I’ll tell you, the sense of unreality I think that these four people feel—nothing is real out there anymore. They have to drive at three o’clock in the morning through secret roads that are guarded by police so people will not attack out of the bushes. You’re seated in the back seat of the car and the Beatles are hiding down on the floor at three o’clock in the morning going god-knows-where, being protected from god-knows what! You begin to have a slight realization of what mankind is about. And you don’t really quite like it. And at the same time you can’t help it because you’re part of it.
It’s like being in the army. You know the sense of being in the army and you’ve got a uniform on, you’re walking around like other people—and yet, you’re not part of them. I wonder whether or not anyone has ever recorded that one facet of army life—that when you’re in the army, the other people are totally unreal—the civilians seem like another race. And that’s the way it is with the Beatles. Today the world is like Mars to the Beatles. They’re the only real thing. Just four of them sitting there. eating a steak, drinking a beer—and it’s all brought to them. They’re never allowed to walk on the street—like normal people. They’re never allowed to even look out of the window—it’ll cause riots. How would you like that fantastic sense of power that all you had to do is go to the window and say “Kill each other,” and the knives would come out! That’s exactly what they do, and they do it often.
Once in a while, sitting around there in their T-shirts, they will get a little bored, and outside you hear the rock and roll roaring around, and suddenly Lennon, or maybe Paul, will get up: “Ya like a li’l excitement?”
And Ringo says, “Uh!” That’s Ringo’s total vocabulary. Not one of the brighter people. But he’s sweet, girls. I wish I could tell you the real story of the Beatles. Ringo goes “Uh!”
And then Paul goes up to the window. He says, “Watch this.” He has maybe, a potato chip—anything that’s just an ordinary little piece of nothing—a cigar butt—he’s got a paper cup. He says, “Watch this.” He looks out of the window, he just peeks out a little bit—they have drawn shades, and everybody is out there, the whole city of Glasgow is out there. Millions of them.
And just five minutes before—you have any idea the kind of madness this thing is? Because we’re sitting in this tiny little dressing room, sweaty, hot, show-biz, these are rock and roll performers you know, and they’re very simple, very earthy, basic people, just like show-biz people everywhere. They don’t read, they just sit there and there’s a little knock on the door. And one of them looks up and says, “’o’s there?”
The door opens just a crack and it’s one of their managers. He says, “Excuse me, Paul. The Lord Mayor of Glasgow is here. The Lord Mayor.”
Ringo turns to Paul.
Then somebody says, “Let ‘im in!”
The little Lord Mayor comes in. Remember, this is the Lord Mayor of the city of Glasgow. He comes in with his hat in his hand. “Are you the Beatles?”
And they say, “Ay, we’re the Beatles. Who are you?”
In a whisper, in a trembling voice, he says, “I’m the Lord Mayor of Glasgow.”
“Ah, politician, ay?”
“We’ve got to get back to work.”
He says, “Thank you for letting me in.” And the door closes.
What kind of madness is this!
And then we’re in Dundee, which is a town on the coast of Scotland, and it’s a hard, rough, fisherman’s town. I’m not in town five minutes when I’m walking past this little store and the window is filled with knives, millions of tough, rough-looking knives, and I’m curious. It didn’t impress me as a juvenile delinquent-sort of town, it looked like 42nd Street. But these are really big, bone-handled knives. Real toad-stickers, so I go into this place. I figure I’m going to get myself a real souvenir of this town. Something that I can use back home.
I go in and there’s this little lady and her daughter and they are totally unused to seeing an American. Americans do not come to Dundee, especially in the off-season, and especially they don’t come to what appears to be a little second-rate army and navy store where they have a collection of old maces from the Crusades left over. That’s the way with the British Isles—you can find some great surplus there.
I asked her what the knives in the window are for. “I’d like to look at the knives.”
“For killing sharks. The fishermen here use them for sharks.”
So I bought myself a knife, a great big toad-sticker that comes with a leather sheath, and I walked out of the store and I was a little embarrassed by this thing. They hardly wrap anything here. Walking down the street, I didn’t go twenty feet and a man came running right at me wearing high rubber boots and he had a toad-sticker that went down to his kneecap..clunk, clunk, clunk, he walked past me. Great big Scottish shark fisherman. They fish for shark livers here. You could smell them a mile away. He walked past and my eyes clouded up.
You ought to hear a Scotsman swear. It honest-to-god sounds like a fantastic symphony. I’ve never hear creative swearing like you hear a Scotsman. I sat in the back of a Scottish taxi in Glasgow, which is one of the toughest cities in the Western world and we were going through side streets and this guy kept up a steady stream of stuff, all in Scottish, and somehow, when it came out with those rolling “r”s it sounded cute. That’s the way you drive a cab in that town.
So now you’ve got an idea of what Dundee is like. Rough, tough, you see. And I’m here with the Beatles. They’re playing this little theater with about three-thousand seats in it that’s bigger than the town. The Beatles have arrived. The fishermen are coming in, big guys with boots and funny hats, with the knives and stuff. They’re clomping in.
And now we’re in the dressing room in Dundee. A very strange thing for an American to get inside of this life. Most of us Americans are rarely admitted to this kind of a world. The Beatles are sitting in their dressing room, waiting for their dinner, you can hear millions of Scottish kids screaming outside, just where the sea begins. Just a steady beat, you can just hear it coming in, the rain coming down, you can hear the toad-stickers clanking out there. All of the strange, surrealistic world, and I just wondered what it was all about. Have you ever had these moments when everything seems so unreal, that if you were to walk across the room and to float six inches over the carpet, it wouldn’t surprise you? I couldn’t put anything together.
