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JEAN SHEPHERD Foibles ahoy Part 3 of 3

Shepherd’s Og and Charlie stories we’ve known about focus on our brute-like heritage that hasn’t really changed. This would conform to the joke about the discovery of the missing link between our bestial past and civilized man.  The link, of course, is us, a part of Shepherd’s attitude that shows up consistently in other contexts.

neanderthal drawing

Us!

Thus, I was surprised upon beginning to listen to an “Og and Charlie” from the 1964-1965 Syndicated Shepherd series, because he begins by emphasizing the birth and development of music, with Og starting mankind off on this aesthetically joyous and peaceful path, suggesting a variation on the old saw—about music having charms to soothe those savage brutes.  Well, I figured that Ol’ Shep has bamboozled me here: Og’s creation of music in this story shows that he has evolved and we really are headed onward and upward.

Then Shepherd links our musical world to that other part of our heritage by playing more music—some headhunter chants as they return from a successful raid, commenting that “We’re all in it together,” emphasizing the downer with: “You, Beethoven, the headhunter.”  Yes, Shepherd has been consistent after all—we’re still a bit bestial.  With one Og and Charlie story, that Ol’ Shep has double-bamboozled me.

beethoven

Us?

To end on a corny and platitudinous note (pun?), I’ve always found music to be one of the most glorious, varied, and elegant inventions–whether I understand or enjoy the specific form or not!

download

Dee Snider of Twisted Sister,

singing their marvelous

“We’re Not Gonna Take it”

musical staff

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JEAN SHEPHERD—TRAVEL BOOK (Part 6 of many) more intro

Well, “Part 6” and the book’s introduction is still in progress on these posts! I hope that the comments I make in it will create a happy sense of anticipation, as will the large variety of subjects/geographical locations to be explored as per the table of contents. I’ll try to enliven the gray matter of text with illustrations when I can find something appropriate. (NOTE: more or less appropriate.)

[introduction continued]

Jean Shepherd loves to talk, and especially, he loves to talk about himself—his thoughts, observation, experiences, often to convey information and feelings to others.  As he puts it on the air after his sojourn to the Amazon, “I was there.  I am a trained reporter,” and he continues, “I’m not going to appear, incidentally, as an anthropologist on any of these shows—an expert.  I’m appearing as an artist who has seen something and would like to transmit his impressions to you.”   Transmit observations and entertain.  As he said to a close friend, “I’m only going through this life as an observer.  I have no desire to influence or change anything.”  This, in the main, is true of Shepherd, and he would agree with Walt Whitman, who wrote in “Song of Myself,”  “Both in and out of the game, and watching and wondering at it.”  We share Shepherd’s wonderment, and though we may not realize it, we are thus simultaneously entertained and informed.

Holland and Huggan, in their Tourists with Typewriters, comment that “travel writing enjoys an intermediary status between subjective inquiry and objective documentation.”

tourists with typewriters

Sometimes in Shepherd one learns much about some far-off place, sometimes one encounters some interesting thought inspired by the circumstance, or an anecdote describing an event he experiences, and it’s the thought or anecdote rather than new information about the country that provides the entertainment.

Because scores of his devoted listeners recorded many of his over four thousand broadcasts, we can hear preserved much that he chose to transmit to us of his travel experiences.  This book contains a large selection of his talk about his trips.

Jean Shepherd travels widely throughout the United States from the late 1950s through the 1980s.  He does hundreds of stand-up talks and performances in high school and college auditoriums, countrywide.  For television, recording his two series of half-hour PBS programs, Jean Shepherd’s America (1971 and 1985), he travels from coast to coast to coast.  These programs, essentially fusing audio and video, are not prime material for a print-alone publication.   But, in a very real sense, all of his radio programs concern, in innumerable short bursts or mini-essays, his observations about the country he loves best of all, The United States of America.  So, listen to all of the four-thousand you can locate in order to get at the essence of his trips throughout the geographical, social, and idiosyncratic delights of his own country.

An American travel masterpiece is included here, in a radio broadcast devoted to his participation in the 1963 “March on Washington” during which Martin Luther King, Jr. gives his “I have a dream” speech.  Symptomatic of Shepherd’s turn of mind, he travels not on assignment, but because he believes in the meaning of the March as a common humanity’s coming together for a cause in his country and he wants to experience it firsthand.  He goes as a participant, boarding a New York City cross-town bus with other common folk for the trip.

kramden and bus

Typical New York City

cross-town bus driver

And on the Mall he is not cordoned-off with official reporters, but mingles with the enormous crowd.  He can really describe for his radio audience what the event is like for those who have been there—he experiences by participating.

In addition to seeing a good part of the United States in the late 1950s and continuing into the 1980s, he travels abroad and brings back extensive memories and commentaries for his listeners.  Just as he frequently disparages what he sees as ignorant behavior, unpleasantness, and foolish fads and fallacies of his countrymen, he equally criticizes what he sees in the countries he visits as “slob art” and other disturbing activities perpetrated by what he obviously considers insensitive and lesser minds.  In fact, as much as he enjoys most of what he finds in foreign places, and enjoys describing these wonders to others, in many of his experiences abroad he discovers at least some major or minor calamities and mass-culturally-induced disasters one might attribute to lack of intelligence and taste, and to commercial exploitation.  For example, we must grieve with him in his disappointment—his seemingly shattered illusions—when, expecting some authenticity in the Negev Desert, at his hotel in a venerated crossroads of cultures, he encounters plastic palm trees and sequined sham.

