SHEP HAVING A SILLY FIT
(one of my favorite Shep photos)
Interview–Is it Truth or Friction?
Jean Shepherd, who died in 1999, gave many interviews over the course of a long career that began in the 1940s and ended as the old millennium faded. I’ve read many of them, and of course I’ve noted many inconsistencies, errors, and the absence of much information that would help correct and complete the story of what he had accomplished. I’ve often imagined what questions I’d ask him.
Recently I was fortunate to fulfill my dream of an extended conversation. It happened late one night when most of us are snuggled in our beds with hazy visions drifting and dancing—especially receptive after a few nips of booze. You know how, when you’re listening to Shep late at night, transistor under the pillow, sometimes you don’t quite know if you’re asleep yet? Are you dreaming? Dozing, I heard the call, picked up my receiver, and there he was on the other end of the line. He told me he’d read my book about him and didn’t like some of it at all, but he was ready for an extended dialog. I grabbed my handy dandy tape recorder and started it rolling. His voice was sharp, his mind was clear. I couldn’t believe this treasure, this plum he was handing me only a few short years after his death. I began with some low-key biographical questions to make us both feel more comfortable with the—shall we say—unusual situation.
(FITS & STARTS)
Jean: Go ahead, fire away.
Gene: I hope you won’t mind my questioning some inconsistencies regarding your life and work. For example, you often said you grew up on the South Side of Chicago when you really grew up in nearby Hammond, Indiana.
J: Born on the South Side of Chicago. More people have heard of Chicago and it grabs ‘em better with its fame. Hammond’s a next door nonentity.
G: Okay, that’s geography. What about chronology? The A Christmas Story movie takes place in about 1940, a decade after it should have been according to your age.
J: That puts it in a familiar world for more viewers. Besides, the props were easier to find, and cheaper.
G: You also frequently shave several years off your age in interviews.
J: I admit it’s an ego thing. All celebrities do it. I shave off years like guys shave off last night’s stubble. Makes me look fresher and cleaner.
G: Talking about shaving, over the years you changed the look of your face so many times—hair, no hair, etc. Why?
J: Going in for psychological analysis?
G: It is very curious. And despite your apparent giving of yourself on the radio, I gather that you’re in reality very secretive.
J: I’ll give you some alternatives. The FBI is after me. My former wives are after me. I take trips around the world seeking the real me, so I figure if I keep changing my looks, I will prevent me from finding me.
G: It’s all three, isn’t it?
J: You got it.
G: Regarding various biographical similarities and anomalies, I realize that you felt that a story grabbed the listener better if it seemed to have been a real incident from your life. So, on the air you told it like it was true, but in interviews and writing you insisted the radio stories were mostly fiction. Fiction, but your BB gun story title originally referred to Cleveland Street, where you originally lived in Hammond, which means you have it both ways and more.
J: Back when I wrote it, few people knew the name of the street where I grew up. It was an in-joke.
G: Was it also a bit of nostalgia?
J: How would you like a punch in the nose?
G: Is that what you did to Norman Mailer?
J: Ha! That son of a bitch!
G: Why do you dislike him so? Jealous of his fame?
J: That’s what you think, isn’t it?
G: It would be understandable.
J: His fame. His notoriety. His invites to more and better cocktail parties. His access to more women. His outrageous financial gains when he just happened to be a better attention-getter with the masses. Goddamn clown.
G: Let’s change the subject. In the 1950s, you were deeply immersed in the current jazz scene and played some of that more difficult music on your program. Why did you put aside your activities in jazz and your playing of contemporary jazz on your broadcasts? Did you realize that, because of your earlier time slot after August 1956, that your larger, younger audience didn’t respond to the more avant-garde jazz, and that the shorter length of your broadcasts didn’t allow for the more extended cuts those forms of jazz would have required?
J: You could say that. Not enough kids dug it. And to tell you the truth, as much as I did my own thing as I wanted to, I had to keep an audience or I wouldn’t have had a mic to talk to or a pot to piss in.
