shepquest

MY BOOKS ABOUT JEAN SHEPHERD

SHEP'S ARMY: BUMMERS, BLISTERS, AND BOONDOGGLES, Opus Books. Nearly three dozen of Shepherd's army stories never before in print introduced and transcribed. Foreword by Keith Olbermann. (published August 2013)

EXCELSIOR, YOU FATHEAD! THE ART AND ENIGMA OF JEAN SHEPHERD, Applause Books (published March, 2005)

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JEAN SHEPHERD MORE ODDS & ENDS AND ETCETERAS

WALLY WOOD, E.C. COMICS WRITER/ILLUSTRATOR SUPREME

I met Wallace Wood at a cocktail party at the apartment of a friend/coworker. We chatted and he inscribed my copy of his bio in an E. C. comic. The Shep connection is that in the April, 1957 issue of Mad Comics, Shepherd’s monolog (his only appearance in Mad), “The Night People vs ‘Creeping Meatballism’” had been illustrated by Wally. I don’t know if they’d even met or what connection there might have been, but I can credibly believe in the possibility.

*

BOBBY FISCHER, WORLD CHESS CHAMPION

Shepherd talked on the air about knowing Bobby Fischer: “By the way, are you aware that one of the very earliest listeners—for those of you who don’t know anything about Bobby, the chess player—used to come up here, you know. Bobby Fischer was one of the very first listeners we had. You know Bobby, the great genius—really. He gave me a chess set one time.”

I encountered in Frank Brady’s extensive book Endgame: Bobby Fischer’s Rise and Fall–From America’s Brightest Prodigy to the Edge of Madness (2011), nearly two pages describing Fischer’s obsession with Shep:

More than a loyal follower of the show, Bobby was a fanatic. When the broadcast—variously described as part kabuki, part commedia dell’arte—started in 1956 on WOR Radio [In 1956, Bobby was about 13 years old], Bobby listened to almost very show when he was in New York….Bobby sent Shepherd notes, attended live performances that the radio host gave at a Greenwich Village coffeehouse called the Limelight, and visited him in his studio at 1440 Broadway. After the show, the two would…walk two blocks north and eat hot dogs…[in] Times Square.

*

ODDS AND ENDS AND ETCETERAS

Some of the odds and ends.

  1. I feel that most artsy people who’d spent time in New York City during their youth would have been Jean Shepherd listeners. But how to contact people in the arts, getting past their gatekeepers? Surely Bob Dylan listened to Shepherd. I wrote to Suze Rotolo’s agent. (Suze and Dylan lived together in the early 1960s, and is pictured with him walking up a snowy New York street on an early album cover.) Got no response. Is anyone out there good friends with Dylan?
  2. The family who bought Shep’s Maine house in the woods by a pond had no idea what the large, two-sided sign they found there meant until they happened upon my book about him.

I corresponded with them for a couple of years but they never seemed to get around to checking out what Shep materials they’d found in the house and stored in a closet with a relative. (Manuscripts? Early audios?) Will probably end up in a dumpster and/or the grave.

  1. Having bounced back and forth like a ping pong ball by phone between the defunct Luden’s Cough Drop offices and their now-operating Luden’s Cough Drop offices, trying to find what should have been a small treasury of photos of Shepherd in the Amazon delivering their 500 pounds of sweets to former headhunters—why not even a single slim folder of that magical moment in cough drop history?
  2. The editor who published Shepherd’s many pieces in Car and Driver told me that Shep was often late in providing material on time. Upon hearing such complaints, Shepherd would improvise his entire article in a phone call.
  3. In conversation with me, a knowledgeable informant let slip an unmistakable innuendo regarding a significant occurrence related to the creative Shepherd-world I’m obsessed with. When I asked about this, the person requested–and I swore—that I’d never divulge it. I never will. I suppose the info will end up in a dumpster and/or the grave.

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JEAN SHEPHERD–& Anthony Bourdain, proposed book covers

In recent years I’ve designed proposed book covers for several proposed Shepherd books. Recently, thinking about Anthony Bourdain and his masterful TV series, Parts Unknown, I thought of a title and book cover for what I was sure would be a new biography of him. Then I googled and found that, indeed, his assistant/collaborator, Laurie Woolever, was working on such a book. I hope she might find my efforts useful, as indicated by my rough design draft:

I’ve previously posted proposed covers for my transcribed books of

Shep Kid Stories and Shep World Travels.