Beginning in 1957, among other places, he is in Beirut, Amsterdam, Munich, and Zurich, and in 1958 he is in Paris.  In 1960 he is in Munich, travels through the Alps to Rome, and in 1962 he’s in Nigeria.    As much as he enjoys his experiences in Western Europe, in the main, his pleasures there are mostly the more common ones of many of us, and therefore not as idiosyncratic as most of his far-flung adventures.  But a couple of outstanding European excursions are included here.  For example, in 1964 he tours England and Scotland, taping a commentary from his Edinburgh hotel room while on assignment. He’s traveling with the Beatles, sharing their smoke-filled, boozy rooms and their frantic escapes from rabid fans, bringing back tapes of his commentaries and writing up his interview of the Fab Four, published by Playboy in February 1965.

In 1965, typical of his desire to participate at every opportunity in life to the fullest, Shepherd delivers 500 pounds of Luden’s cough drops and candy to the Shapra Indians of the Peruvian Amazon, who, until recently, were heathens and headhunters.  Match that for stout-hearted adventure, Ponce de León, Ernest Hemingway, and Norman Mailer!

ludens

My favorite flavor.

The Luden’s people probably sent

a variety, including wild cherry.

[Many years ago–when I was working on my first Shep book, I contacted the Luden’s company and got into a vicious circle of referrals. Nobody seemed to know (or care) where the Luden’s historical archive might have been–you know, the one that would have had many 8 X 10 glossys of Shep and companions delivering the drops and interacting with the natives.]

Shepherd the explorer, whether at a major event in our nation’s capital or subbing as a Luden’s delivery boy in the jungle, in his need to observe and grasp the meaning of human activities, he understands that the value of the experience—comprehension and the intensity of the pleasure—arises out of intimate engagement.   Gloriously, though he punches-out no competitors and kills no kudos, through his descriptions he brings his adventures back to us.

kudo

KUDO

(Not yet killed or bestowed)

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JEAN SHEPHERD, MIKE NICHOLS

mike-nichols-

Mike Nichols got a double-page obit and appreciation from the New York Times on Friday, November 21, 2014. (Obituary, starting front page, by Bruce Weber, appreciation by Ben Brantley.) I very much liked Nichols’ film “The Graduate.” I remember him on TV in the late 1950s with Elaine May doing their improvised skits.  I liked them a lot. Nichols and May came out of the Chicago 1950s climate of improv along with others who were “Seriously Funny” at that time. Shep came out of that ambiance at the same time–and he claimed to have acted at the Goodman Theatre, although his former wife, Lois Nettleton (also of Chicago and of the Goodman Theatre), indicated in an interview about Shep in 2000 that she had no knowledge of Shep’s connection with that Theatre. I think that, considering their common background and Chicago connections, She would have know if he’d been with the Goodman Theatre. Yet, there is the improv and Chicago connection of Shep and Nichols.

Brantley’s appreciation comments that Nichols was, “like most of that breed of stylish New Yorkers transplanted from elsewhere, a self-invention.” Also sounds a a bit like Shepherd.

Improvisation is the special connecting link between Shepherd and Nichols.

The obit comments that, regarding Nichols’ style, it developed “through improvisation, written with sly verbal dexterity and performed with cannily calibrated comic timing, a sharp eye….” The obit also comments that “Mr. Nichols said in interviews that though he did not know it at the time, his work with Ms May was his directorial training.

nichols and may

“He said that improvisation was good training because it acclimates the performer to the idea of taking care of the audience. In that regard, Nichols is quoted, “But what I really thought it was useful for was directing,” he said, ” because it also teaches you what a scene is made of–you know what needs to happen. See, I think the audience asks the question, ‘Why are you telling me this?’ and improvisation teaches you that you must answer it. there must be a specific answer. It also teaches you when the beginning is over and it’s time for the middle, and when you’ve had enough middle and it’s time already for the end. And those are all very useful things in directing.”

All of the above seems to me that it might also relate to Shep’s sensibilities.

I’d think that improvisation also helps a story-teller like Shep.

The description of the Nichols and May performances also notes that:

“Developed through improvisation, written with sly verbal dexterity and performed with cannily calibrated comic timing….” This makes the point that their material, coming out of improvisation, was worked over to hone it into the final, precise presentation we’re familiar with from TV, theater, and recordings. Here, I would say, is where their precision differs from Shep’s delivery. I have a feeling that Shepherd’s radio material also began with improvisation–within his own mind–and that he worked on it in his mind, sometimes more, sometimes less, before he presented it script-less, improvising from some sort of mental base, on the air.

According to the obit, when Nichols was honored at Lincoln Center for “lifetime achievement,” Elaine May commented, “So he’s witty, he’s brilliant, he’s articulate, he’s on time, he’s prepared, and he writes.”