G: So, as I suggest, would you say that with the earlier hour for your show and more kids listening, to some extent you compromised as Herb Gardner suggested you did in his characterization of you at the end of his A Thousand Clowns?
J: That bastard!
G: Are you angry because it’s a wrong characterization or are you angry because he expressed it?
J: Are you trying to be a bastard too?
G: Just seeking a bit of truth.
J: Truth is what you [Garbled. Damn tape recorder—as Jack Nicholson might have said in the movies, “It can’t handle the truth!”]
(Stay tuned for the second half
–if you can handle it.)
JEAN SHEPHERD POLL
Recently I requested of my contacts in the world of Shep to give me a list of their favorite kid and army stories. I expected that the vast majority of responses would be focused on a couple of kid stories such as the BB gun tale, and army stories such as “Troop Train Ernie,” and playing army baseball in the nude. I was surprised to find that a majority of the responses included other kid and army stories and a wide variety of Shep’s subjects that I regard as not “stories” but commentary and anecdote. I’m still surprised, but I’m also delighted that favorites among Shep enthusiasts encompassed such a wide variety of his creative radio expressions beyond what I think of as pure “story-telling.”
I dug out my essay on a subject that I wrote for eventual inclusion in a book of my additional information and cogitations on Shep. And here it is:
OUTRAGEOUS ASSERTION! (WHAT’S THE NARRATIVE?)
People tend to believe and repeat what’s widely professed about a subject, assuming that if that’s what’s mostly claimed, it must be so. Sometimes I feel as though I hold high the flickering candle of TRUTH, but maybe the flickers confuse my view and I’ve got it all wrong? Naaa, couldn’t be! Whatever—I gotta get the thought out so it doesn’t fester, so here goes.
Jean Shepherd is well known as a storyteller. “Story” can be thought of in more than one way. Because of Shepherd’s deceptively casual and intimate style of apparent verisimilitude in the telling, his listeners believed in the main that he was narrating his true experiences—true stories. As we now understand that most of his tales were fabricated—pure or impure inventions, created products—they require shelving with Mark Twain’s humorous fiction. As Janet Malcolm is quoted in another context in the New York Times Sunday Magazine of May 12, 2002, “The truth is messy, incoherent, aimless, boring, absurd. The truth does not make a good story; that’s why we have art.” When Shepherd would say something such as, “Here’s the story about…” or “Have I told you the story about….” listeners tended to think real occurrence, while Shepherd, at some level at least, must have thought make believe.
(Slight parenthetical diversion. The whole rich subject of make believe vs. truth, of nonfiction and fiction, of what we try to mean when we claim to be telling that elusive thing called “truth,” has long been part of the literary chatter of minds more subtle than mine, but I admit to a considerable fascination with questions such as: Why is it so difficult to grasp the truth of a story, and if we think we’ve got it by the tale, why can’t we just tell it like it really is? How many hobgoblins can dance on the head of a reader? Such questions are bound to come up as one searches through the mind and stories of Jean Shepherd, and if I’m the searcher, this little quest involves perusing such ancillary matter in books with titles such as The Story is True, another titled The Truth Never Gets in the Way of a Good Story, and works by biographical detectives who seek answers in books with subtitles such as Adventures of a Biographer in Search of Her Subject, and of writings by Janet Malcolm who tries to disentangle the whys and wherefores of all sorts of biographical legerdemain.)
Fans as well as professional commentators seem to believe that Jean Shepherd on the radio mostly told stories. On his broadcasts he told many wonderful, extended stories, and so to call him a great storyteller is certainly correct. But to suggest that this defines him shortchanges him—his genius is comprised of the widely varied assemblage of audio materials with which he broadcast over several decades.
Jean Shepherd maybe telling a story
during a regular studio broadcast.