I had only been out of America about three days and now I’m in the back room of a ramshackle old theater in Dundee, Scotland. And you can smell the oatmeal. The Scots live on oatmeal and they drink Scotch whiskey. They really do drink it! When you walk through the streets, you can smell it everywhere. You’re stepping over it all the time. They really put it away and the Beatles are sitting there and they’re passing it around in paper cups. We’re in Scotland. I’m trying to get my bearings and there’s a knock at the door.
Now get this scene. This is the Beatles in Dundee, Scotland. This is an ancient part of the British Empire. There’s a knock at the door and one of the Beatles says, “’o’s there?”
And I hear another little knock, and it’s the secret knock, which says it’s okay, open up.
Lennon goes over and he takes the door and he just sort of peaks out and there is one of their managers, who says, “A countess is here.”
And Lennon turns to the other Beatles and he says, “A countess.”
And Ringo says, “Let ‘er in. Let’s take a look at her.”
I’m thinking, “A countess is coming to see this!“ And sure enough, the door opens and in comes this magnificent woman—she really looks exactly the way you think a regal countess should look. She’s dressed in furs, she’s tall, thin, she has a peculiar kind of ring on. And she walks in, and behind her are two ladies-in-waiting and a tiny chauffer wearing a little black hat and black puttees.
I’m standing there watching this. My god! I had the terrible feeling of being an eavesdropper on something I shouldn’t have seen.
The countess comes in—and here are the Beatles all with their shirts off. One is sitting there with his shoes off, picking his toes. I’m telling you the truth. I’m not inventing it.
They’re all sitting and not one of them gets up as the countess comes in with her furs trailing behind her, and you could just hear the sound of the medieval trumpets rising—it was the British Empire! She stands in the middle of the room.
Nobody says a word until finally, Paul says, “I ‘ear you’re a countess.”
She says, “Yes, I am a countess, yes, yes. Are you the Beatles?”
Ringo belts John in the short ribs, “Get this—are we the Beatles? Is she putting ya on?” With their hair all Beatle-style, like asking Santa if he’s Santa Claus.
I wonder, “When are they going to ask her to sit down or something?” Here they are, they’re shoving potato chips in their mouths, one guy’s got a piece of fish hanging out, they’re belting down the Scotch, and she finally says, “We have driven all the way over from the castle to see you, and I’m so delighted that you’ve allowed us to come by today. I love your work.”
Ringo says, “Uh?”
She says, “Yes, we play your records at the castle all the time.”
And I could hear it—rock and roll booming out through the castle! You just don’t want to think these things.
There’s a long, pregnant pause and Lennon, who is the most civilized of the Beatles, suddenly comes to and says, “Sit down, sit down, countess, sit down.”
And she sits down. You ever see a countess sit? All the Beatles are watching her sit down, and her furs go down and they see her special ring displayed.
She says, “Which Beatle are you?”
The Beatle in question says, “George, like in King….”
She laughs. She says, “Yes, how funny!”
Then Lennon says to her, “Are you a real countess?”
She says, “Yes, I am.”
Paul says, “Where’s the count?”
“Well, he didn’t come tonight.”
We wait for a moment. It is one of those great moments of classical human behavior. It sort of hangs there for a second.
Then Lennon says to her, “What kind of castle do ya live in?”
“Well, it’s a very big one. It’s called Glamis Castle.”
Glamis Castle is the oldest of all the great castles in the British Isles—and she’s talking to four Englishmen, remember that.
One of them says, “Glamis? Where’s that?”
She says, “Well, you turn left at the road out here and turn at Route 7 and you continue—you can’t miss it, you know. It’s a big castle.”
McCartney says, “How many rooms does it have?”
She turns to her lady-in-waiting and says, “Lady Barbara, that would be in your department. How many rooms do we have?”
Lady Barbara thinks for a second and she says, “I believe, two-hundred thirty-eight.”
Paul says, “You got plenty of room for your relatives, haven’t ya?”
She says, “Yes, we have lots of rooms.”
Lennon then comes back with a question that is a pure American question. “When was it built? How old is it?”
She says, “I believe it was started in ten-sixty-seven.”
Ten-sixty-seven! And I’m listening to this fantastic story of the British Empire unfolding, right out here before me.
The countess finally speaks. You can see she is the master of all difficult situations. This is the thing that sets the aristocracy apart and above us. She doesn’t know how to end the conversation, but she finally says, “You’ll have to come and visit me. Why don’t all of you come to the castle?”
Paul said, “That ain’t a bad idea! We’re staying in a motel tonight.”
Immediately the poor countess can see four drunken Beatles arriving at four in the morning with eight million fans in Glamis Castle. She says, “That would be lovely. May I have your autographs?”
And one after another they sign their names. That’s the end of it. She walks to the door and the Beatles, not once getting up with their fish and chips, their gin going, slugging away their Scotch, as she gets to the door, one of them says, “Countess, have you eaten? Would you like something to eat?”
Glamis Castle Dining Room
She says, “It looks very good.” And out she goes to the sound of more trumpets.
I sit there and I’m an American and I shouldn’t have seen this. Somehow it doesn’t seem right that I should see a thing like this.
Was she slumming—or were the Beatles slumming? It is very hard to tell. She went out and walked down the hallway. And Paul said to John, “You know, you guys, that was a real countess!” And John said, “Yes, I’ve seen countesses before. They always wear coats like that.” And Ringo went “Uh!” And that was the total discussion of the countess and her life.
