Jean Shepherd on the air, pre-April 1977 describing WOR:
“And we want to salute all those monsters past and present. Including the present program directorship here at WOR.”
“Speaking of intimations of disaster, this is WOR AM and FM.”
“Speaking of evil ideas, this is WOR, New York.”
“Speaking of death, this is WOR AM and FM, New York.””
Herb Saltzman, WOR General Manager: “[A new general Manager] came in to ‘youthify’ the station and one of the first things he did–he got rid of the whole nighttime block…of talk show hosts [and some of the announcers].”
The New York Times, March 28, 1977: “”John Wingate, WOR reporter for 30 years…Stan Lomax, a sports commentator for 43 years; Henry Gladstone, a newscaster for 32 years; and Jean Shepherd, famous for his impressionistic nostalgic monologues, which have been heard for 20 years, all resigned and will leave within two weeks.”
THE DASTARDLY DEED
Could April Fool’s Day be a parable
for something important?
Sometimes a taped show is rebroadcast at a later date—maybe when he is out of town or for some other just cause. At least once, a significant tape is chosen to fit an occasion. Most dramatically and sadly, he chooses his broadcast of April 1, 1968—April Fool’s Day in sixth grade—to stand in metaphorically for his final broadcast on WOR after twenty-two years, on April Fool’s Day of 1977. Shepherd and several other long-time radio talkers on WOR were asked to leave because of a change in programming philosophy. The week before he tells his listeners of his imminent departure and claims that he has chosen to devote more time to his many other creative projects, saying that the decision is his alone, not connected to WOR’s new policy. Somewhat of an obfuscation regarding the whole truth—surely he would have preferred to choose his departure totally on his own terms. We’re told that he is furious about being dismissed—
WOR has been cruel
to this broadcaster considered to be both
supreme in his field
and one of America’s great humorists.
Instead of the anguish of having to improvise for forty-five minutes and say goodbye on his last day, he chooses the old tape from 1968. Surely he chooses it because of the description of cruelty perpetrated on him in sixth grade—the ending a powerful metaphor for his present situation. Terminating his creative life on WOR, he rebroadcasts his kid story about being April-fooled by his cruel friends. They fake some notes from a girl in class, suggesting that she wants him to come to her house to make fudge–like on a date. When he goes to the house he is rejected, and sadly starts back home. His cruel friends, in hiding, make fun of him–“April fool!” The story ends:
“Humiliated before the entire world. They heard! I couldn’t figure out why they did it to me. Why did they do this to me? [He pauses] And we walked our separate ways.”
[A longer pause before that previously recorded voice of Jean Shepherd ends his last broadcast on WOR]:
“April Fool’s Day”
Jean Shepherd and WOR walked their separate ways.
Regarding the details of Shepherd’s last show, of 4/1/1977 (the earlier broadcast, April Fool’s show of 1968) Laurie Squire, Shep’s friend and his radio producer for his final year at WOR, sends me these details of her remembrance:
Mea culpa [pause]…here goes…in the last couple of months of Jean’s time at ‘OR he did very few live shows and left it up to me to pick any show for air. I would listen through a tape for any glaring problems, have the old spots edited out and new ones inserted. I tried to choose shows that aired around the same time of the month so the April Fool’s tape was chosen for that reason (I know, sounds bad but…). As to why he didn’t do a last live show, that decision also was not up to him (but, for the record, he had no desire to do an “official” final live one): typically (not always but often) when an on-air talent was removed, the ‘OR management at the time did not want anyone’s final show to be live out of fear that something untoward might happen or be said.
Despite Laurie’s exacting memories, I still imagine that Shep must have been aware of the supreme irony and significance of the final words in the 1968 program as broadcast on April 1, 1977, as I posted above.–eb
A SHEP’S ARMY Customer Review on www.amazon.com that I posted about recently, focused on Shep’s negative view of the military. Most are aware of the wry attitude Shepherd often took (although we are also well aware of the great joy he frequently expressed about much of life).Recently I encountered two items on the Internet that focus on Shepherd’s humor as a pessimistic take on life.
First, the Los Angeles Times obituary. October 17, 1999, “taken from Times Staff and Wire Reports.” As do most descriptions of Shepherd’s life, this report is full of inaccuracies. I excerpt just a bit of it here that relates to negativity.
He would talk about whatever came to mind, and those tales often celebrated the hopelessness and haplessness of the human race and the total absurdity of life on Earth.
….”Most people think of life as some kind of never-ending struggle, a tragedy,” he once said. “To me, life is a vast, cosmic, shaggy dog story, a giant, curiously unresolved joke with an infinitely long punch line.”
….To Shepherd, humor was a disposition rather than a simple line.
“Comedy sets up lines; humor is an attitude, and much harder to sustain,” he once told a reporter.
“When you’re doing humor . . . the life you’re leading is the joke.”
The same day, googling “Jean Shepherd,” as I often do, I encountered a site devoted to bassist Charles Mingus, a good friend of Shepherd’s for a while. They collaborated on the extended music and narration for the title piece on the Mingus album, “The Clown.” The site contains a short quote from Mingus regarding the gestation of the piece and a transcription of the narration. Shepherd’s narration proceeds in segments and pauses a number of times for the music.
[Full album cover. Note wrinkled brow, the down-turned
real eyebrows, and the sad look of the clown’s real mouth.]
CHARLES MINGUS: “I felt happy one day. I was playing a little tune on the piano that sounded happy. Then I hit a dissonance that sounded sad, and I realized that the song had to have two parts. The story, as I told it first to Jean Shepherd, is about a clown who tried to please people—like most jazz musicians do—but whom nobody liked until he was dead.”
Extended play edition
[Very minor editorial adjustments in the narration have been made
to match the actual audio on the site.
JEAN SHEPHERD NARRATION: “Man, there was this clown. And he was a real happy guy, a real happy guy. He had all these greens and all these yellows and all these oranges bubbling around inside of him. And he had just one thing he wanted in this world, he just wanted to make people laugh. That’s all he wanted out of this world. He was a real happy guy.
Let me tell you about this clown. He used to raise a sweat every night out on the stage and just wouldn’t stop. That’s how hard he worked. He was trying to make people laugh. He used to have this cute little gimmick where he had a seal follow him up and down a step-ladder blowing “Columbia the Gem of the Ocean” out on a B-flat Sears-Roebuck model 1322 plastic bugle, a real cute act. But they didn’t laugh. Well, you know, a few little things here and there, but not really. And he was booking out in all these tank towns, playing the Rotary Clubs, and the Kiwanis Clubs, and the American Legion hall. And he just wasn’t making it, but he had all these wonderful things going on inside of him, all these greens and yellows and all these oranges. He was a real happy guy, and all he wanted to do was to make these people laugh, that’s all he wanted out of this world, to make people laugh, and then something began to grow, something that just wasn’t good began growing inside of this guy.
