Shel Silverstein’s Secret, Raucous Recording Sessions
Shel Silverstein’s 80th birthday was last Saturday, and since my admiration (okay, uh, general fannishness) is hardly a secret in these quarters, it seemed like as good a time as any to write about the series of recordings he did approximately 40 years ago that were too profane to release to the general public. That piece runs today on TheAtlantic.com’s culture channel, and includes YouTube clips for two of the unreleased recordings: “Fuck ‘Em” and “I Love My Right Hand.”
Because of time and space constraints, the final version of the piece didn’t include some of my recollections of how I first got a hold of one version of these bootleg sessions:
In early 1999, I was still a college student, a fan of Silverstein’s works for children but barely cognisant of his work for adults. Thanks to a long-defunct site run by one Carol Arnett, I got up to speed in record time, my own dormant archival instincts awakened. On April 17 of that year – just three weeks before Silverstein died – a curious item went up for auction on eBay. It was an acetate, with two sides of eye-popping titles like “Fuck ‘Em”, “I Am Not a Fag” and “I Love My Right Hand.” It bore the marks of Glenbrook, CT-based blank tape manufacturer Audio Devices Inc., which would be bought by Capitol Records in 1972 and closed down just two years later. The seller, now consigned to the dark, dank basement of the Internet, seemed just as bewildered as the small but enthusiastic community of Silverstein fans made aware of the acetate for the very first time: “This acetate was probably never intended to see the light of day because 1) Shel Silverstein sounds as though he is high on something and 2) the subject matter of most of the songs is-shall we say-adult rated? I realize that Mr. Silverstein is a very unusual artist, but this material is out there even for him.”
Eventually the acetate sold for $431.60. I, being a frugal-minded college student, didn’t bother to bid, though eBay secured me a rare 1963 Silverstein interview published in a college magazine, first editions of out-of-print titles and other material currently gathering dust in my parents’ house. But then an out-of-the-blue email came from a fellow Silverstein enthusiast. He could burn me a copy of a slightly different version of the acetate, did I want a copy?
Indeed I did. Per the estate, there are no plans to release these tracks commercially, and it remains to be seen if Silverstein ever intended them to see the light of day or if it was just him having way too much fun in the recording studio. But there are still so many unanswered questions: where were the sessions recorded? Who was the producer who says “take number one, Fornicate Them” and is privy to Shel’s madcap lyrical stylings? Was the acetate that sold on eBay a decade ago the master of all the recordings or a multiple-generations-removed copy, like the version I have? Or does the master actually live in one of CBS’s vaults somewhere?
One more note: this piece would never have been written without the power of Twitter. So thanks first to Alexis Madrigal for expressing his interest, and to his colleague Eleanor Barkhorn, the culture channel editor at The Atlantic, for signing off and whittling the piece down by about half. And I think I’d better go listen to the “Julie’s Working” outtake again…