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Still Giving

As a SoFla kid growing up in Sun Britches and striped gym socks, Beatcomber spent many prime, prepubescent summers slip 'n' sliding in the backyard grass and riding bikes around his still ungated neighborhood. Of course, sweltering afternoons were often most enjoyable inside, collapsed under the A/C, nosed up to Madlibs, Mad magazine, and Atari. When that was too much indolence for Momcomber to handle, there was Shel Silverstein. Kids and parents have met over the pages of Silverstein's cross-generational Switzerland since his first self-illustrated poetry book was published in the mid-'60s. Twenty years, several acclaimed hardbacks, and even a few albums later, Silverstein's classic The Giving Tree was my downtime standby, recited by my mom in all its sacrificial, symbolic tenderness. Silverstein's simple, elegant line drawings were an eyeball magnet, and his words -- especially those within the giggly, twisted, sometimes ominous poetry compilations A Light in the Attic and Where the Sidewalk Ends -- were even more mesmerizing.

Now, 20 more years later, Silverstein's goony, rag-tag genius has been collected yet again -- this time on an hourlong audio CD. Released by Columbia Records on August 2, The Best of Shel Silverstein His Words His Songs His Friends is as baldly eccentric and wildly diverse as the man behind its madness. Before his death in 1999, Silverstein was known as a friend to homework-hating kids everywhere, but throughout the '70s, he was also a regular cartoonist for Playboy. The bearded, fearsome-looking artist penned raunchy sonnets about sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll alongside bubbly rhymes on irresponsible unicorns, spoiled children, and uptight dragons.

Some of Silverstein's most memorable poems were written for some of music's most memorable personalities. "A Boy Named Sue" became his friend Johnny Cash's top-selling single, and "The Cover of the Rolling Stone" and "I Got Stoned and I Missed It" were recorded by hippie-rock jesters Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show. Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson both took on Silverstein's lyrics, and the Irish Rovers' version of "The Unicorn" is on a par with "Puff the Magic Dragon" in childhood mythology. Silverstein's songs tickle the child within, whether they're in Romper Room or Folsom Prison.

But you can't really take a rigorous, analytical stance with the poet who scribed "Ickle Me, Pickle Me, Tickle Me Too." For proper perspective, Beatcomber lit out from his lair on a recent Friday morning to powwow with Riley Newton, daughter of New Times Managing Editor Edmund Newton, and her gal-pals Emily Cooper and Megan Stein. The trio of 10-year-olds was bouncing off the walls at Newton's house, indulging in that glorious interim between summer camp and back to school. I strolled into a sun-filled family room, CD in hand, hoping to catch the unguarded, child's-eye reaction to Silverstein that I could only idealize from memory.

"We were supposed to have a book report about a shape," Megan said, "so I did it on The Missing Piece. It's a Shel Silverstein book with a story."

I had come to the right people. They knew Silverstein's writing and his intimidating appearance. "There's one book with a picture of him with his foot in it," Emily said. She brandished the author photo on the back of Where the Sidewalk Ends as proof. What, I wondered, did they imagine this barefoot man-bear's voice would sound like?

"Deep, like, grrr grrr grrrr rarwr," Riley said. The others laughed in agreement.

I hit play on "Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout Would Not Take the Garbage Out" and let Silverstein read its litany of leftovers."That's his voice?" Riley asked, wide-eyed.

"He sounds like Winnie the Pooh!" Emily said. Which is true, perhaps with a twist of Tigger.

"You wouldn't think that voice would come out of a man like this," Megan said. Really -- Silverstein's cartoonish, balloonish, rubber-band rasp is fit more for Muppet than poet. "He doesn't have a problem with tongue twisters," she concluded.

These girls admitted they had never been asked, like the poem's little Ms. Stout, to take the garbage out. "My brother does that," Emily said. I cued the next number.

"My mom told us about this song -- 'A Boy Named Sue. '" Emily seemed to be a Johnny Cash fan. I said, "He played this to prisoners in jail -- did you know that?"

Astonishment. Cash's bullish baritone rolled, his guitar twanged, the beat bounced. Though they didn't laugh at the same punch lines as the Folsom inmates, they followed the story line intently. The surprise ending, a common Silversteinism, lit them up. "That was a weird song," Riley smiled. "What it said at the end -- it's a funny ending."

The Dr. Hook ode to deviance, "Freakin' at the Freakers' Ball," lost them in the PG details ("The FBI is dancin' with the junkies/all the straights, swingin' with the funkies"). Willie Nelson's duet with Waylon Jennings, "A Couple More Years," was too slow to keep their interest -- "You have to like Willie Nelson a lot to like that song," Megan suggested. "Who's Willie Nelson?" Emily asked.

It was Silverstein's loopy, exaggerated readings of his own poems that grabbed them most. "The Generals" sneaked in a subtle, antiwar moral that Riley picked up on. "I think it's funny that they were going to go to the beach and then they decided to have a war and kill each other," she said. "I'd rather go to the beach." The disc's closing poem/song, "Boa Constrictor," narrated by a boy being eaten alive by a giant snake, got a good laugh too. "That's one of his best poems," Megan declared. "I can think of the drawing that goes with that."

I asked the girls about TV versus books and books versus the CD. "It's easier to comprehend in a book than it is on the CD," Megan said, "but I like the sound effects and the voices. It feels like you're there more than with a book, where you can put yourself in a person's place, but it's harder to do."

The doorbell rang; the pizza guy was here. It became apparent that these kids' minds were elsewhere. They bounded into the backyard with a bag of balloons to fill at the garden hose. It was still the middle of summer, after all, and there were other things to do on a Friday afternoon.

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Jonathan Zwickel

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