Here are some of my proposed cover designs for other proposed Shep-books:

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JEAN SHEPHERD–even more researching

More contacts regarding Shep

Click on images to enlarge

NORMAN MAILER, AUTHOR

Shepherd had commented on his show that in the early days of the Village Voice, he and Mailer would sometimes converse there. He mentioned Mailer scores of times on the radio, always in a disparaging way—but I never know what had cause this, other than to suppose that he envied Mailer’s great literary successes. How to contact someone like Norman Mailer? I encountered that he associated with an arts group in Provincetown, where he had a house. I wrote to the group’s head, asking him to give my questions to Mailer, which he did. Mailer wrote his short answers on my page of questions. The response was sent from a name and address in Brooklyn—the envelope and inserts had obviously been damaged by water in transit:

At first he didn’t remember Shepherd, then “hardly” remembered him. I wonder if that slight was a response to Shepherd’s radio disparagements. At a Barnes and Noble reading, when I got to Mailer’s table where he was signing his new book, I thanked him for responding to my questions about Shepherd. He looked at me and said, “Be sure you tell the whole truth about him.” What was he suggesting?

*

ANDY KAUFMAN, PERFORMANCE ARTIST

Reading the 1999 bio by Bill Zehme, Lost in the Funhouse: The Life and Mind of Andy Kaufman, I came across this reference to Kaufman’s teenage years:  “…his passions for Kerouac and radio humorist Jean Shepherd…”

In Julie Hecht’s 2001 book, Was This Man a Genius?: Talks with Andy Kaufman, I encountered a quote that I used in “Accolades for Shep.”:

“I don’t think any sense of humor is funny. Rarely. Jean Shepherd is Funny.”

One bit for which Andy is known is that after his performance at Carnegie Hall (April, 1979), he invited the audience out for milk and cookies. When Andy was not quite ten years old, Shepherd, after at least one performance of his theater piece “Look, Charlie,” December 1958 and February 1959) he had invited the audience out for coffee—had Andy attended this and done his own variation/tribute?

“Milk and Cookies.”

*

DEE SNIDER OF TWISTED SISTER

Here is part of what I’ve previously written about my encounter with Dee Snider.

A fellow I know casually, Mark Snider, asked me what I do now that I’m retired. I responded that I’ve been obsessed by, and have written about, Jean Shepherd. Mark said that he was a big fan and that his brother, Dee Snider, was also. He said “Dee Snider” as though I should have recognized the name, but I didn’t. “Twisted Sister,” said Mark. “What’s that?” said I. Mark told me that “Twisted Sister” was a rock band and Dee was the lead singer/song-writer. I said I’d love to talk to him about Jean Shepherd. Mark gave me contact info and I invited Dee to visit me in my Shep Shrine at our house

He’d listened with his transistor radio hidden under his pillow. Snider is a very big Shepherd cuckoo and he shares some enthusiasms with Shep, including the thrill of motorcycling.

When a black Hummer pulled up outside our house, a tall, thin man dressed all in black like a motorcyclist got out and I greeted him at the door.  It was Dee Snider in mufti.

Dee, with his yellow hair pulled back under a black baseball cap, the peak turned to the back hiding a good part of the protruding ponytail, now in his fifties and still performing with the band, seems neither extravagant nor berserk.  He’s a regular guy offstage—at least for the three hours we spent together—so even his performance persona has its off-duty mufti.

Snider said that, “Jean totally affected my storytelling ability. I think it was by osmosis.  We learn from people we listen to.” He’s gotten many accolades for his storytelling on his radio program and, he commented, “I’m known to have a pretty vast vocabulary, using words and phraseology that others don’t use, and I didn’t know exactly where that came from until I realized, upon this reexamination I’m doing now, that Jean has a massive vocabulary.” About word-usage, Snider referred to lyrics in his song “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” including, “Your life is trite and jaded, boring and confiscated.” As he put it, “Not words your average heavy metal rock song would include. I wasn’t very good in English, but I’m taken with Shepherd’s mastery of vocabulary. His mastery of the English weapon.”  Dee stopped himself: “I was going to say ‘using the English language as a weapon.’ Jean used the language as a weapon, and it’s a powerful, powerful tool—offensive and defensive tool, you know–and when it’s working for you, boy, there’s nothing like it!”

*

JERRY SEINFELD, COMEDIAN/HUMORIST

For several years I’d heard that Jerry Seinfeld had been quoted as saying he was a big fan of Shepherd’s. But, before I could confidently report that, I needed direct evidence. Several months after Excelsior, You Fathead! was published, one night we got a call from friends saying that in Seinfeld’s Season 6 set of his sitcom, he’d expressed the importance of Shepherd for him. The next morning I ran out and bought the set. In his special commentary for the episode, “The Gymnast,” (the one where George takes a pastry out of a kitchen garbage pail and is seen by his girlfriend’s mother—played by Lois Nettleton), Seinfeld comments that Lois had been married to Shepherd—he “formed my entire comedic sensibility. I learned how to do comedy from Jean Shepherd.”

We met when Seinfeld spoke for an hour at the Paley Center for Media

about the importance of Shepherd to his comedic mindset.