End of Part 2
HIP AND “NIGHT PEOPLE”
It appears from circumstantial evidence of his early activities in New York, that Jean Shepherd was the essence of “hip.” With the change to shorter programs earlier in the evening, he probably didn’t seem as hip except in the minds of what was becoming his predominantly younger audience. He remained extremely intelligent, knowledgeable, entertaining, and sometimes arcane, but not what the cutting edge of hip would still call hip. (Don’t get the impression that I was ever hip—the most I can claim is that because of Shepherd’s recommendations I was an early and long-time subscriber to The Village Voice and The Realist.
As a member of the “predominantly younger audience,”
I found Shepherd hip then, and, in a modified way, I still do.)
Yes, Shepherd was hip, so he must have been aware of and curious about the nature of a Broadway musical of 1959, The Nervous Set. Based on an autobiographical novel by Jay Landesman, with lyrics by his wife Fran Landesman, it seems a witty, cynical send-up of both the hip and the square. With characters said to portray Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg among others, set in New York in 1950, it’s described as “the intensely cool, hopelessly hip jazz musical about the Beat Generation,” and “a loving evocation of the Beat Generation, with all its warts and contradictions,…”
Connections to Shepherd include his affinity for the Beats, his friend Jules Feiffer’s promotional artwork for the play, and more directly, by one of the songs. Titled “Night People,” it repeats Shepherd’s “night people” phrase, which he’d used at about four years before the play opened. The phrase had been in the air since Shepherd described characteristics of people who were awake in the middle of the night, and who were by implication, his early hip radio listeners. [Actress Lois Nettleton, eventually Shep’s third wife, was one of those early listeners.] Although I’ve suggested the following before, I’ve never fully articulated it. My sense of Shepherd’s use goes something like this:
1) In early 1956, when he broadcast nightly from 1:00 to 5:30 A. M., he must have begun referring to those who were awake late at night, and many of whom listened to his program, as “night people,” giving the sense that they were a special breed who, through inclination, occupation, or other imperative, felt more comfortable in the dark, less-inhabited hours, when they could be more open to their less-conforming temperaments. He may have put it a bit too strongly, specifically referring to a “wild tossing of the soul and brooding.” Yet even these tendencies would have been found among the rarified and embattled souls whose affinity toward Shepherd’s style and tone led them to cling to his word as balm and sustenance. Ah, those lucky few who heard him then!
2) Then came the firing/rehiring of September 1956, when the renown he thus achieved and the Sunday evening hour, promoted a larger audience, including an intelligent and perceptive majority of them maybe not brooding with a wild tossing of their souls, yet (ready for a pun here?) attuned to him and more likely seated at the kitchen table, homework done, listening on a maroon plastic Zenith AM/FM radio with its big, simulated-gold dial (See my EYF! page 18).
With this audience, he must have seen the need to expand the meaning of “night people,” so in part he promoted an aspect of it, a distaste for what he called the “creeping meatballism” of the mass culture’s conformist and consumer-oriented pressures. Near the beginning of the earlier-in-the-evening broadcasts (beginning in September, 1956), his article, “The Night People vs. ‘Creeping Meatballism’” appeared April 1957 in that phenomenon of kid-revolt against the conventional culture and consumerism, Mad Magazine.
In the article, he referred to Night People as “…people who refuse to be taken in by the ‘Day World’ philosophy of ‘Creeping Meatballism.’” For “day people,” read “conformists.” At the end of the article, he gathers all perceptive Mad readers and potential listeners into his arms, commenting that no matter how consumer-addicted, one is still an individual, and “every one of us, I don’t care who he is, has a certain amount of ‘Night People’ in him. And once a person starts thinking and laughing at the culture,…he can never go back!” Indeed, who of us ever went back?
3) By the time he began broadcasting earlier in the evening, although he may have continued to suggest that his listeners were “Night People,” he didn’t use the term as originally defined but left its understanding open to wider interpretation. I asked Shepherd fans about his post-overnight usage and reports suggest that later acolytes were not referred to as afflicted with a night person’s wild tossings. Personally, despite a bit of sleep apnea with mild limb movement, I’ve never tossed wildly.
Without being able to listen to any–much less all–of Shepherd’s overnight broadcasts, we can’t know the whole truth, but in numerous articles the media promoted Shepherd’s use of the term. An interviewer in 1964: “You referred to your audience as ‘night people.’” Response: “Well, not really. That’s not as simple as it sounds. In fact the phrase ‘night people’ came out of that show that I did. I never called my audience ‘night people.’”
In response to my 2006 query by email to The Nervous Set’s author, Jay Landesman, he neither confirmed nor denied a connection between Shepherd’s use of the term and the song, but merely promoted to me an expected new production insipidly re-titled Fun Life. (It never happened.)
LP recording. Note Feiffer drawing on left.
The song can’t be interpreted as a positive comment on what Shepherd meant by the phrase. The ironic and pompous orchestration and the original cast’s ironically smug rendition make it a two-edged sword—putting down both day-people blandness along with the play’s idea of night people who have a superficial enjoyment of such stuff as neon lights. Certainly the lyrics of the song don’t evoke what Shepherd felt were serious, highly intelligent, and sensitive people seeking solace, if not fulfillment, in the night. The song refers to the night people as “restless neon light people, the bright people.” Sneering at “sober little clay” day people because they never have time to play, the song ends with “We always run before the sun can spoil our fun. Because we’re night people. Night people. Night people.” Listen to it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EsKc8i8yOx4
The impression is of superficial, late-night party animals. Neon lights and the lyric’s tinsel stars have nothing to do with the Beats or Shepherd’s term. We know Shepherd disapproved of superficial uses of his phrase, as indicated in the broadcast segment below. He must have been incensed at the distortion of his idea and the use of the term, and he might well have been referring, at least in part, to the play here—his comment occurs within about a year of the play’s opening:
And you know, incidentally, it has bothered me so much what has happened to the term “night people,” which I have always regretted coining. This was a term which I coined, and I will stand accused and guilty of it. And I notice that people have taken it up and used it to cover all sorts of sins of omission and commission. It has nothing to do with Walter Winchell’s world of bus boys—nothing to do with Walter Winchell’s world and Damon Runyon’s world of cab drivers. This is not the night people that I’m referring to.
I’m talking about people with that wild tossing in the soul that somehow makes them stay up till three o’clock in the morning and brood. (June 4, 1960)
The Beatles had been an enormous phenomenon in Great Britain since 1963, traveling mostly on one-night stands and selling records. They are already selling well in the United States and are the nation’s number-one group by the time they first arrive at New York City’s Kennedy Airport on February 7, 1964. The airport, the Plaza Hotel where they stay, and nearby streets, are mob scenes with hysterical fans. Sunday they perform on the Ed Sullivan Show for the first time live in the United States, with an estimated television audience of seventy-three million. The following Sunday they’re again on Sullivan’s show.
In July their film, A Hard Day’s Night opens in Great Britain, and in August in New York City. They have arrived, and they are not going away. It’s Beatlemania.
Jean Shepherd, a long-time enthusiast of classical music and opera:
does not like contemporary folk-singing, and has a particular aversion to rock and roll, sometimes making disparaging remarks regarding the motivations of such luminaries as Joan Baez and Bob Dylan. And also, regarding the music, Shepherd directs negative comments toward The Beatles because they are such a spectacularly unavoidable target.
With The Beatles’ triumphant appearance in the United States in early 1964, Playboy offers Shepherd the opportunity to go to the British Isles for two weeks and travel with them, in order to do the Playboy Interview. I asked Hugh Hefner why Playboy would choose a rock-and-roll-hater such as Jean Shepherd, replied that sometimes the magazine would send what seemed to be an antipathetic person on assignment because the editors felt it would produce an “interesting” result. Hefner said, “Using a very American guy like Jean, with his sensibilities,” to interview The Beatles, is just such an inspired decision.
And why does Jean agree to go? As an intrepid traveler, he probably can’t pass up a free trip to observe the primitive natives—aka, the British— with their attitudes and pop-fashions, their strange, trendy, tribal customs now enveloping his own world back home, especially on an excursion in which he will have the opportunity to trash the already mythic heroes of what he calls “pop music.”
On a postcard to his then-wife, actress Lois Nettleton, sent at the very beginning of his Beatles adventure, he writes from Edinburgh, “What a truly lovely city!! The Beatles are a first class pain in the ass! I’m really sorry I have to do a story on them. They are the epitome of aggressive cocky slobs who lead other slobs— Love! J.”
While in Edinburgh, Shepherd, the incorrigible traveler and observer, takes advantage of free time to record some comments about his experience, which he tapes in a series of programs to be used in syndication rather than for his regular broadcasts. Only about forty years later are these recovered, and then released little-by-little in boxed CD sets by http://www.RadioSpirits.com. The present author, based on his program guides for the series, appropriates a few of those comments here.
In his Edinburgh hotel room, Shepherd describes Scotland, especially the view from his window. He notes the many steam engines that pass by his hotel and Edinburgh Castle, and he describes: “It’s a green city, a city of trees, a city of statues and high, thin, ancient, medieval black-looking spires reaching up into the sky, way up there, and all topped with tiny crosses.” Shepherd describes the look of Scotland:”The color is a kind of dark, tarnished, burnished bronze. It’s a magnificent dark green, reddish brown color. The kind of color that painters are always trying to get but never quite making.” In another comment, Shepherd, who’s attached to the human voice as spoken and written above all other things, admires Scotland because: “If you love conversation, if you like to talk to people and love to read and love to be where people enjoy humor and ideas, this is the country for you.”
Disparaging The Beatles in various broadcasts; in recorded programs for syndication, and in his post card home; he sees them as a prime example of Britain’s degeneration of taste also exemplified by the then-popular English fashions and art. He’s also dismayed by recent British taste for a certain “role-reversal” that he has disliked in America. Yet, he will come to like the four mop-topped Liverpudlians as rough-and-ready fellows. Rubbing shoulders with them in smoke-filled hotel rooms and bumpy car rides through the night, escaping wide-eyed fanatics down fire escapes and dark alleys as though he were a fifth Beatle in their A Hard Day’s Night, brings him to a modified view of them as fellow human beings.
As he says, “I wasn’t really traveling as an observer—they began to accept me as part of the gang.”
When he returns to the States, reporting on all the outlandish activities he has observed and, indeed, participated in, he talks about his travels during his live broadcast from The Limelight Café in early November, 1964. We get a fascinating, inside look at daily life on the road of four guys who have become celebrities beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. And we see how a world traveler, used to encountering unexpected experiences and all different types of people, comes to accept these cocky, witty guys as companions. In an extraordinary admission he can hardly believe himself, he says, “I found myself becoming not only a Beatle fan but a Beatle!”
For the past two weeks I have been living with The Beatles. I have been in Dundee, Scotland, I’ve been in Edinburgh, I’ve been in London where they worked, Leeds, Liverpool, I’ve been in all these various cities on a whole series of one-night stands with The Beatles. Living with them, living in their room with them, in their dressing room, riding in the dark countryside trying to escape the fanatics, and observing England from the other side of the glass.
Now we’re all Americans here and the one thing that Americans are used to—they’re used to being constantly under the scrutiny of other people. For example, “Beyond the Fringe” comes to New York and it’s a satire by Britishers, mostly about Americans. We sit out there and applaud. But it never works the other way! You’re aware that if I were to appear in Britain they would not immediately nominate me to play Richard the Lionhearted. And yet, are you aware that they are casting a movie here in America and they’ve just recently cast a man to play Abraham Lincoln! Guess what nationality he is. We’re going to have a British Abraham Lincoln. Somehow that makes it more official. The idea that Laurence Olivier or somebody like that is playing Lincoln seems a lot more real than if say, an American were to play Lincoln.
Because, you know, I, being a good American have been completely awash in Britain ever since I was a kid. We take English literature in school, we study English poets, English history. In fact, most of us know more about English history than we do American history. So now I find myself in England in the real thing. Sitting in a tiny, super-heated, stinking, smelling, dressing room knee-deep in fish and chips and beer with the Beatles. England’s final answer to Richard the Lionhearted.
It’s a weird thing. Out in the darkness I can hear the sound of millions of girls screaming. It’s a children-girl thing in England. It sounds like a thousand sirens going off in the distance. It’s just a high-pitched wail—WEEEEEEE! Goes in waves—WEEEEEEE! And then one of the Beatles says to another Beatle—I think it was George saying to Paul, “Paul, you’re a Beatle!”
And Paul says, “Aye.”
George says, “Paul, you’re a Beatle. Pass a miracle—walk on water. Walk on water!”
Paul says, “Okay,” and he goes to the window, sticks his head out and—WAAAAAAA! the whole world explodes. He turns back to me and he says, “Are you Beatle-people?”
I say, “No.”
He says, “Well, sit down and have a beer.”
End of part 1 of The Beatles
What do Gould and Shepherd have in common?
Part 2, in which Shep enthusiast
Joel Baumwoll discusses the matter.
In this Part 2 post about Glenn Gould and Shepherd, I present my original inspiration for discussing Gould–a couple of years before I began blogging about Shep, I read an intriguing email (12/27/2010) discussing the similarities between Glenn Gould and Jean Shepherd. I’d printed it out and filed it, and now its author, Shep enthusiast Joel Baumwoll, has given me permission to reproduce it here. Thanks, Joel, for this:
American Masters played a fascinating biography of Glenn Gould tonight. As I listened to the story unfold, I was struck by the parallels between Shepherd and Gould. The enigma that was Gould was purposely created by him to keep his distance from all but those he chose to share his life with. He was a genius who detested audiences after having been a great performing success. He considered them a mob. He retreated to a security of recording where he could control every moment, every utterance and decide what he would put out there.
He decided to create a radio program on CBC where he talked and explored human nature and his own nature. The shows described were very much like many of Shep’s programs. I would love to hear these programs. I am sure they would be as fascinating as Shep’s deepest programs were.
He was obsessive compulsive, dominated every relationship, was a total control freak and eventually became quite paranoid. People said he would talk to them for hours on the phone or in person, and would not stop talking. [I’ve also read that he would call friends in the middle of the night and expect them to listen to his long monologs.] Yet his genius of music put him in a class so far above others that established and recognized pianists and musicians said he was in a class by himself. His technique left them in awe, he refused to trod any path but his own, and refused to retread any path. “Why should I play Beethoven like everyone else has and has been heard before?” he explained when he did a rendition of a sonata that was so different from any ever heard.
His Goldberg Variations were at once a work of wonder and so deviant from what people knew of Bach that they were amazed…. [Most famously, he recorded them proficiently at an incredibly fast speed–in later years he re-recorded them more slowly.]
Unlike Shepherd he loved children. But in many other ways, he was quite similar in his habits and eccentricities. I left the program amazed at how similar in so many ways these two geniuses were in their art and in their lives.
Another Shep enthusiast, Dolores Nocturni added her thoughts:
You don’t develop technique like [Gould’s] without incredible discipline, and I’m not sure Shepherd had it. Gould came to hate audiences because they got between him and some ideal of perfection he could only achieve in the studio. Shepherd craved audiences (the Limelight shows, colleges, Carnegie Hall), although I believe he was best in the studio, talking one-on-one to solitary listeners. Maybe that’s a Gould connection, too.
Otto Friedrich, his biographer, commented that as for control, for Gould: “over the years it became a passion, an obsession. It was the need to be in control, really, that drove him from the concert stage to the recording studio.” One might remember that A Christmas Story director Bob Clark commented that Shepherd’s need for control became an impediment to him in work on the film.
Library and Archives Canada:
In the 1960s Gould began to take a strong and active interest in radio and TV documentaries, nearly all for the CBC. He was the deviser, compiler, interviewer, writer, narrator and even producer of many of these programs, which ranged in subject matter from contemporary music to Newfoundland, from Stokowski to the Mennonites. He approached the technique of the documentary as a composer might approach the fugue or sonata movement form, or even an opera. Weaving together spoken voices and background sounds in counterpoint to each other, Gould achieved highly inventive and original effects. [As one commentator put it, in the documentary “The Idea of the North,” Gould used human voices to musical effect. I think Shepherd would have applauded this.]
One can grasp clues suggesting for us Shep-enthusiasts, some similarities (but not exactitude), between Gould and Shepherd. [For the following quote, I use color and underline to indicate my suggested similarities.] In the New Yorker of April 18, 1994, Anthony Lane reviews the documentary “32 Short Films About Glenn Gould,” in which he writes:
…it is Gould’s achievement to engage us not only with the demeanor of his performances but with their suggestion of larger virtues beyond the piano–of a living temperament, a limber philosophical stance, unlocked by its keys….Gould was a solitary, but not an eccentric; rather, he made himself central, and drew people in. He was one of a band of impassioned ascetics thrown up by our century, all of them immune to intellectual half measures; this means that Gould groupies are a scary lot, who tend to read Wittgenstein and Walter Benjamin and Simone Weil, although it’s probably safe to say that Gould was the only one with a taste for tomato ketchup and Petula Clark.*
* [I’d love to know in what ways both Glenn Gould and Andy Warhol found
Petula Clark so fascinating–and in what ways they’d disagree.]