You know, it’s a funny thing. Something began to trouble this clown. You know, little things—little things once in a while would happen that would make that crowd begin to move, but they were never the right things. Like, for example, the time the seal got sick on the stage, all over the stage, the crowd just–just broke out, little things like that. And they weren’t supposed to be in the act, and they weren’t supposed to be funny. This began to trouble him. And this little thing began to grow inside of him. And all those greens and all those oranges, all those yellows, they just weren’t as bright as they used to be. And all he wanted to do was to make that crowd laugh, that’s all he wanted to do.
There was one night in Dubuque when he was playing at the Rotary Club. All these dentists, these druggists, all these postmen sitting around, and they were a real cold bunch. Nothing was happening. He was leaving the stage when he stumbled over his ladder, fell flat on his face, just flat on his face. When he stands up and he’s got this bloody nose and he looks out at the crowd and that crowd is just rolling on the floor, he’s just knocked them flat out. This begins to trouble him even more. And he begins to see something, he begins to see something.
And right about here things began to change, but really change. Not the least of which, our clown changes his act. He bought himself a set of football pads, a yellow helmet with red stripes, hired a girl who dropped a five pound sack of flour on his head every night, from maybe twenty feet up. Oh man! what a bit, that just broke them up every night. But not like Dubuque. And all those colors, all those yellows, all those reds, all those oranges—a lot of gray in there now, a lot of blue. And all he wanted was to make this crowd laugh, that’s all he wanted out of this world.
They were laughing alright, not like Dubuque—but they were laughing. And all the dough started coming in. He was playing the big towns. Chicago, Detroit. And then it was Pittsburgh one night. A real fine town, Pittsburgh, you know. About three-quarters of the way through his act, a rope broke, down came the backdrop, right on the back of the neck. And he went flat. And something broke. This was it. It hurt way down deep inside. He tried to get up. He looked down at the audience. And man, you should’ve—you should have seen that crowd. They were rolling in the aisle. This was bigger than Dubuque! This was bigger than Dubuque! He really had ‘em going. But this was it. This was the last one. This was the last one. Yeah. This was the last one. He knew now. Man, he really knew now. But it was too late and all he wanted was to make this crowd laugh. Well, they were laughing, but now he knew.
That was the end of the clown. And you should have seen the booking come in. Man, his agent was on the phone for twenty-four hours. The Palladium, MCA, William Morris. But it was too late. He really knew now. He really knew. He really knew now. William Morris sends regrets.
“The Clown” was recorded and release in 1957. Lois Nettleton wrote
to me that she was present at the all-night recording session.
[Jean and Lois were “a couple” from some time in mid-1956.
This photo, the only know one of them together–showing
both faces–is dated circa 1962. They
were married in December 1960]
More perceptive comments from Joel Baumwoll:
Comment 1 You know, I got that early in the game with Shep…That humor was a way of life, a way of living and a way of looking a the world around me. It wasn’t a punch line or funny bit. It was the absurdity that could be found in the most mundane events or things. it’s like saying “He’s a good athlete.” It is part of who you are. I suppose I had that in me but Shep gave me a model and it has been with me and part of me ever since.
A girlfriend said of me when I was 17; “You had a kind of smile that looked like there was this joke and only you got it. It was like you were in on something that other people weren’t.” That was Shep’s influence on my take on the world. I don’t think it was sad, or tragic, personally, but i appreciated the sadness or futility in some lives around me. And also the ability of people to fool themselves.
I remember stories like Zudock (I think) who bought this house in parts from Sears with this dream of assembling it and having a real house to live it. He hadn’t thought through what was involved in getting it from the train depot to his lot. It turned into a disaster, a total loss, with his friends useless or worse. So sad, if you think that this blue collar guy had a dream and saw it turn to crap in front of him. And yet, there is a kind of Edgar Kennedy humor about this, like watching someone slip on a banana peel.
It is hard to believe that a guy talking on the radio at night could have that effect, but why not? Authors and books have done that for millions over the years.
Comment 2 One of Shep’s comic geniuses was Edgar Kennedy. He was the poor soul, whose life was a series of assaults. he had a kid of bewildered look, as if to say “why is this happening to me.” His wife was a selfish harridan, who brought her brother in their home. The brother was a total sop, lazing round living off the fruits of Edgar’s work, leaving Edgar the peels. Every time Edgar had a moment of joy, as when he brought a new car home, the wife’s brother and she would destroy it for him. And he scratched his head and looked puzzled. He never got mad, which was the thing. He just endured one blow after another and kept coming back with another hopeful thing, only to be dashed. I think Shep saw in this a model for how he viewed life. Triumphs, crashes, short lived joys, interspersed with set backs. Yet he went after life with gusto and enjoyed new experiences, travel, homes. An enigma indeed. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edgar_Kennedy
Shepherd’s dislike of rock and roll—and specifically of the early Beatles, probably because their great popularity–made them symbolic of it all and makes this encounter of more than usual interest. (We who combine our enthusiasm for Shepherd with our own Beatlemania are thus especially interested in what he had to say about them.) We Shep kooks are a persistent crew, but sometimes it takes us too damn long to make connections. What’s the missing piece here? Why hasn’t it occurred to any of us to ask a simple question about the time the four-plus-one were together: what about group photos of that Fab Five?
There must have been photos taken of Shepherd with the Beatles during that week! The Playboy material and the existing radio shows are just not enough to satisfy my hunger, my lust for more, so when I’d heard that there’s four unpublished syndicated Shepherd shows in which he discusses his time with them, I encouraged the CD producer to market the set. I began doing sketches of what a CD box would look like with a photo—has anybody seen a shot of Shepherd with the Beatles? I can just picture it. That hotel room cluttered with half-empty plates and nearly-empty liquor bottles they’d had to order from the hotel food service because the wild-eyed teenage chicks screaming outside were too fearsome to brave. There’s Shep with his small traveling tape recorder. He holds the mic. The Fab ones sprawled out around him. The historic moment of perceptive queries, quick-witted retorts. All eyes on him because, naturally, at this supreme instant, he is doing the talking.