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JEAN SHEPHERD–more researching a book

SHEP INFO QUESTS & RELATED MATTERS

Click on images to enlarge

Researching can take one onward and upward into unexpected quests. Peripatetic encounters for my Jean Shepherd book and, seemingly, forever after. I spoke with various people who knew him at the Village Voice, WOR, and some other stations and occupations. Some informants gave me further references to contact and some I searched for based on unexpected clues; some just fell into my lap.

Thinking about all this stuff—some of which, obsessed, I know I’ve written about before. What I go through in my glorious quest for Shepherd! Not being able to get back to sleep at three A. M., scribbling notes on my 3” X 5” pad in the dark with my luxurious-beyond-our-means Montblanc ballpoint.

Scrolling daily through computer hits on Google and Ebay for Shep’s hoax-book I, Libertine (I’m in possession of five copies of it—all different) and now encountering what appears to be a pristine hardcover for a buy-it-now $25! Only to find that for sale is a mere facsimile of the dustjacket (no book included).

Scrolling daily through computer hits on Google and Ebay for both “Jean Shepherd” and “Jean Shepard,” because so many don’t get it right and post the name of that country/western singer we don’t give a damn about–and that very error had bedeviled Shep, too. Dismayed about once again encountering professional writers and publicists who ignorantly claim that Shepherd grew up in Gary, Indiana and that A Christmas Story depicts a ten-year-old kid living in Cleveland, Ohio.

(And—ah!–trying to remember what it felt like just a few years ago to be interviewed on the radio about my book in the same WOR studio that Shepherd sometimes broadcast from at 1440 Broadway.)

*

LAURIE SQUIRE

I got good material from Herb Squire, Shepherd’s favorite engineer at WOR. As we were finishing our talk, he suggested that his wife, Laurie Squire, who had been Shep’s producer for about a year, would also be good to interview. Indeed, Laurie provided significant information regarding the importance of Leigh Brown in Shepherd’s life and work.

*

HUGH HEFNER

I contacted Playboy to get permission for a photo they’d used with one of Shepherd’s stories—it was a multiple image. Their person in charge said it would cost me $300. I said that as author, I couldn’t afford it. He got back to me and said that if cost was the only issue, I could use it for free. The new price was right and I accepted. (When I received the image, I saw that the original had several more exposures of Shepherd than what was used in the magazine—I used this complete version.) I casually mentioned that I’d wanted to ask Hugh Hefner a few questions about his having published 23 stories and the Beatles interview by Shepherd. He connected me with Hefner’s assistant and we arranged for an interview. Hefner and I spoke on the phone for twenty minutes. I used several of his answers in the book, and a quote in the “Accolades For Jean Shepherd” with which I began the book:

“He was a tremendous addition to [Playboy] and a part of Americana,

and I loved his work. I’m proud to have had him in our pages.”

*

U.S. POET LAUREATE BILLY COLLINS

I noted in a magazine article about him, that Collins had a photo of Shepherd above his desk. (He’d commented in the article that Shep looked sad in the photo. Apparently it was the one accompanying the New York Times Book Review of the hoax-book I, Libertine, and Collins hadn’t realized that the photo they published had been the one of Shepherd duplicitously portraying the non-existent author.) Seeing that Collins was a Shepherd enthusiast, I found two possible professional addresses for Collins and wrote to both. He responded and we had a fruitful half-hour phone conversation. I also used a comment in “Accolades”:

“I had to get my Shepherd fix. He actually made you feel that you weren’t alone…

I think he had the best influence on my sensibility. And I think it helped me

kind of pursue that sense of being different, being an individual.”

*

JULES FEIFFER CARTOONIST, PLAYWRIGHT

Well-known people maintain a “gate-keeper” to prevent most of us from contact. But when I checked Feiffer’s website, there was an email direct address! (More recently, that address is now gone from his website.) We spoke by phone for a few minutes and I realized that he had only a bit of information usable in the book. He had mostly negative personal comments to say about Shepherd. Ironically, the small cassette tape player I used for recording, held up against the phone, had inadvertently gotten switched to pause so I lost all audio record of his negativity—and was left with a seemingly positive quote I remembered and used in “Accolades.” (Did he say this sarcastically?):

“Listening to him was like a religious experience.”

*

HELEN GEE, FOUNDER/OWNER, LIMELIGHT CAFÉ

I believe I contacted Helen through someone at the Village Voice. We spoke in her Village apartment on my birthday in 2003. I quote her several times in the book, and was disappointed that she remembered having some of Shepherd’s ink drawings on napkins but forgot where they were. After she died, her executor told me that such trivial stuff had been thrown out. Eventually he did supply me with a photocopy of an elaborate Shep drawing of the inside window setting of the Limelight.

She told me that Shepherd had wanted to broadcast from there soon after they met, but she wanted to limit the site to the photo gallery/coffee shop she’d established. (Later, when she sold it, the new owners permitted him to do Saturday night shows there from mid-February 1964 through December 1967.)