In my dictionary, a story is “a narrative, either true or fictitious.” In literary terms, one might expect a certain formal coherence that includes a beginning, middle, and end. And Shepherd, as a raconteur, would be in my dictionary “a person who is skilled in relating stories and anecdotes interestingly….” An anecdote is “a short account of a particular incident or event of an interesting or amusing nature, often biographical.” That an anecdote is an “account” suggests that in some sense it doesn’t rise to the literary level of form and meaning to which we normally give the name “story.” Shepherd had discussed the obvious point that a “report” is not a story. Most would probably agree that in a continuum between a short anecdote or report at one end (“Today a kid, after reading about Flick’s tongue stuck on a cold flagpole, got his tongue stuck on a cold pole.”) and the full-blown Shep story, there is a difference in kind, though somewhere around the middle, we amateurs may not be able to draw the parting line.
Using my criteria for distinguishing stories from other matter, I believe that the idea that Shepherd mainly told stories, whether factual or fictional, is not right. I suspect that some believe he was mostly a storyteller because they may like the stories best, and in retrospect most people simply remember them more easily and tend to gloss over his many short riffs.
Shepherd’s general small talk, short comments and anecdotes, bashing his engineers, bosses, and sponsors, his philosophical musings, perceptions on the passing scene, amusing complaints regarding the innumerable foibles of mankind, manic musical forays, and innumerable other fun things, are not individually or collectively as easily brought to mind and toted up as are the extended stories.
Jean Shepherd maybe telling a story
during a broadcast Limelight event.
(photo by David Michelsohn)
My belief is not based on having used a stopwatch and list of categories while listening to over a thousand Shepherd broadcasts. But, in over a decade of continuous research, pondering, and writing about what Shepherd created, I might have paid more attention to such matters than have many others. Because only the 45-minute broadcasts and the Limelight shows, from 1960-1977, are available in goodly numbers, my guestimate is mostly based on these. (I would imagine—considering the few examples of his Sunday night programs I’ve heard—he probably told even fewer stories on his much longer, earlier programs from 1956-1960.) With that in mind, I here express my heresy regarding actual performance time on the air:
General miscellany as described above about 50%
Anecdotes about 25%
Stories about 25%.
So sue me.
Jean Shepherd maybe just talking to Leigh Brown
(or maybe “commenting” or “anecdoting”),
or just posing for the photographer.
(photo from People magazine.)
Did Jean Shepherd ever write a novel?
“I did something today that you don’t do very often in your life. I delivered to my publisher–I delivered to him the completed, edited, done manuscript of a novel that I have been working on for over three years.” –Jean Shepherd 2/4/1966.
What is a “novel” and what is not, and what is the issue here? Jean Shepherd claimed that his book of kid stories, In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash is a novel and I say it is not. My American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, fourth edition defines “novel” thusly, “A fictionally prose narrative of considerable length, typically having a plot that is unfolded by the actions, speech, and thought of the characters.”
Jean Shepherd claimed that since childhood, he had been fascinated by writing and reading, had been excited early on by going to the library and, as a youngster, had been obsessed with novels such as Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel.
Several times Shepherd expresses how important words—and especially written words— are for him. In a 1974 program he evokes his joy of reading. In what seems a rather thought-out set piece, with a dramatic musical background, he reads a bit of a book he’d originally read at about the age of ten or eleven. Someone had recommended it to him, but the librarian commented that although they didn’t usually lend it to such young kids, she’d make an exception in his case. Describing the effect of the book on him he says, “And from that minute on I realized there was nothing ever in this world that’s more—that’s even as remotely powerful as words. Words are what it’s about. It’s the thing that makes us different from the giraffes and the turtles.” Then, in a description that distinctly echoes the experience of so many of his young fans listening to him late at night, he remembers:
…taking this book home and reading it under the covers at home because you had this rule you had to go to bed at a certain time….So I was hiding under the covers with Look Homeward, Angel. And I didn’t know what it was about. I just know I couldn’t stop reading it. It changed my life forever, really. (January 15, 1974)
(First edition book jacket)
In my Excelsior, You Fathead! page 323, I say regarding In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash, “It is not a novel, any more than those literary classics The Canterbury Tales and The Decameron are novels.” Novels have more prestige (and are constructed with a different sort of cohesiveness) than a group of short stories. Shepherd wanted the ego-boost of writing a novel. Shepherd told wonderful stories on the radio, wrote them into very good stories for print, and (with Bob Clark and Leigh Brown) put together several of the them into a wonderful movie that is more of a movie-novel than the book is a novel-novel. Yet, it can be a matter of how people choose to use a term. For In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash, Shepherd and his publisher put it this way:
IN GOD WE TRUST: ALL OTHERS PAY CASH
(Bottom of the first edition dust jacket)
The full-page newspaper ad for the book refers twice to “Jean Shepherd’s novel.”
