Donald Fagen of Steely Dan is a Shep enthusiast. He was a big fan while growing up. He even sent a clipping to Shep, who referred to it on a broadcast–so Fagen was one of “Shep’s spies.”
Fagen wrote a long (partly) appreciative essay about Shepherd for the internet’s “Slate” site, which appeared in December, 2008: http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/culturebox/2008/12/the_man_who_told_a_christmas_story.2.html:
The Man Who Told A Christmas Story–
What I learned from Jean Shepherd.
<…Shepherd did a nightly radio broadcast on WOR out of Manhattan that enthralled a generation of alienated young people within range of the station’s powerful transmitter. Including me: I was a spy for Jean Shepherd.
In the late ’50s, while Lenny Bruce was beginning his climb to holy infamy in jazz clubs on the West Coast, Shepherd’s all-night monologues on WOR had already gained him an intensely loyal cult of listeners. Unlike Bruce’s provocative nightclub act, which had its origins in the “schpritz” of the Catskills comics, Shepherd’s improvised routines were more in the tradition of Midwestern storytellers like Mark Twain, but with a contemporary urban twist: say, Mark Twain after he’d been dating Elaine May for a year and a half. Where Bruce’s antics made headlines, Shepherd, with his warm, charismatic voice and folksy style, could perform his most subversive routines with the bosses in the WOR front office and the FCC being none the wiser. At least most of the time….
And then there was that voice, cozy, yet abounding with jest.
He was definitely a grown-up but he was talking to me—I mean straight to me, with my 12-year-old sensibility, as if some version of myself with 25 more years worth of life experience had magically crawled into the radio, sat down, and loosened his tie. I was hooked. From then on, like legions of other sorry-ass misfits throughout the Northeast, I tuned in every weeknight at 11:15 and let Shep put me under his spell….
Listening to Shep, I learned about social observation and human types: how to parse modern rituals (like dating and sports); the omnipresence of hierarchy; joy in struggle; “slobism”; “creeping meatballism”; 19th-century panoramic painting; the primitive, violent nature of man; Nelson Algren, Brecht, Beckett, the fables of George Ade; the nature of the soul; the codes inherent in “trivia,” bliss in art; fishing for crappies; and the transience of desire. He told you what to expect from life (loss and betrayal) and made you feel that you were not alone….
Because Shep made it clear he was just as dazed, enraged, and amused as you were, that he noticed what you noticed, he established himself as one of a handful of adults you could trust. (Others were Mailer, Ginsberg, Vonnegut, and Realist publisher Paul Krassner.) Night after night, Shepherd forged the inchoate thoughts and feelings of a whole generation of fans into an axiom that went something like: “The language of our culture no longer describes real life and, pretty soon, something’s gonna blow.”…
As grateful as I am that Shep was there for me during those crucial years, my idealization of Shepherd the Man was not to survive much longer. In December of 1965, I came home from my first year of college for Christmas break and noticed that Shepherd was going to be appearing at nearby Rutgers University….
Onstage for almost two hours, he had the young audience in his pocket from the downbeat. But, for me, something wasn’t right. On the radio, speaking close to the mic, he was able to use vocal nuances and changes in intensity to communicate the most intimate shadings of thought and feeling, not unlike what Miles Davis could achieve in a recording studio. Live onstage, he spoke as though he’d never seen a microphone in his life, trying to project to the back of the room. Moreover, he blared and blustered like a carnival barker, as if he had the scent of failure in his nostrils and was ready to do anything to get the crowd on his side….
What I saw that night at Rutgers wasn’t pretty. In the studio, his occasional abuse of the lone engineer on the other side of the glass could be seen as the petulance of an artist trying to make things work on the fly. But, incandescent under the gaze of all those kids, his self-indulgences looked more like straight-up narcissism and his “hipness” was revealed as something closer to contempt. By the end of the show, he’d crossed the line between artist and showman and then some….
Not long ago,.. I started looking back at some of the things that used to inspire me as a kid, including some of Shep’s old shows, now available on the Internet. Hearing them almost a half-century down the line has been a trip. Despite the tendencies I’ve already mentioned (plus the gaffes one might expect from a wild man like Shep ad-libbing before the age of political correctness), much of the stuff is simply amazing: The guy is a dynamo, brimming with curiosity and ideas and fun. Working from a few written notes at most, Shepherd is intense, manic, alive, the first and only true practitioner of spontaneous word jazz….