(More to come.)

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JEAN SHEPHERD–researching a book

Right now I’m reading two books in the realm of biography. ROBIN by Dave Itzkoff, about Robin Williams, is chock full of relevant material about  his creative life. THE SHADOW IN THE GARDEN by James Atlas, is about the experience one goes through when researching a book about someone.

Although my EXCELSIOR, YOU FATHEAD! is not a biography, I find both of those books fascinating regarding some experiences I had. In the James Atlas book, I came upon:

The record, I discovered, is inevitably partial. There are always more letters: they show up after the biography is written, discovered in some overlooked archive or library; tucked away in a drawer and forgotten; withheld for whatever reason by the recipient. If only I’d had in my possession the letter that turned up at an auction three years after I finished my book, the whole story would have become clear!

MATERIAL I GOT AFTER THE BOOK WAS PUBLISHED–OR NEVER GOT

Leigh Brown and Lois Nettleton had been two very important people in Jean’s life and career that not much had been publicly known about when the book was published.  I did learn from Jean’s associates at the Village Voice, WOR, The Limelight, etc., and published in the book, what I could about their relationship with Jean. Subsequently I learned more and have posted thus on the blog.

Too late to contact some important people: Shel Silverstein died the same year Shep did; Herb Gardner (A Thousand Clowns, etc.) was too ill to be interviewed.

LEIGH BROWN

After my book  had been published, looking at the http://www.flicklives.com guestbook, I discovered a comment by Leigh Brown’s best friend in the 1950s-1960s. She asked if anyone was interested in corresponding about Leigh–I immediately replied, and eventually I got an email asking if I’d like the many letters Leigh had sent her during the crucial time Leigh and Jean had just met (1959-1960). I have them all and I encountered in Leigh’s correspondence her describing how obsessed she was upon meeting Jean, and eventually the details of how she planned to kidnap him from his wife, Lois Nettleton. (Good friend of both Leigh and Lois, Shel Silverstein played an unwitting role in her plan–she wrote that Shel was so innocent a person that he wouldn’t realize that he was being used.) Leigh felt that Jean had a fantastic mind–that of a genius–and she needed to have that mind for her very own. In the final letters, Leigh describes the phone call from Jean in which he offers her a job at WOR. One can also interpret from the wording that they were about to work together and sexually consummate their mutual desires.

LOIS NETTLETON

Because Doug McIntyre had been planning a biography of Shep (which never came to fruition), he’d managed, through his wife’s friendship with her, to interview Lois on tape. Eventually he sent me a copy of that tape (my book had been published by the time I found out about and got the tape.) In the interview Lois described how she and Jean had met and in the various ways they had assisted each other in their careers. Doug also gave me Lois’s Hollywood address and I sent her a letter and an inscribed copy of my book. She called me, excited that someone had written a book about Jean’s creative work. She also sent me an extensive hand-written letter about it. She expected to invite me to visit her in the apartment she’d shared with Jean the next time she was in New York.  She died before that could happen, but her friend and executor, film producer/director John Boab, contacted me and invited me to visit him there. He had for me several dozen notes she had written, commenting on details in the book. (Those notes, among Lois’ files, had been sent to her alma mater.  By some unexpected means, he managed to retrieve them and give them to me when I visited him in Lois and Jean’s apartment.) Later, he  contacted me because he’d found some Shep tapes among antique dolls in a box of hers! I visited him to take possession of these audios Lois had from late 1956, when, after Shep got back on the air after being fired, one can hear her voice as “The Listener.”

I, LIBERTINE HOAX

For my book, I tried to make contact with Betty Ballantine, who had reportedly written the final chapter after Theodore Sturgeon, in a race toward the book’s completion, had fallen asleep. My contact with her said she’d been interviewed so much about the book that she didn’t want to bother any more.  (I don’t know where her remarks had been quoted, but undoubtedly in such ephemeral locations as magazines and radio interviews.) Thus, this info is basically lost, and the only place it could have served in the long-term, my book, lacks any commentary/information she had–that will probably never see the light of day.  Will probably end up in a dumpster and/or the grave.

SHEPHERD’S NEW YORK OVERNIGHT BROADCASTS (1/1956 to 9/1956)

As of now (late 2018) no one has come forth with audios of Shepherd’s New York overnight broadcasts, that include him perpetrating the I, Libertine hoax, and providing examples of his possibly more formative monologs at that time, before his later, possibly somewhat more organized style, etc. A contact of mine says that a friend of his (a professor of African studies and a published Jazz authority) has never had time to spend on the overnight audios that he has. These precious audios will probably end up in a dumpster and/or the grave.

These last two make me angry very time I think about them. Oh, well, that’s life.