But other than a possible use on the CD box, so what if there were photos of Shepherd with the Beatles? Is that relevant to the nature of Shepherd’s art, which I claim to be my prime focus? Of course not. Yet, steadfast, resolute, unswerving, dogged monomaniac that I am, trusty computer at the ready, I spring into action. Through the internet I buy two coffee-table books of Beatles photos, sight unseen (titled, Siamese twin-like, The Beatles Unseen and The Unseen Beatles). No luck. Two recent books about The Beatles tours of the British Isles borrowed from the library—not even there!
Not through yet. Tenacious, relentless. More internet research uncovers a Playboy auction of June 2002 that included a “group of thirteen black and white photographs and proof sheets of the Beatles by Dennis Cameron. Shot for the Beatles Playboy interview in February 1965.” Note: Interview in 10/64; published 2/65. Is there a shining grail buried within those proof sheets? Gotta be at least one shot of Shepherd in there!
I email my contact at Playboy and he replies: “There are legal problems connected with the photos that prevent use.” Damn! But why the mystery—it suggests that at least one shot with Shepherd exists but that some SOBs have them locked in a vault. Outraged, misanthropic but dogged, I continue in hot pursuit of Beatle/Shepherd images.
There’s gotta be gold in them there photos that may still pan out! So I leave no trickling stream unexplored, no pebble unturned. Indefatigable. A glimmer that may be gold—an internet used-book store compendium lists the Playboy auction catalog so, once more sight unseen, off goes my hard cash. Breathless. Hanging by my thumbs. Dingdong mailman alert. Grasping the package—my heart goes pitter-pat—all ten clawing thumbs in a free-for-all foofaraw rip off the packaging. Over 200 pages of Playboy memorabilia such as a Playboy Club Key, a plaque-mounted Bunny tail (“Caught Live At The Playboy Club”),
Little Annie Fanny and other cartoon originals, sketches, paintings, photos of varied celebrities, and other seductive collectibles—you name it. Sketches, paintings, photos of firm young body parts attached to seductive young women. And a double-page spread of black-and-white photos of various performers shot for Playboy interviews. Of the Beatles photos taken for the Shepherd interview the catalog illustrates one shot of each Beatle. Fools’ gold. Foiled again!
Failure and uncertainties. Yet a glimmer remains. Maybe someday we’ll get to see all thirteen of the “group of thirteen black and white photographs and proof sheets” and there will be at least one shot of Shep with those other four guys. This grail exists—it’s just a matter of finding it! (That phrase would look good emblazoned on an Excelsior! banner, wouldn’t it?) Who knows when or even if? One can only hope and ponder on fickle fate.
And just now on the Internet I find one of those proof sheets–
that, at a subsequent auction just a few months ago, did not sell!
I capture the image, print it, scan it,
peruse it with a magnifying glass.
NO DAMN SHEP!
I don’t know if I’m getting closer to the grail
or just being toyed with by the f***ing finger of fate.
One silver lining among the uncertainties—
my financial consultant advises me that,
as an author with research expenses,
my Beatles and Playboy purchases
are deductible on my income taxes.
“Shel Silverstein and Shep and Herb and Paddy careened down many a Village street together,” according to a very authoritative source.
What should we call each of them?
The same authoritative source also recognizes the obvious echo between the incensed invective of Howard Beale, Chayefsky’s mad broadcaster in Network, and Paddy’s pal Jean Shepherd’s hurled invectives.
It’s wonderful to realize that these four creative individuals, all anxious to do new and unconventional work, gathered in New York from the late 1950s on–knew each other–exchanging ideas and, just by their association,certainly encouraging one another. Careening together. Oh, Jean Shepherd listeners and enthusiasts, if we only could have realized the extent that this kind of comradery was happening right under our ears!
Paddy Chayefsky had strong opinions/emotions and he had the ability to express them with style and intelligence. And he wasn’t afraid to upset folk who he knew would disagree with him. He did what he did and had the good fortune to be able to survive while doing it. Author Jonathan Mahler describes Chayefsky this way on the back cover of the book Mad as Hell: “The story of Network is the story of a prophetic screenwriter and his unrelenting determination to make the film that would not only change the way we looked at television but free us to express our anger, individually and collectively.”
they’ve had a few good couple of hours.
They paid their money, they’ve enjoyed themselves.
If they got something else out of it
that’s my own personal gravy.”
–Paddy discussing Network.
Jean Shepherd came to New York already understanding what an artistic skill he had, hoping that the world would recognize and reward him. As he said on his last broadcasts from Philadelphia regarding his style (even before arriving in New York): “…the avowed purpose of my program is not to please, but to begin trains of sequence, to begin trains of thought…” As I put it in EYF! “…he seemed like a brash young kid feeling his oats, knowing he had talent. He was energetically, youthfully strong, with the power of being on the verge of full flowing.” Ability to create and improvise like a jazz musician–“into the unknown.”
“We have nothing but time here.
Spinning all those poor little idle dreams.
You know? Sort of? It’s sort of like a jigsaw puzzle.
They took a couple of the pieces once–you know–
and didn’t bring them back.”
–Shep, broadcasting, June 16, 1957.
Herb Gardner created Nebishes–the quirky, common-person who expressed–without often realizing it–the everyday life of the common, “walking around type,” as Shep might have put it. One can see why Shepherd would have responded to this cartoon version of humanity. Gardner said that, as a comic strip, his characters began to express so much in their word balloons that the words began to crowd out the drawings of themselves. So, of course, he had to drop them and express himself with words in plays. and, inspired by his friend, Jean, he created a quirky individual who had a worthwhile world of his own, but the character could not incorporate that personality into an efficient entity in our tidy little world.
“I feel A THOUSAND CLOWNS is his masterpiece.
It is a real human comedy of poignancy and laughter,
with all of humanity’s foibles and eccentricities.”
–Jason Robards (played “Shep” in ATC on stage and screen.)
Shel Silverstein, said his best buddy Jean, was the most continuously funny person he’d ever known. Shel was a wild man–because he did those little kids’ books with those bizarre and scary little poems–that made oodles of money, he could do whatever he damned pleased–and get away with it. He wrote and sang his own goofy and sometimes obscene songs (See/hear him on Johnny Cash’s TV show singing “A Boy Named Sue.” Youtube has it.) He traveled the world and wrote/drew about it for Playboy. He seemed to be out-of-control and lovin’ it. The cartoon he drew of himself in a tub full of naked people probably is as good a representation as one could imagine of what his life was like.
“In some cases, what artists do on paper
has nothing to do with their personal lives.
But that’s not the case with Shel.
He was Uncle Shelby.
He was the dreamer.
He was his work.”
–Hugh M. Hefner
These four comrades-in-arts lived, worked, and palled around together beginning in the mid-to-late 1950s. Below are just parts of the creative highlights of each . It must have been both a rich and a joyous time for them.
