I’m lying in my sack and it must have been about one o’clock in the morning. I’ve got my little transistor radio on and I’m in this town not far from the Jordanian border, and it’s on the edge of the Negev Desert.
It’s hot and you can smell that peculiar smell of the Middle East. Once you’ve smelled it you can never forget it. It isn’t like any other smell. I think that a large part of it is the Israeli cigarettes they smoke. The Arabic type of tobacco, which has a strange aroma that is somehow closely related to burning mattresses. Awful stuff. That, combined with moldy camel dung, baking sand, five-thousand years of Roman sandals that have decayed into dust. Put this whole thing together and you’ve got the smell of the Middle East. It has no other counterpart anywhere.
I’m lying in my sack and that smell is coming in through the window. The shades are sort of half-drawn. There’s a big, heavy, full moon. The moon is so bright in the desert that you have to pull your shades down or you can’t go to sleep. They really have a moon here! They really turn it on in the Middle East—and they do it, of course, at the peak of the tourist season—they’ve got a big master switch. They turn this thing on—it’s got a dimmer on it, and when they turn it on really full blast, you can get a sunburn from the moon. You’ve got to wear shades and everything.
So the moon is up there, blasting down, and I’ve got the shade half-drawn. They have this Somerset Maugham-type of shade all over the Middle East and the tropics—these wooden slat-like things, and above my sack is this big, four-bladed fan. You’ve seen these movies starring Rita Hayworth and Peter Lorrie and Humphrey Bogart. They’re always someplace just a bit east of Suez. That kind of scene. The fan is going kachoo-kachoo-kachoo-kachoo-kachoo, just a steady thump as it goes around and you can hear it hitting the larger horseflies as it revolves. This is a part of the Middle East you don’t hear much about—they have big bugs. The fan goes kachoo-kachoo-kachoo and I can hear things thump, bump, the bugs yelling and hollering, and the fan is whistling around and I can smell the Middle East.
I’ve got my little transistor turned on. I would recommend to anybody who wants to travel, by all means take your transistor radio with you and take an extra set of batteries, too, because if you ever try to buy nine-volt batteries here, you will find out not only will it cost you an arm and a leg, but when you put the doggone thing in, it’s four years old and it’s been dead for two-and-a-half years. I’m tuning around the dial and I’m listening to these various radio shows coming in—the wildest stuff coming at you. There are a lot of programs that countries broadcast in English, which is the second language here, and the English programs are almost purely for propaganda.
I’m listening to this girl in Jordan talking about Arabic music. Very serious program, not a laugh in six months of listening to these things. She says, “Many Westerners do not understand the subtleties of the various forms of Middle-Eastern, Indian, and/or oriental music. The forms follow very closely a variation of the fugue, a variation of the cantata movements, and a variation of the basic symphonic structure. Now, the love song or the ordinary popular song of the Arabic nations…” She goes on and on and on, explaining all this music and about how the West should understand this fantastic stuff and go along with it.
And I’m sitting here—yeah, yeah, that’s good, that’s right, ahuh. Yes, very good, highly complex, ahuh, yes, I understand that I must attune my ear to new sounds, very good, must have open esthetic possibilities to see new avenues of beauty, ahuh, very good. I’m listening to this half-hour show and I’m really interested in it. I say to myself, “Well, now we’re going to get some of this stuff.” She stops and says, “You are listening to Radio Jordan broadcasting twenty-four hours a day. In one moment, our next program.”
On comes the same voice: “And now we present music as you like it.” I expect Arabic music. After all this talk about how we should listen to this great music, what do you think comes on? Elvis Presley. This is the ironic part: she starts giving all of these dedications and every last dedication is from an Arab!
It’s funny when you run into the reverse chauvinism that’s going on in every country. For example, throughout America, all the hippies are digging, let’s’ say, Welsh folk songs and they’re digging Israeli folk songs. You go to Israel and all the hippies are digging West Virginia folk songs. They couldn’t care less about Israeli folk songs, and as a matter of fact it took me three days to get an Israeli to take me to a place where they are really singing Israeli folk songs.
Here’s one of the most disillusioning things that happened to me in the Middle East. I’m in Beersheba, a desert city that traditionally, throughout the ages, was a famous oasis, the crossroads of the great caravans that crisscrossed the Negev, went down into Arabia and up into Persia, and all the way up into India.
They have a wild market there that starts at four A. M. every Thursday. One of the weird sights is to see a group of Bedouins—these guys are living as they must have lived five-thousand years ago—leading their camels and riding their horses on the move across the Negev Desert, and outlined against them you see this fantastically modern, superbly designed hydroelectric plant. They’re moving across as though they don’t even see it. They go through Beersheba, and every Thursday at four A. M. they meet in this big open place—a chunk of the desert that they’ve got sort of pegged out.
The Bedouin sheiks are still there, and they do not look like Rudolph Valentino sitting in a Hollywood plastic tent. You see them huddled up in their dark tents and five or six camels moving around and a herd of goats tended by two or three tiny kids. You can tell the girls because they always have what looks like a scarf wrapped all the way around so that you can just see their eyes. And there’s that low, flat, black and brown and earth-colored tent that’s the Bedouin’s house—his castle, and you see one little hole in it that’s the doorway. Sometimes, looking in you can see this white figure looking out at you—that’s the Arab sheik. The women are almost impossible to see. They’re always kept away, hidden in the back of the tent.
The whole area is filled with camels at dawn, it’s like a parking lot at the A and P. The stars are still out and you hear this cacophony—this uproar of Arab talk in about six-thousand different dialects. And the overpowering smell of sheep and goats, because this is what they’re dealing in.
S h e p – h e r d
In the middle of this insane market place in Beersheba, I saw a fantastic sight—an Arab had this typical, Chevrolet, Country Squire station wagon, baby blue with a fin. The whole interior had been gutted, the doors hanging loose, the windows cracked, and it was filled with goats, all looking out. Obviously it was the pride of his life.
And always, when any of these people get together, especially the Yemenites, you instantly hear their music break out. I saw a group of Yemenites—they look sort of gypsy and Spanish, kind of a wild, fascinating look, and they are all dancing in a circle, their music is going, the drums are going, and suddenly they rush into their bus. How they manage to dance and yell and holler in a bus I don’t know, but the whole bus is rocking. Off it went down into the desert. It was a group of Yemenites going around the country on a tourist trip.