This is especially important for Shepherd for at least two reasons. For one, his extemporaneous work on radio (a medium that got almost no respect from the public, critics, or the literati), seemed destined to be eternally underrated and forgotten. Second, stories told, and even short stories written and published, do not have the literary clout of a published novel.
Almost all who refer to the book blindly follow suit and inaccurately call it a “novel.” I believe that this is so because Shepherd insisted upon it wherever he could, and everyone else just follows along, assuming they have it right. In my foreword to the book A Christmas Story: Behind the Scenes of a Holiday Classic (publication October, 2013), I describe all the four opening credits listing his name, including: “Based Upon the Novel In God We Trust All Others Pay Cash by Jean Shepherd.”
Caseen Gaines, the Behind the Scenes author himself has consistently gotten it right, describing In God We Trust as, “…an anthology of Ralphie’s stories,” and “…a composite of his published short stories,…in his anthology…” and refers to Shepherd’s next book, Wanda Hickey, as …”a second short story anthology… .”
The question of what is a novel and what is a group of short stories especially interests me these days because of how I describe my collection, transcription, editing, and commentary of the book Shep’s Army: Bummers, Blisters, and Boondoggles (August 2013). It is a collection of short stories, yet I play with the idea of “novel” because I believe Shepherd’s army stories are something more–they are in a book that gathers the stories and arranges them into a form that was just waiting to be discovered, so that they might constitute what could almost be termed “a novel.” Maybe Shepherd even had such a way of thinking of his army stories himself, in a way that Marshall McLuhan wrote in his Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man: “Jean Shepherd of WOR regards radio as a new medium for a new kind of novel that he writes nightly.” I don’t call Shep’s Army a novel. Yet, because of the comprehensive scope of the stories regarding time in the army from induction to discharge, in my introduction to the book I comment that “Shepherd tells his army stories, indeed all his stories, in no special order–randomly it seems–each self-contained. Once one begins to cull them and organize them, however, they suggest a coming-of-age-in-the-army narrative that can reasonably be deemed Jean Shepherd’s Army Life Novel.” There is the introduction to the strange military world; followed by what might be called his”school days” learning about Signal Corps duties in Missouri; then there is the radar training experience in Florida; there are then, the experiences commonly encountered by most soldiers; and the whole “story” is rounded out with his final days in the military and his beginning to return to civilian life. Not a novel, but maybe it could be reasonably thought of as such.
More to come regarding “stories”
and how we think of them compared to “comments” and “anecdotes.”
HAPPY DADS DAY!
Here are the dads of Jean Shepherd, aka Ralphie Parker
A CHRISTMAS STORY
PHANTOM OF THE OPEN HEARTH
THE GREAT AMERICAN FOURTH OF JULY
AND OTHER DISASTERS
THE STAR-CROSSED ROMANCE
OF JOSEPHINE COSNOWSKI
OLLIE HOPNOODLE’S HAVEN OF BLISS
IT RUNS IN THE FAMILY
aka MY SUMMER STORY
Jean Parker Shepherd’s fictional dads–all somewhat blurry–
but that’s what nostalgia and computer-image-capture can do.
(Yes, folks, I know–no A Christmas Story II or theatrical dads.)
Jean Shepherd’s real father’s name was Jean Shepherd,
also known as Shep.
Near the end of 1964, Shep said on a program: “My father always said,
‘don’t trust anyone who uses his middle name.’
This is the Jean Parker Shepherd Junior Show.”
Happy Dad’s Day, dad.
–Gene B. (aka eb)
“Shep, we love ya.
Shep, your work is on our minds night and day.
Shep, we build shrines to ya.”