’53 “Marty” TV, ’55 film; ’64 script for The Americanization of Emily. (Network arrived in 1976.)
’56 radio overnights, I, Libertine hoax; ’50s jazz concerts emcee, hurling invectives; ’59 creator/participant “Look, Charlie; ” ’60 George Ade book; ’64 first Playboy story.
’55 “Nebbishes”; ’59 participant “Look,Charlie;” ’62 play, ’65 film A Thousand Clowns.
’56 begin cartoons in Playboy; ’59 participant; “Look, Charlie;” LP “Hairy Jazz;” ’60 cartoon book Now Here’s My Plan; ’63 begin children’s poem/drawing books.
(: PS. The Nebbish under Herb Gardner’s photo is the type I bought in the late 1950s. It is four inches high, hollow, it has gone pale-tan-with-dust, but is still eminently squeezable. It sits in my study, not far from my Shep Shrine, questioning and accepting the unanswerable.
The obituary of Mitch Leigh brings forth in me again, the frustration for all the unsuccessful attempts to contact people who would have been able to provide info on the life and career of Shep. Jim Clavin and I each tried and failed to get through to Mitch Leigh, composer of the jazz in Shep’s “Jean Shepherd Into the Unknown with Jazz Music”:
Here are the beginnings of two obituaries of the composer of the Broadway super-hit, “Man of La Mancha.” Neither contained an important piece of info (IMHO). Fortunately, through the good graces of Wikipedia, a dogged Shep-fanatic (me) rectifies that problem.–eb
Mitch Leigh, ‘Man of La Mancha’ Composer, Dies at 86
By ANITA GATES MARCH 16, 2014
One day in 1964, a New York advertising-jingle composer in his early 30s received an unlikely job offer.
The composer, Mitch Leigh, the Brooklyn-born son of a Jewish furrier from Ukraine, had no theater experience to speak of. All he had ever done was compose incidental music for a couple of short-lived Broadway comedies — “Too True to Be Good” (1963) and….
Mitch Leigh From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
He began his career as a jazz musician, and writing commercials for radio and television. In 1955 the little-known LP recording of Jean Shepherd Into the Unknown with Jazz Music was produced with Leigh writing the music for the jazz interludes between radio broadcaster Jean Shepherd‘s improvisations.
May the gods above and the devils below
keep this truth from harm.
Especially as it was composed on St. Patrick’s Day.
St. Patrick’s Cathedral, NYC, St. Patrick’s Day
Jean Shepherd traveled to Ireland several times. He was there on St. Patrick’s Day:
I remember this morning on
St. Patrick’s Day. It was gray.
Here I am standing in Dublin.
If you’re curious,
I have my credentials.
My grandmother’s name was
Flora Florence Rafferty.”
Sure and begorrah, it’s time for another one of New York’s nuttiest days. Sure and begorrah, it’s St. Patty’s Day! I don’t think there is any holiday that gets New York as completely involved as St. Patrick’s. Now, a lot of people are going to say Christmas, but I don’t think so. I think there’s something about St. Patrick’s Day that completely involves this nutty town. And I’ve never seen it anywhere else—even including Ireland! Which is the nuttiest part of it all.
We’re both looking into the mirror and Shamus suddenly says to me, “It’s a shame I can’t be in New York at this time of year.”
I say, “What’s the matter, Shamus?”
“There’s nothing like New York on St. Patrick’s Day.”
I say, “Nothing like New York—on St. Patrick’s Day?” I say, “But Shamus, we’re in Dublin on St. Patrick’s Day!”
“Ah,” he says, “Nothing, nothing. St. Paddy’s Day in Dublin is just another day.”
Oh, I’ll tell you, New York! Do you mind if I do a little reminiscing about Ireland tonight? One of the most poignant countries is Ireland. I can’t explain it. I’ve been in many countries. I’ve been pretty much all over the world and each country is beautiful in its own right. There’s no question about it, because we’re living on a beautiful earth….
Ireland. Ireland is a poignant country. In a curious sense, hanging over all the hills. I remember one time I was driving to Dublin. I was all by myself in this little English Ford and I stopped by the side of the road, and off in the distance you could see these light blue hills, and between the blue hills and the road there were maybe three or four miles of peat bogs. And there was a soft, grayish blue, vaguely pink smoke rising. A few little houses between me and the mountains, and it was absolutely silent. I looked over this long, low, rolling field, this peat bog. You could smell the grass and you could smell the peat and smell the smoke. It was all mingled in the air, and in the distance I could see this low-lying hill, a low ridge of hills. They were purple, vaguely grayish, and kind of misty, like clouds drifting away. Behind me on the left was another short hill that rose. It was green. You know Ireland really is green. It’s a combination of its geographical location and the sea air that’s always sweeping in over this country. It’s absolutely green—it’s beautiful.
And I don’t know why, but I had a feeling, not of how beautiful this is—which it was—I didn’t have a feeling of what a great place to be—which it was—but a feeling of how sad all this is. What a sad place Ireland is. In a curious kind of way, and yet it’s a place where there’s a lot of fun, and a lot of joy. Don’t misunderstand me—it’s not that the people are sad—not at all, but there’s that poignant quality, that quality of something vaguely lost.
And with that bluish tint, that always-hanging gray, blue, green, soft haze that is in Ireland, after you’ve been in Ireland maybe a month, you really do believe in elves and fairies and little people—you honestly do. Because, if they’re anywhere in the world, they’re in Ireland….
Shamus and I were going out to lunch. Shamus is a writer in Ireland. Almost all Irishmen are writers in one way or another, even if they never write, even if they only talk. Again, maybe it’s that sense of something lost and gone which cause Irishmen to be what they are and talk the way they do and think the way they think. And we went into this tavern.
The curious thing about Ireland too, is the love/hate quality about it. That all Irishmen love Ireland and hate Ireland. Maybe it’s like life itself. Maybe this is why Ireland has a unique place in the hearts of everyone all over the world. Because I suspect that more of life—I mean the real quality of life is—can be found in Ireland than anywhere else in the world.
Just like your own life—you hate it and you love it. It’s hard to know which is the more important. And you keep going back and forth, drifting around between those two poles—love and hate, love and hate. And in Ireland it’s always there. You look around and it’s green and soft, you can smell the sea, hear the birds and bells, and there’s that drifting haze and peat bog and smoke and the magnificent horses and the beautiful cattle and the roads, the winding roads and the old castles. And you have the sense of love and hate. And it’s not really hate, it’s sadness really, more than anything else, because I don’t think most people hate life, they get sad about life. And at the same time they don’t really love life, they exhilarate in it. They ecstasy in it.
