Off On a Tangent

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

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Shel Silverstein Stars & Stripes Interview, 1968


Recently on a late night I pored through the archives of the Stars & Stripes, the US Army’s official newspaper, looking for the text of an interview I knew Shel Silverstein had done with the paper in the late 1960s. He had good reason: Shel had been the Army’s cartoonist from 1953 through 1955, when he was drafted and stationed in Tokyo at a time when he had, in his own words, “nothing much” to do (the Korean War was on, but he wasn’t about to serve on the front lines.) Behold, my search yielded paydirt, and forthwith is the full text of Shel’s Q&A with the Stars & Stripes staff writer Hal Drake, published on December 8 1968.

It’s a standard interview, by and large, getting into Shel’s army career, the cartoons that got him into some trouble, why soldiers and beatniks would be better off having conversations before passing judgment upon each other, and working at Playboy. There are some instances where it seems he’s yanking Drake’s chain (directing a movie? I suppose it was a possibility, but it never came close to fruition) and impatient with Drake’s more banal questions, but since Shel didn’t do all that many interviews - hardly any after 1975 - any unearthed ones produce some gold nuggets here and there.

Among those nuggets: a photo of Shel from 1953, when he was first drafted. I’ll get that scanned and posted someday soon. (UPDATE: Turns out that photo is not ready for prime time, but instead you can now see a different one of Shel, in uniform, from later in his Army stint, probably 1955. Look at that receding hairline. No wonder he went bald as soon as he could.) One final note: the original text had Shel saying “Ya” which I edited to “Yeah” in accordance with standard vernacular. Otherwise this is complete and unabridged, and and both the article and photo are used with permission from Stars & Stripes.

SHEL SILVERSTEIN: A CORPORAL MAKES GOOD

Sunday, December 8, 1968

HAL DRAKE: Shel, looking back through “Who’s Who”, I find you are not listed. I understand you have been qualified for the directory for something like three years now. Why aren’t you listed?

SHEL SILVERSTEIN: They keep sending me forms to fill out but I ignore them. You know, years ago when you were a kid, it was your dream to make “Who’s Who” or something like that. But after a while you realize it doesn’t mean a damn thing. Everybody knows who you are, if you are worth knowing. People can look you up and find you whether you are or not. I don’t care if people know where I was born. I like people to like my work, if they happen to see it. I’m not going to encourage them to go and find it. And I’m not going to go and give them a lot of information. I don’t think it matters too much, really, where I was born, how old I am, whether I’m married or single, or how many kids I’ve got.

HAL: You don’t care about the prestige angle?

SHEL: I don’t care that much about prestige. I’ve had enough of it to know how little it matters. It doesn’t matter that much.

HAL: Are you satisfied with your work?

SHEL: I’m not that satisfied with my work. I have to find change in my work all the time to have any satisfaction. I do better drawing now than I’ve ever done in my life. My drawing is really great now and I’m sick of drawing. So, it isn’t a matter of doing it well. You’ve got to find excitement in it and that comes from I don’t know what.

HAL: I understand that you are going to do a movie or want to do a movie. Can you tell us about it?

SHEL: I will be doing one soon. It’s a movie I wrote and will be directing. It will be very far out. It will be the furtherest-out movie ever done in America, I know that. In any country, as far as I know.

HAL: Will it be impressionistic or realistic?

SHEL: Yeah, impressionistic and realistic. Yet, never obscure. Always very clear.

HAL: Are you going to quit drawing once you start making movies?

SHEL: I can’t really say I’m going to quit anything. You get sick of something, you always come back. But one thing I’ve found out about coming back — you don’t come back for long. It’s like leaving a woman. You leave her, you come back to her; but you probably stay less time the second time than you stayed the first and the same things that bugged you the first time are still there. So, I just need new things. I’ve been drawing all my life and I’ve been writing all my life but not as much I’ve been drawing, because the writing doesn’t seem to wear as thin. I seem to favor now the short things. The things that I can do very quickly in a couple of minutes or an hour. That’s why I like writing children’s books and writing poetry. I can write a poem in 10 minutes. I like writing songs, I can write songs in 5 or 10 minutes. My concentration seems very short.

HAL: For instance, “25 Minutes to Go,” which you recorded and the “Brothers Four” have recorded. How long did this take you. to write?

SHEL: I don’t know. It didn’t take me very long — and then again, it was not very good. It probably took me about an hour.

HAL: Do you think your style has improved or matured since you left Pacific Stars & Stripes’?

SHEL: Yes, I think my style has improved a lot but not 13 years worth.

HAL: Is this why you feel the field of the cartoonist is too limited, then?