Back in February 2013 I published a description of my Shep Shrine. By special request I’m adding a lot of recent photos, because a lot of photos are worth maybe more than the previous 1423 words.
Reference material, written files, audio files of Shepherd radio shows, interviews of him, discussions of him on the radio; audios and transcriptions of interviews I did for my Excelsior, You Fathead!, interviews of me discussing that book after it came out; videos of his TV shows and his films along with odds and ends. A special Excelsior, You Fatheads! bright orange felt banner. And more material stuffed into my hardware/work area.
Props from my Shep play; seltzer bottles; first editions of his books, reference material; nine syndicated radio CD sets for which I did the program notes; assorted goodies of his I got on ebay.com.
Original artwork–the ink drawing of the antique Bugatti, previously posted in my Bugatti article and to its right, the continuation of the same paper towel sheet, individually framed, of the still life of table objects he did. A water-logged copy of Excelsior, You Fathead! sent to me by a fan at my request.
What a lotta stuff!
Excelsior banner by Jackie Lannin.
Boxes of CDs and cassettes of
Shep shows, interviews of him,
interviews by me for EYF! book, etc.
Same model Zenith radio as that on which
I first listened to Shep,
E B bookends my father made for me,
a couple of my Shep manuscripts,
our son Drew’s baseball jersey.
Sub-annex with research, file boxes, and folders,
interviews and permissions for EYF!,
much else, plus Shel Sileverstein books.
fabricated while passing through
one of my many silly moods.
MAIN GALLERY OF SHEP SHRINE
Two props from my Shep play,
artists books I’ve made, and my
EXCELSIOR SELTZER WATER bottle collection.
Director’s chair and megaphone–
props for the Shep play.
First editions of Shep books, research books,
files and publicity for EYF!, other Shep artifacts,
a waterlogged EYF! copy in its box,
in front of it a playbill for “Look, Charlie,”
some Shep ink drawings including the
long Bugatti drawing on the wall.
Shep’s paper-towel still-life ink drawing
mounted to the right of the Bugatti drawing
from which it was severed.
Poster of Jean Shepherd bestowing
benediction upon all who enter the Shrine.
Leg lamp night light below, no longer functional
–now just a nostalgic memento.
(Table-size leg lamp may be seen
in our front room window all year long.)
STORY AS THE TAPE RUNS OUT
Jean Shepherd has done a lot for me, especially in the last decade. True, he’s distracted me from writing unpublished poems and creating unpublished artists books, but he’s filled the intellectual, creative parts of me with all the picaresque pleasures of explore-and-discover, understand-and-explain, plus he’s peopled my life with all those I’ve interviewed and with whom I’ve discussed Shep. He’s made my life richer.
Beyond all that, through what seemed at the time a minor event, he enriched not only me, but my memory of my mother and father.
On this special day for me, it’s time to reaffirm the relationship
between my parents, myself, and Jean Shepherd.
The dedications in my first Shep book include: “With thanks to my parents, Marjorie Crosby Bergmann and Benno Bergmann, who loved me enough to tolerate Shep and record him for me way back in the Legendary Time.” Tolerate is too inaccurate a description. They found it odd that I, in my late teens and early twenties, would sit by myself in the kitchen listening and laughing to a guy talking, when just two rooms away I could have been watching television with them. My remembrance is that my mother found Shep strange and intellectually amusing and my father found him strange and probably subversive.
I’d been recording Shepherd since 1956, saving some of the tapes for posterity, and then a couple of years later my parents recorded Shep for me at an important time in my life. Soon after college graduation I had to go to an alien place— to an Army installation in a Southeastern State, and have inflicted upon me a new lieutenant’s ten weeks of “basic training” along with scores of mostly antipathetic others who had somehow also been given college diplomas and gold bars. In early 1960, I drove down from New York in my used VW Beetle, my most important cargo one of our family’s two reel-to-reel tape players. I set it up on my bureau in the room I shared with another reserve lieutenant and explained to him that the tapes of Shepherd broadcasts my parents would record and send me would be my “intellectual survival kit.” They sent me tapes, and in the evenings, when my roommate was out drinking beer with the rest of the pack, I was alone in my room drinking in the words of Shep.