Another quote from Elaine May: “But is he perfect? He knows you can’t really be liked or loved if you’re perfect. You have to have just enough flaws. And he does. Just the right, perfect flaws to be absolutely endearing.”  Of course we Shep enthusiasts know that Jean Shepherd has some more serious flaws than that, but he’s still brilliant!

Despite the far-different paths their careers took, I do find that some

aspects of Shepherd and Nichols connect.

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JEAN SHEPHERD—TRAVEL BOOK (Part 5 of many) more intro

[introduction continued]

He recognizes that too many of his fellow-countrymen fear the unknown and that keeps them from traveling or, when travelling, keeps them on familiar paths rather than reaching out to really comprehend the places they are visiting.  The pure joy he expresses in describing his travels must surely influence some people to venture out a bit more into the unfamiliar.

Yet, some fear for Jean Shepherd’s safety in travel, including Leigh Brown, then his young producer who loves him with all her heart, who fears that, in some far-off disaster, she will lose him forever.:

leighletter4

Among those who might very well also love him dearly and fear for his safety, is his wife, actress Lois Nettleton, whom he married in late 1960, and who, through her varied and busy professional schedule, is frequently away from home.  But they write loving letters and postcards to each other.  Jean to Lois: “Hi, Babe!  Just got back from the bush in Eastern Nigeria and it is something not to be believed!…Am taking a run to Ghana and Cameroon this week….Love Love J.”:

postcard nigeria front

postcard nigeria

Leigh expresses her fears, even in the very beginning of their emotional association in the early 1960s.  When he is taking off for another trip, the African one noted above, she writes to her closest friend: “Of course telling him to be careful is about as constructive as pissing up a rope or shoveling you-know-what in the teeth of a high wind.  The crazy sonofabitch DIGS insane danger!  Why not!  I’M the one who has to do the worrying!”  Over the years, before his trips, she frequently pleads with him not to leave.  As he discusses on the air his forthcoming travels to headhunter-country in the Peruvian Amazon, one can hear her voice from the control room tearfully beseeching him not to go.  On the air he even seems to tease her a bit about the dangers. And, of course, he goes, and, of course, he returns—with marvelous tales to tell.

Although he is acclaimed for his extensive memory, in order to capture his travel experiences even better for himself and his listeners, Shepherd uses several recording methods.  He does some pen and ink drawings of sites and says he keeps written travel journals of all of his trips.  In addition to the pure pleasure of holding his first impressions in those books, they assist him in remembering his experiences in order to transmit them on the radio upon his return.  The journals themselves may not yet have been found, but we have Shepherd’s many broadcasts devoted to describing the events.  In addition, he often makes tapes of sounds he hears on location as well as his at-the-moment commentary regarding his adventures.  Returning from trips, he gives his observations on the air and sometimes plays parts of the tapes he’d made on-site—a few words, snatches of music, local sounds, the rush of the sea against the hull of a sailing vessel.  All evoking some special sense of where he’s been.   Dominant among those sounds, of course, is that of the timeless human voice.

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JEAN SHEPHERD–Foibles ahoy! Part 2 of 3

[Remember the content of Part 1 of these “Foibles ahoy” posts]

So, without proclaiming his political biases, Jean Shepherd suggested that some human attitudes led to poor political beliefs.  In this regard, some of the ideals of “liberty” and “freedom” from all restrictions had, in the recent memory, led to wars and atrocities.  Much violence and various assassinations of the ‘60s soon confirmed some of Shepherd’s worst fears and predictions.

This idea of Shepherd’s, that the young especially were too naïve and sometimes went off too willingly to follow some leader toward idealistic and impractical goals, would cause him to be labeled a conservative, although it was clear that his overall tendencies, observed over decades of broadcasts, were unmistakably liberal. (He even, on the air, once confirmed his liberal bias.)  And, giving the young much credit, a bit later in that same program, he said that he did not have this awareness when he was that young, and admiringly commented that “The very young are showing an almost frightening political awareness.”  His thoughts, such as the one just discussed, would only deal with some current social issue in a more philosophical way regarding human nature, although several of his friends and his third wife, Lois Nettleton, have noted that he had very strong political opinions.  He rarely ever directly hinted at those opinions on the air.

As folk wisdom has it, one should not discuss strongly held beliefs on politics and religion in public.  As he nearly always adhered to this, and seldom made a direct comment, one has the impression that he was not traditionally religious.  A listener remembers him once saying that his family had been Presbyterian.  In this rarity, he mentioned the subject directly:

I am not a religious type—as you can probably tell from my work….Religion never played a role in my life. (August 13, 1973)

During the same program Shepherd said that he never attended Sunday school or church and claimed that upon joining the Army, a capital D was duly put on his dog tags when he insisted on being recognized as a Druid.

Regarding Shepherd’s attitude toward strongly held beliefs of various kinds, one occasionally encounters a comment.  One of the many periodicals to which Shepherd contributed has recently come to light.  Fact Magazine for their July/August 1967 article titled “America is Splitting Apart” polled “thirty well-known Americans to determine who they currently hold in high esteem.”  Shepherd’s contributions, consistent with his usual questioning nature, began:

john birch

I think that the term “heroism” today has very little meaning because most of us define heroism as the thing we agree with.  For example, a John Birch member thinks he’s a heroic person because he’s fighting against Communism.  On the other hand, a person like Joan Baez believes she’s heroic because she’s maintaining a stand against Vietnam.  And they do not even consider the other side. 

Bob-Dylan+Joan-Baez_1963

John Birch Society, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez. Gee Whiz, what a combo!

The 1960s were a complex, exciting gallimaufry. I’m really delighted that I was alive for it all! Without suggesting my attitudes at the time, I report here that a friend arm-twisted me into attending a Birch Society meeting (“Just to see what this new phenomenon is like”), and, seeming to be in another world, I attended the Forest Hills Stadium, Joan Baez (non-political) concert in which, after the intermission, she introduced onto the stage to sing, a scraggly-looking  guy I’d never heard of: Bob Dylan, who sang a weirdly monotone “A Hard Rain,” or maybe it was “Blowin’ in the Wind.” Whichever–I was so fascinated by the odd-sounding songs and voice that the next morning I went out and bought his first two-and-only albums. (Note that I do not comment on the political content of J.B.S., B.D., J.B. I was, and still am, in most ways, too likely to “see both sides” of an issue, and too naive.)

Part 3 to come

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JEAN SHEPHERD—TRAVEL BOOK (Part 4 of many) more intro

TRAVEL COVER 2

Another of my ideas for the book cover

[Part 2 of introduction to the manuscript]

For Jean Shepherd, Midwestern boy from the steel-mill city of Hammond, Indiana, traveling the world is one of his favorite activities, maybe in part because, as he later describes his hometown as it was in the 1930s, “between the refineries, of course, would be dotted picturesque steel mills.  And what glued it all together—some of the most colorful and some of the most unforgettable used car lots and junkyards ever created by man.”

The hometown region was crisscrossed by tracks—freight and passenger trains taking cargo and passengers from exotic places (not pausing as they crossed Hammond), just rattling through to other exotic places.  He could see the trains go by and he dreamed.

Shepherd’s enthusiasm for encountering new information surely began as a child when, he says, he very much enjoyed reading, a pastime he continues to enjoy all his life.  There is the exploring and discovering of ideas and places he finds in books.  As an adult, traveling not only in his mind through books, but physically all over the world, he encounters by going and doing himself.  When he can, Shepherd moves as a radio broadcaster to Cincinnati, then Philadelphia, and when the opportunity arises, to the creative and entertainment center of the world in the 1950s, New York City.  He wants to see everything and experience everything and then talk about it—to friends, passersby, and, on his nightly radio show, to his tens of thousands of listeners.  Several times on his broadcasts he talks about what it means for him to travel, once in mock-melodramatic tones, wondering why he does it:

Deep down inside of me is a little violin playing that says, “Yes, why, why me?  Why am I a Flying Dutchman, forever sailing over the seas—the seven seas of this benighted globe?  Always looking, always searching, always hunting and never finding?”

flying_dutchman_by_megser-d6wt06v

The Flying Dutchman

[From the Internet by MegSer]

In reality, he is forever finding.  He has his very good reasons for traveling.  He emphasizes that being in new places promotes new ideas, new ways of understanding our world.  All the simple things should be noticed because they are of a different order from the simple things at home.  As the cliché has it so accurately, “travel broadens one.”  He seems to revel in his escapes from the known into different worlds, including through skin diving—exploring the under-water world. Undoubtedly he must enjoy this watery other-world for its sense of freedom from constraint and even from the partial encumbrance of gravity.  Probably most important is the thrill of all travel, as changes of environment seem to make him feel most intensely alive.  Hungering for experience, on another broadcast he expresses it this way:

As far as I’m concerned, I have found travel to be the one thing I find that really, truly, does give me a kind of final sense of involvement and satisfaction.  I love the sensation of being completely removed from my known environment, and just looking out—just being able to walk through a street that is completely unknown to me, to look at people who are unknown, to go into a place that is unknown.

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JEAN SHEPHERD–Foibles ahoy! Part 1 of 3

MY PHILOSOPHY

What do I believe?  Carry on—I believe in persistence.  A little bit of Galahad, a touch of Lancelot, a touch of Alonso Quijana, and thus perhaps, a touch of the idealist—which is to say, the fool in search of intellectual adventure with no protective covering but an endless supply of stuffing, which is to say, excelsior!  We each have our own quests: Shep for more fame and acknowledgment; little Ralphie Parker for a BB gun; and I—well, you know my heart’s desire, so now, as the Lord of La Mancha sings it, “My destiny calls and I go.”

man-lamancha.Curtis Brown foto

(Photo: Curtis Brown)

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SHEP PHILOSOPHY

I frequently pat myself on the back regarding my research and writing about Shepherd.  Early during research I’d created subject categories regarding his work, and I found that everything I encountered could logically fit into one of them.  As I continue listening to more old broadcasts and reading more articles, things he said which many listeners might pay little attention to, strike a chord for me as I fit them into categories and patterns I’d earlier discovered.

But in addition to the pat on the back, I’m at times startled to encounter cause to give myself a swift poke in the ribs.  For example, I recently reheard a program from a Saturday early afternoon in 1960, when he was still in the more pervasively philosophical mode that he later entered less frequently.  

