Published on February 5th, 2016 | by Andy Sedlak
‘Doctor Hook’ – Dr. Hook & the Medicine Show  (Album Review)
Producer: Ron Haffkine
Peak chart position: 45
Top 40 U.S. singles: 1
Most of us remember Shel Silverstein as the author of Where the Sidewalk Ends, a beloved children’s book read aloud in our elementary school classrooms.
Generations of kids gravitated toward Silverstein’s poems and short stories. He’s a literary giant – more than 20 million books sold – and his work seemed as spiffy as our mother’s kitchen floors.
Little did we know, eh?
While Silverstein is a celebrated children’s author, he’s also the writer of darkly comic compositions like “Freakin’ at the Freaker’s Ball,” “I Got Stoned and I Missed It” and a racy tune about V.D. called “Don’t Give A Dose to the One You Love the Most.”
Silverstein wrote a ton of songs. Here are a few you might know:
- “A Boy Named Sue,” made famous by Johnny Cash
- “25 Minutes to Go,” made famous by Johnny Cash
- “One’s On the Way,” made famous by Loretta Lynn
- “The Talker,” made famous by Gordon Lightfoot
- “The Ballad of Lucy Jordan,” made famous by Marianne Faithfull, and later Belinda Carlise
- “Queen of the Silver Dollar,” made famous by Emmylou Harris
- “Boa Constrictor,” made famous by Peter, Paul and Mary
One of Silverstein’s closest collaborators was an intentionally gimmicky yet impeccably honest band from New Jersey called Dr. Hook & the Medicine Show. Silverstein wrote all the songs on their debut album, Doctor Hook. It turns 45 years old this year.
In spite of the group’s unadulterated weirdness, Dr. Hook played with more gusto than the paint-by-numbers country music of the early 1970s. And you’d be crazy to compare them to the impassive soft rock towering over AM radio at the time. The fact of the matter is that they were misfits, which must have been incredibly appealing to a man like Silverstein.
Imagine everyone’s surprise when “Sylvia’s Mother” – the group’s second single – made it all the way to No. 5 on the Hot 100 chart in 1971. The song – a weepy ballad about a man trying to reach a lover while her mother stands in the way – topped the charts in Ireland and made it to No. 2 in the U.K.
In spite of the success of “Sylvia’s Mother,” Doctor Hook stalled out at No. 45 on the album charts in 1971. Part of the reason Silverstein & Co. couldn’t parlay the single’s success into a blockbuster album was because they weren’t the easiest bunch to get acquainted with.
From “Sylvia’s Mother:”
Sylvia’s Mother says Sylvia’s packin’
She’s gonna be leaving today
Sylvia’s mother says Sylvia’s marrying a fellow down Galveston way
Sylvia’s mother says please don’t say nothin’ that will make her start crying and stay
“Sylvia’s Mother” opens the LP, but then the album is waterlogged by three fillers in a row. None of them – “Marie Laveaux,” “Sing Me a Rainbow” and “Hey, Lady Godiva” – are half as interesting as the opening cut. “Hey, Lady Godiva” is the album’s greatest error in judgment. Silverstein’s poem seems to resist being put to Dr. Hook’s music.
If you commit to the whole record, however, some of the zaniest and crassest music of the early 1970s is in store. Songs like “Four Years Older than Me” are draped in faultless immaturity. The song chronicles a teenager’s pursuit to lose his virginity on his 17th birthday. The character is successful (“I got the best piece of cake I ever had”).
(Above) The boys perform “Sylvia’s Mother,” the band’s biggest hit ever.
“Makin’ It Natural” winks at ’70s drug culture with a string of one-liners (“That stuff I was so keen on I’ll no longer have to lean on/’Cause your love’s enough to get me high”).
“I Call That True Love” is the album’s biggest knee slapper.
From “I Call That True Love:”
You gotta rub my body with scented oil
Cool me with an electric fan
Run to the church and fall down on your knees
And say “Lord, I want to thank you for that man”
I’ll call that true love, true and sweet
That ain’t the kind of love I’m gettin’
But that’s the kind of love I need
All the while, weepers in the vein of “Sylvia’s Mother” are plentiful. “Kiss It Away” – a sweet plea to a former lover – is given life by Dr. Hook’s commitment to Silverstein’s writing. The Medicine Show’s folky restraint suits the narrative about a man who put everything he had into a romance that ultimately ran its course.
From “Kiss It Away:”
All the hard times we been through
We’d never mind ‘em
We’d just kiss ‘em away, we’d just kiss ‘em away
But now I’m looking for the good times and I can’t find them
Guess we kissed them away, must have kissed them away
Look through pictures of Dr. Hook and they seem like the goofiest bunch of assholes you’d ever meet. After losing an eye in a car crash, vocalist Ray Sawyer wore an eye patch. The patch was accompanied by a floppy cowboy hat and a gold tooth. Naturally, this made him the poster child for the band. The lead vocalist on the majority of the band’s songs, however, was Dennis Locorriere. To this day, he retains the rights to the name Dr. Hook. Sawyer has been permitted to tour behind the name.
The rest of the group was evenly distributed between hicks and hippies.
If there’s a theme to Doctor Hook, it’s that Silverstein’s songs get more outrageous as the album progresses. Yet weepers temper the mood so that the band isn’t reduced to a novelty act.
“When She Cries” is perhaps the album’s weepiest moment. “Judy,” about a man who’s more or less ready to re-commit for a former lover, is another wonderfully browbeaten ballad.
A series of awkward encounters slowly starts to reveal to the narrator in “Judy” that he is too uncultured to survive in contemporary society. A former flame with a steady hand is needed to keep him straight.
Judy, I’m slowly moving back to you
And I wish I could say I’ll treat you better than I used to
It’s just I’m learnin’ lots of things I never knew back then
Judy, I’m slowly moving back again
The album ends with “Mama, I’ll Sing One Song for You,” proving that after all the dive bars and one-night stands, even misfits turn to mom in life’s quieter moments.
If you stick with it, Doctor Hook is a lot of fun.
And it also wrestles with more loss than a Barry Manilow album.
The group went on to release 10 albums in 10 years, beginning with 1972’s Sloppy Seconds. Nothing ever charted higher than No. 41, but they scored another Top 10 hit by poking fun at celebrity in “Cover of the Rolling Stone.” It remains the band’s signature song even though it was not as successful as “Sylvia’s Mother.”
Silverstein passed away from a heart attack in 1999 but the pluralism in his work is on display in Doctor Hook. Stark contrasts might turn you off, but they didn’t bother me.
Tomorrow I’ll be movin’ out on them dusty country backroads
Some sweatin’ hard-eyed brakeman may hear a song or two
And the girl in the blue wallpapered room, she’ll ask where I’ve been hidin’
And mama, I’ll tell ‘em I stopped and sang one song for you
…now how often do you come across something like that?
Thank you, boys.
And thank you, Shel.