Nonfiction, Under The Influence
Under The Influence of Shel Silverstein
by Alec Betterley
Write a nutty poem,
Sing a mumble-gumble song,
Whistle through your comb.
Do a loony-goony dance
‘Cross the kitchen floor,
Put something silly in the world
That ain’t been there before.
― Shel Silverstein
I have a few small memories of the time when I began to write songs. I remember some of the subjects: my grandmother’s dog, benevolent alligators, and my frustration with the prevalence of raisins in my otherwise delicious breakfast cereals. The location, too, is clear: the half-sized, jangly upright piano with chipped keys. But I don’t recall any actual drive to be creative, impress anyone, or to any deep desire to express any of my deep, soulful eight year old feelings. At some point, I just had a bunch of songs.
I never performed them live and rarely shared them with anybody. Although, I did put a few to tape, my father as head producer, on a rented four track during the seventh grade. It was entitled “Grizzly Riboflavin,” a combination of one of my favorite descriptive words with a variety of B vitamin (I hope this cassette will never be heard by anyone again, ever).
While most of the other boys in my suburban high school chased girls and played video games, I often retreated home to write on the little, half-sized piano. It wasn’t that I felt better than them; there was just something about the act of writing, barring even a single shred of recognition, that took me in. I found joy in writing the little pieces of music and holding them as secrets. That was all that really mattered.
Eventually, and for quite some time, the interest faded away. I played my instruments sporadically and when I did compose, I hid behind silly abstractions and sounds, not having the slightest idea where to look – within myself or on the outside – for inspiration. Contrary to what I thought I knew about creative inspiration, I became frustrated when I tried to channel any sort of monumental life experiences into song. I tried to write in the weeks following a difficult break-up, and floundered, ending up with sappy and bogus lyrics. A couple beautiful wilderness experiences and cross-country trips also failed at morphing into song.
Surprisingly, one of the first times I felt the warmth and excitement of true inspiration was when I plucked a book from one of my favorite childhood writers, Shel Silverstein, from the shelf above my piano. After not having read his words for at least a decade, I was struck by his natural and wondrous rhythm; the offbeat, mysterious and somewhat creepy worlds he created; and the beautiful qualities he gave to any characters who were different, cast-off, or shunned in any way.
Although Shel died years before I began to write to his poetry, I felt like he has always been a co-writer, a buddy to turn to when I’m having difficulty unraveling a musical or lyrical idea. In the seven years since I first opened “Sidewalk Ends” and started writing melodies to the beat of Shel’s words, his works have provided the rhythmic base or informed, in some way, at least half of my songs. When a friend asked me to write lyrics to music he had composed, I weaved lines of his parents’ divorce with images from Shel’s famous The Giving Tree. When another friend sent me Shel’s collection of illustrations, The Thinker of Tender Thoughts, I immediately began working on a song based on one of the illustrations.
Although I’ve composed to other authors and poets over the years, Shel is the one I return to time and time again. His work, to me, is non-judgemental, welcoming, and warm, all qualities that lend themselves well to the sometimes nervous and reserved place I enter when trying to write truthfully and openly about myself. In my own attempts to create worlds and characters in my songs, his writing is priceless and he an example of one to whom imagination held no bounds.