(In 4,000 years none of this will even be a memory–paraphrasing Shep)

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JEAN SHEPHERD–LISTENING TO SHEPHERD part 2 of 2

In his important, twelve-foot-long painting, “Whence do We Come? What are We? Where are We Going?” Gauguin asked in this title the question that Shepherd gently addressed for decades on the air. Gauguin is quoted as saying about this painting in a way that Shepherd might well have thought about his radio work: “People will say it is careless…unfinished. It is true that it is difficult to judge one’s own work, but nevertheless I believe that this canvas not only surpasses in value all previous ones, but that I shall never make a better or similar one.”

“Whence Do We Come? What Are We? Where Are We Going?

*

(My Cropped, Triple Shep Photos by Elisson)

Now we live in a different time—a time that moves too fast in its reality TV and un-reality politics. In our current world there is less readiness to slow down and think. This may be in part why Shepherd enthusiasts have such trouble convincing others regarding his worthiness. We had benefitted from the gentle accumulation of Shep spread out over years, from the light and ephemeral surface to deeper, broad-based surveys of the current and the everlasting—remember Shepherd’s powerful metaphor of where we came from and are still a part of–our not-at-all-distant, ancestral cavemen, Og and Charlie.

Potential Shep-acolytes need to slow down and find the time to cogitate upon “Whence do We Come? What are We? Where are We Going?”  And here’s the hardest part—they need to let their minds relax and be open—they need to have the luxury of at least a couple of months of nightly doses of Shep-filled, unexpected, but always engaging gentle humor about ourselves and where the hell we’re going.

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JEAN SHEPHERD–A CHRISTMAS STORY interview parts not on Thedigitalbits.com

Here are the questions and answers regarding A CHRISTMAS STORY I gave that were not used on the digital bits site. The entire interview as posted for all 3 interviewees is at:

http://www.thedigitalbits.com/columns/history-legacy-showmanship/christmas-story-35th

Where do you think the film ranks among Jean Shepherd’s body of work?

Because the film encapsulates many of Shepherd’s ideas and humor in a form that millions enjoy, it’s valuable. A Christmas Story is the most visible and popular work of Jean Shepherd. His most ardent enthusiasts consider it a very good piece, but not his best claim to fame and the appellation “genius.” That belongs to his decades of improvised monologs and story-telling on radio that influenced aspiring young intellectuals of New York and surrounding territory. Slyly funny on his broadcasts, he taught us to observe, think, and appreciate American culture and the immensely quirky and delightful humanity around us. We listeners are indebted to him for helping to make us more perceptive observers of our world. For example, Jerry Seinfeld, in his “Season 6” DVD sets of his television show, commented, “He really formed my entire comedic sensibility. I learned how to do comedy from Jean Shepherd.”

*

Where do you think “A Christmas Story” ranks among Christmas-themed films?

I’m not good judge of how it ranks among Christmas-themed films because I’ve only seen tiny bits of a couple of the many recent ones—I suspect they’re no better than the average, mindless sitcom. I love A Christmas Story and I avoid the rest.

*

What is the legacy of “A Christmas Story”?

The film’s popularity has resulted in a yearly-produced stage play in scores of towns, a musical Broadway production, many theme products, and the “A Christmas Story House” where parts of the film were made and where visitors can tour a recreation of the film house’s interior. There’s a popular book of reprinted A Christmas Story-related tales and a major behind-the-scenes, illustrated coffee-table book. Those are part of the legacy, but there’s also the importance of Shepherd as its creator.

For me the film’s legacy is that it may forever be by far the most prominently known vessel of Jean Shepherd’s world. As fine as it is, Shepherd deserves more recognition in America’s pantheon of creative forces. For those who care to hear his radio voice, one can find hundreds of complete broadcasts on the internet—free or cheaply for sale on ebay and elsewhere. Acquire them so that at night, when the cares of the world are shoved aside, relax, open your sensibilities, and absorb the unique and always unexpected commentary by ol’ Shep. (One never knows what quirky mix will ensue.) Maybe he’ll tell a story, maybe he’ll comment on the passing scene, maybe he’ll describe his trip to headhunter country of Peru’s Amazon when he helped deliver 500 pounds of Luden’s cough drops to the natives, or maybe he’ll expertly render a little ditty on nose flute, jew’s harp, or kazoo. Or maybe he’ll knock out a tune by thumping his knuckles on his head.

Long live Jean Shepherd and his A Christmas Story.

AND A HAPPY THANKSGIVING TO ALL!