Like a lot of fine-tuned performing artists, Shepherd increasingly exhibited the whole range of symptoms common to the aging diva. He became paranoid and resentful of imagined rivals, whether they were old ones like Mort Sahl or upstarts like Garrison Keillor. At the same time, he disavowed all his radio work, claiming that it was just a temporary gig on his way to some fanciful glory on the stage and screen. He even seemed to want to kill off his childhood, insisting that all those stories and characters were pulled clean out of his imagination. Old fans, for whom he had been almost like a surrogate father or big brother, were often met with derision when they approached him….>
In late 2013, Fagen published a book of reminiscences, Eminent Hipsters, the book’s title obviously a play on the Lytton Strachey book of short biographies, Eminent Victorians. The first part describes Fagan’s encounters with people and things which influenced him as he was growing up.
Fagen changed a bit of the early part of the Slate’s Shepherd piece, but basically he repeated it word-for-word in the book. He did change the title of his essay however. The book version is an entire chapter titled I WAS A SPY FOR JEAN SHEPHERD. What pleasure to read those words, presaging, I thought, a new or additional take on the master. But mostly it’s a carbon copy of the Slate piece, with its adulation and complaints.
As much I appreciate the essay, I do have some quarrel with the later parts. Fagen’s complaints about Shep’s live performance and later persona are rather accurate–but they lack any sense of what may have been extenuating circumstances for Shepherd’s flaws (shall we call them “foibles”?)
OCCASIONAL ABUSE OF THE LONE ENGINEER Most of the engineers cared nothing about the shows they worked on and hardly paid attention to Shepherd’s directions– Laurie Squire, who worked with him, said that many of these engineers were just wasting time on the job until retirement, and were referred to in the office as “button pushers.” They frequently screwed up–they undercut Shepherd’s art of improvised sound. No wonder Shep abused them.
RESENTFUL OF IMAGINED RIVALS They weren’t imagined–they were real humorists/comics who had received much more attention than he did. Attention and celebrity that he deserved more than they did. Now, they are little more than footnotes, while he, through his fans, continues in the minds and hearts of enduring enthusiasts more than three decades after his final radio broadcast, including so very many in the media he influenced and entertained on the highest intellectual levels (for instance Jerry Seinfeld and Donald Fagen).
DISAVOWED HIS RADIO WORK Yes, this is very sad–as though Michelangelo disavowed his sculptures of David and Moses. Sour grapes–considering how little he was regarded in the field–how radio dismissed him– maybe you should cut him a little slack for the sourness, Donald.
LIVE PERFORMANCES Yes, his enormous ego responded to the live adulation–he would have appreciated it at that level from the rest of his world. Plus, he obviously realized that the laid-back, contemplative style of his studio work would have been, in front of a live audience, lead-baloonsville.
“KILLED OFF HIS CHILDHOOD” But, Mr. Fagen, the childhood stories ARE fiction–I believe that Shep later insisted on it because he saw his artistic reputation devolving into that of a guy with a fantastic memory instead of what was the truth–a guy with a fantastic creative talent for fiction (for kid stories as well as for army stories). Among the many who, in our innocence, believed his stories were true-to-fact are comic Henry Morgan, me, and Donald Fagen.
“OLD FANS OFTEN MET WITH DERISION” Yes, unfortunate, but when he was constantly confronted in post-radio years by fans who insisted on focusing on his former radio work 1.) he resented and still felt pain that his radio career was cut short a bit before he would have chosen; 2.) he resented that his greatest genius was in that under-appreciated medium, so that he would probably never achieve the renown he deserved; 3.) he resented that people focused on his past and thereby negated the creative work to which, in his final decades, he devoted himself–they negated his life as he was then living it.
Donald Fagen, mourn, I implore–rather than complain. I believe you have missed the more three-dimensional persona that is Jean Shepherd–the radio genius who began high on a mountaintop where he belonged, and who, through little or no fault of his own, achieved in the public and critical eye, much less than he deserves. And this brought forth the more foible-filled parts of his being. There, worth contemplating and sympathizing with, is a classic tragedy.
A few years back I contacted you through email, hoping for somewhat of a dialog. I was disappointed that, although I was delighted that you responded, your final message to me was a curt, “Back at you,” rather than, “Yea, let’s talk.”
And let’s not forget, gang, that post-mortem, (in addition to accolades during his life) Ol’ Shep has received some tributes, including Radio Hall of Fame, Seinfeld Tribute at the Paley Center, and even a book about him, I blush to add. –eb
“That’s the difficulty with anecdotes. One cannot determine nuance.”
–Norman Mailer in 1962 reprinted in his 2013 selected essays,
Mind of an Outlaw.