And this is the way it is in Ireland. You can’t say you love it, you can’t say you hate it. And the Irishmen themselves, you notice—most Irishmen leave Ireland and then spend the rest of their lives writing about it. Sean O’Casey, James Joyce, Frank Sullivan, you can go on down the line and there they are, all of them.
You know, Ireland is a country I don’t talk much about. Well, I have Irish blood in me and you can probably tell that. The Irish are born storytellers—and, well, there’s a word for it. My grandmother was a Rafferty….
And I’d been in Dublin on St. Patrick’s Day, which is very different from being in New York on St. Patrick’s Day. Very different indeed.
And the river flowed on. And there it was. Ireland. That strange, indefinable, peculiar, tugging, poignant, beautiful, gray, green, soft, shadowy country. Where there really are elves and there really are fairies, and they really do eat fried, buttered mushrooms on a quiet Friday afternoon.
Yes, Jean Shepherd has some Irish in him. And he loves Ireland.
He does not tell his usual kind of stories when he talks about Ireland–
what he does is evoke the place in a poetic way.
In the way of an Irish writer, an Irish poet.
Jean Shepherd loves Ireland.
Jean Shepherd loved to travel and he loved to be immersed in whatever environment he found himself. By the fall of 1964, with his first three stories published within six months by Playboy, its editors had provided the means for him not only to travel, but to observe what was then a new cultural phenomenon: swinging England and The Beatles. Shepherd must have been in his glory. Just as a good travel writer can put the feel of a place on paper, Shepherd could detect differences and significant aspects of each new place he visited, and he knew how to express to his listeners his pleasures in what he observed.
Made during his October 1964 trip to the British Isles, in the first of four shows recorded for syndication, taped in his hotel room in Edinburgh, Scotland, he sets the scene in his own, special way. He practices his Scottish accent and he plays a bit of Scottish music on the kazoo. Listen—ah, what a melodious sound!
He delights in describing the look of Scotland. He looks out from his Edinburgh hotel room: “The color is a kind of dark, tarnished, burnished bronze. That’s about the only way I can describe it. It’s a magnificent dark green, reddish brown color. Beautiful, beautiful color. The kind of color that painters are always trying to get but never quite making.” He says, “It’s a green city, a city of trees, a city of statues and high, thin, ancient, medieval black-looking spires reaching up into the sky, way up there, and all topped with tiny crosses.”
Before he ends the program, he teases us: “Now if you wonder what I’m doing here in Scotland, I’m only authorized to say I’m here on a ‘secret mission.’” Shepherd followers, however, know that in 1964 he was contracted by Playboy to travel with and interview The Beatles, who were already very popular in Britain and were about to make their great surge in the United States after an earlier foray. Neither does it surprise us to know that, at least before he gets to know them, he dislikes them as entertainers, and disparages rock and roll, “pop music,” as he calls it. In fact, in a postcard to his wife Lois Nettleton, probably from early in the trip, he writes, “The Beatles are a first class pain in the ass. I’m really sorry I have to do a story on them. They are the epitome of aggressive cocky slobs who lead other slobs—.”
Yes, he says that, but from what he would write about his association with The Beatles for Playboy a couple of months later (February 1965 issue), and from what he would say in this set of syndicated programs, we also know that he modified his view of those “cocky slobs.”
October 19, 1964,
The Beatles performing in Edinburgh
the night that Shepherd arrived in town
to begin traveling with them.
In the final programs, taped in London, he focuses on several attributes of then-current English culture. This is the period of striking fashions of all sorts emanating from Great Britain. England is just the place to see the outrageous trends clashing with tradition, and these trends are becoming the most visible of its exports to the United States—rock and roll is on the rise—the “British invasion” is about to begin! Shepherd is a strange combination of liberal and conservative, so, despite not being a prude, he is aghast at the pornographic magazines openly for sale at newsstands, and he finds the increased mixing of gender attire and hairstyles confusing and unpleasant—the “role reversal” phenomenon.
For a few years in the 1960s, London was the world capital of cool. When Time magazine dedicated its 15 April 1966 issue to London: the Swinging City, it cemented the association between London and all things hip and fashionable that had been growing in the popular imagination throughout the decade….
This heady combination of affluence and youth led to a flourishing of music, fashion, design and anything else that would banish the post-War gloom. Fashion boutiques sprang up willy-nilly. Men flocked to Carnaby St, near Soho, for the latest ‘Mod’ fashions. While women were lured to the King’s Rd, where Mary Quant’s radical mini skirts flew off the rails of her iconic store, Bazaar….
Music was also a huge part of London’s swing. While Liverpool had the Beatles, the London sound was a mix of bands who went on to worldwide success, including The Who, The Kinks, The Small Faces and The Rolling Stones. Their music was the mainstay of pirate radio stations like Radio Caroline and Radio Swinging England. Creative types of all kinds gravitated to the capital, from artists and writers to magazine publishers, photographers, advertisers, film-makers and product designers.
All this ferment gives Jean Shepherd the opportunity to describe and decry pop culture in general and rock and roll in particular. Pointing to the British entertainment business of one-night-stands up and down the countryside, he comments that the slobs “come out of the hills like locusts. You never would believe me! Eating their candy and meat pies and chewing away at popcorn as fast as they can, swilling beer and yelling and hollering….” He comments that Americans think that lands like Great Britain “are pure and pristine and are magic culture centers,” and he corrects our idea by describing how pop culture with all its slob-like characteristics had taken over that country. Then he reveals his secret: he’s traveling with and living with The Beatles—the ultimate example of rampant pop culture! It’s Beatles fans who come out of the hills like locusts!
Shepherd uses The Beatles as a prime example of the degeneration of taste in Great Britain and, in a major descriptive and interpretive riff, he goes to considerable lengths to speak of the rare and wonderful reportorial opportunity he’s been given. As he puts it, “I wasn’t really traveling as an observer—they began to accept me as part of the gang.” The way he describes scenes of scrambling away from adoring fans along with John, Paul, George, and Ringo—running through streets and climbing down fire escapes—you can picture him as a fifth Beatle in their film, A Hard Day’s Night.