Beersheba at that hour is a cacophony in that one spot. Westerners come down and look at the market that has been here for hundreds and hundreds of years. As far back as recorded history goes, this marketplace has been in operation. And it continues to trade in the same thing it traded in—camel hides, the things that a Bedouin needs. He’s constantly trading back and forth—his weapons—because, after all, he does live in the desert and it contains rattlesnakes and cougars. All the Bedouins go armed. They usually carry a dagger. They have a working dagger—when you meet an ordinary enemy. Then they have ceremonial daggers—silver with inlaid handles. That’s if you want to kill somebody close to you like your mother-in-law. So when you go to the bazaar, all this stuff is being traded and it was at this bazaar that I picked up my tarboosh. I look fantastic in it, I’ll tell you!
Here is Beersheba at the crossroads. And in the middle of Beersheba is this hotel—which is lying right on the edge of the desert. I arrived in the middle of the afternoon and I took a look at this really exciting-looking place—except for one thing. The hotel looks like a little bit of Las Vegas. And they’re very proud of that. They believe Las Vegas is one of the more civilized spots in the world. You have the feeling they’re replacing one kind of barbarism for another. One is plaster and the other happens to be made out of copper. So here’s a little bit of Las Vegas—The Desert Inn and it’s all plastic, with a plastic swimming pool in the back and plastic deck chairs. And it’s right on the desert, right in the middle of this waste and about six-and-a-half minutes away from it is the genuine Arab Bedouin crossroads of the world, the meeting place and marketplace. Here is The Desert Inn with ceremonial Bedouins painted on the outside of it. Phony Bedouins who look like they were done by Walt Disney. Cute Bedouins.
“The Bedouin Dancer”
(Cute Bedouins, not by Disney.)
And right in the middle of this U-shaped building, in the center, is a genuine Bedouin tent! It’s a very eerie sight. It’s as though you have arrived in front of the Waldorf and somebody has pitched there, a roving band of Genghis Khan.
There’s a little sign inside the lobby that says: “Be Sure to Attend the Show in the Bedouin’s Tent.” So I made my reservation and I’m ready to go. I say, “By George, here’s where I’m going to see the real thing! The real thing!”
So, now it’s eight o’clock at night. The elevators are going and all the people are heading for the Bedouin’s Tent, and I walk out through this hot desert air. You feel that baked sand in the night and you can see the stars above you and here’s the Bedouin’s Tent lying there in the moonlight. These tents are very low and dark so I duck my head down and go in. It’s a big tent. Must be seventy-five feet long and maybe forty feet across. That’s the way the tents are out in the desert—about that size. Long, low, flat, hut-like tents with many poles, the roof looking scalloped. You can smell the smell of camel—the camel hair it’s made out of, and goat hides, camel hides, sheep hides, all sewn together. That’s why it has a kind of mottled, camouflaged look.
It takes about a minute-and-a-half for your eyes to get used to the darkness and you see all around you on the sides these low, big leather cushions, and this is the way the Arabs live. It’s all low and the people sort of lounge. The Arab knows how to live in his world. They lounge. You see these low blue lanterns hanging, the flickering light, lit with kerosene. Blue and yellow lenses. Wow! The people are all lounging around the walls. It’s the international set that has gathered to sip of the insanely erotic delights of the Middle East. And I’m ready to go.
The show has not yet begun as I am led through the tent by this hooded Arab. I lounge down against a big camel pelt behind me. Shep has come all the way. I light one of my sinister, Middle-Eastern cigarettes, which, of course, shrivels your lungs right down to your feet. I’ve got my shades on now. I want to look kind of like Humphrey Bogart on his day off. He’s come down here to meet Peter Lorie. And they’re going to exchange a few little bits of information because they‘re both going to go out and get Sydney Greenstreet in half an hour. And Lauren Bacall will show up.
Bogy on his day off with shades.
So I’m lounging, and I see all these other guys with the white coats, oh yeah, and there’s about five-hundred nubile chicks who all look a little like Bridget Bardot’s kid sister. Oh boy! I’m ready, see!
I see the stage over there. Oh boy! In just a few moments I am going to see the delights that will make this Mid-Western mind reel! Ahhhh! This is what I’ve come for. I see strange instruments lined up against that goatskin background. Little flickering blue lights on it and I can hear it in my mind already. I can hear those finger cymbals kachingkachingkaching, I can see that writhing figure, that comely figure picking up those flickering purple lights. Oh, I can see those muscles that human beings rarely ever have shown to the roaring public. Kaching! The flashing eyes. I can smell the hashish rising, and the opium. Aha, bring it on! Stronger women! Ahhhhh! More subtle wives. I’m ready for it, see.
There is a slight stir among the assemblage and I am aware—you can sense it in the air, like any time you go to a show you can sense it in the air that something is about to begin. My Arab waiter puts down before me a bowl of figs and a long string of grapes. I say, “By George, grapes!” Aha, this is the beginning, just the beginning. I sip my drink, which turns out to be a watered Scotch of an obscene variety. “Well, it’s the way they drink it here in the Middle East. No doubt it contains some strange elixir that I do not yet know of.” I take one of those plastic grapes—ah, I’m ready! And I sense the stir in the audience. It’s about to happen.
And then the curtain parts and out step three guys, right out of the Catskills, wearing sequined jackets.
“Wanta welcome ya
to the Bedouin’s Tent.”
Three guys—Manny, Moe, and Jack. They are a rock and roll swinging trio. One steps up to the microphone and says, “Good evening ladies and gentlemen, we wanta welcome ya to The Desert Inn. Wanta welcome ya to the Bedouin’s Tent. Now let’s get under way. Let’s go, It’s time to swing, it’s time to groove, it’s time to rock and roll.”
The next thing I know I’m listening to the worst rock and roll I’ve heard this side of the “Action Station.” These guys are wearing these sequined jackets and I’m waiting for the show to begin and then it hits me like a bomb on top of the head. THIS IS THE SHOW! Oh no! This is the show!
I sit there eating that plastic grape, sipping that obscene Scotch, watching those three rock and roll guys. Holy smokes! They finish. “All right, folks, let’s give them a big hand!” Two or three languid-looking Arab chefs are applauding, and to add to the fantastic irony of it, sitting next to them on the stage is a prop-Arab. A real Arab. He’s the sheik. He’s sitting there and he’s watching with glazed eyes, these rock and roll musicians. His glazed eyes. He just sits there. And he keeps smoking Luckies. Watching this scene, I wonder when they’re going to start playing those strange instruments that I see behind them. And then I recognize them for what they are. They’re also props. They’re just props.
