I became interested in poetry, both writing and reading, because of Shel Silverstein. I worked in the school library in 8th grade (and 11th and 12th, for that matter), and there wasn’t always a class visiting. So when there wasn’t anything else to do, the librarian would pretty much let me run amok through the books, reading whatever I felt like. My wanderings brought me to A Light in the Attic and Where the Sidewalk Ends. Now we’d always had Shel Silverstein books in our house when I was a kid. The Giving Tree was an absolute staple. And one of my uncles gave my brother a copy of Uncle Shelby’s A-B-Z Book for his birthday one year, but I think I read it more than he did. (I highly, highly, highly recommend that anyone with children in their lives gives them a copy of this book at some point. It isn’t really a children’s book, but it is one of the most subversive things I’ve ever read. I grew up on Uncle Shelby, Looney Tunes, Sesame Street, and H.R. Pufnstuf. Really ought to explain everything there is to know about me.) But I’d never seen his enchanting poetry books before. Alternately heartwarming and surreal, Silverstein’s poetry was not just about things that would interest children but took children seriously as readers and people.
Which is interesting, since it seems like much of Silverstein’s career as a musician was about not taking things too seriously. He wrote some very good serious songs, but he became famous for his satirical humor with songs like “A Boy Named Sue” and “The Cover of Rolling Stone.” And he was responsible for this classic stoner tune that is notoriously difficult to find copies of.
“The Great Smoke-Off” was one of those cult classics that you had to be both nerdy and cool to know anything about. It was always on Dr. Demento’s year-end countdown of silly songs. It was also a great big middle finger in the face of “decent” society. There really aren’t that many songs this explicitly about drugs that doesn’t demonize them. (Official Disclaimer: I do not use, nor do I advocate the use of any illegal drugs–or most legal ones, for that matter. I do believe drugs should be legalized, but also extremely regulated.) I always felt like I was breaking some kind of law just listening to this song.
I don’t know how much of his music is still in print, frankly. I know you can get CDs of him reading many of his poems, often with special editions of the books themselves (worth the extra money, IMO). I also know that the world is a better place for having had Shel Silverstein in it. He treated children like they were worth listening to and treated adults like they were children. It would be nice if more people got those priorities straight.