From time to time though, he would speak with pride of his perceptions, which often led to accurate predictions.  Yet regarding one such prediction, I’d failed to mention his musings of a few minutes further into that program when he’d noted—at the very beginnings of the 1960s—what he saw as a disturbing trend in America.  Back then, he could not have known, as we do now, how his forebodings would be confirmed by events in that turbulent decade.

SOON TO COME IN THE 1960s:

RIOTS

ASSASSINATIONS

He led up to his pessimistic view of the near future by mentioning an old soldier in a movie talking about peace and brotherhood—all the ideals—and then Shepherd questioned whether people were basically peaceful or warlike. He’d questioned this from time to time, sometimes associated with his stories of the not-quite civilized cavemen, Og and Charlie.  But here he was concerned with another aspect of human foibles—a mentality that was growing out of unrest—an idealistic belief that “peace“ and “justice,” and all those other good things, were being thwarted by some ignorant and self-serving people who, in effect, were “evil.”  If only we could get rid of those bad people and their attitudes!  If only some drastic act could be carried out that would ignite the smoldering, disenchanted masses.  So that the disenchanted would burst into action and change the world for the better.

He said that “what we think we are is not what we are.”  He proceeded with a commentary that we must understand came several years before the political and philosophical divide that he would see as being, in part, behind the assassination of President Kennedy in late 1963.  The divide that he would see as having precipitated the conflicts to come between what he saw as naïve idealism of student radicals and status quo of the self-satisfied establishment.  Remember that this 1960 commentary of Shepherd’s came over three years before the Kennedy assassination and over four years before the University of California at Berkeley demonstrations—the “Free Speech Movement” and the mid-twentieth century’s uses of civil disobedience and confrontations that as tools for social reform could turn violent:

free speech

There is a great unrest during peace, and let me tell you, there are some fantastic signs, and I’m going to say it right here, though it’s Saturday morning, that if you look at the paper very carefully, the little items not the big items, there is a profound unrest that is running through the world that is not —I don’t know whether it’s good or bad, or whether it’s— who knows, you see.  You cannot cast forward in history. 

For example, it was unheard of for maybe 18,000 years for a group of high school seniors to boo their principal—when they were graduating from high school.  Now this is an interesting thing.  It seems to me that there is rampant in the air a kind of uncontrolled—rebellion.  Now I don’t mean—see, I’m certainly not for conformism.  I’m 15,000 levels against conformism of any kind.  But on the other hand you cannot confuse non-conformism with anarchism.  That’s another thing entirely.

And it’s fascinating to me to see all sides, everywhere you look, all sides, there is developing a kind of fuse that seems to be already lighted.  That all it takes, I think, and I suspect that all it will take one day, among the youth of today—I’m talking about the very youthful youth of today—all it will take will be some guy to leap up, who has “a plan.”  And the next thing you know, we [laughs]—Nellie, bar the door! 

Particularly if more things, more pressures, are exerted on America from outside our borders.  All it will take will be some guy because—this is the same sort of anarchism that was breaking out all over Germany in the very early 1920s among the very young people.  A kind of “let’s march,” and no one knows where to march, a kind of “let’s get angry—arrgggg!”  You know it’s very important to be angry today—if you’re not angry you’re just nowhere.  And it’s a kind of anger that burns like a flame but has no direction at all.  Just burns.  A kind of profound unrest with life.  Just a-a-a kind of disgruntlement.  I mean, how long has it been since you’ve really been gruntled?  (July 2, 1960)

Part 2 to come

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JEAN SHEPHERD—TRAVEL BOOK (Part 3 of many) begin intro

The following short piece I’ve used before, but it belongs near the front of the “book” of Shep’s travels:

SHEP AND TWAIN FOR TRAVEL—THE INNOCENTS ABROAD

Regarding American humor, Jean Shepherd has always been proud of his lineage going back to Mark Twain.  In 1869 Twain published his book, The Innocents Abroad, a quirky, true/fiction commentary.  His experiences and the ironic tone he took toward American and European culture, plus his characterization of American tourists faced with far-off oddities and treasures, makes his and Shepherd’s takes on travel mostly unlike each other—not the closest of kin here, they seem rather like distant cousins.

Yet, Shepherd would probably be pleased to find a link between himself and his revered forebear in a sentence from Twain’s preface to The Innocents Abroad. Shepherd might have written it for his own book of travel tales:  “I offer no apologies for any departures from the usual style of travel writing that may be charged against me—for I think I have seen with impartial eyes, and I am sure I have written at least honestly, whether wisely or not.”  With his own distinctive brand of wit, Shepherd shares with Twain his sharp-eyed observations and a penchant for truth.

marktwain_cc_img_0

Samuel Clemens–never an innocent!

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

Thank you, Glenn Young, for starting my thinking about what subjects of Jean Shepherd’s decades of radio broadcasts would be prime targets for a book.  After Shepherd’s kid stories and army stories, his travel narratives are best.  They are an untapped and insufficiently appreciated area of his creative work.

