Song cycles were once a prominent form of presenting music. A song cycle (or “Liederyklus” in German) is a group of songs with some type of coherence bringing them together. For Tony Bonton and The Mimzees‘ “Sheltallica” it is the words of Shel Silverstein. Those words have long resonated with Tommy Boynton, who composed 9 out of 10 songs in the cycle.
Boynton’s musical prowess is evident and expanded upon by an incredible performance from Brendan O’Donnell on viola, but it isn’t really the music that strikes me as much as how they play it. I’ve never seen Tommy more at home than when he plays these songs. They are a part of him, and with a master like Brendan next to him, the confidence of the duo soars. The two weave their way through the mystical yet natural world of Silverstein, playfully changing pace and mood throughout the cycle, but always moving forward through the ebbs and flows.
And that’s it. The playfulness. The youthfulness. The lack of a filter. That is what is important. The ability to play is often forgotten once adulthood visits us, but Boynton and O’Donnell haven’t lost it. This video, these songs, they are two people doing what they love to do most, while expressing their condition and the condition of others through the words of a true master.
But even childhood is not without hard lessons. Silverstein’s words have never been empty, they are rich and full of knowledge and of heartache. Songs like “The Little Boy and The Old Man” are the perfect example of the cycles of life. We start much like we end. The finite nature of our existence and our relationships to music, youth, and poetry are examined throughout this song cycle, and the truths are not avoided.
Listening to “Sheltallica” got me thinking about comedy and tragedy much like I was pondering youth and old age. Silverstein was a master of words, but he didn’t reserve them just for the cute and cuddly. Silverstein was raw. He wrote with emotion and a wise conviction. The same elements are present in Boynton and O’Donnell’s performance. Both the comic and the tragic permeate, but what rings most true is the balance.
What makes “Sheltallica” so powerful is the honesty. In the twilight of our youth, we face honesty head on. We first see our world and then we see our death. I’m left thinking that none of us are that different after all; that there is a great leveler. Sure, we have defining characteristics, both physical and emotional, but the cycles we experience are the same.
“Sheltallica” remind us all of the circular nature of individual and collective existence, and most importantly, they remind us not to take these finite cycles for granted. We must examine them, we must make poetry and music out of them, no matter how comedic or tragic they may be.