those who are determined to find it, and it is one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen.

Bunky & Lucille — 1971

As I mentioned earlier, Shel Silverstein scored the movie WHO IS HARRY KELLERMAN AND WHY IS HE SAYING THESE TERRIBLE THINGS ABOUT ME? Which starred Dustin Hoffman, a few years removed from MIDNIGHT COWBOY and THE GRADUATE, and was directed by Ulu Grosbard. That movie in turn introduced Dr. Hook when they were only a five-man Jersey bar band. And here, in this clip, the band and Shel sing “Bunky and Lucille (One More Ride)” as part of a dream sequence Hoffman’s character has. The band plays, and they invite him, Georgie Soloway, up to the stage to bask in the adulation! Which means Shel and Dustin share a scene and a hug, which is pretty cool. And here, too, as with the later clips, Shel has excellent stage presence. He clearly loved to perform, whatever the medium — stage, TV, film, you name it — even if he much preferred to write and draw.

The Johnny Cash Show — 1970

"Sometimes he shaves his head and wears his beard. Sometimes he shaves his beard and wears his head…sometimes he’s lonesome. But he’s always the one and only Shel Silverstein." Cash, of course, owed a lot to Shel by then, thanks to a little ditty called A BOY NAMED SUE, which the two duet on to start. From there Shel sits alone and talks about children’s things, relationships, and how he’s "really proud of the relationship I have with my dad" (Nathan, who was 80 years old and would be dead two years later) before launching into his version of DADDY, WHAT IF. It’s a lovely, touching number that Bobby Bare — and his little boy, Bobby Bare, Jr. — would make more famous in country music circles a few years later.

What else?

That is a very good question! Past research indicates Shel did appear on the Johnny Carson Show in 1963, but the footage may be lost — TV networks tended to be more cavalier about preserving things back then. I also suspect there’s a lot of local Chicago television footage with Shel appearances, since he would make mention of a few things in interviews in the 1960s, but those must be even harder to find. That said, if you know something I don’t, please holler by leaving a message.

  1. edwarddennihy reblogged this from offonatangent
  2. bookriot reblogged this from offonatangent and added:
    There are not enough muppet arms in the world for this.
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