I could smell the scent of the desert wafting in—the real desert, and somewhere off in the distance you can just feel the padded feet of camels moving toward the Mojave Mountains. A few Bedouins riding easy in the saddle look over that long, black plain and they see the neon glow in the sky of the Bedouin’s Tent and they wonder what strange things go on in the minds of Western man. The stars shine and the moon hangs like a great silver mirror over the changeless desert.
And old Shep lounges there on his foam rubber Arab seat waiting for the next chapter to begin of Man’s upward climb. (Ah, come into my tent, come!)
How do you write the name of the humorist, master of many media?
JEAN PARKER SHEPHERD
JEAN P. SHEPHERD
On occasion Jean Shepherd would express annoyance on his show that some people, who saw his name in print would think he was female. Sometimes he would get mail addressed to Ms, Miss, or Mrs. It’s said (and, based on numerous bits of circumstantial evidence I’ve discussed before, I believe it), that Shel Silverstein wrote the Johnny Cash song “A Boy Named Sue” kidding his best friend Jean.
People of all kinds have misspelled his name, including people writing for newspapers and magazines and on the internet. A recent internet search displayed on the “dashboard” of my blog site reveals this double-doozie: “gene shepards army stories,” Sometimes, in the same correspondence, they will give both a correct and incorrect spelling. Most recently a major television station misspelled it. His high school yearbook misspelled it. People trying to sell Shep stuff on ebay misspell it–even when they have the correct spelling literally in-hand:
One can frequently find a Playboy issues with a Shep story in it for sale on the listings of the country/western singer because of the mis-spelling. Her fans must find this somewhat of a shock. I’m such a poor speller myself that I used to feel sorry for these mis-spellers and contact them with a correction. I don’t do that any more. They can’t help it. I can’t help it. Maybe it’s in our
jeans Genes genes.
Oh, yes, and on a few rare occasions, when seeking Shep on the country/western singer’s page on ebay, I’ve encountered some good Shepherd stuff–for example, the loud speaker brochure I bought:
Written–and, I’d guess, illustrated
with line drawings by Shep.
I had an experience in the middle of the Negev Desert which has given me a peculiar and sickening insight. Not really sickening. Put it this way—it is as though somebody has pulled aside a veil of something you suspected all the time and never quite wanted to put into words.
The moment that I am about to describe takes place in the desert city of Beersheba. It’s a great name—Beersheba. It does not sound like Pittsburgh. Even the name excites you. When I say Beersheba or Dar es Salaam or Ramada al Ashid–these are all great little towns that I visited.
I am about to approach Beersheba and I’m sitting in this car. Beersheba lies like some kind of artist’s creation, right in the middle of this plain of the desert. You can look out from Beersheba and almost see Canton, Ohio, it is that flat—nothing. Mile after mile, and way off in the distance you see outlined on the horizon, a camel standing, and a Bedouin and a couple of little people.
It looks so romantic—we come up over a hill and there on the hillside is a Bedouin tent. These are true nomads. They move in the night—they disappear—nobody knows where they went. The next morning they may be seventy-five miles away on another long, hot, dusty hill. They take up their place there for a couple of days and they move on endlessly, endlessly they move in the desert.
We come down this long, winding grade and right there on the left is a Bedouin tent. How does a Bedouin tent look? It’s a long, low, flat tent that blends right in with the surroundings. There is no color. They don’t paint them red or yellow, they are sort of brown, earth-colored, black, flat tents and they look like they’re made with about ten poles in them.
They look like waves, strange, flat, irregularly-shaped mushroom—like growths. And they’re very low—I doubt whether anybody can really stand up in a Bedouin’s tent. This dark tent lying up against a sheer cliff. And there it is.
There are about twenty-five goats wandering around being goats, and you see two or three little, miniature figures, all of them swathed in Bedouin dress, ragged-looking dress, their faces covered, you see these two little eyes. They’re kids. The children take care of the stuff that is walking livestock.
You see a little boy—it’s hard to tell how old a Bedouin is, but let’s say seven or nine, maybe. And there is a little girl. The moment a girl stops being in that age group, she is whisked into the tent and you never see these Bedouin girls except under very special circumstances. There are innumerable taboos that a Bedouin has about his women and one of them is that, to begin with, a Bedouin never works—this is women’s work. The Bedouin sheik knows what life is about and he sits all day in the tent, presumably, and there you see this tent lying up against the side of this hill, and standing in front of the tent, tethered there, is this magnificent, white Arab stallion. You couldn’t believe it—it’s like out of some fantastic, corny, rotten movie. A white stallion standing there, and a couple of camels grazing behind the tent.
We drive on past. Ahead of me down this long, curving road, I see Beersheba, a traditional meeting ground for all the great caravans that moved across Palestine and the Middle East hundreds of years ago and even to this day. They crisscrossed Beersheba. Beersheba was like the Times Square of the Negev at one point. And the Arabs, every Thursday morning at four, have their market and they come in from wherever they are in that darkness out there, that great, howling wilderness of the Negev. They trade camels, they trade goats, or they trade cheese, or they trade girls. Whatever it is they’re trading.
I see Beersheba. I feel inside me coming up this fantastic excitement. I am the man of the urban world, the Western man, approaching one of the ancient cities of mystery. One of the ancient cities of desire and intrigue. I am approaching the great crossroads. You see this city lying there all by itself in the middle of the desert. Nothing but the big sun hanging over. Beersheba. The crossroads of the camel caravans. Thousands of years old, and thousands of camels have crossed these plains, have stopped briefly, near the oasis, right outside of Beersheba, and then moved on to Arabia, to Persia, to China, to the great ports of India, and back down to Spain and to the edges of that vast subcontinent—the Middle East. Beersheba! Oh! Wow!
So we come down this long road, and I say, “Beersheba! Where are we going to stay?”
And the Rumanian guide sitting next to me says, “You won’t believe it. Unbelievable!”
I say, “Really?”
He says, “Yes. Unbelievable!”