Thus I survived ten weeks of hot dumb hell. (This memory reminds me of Shepherd’s army stories and my Shep’s Army book coming soon. I’ll be posting a lot about it.) But, as did so many other Shepherd fans in those days when tapes were relatively expensive and we were not thinking clearly enough of the future, I’d send back the tapes for my parents to tape over with the next Shep installments. We assumed he would be there forever.
7″ Reel of Tape
One of the last of these tapes (preserved because it was not re-recorded but carried back north) contains my parents’ voices. One night near the end of the first act of my Army experience of to hell and back, as the end of the reel approached, I heard what was obviously a well-scripted-by-my-mother little joke on their son:
Mom: Say, dad, this is the end of today’s Shepherd recording. There’s about three minutes to run on the end of this tape and I’m wondering if we should use up this bit tomorrow night and take a chance on having to reverse the reel and breaking off in the middle of a juicy tidbit of good old Shep’s, or should we just forget about this tail-end and turn the tape over now.
Dad: I don’t know. Maybe best to switch it over now then be fumbling and maybe get a heart attack in the excitement tomorrow. Let’s do it the calm, cool way. Gene should enjoy this bit about Thomas Wolfe—sounds real intellectual.
Mom: Funny, I can’t figure this fellow today. He says he’ll be on his way at Idlewild [now JFK] tonight and yet will be back on the air tomorrow. Guess he’s got a double—the other part of him being a tape, huh?
Dad: Did you get where he says he’ll be on from 12:15 to 2:00 on Saturday now?
Mom: Yeah. Guess he has late dates Friday and can’t get up in time. Well, we can sleep till noon on Saturdays now too.
Dad: Well, what are you going to do about the tail-end of this reel? Turn it or tape it?
Mom: I don’t know. Guess we’ll—whoops! You know there isn’t any tape left!
Dad: Oh yes there is. There’s plenty of tape left. You see, here’s the end right now….
Thus the tape ran out, tethered to the take-up reel and flopping away like a ribbony slapstick. Those couple of recorded moments delighted me then and delight me now. It’s a final little grail I’d had in hand all these years but hadn’t recognized as such. It shows loving parents—conservative, older generation parents who maybe did a bit more than tolerate Jean Shepherd. Unusual for their standard MO, at that moment, engaging with Shep’s work for their son’s benefit, they’d created a bit of wit, a bit of whimsy—they were a bit inspired by him too.
Mom and Dad
Thanks, Mom and Dad,
from your son, the loose-kneed picaro
in the land of Shep
[Jean Shepherd speaking in a much-exaggerated, mock-sorrowful, pleading voice.] I want to hear one person. Just one small person. That’s all I need. Night after night I wring my poor bones dry. Night after night, out of this turnip—this me, out of this rock—this me—I try to draw a little blood—for you. For what? For what? Do you think it’s to sell Miller Beer? Eh? Do you think I get satisfaction out of selling Miller Beer, eh? Eh? You’re doggone well tootin’ dad, you’re doggone well tootin’! [A Miller Beer commercial follows.]
Ah! That’s all I need. Just one little word—of encouragement. A small word. All I want is just to hear one voice crying out of the wilderness, “Hurray, Shepherd! You’re fantastic! Hurray, Shepherd! There’s nobody in the world like you! Hurray, Shepherd for the president of the world!”
That’s all I want. Just one little word here and there, of encouragement. That’s all we only want—all of us. Just a little cheering, just a little solace from time to time. Just a little indication. Just the smallest clue! That somebody cares. That somebody [said with a sob] cares. That somebody cares [he is crying, pounding on his table]. I sang my heart out for ya, just about five minutes ago. I almost blew a gasket for you. For all of you—out there on the Island, for you, you slobs in Staten Island, and for that nothing bunch up in the Bronx. (Friday night broadcast, March 5, 1965)
Shep, we love ya.
Shep, your work is on our minds night and day.
Shep, we build shrines to ya.