CONNECTING TO LISTENERS
Jean Shepherd enthusiasts are drawn into his talk by the intellectual and emotional connection they feel with his way of conveying himself to them—in large part because of the immediate spontaneity of his very personal expression, apparently before self-imposed, editorial filters have time to intervene and alter the truth-to-life of what he is expressing. But Shepherd’s stories and anecdotes might be fictional, so one must always question their veracity. Yet in twenty-one years on New York radio he sometimes revealed a personal characteristic—sometimes a foible— that with some certainty we can interpret as parts of the “real” Jean Shepherd, and thus maybe discover how he worked his magic. Let’s start with the magic and related pleasantries. Later in this commentary, when everyone’s lulled into a false sense of security and has forgotten to keep knees loose, we can bring on the mixed blessings of his flawed psyche—the sometimes unsettling aspects of the “real.”
Note how the following can just as easily refer to Shep, his emotional attachment to talking on the air, and to his listeners in their feelings about belonging to a real community. Susan J. Douglas, in Listening In: Radio and the American Imagination, talks about the nature of DJs, a phenomenon that mainly developed in the 1950s. She describes how kids, listening to rock, began to dominate radio listenership. With regard to listeners, the DJ Wolfman Jack*, talking about his own experience in Tony Pigg’s Have Mercy (1995), is quoted by Douglas:
“I wanted an alternative world to live in, someplace more to my own liking. Radio and records gave me a cool world to belong to.” Again Douglas, quoting from Ken Tucker’s 1986 Rock of Ages, talking about disc jockeys and the way some wove their radio spell: “…talking into your ear, like a co-conspirator. He knew who you, all of you, were—the ‘late people’ who stayed up to hear the show, to groove on this weird stuff. It was your own secret society.”
Douglas also comments that shrewd DJs developed verbal “identity marks.” One remembers here the many special words and phrases Shepherd used, such as “excelsior,” “keep your knees loose,” “night people.” Of special note is her comment that DJs sought to give listeners a feeling “…that they and others were mutually present during a show, that even though they were invisible to each other, they constituted a vibrant, energetic community that mattered.…”
That fits Jean Shepherd to a T so well that one might wonder if Susan Douglas got some of these ideas from some knowledge she might have had of Shep.
Despite most Shepherd-cuckoos’ conviction that only we and Shep had those traits Douglas talks about, we learn that such was not unique to our fandom. Rock-and-roll DJs’ fans were encouraged and bonded on the common teenage hysterical level of raging hormones typical of their age. Yet what Shepherd did was more complex and played out on a far deeper and more creative level, and we weren’t just there with him, we were bonded intellectually—in our very consciously determined attitudes toward life. Shepherd fans tended to be encouraged and bonded into a more thoughtful, intellectual world of future thinkers and movers on a cultural plane. There, I’ve said it and I’m proud! We were then—and grew into—a cut above the norm. (Yeah, I realize how pretentious that seems, but it’s true.) For all that intellectual encouragement, thanks, Shep!
Regarding Shepherd’s lifelong obsession with talking on ham radio, on broadcast radio, and also in every other waking moment, this comment by Douglas about ham radio talk seems apt for all of Shepherd and his flock:
Communication—or, more accurately, contact—matters to hams on some almost mystical, metaphysical level….the intense desire for coupling that drives ham radio. There is an eroticism here, but let me be quick to emphasize that this is disembodied eroticism, not at all of the flesh but of the psyche.
* I think this excerpted piece about Wolfman Jack (1/21/38- 7/1/95)
has some relevance to Shep and all of us:
An Early Top 40 Pioneer By Corey Deitz
This subject is central to Shepherd’s success as a radio persona. He created, among kids who wanted to be hip, a secret club, with passwords, code and a style of observational humor. I learned to adopt this humor as I listened to him. Just as Little Orphan Annie had a decoder ring, Shep created an inner circle. “Excelsior, you fathead” was his password. “Seltzer bottle” was the acknowledgement. Anyone who listened to radio programs of the 30s and 40s will recall how many of them used the device of “belonging” as a way for listeners to feel connected.
That Little orphan Annie’s device disalusioned young Randy because it was a “crummy commercial” is interesting. I recall Shep telling listeners to go into his sponsor Prexy’s and whisper “Excelsior you fat head” to the counter guy and they would get a free side of fries. He created his own jingle for Nediks (“Nediks, schmediks, double bediks, pitkins all agree…).
But, as you write, Gene, Shep went beyond these superficial devices to shape listeners way of looking at their worlds. he often referred to the world a “vast circus,” among other descriptors. which I found very useful as a way to separate myself from all goings around to be an observer, and to see the humor in the events that others didn’t. That’s why a teen girlfriend told me many years later “you had a kind of smile that looked like there was something funny going on that you saw and no one else did.” I was amazed when she wrote that to me in an email, because it is how I felt, being a part of Shep’s inner circle. My friends would often exchange stories of behaviors and events that we though were the kind of humor Shep would appreciate.
This capacity to appreciate the absurdities around us all the time stuck with my my entire life. In fact, it is a characteristic I think my daughter and even my older grand daughter inherited from me. They immediately pick up on anything that is slightly askew, off beat or strange and see the humor in it.
I believe what few of us appreciated at the time was that this was a persona Shep used as a performer. The “real” Shep was much more than this guy. he was a shrewd, crafty, serious professional, honing his craft with the precision of a successful performer (Jerry Seinfeld described in a NYT article the incredibly precise process of honing a story, playing with timing, words and expressions that made big differences in audience reaction). The man behind “Shep” was indeed a major league player.
He once said that he had very little in common with his fans who wanted to talk with him. They saw him as a funny story teller of tales of his youth, and didn’t appreciate that he was as much a pro at what he did as a major league shortstop was at playing baseball. He was no sandlot player, is what he was saying. But like all great ball players, they make it look supremely easy, as though anyone could do it.