Ten minutes later we pull up on the edge of Beersheba, in the middle of this plain where you can see nothing for mile after mile after mile—we pull up in the middle of this plain in front of a little bit of—oohhhh—I couldn’t believe it, a little bit of Las Vegas—The Desert Inn of Beersheba. It is made out of plastic. Plastic palm trees.
“The Desert Inn” of Beersheba
Here are plastic palm trees and clean glass, standing on the dark, howling plain of Beersheba. Where the camels had crossed for centuries before, the Bedouins had rested, and intrigue was a way of life. The Desert Inn. I walk into this unbelievable place and it’s all air-conditioned and there are a thousand ladies running around wearing blue hair. And they’ve got sequins. The Desert Inn in Beersheba—doesn’t that sound exciting? As exciting as the Howard Johnsons Motel outside of Wooster, Mass., ‘cause they’re blood sisters.
I walk up to the registrar’s desk, and standing there is a man who is obviously a man of the Middle East. With these narrow eyes he watches me. He’s got high cheekbones and he’s got dark hair and he’s got this impenetrable, difficult-to-pin-down accent: “Vere is your papers, please.”
I reach down for it. Beersheba, The Desert Inn. This is where Peter Lorre was at his best in all those movies of the French Foreign Legion. I’m standing in front of a sinister desk clerk at The Desert Inn. “Vere is your papers, please.” I take out my passport and hand it to him and I try to look mysterious, as though I’m an enemy agent.
“Aha. You don’t mind if we keep it here for a moment. It’s the police, you know, have to see it.”
And he puts it away under the desk. Then he says, “Would you care to make reservations for The Bedouin’s Tent. The reservations are going fast.”
I see this placard with little sequins, done in the best Las Vegas style. It says, “See Harry Wadanobby and His Swinging Four in The Bedouin’s Tent tonight.”
I look at it and say, “By George, I’m going to have the real thing. I’m in the Middle East now.” For years I’ve been hearing, “When you get to the Middle East, you’ll see these real belly dancers, not these cheap, imitation belly dancers we’ve got here down on 14th Street.” This is the real thing. This is Beersheba.
I stand on my tiptoes and look over that potted palm over there and I can see a real camel outside. He’s looking in the window at me right now. Then I realize it’s a plastic camel. But tonight, in Beersheba, I am going to be in the Bedouin’s tent. I make my reservation. I enter the automatic elevator with the air-conditioning blowing down my back and the sound of Musac playing “Tea For Two” in my ears, and I am ready for a night of Middle-Eastern adventure.
“…a night of Middle-Eastern adventure.”
Maybe in Part 2.
On a television program in 1975, Shepherd talked with Tom Snyder about his preparation for his radio broadcasts. This also appears to be truthful and straightforward, and thus an important description of how he usually worked his 45-minute shows. Anyone looking for some description by an artist using sound and words, regarding what he considers his craftsmanship to be about, can probably find an answer here:
Anybody who’s tried to do a monolog knows—any good actor will tell you—that sustaining an audience for even three minutes when you’re standing in front of them is tough. It takes preparation. It takes technique, it takes a beat and a tempo, dramatic tension running through it. I don’t talk when I’m on the air, I perform. Very different….I use silences a great deal, Tom, just the way that on the stage you use space, light. And I build the show in a series, just as any good monologist —like a one-act stage play. I build it in a series almost like sine waves. I hit several peaks and then as I go out—off the air–it’s a theme that runs through it which I have long-since determined. (June 6, 1975)
He describes Bill Cosby’s stage technique—how he will “…use seven or eight major stories—has the feeling he’s just thought of them as he comes out. But he’ll orchestrate them whole—not just a series of stories. That’s the difference between a good monologist and someone who comes out with a whole bunch of one-liners.” Shepherd goes on to describe his own technique of creating “a mood, rather than the thing itself. If I want to do a story about fear, I don’t talk about fear, I tell a story.”
“I was this smiley-face, see.”
I am now walking along this main seaside road that goes up to Jaffa, the Arab quarters of Tel Aviv. I can see the moon hanging over and I can smell the Mediterranean, and I’m coming down toward the Arab quarter. You can smell the Arabic quarter, a smell that I remember from one summer when I was about ten or twelve, when I got a job on a farm in Indiana. It’s not really a barnyard smell but it’s the smell of a sheepfold. Ever been around sheep much? Around goats much? Ever been around places where they roast coffee? Ever been around places where strange tobaccos are smoked? I’m talking about tobaccos that are dark, kind of tar-y, tobaccos that are smoked through perfumed water pipes. It’s a strangely attractive, sharp, bitter, biting, exciting aroma. This is the only way I can describe the Arab quarter.
Now Americans are very funny people. Americans believe that Lifebuoy smells good. That’s a special kind of people. We’re the kind of people who live by Dial Soap ads, who believe if a person is totally antiseptic, he’s a good person. Nobody in the world is as hung on cleaning and laundry and soaps and deodorants and all this stuff that’s designed to eliminate our humanness, designed to erase, somehow, the animal side of mankind, than Americans themselves. So, when I say something has an aroma, immediately, people say “Ug!” assuming it’s bad. Don’t be so sure it is. As a matter of fact, I find that when you’re not around it, you miss it—yes, it’s all part of it, it’s a part of the world there, and I’m only sorry for you if you don’t appreciate it. You’re really not getting a very important facet of the life in the world.
A little vignette. I drive down through a long, winding passageway with a friend of mine and he’s taking me to a very good Yemenite restaurant. It’s considered a very good, high class one, one of the best in all Tel Aviv. And here are cars all pulled up, a couple of Mercedes, there’s a Rolls Royce, here’s two or three long, low Ferraris pulled up in front of this place. Not more than one car can get through at a time. And this restaurant has a big, blue neon sign with the name in Middle Eastern script.
You can see the people of all nationalities sitting in there, all finely dressed. There’s nothing more exciting to me than to be in an area where there are all kinds of things, nationalities, all types of languages spoken. There’s a certain dynamism. I suppose it’s the endless excitement of endless variety.
It’s a long, low restaurant that bends around this sharp corner. The Mercedes, the Ferraris. Inside, the candles are lit, and what do you think is standing right in the middle of the street? A great big, fat sheep. It isn’t that someone parked his sheep out in front and went into the place to pick up some shish kabob—he just lives there. Just standing there tethered to a fire hydrant. That would be the equivalent of going along 48th Street, you get to about Lexington Avenue and somebody has parked his water buffalo out in front of the restaurant. There it is in the street and everybody is going around it paying no attention at all. That’s it. That is what makes a place exciting.