He contrasts them with many American entertainers, whom he sees as having immature, naïve attitudes toward life: “The Beatles are four successful truck drivers. And they have seen the world and they know what it’s about and for that reason it’s much easier to get on terms of rapport with them as an adult.” This experience obviously changes him and you can observe it happening as he speaks to us in this program. With The Beatles he shares crowded car rides and hotel rooms full of cigarette smoke and booze, so maybe the close personal experience, their lack of pretense, their easy wit, and their frequent clowning around explains why he eventually seems to like them as people, despite disliking their music. During a live Limelight café broadcast right after his return from the trip, he admits that he was dazzled by the splendor of their immense celebrity. Now that is some reaction and some admission for Shepherd, considering his general attitude toward popular culture! By the time he’s written the Playboy interview, he’s describing them as four regular guys who manage to take their fame in stride, and he portrays them sympathetically. Not often does Jean Shepherd alter his far-flung antipathies.
As he does so often regarding subjects of interest, Jean Shepherd takes this experience of touring and living with The Beatles to comment on larger issues, to reflect on his own attitudes, and, within those issues and attitudes, to give a critique of our lives. In these four programs, we’re permitted to experience with him during this journey through the British Isles, not only his perceptions regarding our world in the mid-twentieth century, but his emotional and critical reactions to a far-reaching cultural phenomenon of our age.
Recently discovered is an April 1970 broadcast titled “Beatles Break Up.” Regarding his trip in 1964 to do the Beatles interview, Shepherd makes an important, claim—remember that truth is in the unverifiable mind of the storyteller:
The Beatles specifically requested that I be sent over to do it because the Beatles had heard my show when they were in New York [early in 1964]. They’d heard my show. They knew about my work, and they dug it, which was very interesting to me. I was kind of surprised. I’m just telling you the truth of the story here.
(Stay tuned for Fit 3)
My recent “Mad As Hell” post focusing on Shep’s invectives inspiring a scene in the film “Network;” scenes in “A Thousand Clowns;” and, maybe as a second generation/once removed from “Network,” Dee Snider’s Twisted Sister mega-hit “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” inspired Joel Baumwoll to post, in part, “‘Hurling invectives’ was one of several ‘pranks’ in which Shep cajoled his listeners to participate as co-conspirators. As far as I know, this was unique among radio or television performers. He made the listeners feel they were part of his act, and I think that created a strong bond between him and the ‘kids’ who listened to him.” [I emphasize in red some of the aspects of Shep’s clever ways to bring his listeners into participating, exploiting his followers into upsetting the domestic tranquility of the nation’s creeping meatballism.]
Joel goes on to mention several of Shep’s other pranks.
[I’d like to have a word other than “prank” but there may not be a better]:
PRANK, CAPER, LARK, LEG-PULL, PRACTICAL JOKE
Many of us, of course, are familiar with most of these maneuvers, but it took Joel to point out their relatedness. I’m going to elaborate on them, and I hope others will add to the list and elaborate on what I have to say.
HURL AN INVECTIVES
Although well-known as a major caper of Shepherd’s, very few have been noted down or even been available to hear. The most extended, as far as I’m aware, is the one I recorded on my reel-to-reel and quote in Excelsior, You Fathead! in which he builds up to it in part with the prototypical, “Put your radio on your windowsill now!” (Here–top one–is part of the quote from my book):
Myrtle! This is the third time you’ve come home drunk again. What about the kids? What about the kids, I ask ya? How long is this gonna go on? How long?
You don’t think for a moment you’re fooling anyone, do you?
How long do you thin you can get away with this? The jig is up!
You filthy pragmatist!
All right, you guys! Fall in. The doctor will be along in ten seconds. The uniform will be helmet liner, raincoats, and GI shoes, and nothing else! Let’s go!
Drop the gun, you rat! I’ve got the drop on you! Move one more time and you’re gonna get one between the eyes!
The “pragmatist” one was remembered by editor/publisher Paul Krasner. “Drop the gun” was Shep years later quoting himself on the Alan Colmes call-in program in 1998.
Hoax regarding fooling the book-buying-and-selling public by many listeners asking for a non-existent book has been discussed numerous times–here and elsewhere. The book’s afterword is a sly reference to the perpetrators–Sturgeon, Shepherd, Shepherd’s Night People listeners. Of course only those who were aware of the hoax would understand it.
In these, Shepherd asks his listeners to gather at a particular place and time and just quietly walk around aimlessly (“mill”), which, just by its non-confrontational manner, would gently disconcert the clueless. (Later fads maybe mill-inspired: “happenings” and “flash mobs.”)
Burned-out Wanamaker store when he was fired.
Marboro book store.
Early days at “The Limelight Photography Gallery and Coffee Shop.”
Washington Square to fly tiny kites.
Wave a white towel at the beach or flick your light switch off and on at night and look to see how many others (fellow listeners) are doing it.
Related to “mills,” reportedly Shepherd fantasized that many listeners should run to one side of a building to tilt it, or that they jump up and land at the same time to move Manhattan Island.
During a live-at-the-Limelight broadcast, he would sometimes ask attendees to yell in unison to the radio audience:
THIS IS W-O-R AM AND FM IN NEW YORK.
WE BUY SOAP AND WE TAKE BATHS
When being considered “not commercial” by WOR’s management Shepherd suggests that listeners go out and buy Sweetheart Soap, not a sponsor.
WOR management is outraged and fires Shep.
Sweetheart Soap offers and provides sponsorship.
There are a couple of other ways that Jean Shepherd promotes
a sense of community among his listeners:
Refers to them as ” Gang,” “Listeners,” “Fellow Sufferers”
Those who send in interesting comments/news-clippings that might seem to indicate a burgeoning trend: “cracks in the sidewalk,” or “straws in the wind,” he calls:
Although it’s well-known that Shep’s was not a “call-in show,” he did receive from time to time calls from listeners–most prominently from Lois Nettleton, then an aspiring actress–they eventually met, dated, married, and divorced. Usually one did not hear the caller’s voice, but sometimes one did, especially when Shep requested a particular response from the caller. One time he did a kind of communal celebration when he asked and got from the caller, on the air, “Merry Christmas, Mr. Shepherd.” Shepherd also sometimes took calls during commercial or news breaks–then I once got to talk to him but was so nervous, I sounded like the klutz I was at the time (I think I’ve improved a bit over these many decades.)
Shepherd encourages his listeners to listen to and read various works of literature that he likes–at least in part so that they will feel this bond of mutual enthusiasms: including haiku, Thomas Wolfe, Robert W. Service, Don Marquis (Archy & Mehitabel), George Ade, and various specific books which he discusses on the air with enthusiasm.
SUPPORTING THE ARTS
A major form of assisting “the arts” includes his discussions with three of the rare guests on his show, the projects in which they are involved: Herb Gardner, Arch Oboler, John Cassavetes.
Drawn and widely popular before his soon-to-be-produced
play and film, “A Thousand Clowns” was to destroy their friendship.
