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1. Dan Zanes opens with “You’re Always Welcome at Our House.” 2. Janine Nichols performs “The Taker.”
One of my first memories is of my mother reading Shel Silverstein’s “The Sitter” before bed. For some reason I found this poem to be endlessly hilarious, despite the running themes of parental incompetence and child-smothering. Mrs. McTwitter smiled innocently back at me from the page while she sat atop a child’s twitching feet. Since then, I’ve been sure to have a copy of Where the Sidewalk Ends on my bookshelf wherever I live.
But Silverstein was about so much more than just smothering unruly children. He’s proven to be one of the most prolific genre-hopping writers in our collective culture. This was proven on Saturday during SHELEBRATION, a tribute to the works of Shel Silverstein at Central Park’s SummerStage. For an uninterrupted three hours, a lineup of over 20 performers paid tribute with covers, readings, and other interpretations of Silverstein’s repertoire. Despite the sometimes torrential rain and the shapeless yellow ponchos that were handed out, parents, children, and other miscellaneous literati managed to dance in utter glee to pieces like “One’s On the Way,” “The Ballad of Lucy Jordan,” and “A Boy Named Sue.” In fact, “A Boy Named Sue” appeared twice in the evening, the second time being interpreted by John Ventimiglia from the perspective of the old man. Pretty creepy. But also pretty awesome.
1. The main stage. 2. Sally Timms of the Mekons pays tribute.
One of the first standouts of the evening came from Lou Reed and Emily Haines (of Metric), performing an updated version of “25 Minutes to Go.” It sounds like an odd pairing, but Reed and Haines did quite well here with their murky, low octave speak-singing. Reed sounded as if he were channeling alt-country singer Johnny Dowd, and Haines complimented him quite well from behind a grand piano as she counted down the minutes. References in this updated version include George W. Bush (and a bunch of murdering scum) and Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s “illegal third term.”
1. Martha Wainwright sings “Lullabies, Legends, & Lies.” 2. Suzanne Vega wraps up with “Good Night, Little Houseplant.”
As the sun started to set and the artists realized they needed an intermission, a recording came on of Laurie Anderson reading The Giving Tree in its entirety. Though the story has become part of literary canon, you could tell from Anderson’s voice that she may have been having a little difficulty getting through this one. It’s a child’s first primer in borderline-abusive, codependent relationships, after all.
But the final hour or so is where things really started to pick up. Jodie Markell belted out “One’s On the Way,” which Loretta Lynn made famous in 1971. (Before Saturday, I never realized this had been part of Silverstein’s work.) Annabella Sciorra pulled the remaining audience in with “The Great Smoke-Off.” Backed by the amazing house band, Sciorra channeled the shrieks of Pearly Sweetcake as she screamed “NOTHIN’ LEFT TO ROLL! … IS THIS SOME TWISTED JOKE?” The audience, open-jawed and silent, was totally mesmerized.
The performers were myriad, and the rain was pretty forceful, but goddamn it, it was a Shel Silverstein tribute. For all I know, Shel was probably looking down at that scene and smiling. Or maybe he was flipping us off from the beyond, for screwing with his work.
–John Zuarino is a writer and editor living in Brooklyn. He’s aware that this is true of many people in Brooklyn.