SHEL: No, there is never an art form that is limited. The person is limited. I don’t think I’m too limited. I think my stuff is pretty extraordinary, but it’s not growing by leaps and bounds. In the beginning with an art form, you progress about 100 percent every day until you get good. Then, maybe you get to be 5 percent better each day. And then you get to be really, really tired. And then you maybe get to be one millionth of one percent better.

HAL: Then, once you get to be really good, you have nowhere else to go.

SHEL: No, there are places I could go but you just can’t move at the same speed. I’ve got years to do it in and I can improve enough in the next 20 years — but it isn’t exciting at times. The newness of something is what’s exciting.

HAL: Shel, have you ever had any formal instruction in art, such as an art school?

SHEL: Yeah, 1 was through the art school at the University of Illinois for one useless semester. And then I was at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts for one summer semester.

HAL: Was this before or after you were in the Army?

SHEL: That was before the Army. The Army was the best thing for me as far as my art work went because I didn’t have to worry about coming through any commercial way. I knew I wasn’t going to sell or I wasn’t going to appear anywhere. I could draw what the hell I wanted to draw, so I did. And I ate three meals a day, which is lucky because usually your meals depend on how well your stuff sells.

HAL: Shel, you were a living legend in the military as a Stars & Stripes staffer. When was that?

SHEL: That was from 1953 to 1955. They like to talk about how I was a misfit and all that but the fact is that I wasn’t. If you’re a misfit, you don’t last. That’s all there is to it. You have to get through basic and a certain amount of training. And you have to follow the military protocol to a certain extent or it doesn’t matter who you are, you just don’t stay. I don’t know what they do with you, but you don’t stay and you don’t receive the rank of corporal which I finally achieved without being a great soldier. But I went my own way as far as I could and maybe sometimes further than most guys do — but I was with Stars & Stripes and we were pretty loose here and didn’t have to toe the line that much.

HAL: How did you wind up at Pacific Stars & Stripes. I believe you were headed for Korea, weren’t you?

SHEL: Yeah, I volunteered for the infantry. Then I got an interview with Stars & Stripes and they took me on as a map maker and layout man.

HAL: Did this please you?

SHEL: It pleased me a lot. It pleased me a lot to get off that boat and come into Stars & Stripes because you know when I was a young kid during World War II, I knew that there were a lot of great people at Stripes, especially the great cartoonists and writers. You really glorified it then. I thought it would be the same way and I found it to be better because we didn’t have the great newspapermen, the proven newspapermen and artists, but had the young guys. These young guys were very talented and with a lot of promise to make it. I don’t know what you have now but we had more GIs then. Now you have more civilians.

HAL: Would you say the Stars & Stripes has helped you as it did Bill Mauldin of “Willie and Joe” fame and was this the first time you had done any steady cartooning?

SHEL: Yeah, for a guy of my age and with my limited experience to suddenly have to turn out cartoons on a day-to-day deadline, the job was enormous. Nobody in the States was doing that. It was a great opportunity for me and I blossomed,. Also I began growing up out here. I was grown up anyway in a lot of ways but I happened to be in the right place in the right time here. Those were great years. I only wish I had had the money to spend in those days.

HAL: Shel, your cartoons helped get you the reputation of a rebel. I have here a famous April Fools Day cartoon you drew. How did you get it into print?

SHEL: It wasn’t any trouble. I guess usually the way most of these things got into print was that the officer-in charge didn’t understand them. In the beginning that was the case, then he began to get the word and it became necessary to have a different reason for getting them through him. This particular cartoon shows a guy going through the chow line and the cook is ladling out some SOS. The cook is looking at the guy and saying: “Today it REALLY is!” Of course, you have to know what SOS is.

HAL: As 1 understand, the Managing Editor asked you to explain the cartoon and you told him it referred to powdered milk and powdered eggs or something.

SHEL: Well, you could usually get away with that. Some of the guys weren’t too tutted in to military humor.

HAL: I understand you used to offend certain ranking people like generals with your cartoons at Stripes.

SHEL: Yeah, every time they wrote a letter of moan, the building would shake. Finally they had enough and told me to go swimming. They had me up for courts martial once and I don’t think I qualified. They had me interviewed — a pre-courts martial interview or something.

HAL: What had you done?

SHEL: I drew a couple of cartoons that were printed. One showed two women meeting on the street and one of them had a little kid with her. They were two Army wives and one of them said to the other, “My husband works at quartermaster, where does your husband work?” And the women who said this was dressed completely in military clothing and so was her child. The point being that they got their clothing from the quartermaster depot where her husband worked. So they had me up for my courts martial interview and the guy said that I was saying that the guys who work for quartermaster steal. And I said I didn’t say that. I said I wouldn’t be so bold as to say something like that. The guy said, “Well, then what does it mean?” And I said the wife and the kid are dressing GI style because they like the Army. The guy then said, “Well, you mean that the wife and child are sort of gung-ho,” and I said that’s right. And so he said, “Well, that’s pro-Army, isn’t it?” And I said yes, and they gave up on me.