Near the end of his life, responding to a call-in listener on an interview program, Shepherd said that the listener was the only one who had ever expressed good feelings about his travel stories.  His general attitude and downright grumpiness during the program must surely have led to this negative comment.  It’s hard to believe that Shepherd believed it because it is clearly untrue.  Many have responded favorably to these narratives, but the media and interviewers seldom if ever mention them.  They are another of the multitude of subjects Shep talks about and deserves more recognition for, but somehow they are frequently overlooked despite their excellence and the enjoyment they provide.

Listening to dozens of audios of his radio broadcasts and contemplating Shepherd’s trips, I did research through the internet and in books focusing on travel.  The book that I found most useful as an overview of a subject that I knew little about was Tourists with Typewriters—Critical Reflections on Contemporary Travel Writing by Patrick Holland and Graham Huggan, (The Michigan University Press, 1998).  Although some of it eluded me because of what I found to be its overly scholarly style and arcane terminology, the introduction enlightened and entertained me greatly.  Neophyte that I am regarding travel writing, I learned a lot, including that Shepherd’s distinction between lesser mortals as mere tourists and himself as a traveler has been a self-anointed distinction of many for years.  There are endless quibbles on each side of the issue.  Yet, the distinction holds true for Jean Shepherd, who, regarding all human activities, inevitably considers himself and his dedicated enthusiasts to be a “tiny embattled minority” with discriminating sensibilities.  After reading Shepherd’s idiosyncratic narratives, one must agree that he’s not your common tourist.  He definitely is, for all the best reasons, a traveler.

As always, certain people and sources in the world of Jean Shepherd were invaluable for their information and help:  Jim Clavin and his Shepherd site www.flicklives.com; Max Schmid and his dissemination of Shep audios through WBAI-FM and www.oldtimeradio,com; the iTunes podcast, brassfiglagee, with its hundreds of Shepherd radio audios.  Special thanks to a collector of Shepherd audios who asks to remain anonymous.

I thank my wife, Allison Morgan Bergmann and our sons Evan and Drew, for their continued tolerance of my Shep-obsession.  Especially, I thank Allison for her astute comment regarding a content issue, which I would have bollixed up had it not been for her valuable advice.

[Introduction]

TRAVELING WITH JEAN PARKER SHEPHERD, ADVENTURER

This is a book of one-of-a-kind adventures around the world—far-flung, unexpected and idiosyncratic, told by the acute observer and humorist the New York Times referred to as a raconteur and wit.  Travel is but one focus of Jean Shepherd’s personal passions.  The range of interests for which Shepherd has a comment can’t be encapsulated in a few words—or even in a few books.  Thus, this is not an objective book in a consistent style about travel, nor is it created by a professional teller of travel stories who sets out to concoct any kind of travel opus.  It is an expression over the years by a major story-teller regarding one of the great enthusiasms of his life.

Although Shepherd recognizes the impossibility of pure objectivity, he tries to enter an environment—a situation—with an open mind, with the goal not of judging or gathering material for a book or for his radio broadcasts (though this last is an added bonus).  Whether walking down a New York City street as he might describe it on his many-faceted radio shows, or seeking the unexpected and the enigmatic—wherever in the world he can find it, he observes and absorbs for the intellectual and emotional thrill of it.  He has a lust for encountering the unknown, so he goes where he goes because the places offer him intriguing experiences, and, as an obsessive raconteur, he believes that his audience will find his observations informative and entertaining.   Jean Shepherd describes his adventures around the world to his radio listeners, who delight in what he has to say about any subject, who expect to learn something new and unexpected, and who are certain that they will be entertained.

He knows how to tell tales full of delightful combinations of observation, commentary, wonderment, and wit, expressed in a conversational and mostly improvised manner.  Occasionally, going lighter on the drama, he will slow down the pace with a rich, poetic evocation, as he does when describing Ireland.

irish pub

A Dublin pub (as denoted on the Internet–so it must be so!)

Scattered throughout Jean Shepherd’s radio programs broadcast in New York City and heard throughout half the country from early 1956 to April, 1977 are dozens devoted to the various trips he made.  He describes such unusual experiences as traveling on a U. S. warship engaged in quelling unrest in Lebanon; touring the British countryside while sharing hotel rooms with The Beatles; and spending a week with former headhunters of the Peruvian Amazon.  Shepherd’s travel descriptions vary from enticing vignettes, full-fledged narratives, occasional listings of facts and unexpected insights, to a couple of wide-eyed fantasies that, in their obvious absurdities —and truths—pointedly illuminate our foibles and delusions.

[More of the intro to come]

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JEAN SHEPHERD & ALEXANDER KING

COMPARISON AND CONTRAST

Shepherd was described in the New York Times obituary headline as a “Raconteur and Wit.” Another raconteur and wit I remember was Alexander King, who died 50 years ago, having just turned 66. (I find this difficult to believe because I always thought of him as a spry and wildly energetic old codger, and I am now ten years older than that and don’t feel like a “spry old codger.”) The Times obit for King is titled “Raconteur, Author and TV Figure, Is Dead; His Pungent and Irreverent Commentaries on the Jack Paar Show Made Him a Celebrity.”

