Dr. Hook & the Medicine Show is best known for the song The Cover of the Rolling Stone, a humorous Shel Silverstein song about the excesses of rock stars. “We sing about beauty and we sing about truth… at ten thousand dollars a show.” But Dr. Hook’s first hit was almost as popular, and also a Silverstein tune: Sylvia’s Mother. On its surface, it is a very sweet song of a man trying to get back together with a woman, only to be politely stonewalled by her mother.
But here’s the thing: I’m not sure how to take the song. It simultaneously makes me laugh and cry. It is too much like Please Do Not Go by the Violent Femmes, which although sweet in its way is clearly making fun of of its over-wrought singer. In Sylvia’s Mother the singer is being told he can’t talk to Sylvia, even as her mother is talking to her. And to make matters worse, the operator is asking for more money.
When done by Bobby Bare (who may have done it before Dr. Hook), it is, of course, a sweet and serious song. But the Dr. Hook version is so overdone that it is hard to escape it as being anything but a joke. And I think that is the brilliance of the song. The truth is that the greatest heartbreaks of our lives are, in an objective sense, hilarious.