Fifty years after Shepherd’s adventure with The Beatles, rock and roll has still not died as he’d predicted it would. How pervasive it has become, how vast in its permutations. After The Beatles, who now seem so mild and easy to take, even with their later years of increasing complexity and sophistication and their lurch toward sound and fury hinted at by John Lennon’s occasional primal scream—how varied and how quirky rock has become. Who would have guessed? We don’t know how Shepherd responded to such convulsive developments as the “punk” Sex Pistols and the many “heavy metal” bands such as Kiss and Twisted Sister, but we can imagine. For those in need of enlightenment (!?), heavy metal might be recognized by intense attacks on ears, eyes, sensibilities, and society in general. Depending on the group, one might also be assaulted by intimations of vicious hostility akin to that in violent modern horror movies—imagine bloody monsters and spectacular explosions. Rock has remained alive, diverse, and sometimes wildly provocative.
Twisted Sister is a glam, hair, heavy metal band most visible in the 1980s, though they still occasionally perform. Their performance style and the content of their lyrics are akin to that of artfully controlled intensity, but remain not nearly as fierce as that of some other groups, because they are organized and carefully crafted by the sensibilities of their lead singer/songwriter, Dee Snider. They’re best-known song, “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” is more unsettling in its video than in the lyrics themselves.
Dee Snider’s most impressive singing style is a frequently screaming-as-loud-as-he-can while remaining artfully in tune. As a seemingly manic primitive, he sports outrageously wild and frizzy yellow hair, red lipstick, blue paint on his cheeks, and tattered sartorial outrage calculated to delight rebellious teenagers and whip most parents into a frenzy of disgust. Dee’s parents had introduced him to Jean Shepherd’s program while he was still a teenager. He’d listened with his transistor radio hidden under his pillow. “Every night I went to bed at ten o’clock and at ten-fifteen the show came on and I fell asleep to Jean.” He’s also enthusiastic about Shepherd’s various television works. Dee Snider is a very big Shepherd kook 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. We went upstairs to my study, entering my continually expanding “Shep Shrine” of books, artworks, photos, and other assorted relics. (The photo of us in my Shep Shrine shows, on the wall, the right half of my paper towel drawing of the Bugatti limo by Shep. On the table are my four different editions of I, LIBERTINE.)
I gave Dee a short tour and then we two kooks were ready to talk about Jean Shepherd. I set my tape recorder on the table and we began. We chatted at length and I also asked a few pre-written questions.
Dee listened to Shepherd broadcasts from the late ‘60s until about 1974, when he became a full-time musician, playing in bands nearly every night until early morning. So now he’s catching up, listening to tapes of Shep’s shows. As he said, “Now he’s my radio guy—he’s who I listen to.”
He said he’s often been on Howard Stern’s radio show and he credited that radio talker with encouraging him in his radio career. But it had surprised Dee that when he’d said that he loved Shepherd, Stern replied, “I don’t like him—that story crap!” I noted to Dee that in an interview after Shepherd had left radio, asked if he’d ever return, he’d said, “If radio is the kind of medium that can deify a Howard Stern—my God, I don’t want to be involved in it.” Now that might be a contributing factor in Stern’s attitude! Dee himself is now a big radio guy, having had his own very successful talk radio shows for over fifteen years, “talking, pontificating, telling stories, news items, whatever—between songs. And one of the greatest comments I got, one night someone called and said ‘when I hear you talking and you’re telling those stories, it brings me back to Jean.’”
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 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!”
Dee said that when he couldn’t listen to Shepherd’s broadcasts because of his own work, he still read him: “When I read his books,” he said, “I sit with a little pocket dictionary—I want to know what he means. Why has he chosen this word?! And when you read the definition you go, ‘Ah, my God, this is art—he was a black belt!” Dee went on about Shepherd’s writing: “I adore his books. I think his writing is so much more focused than his talking—when he put pen to paper he was able to refine his rhythm—and you heard his voice, you knew his voice, unlike other authors where you kind of fill your own voice in. When you read Jean’s books, you hear his voice and he had a great-sounding voice.” He said that part of what attracted him to Shepherd on the radio was the cadence and tonality of Shepherd’s voice: “I think I’ve stolen this from him in my own way. There was something very alluring. The way he phrased, there was something going on there that was hypnotic and it pulled you in.”
