Monday, March 15, 2010

A Shel of a Man

I was tickled to death the other night, watching "Modern Family", and seeing that my man Manny had named his pet turtle "Shel Turtlestein," an homage to the late great Shel Silverstein. You might not know Silverstein by name, and he was probably not the first with the shaved melon/bearded chin look that makes so many guys appear to have their heads on upside down, but you know his work.

Born in Chicago in 1932, he found dozens of interesting things to do for just 67 years. He was in the Army, which is where his flair for cartooning first was evidenced, and then he became a cartoonist for Playboy Magazine. He would travel to distant lands and interesting places and illustrate what he saw for the magazine, which is of course where I first saw him. In my teens, I was quite the fan of Playboy, for its hard-hitting interviews, Jean Shepherd comic essays, and cartoons as well. I skipped right past the nekkid pictures of wholesome corn-fed girls-next-door to get to the Silverstein stuff about people far away.

Do you remember that Brian Savage cartoon with the guy, bound and gagged, lying prone while a jackbooted dominatrix jumps on him with 9" heels, a truncheon and cat o'nine-tails in hand, and he's saying, "So this is love!" ?

There's your proof that I didn't have time to look at the nudie pictures. I was too busy with the funny stuff.

Silverstein began putting funny poems in Playboy, and from there, it was just a short leap to stardom as a country music songwriter. Really, what are most country songs, if not just a comic poem and three chords of music? Here are some of the things he wrote, and here's the part, dear reader, where you can say, "Oh! I know that guy! I love that song by Dr Hook! Or Johnny Cash! Or Doyle Holly, Bobby Bare or Loretta Lynn! Ready for the list?

A Boy Named Sue! The Cover of The Rolling Stone! One's On The Way! Sylvia's Mother! Queen of the Silver Dollar! Roland The Roadie and Gertrude The Groupie! The Jogger!

Besides cartooning and country-song writing, Sheldon Silverstein, who often referred to himself as "Uncle Shelby", wrote a couple of books that, if you were a child of any age in the 1970s, I guarantee were around your house: Where The Sidewalk Ends and A Light In The Attic. I think there might have been laws and ordinances on the books requiring both of those books to be in every kid's room, right next to Goodnight Moon.

Now, just for something to enjoy, here are the words to a song that I think represents Shel at his Nashville best. Bobby Bare sang it, in that note-sliding way he had, back in 1976. It's called "The Winner."

The hulk of a man with a beer in his hand looked like a drunk old fool,
And I knew that if I hit him right, I could knock him off that stool.
But everybody said, "Watch out -- that's Tiger Man McCool.
He's had a whole lot of fights, and he always come out the winner.
Yeah, he's a winner."

But I'd had myself about five too many, and I walked up tall and proud,
I faced his back and I faced the fact that he'd never stooped or bowed.
I said, "Tiger Man, you're a pussycat," and a hush fell on the crowd,
I said, "Let's you and me go outside and see who's the winner"

Well, he gripped the bar with one big hairy hand and he braced against the wall,
He slowly looked up from his beer -- my God, that man was tall.
He said, "Boy, I see you're a scrapper, so just before you fall,
I'm gonna tell you just a little what a means to be a winner."

He said, "You see these bright white smilin' teeth, you know they ain't my own.
Mine rolled away like Chiclets down a street in San Antone.
But I left that person cursin', nursin' seven broken bones.
And he only broke three of mine, and that make me a winner."

He said, "Behind this grin, I got a steel pin that holds my jaw in place.
A trophy of my most successful motorcycle race.
And every mornin' when I wake and touch this scar across my face,
It reminds me of all I got by bein' a winner.

Now my broken back was the dyin' act of handsome Harry Clay
That sticky Cincinnati night I stole his wife away.
But that woman, she gets uglier and meaner every day.
But I got her, boy, and that's what makes me a winner.

You gotta speak loud when you challenge me, son, 'cause it's hard for me to hear
With this twisted neck and these migraine pains and this big old cauliflower ear.
'N' if it weren't for this glass eye of mine, I'd shed a happy tear
To think of all you'll get by bein' a winner.

I got arthuritic elbows, boy, I got dislocated knees,
From pickin' fights with thunderstorms and chargin' into trees.
And my nose been broke so often I might lose it if I sneeze.
And, son, you say you still wanna be a winner?

Now, you remind me a lot of my younger days with your knuckles clenchin' white.
But, boy, I'm gonna sit right here and sip this beer all night.
And if there's somethin' you gotta prove by winnin' some silly fight,
Well, OK, I quit, I lose, son, you're the winner."

So I stumbled from that barroom not so tall and not so proud,
And behind me I could hear the hoots of laughter from the crowd.
But my eyes still see and my nose still works and my teeth are still in my mouth.
And y'know...I guess that makes me...the winner!

Words to live by!


Eugene B. Bergmann said...

Shel Silverstein's best friend was that guy who wrote the comic stories in Playboy, Jean Shepherd. Jean often complained that people who saw his name in print thought he was a female, which is why Shel, kidding his ol' pal Jean, wrote "A Boy Named Sue." Shel also dedicated his book, "Now Here's My Plan" to Jean Shepherd. They also wrote liner notes for each other's record albums (Check out Shel's "Hairy Jazz" liner notes.) Jean's best known work is his creation of the holiday movie favorite, "A Christmas Story," about the kid who wants a BB gun. He narrates the whole thing, too. They were both wildly prolific in varied fields, and, commerating them together, as they had died the same year, the New York Times split a page between them in its Sunday magazine devoted to prominent people who had died in 1999. There's a book about Shel's life and art, and there's a book about Jean's, too, and I wrote it: "Excelsior, You Fathead! The Art and Enigma of Jean Shepherd."

Mark said...

It's a pleasure to hear from you, Eugene. I purchased, read and enjoyed your book very much! Thanks for adding to the tale of two great talents - Jean and Shel.