He had been, according to the Times obituary, “…virtually unknown beyond a small circle of friends who called him ‘a genius,’ ‘a great individualist,’ ‘a remarkable personality.'” Sounds like Shep, who, however, never became what he probably, secretly, wanted to be: a “celebrity.”

The Times continues, “Then in 1958 the disarmingly gentle author published a book of memoirs, Mine Enemy Grows Older and appeared on the Jack Paar Show on television. The appearance startled Mr. Paar, captivated the audience and turned Mr. King into a nationwide celebrity.”

Shepherd had appeared on Paar’s “Tonight Show” a year or two earlier, but failed to become a nationwide celebrity. Shep’s was a long-form, gentle style, usually gently humorous, while King’s style was sharp, pungent, sometimes outlandishly acerbic. That made the difference. They both had wit, but Shep’s could go by nearly unnoticed to many, while King always startlingly jolted your mind.

I remember, as a college student, being one of the captivated audience–so much so that I convinced a friend to let me join a personal interview session with some of her classmates, during which I got to ask King at least one question, and he autographed my copy of his book:

mine enemy...

[I still have, shown here, my personally autographed copy ]

The Times continues: “What the artist, book-illustrator, magazine editor and playwright did on the program–and on many later television shows–was to provide a witty, pungent, irreverent and continual outflow of comments on  life, art, women, sex, psychiatry, celebrities, narcotics addiction and just about any other topic that happened to annoy him at the moment.”

King is quoted as having said, “I have no great messianic desire to talk. I just do it to sell my books….I used to throw away all this stuff [his comments] for nothing, and now I get paid for it.” His book is described as “a melange of reminiscence, outrageous anecdote and uninhibited invective.” Shepherd enthusiasts will recognize some aspects of these descriptions.

Another book reviewer is quoted as having described King’s talent as boisterously uninhibited. “Beneath the shock and surprise there are occasional glimmerings of perception which, combined with a simplified version of its possessor’s dramatic sense, might have produced a fine short-story writer.” It’s reported that King once said: “There’s no limit to the tastelessness of a sponsor.” Other than “boisterously uninhibited” and “shock and surprise,” one again encounters some Shep-like characteristics.

All in all, there’s some similarity and some contrast between King and Shep. I wonder if they’d ever met. I would imagine that they would have had a certain amount of respect for each other’s style and content, but would each have been exasperated by their mutual conflicts of attitudes as each chose to express them in public.

They would have hated that they each would have insisted on doing all the talking.

king 2 portrait

Portrait of Alexander King on the back cover of

Mine Enemy Grows Older.

(The young woman, far younger than he, is

undoubtedly his third and last wife, Margie.)

Jean Shepherd might well have been pleased that–

compared to King, the celebrity–in our time,

our Shep has scores of thousands of times more hits from

a Google search. Regrettably, as for the Internet, King has virtually disappeared.

king signature

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JEAN SHEPHERD—TRAVEL BOOK March on D.C. (3)

d.c. march button

I must say, parenthetically, I have never in my life—including several big operations in the army, including a lot of organizations I’ve seen in various other armed services and great events that happened in other cities—I’ve never seen anything like the way the city of Washington handled this thing.  Absolutely—I imagine in the end this is going to be a picture-book classic among control and preparation for a vast event.  Fantastic!  And every last man that I saw involved in this situation—the police, the MPs, the Red Cross people—was in the most wildly great, holiday mood.  You just don’t expect it from officials.  Everybody cheering when you came in.  I don’t know how much of this has been reported!  I haven’t seen much of it reported in the press.  I think because few reporters came in as a marcher.  That’s right.  They went in days before and stayed at the hotel and that morning they took the big cab down to the Lincoln Memorial and sat behind the ropes.  And started a report.  No wonder that in history, the point is always missed about what happened.

We came into the city.  One of the moments I will never in my life forget—I just won’t, I know it.  Coming into the outskirts of Washington in this bus.

D. C. distant view

Tired, boy, have you ever ridden six hours on a cross-town bus!  Wow!  And that seat was like a rock.  And we were sweating and the sun was beating down and we arrived and there was a cop waiting for us in a white helmet.  The police were to take groups of six busses, with a police escort, to the proper place where they were to go—each group of six was assigned a place.  It was fantastic.  All the busses were lined up for blocks.  And what was intriguing was to find, slowly, everybody in the bus was beginning to thaw.  Up to that point they expected officialdom and all that—and they found that officialdom was as much on their side as anybody.

We took off and rode along one of the main streets through the slums and there were hundreds of people on the steps.  Little old ladies, grandmas, skinny kids, tough-looking guys, nuns, everywhere we went they were sitting on the porches waving.  Not the kind of waving that says, “Go give ‘em hell,” just with a strange, happy, “We’re glad you’re here, how are you.”  Just unbelievable feeling all the way through, all out there on the steps and streets waving and everybody in the bus was waving.

We finally arrived at the place where we parked on a side street, and this was a strange moment.  We’d stopped a couple of times at gas stations on the way down but when we got out, everybody was bent over stiff-legged and bent over sideways.  The back of your neck was hurting and immediately about forty-five people had to go to the john.  We walked around and somebody said, “Let’s go to that building over there.”  It was a big, gray, official-looking building, and people started to go down the driveway that had big trucks and guys working there who were not connected with the demonstration.