What genius does not have some neurotic personality disorder that somehow goes along with his/her extraordinary ability? One aspect of Gould seems to have been his obsessiveness–yet he obsessed on such a variety of fields of interest–seems like a contradiction. “Incredible discipline” is a less judgmental way of approaching the related issue.
In their intensity and obsessiveness, Gould and Shep were somewhat different. (Gould appears to me to have had a much higher pitch of intensity and obsession.) Each could be a delightful human; but when they were in one of their “moods,” I think I might have felt uncomfortable in Shep’s company and I think that in Gould’s company I’d have been in a state of shock.
I greatly admire them both.
The next morning, oh boy, let me tell you about this. I wake up about six o’clock in the morning and throw back the curtains and my room looks right over the Red Sea—blue, green, little touches of silver. I get up, I go down and have a little breakfast, and I go wandering out, and I am about to go skin diving in the Red Sea for the first time.
The beach itself is not very impressive—it’s pebbled. Half sand, half little pebbles. But as you wade into the water, the instant you get in this water you know that this water is different from any sea water that you ever waded in. To begin with, it’s as clear as the clearest glass. Frighteningly clear. So much so that there is a danger that comes from that clear water.
For those of you who have never skin-dived, there’s several ways of doing it. There’s the aqua-lung, of course, and there’s snorkeling. In this case we had aqualungs. You wade in backwards, and as you do the water starts coming up rather quickly. This is not a low island situation like Jones Beach, it’s mountainous, so it’s very deep and slants away quickly. Now you’re waist-high, you turn over, you spin, and you are now on your stomach and you dive under and start gliding down in water that’s maybe six or seven feet and suddenly it slants away and off it goes, down, down, down.
The bottom under you suddenly changes—it stops being pebbles and sand and becomes sand. And it looks almost exactly as white as sugar. When the sun is coming down and hitting the sand at the right angle, it hurts the eyes in the diver’s mask. As the bottom slants away and goes down and down and down, you look ahead and you can see the shadowy sea getting deeper and deeper and deeper, the ground slanting away almost at a thirty degree angle and you see these great coral reefs rising higher and higher as the water gets deeper and deeper. All of a sudden you’re in the middle of this unbelievable forest. For those of you who saw the movie and have seen really good skin-diving movies I don’t have to tell you much about that except that to experience it is a totally different thing than to see it in the movies.
Because you feel all this water moving above and around you and you’re not in the water for more than a few minutes when you begin to have a completely—I suppose the word should be—other-world feeling. As though you don’t really exist anymore. If you can imagine this paradox, this is really what happens. Your body sort of melts away. You have no weight is the first thing that happens. You have a sense of almost absolute freedom—which, by the way, is dangerous. The French word for it means “the rapture of the depths.” You begin to have this peculiar exhilaration and many a skin-diver is killed because of that. He often forgets where he is and ultimately finds himself in bad trouble because of the rapture he begins to experience.
As you go down lower and lower, the first thing that hits me is—I had never been in water where the underwater life is anything like this. The variety of the fish-life in this water, and it’s all hanging in crystal—no sense of water at all in this place and that’s one of the peculiar dangers about it. There’s absolutely no sense of being in water, it’s as though you’re in some kind of melted glass. I don’t know how to describe it really. It’s not exactly like air, it’s as though something, somehow, has suspended all animation. All you can hear is the roaring in your ears of the aqua lung and the water pressure WHOOOOO. And that’s it. Even that, after a few minutes, you forget completely about.
This great purple fish with long, thin, yellow fins comes drifting by. Big, heavy fish drifts right by. Big red eyes. He looks at me as though I’m another fish and drifts on past. No fright. Just drifts past. I’m drifting around, spinning, slowly spinning, and then a whole school of angelfish go past in a V-formation. Down below me s this enormous coral cave that just stretches down and down.
The man that I’m skin diving with is a bearded Israeli, a man who, a few years ago was in the world headlines. Raffi Nelson, who was caught in the Suez Canal trying to make it through in a one-man boat. In an Israeli canoe. This is the guy. He’s drifting alongside of me. Both of us are just moving along and we begin to explore these reefs. Of course he’d been down here twenty thousand times before, and he’s taking me to these various caves. He points, “Look, look, look!” He’s pointing, and drifting out of a coral reef, a kind of ring of coral—a wreath of coral, yellow, and green and orange coral—comes this fantastic barracuda. Great big barracuda about four feet long. He just drifts by, and you can see those gleaming, silver teeth. He just drifts past. These big google-eyes. He moves on past us, flutters around us, gives us another look and POOOOOH—you just see his tail—he moves.
The water is maybe forty feet deep and crystal clear. With just a touch of green and yellow about it.. Raffi points, “Look, look, look.” Down below us we see this eight or nine-foot eel crawling along. Moving along through the coral, and we continue to move, drifting slowly, spinning up and down, and all the while Raffi is taking pictures with an underwater camera. Once in awhile I turn to see the water, green and silver, and see the sun above, and down we go, drifting on and on. You lose all sense of time. You lose all sense of place. That too, is dangerous. I can’t tell you how long we are doing this. I can only tell you we must have drifted maybe a mile under the sea, and along that great reef of coral.
Riffi drifts up past me, trying to get my attention, he’s drifting past me. He makes a triangle and he points ahead. Triangle!
I say, “Huh?” I shrug my shoulders. What do you mean? Triangle. So I start going—he pushes me back, he’s making another triangle! What? What?