HAL: What was the other incident?

SHEL: Well, the other cartoon was about a guy who had just come to some Pacific base and was standing in a muddy area and this veteran GI who had been there a long time is saying: “What do you mean ‘where’s the latrine’ —THIS is the latrine.” Well, they said my cartoon meant that the country was nothing but a big latrine and they raised quite a fuss.

HAL: Is it true that you were restricted rank by rank until all you could finally draw were privates?

SHEL: I couldn’t draw any officers, so I started working on sergeants. I had nothing against sergeants but that’s all I could get and I went after them until finally I was told all I could attack were civilians and animals. But they even made zebras off limits to me because they had stripes.

HAL: You would say, then, that the Army did you no harm?

SHEL: As much as I fought the Army while I was here, it wasn’t that the Army did me any harm. It did me good, taught me things about life and gave me freedom to create. The Army gave me an outlet for my work and it was great for me. because of my experiences. Guys I know that are in the most exciting work in the world still look back on their Army life as the happiest time of their lives.

HAL: What are your views on the hippies and beatniks who want to get out of military service?

SHEL: Well, I think that any experience you have is worthwhile. I think that anyone who misses military service misses a lot. But, again, if a guy is worried about getting killed, you don’t miss much by not getting killed. As far as military experience goes—yes, I think the hippies would miss a lot. But I think a lot of GIs would miss a lot by not going down to Haight Ashbury and seeing how the hippies live. That’s an experience, too.

HAL: The GIs are not at all open-minded about it.

SHEL: No, I don’t think you’ll find either side is very opened-minded about the other. I did an interview on Far East Network and talked about this. I think we’d know more about each other if we would stop and talk to each other. You really can’t attack something you don’t know anything about. There is this guy on FEN who has a show that comes from the States and I listened to it and that guy doesn’t know anything. He talks about the hippies and makes sounds like “go, man, go!” and stuff like that—comic strip talk from 1941. The same guy talks to the guys out here—”get a picture to pin on your wall locker in Vietnam!” I don’t want to rap the guy but he talks about another war and another time and you listen to that and you think that this guy’s opinion doesn’t mean a thing — because he doesn’t know.

HAL: What do you think of country music?

SHEL: I love it. Again a lot of people say they hate it when they haven’t even listened to it. You got to listen. Country music isn’t that screaming stuff anymore. There’s good things going on. Good thoughts. Listen, don’t just read Time Magazine or Playboy. Don’t get your information from one place or  from friends that travel in the same circles and think they know all there is to know. Check it all out and talk to the people who are in it.

HAL: How did you happen to fall into Playboy?

SHEL: It’s a long story. I came out of the Army and my stuff wouldn’t sell and I couldn’t even sell my blood. But I didn’t want to go to Playboy because I thought it was just a skin book. I didn’t have class for nude girls and all but I went there anyway. I walked in and asked to see Hefner and he was in conference or something, so they said I could speak to the Art Director and I walked out. And so I walked around the block in Chicago a couple of times and I found I didn’t have no place else to go so I went back and saw the art director and he took me upstairs to see Hefner who was in his pajamas. Now you go in there and you couldn’t see either one of those cats. It would be a joke. Even the higher editorial people can’t see Hefner because he hides out.

HAL: Hefner lives and works in the Playboy mansion and you live there, too, don’t you?

SHEL: Yes, it’s about as swinging a place as anyplace could be. Not 24 hours a day, but there’s a lot more going on there than anyplace else I know.

HAL: How many bunnies live there?

SHEL: The bunnies live upstairs, about 20 or 25 of them. They are Playmates or women testing for shots.

HAL: Arc the male occupants restricted from the bunny area?

SHEL: There are no iron gates between us, if that’s what you mean.

HAL: How much capital would you say Hefner started with?

SHEL: I think about $15,000. He had to sell his car to get enough money to launch Playboy.

HAL: How much is the corporation worth now, would you say?

SHEL: I don’t know how much it’s worth now, but I know Hef, personally, figured out a year ago that he was worth over $72 million. It’s taken me a lot less time to figure out what I’m worth. So I suppose you could add another 5 to 20 million bucks by this time.

HAL: How did you ever get into children’s books. I know you’ve written some real great ones.

SHEL: Yeah, I’ve written about a dozen of them. A lot of people think it’s inconsistent of me because of the way I live and what I do because I work for Playboy.

HAL: Do you try to give people the impression that you are a hippie or a beatnik?

SHEL: Some. But that’s all there is to it. Some think it’s something religious. Some listen before they judge me.

Used with permission from Stars & Stripes. © 1968 Stars & Stripes

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