The instant the people started to go down the drive the workers there escorted everybody in where they could get water: “You want any coffee?”  They’re cheering you on.  “Yeah, come on!”  We went in and everybody got water.  It was a very odd experience to have people really concerned about you!  They really were worried: “Gee, do you want to sit down?  How about some coffee.”  They were just guys working at that building.  “Hey, have some coffee.”

coffee cup

We walked out onto the street and went toward the area where we were going to assemble and march.  But it was not at all the way I would have imagined a demonstration or any other kind of event would be run.  You’re walking on the street and it was like you were suddenly with a million old friends.  It was like a family reunion!  A strange feeling, and there wasn’t one moment that was phony about it.  I had people step on my foot and say, “Oh, for heaven’s sake, excuse me.”  A man standing in front of me when there was a big thing going on said, “Can you see now?”

And one of the great moments was when we walked through a grove of trees and started walking along the street where I met a lot of old friends.  And what really intrigued me was the number of people who didn’t come.  I will not mention names.  But I sure was amazed by the absence of many people who I’d heard do a lot of talking prior to this moment.  They just weren’t there.  And a lot of people who never said a word were there.  You never can tell who the people are in any world—I don’t care what world it is—a football game, whether you are playing cards, or you need money—you sure can’t tell who it’s going to be who’s going to come across.  Let me tell you that.  Any old GI will tell you that story.  That there are a lot of awfully tough commandos in basic training, there are a lot of guys who can go up those fences like mad, and there are a lot of men who can shout commands.  It’s an interesting thing as to who comes across when the real stuff is flying in the air.  Don’t think for a minute you know who it would be.  You do not know.  You don’t know who your friends are, you don’t know who your enemies are.

One more thing has to be pointed out.  A man told me when we were walking, and he was a negro, by the way, and an old friend of mine.  He said, “You know, I wish my cousin who lives in Paris could see this, could be part of this.  He would never understand it though.”  He said, “This is a purely American thing.”  He said, “The headlines—you read a headline about another country—you don’t understand it, because you are not Vietnamese, you know.  You just don’t know!  You just don’t know what is happening in Belgium because you’re not Belgian.  It’s very difficult to know and it is very difficult for a European to understand this.  I’m sure it is.”

So we were walking along and thousands and thousands of white people and colored people are standing on the sidelines waving.  Guys in offices are cheering and waving.  Nobody reported on this!  And I want to go on record saying that during the entire day, I did not hear one word that I could construe as being the kind of word that you would hear in demonstrations, I did not hear one moment that I could call a moment that gave me even one instant a feeling of imminent rabble-rousing or any of that stuff.  There was just an amazing attitude towards everything.  You know, I hate to use such words as “love.”  These are ridiculous, meaningless words, but there was a feeling of humanity in the air, like we were all in something together.  I’m sure there must have been some guys in the offices who felt the opposite way, and suddenly realized how idiotic they were.

We walked along through this crowd and everybody was standing there waving and so on.  It wasn’t a parade—I’m sure it’s going to sound like a parade.  Nobody was yelling “WORKERS, UNITE!”  They were just sort of walking, the sun coming down, everyone cheering and waving.  Also, there was a vague feeling of embarrassment in the air.  Just a vague feeling like somebody has laid in a stock of all kinds of stuff he’s going to yell at his friend, he’s going to yell, he’s going to holler, and he gets there and it all goes out the window.

MarchOnWashington Lincoln Mem

“The first wave of marchers arrives at the Lincoln Memorial.”

We got to the park where the Lincoln Memorial is.  Incidentally, this trip once again affirms in my mind that one of the most beautiful cities I’ve ever been in is Washington.  It’s even prettier than it used to be when I went to school for a while there and used to spend weekends in Washington.  It’s changed a great deal.

March  on DC better color

We were coming in and millions of people were gathering, and I don’t know how they can estimate the number of people who were there.  There would be no way to estimate it.  I have no idea how they came across estimates because busses were coming in from all directions, everywhere, and it was just like a great big cloud—it was about as difficult to tell how big a cloud is or how many drops are in this cloud.  Just sort of a big thing, and as we walked through the push started to get rough.  And up there on the Lincoln Memorial the crowd was gathered and we pushed down into the crowd.  Each delegation, if you could call it that, had a little place where it was supposed to be.  Of course it wasn’t there—that went out the window with the cloud.

Everybody trying to get in, walking with their little signs, and suddenly through the crowd was this tiny band of people coming with a little sign that said “MISSISSIPPI.”  That was really a moment, I’ll tell you!  That was a moment. They came all the way up on some crummy old bus.  And everybody was hollering at them and talking and they were laughing and hollering.  Incidentally, in that Mississippi group there were more than just a few white people.  That should be pointed out.  People were slapping them on the back as they walked through.

march on D.C. signs

So they were there.  Standing around there.  In the middle of it all.  This was the greatest crowd I’ve ever been in in my life.  A much greater crowd than you’d ever see at a ballgame, which is supposed to be a fun thing. Much greater.  Much different thing.  You think you know about crowds, but you don’t know about them unless you’ve been in this one.

(More to come)

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