Shel Silverstein said in 1963 that Jean was his closest friend. We know of many instances in which they added to each other’s creative efforts, especially those we encounter from the late 1950s and early 1960s. Regarding Shel Silverstein’s first album, Hairy Jazz, we have information. Shel’s bizarre voice and wacky rendition in it perfectly complement the unrelievedly raunchy lyrics of every song. The “hairy” Dixieland music is by The Red Onion Jazz Band. In 1959, besides playing a part in Shepherd’s theater piece Look, Charlie, Shel drew the comic playbill for it, and just as Shel frequently wrote fanciful liner notes for friends, he wrote the absurd liner notes for Jean’s first comedy album. Now Jean’s silly liner notes for Shel’s album have come to light, probably written soon after Shel’s for Jean. Here is part of Jean for Hairy:
Once in a generation an artist of first magnitude appears full blown and instantly communicates with his public. Silverstein’s delicate phrasing and breathtaking technical brilliance coupled with his superb acting talents led the usually conservative Italian critics to a veritable competition among themselves in a search for adjectives. Overnight he took his place among the all time greats of the operatic world.
Besides writing each other’s liner notes, a book introduction, a book dedication, Shel (without any doubt in my mind) surreptitiously immortalized Jean in his lyrics of “A Boy Named Sue.” An internet source suggests, with possible justification, that although the “core story of the song” was Shep, the particular song title might have been related to the name of one of the prosecutors at the 1927 Scopes Trial, a Mr. Sue K. Hicks. Yes, but the Sue in the song is best buddy Jean.
In Lisa Rogak’s A Boy Named Shel, Lois Nettleton is quoted as saying that she and Shel spent some days wandering through Manhattan together while Jean was at the station preparing for his broadcasts. Rogak emphasizes the wide variety of Shel’s interests, talents, and creative enterprises.
I suggest that Shep and Shel’s similar attitudes toward life and art, and the diverse, though sometimes divergent, activities they enjoyed, are likely reasons for their close friendship. They must have enjoyed each other’s responses to the world around them. Their mutual love of books, their writing, drawing (sharing the impulse to draw on napkins or whatever came to hand), music, travel, friends, their delightfully skewed—though different—humor and outlooks on life. Their shared distaste for some of what they considered the idealistic and uninformed attitudes of some folk singers and assorted protesters. Their need for change, to explore, to move on and not just be, as Shep once put it, barnacles. Their nonconformity. And despite all these interests and many friends, their common need to be loners. Their both having little patience for kids. Their I, Libertine-like attitude toward women. (Until Leigh Brown—strong enough, persistent enough, clever enough to rein in Jean for their decades together.) Shep and Shel were a perfect pair of buddies. Yet they were far from identical.
One’s impression is that in the late 1950s they were both wild and crazy guys and that Shel had always been the wilder and crazier. While Shepherd at least outwardly toned down with the years, Shel remained consistently the more free and unconventional—exasperatingly difficult and quirky, yet lovable. What might be symptomatic, at least in their public images, is the difference between the cover of Shel’s first album, Hairy Jazz, and that of Shepherd’s first comedy album, Jean Shepherd and Other Foibles, both from 1959.
WHAT A CONTRAST!
STAY TUNED FOR PART TWO