I go around the corner, driving this little European car. We’re trying to park the car, so we take it up an alley and finally stop. Just as we stop, out of a little alley right in front of us, you hear clop, clop, clop, clop, clop, clop, clop, clop, this little furry burro comes clop, clop, clop, clop, clop. A kind of white burro with black ears, clop, clop, clop, clop, and sitting on its back is this fantastic chick—ohhh! This girl looks at us with her sloe eyes. She’s carrying what looks like a little silver platter, and on it are three green peppers, clop, clop, clop, clop clop, clop, clop, clop. She goes right across the alley in front of us and into another dark passageway and disappears.
All around us these windows are open and you see people and the girl is sitting up there. She’s got big, golden, sparkling ear rings and she’s looking down, and you hear this music all around, it’s just drifting down from everywhere. It seems to come out of the gutter pipes, drifting out of the alleys, just all around. You can smell the sheep, you can smell the tobacco burning, you can smell the pavements on which people have walked for maybe five-hundred years, and a lot of other things have happened in five-hundred years or more. You can smell the edge of the old Mediterranean. It’s just a night out in the restaurant—Ahhhhh! Yeah!
Good bye, Tel Aviv. Next, hello, Beersheba.
Several times over the years Shepherd talked on the air about the nature of his discourse, in part because he gave a lot of thought to the subject, in part because some people questioned the nature of his storytelling and he seemed to need to explain and justify himself. He probably wanted his audience to understood how his performances fit into the written literary tradition he admired. However, his comments have not always been consistent, even from one part of a monolog to the next.
During one broadcast he spends much of the 45 minutes in an intense disquisition on telling stories—his own and those of other people. He comments that telling a tale orally is not the simple trick it seems—it is very difficult to “tell a good story without stopping. I mean a story that is so good that you’re not wandering all over the place.” Here, in regard to his own oral storytelling, Shepherd accurately puts himself in the ranks with traditional, high-quality authors. Without actually saying so, that his art also consists of doing it nightly on the air, makes his act even more extraordinary.
Some of his reasoning provides valuable insight into his thinking about his own work. He discusses the relationship between memory and invention:
People continually write me and say, “Aw, come on, Shepherd, that stuff that happens to you as a kid, now come on, you’re making all that up!” The reason I’m mentioning this now is that there is a recurring theme that runs through these letters that “that many things could not have happened to you as a kid.” Well, that bears a little investigation. I submit to you that there are millions of things that happened to you as a kid, except that you either don’t remember them, or/and, don’t recognize them for what they were. Don’t recognize them for the wild or unusual or graphic or dramatic incidents that you were involved in. (June 3, 1966)
This explanation, regarding the hundreds of stories he tells, is an interesting commentary on the nature of memory as it relates to his and anybody else’s storytelling. He is actually suggesting here that his stories are based on both his conscious and unconscious memory. Yet, whenever Shepherd discusses his creative techniques, he insists that rather than remembering his own stories, he invents them. He comments, in a way that others have noted about him when he’s in the all-encompassing transport of the created reality of his own storytelling with its sometimes questionable veracity, that “a man is not really telling a story, he’s imagining a story, which is a very different scene entirely.”
He also tells of the author Richard Hughes, who wrote, regarding his novel of a ship ravaged by an unexpected hurricane and ultimately saved by another ship named “America,” that he only recognized years later that the inspiration for it came from his emotional response to the approach of World War II. Yes, events and general observations do inspire much of fiction, sometimes through unrecognized indirection. So, sometimes the storyteller becomes aware of an actual incident and reconfigures the details into an artistically organized story, at other times the teller unconsciously or consciously invents the incidents based on his own experience.
Shepherd describes at least some forms of creative writing when he speaks of Melville and Moby Dick in a discussion on a Long John Nebel program:
He really was telling a story. He wailed, he keened (You can take all the puns you want out of that kind of wailing.) He wailed, he keened, he ranted, he raved, he laughed, he muttered, he did everything in it. But he told a story and he told it his way. Now, he invented a lot of things within the story, but he could only invent upon the thing which he actually knew….
Yes, there was, actually, a white whale. Are you aware of that? It wasn’t exactly the way Melville wrote him. Who was Melville? Maybe he was Ahab. Maybe he was Moby Dick! He certainly could not—well, possibly he was Ishmael, but I doubt it. I would bet on him being the whale himself. That’s another story, and that’s for another evening.
We know that Shepherd also had claimed to work on a story for months before improvising its expression on the air. We also know that in a 1968 radio discussion on that Long John Nebel show, Shepherd disparaged the idea that his storytelling monologs could be simply transcribed from his broadcasts. He insisted that the transcription needed further work, transforming the spoken to the written word before it could be published in print.
He wonders if any writer who is serious about what he does ever really knows why he has told the story:
A true storyteller is driven by impulses and urges and drives and its—don’t come around and say “sickness” and one thing and another—that’s not what we’re talking about at all. He is driven to create what he creates by forces often far above, away, and beyond his own little life. Now the bad storyteller often is driven only by his own life.
So, as he comments from time to time and even from one moment to another in the same monolog, he seems to change his mind, thinking of creative activity in two different ways—it originates from the millions of one’s experiences directly, and on the other hand, originates from forces often “beyond his own little life.” Shepherd, who sometimes makes definitive statements, also is aware of the many-sided aspects of a subject he is talking about, and he contradicts himself.
When each of Shepherd’s somewhat inconsistent statements is seen not as a rigid, exclusionary truth, but part of a whole monolog that is improvised in a thought process and that it becomes an exploring of his own diverse opinions articulated on the fly, they can be appreciated—a multifaceted description of how writers write different things at different times. He sometimes gives us major thoughts on his art as he opens up the subject for serious contemplation in an expanded, complex description of what artists do all the time.
Tel Aviv Waterfront
I’m walking along this waterfront street in the ancient city of Tel Aviv. The time is now one A. M. and you can hear the ancient waves of the Mediterranean laving the beach below me. I’ll tell you, coming back to the subway, coming back to Nedick’s after Tel Aviv is a rather sharp delineation of values.