I asked Dee how Jean’s attitudes and world view may have influenced him.
Dee: “Well, you know, I’m definitely all about sarcasm [He laughed]. It’s at the core of my sense of humor and my sensibilities and certainly Jean was cynical and sarcastic—to a fault. Here’s Jean as a mentor and as a teacher to us, the misguided youth, and he’s got our ear. And every night here’s someone, a grown man, with very strong political, personal, psychological views filling our heads with his ideology. And the biggest thing to come away with, I guess, besides the storytelling, is his sort of cynical views and his condescending attitude—he looked down on most people, and I dare say that that is a part of my personality I struggle to keep in check. [We both laughed.] Because it’s not nice! And we want to be nice. [More laughter.] And it’s wrong to think everybody’s ants and you’re Gulliver.
“But I think also, behind the cynicism, hid a love. I can’t believe it wasn’t there. At the same time he seemed to yearn for some of the simplicity that he experienced in his youth and he seemed to be able to step away from it and appreciate the value that these things had. When I’m in the moment I find it very difficult to really appreciate experience that’s happening. Especially the ridiculousness sometimes, of what’s going on around me. But when I step away, when I get on the mic—what I want to call my biography is Just Give Me the Mic—‘cause I love the microphone, whether I’m singing or talking I seem to be able—now that I’ve stepped back from it—to analyze it and see it for what it was, for better, for worse, the beauty in it, the ugliness in it, the ridiculousness. I don’t know if I got that from Jean, but I think I did.”
I’d saved some of the more difficult subjects for near the end of our talk. I asked what he thought Shepherd would have felt about Twisted Sister and his stage persona and what kind of dialog they might have had. Dee said that Shep “would have had disdain.” Of course, we knew that already—Shep, in some ways was very conservative and we kooks have to overlook some of his rigid attitudes. I thought Dee might have responded with some sort of fanciful exchange between himself and Jean, but he was too smart for that, commenting only that, “I probably would be too much of a fan to engage him.”
He did comment, however, that, “The music Shep was passionate about, jazz, was in its own way, for the Beat Generation, what rock and roll is. A music that challenged the norm. It wasn’t accepted by the mainstream. It was the new jazz, it was against the grain. He didn’t like change.” When I commented that Shepherd stopped playing his favorite, more avant-garde jazz on his show when he had a bigger but less musically sophisticated audience, and that this might have been a compromise, Dee convinced me that other factors could come into play. He commented that on his radio shows, he himself had stopped playing some of his favorite kinds of music because his audience didn’t get it and that it was not a compromise. “It wasn’t a commercial decision, just a recognizing that that wasn’t what my radio show was about. It wasn’t about my musical taste, it was about my world view, and my world view connected and engaged a lot broader audience than my musical taste did.” Equally, he said that he wasn’t going to “go off on a tangent into my world view in my concert environment.” He suggested that Shepherd’s decision regarding what jazz to play on the air might not be “so much selling out. I’m only guessing, I’m relating it to myself.”
But, moving away from Jean’s taste in music, what about a hypothetical interaction between them regarding words and ideas: “If I’d met Jean, I probably would have said all the wrong things. I don’t know if you could say any right things to Jean. I would have said something about Flick or Bruner or somebody, and he would have just blown me off because that was the surface grasp of what he was about. So I think if Jean heard me on the radio by accident, talking on my talk radio show, heard me observing, saw my world view, saw my—I say my last name, Snider, is not a proper noun, it’s an adjective—I’m snider than you are. So I would like to think that he might have gone—‘Yeah, this kid gets it,’ or ‘this kid has something interesting to say.’”
