Freakin' at the Freaker's Ball

Cosmic Transgressions of Shel Silverstein

Posted by Al Barger on August 21, 2005 01:29 AM (See all posts by Al Barger)

Unfortunately, making records was only a third or fourth career for the late great Shel Silverstein. He made his mark as a Playboy cartoonist, but is best known now as an author of children's books.

Way his most interesting Godly manifestation, however, was as a songwriter. I usually think of him as a country songwriter. Among his numerous classic hits were "A Boy Named Sue," "One's on the Way," "The Unicorn Song," and "Put Another Log on the Fire." He also wrote all of Dr Hook's good songs, including "Sylvia's Mother" and "Cover of the Rolling Stone."

Somewhere in there, he managed to make a couple of albums himself. Now, obviously you couldn't do any better than Johnny Cash and Loretta Lynn singing your songs. But Shel had a real unique and memorable sound in his own performances. His most frequent sound was a loosey goosey country funk, a particularly depraved cosmic comic cousin of the Band most nearly approximated by Dr Hook.

His 1973 opus Freakin' at the Freaker's Ball would likely be considered his main album. Off the top, at least four of these songs are pure classics. The title song is best known for Dr Hook's recording, but this is even better. Shel could vocally convey a kind of quivering need in his most licentious songs that is something else beyond mere desire. Plus, this "Freakin'" has some beautiful New Orleans horns that really top off the comprehensive divine pantheon of deviance. "Plaster casters casting their plaster. Masturbators baiting their masters." Really, it's almost a philosophical treatise. 

The best and most well known song of this litter would be "I Got Stoned and I Missed It." It's just a heller catchy singalong barroom pop song- with some really strong lyrical details and emotional complexity. It's a unique happy lament, making dope sound like a highly appealing dead end. Plus, it's one of the all time classic songs to listen to while you're getting stoned with the homies.

"Thumbsucker" rates as the most criminally unheralded song of the batch. Stylistically, you might think of it as a kind of pop gospel song, what with that bright piano. Emotionally, it strikes a theme of futile resistance that informs several of his best songs. "I ain't gonna let no thumbsucker suck my thumb." See, soon as you get used to getting your thumb sucked, she'll be sucking the thumb of some guy down the hall. Yet you could perfectly well pass this off as a children's song.

Which leads to the pivotal classic and big Dr Demento fave "Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout Would Not Take the Garbage Out." This piece strikes me as particularly interesting in the way it straddles between "music" and "poetry." It is also published as a poem. You could see this or his classic 1972 "Smoke Off" as merely poetry readings. Yet I knew them both as songs on the radio.

Both songs are parodies of epic poetry, and likewise seem to have melody written right into the words. They almost sing themselves off the page, with or without instrumental backing. Good stuff.

Those are probably the top picks, but nearly everything here is catchy, has some clever, unique lyrical conceit, and bears repeated listening. The cautionary Western waltz of "Don't Give a Dose to the One You Love Most" works really well as a simple pop song. The irredeemably dirty but not at all specific "Polly in a Porny" delivers one of his best punch lines after his extreme excitement at seeing a girlfriend in a blue movie. "I saw Polly in a porny with a pony- and the pony seemed a little bored."

"The Man Who Had No Sign" merits at least some mention in passing. This comes out as a narration with some musical backing, but it doesn't really have a melody per se. Thus, the specifically musical part is minimal, but this peculiar spaghetti chop socky story strikes a fairly curious tone that is not entirely comic.

I will, however, have to dock Uncle Shelby a point for the 93 second "Peace Proposal." It's some dumbass cheap Freudian nonsense that isn't funny. It's a poem, with no melody to redeem the poor lyrical conceit. Worst of all, it smells slightly "profound."

This CD release also includes a couple of really good bonus tracks, though. The tale of a man determined to get "A Front Row Seat to Hear Old Johnny Sing" has a great cameo from the Man in Black, and a particularly clever lyrical payoff. The unfortunate thing here is that he wrote the perfect Johnny Cash song- except that it would have made absolutely no sense for Johnny himself to sing it.

The cheerful faux lament of "Everybody's Making It Big But Me" works out very nicely for a parting shot. "I've got charisma and personality, how come everybody's making it big but me?" 

Ha! This freak definitely found his niche. Indeed, he found several niches. Nay, he carved out his own niches with that "charisma and personality" that couldn't be denied. Yeah, he did ok for himself.

 Jimi Hendrix Himself couldn't wave a freak flag higher.


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Shel Silverstein

Music Sustains the Soul

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