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JEAN SHEPHERD–A CHRISTMAS STORY interviews

Gang,

To celebrate the 35th anniversary of the theatrical opening of A CHRISTMAS STORY (USA and Canada, November 18, 1983), Michael Coate, Contributing Editor of www.thedigitalbits.com interviewed me and two others regarding our thoughts on the film. Interview is at:

http://www.digitalbits.com/columns/history-legacy-showmanship/christmas-story-35th

Here I post my partial answer to one of the questions. To see the entire interviews (which is my and other’s tributes to Jean Shepherd), see their site:

For me the film’s legacy is that it may forever be by far the most prominently known vessel of Jean Shepherd’s world. As fine as it is, Shepherd deserves more recognition in America’s pantheon of creative forces. For those who care to hear his radio voice, one can find hundreds of complete broadcasts on the internet—free or cheaply for sale on ebay and elsewhere. Acquire them so that at night, when the cares of the world are shoved aside, relax, open your sensibilities, and absorb the unique and always unexpected commentary by ol’ Shep. (One never knows what quirky mix will ensue.) Maybe he’ll tell a story, maybe he’ll comment on the passing scene, maybe he’ll describe his trip to headhunter country of Peru’s Amazon when he helped deliver 500 pounds of Luden’s cough drops to the natives, or maybe he’ll expertly render a little ditty on nose flute, jew’s harp, or kazoo. Or maybe he’ll knock out a tune by thumping his knuckles on his head.

 

Long live Jean Shepherd and his A Christmas Story.

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JEAN SHEPHERD –Listening to Shep

LISTENING TO JEAN SHEPHERD

The model I listened on—

my maroon, plastic, Zenith AM/FM

radio with the big simulated gold dial.

A recent New York Times book review by Parul Sehgal of Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday, begins:

Anthropologists studying a tribe in southern Africa in the 1970s distinguished between two kinds of stories: those told during the daylight—gossipy anecdotes, your average water-cooler chat—and those told at night. Around the fire, stories turned starkly philosophical, full of allusions to the ancestors and the spirit world. Nighttime tales seemed to speak to a different human need.

 

What is the nature of Jean Shepherd’s late night tales and talk on every subject under the moon that made it so captivating to tens of thousands of people (especially young males) in the mid-1950s through April 1977?

(Apologies to Fred W. McDarrah)

For many, I believe it was our time of first awakening to a broader range of interests in learning and questioning—regarding society, philosophy, literature, things that were beginning to go bump in the stygian darkness of our brains, and all manner of information we were newly exposed to through school and general observation of the world around us. (In my Excelsior, You Fathead! I also attribute this in part to the beginnings of Mad Comics, with its ironic and questioning attitude toward the existing environment and its assumptions youngsters were newly exposed to.)

After the prosaic occupations and obligations of the day–such as homework–were coming to a close, when the mind was freer to wonder and to delve, Shepherd’s unexpected and entertaining forays into his observant mind seeking answers to maybe troubling and sometimes unanswerable human attitudes and assumptions regarding our newly apprehended world grabbed us, making us laugh and think. My mother thought he was fascinating, my father thought he was somehow subversive. (They were both correct.) For me he seemed to speak to a different, essential, personal need.

PART ONE OF TWO

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JEAN SHEPHERD–from MADEMOISELLE part 3 of 3 & ARTSY (176) Epigraphs

Mademoiselle cover with Shep article.

Part 3, again pasted from http://www.flicklives.com

A tall, skinny, crewcut kid, tweed jacket, Daks slacks, with a “Ban the Bomb” button in his lapel, bumped past me, trailing the scent of Brandy and Benedictine. He was heading for the john. Ban the bomb. I guess that kid figures that history started in 1945. Everything before that was some kind of bad TV show starring Rip Torn as the company commander who chickened out. I started in on the mousse. Not bad. Ladyfingers soaked in Virgin Islands rum. The big blonde grinned at me over her copy of The Realist. Yes, by God, I was surrounded by Realists. Another phrase from Eur. His. II jiggled into form: “One school of thought holds that what happened in France can happen in any society at a certain point in that society’s existence, when life becomes so unreal, abstract, to so many people that they begin to long hungrily for the life that they imagine is ‘Real,’ usually the life of men who are tilling the soil or suffering social injustices at the hands of the imaginers themselves.” Hmmmm.

Seven or eight pilgrims had joined in the singing, led by a thin, sharp-faced, dark-haired, high-cheekboned girl in a burlap skirt from Jax. A nice bottom. I wondered if she knew what a tumbrel was. This crowd was as much at home in a jet plane as they were in a taxicab. Belting it out: I’m a lonesome, lonesome traveler along the hard, rocky road of life . . . sitting in the back seat of a Yellow Cab, the meter ticking away. I’m a lonesome, lonesome Yellow Cab Rider a-travelin’ on the old man’s Diners’ Club card. One thing I’ve noticed about jet flying is that once you’re at cross-country altitude, you rarely feel the slightest bump of a transient air pocket or rough crosswind. At 600 miles per hour plus, you just hang there, suspended. And it is easy to lose all sense of time, space, and reality. The old DC-3’s and 4’s and even the 6’s bumped and banged along, and you knew damn well that something was out there battering at that fuselage, trying to get in. I guess the place to have a fantasy, if you don’t want Reality to come creeping in on gnarled vulture claws, is in a jet, just hanging there. I felt vaguely drunk. Every junky and pothead I’ve ever known, as well as drinkers of all variety, somehow always use the word “high.”

By God, we really were high! Half a snootful at 37,500 feet is high, Dad! Just look out of the misty, ovoid window and there it is, big, fat, and luscious – that fat old earth. I knew one guy who said every time he smoked a joint or two he felt as though he were slowly volplaning around, doing an easy Immelmann, looking down at everybody. He could see it all. Of course, the truth is he was five feet six and a very nervous cat. In real life he didn’t look down at much, except maybe a gopher or two, and it all scared him. Maybe that’s part of the key, too. I don’t know.

The hostess began serving brandies and liqueurs. Our little First Class section was now a tightly knit, jet-propelled hootenanny. Bagged to the gills and feeling the rich, heady hot blood of Social Protest coursing through our veins. Solidarity! Love! Ah, it was good to be alive. And not only alive, but a vibrant, sensitive, Aware person who knew where injustice and human misery were. And we knew what to do about it. Sing about it. I could no longer fight back the urge to join in with my fellow men. Yes, we had been through hell together. Together we had seen it. A thin, pale young man stood in the aisle. His crystal-clear boy soprano quivering with exultation, he led us on to further glories. True, he reminded me of Audrey Hepburn, who never was exactly my type. His little-boy bangs carelessly brushed down over his forehead, his clearly symbolic denim-blue work-shirt open, nay, ripped open, a la fist-fightin’ Millhand, he was the very image of a Master Sufferer Singer of our time. In the overheated air of our First Class cabin you could almost see his head starkly outlined in a grainy black and white photograph – towering above the rubble of an American street – a perfect Album Cover head. One of the New Breed – the New Breed of fiction artists edging out the old crowd who had used writing as a medium to create fictional characters in novels and plays and short stories, characters that were clearly recognized as make-believe. The New Breed has gone one important step farther. They use their own lives as a medium for fiction and their own persons as fictional characters. The New Breed can imagine himself to be anything, and believe it – Cowhand, Lumberjack, Negro, Itinerant Fruit-Picker, Bullfighter – any romantic figure that fits his fancy.

So, at 19 or 20, a man can have lived a full, rich, dangerous life and feel that he is a worn-out, misery-scarred pilgrim. And what’s more, his followers believe him, because they work in the same medium. Denim Shirt’s China-blue eyes burned with the feverish light of the Creative Artist, believing himself to be a rough-hewn hunk who had traveled many roads, “rode freight trains for kicks and got beat up for laughs, cut grass for quarters and sang for dimes,” and now he was singing out all the pain of all those old wounds, a spent, scarred Singer for Truth who had been there and known it all. At 22. If I Had a Hammer sang the pale, wispy lad. Up near the forward bulkhead two shaggy-browed 45-year-old tractor salesmen with the obvious tribal markings of retired paratroopers raised their snouts from the champagne trough. The port-side ex-sergeant glared backward down the aisle. “For God’s sake, sonny, will you keep it down?” With which the old battler went back to his jug. For a brief moment the plane became very aggressive. A classical – if you will excuse the expression – pregnant moment. And then, bravely, as he had always done, Young Audrey sang on. . . . I looked at the bulging back of Old Sarge, and I wondered how many roads that old son of a gun had walked down. From Bizerte to Remagen, up the Po Valley and back; 7,000 miles, from Kiska to Iwo. And still on the Goddamn road. Beat up for laughs! The grizzled specimen next to Old Sarge had the chewed ears of a guy who had fist-fought his way through every Off Limits bar from Camp Kilmer to the Kit Kat Klub on the Potzdamer Platz, and all for laughs. The dark chick glowered up the cabin at the back of Old Sarge’s head. He and his buddy were boffing it up. She glanced meltingly, at young Denim Shirt, her blue and white “Fight for Freedom” button gleaming like an angry shield above her tiny black-T-shirted bosom. Her glance spoke volumes: “Those clods! What do they know of Suffering, of fighting for Good, for Ideals? What do they know of the hard, flinty back alleys of Life, of Injustice? Only Youth understands and knows. Do not be afraid. I, an angry Girl-Type Lonesome Traveler, will protect you.”

The lissome lad, taking heart, began again with renewed spirit and passion. She was right. What did Old Sarge know about true Suffering? His swarthy, grizzled neck bent defiantly forward, back to the trough, that neck which still bore a permanent mahogany stain of 10,000 suns, the Libyan Desert, Tinian, the Solomons, Burma Road, Corregidor . . . Chewed Ear glanced over his hunched shoulder for a brief instant at the button-wearer, the leer that had impaled broad-beamed, ripe-bosomed females from Dakar to Adelaide, a glance primeval and unmistakable. She flushed. She obviously was not used to heavy artillery. Blowin’ in the Wind. The black-T-shirted White Dove fluttered, confused, in the sand for a few wing beats and then scurried out of range. The undergrad hootenanny swung into the chorus. Someone had produced a Kentucky mandolin, jangling high above the passionate Ovaltine voices. . . .

The cabin was filled with the joyous sound. Old Sarge, after the last note died echoing in the soft light-blue carpeting, turned suddenly. “Hey kid, do any of you guys know ‘Dirty Gertie from Bizerte’?” He laughed obscenely, not realizing he was disrupting a Religious service. The congregation plunked, embarrassed. “How ’bout Till Marlene’?” Without any warning, Chewed Ear tuned up – a cappella. I’ve been workin’ on the railroad, all the Goddamned day . . . He sang in the cracked voice that had sung itself out over 9,000 miles of Canadian-Pacific track, laying every spike in the frozen tundra personally. I’ve been workin’ on the railroad, just to pass the time away . . . He bellowed. Blue Jeans in the seat behind me, in a put-down stage whisper to O.S.U. Bag: “For God sake, ‘I’ve Been Working on the Railroad’! This old guy wouldn’t know a Work Song if he heard it.” The apple-cheeked youth, his fingers calloused by countless hours of guitar-pick-clutching, slumped knowingly against the cushions of his seat. Can’t you hear those whistles blowin’ . . . The whiskey-cracked calliope, honed and sharpened against the cold winds blowing over countless flatbed coal cars and short-coupled reefers, ground to a stop.

FASTEN YOUR SEAT BELTS. NO SMOKING PLEASE.

The soft yellow warning broke up the action. “This is the Captain speaking. We are making our final approach to O’Hare Airport. We should be on the ground in three minutes. The ground temperature in Chicago – fifty-seven degrees. There is a slight crosswind. I hope you’ve enjoyed your trip. We hope to see you soon. Please fasten your seat belts.” Our great silver arrow knifed down through the thick under-layer of cloud and smoke. Red-roofed houses and lines of crawling blue Fords rose up toward us. The great flaps creaked and clanked into position. The bird paused for a brief instant, and we touched the runway.

“This is your stewardess. It has been a pleasure to have you aboard. Please keep your seat belts fastened until we come to a full stop. We hope you have had a pleasant trip, and hope to see you again soon.” The jet stopped rolling, and outside my porthole I could see the Chicago end of the Great Tube being inserted into our bird. Behind me, the angry snap of a guitar case clasp. We moved up the aisle. From somewhere ahead, a piping adolescent voice: “Hey Freddie, I’ll see ya next weekend at the big hoot in Ann Arbor. Dylan’s gonna make the scene. Maybe Baez!” Old Sarge, hat jammed down over his ears, made one last verbal swipe at the stewardess who stood by the exit as we filed out. She smiled blandly. “I hope you enjoyed your trip, sir.” Our little band of Lonesome Travelers toiled up the chute toward the City of the Broad Shoulders, Meat Packer to the World.

Thus ends the Lois Nettleton Shep Album postings.

Other stuff to come.

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There is a new documentary about the high-priced art scene. I felt that, as someone so interested in art for its own sake rather than its financial value, I needed to see it. It’s fascinating, informative, and contrary to my values. Of course, a few of the rich art collectors do care about their artistic treasures.

I say this as someone who has acquired minor art pieces for rather low prices and seen those prices rise to sometimes hundreds of dollars—not millions. I’ve recently been researching the current prices of a few items because some day my beneficiaries may need the money more than the art.

The documentary title is THE PRICE OF EVERYTHING—an ironic take on Oscar Wilde’s characters in “Lady Windermere’s Fan” who say:

Cecil Graham.  What is a cynic?  [Sitting on the back of the sofa.]

Lord Darlington.  A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.

I recently wrote out a draft of possible epigraphs for my book manuscript (in hopes of someday getting a contract):

 

EPIGRAPHS

Art for art’s sake

–Gautier, Wilde, and innumerable others

*

God is in the details

–Mies van der Rohe

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There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;

 

All things counter, original, spare, strange;

Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)

–G. Hopkins fragments from two poems

*

Is not a work of art the most tantalizing—here—there—

where—yes and no—sort of thing on Earth—the most vital,

yet to all a mystery—to not too many a mysterious

reality—it cannot be understood, it can be felt.

–John Marin

*

Art is about some new and intriguing expression

regarding the artist’s perception of the world—

in a way that’s personal to that artist

and simultaneously true for the rest of us.

Art expands our perception about what it is to be alive—

and in and of our world.

Which is to say that art is very serious and very important.

–Eugene B. Bergmann

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