I heard Shep’s broadcast with Gardner
discussing the Nebbish phenomenon–and I bought a ceramic tray of the above image
and a soft, white statuette of a Nebbish. I still have them.
“Night of the Auk”
I heard Arch Oboler, the well-known radio scriptwriter of such shows as
and various suspense dramas with Shep discussing on his show in 1956,
Oboler’s soon-to-open dystopian sci-fi drama. I attended one of the previews.
An opening title of John Cassavetes’ Shadows.
Shepherd and Cassavetes, actor and aspiring playwright, discuss his need for money to make the
film–so Shep’s listeners send in small amounts totaling about $2,000.
PLEASE CONTRIBUTE MORE COMMENTS TO THE ABOVE IDEAS
→ 2 more appropriate additions from Joel←
SPIES: The very idea of calling us “spies” is so loaded with the us vs them feeling, which is so much a part of Shep’s attraction to adolescents who had any sense of humor. He really was an innovator in the art of getting his audience to feel they were part of his act. In fact, I can’t think of anyone today who is doing anything like this on TV or radio. The internet has created a great wave of participation. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram with followers and likes and such give users a sense of belonging. But a single performer creating the kind of true followers as Shep had has never been duplicated.
AWARD BRASS FIGLAGEE: Another technique he used was awarding a brass figlagee to anyone who could tell me the name of..the color of…the program that did…etc. This was Shep’s version of a tv quiz show, with some long forgotten esoteric person or even as the answer. He would take calls, but rarely put the caller on the air.
I remember one where he described a favorite childhood toy, a metal taxi cab painted in the yellow checkerboard colors and with two characters inside. I knew he was talking about Amos and Andy. He offered his prize to anyone who could name the cab or the program. I shouted at the radio “Sunshine Cab Company–Amos and Andy.” Almost always, the program would end without the answer ever being revealed.
Yet another technique was deliberately getting a name wrong, knowing that many of his listeners would know what he was doing and feeling in on the joke. He often called the Dickens character Ebineezer Stooge, and deliberately got the first name wrong for some famous character like Madeline Monroe, knowing it would drive some in the audience nuts wanting to correct him. All effective ways to make the “in group” feel in.
One might think it surprising to find Jean Shepherd’s childhood stories and Army stories in Playboy, but such an apparent dichotomy has its rationale. Publisher Hugh Hefner commented to me that Playboy is steeped in nostalgia and he considered Shepherd to be a “part of Americana.” Playboy tagged Shepherd’s first kid stories in the magazine as “nostalgia,” and “memoir.”
(Yes, black-and-white illustration.)
Shepherd and Hefner had known each other for some time before Playboy published its first story by Shepherd in the June 1964 issue. In fact, three years before that, a three-page typed and hand-signed letter from Hef to Shep dated June 8, 1961, complains that Jean on his program had issued a “verbal blast at Playboy,” in which he’d said that the magazine was “nonresponsible.” Indicating a relationship that preceded that 1961 letter, Hefner writes, “I always believed that you rather identified with Playboy, and its editorial view of the world, as well as its editors.”
[I’d have loved to buy this letter from ebay, but its price exceeded my means.]
This letter seems a noteworthy foreshadowing of the extensive series of essays Hefner would soon write and publish under the title “The Playboy Philosophy.”
Surely in part as a defense against widespread criticism, but also couched in the most forthright, positive attitude toward life as he saw it. Hefner admits in the letter to Shepherd that the magazine’s editorial matter and attitude toward women is indeed “relatively light and frothy stuff,” but he contends that this “exists only in the cartoons and jokes,” and that the magazine has published some of the best serious articles and short fiction by some of the country’s best writers, and that Shepherd is certainly aware of this.
Hefner also comments that “there is a real crying need for an antidote to the female-dominated, castrated society in which we live.” (Even though Hef wrote this in a private letter, the politically incorrect statement makes one cringe to read it.) He says that many publications try to divest women of all womanly charm and make them almost indistinguishable from men. He points out that Playboy believes in a society in which the roles of men and women aren’t the same, but complement each other. In the early-to-mid 1960s, Shepherd on his show would sometimes complain of what he saw as a trend in our society toward what he referred to as “role reversal,” especially of what he saw as women trying to act like men.
Hefner writes to Jean of some of the philosophy of the magazine, including “the inherent importance of the individual,…” and “…the wonderful opportunities that exist in this country if a person is willing to work to achieve something.…” He says, in a way similar to what Shepherd has said on his program, that “…the world is a wonderful place; enjoy it, live it to the hilt, work hard and play hard, and you will make this a better world for yourself and for those around you.” Hefner concludes that Playboy “is a thought-provoking, excellently edited, intelligent, liberal, highly readable and entertaining publication. I expect superficial reactions like this from those who do not understand, but I didn’t expect it from you.” Indeed, maybe the philosophy of Shepherd and the philosophy of Playboy were similar in more ways than Shepherd suggested in his occasional anti-Playboy comments over the years.
Considering this strongly worded letter, one wishes that we had counter-responses from ol’ Shep that would distinguish what he felt were similarities and differences between himself and Hefner. Yes, Shepherd had some strong, politically incorrect attitudes toward women, but never in public did he surround his more seriously considered content with the kind of “relatively light and frothy stuff” one finds in Playboy’s lascivious displays of flesh and humor. In addition, Shepherd would likely have insisted that rather than a Playboy lifestyle focused on stylish and extravagant material possessions, emphasis on his program had always been concerned with issues regarding human foibles and interactions as well as with more intellectual and literary matters. What we do know, however, is that despite the hard feelings, Hefner admired Shepherd’s work and they remained on good enough terms for him to publish in the next two decades, twenty-three of Shepherd’s short stories, a humor piece, and the Playboy interview with The Beatles. Also of note regarding the differences in outlook and style, is that the aggregate effect of Shepherd’s radio work in the late 1950s and early 1960s gained for him an increasingly large audience of younger males who could listen to him at conveniently earlier hours than previously; and Playboy, fostered by whatever intellectual content and other diverse enticements, garnered an even much larger audience of men of more widely diverse ages.
Cover of issue with first
Shep story in Playboy, June, 1964
Stay tuned for Fit 2
+++++++++++Truth, Fiction, & Friction+++++++++++
These days the separation between truth and fiction is a battle line, even though most of us have entered the no-man’s-land in an ever-widening conflict, and we mostly accept that there’s a bit of fiction in every reported fact. Many decades ago I believed Shepherd when he told his stories. A near-contemporary of mine says he always realized that the stories were fiction. My understanding now is that Shep’s stories were basically fiction, but I read missives to me from people who believe his kid stories and army stories (as per my SHEP’S ARMY) are basically true to fact. I’m steadfast in believing them to be fiction, yet with equal surety, I believe that almost all of Shepherd’s travel narratives are true to the facts of his experiences.