Triangle! Triangle! He makes his mouth move but nothing but bubbles come out. Triangle! Triangle! It suddenly hits me! He’s saying, “Pyramid! Egypt!” He’s saying, “Look out!” That next reef is right across the line.
I drift back and forth and I can see there’s a big shadowy reef and you can see a few barracuda drifting in and out. You see a school of angle fish going across the Israeli-Egyptian border. I’m drifting around.
I get this peculiar image that, sometime, someplace, there will be a barricaded reef. Can you see it now? A pillbox underwater? To get skin divers who dare to go through or above or around to cross the borders of this country? Guarded by barracudas? Trained barracudas?
Twenty minutes later both of us are up on the shore, shaking the water off, taking the equipment off. I say, “Was that—?”
He says, “Yeah, that was.”
I say, “Is it dangerous?”
He looks at me. He says, “Well, we lost three of them last month. Ain’t heard from them since.”
And the sun hangs up over us there and the great red hills move on—march toward the horizon. Ah! To be skin diving tonight in the Red Sea!
Canadian pianist/genius Glenn Gould (1932-1982) was a strange and fascinating person. He’s most famous for his interpretations of Bach’s “The Goldberg Variations.” I’ve always been intrigued by what makes artists of various kinds tick–go about their work–at least in part this is envy–wanting to be like them. (However, I’m a very conventional sort of guy–except for a few of my inexplicably “uncharacteristic” activities–for example, I’ve spent a good part of the last 15 years focusing my attention on a personage named “Shep.”) I think there are some similarities between Shep and Gould.
Although I listen to very little classical music these days, I’ve got a couple of Gould recordings and I’ve read a major book about him to see, in my own conventional sort of way, if I could somehow understand his ticking. (Yes, I know–people like Gould can’t be understood by reading books about them–but maybe a bit of understanding can be grabbed?! For the most part, in my Excelsior, You Fathead! I didn’t try to understand Shep–I felt it much more important to describe and appreciate what he’d created. And as for interpretation, I tried to give quotes and suggestions from others who knew him, adding what Whitman referred to in another context as “faint clues and in-directions.”)
The book I read years back, Glenn Gould: A Life and Variations by Otto Friedrich, says this on its back cover:
He was a virtuoso of the piano who inspired an almost religious fervor in his fans, yet he hated performing and left the concert stage forever at the age of 31. He was a tireless advocate of the technology of recording, an artist who looked forward to a time when mere musicians would be rendered obsolete.
He was a notorious–and some thought, a deliberate–eccentric, who muffled himself in scarves and gloves, liberally dosed himself with pills, and once sued Steinway & Sons because one of its employees had shaken his hand too roughly. He lived in hermetic solitude and liked to call himself “the last Puritan,” but those who watched Glenn Gould play piano saw an eroticism so intense it was almost embarrassing.
One encounters many descriptions of Gould that might well make one think that he was a totally goofy guy. Why did he wear gloves and be so ultra sensitive about his hands? Why did he perform with his own odd piano seat (His father had made it for him and it made him feel more physically comfortable than any regular seat he’d ever sat on. It was unusually low, so that his hands on the piano keys were at a seemingly strange angle). Critics complained about his odd mannerisms on stage: singing loudly while playing, waving his hands about. It’s said that he approached each performance “from a totally re-creative point of view”–that is, with the aim of playing a “particular work as it has never been heard before.” Why did he abandon public performance? Many other oddities. But each had its “reasons”–he was not just the cuckoo he appeared to be on the surface. Watch the film “32 Short Films About Glenn Gould.”
What do Gould and Shepherd have in common?
Stay tuned for part 2, in which Shep enthusiast
Joel Baumwoll comments on the matter.
I promised to talk about skin-diving in the Red Sea. I’m going to find it very difficult to talk about. Primarily because it’s an experience that in many ways is indescribable. They talk about things you can’t describe, that you can’t put into words. Well, this kind of experience is one of them. Did you see that movie that Captain Cousteau made, called The Silent World? Most of it was shot in the Red Sea in exactly the place where I was skin-diving just six days ago.
I had an incident happen to me skin diving in that area. To begin with, you have to picture in your mind how that part of the world looks geographically. The map of Israel looks something like a long, narrow, truncated triangle, the point of the triangle pointing downwards, the top flattened off. The left-hand side of the triangle is on the Mediterranean Sea. The sea slants off, and there’s a little spot, a long line of land that sticks up. It’s a strange part of the world—a sliver of ground called the Gaza Strip.
So here’s the Gaza Strip and way down there Israel goes further on down, and at the end of this little triangle, at the narrowest tip end, is a tiny settlement called Elat. Elat is an ancient, ancient site and right now there’s a lot of excavating going on.
About fifteen miles north of Elat is generally considered the site of King Solomon’s Mines. He had a whole mining operation going on there, not mining gold but copper, which was the precious metal of that area, and I’ll tell you this, the area of King Solomon’s Mines looks like one of the great ravaged areas of the world. Like a cover drawing for a science fiction story of something out of one of the more desolate planets. The rock rises maybe five-hundred feet directly out of the sand. Rises directly out of the flat sand of the Negev Desert.
A rocky mountain range that is totally desolate, that extends for, oh—hundreds of miles into the far horizon, and right at the foot of this is this great, dusty cavern with roaring, roaring sound, billows of greenish-gray dust that’s flying up high into the air. When you’re about ten miles away from King Solomon’s Mines you see this mushroom cloud in the sky.
This tropical world here is an arid, desert world, which means that the humidity of the countryside probably averages down around three or four percent. It’s such cold air at night and such hot air during the day that at anytime you breathe it in you know that you’re breathing something special. Great for the sinuses! If you spend about ten days standing in the sun in the Negev Desert, if you’ve got sinuses left you’re lucky. You’ll be boiled down to a little grease spot.