There’s a high seawall—maybe chest-high, concrete and heavy stones. As you look over the seawall it drops sharply down maybe thirty to forty feet, and there’s a short strip of sand and there’s dark, rolling waters of the ancient Mediterranean. The sea of the Romans. The sea of all the ancient tribes who moved over it. In fact, in the days of Rome’s glory, this sea was called the center of the world. You can smell it. There’s a smell to the Mediterranean that isn’t quite the same as Jones Beach. As that ancient sea rolls over those sunken urns of Grecian wine casks, it produces something just a little different from Coney Island. Ahaaaa!
As you walk along, you can hear the sound of Middle Eastern music. You can’t tell what country it’s from, whether it’s Jordanian, whether it’s Syrian, whether it’s Lebanese, whether it’s Israeli. What it is no one quite knows. It just comes out of the air from a thousand windows, from a thousand darkened rooms, from ten thousand radios and record players, and it rises to the night, higher and higher. Ahhhhh! And all the while that ancient old friendly Mediterranean rolls on under that fantastic moon. Tel Aviv—do you know what Tel Aviv means? It means the city of spring.
Enough of that Middle Eastern music for now, before I go mad! I have felt for a long time that the music of any given area of the globe tells more about that area of the globe than almost any other form of communication—the literature, the sculpture, the movies—because somehow there’s something very basic about music. This really is the way the Middle East is, friend!
It’s Thursday night in Tel Aviv and boy, the place is roaring! The life gets almost to a frenzy about ten-thirty or twelve at night and there are thousands of people just wandering the streets. It’s very hot. People rise late in the morning in these tropical cities and they stay up late. Everything is moved down just a little bit in time. The stores close at one o’clock in the afternoon and that’s it. Everything stops, and it begins again at four. The whole afternoon—they just cut that hot part of the day right out.
The traffic stops, the sidewalk cafes empty, the trees just hang there, the sun is lying overhead. And once in a while you see somebody walk by. And, I’ll tell you this, you have to see the girls of Tel Aviv to believe it. That’s all I can say. To use a graphic analogy, these chicks generally start where Sophia Loren stops. I couldn’t believe it! I mean, the first five minutes in Tel Aviv I thought it was the heat that was getting me. Or maybe it was a mirage. They would come by in singles, they would come by in pairs, and then in threes, sometimes in squadron formation. You could hear the finger cymbals, you could see the muscles rippling up and down! Holy smokes! There’s something that the tropics does to female figures. It’s terrible. Wow! And I’m sitting in a sidewalk café. It’s terrible. I swallowed a whole cup of Turkish coffee when the first crowd went by me—cup and all!
It’s a full moon. The moon in the vicinity of the equator, particularly in this region of the world—this moon stretches across the sky about four-hundred yards and it is a silver, angry, white, brilliant, almost too-bright moon.
It gets very difficult, I understand, to get any kind of privacy when the moon is really in business in certain areas of the country. This is my third or fourth night in Tel Aviv and I’m just beginning to get the flavor of this.
Of course, when most people come to this part of the world, unfortunately, they head for the big, plush hotels, and you’ll find most Mediterranean areas, stretching all the way down from Beirut, places that are on the Med like Haifa, like Piraeus, the island of Crete, the Isle of Rhodes, stretching along the golden horn of the Mediterranean, there are these great hotels lying right on the sea, magnificent hotels. The beaches—oh boy! Most people go to these and too many people, I’m afraid, don’t go into the city itself, go walking into where the non-tourist world is, where it’s just happening, where people are just walking around and scratching.
Of course they do that in New York City too. Most tourists immediately head for Radio City and then they go down to take a look at the Statue of Liberty and they go down to Chinatown. But the whole, great, vast area of the city that’s just simmering there under the heat in the summer, just never gets seen. I don’t know how many tourists have ever seen Fordham Road in New York, or Pelham Parkway in heat! I think if I ever wanted to show a tourist from a foreign country what it’s really like in New York, I’d take him to a magnificent Alexander’s up on Fordham Road at three o’clock on a Saturday afternoon when the pack is out in full cry. That’s our native bazaar.
Take them through the housewares department, watch the screaming and the yelling. The ladies summerware department. Take a tourist from any country—a tourist from Nigeria, and take him to see all the ladies with their shopping bags `going and their girdles creaking and their daughters dragging behind and their kids behind them and yelling and hollering. And try to explain.
Black Friday, Anywhere U.S.A.
Of course he would not have to have it explained—he would understand that this is the bazaar. And we all have our own bazaar. You can spell it with an “a” or an “i.” Depends on how you approach it.
I remember one time talking to Norman Mailer who I used to see somewhat–a few years back, and Mailer said, “Don’t count on any close friends of yours or people around you to ever read anything you write.” He said, “Knowing an author personally makes people think you can’t write.”
That quote above is one more instance of Shepherd commenting on his having known Norman Mailer (They both wrote for the early Village Voice, and Shepherd said they’d sometimes meet down at the Voice offices in the Village. Mailer was also one of the Voice‘s founders. When I’d interviewed Mailer by mail for my first Shep book, he at first said he didn’t think he’d met Shep, then corrected himself saying he only vaguely remembered him. I’ve always been curious as to what their relationship was and what caused Shep to dislike Mailer and Mailer to only “vaguely” remember Shepherd.) I’ve previously written about all the many times Shepherd disparaged Norman Mailer on the air. Here are more–and maybe the last of them I choose to post!-
All the intellectuals went on a cruise to listen to Norman Mailer complain about how he was sick. …I still have an invitation to Norman Mailer’s fiftieth birthday, which only ranks with Mike Todd’s birthday as the great ripoff of our time. (August 3, 1975)
Regarding the foregoing, note that indeed Mailer did charge admission to attend his birthday party that he himself had orchestrated. At the time, more than one person disparaged this. And in the following, remember that during the 1960s, Shepherd more than once had criticized what he considered the overly naive attitudes of many youths during this turbulent era. He mentioned peace demonstrators such as Joan Baez, who questioned how one can have a sense of humor with all the problems in the world:
Ah, come on! The world has always been in crisis. It has never once stopped being in crisis. Speaking of humorous people—poor old Norman Mailer. Have you ever had the feeling that Norman Mailer [laughs as he says name] pours stuff out of a lead mold? And it’s a lead mold that he’s somehow having trouble with—there’s a kind of gangrenous growth around the edges of it. Totally un-humorous. James Baldwin has no humor whatsoever. His play—no humor at all….And yet, strangely enough, both sides are extremely funny to me. Now why is that? Why do I find Norman Mailer side-splittingly funny? I can’t help it. Every time I see Mailer glaring out—Mailer the architect, Mailer the dreamer, Mailer the great man, Mailer the god—wherever I look [laughs] I find him excruciatingly funny. (April 1965)
Regarding shedding a tear about the disappearance of the Great North Woods north of Minneapolis:
Norman Mailer would not shed a tear—but he will shed a tear over the passing of boxing. He’ll get all upset—that the Queen Mary is gone—or some other cockamamie bit like that. (September 1, 1967)
Have a little fistfight with Norman Mailer—and his eighteen friends, the middleweight contenders. Have you ever noticed that all fist-fighters, all boxers today, want to be writers, and all writers want to be boxers. It’s always thus. Every man should stick to his last. You’d get a fat nose, Normy. (August 3, 1968)
Ian McEwan is quoted as having said
“Boxing and writing were wonderfully
confused in his mind.”