TRUTH = FICTION FICTION = TRUTH
Ever think that a row of plus signs [++++++++++] sorta looks like barbed wire?
Most people must now be aware of some of the various disagreements these days regarding such tellers of supposedly “true tales” as David Sedaris, Spalding Gray, some “This American Life” guests, Mike Daisey (especially in regard to his popular and controversial performances of his “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,”) and Jean Shepherd. Somewhere I quoted the title of a book I’d recently read: The Truth Never Stands in the Way of a Good Story! by Jan Harold Brunvand. Add to that the opening paragraph of the book The Story is True—The Art and Meaning of Telling Stories by Bruce Jackson: “Without an informing idea, the details of real life are clutter, noise, chaos. We need an idea given form for things to make sense. And that’s what stories are: ideas given form, ideas given breath.” Do I upset many by saying that when Jesus told a parable, many/most, these days, understand that he told a made-up story to illustrate a larger truth? Some believe that the entire Judeo-Christian Bible is a fantastic, wondrous metaphor/parable.
Descend to the world of human authors. David Sedaris’ “true stores” about his family and other matters, once claimed to be factual, are now admitted to have fiction blended into the mix. I’ve only just become aware of the uproar regarding the Daisey performances of his “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” during which he reportedly had delivered to the audience statements that “This is a work of non-fiction” but in which it’s become known that some of the damning evidence presented was hearsay (though reportedly true).
Daisey is quoted as saying, “I believe that when I perform it in a theatrical context in the theatre that when people hear the story in those terms that we have different languages for what the truth means.” In Internet exchanges, one commented, “….journalists such as Hunter S. Thompson and Tom Wolfe often fabricated or changed elements of their work to make a better story.”
Some internet comments regarding Daisey’s “Steve Jobs” performances
“If Mike Daisey had presented his work not as exact, journalistic truth, but as a theatrical interpretation of events, it would have been different. Had he even said that it’s basically, essentially true but it’s a story, it’s theatrical, and it’s an assemblage of events, it would have been fine. But again and again he said that everything in his monologue was true. And that was a lie. He misrepresented his work, and that undermined its essential truth.”
“I feel annoyed and disappointed in and for Daisey, but most importantly, I think that when I see a piece of THEATER, no matter HOW it is billed, it is CAVEAT EMPTOR. This is not a lecture being presented at a college during a conference on ethics in business. It is a theater piece, written by an actor, to be entertaining as well as informative, and…I can tell you that I take the words “this is a work of non-fiction” stated in a theatrical monologue context as fairly elastic.”
“His sin is not being upfront with the “This American Life” people who were ready to take his piece as journalism. But outside of that, what are his crimes? He can construct his monologue however he wants, and you are free to see it or not see it, believe all of it, some of it, or none of it. He is not testifying before a senate subcommittee, he has not been sworn in under oath. He is not a reporter, he is not the employee of a trusted new organization. He is an actor and playwright. He put on a play.”
Some may find these disputes infuriating. One part of me finds all this replay-with-variations annoying—but another part of me enjoys the interplay of battling attitudes on this subject. In a related matter, recently I decided to find out a bit more about Spalding Gray (The immediate impulse motivated by encountering on the de-cataloged rack at my local library, a paperback book for sale: Swimming to Cambodia, by Spalding Gray transcribed from his live performances made into a film. I bought it and read it with great pleasure. A dime very well spent.) I quote from James Leverett’s introduction:
“When he first sat down behind a modest wooden table, took an almost calibrated sip from a glass of water and began to read from his journals about memories of early erections and the death of pets, Gray surely did not realize that his experiment would become the focal point of a vast range of performance art which would dominate New York’s Soho and other bastions of the artistic vanguard during the 1970s. He became a major influence in that work, praised as an original by some, damned as a perpetrator of the “me-decade” by others. (After all! A guy sitting at a table just talking about himself!) [eb Note: The last part, in parentheses, is by Leverett, originally printed in brackets and changed by me so as not to confuse. I hope you’re not confused.]
“It would be incorrect to think that these early monologues, eight in all, could be written down and served up end-to-end to total a neat autobiography. All are impressionistic; all weave back and forth in time and place to form tapestries of intertwining themes and imagery which only occasionally reveal a strand of sequential narrative.”
Leverett continues, “It has gradually become Gray’s chosen lot simultaneously to live his life and to play the role of Spalding Gray living his life, and to observe said Gray living his life in order to report on it in the next monologue. Perhaps this hall of mirrors, this endless playoff between performance and reality, has always been the situation of the artist.” Leverett concludes his introduction with:
“This is a recording. For the first time, Gray’s odyssey has been taken down. What in his monologues has always seemed to be writing, hovering just above the little table from which he performs, is now written. We lose the wry, desultory, curious living presence of a master storyteller. But we gain the opportunity to make our own replays again and again, and to take the measure of an achievement that seems to grow with each encounter—perhaps even to epic proportions.”
We Shepherd enthusiasts can be forgiven if we nod and smile knowingly, recognizing that much of what’s in the introduction to Gray’s work, with just a bit of adjustment, could be said of Shepherd, who began doing similar things (plus a large variety of other entertaining bits and pieces) two decades earlier. Gray was not a born-again-twin to Shepherd, but his bloodline definitely arose from the same extended family.
A major difference between Shepherd and his “descendants” should be noted: Most others, whether as performers and/or as reporters, tell untruths that make a difference in our understanding of real-life and historical events; mostly, Jean Shepherd fictionalized mere details about himself and much of his thought-to-be stories about himself, not the world beyond himself. So his kid stories and army stories almost entirely affect only our view of Shep’s personal history–and only affect larger parts of our understanding of the world in that some of these stories are parables–the same sort that (oh, Heaven forgive me!) Jesus sometimes spoke in parables to give us aspects of his world view in his sermons.
Shepherd expanded his performing role into other media, but in so doing, he altered the form of his monologs. Jean Shepherd’s America modified his radio role into television, but most of his other media forays were his radio persona and stories kidnapped and re-engendered into different venues for other audiences. Shepherd’s descendants do not in the main perform on the radio. They have found other areas for their work–stage, film, even the Internet–into which they continue the format of talking to us about themselves, about ourselves, and about everything else.
TRUTH = FICTION FICTION = TRUTH