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JEAN SHEPHERD–praise or condemn?

eb face graphicI hope, I hope, I hope!

 I’ve spent a good part of my waking hours for the last 13 years thinking and writing about Jean Shepard Shepherd. When my EXCELSIOR, YOU FATHEAD!  was published in 2005, I was asked by an interviewer whether I thought Shepherd would have damned or praised me for what I’ve written.  My answer is both (I’d hope).

Just as his third wife Lois Nettleton thanked me profusely for having written that first book in praise of Shep and all he’d created, I think Shep would have been happy to see some sort of book published about him—books, you’ll remember, were extremely important to him since he’d been a grammar school kid, even before he’d first gone to a library. So I believe that Shepherd would have been happy to find that so much of his work in all media, objectively described, would have a relatively permanent place in the printed world.

eb and shep poster

Benediction?

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Of course my written and spoken words about him consist of more than objective description—there’s subjective description, interpretation, appreciation. Besides all that, regarding his personal life, there’s a bit of description and a tad of suggested interpretation.

“SUGGESTED INTERPRETATION?!”

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Of course, there are the times I put words in his mouth: my play, Excelsior! and my fake interview of him in a manuscript. But I make clear that I’m—in the field of artistic interpretation and playing around—giving my own view of what his thoughts might be.

HE WOULD HATE THESE, I KNOW IT!

Despite my focus on his creative works, I do devote a bit of time to his treatment of his kids, his damning of radio, his unpleasant treatment of others: engineers, wives, children, fans, etc. He would intensely dislike much of the plain descriptive nature of putting parts of his life in print for the world to see. But there is a certain logic to this in my mind as his very personal style of radio persona—telling of himself and his ideas—lend one to examine to what degree these represent a truth to his life as he himself implied  on the air.

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There’s my questioning and musing on some parts of his enigmatic nature. For example my educated guess/interpretation of what I believe his motto “Excelsior” is all about.  Joel Baumwoll and I have had some interesting interchanges about ways his life and art regarding “Excelsior” are inextricably connected. Sometimes there is not quite so obvious a connection.

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The edited transcriptions of his army stories—he’d have edited and elaborated significantly in his own special way, as he did with his printed versions of stories first told on the air.  Of course I would never have attempted any creative additions to his words and ideas. But what I did, in only making necessary and gentle edits to his spoken words, has given a number of people the sense of hearing his voice on the printed page—I’m proud of that. (Some in years past have said that they find his own transcribed/ edited/augmented/published stories also did that, but I feel that my rather straightforward versions do it even more.) Even though Shep wouldn’t have done it the way I needed to.

 For example, the quote from Publishers Weekly:

“Editor Bergmann attempts with much success to simulate a posthumous memoir of author, comedian, and radio personality Jean Shepherd’s army years. Utilizing years of broadcasts and taking advantage of multiple retellings of the same events, Bergmann has assembled a surprisingly unified and confident account of oppressive years spent in the army’s Signal Corps from 1942 to 1944, with factual commentary between chapters providing context. Shepherd was never shipped to a warzone; thus the incidents recounted mostly concern the accommodations at a series of stateside camps, the cruelty of the fellow soldiers, and the sometimes Kafka-esque bureaucracy. His service was not without the defiance of death, and seems to have damaged both Shepherd and his compatriots; the pessimistic tone may surprise fans. The collection is otherwise a compliment to Shepherd’s usual storytelling and the exaggerated melodrama of his signature narration style, with a number of laugh-out-loud moments in a presentation that, against the odds, captures the energy of an oral telling.”

______________

Oh, Shep,

see, I did some good, didn’t I?

Wherever you are

(high above or low below)

forgive me my sins!

We are all sinners!

We all misinterpret you at times!

We even bad-mouth ya!

Sometimes we think we know better’n you do!

(Oh, the HORROR!!!)

Oh, fergive us our sins,

fergive us our treps-asses

as we fergive dose what treps-ass again us,

Oh, Wise and Wonderful Wizard of Shep!

[Oh–and forgive us for all future unintentional and intentional sins as well–thanks!]

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15 Comments

  1. Let us know if the ghost of Shepherd past visits you one cold night and takes you on a spectral journey that answers your questions. Or simply does to you what Og did to Charlie.
    Joel

  2. Jane (London UK) says:

    For given – and thanks for giving EB. In this life, most of us have a separate internal existence than that of our external one. Not so literary, musical or artistic creatives. They’re driven to put it out there. Some of us ‘get’ their body or work – or sling pot shots at them. For me some of Shep’s genius lies in his breadth of knowledge, exquisite use of words and language, exploration of ideas and concepts…limitless curiosity. And a distinctively quirky perception and viewpoint. He’s been a recent discovery for me, but such an original mind makes an astonishingly fresh and powerful impact.
    None of us get to pick and choose the qualities of the ‘stand out’ people who make their mark on the public stage. Only the selective pedestals that we may choose to foist them upon. Look at the domestic lives of the most revered… Shakespeare, Motzart, and company? All lives are prisms and facets of a whole. Reality is accepting the agreeable along with the disagreeable sides to our/others personalities. Like many people who seek to find out background and something about those who stimulate us, I find your website and ongoing work in progress in exploring the life of Jean Shepherd is of huge value. A tribute to the man (lest we forget) and a joy, warts and all. Excelsior!
    And, thank you
    Jane (London UK)

    • ebbergmann says:

      Jane, thank you very much for you thoughtful comments on artists in general and on Shep in particular. And I very much appreciate your kind comments about the work I do on Shepherd’s behalf. I trust you are also aware of Jim Clavin’s marvelous website, http://www.flicklives.com. I refer to it often and have contributed some material to it from time to time.

