tribute to Jean Shepherd, January 9, 2000.
From time to time I receive a special laudatory email. We know that Jean Shepherd—especially through listening to him—has changed many peoples’ lives. He certainly affected my way of seeing the world, and for over a decade, he has kept me busy and given me unending pleasure. It’s very gratifying to be told that my Excelsior, You Fathead! has sometimes strongly affected people also.
A recent letter of that sort has inspired me to forego my already inconstant reticence. I’m here today to blab and give myself congratulatory whacks on the back. Although I’m quoting parts of letters, I’m not revealing who the senders are. First, part of an email I wrote to one of the correspondents below:
As a start, I can tell you a bit about myself. When I was a kid I wanted to be a writer and win the Nobel Prize in literature. But I also had a great interest in art—I became the Senior Exhibit Designer at NYC’s museum of natural history, and for most of 34 years felt creatively fulfilled in the way my designs combined words with visual media to tell the curators’ scientific stories (One of them was Margaret Mead).
Lunch hours I wrote, and over the years produced three unpublished “literary novels,” then wrote over a hundred poems, four of which got published. [!]
When Shep died in 1999, I realized that I’d lost an old friend—a mentor on the radio—and though I’d vowed not to attempt another book, I read, listened, watched, studied what Shep had accomplished, and wrote my book. Trying to get a book published is hell, but I lucked out. Over 7,000 copies sold and still selling, no Nobel Prize, but I do feel that it’s a creative accomplishment not too much less than “literature.” It’s also a great pleasure to find that some people (especially a creator such as yourself) appreciate it.
From emails received:
TEACHER AND PARENT (A)
I would like to thank you for the pleasure your book on Jean Shepherd has given me. I’ve gone back to it many times, and it never fails to deliver new insights into our old friend. As a school teacher, I have found so many ways to use Shepherd’s techniques, concepts, and stories in the classroom. As a parent, I have spent many hours listening to and discussing his broadcasts with my kids. Like a lot of people, I owe him quite a debt.
PERFORMER, PLAYWRIGHT, VIDEO AND FILM CREATOR (B)
[A friend] learning of my devotion to Shep, sent me your book. I read and re-read it. So much fell into place for me that my stars have shifted position and new constellations appeared.
I have often acknowledged Jean as a major influence when questioned about my formative influences, live performance, playwriting, film and video projects. I never realized the debt I owe him.
Now, being one of the beneficiaries of your impeccable research and what is clearly a heartfelt, literary labor-of-love, the presence of my raconteur hero is writ large-r.
I’m truly grateful to you for this gift of understanding, analysis and inspiration. EYF is a scholarly undertaking, enhanced by your attention to detail and nuance; magnified by your sensitive handling of the material and the man.
COMEDIAN, ACTOR, AND VISITOR TO MY “SHEP SHRINE” (C)
As to Shep, I cannot tell you how transforming the visit was. Even having read your book – which fleshes the man out far beyond the impression one THINKS one has of him after listening to hundreds of shows – the visit to the Shrine took me far, far beyond… There was something transporting, enchanting, and very touching in seeing so many personal artifacts (is that the word I want?) of his life. The love letters, the photos, and particularly the pen sketches & valentine-like card. There was a peculiar sense of eavesdropping, too – a slight embarrassment, almost, at the intimacy – I sort of felt like I was going through a dead man’s effects (which I was) but almost as though I was rummaging through his drawers and closets just after he had died.
PROFESSIONAL MUSICIAN (D)
I thought I knew stuff about art and music, but your book was a major turning point for me….yours is a book by a guy who knows not just music, but art in general, the business of art, the lifestyle of artists, knows about the time the artist lived in, and how it all interacts…. I assumed the guy was in 7th heaven, being where he was, with a radio show and the Limelight, and a published book. I told myself if I ever got what he had, I’d be in 7th heaven. But read on…
[I] started playing live late in life….I played 3 gigs a week…. I played until they shut the lights out every night, so most nights I’d start at 6 and play until 11 PM. After a year I realized my rap onstage was heavily influenced by Jean Shepherd. My brother’s [a very well-known rock musician], and I’ve been offered the recording contract but didn’t want to tour…. I don’t like huge audiences either, so I got a job … and raised my son.
[He explains that after some time playing he was out of commission and had time to think.] It was your book that woke me up to what I am. A guy with a “cult following.” The kind of personality and musician who attracts a “cult following.” I haven’t gone through the book yet to make a list of all the ways you nailed the characteristics of such an artist and the kind of art he does, but I will compile a list for my own amusement and education. It took me a while to see it. At first I was enthralled by how much like Shepherd I was, but then I got to that point in the book where he might have been offered the Tonight Show, and you explained why that wouldn’t have worked anyway. That’s when I got it….I thought at the time I had failed, but now I see I succeeded in ways I didn’t comprehend at the time. I had been turned into Shepherd by Shepherd, and I couldn’t compromise, it’s not in me.
I had gotten caught up in a lust for fame and fortune that’s worse than Signing The Contract and becoming the Company Man for the record companies. [D writes that he recognized the trap he had gotten into— you’re convinced that you’re the greatest but not sufficiently recognized—like Shepherd]….you buy into it. That’s when you’re screwed.
But over these years of thinking it over, I’ve realized that the playing itself, the interaction onstage with other musicians, the joy of life that can be communicated onstage, the joy of experience, the openness, was being conveyed real-time to total strangers, who came back again and again to relive the experience. It was your book, talking about Shepherd, that helped me completely come to terms with that. I took all the chances he took. I got to an audience that, for the most part, I didn’t know. I really had no idea of the scope of the impact I had on the world. It was happening live, 3 times a week.
…through your book I’ve come to understand what I do, what I am, and the effect it has on people and other artists. I started down that road that Jean went down, and you finally put all the pieces together so I could really learn to love it the way it is, to see the good stuff.
Gene, there’s the two sides to all of us who perform, and of course Shep understood the fearsome glory of what he did live each night, for a small audience in a small arena. At the same time he wanted it all, on his own terms. You can hear in his voice that in spite of himself, he saw the beautiful reality of what he was doing.
Do me a favor, and make sure you keep your eye on the ball, make sure you appreciate what you’ve done. On its own terms, on your own terms. It’s with me each time I sit down at the keyboard and practice up for my Comeback Tour….
[After that first email—that sent shivers down my spine—D wrote again] The good news is that since you so neatly nailed the bad stuff any artist can get stuck in – not just Shepherd but all of us – I’ve been able to let go of it. You’ve also nailed the good stuff. About 3 weeks before I got ahold of your book, I had downloaded a good amount of Shepherd’s stuff off the internet. I remember thinking “Oh shit…now I’ve gotta listen to a million hours of this stuff and figure out what he did and how he did it.”
I haven’t had to do that. You did it. The book outlines not just Shep’s philosophy but how he pulled it off.
(In the best sense of the word.)