Few of us are untouched by the work of Shel Silverstein. Millenials, in particular, know him as the author of their first books of poetry–Where the Sidewalk Ends and A Light in the Attic–in addition, of course, to picture books like The Giving Tree. We may recall “Ickle Me, Pickle Me, Tickle Me, Too,” while our parents remember the poignancy of “The Little Boy and the Old Man.”
Yet, for all of his success as a children’s poet, it was not Silverstein’s first or only career, nor was it his original intent to write children’s literature. His grotesque illustrations hint at his work as a cartoonist (he contributed to Stars and Stripes and Playboy for decades, and was friends with Hef), while his poetry reflects his ability as a songwriter. Not only did he set some of his own poems to music, he also wrote songs for artists like Johnny Cash (“Boy Named Sue”), Bobby Bare, and Judy Collins. On top of the poetry and music, he wrote for stage and film (he and David Mamet co-wrote the 1988 film Things Change). He had his hand in nearly everything, including music, poetry, theater, comedy, television, such that it’s nearly impossible to live in America and not know of something that Silverstein created.
For this reason, Silverstein was and is the kind of American artist to whom everyone feels they have a claim, because they love his poetry or his music and have known of him all their life. By now, a generation of us have grown up in a world with A Light in the Attic and Boy Named Sue, but we don’t know the man that gave them to us. He died in 1999 at the far too young age of 68, and lived a life full of great joy and sorrow. He partied at the Playboy mansion, and lost his young daughter to cancer. He had famous friends and a passion for authenticity (he did what he felt when he felt he should do it). He is simultaneously friend and a stranger to most of us.
A little over a year ago, it was reported that director would be directing a biopic based on the biography A Boy Named Shel: The Life and Times of Shel Silverstein by Lisa Rogak. Since then, however, there has been no further mention of it, and no indication of a timeline or cast.
I have a few ideas about casting (Scoot McNairy of AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire would make a good lead, perhaps–and would it be weird for Joaquin Phoenix to reprise his role as Johnny Cash?), but mostly I hope that this particular project hasn’t fallen by the wayside. McG is a busy man, after all, as are the suggested writers, Shafer and Vicknair, and biopics can be somewhat risky–look at the attempts to document Steve Jobs’s life and career. I think, however, that a man so beloved by so many would draw crowds to the theater, and that his life and work could be made into a wonderful story and tribute.
Regardless of whether the biopic happens, however, on this, what would have been Silverstein’s 85th birthday, we, as consumers and critics, should take some time to appreciate a man who left an indelible mark on American culture.
Here are a few links to help you on your way:
A YouTube channel dedicated to Shel Silverstein: https://www.youtube.com/user/ShelSilversteinBooks
David Mamet reflecting on Shel Silverstein: http://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2014/03/11/he-was-my-closest-friend/
Johnny Cash singing “Boy Named Sue”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WOHPuY88Ry4
Shel Silverstein singing “Boa Constrictor” to a group of children: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bv2LUva-fo0
Finally, a beautiful scene as presented in “The Little Boy and the Old Man”:
Said the little boy, “Sometimes I drop my spoon.”
Said the old man, “I do that too.”
The little boy whispered, “I wet my pants.”
“I do that too,” laughed the little old man.
Said the little boy, “I often cry.”
The old man nodded, “So do I.”
“But worst of all,” said the boy, “it seems
Grown-ups don’t pay attention to me.”
And he felt the warmth of a wrinkled old hand.
“I know what you mean,” said the little old man.
(from A Light in the Attic, 1981)
References & Further Reading: