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JEAN SHEPHERD & SHEL SILVERSTEIN Part 1

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.

foibles album

hairy jazz good color

WHAT A CONTRAST!

STAY TUNED FOR PART TWO

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10 Comments

  1. Here’s Shel’s story Lafcadio The Lion Who Shot Back :http://www.metrovoiceover.com/lafcadio.html

    Shel paraphrases Jean Shepherd in this 1963 story…I’d like you to be in my circus…”circus shmirkus dominatetuss ” said the lion at 16:00 “shooter smooter..”ears shears a glass of beers”

  2. Which sounds suspiciously like “Needicks Shmeicks Double Beeticks- Pitkins All agree-Orens frankens Goodens eatins Wholesome as can be”
    Or “meatloaf beat Loaf”

  3. artl7 says:

    I interviewed Shel about Jean for my 1973 Columbia U. Journalism School thesis — basically, a long magazine piece about Jean that was never published — and he told me a few things that still resonate. [I’ll see if the school can dig it up and I can send along a descriptive article about Jean when he was still going strong.] He said as best I can recall, “Jean produces enough material for 500 short stories, 10 screenplays and five novels each year, but he still wants the rush of immediate public performance” — as a way of explaining why his humor couldn’t be boiled down to either short late-night TV appearances or major projects that could win him a national audience.

    • ebbergmann says:

      I’d very much like to see this article, and learn from you any more about the Jean/Shel connection!

      • artl7 says:

        Hi, I sent via one of your emails my blog posts that include the audio of this beatles story. I asked do you pay out of pocket to transcribe, or how long does it take you to do it? When you did your Army book of his stories, or your bio? How do you arrange to do the transcribing– how long does transcribing an hour of his take? OR do you pay someone to do it for you? I’m asking because I waited months to get help transcribing an interview with comedian Maria Bamford because I didn’t have the time or patience to do it:
        http://www.huffingtonpost.com/art-levine/maria-bamford-tells-almos_b_5251231.html

      • ebbergmann says:

        I haven’t received your email from either of my addresses–I hardly ever check the gmail box, but it’s not there either.
        I do all my transcribing myself. For me it’s a very slow process–I listen to maybe 4-8 words then pause and write it in longhand. A 45 minute program usually takes a couple of hours. Then I sometimes have to do considerable minor editing. I know nothing about finding and paying someone to do that for me–and I wouldn’t be able to afford it anyway–You’d be shocked at how little money I make from my books–good thing I do it for love-not-money.

        Cheers,

        Gene B.

    • Nick Mantis says:

      arti7…did they ever dig up your interview with Shel? Thank you.

  4. artl7 says:

    I didn’t think my earlier comment was public. I don’t have tape of my conversations with Shel, but I can find ouit if Colulmbia U has my “thesis” — a portrait of Jean Shepherd including observation of shows in person and in studio — available.

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