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.)