Regarding fans, Dee expanded: “As a performer—and a successful one—I often have people who come up to me and they’re very excited, but they really don’t know me or my band—they really just grasp the surface of what I’m about, but I appreciate their enthusiasm, their excitement, and I don’t expect them to know better.” He commented that Twisted Sister plays many kinds of heavy metal rock, yet they had very big success with a couple of very catchy—what he called “anthemic tunes”—such as “We’re Not Gonna Take It.” As he put it, “That’s what we’re known for, and thank God there was something. That’s what really connected with the masses. Your true, hardcore fans, like you for Jean or me for Jean, may know there’s a greater depth, but the average person, you have to say, ‘Twisted Sister—you know the song ‘We’re Not Gonna Take It,’ and they go, ‘Oh, that work? I know ‘We’re Not Gonna Take It.’ And with Shepherd you have to say A Christmas Story—that’s Jean’s ‘We’re Not Gonna Take It.’”
We talked about how overbearing Shepherd could sometimes be, how full of himself, even when not performing. I commented that it was his concentration, his focus, his personality, his mind, and his feelings, all in one person, that intense self-absorption, that also made him such a great talker.
“Oh, yeah,” said Dee, “that’s the problem of being a front man of any kind—people expect you to get up there essentially naked and hold an audience and then they expect you to walk away from the mic and turn it off. ‘Oh yeah, there’s a switch I throw’—it’s not that easy! It sounds like Jean didn’t have a lot of people wheeling him in either. I’ve got a wife-and-a-half, thirty-two years we’re together. Five-foot-three, a hundred-and-five-pound Italian, and I say, ‘How come you’re so friggin—when you get mad at me you’re so nasty?’ She goes, ‘Look at the size of you [well over six feet tall], look at your persona. It’s the only way I can get through to you. I’ve got to hit you over the head with a club!’ It’s true. I’m just so myopic. But she wheels me in and does not allow me to act out.”
Neither had Dee “acted out” during the 1985 U.S. Senate hearings regarding labeling albums of possibly offensive lyrics—especially focusing on rock music. Thoughtful and articulate in his arguments against censorship, Dee effectively presented himself and his relatively witty and benign Twisted Sister, against the censorious beliefs of Tipper Gore. (The record industry labeled the albums anyway, leading, as one would have expected, to increased sales of those albums.)
Regarding other aspects of his personal life, I learned that Dee is the spokesperson for the March of Dimes “Bikers for Babies” program, and he chairs a Long Island ride for the cause. Bikers for Babies! I never would have guessed. But after getting to know Dee for those few Shep-related hours, it occurred to me that, despite my fear of ever getting onto a motorcycle, if I were to do so, I might chance it on the passenger seat of a bike driven by the kind, thoughtful gentleman named Daniel Dee Snider.
After three hours, Dee had to leave despite our mutual desire to go on and on, endlessly. Looking around at my Shep-infused study as we shook hands, Dee commented, “You’re doing something great for Shep.” We promised to keep in touch and get together again.
Ah, Shep, your influence in the culture is vast and often emerges in unexpected places, even into heavy metal. I’ve started to enjoy some Twisted Sister performances on CD and DVDs. Though I suspect that as a neophyte, all I have so far is what Dee would call “a surface grasp,” it’s (gulp!) a beginning. Without you, Jean Shepherd, we might not have had quite the same driving intensity, intelligence, comic sensibility, and delightful mayhem of a Twisted Sister and the same surprising, thoughtful, many-sided personage of a Dee Snider.
More Than “A Surface Grasp”?
Before we leave Dee and Twisted Sister, let’s think about their loud, slow, insistent melodic line and lyric called “The Price.” Had Shepherd ever heard it, he might not have been able to get beyond the sound and presentation, as good and appropriate to the song as they are, but the words themselves would surely have resonated with him regarding his ambitions and the arc of his career as he contemplated them toward the end of his life. It would be difficult to find a song more forcefully and perfectly attuned to the deeper level of the art and enigmatic life of Jean Shepherd. How inevitable that it’s conceived and performed by one of his most ardent and thoughtful fans. Here’s the beginning:
How long I have wanted this dream to come true,
And as it approaches, I can’t believe I’m through.
I’ve tried, oh, how I’ve tried
For a life, yes a life I thought I knew.
Oh, it’s the price we gotta pay, and all the games we gotta play
Makes me wonder if it’s worth it to carry on,
‘Cause it’s a game we gotta lose, though it’s a life we gotta choose
And the price is our own life until it’s done.