Shepherd seemed to explore every variation he could think of to stick it to him, including Mailer’s penchant for aggression and bravery as part of his literary life—Shep probably felt that disparaging his writing would be the best way to upset poor Normy:
He’s read a couple of novels by Mailer. Can you imagine what would happen if your idea of what America is like was by reading novels by James Baldwin and Norman Mailer and going to see Doris Day movies? Wouldn’t that be a fantasyland of—really like Walt Disney! (June 1966)
I do feel very sorry for people who are completely hung up with examining and reexamining their own navel. This is one of the reasons why I—I’m totally bored by so many writers who have that problem going. Like I can’t get past the third page of Philip Roth. Norman Mailer bores me. Just bores the life out of me. And I know I’m going to get thousands of letters from people who say “sour grapes—you’re a writer.” No. I’m just telling you the truth. I find this view of life where, “it’s all essentially a plot that’s all bad news, and if there were only more like me—us, the sensitive people.” I just find that not only boring, but I also find it vaguely repellent. (March 27, 1971)
The following is the beginning of Shepherd’s humorous article titled “all hail the sovereign duchy of nieuw amsterdamme!” Understand that although Mailer’s running for mayor in 1969 was true, this article is written tongue in cheek.
In his recent and abortive campaign for the mayoralty of the city of New York, the honorable Norman Mailer proved once again that his thinking, though often well intentioned, is nonetheless pitifully deficient in scope. While not without merit, his plan to turn New York City into a separate State of the Union—due to its myriad distinguished attributes—was redeemed mainly by the fact that, in keeping with Mr. Mailer’s usual modesty and astute self-appraisal, he implied that he would be available for the governorship when statehood came to flower. This appetite for public office, of course, is based on the enlightened contemporary concept of total talent: A gifted novelist would obviously be a brilliant statesman; a great fullback could unquestionably play a superb Hamlet; a renowned pediatrician could easily master the complexities of global policy; an incomparable but self-effacing New York humorist, broadcaster, bon vivant and boulevardier is eminently qualified to become—But I‘m getting ahead of myself. (Playboy, September, 1970)
Regarding Mailer and columnist Jimmy Breslin’s run for office (in 1969) and wanting to make New York City into the fifty-first state, one must realize that they were very serious, yet kept a sense of humor. (I have a couple of their campaign buttons: “Vote the Rascals In,” and “No More Bullshit/M.-B.”)
During this period, Shepherd, completing his thought at the end of his Playboy article quoted above that he himself was “eminently qualified to become—,” suggested in a radio broadcast during the mayoral campaign that in throwing his own hat in the ring and upping the stakes, he, Shepherd, was running to have the city declared a separate country with himself as king.
A while back I posted here the Jean Shepherd page in the graphic treatment of John Wilcock’s biography by Ethan Persoff and Scott Marshall. The following Norman Mailer page from that graphic treatment makes references to Jean Shepherd in the first panel:
Southern Israel=The Negev Desert
For the past two weeks I have been in the Middle East. I have been as far removed from the world and the reality of New York and mid-twentieth century Americana urbanus as it is possible to be without perhaps being in the Sea of Tranquility on the dark side of the moon.
I am lying in my sack and there is a hot desert wind blowing in off the long gray, brown, gold reaches of the Negev. It’s two o’clock in the morning and off in the darkness I can see the low outline of the Moab Mountains just across the border in Jordan. I’ve got my transistor radio quietly weaving its way between night-flying insects and the sound of Middle Eastern music. It’s just lying there like a heavy cloud all around me.
And you can smell the edge of the Red Sea slowly drifting in as it does at night when the cold air hits the surface of the warm water raising just the slightest edge of condensation. It never gets far in the desert as the aroma does—the smell of the ancient Red Sea. Ohhh! And hour after hour, those sounds through the dark night air: Radio Jordan! Radio Iraq! Radio Damascus! Radio Tel Aviv! Hour after hour. And you can see in the moonlight—and I was there the night of the full moon just a few days ago—a Bedouin tent outlined against the black cloud that lays along the side of one of the low, sloping hills.
A Bedouin tent. And grazing in the unyielding sand just beside the tent itself are two tired camels, forty-five goats, two sheep, and what appears to be a small, one-legged man.
There I am in my sack in a cold sweat, with that strange desert wind playing over my forehead. Yeah, and the moon hung high. And the next morning I was in twelve fathoms of Red Sea. Ah, Middle-Eastern music—they all sound the same—like salami.
It’s almost impossible to know where to start. I’ve spent the last two weeks. Once in a while I would look at my watch somewhere. I remember sitting on an Arabian horse, going up the side of a hill in the Upper Galilee—and I glanced at my watch and I remember saying to myself, “You know, I will be on the air in New York in about ten minutes.” A very strange feeling to be so removed and so completely cut out and hacked off. I guess it’s almost impossible to realize the unbelievable gulf of difference—the ocean of difference—that exists between so much of the world that you read about in the paper all day long. You read the news items about this country and that country and they’re just sort of like type on the page with the fantastic gulf that exists in reality between those countries and the country that all of us accept as so much part of our world. It is our world.
I glanced at my watch, and this horse—you’ve got to understand too, that the Galilee district is practically made out of old rocks stuck out of these arid hillsides—and this horse was far more efficient than I was. He’s climbing over the rocks and grunting and sweating and once in a while turns and yells at the horse behind him who is struggling up this hillside and the horse ahead of us finally kicks my horse in the mouth. My horse shies and jumps over a rock fence and I just stay there. I just stay in this strange world which is so completely removed from our world. Not really strange. Once you’re in context with it, it is our world that becomes strange.
