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Shel SilversteinI recently got reacquainted with an old friend from my youth—but in a totally unexpected way. I was brought up on Shel Silverstein courtesy of my father, an elementary teacher. (The poems in Where the Sidewalk Ends and A Light in the Attic are still fondly remembered by my sister and I.) While attempting to track down a copy of a Silverstein song I discovered a whole other side to Uncle Shelby just by perusing the online catalog.

Though best remembered as an author and illustrator of children’s books like The Giving Tree, Silverstein began his career drawing adult cartoons for the military during his stint as a GI in Japan and Korea in the 1950s. A collection of these cartoons were published by Pacific Stars & Stripes as Take Ten, and later republished as Grab Your Socks!

In 1957 Silverstein began a long association with Playboy magazine as one of their cartoonists.  His work would continue to appear there through the mid-1970s.  From 1957 through 1968 Playboy sent Silverstein to locations all over the world.  From Asia to Europe (where he fought a bull in Spain), to Arabia, to Africa (where he hunted and killed a water buffalo before getting in a serious car accident that laid him up for months recuperating.)  Silverstein visited what at the time were the two newest states to the Union:  Alaska and Hawaii.  He also made jaunts to Greenwich Village during the beginning of the beat movement, and to Haight-Ashbury in 1968 where he engaged hippies in a 2-part segment.  This amusing series of travelogues/cartoons was recently collected and posthumously published in 2006 as Playboy’s Silverstein around the World, and in it readers can see the development of his unique style.

For more of Silverstein’s adult cartoon work there is also Different Dances, which was originally published in 1979. Silverstein’s family saw fit to republish this book for its 25th anniversary in 2004. Described as “an adult collection of social satire and sexual politics,” these cartoons (which were culled from his work in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s) are at once an irreverent, amusing, and poignant commentary in pictures on “the social calamities and absurdities of the adult world.”

In addition to his work as a cartoonist Silverstein was an accomplished songsmith as well. Numerous artists have recorded his work over the years including The Irish Rovers, Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, and Bobby Bare. Johnny Cash had one of his most whimsical hits with “A Boy Named Sue”; while Dr. Hook & the Medicine Show had a close association with Silverstein covering many of his tunes such as “Sylvia’s Mother” and “The Cover of the Rolling Stone.” These songs, along with Silverstein reciting his poetry or singing some of his songs, can be found on the 2005 Columbia/Legacy compilation The Best of Shel Silverstein: His Words, His Songs, His Friends. Earlier this year Twistable, Turnable Man: A Musical Tribute to the Songs of Shel Silverstein a tribute album performed by various artists was also released.

Silverstein was also an adept playwright. Some of his later works can be found in various editions of the annual compilation Best American Short Plays. “The Devil and Billy Markham” can be found in the 1991-92 edition, and originally appeared on a double-bill with a David Mamet play in New York. Written in rhyming verse it details the trials and travails of Billy Markham trying to outsmart the Devil in a series of comical vignettes. The following year, 1992-93, saw the publication of “Dreamers,” a short play wherein two plumbers attempt to come to terms with the nature of their very disturbing (and sexual) dreams. Finally, “The Trio” from the 1997-98 volume is an abstract piece where a composer waxes philosophically on love and music with his musician-girlfriend.

A word of caution to fans of Silverstein’s juvenile work: his adult work is precisely that—adult. In it you will find adult themes:  sex, nudity, drug-usage, and foul language. If you are easily offended by any of that, then his ‘other works’ may not be for you. But if you wish to discover other facets of his work, I think you will be surprised to find that amidst all the bawdy humour Uncle Shelby is simply sharing the experiences of being human, to young and old alike.


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