  3. Jane, You state that Shepherd is a “recent discovery” for you, yet you obviously “get” him. As someone who found him quite at random in 1955, and emerged myslef once again in his programs thanks to sites like The Brass Figlagee and Max Schmid’s wonderful collection of tapes and CDs, I am curious to know more about how you discovered him, what of his work you have seen, read or heard.

    Shep had a significant influence on how I viewed the world which has stayed with me to this day. He taught me to be a keen observer of all that went on around me, to see the humor in much of it, and to recognize the phoniness of much of the “official” world. Listening to his stories and narratives on the radio late at night, I absorbed his humor and learned how to tell a story.

    Have you listened to many of his radio programs? How has this discovery affected you? I hope you don’t mind my being a nosey parker, but it is rare to encounter someone who has only recently hit on this magical talent.

    Joel

    • Jane (London UK) says:

      My last reply was in response to EB flagging up the flicklives website.

      Joel, I too found Shep entirely randomly. While tuning through internet radio stations, Insomnia Theatre prompted an investigation. In an often jaded world, who says stupendous discoveries aren’t there for the finding? Sublime radio! A natural born storyteller whose truths shine through, never mind what literary licence devices used to convey them. The lack of phoniness was an instant connection. His drive to make the experience ‘real’ in the moment to moment of on air broadcasting. (and very palpable too are his frustrations with the limitations he felt in his working environment). One by one in recent years, our ‘magical’ radio talents here in the UK have been quietly dropped, or blandly re-programmed. Now I tune in several times a week to the funny, insightful, clarity of Shepradio. Liberation to the soul. And always with that jazz backbeat in his word formations. I’m enthralled especially by his Morse code signals broadcast – it also gave a eureka moment as to where his core rhythm comes from. That immediacy too of communication he only just got under the wire with at his radio station. Few now hang on to their talents and just barge it through like that. I can very much appreciate how, over time, you’ve honed observational skills and writing techniques through listening to a master craftsman – and to develop an ‘offside’ humour. I only jumped on the bandwagon a couple of months ago, and already am discovering a sharpening up of a life’s eye view here and there.

  4. Jane (London UK) says:

    Yes, (big grin), it’s been via Shepquest that I soon discovered the marvels and delights of flicklives

  5. Jane, There is a podcast called The Brass Figlagee that contains hundreds of Shep’s radio programs some dating back to the early 60 and middle 50s. There is also a Facebook Page called “I’m a fan of Jean Shepherd.” For years we had a Yahoo group that discussed Shep and Shep-oriented subjects. It dissolved recently and reformed on Yahoo but it is not very active. There are a bunch of us fatheads who meet every now and then in a thing called a Shepfest.

    • Jane (London UK) says:

      Three Big Cheers Baumwoll ~ The Brass Filagree podcasts sound like treasure trove. Very much appreciated. Will find my way over as soon as I leave here. The fatheads Shepfest hangout seems like a good place to be – darn, I closed my Facebook a/c last month! (Maybe I’ll sneak back…)
      I’m learning that many of you Shepsters have been aficionados since school and college days. Not surprising so many have stayed with him along the decades. My own introduction to observational Americana was initially through listening to firm favourites of my mother’s, Victor Borge, Tom Lehrer, Bob Newhart & co… then there was no looking back when I came across Mad magazine when nearing my mid teens in the early sixties. It made a lot of sense when I learned last week that Shep had been a contributor! No wonder Shepradio seems like a homeplace now.

    • Jane (London UK) says:

      Hi there Joel ~ this fathead has only now put you and ‘baumwoll’ together

  6. Joel and Baumwoll have been together since we were born. Where in London are you? I have a friend who runs a great restaurant in Chiswick (Hedone) and I am planning to come over in the spring to eat there, and at another friend’s place in Seasalter–The Sportsman. In between two meals, I may visit with other friends. 🙂

  7. Your mother had a good sense of humor!

  8. Jane (London UK) says:

    Yes, my mother had a well developed sense of the quirky. This time round we’re ships passing… we’ve last month let our London flat for the coming six months, and like you, are on the move. Aiming to be spending some time in Devon (very, very wet right now), and exploring Nice and its hill villages. Your timing for London seems spot on. London’s current unusual floods and stormy weather is forecast to peter out end of Feb. Great to have a restaurant as a base. Are you a frequent London visitor? Shep would have approved of Chiswick – it’s home to London’s oldest brewery, Fullers. Last night I caught on youTube, Shep’s TV show where he elegantly constructs a hymn of praise to Beer. Thoughtful and touching.
    Joel, The Brass Filagree! Awestruck. Thunderstruck. Looking at Jean Shepherd’s body of radio work so monumentally archived on there, I felt like an ant looking up at the Great Pyramid. A magnificent, Olympian effort in putting it all together! You can’t help speculating that if Shep had had his dream, to have been a monologist on stage and TV in his early peak years, there would not be this vast archive of his work for all to be revitalised with for all perpetuity. Our flat is just off Portobello Road. About a mile north of it, there’s a Victorian cemetery called Kensal Green. Thinking about the great good fortune of stumbling upon Jean Shepherd, GK Chesterton’s words from the Rolling English Road come up. “… For there is good news yet to hear, And fine things to be seen, Before we go to Paradise, By way of Kensal Green”. A toast to all Shep’s newly curious

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