I guess that’s really the keynote of the human animal—we are infinitely adjustable. Infinitely and almost totally adjustable to almost anything that occurs to us. Today we accept moon-travel. I know people who don’t even look at the television any longer. Pictures are coming back from the moon and they’re bugged because The Beverly Hillbillies are being preempted. Wait, in a few years they’ll be a little Venus probe, landing on Venus and it’ll be sending back pictures of another planet and people will be complaining that it will be cutting into the news.
So I’m lying on my sack there remembering the first time I went to the Middle East, which was in the late fifties. I went through Syria, Lebanon, and one of the things that I always remember—something that you never hear about is the smell, no matter where you go. Whether you’re in Haifa, whether you’re in Tel Aviv, or even Jerusalem or Nazareth, or you get to a place like a small desert outpost. One of the most exciting experiences to a modern man involved in today’s urban world, is to get into a real outpost. I’m not talking about the romantic picture we have of the kibbutz, I’m talking about a genuine desert outpost.
The Negev Desert
There were two or three of them that I was able to be involved in briefly, going through the Negev Desert. I remember one scene. I doubt whether there is a more bleak, peculiarly beautiful desert anywhere in the world than the Negev. Strange desert. It lies in a trough, and off to your right there’s this mountain range that rises a couple of thousand feet, and they’re stark mountains, there’s no trees, no vegetation, no green, and way off to your left you see this other mountain range in Syria or Jordan, depending on where you are in the desert.
The Negev just lies there, and you can smell the sand that’s been baking now for forty-thousand years. There has been one caravan after another going over it. One invasion after the other—the Turks, the Romans—it just goes on and on and on and on. And always the Negev is just there. It doesn’t care who’s doing all the running and the yelling, the Negev desert remains the desert. I think this is one of the things that gets you about the desert.
We are driving along, myself and this guy I’m with. Driving into this rough, single-track road. Off in the distance we see camels. One thing about animals is that they’re non-denominational. An animal does not know from being a Catholic or that he is an American French poodle, for example. I see the camels slowly moving in a low growth of what looked like Western mesquite, but it was a local version, a low plant life that grows in this desert. Very arid, very hard, rough plant life that looks twenty-thousand years old. There are some trees there, they say, that have grown in that desert, that are over three-thousand years old. Just fighting that weather all the time.
Clumsy kind of grace–and they spit.
These camels are moving in and out of the trees. Totally wild, nobody with them. If you’ve ever seen camels moving, you see a strange, clumsy kind of grace—which sounds like a contradiction—but it’s quite true of a camel. And a camel always looks like he’s going to fall over. When he moves, when he walks, his whole body is moving. They’re very alert, they’re very vicious. A camel that’s wild is a bad scene. You don’t go over and pet the pretty camel and chuck him behind the ear. And they spit—they tell me a camel can knock a fly off the trunk of a tree at forty yards and decide in which eye he’s going to hit him—ptaaaa!
The guy says, “The funny thing about camels, you know. Those are Jordanian camels.” From the other side—this is the enemy over in that particular area. He says, “You see, they won’t breed over there—they come here to breed and then they go back.” Strange interaction here in the middle of the desert.
A recently discovered parody of Playboy from an issue of Punch in 1971 contains only the beginnings of a story, “How Pliny Fluck Nearly Got What He Wanted and Almost Lost a Finger,” tagged as “humus, americana, and naustalgia by Genes Sheepherder. “ That a humor magazine published in England chose to include Shepherd’s work suggests that he must have had at least some degree of renown there. The opening paragraph:
“Crash! CRUNCH! KAVOOM! BAM!” sang the scissors in Pliny Fluck’s freckled fingers. It was Saturday afternoon in Bedspring Falls and all the boys were hanging around Pliny Fluck’s Barber Tonsorium, Pool Hall and Weltschmerzerie, swapping dirty stories and baseball cards. Except Marv Kluntsch and Jeb Phrigg who were saving time by swapping dirty baseball stories.
There are not many parodies of Shep (is there more than one?)–and not too many attempts to analyze his writing or his style except for Professor Quentin Schultz, who has taught courses in Shep. (A student cheat-essay for sale noted below may be another “parody.”) Some might think that Garrison Keillor must have been influenced and others would say that Keillor goes his own way. Probably most Shepherd fans would disparage Keillor as inferior. There was a moment, however, when Shep himself admired the early Garrison Keillor. See below.
A Website containing thousands of high-school-level essays for sale to student cheats gives, as an example, an essay illustrating comparison-and-contrast titled “Gene Shepard’s In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash vs. The Christmas Story.” Eagle-eyed and even bleary-eyed Shep fans will note that his first and last names are both misspelled, and the movie is incorrectly titled.
HAPPY TO BE HERE
— A Garrison Keillor ANECDOTE—
Thoughts on another literary matter. According to people I’ve interviewed, Jean Shepherd hated Garrison Keillor “with a passion,” and Keillor was “the person he was more embittered toward than anybody.” Obviously Shepherd envied the accolades Keillor got for his radio storytelling. But before all that happened, Shepherd wrote one of the blurbs for Keillor’s first book of stories, Happy to Be Here, published in 1981:
“I welcome Garrison Keillor to the ranks of a very endangered species.
Keillor makes you laugh, and that ain’t easy these days.”
Later on Shepherd seemed to feel that he had much cause to be embittered. He did not achieve the acknowledgments for his work that some of his peers he considered his inferiors got. His first and greatest love, radio, during the years of his most important broadcasting, did not have the capacity to allow him to achieve nationwide acclaim. (Not just school kids, damnit, but a wider listenership among literate adults.) Some of his later television and movie work did not even get produced, some did not turn out as well as he had expected, and he did not achieve the break-through popularity he wanted except for the later television re-broadcasting of his A Christmas Story. Most of the millions who love the movie are probably not even aware of who created and narrated it. Who reads those opening titles, anyway? Even if four of them refer to Shepherd’s important role in the film.
Irony is never far away in the world of Shep.
(Once, just a couple of years ago, Garrison Keillor,
on a radio program devoted to important dates,
mentioned Shep in what must be recognized as a positive way.
I think it was his birthday.)