They are mining right now at King Solomon’s Mines, dragging all this copper ore out of the ground and there is this tremendous cloud of dust. Standing right there are three huge pillars of stone. They are really scary. They are dark red color, almost cordovan-leather color and they rise directly out of the dust and go right to the sky.
I went past that place about three times, and every time, up in the sky, circling against the sun, are four or five enormous desert vultures—just circling—great big vultures, waiting for something to die, waiting for something to give up.
Continue straight on south in that country and you strike this tiny settlement called Elat, lying right on the Red Sea. Elat is on a long, narrow tip that’s at the end of the Red Sea. They call that area “The End of the World,” and there’s a little restaurant there called The End of the World. I stayed in this hotel with a great name—“The Queen of Sheba Hotel.” This is her neighborhood, this is where the Queen of Sheba came ashore when she was on a ceremonial, state visit to see King Solomon.
As you walk into The Queen of Sheba Hotel, the one great thing you like about it is that it’s air-conditioned. Oh, boy, let me tell you, after you’ve gone through that shimmering desert heat for about three-hundred miles, as you’ve driven down through this arid world, with the sun, with the heat, with the buzzards, with that rising grayish-green smoke-cloud of King Solomon’s Mines, when you step into that air-conditioning it is like stepping into heaven.
Directly ahead of you is a big mural that shows the Queen of Sheba getting out of her state barge, surrounded by Nubian hand-servants and giant lions on leashes and all that stuff, and greeting her is the fantastic entourage headed by King Solomon. There is a lot of talk—I might as well be honest with you—there is a lot of terrible gossip about King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. There was a lot more than state talk that went on between those two and I’m not trying to be irreverent here, but they still talk about it around here. There’s a lot of people who don’t even discuss them, even at this time and this age in that neighborhood. Awful scene.
About ten minutes after I get into the hotel, I am now down on the beach, which is not itself particularly imposing. Although there is one thing about this beach that is like no other beach that I have ever been on in my life. As you stand on the beach you can see four countries. You cannot only see four countries, but if you’ve got a long enough reach, you can reach out and touch four countries. You’re lying right on a bay, a long arm of the Red Sea. Off to your left you see the hills of Jordan, the Moab Mountains run right down to the sea. Then if you move your eyes slightly to your right, you’re looking at Saudi Arabia. You’re standing on Israel, then as you look to the right, just past that stand over there where they’re selling the hot dogs, that is Egypt. Directly ahead of you are these soft, low waves rolling in on this sandy beach. The beach where the Queen of Sheba’s barge pulled up into the gravel and King Solomon stepped down and greeted her.
Right down at the tip of this long, narrow, truncated triangle, lies this tiny settlement of Elat, which, a couple of years ago was a military outpost. They were trying to guard the seaway entranceway to Elat. This little spot on the map had a radar station and about four or five companies of infantry and a couple of tanks. Now they’ve built this tiny city right on the edge of the sea, surrounded completely by Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and, of course, Egypt.
Why do they call it the Red Sea? At a certain time of day, around six-thirty or seven o’clock, just as the sun hits the edge of these mountains, almost like magic the entire sea in front of you turns a fantastic blood-red. It’s a combination of the kind of sun that hits down through this mountain air and the reflection of that sun off the water and back down again on the water off these red hills that rim the sea. For maybe five or ten minutes this sea is an absolute blood-red sea. Just like that.
Then, as the sun goes down—and like all tropical areas, there’s hardly any twilight—one minute it’s daylight, then—pow!—it’s night. The sky over the desert is a sky like no sky you’ve ever seen. I’ve seen the sky from the tropical jungles of Peru, I’ve seen the sky from Miami, I’ve seen the sky from Canada, I’ve seen the sky from Australia. I’ve seen the sky from pretty nearly all around the world, but there is no sky like the sky you see in the African or the Arabian desert. It is unbelievable, fantastic. Primarily because the air is so clear. There is no dust, there is no smoke, there’s no humidity to speak of. So everything is as though it’s made out of crystal. You have the sense that you can almost reach up and touch the sky, you can just about pick stars out of this black velvet just above you. And you can understand why somebody like Omar Khayyam wrote about the sky and about the stars and the night. A loaf of bread, a jug of wine, and thou beside me. And you can understand this only, really, completely, when you’re there, in the area of Persia, Saudi Arabia, and that unbelievable nighttime desert sky.
As that sky begins to turn on, another peculiar thing happens. Off to your left a long line of tiny lights begin to appear along the shoreline. Blue and green lights like a little, horizontal Christmas tree just lying on its side. This is Aqaba, a city that belongs to Israel’s enemy, and it lights up about fifteen-hundred feet away, and the people of Elat look over at the people in Aqaba—you have the sense that over there, they’re looking over at the lights of Elat.
You look to your right and you see a couple of other lights on the shoreline. They’re from Egypt. There is this little horseshoe of light. All four countries are at sword’s point. Very eerie feeling.
And you walk through the night streets of Elat—they have fluorescent lights hanging over the streets and you go into this little restaurant called “The Blue Fish.” Tiny restaurant that’s known throughout Israel as one of the very few places in Israel where you can really get a good meal. Inside is a character who looks like an out-of-work pirate standing there, and there are five tables all around him. They have fishnets hanging from the walls with glass balls. It’s kind of strangely pathetic, an oddly touching attempt to create a sophisticated gaiety—that just isn’t quite gay, that isn’t quite sophisticated.
I’ll tell you one thing they do serve—the greatest seafood I’ve ever had in my life. It comes right out of the Red Sea—tropical fish of one kind or another. We drink the Israeli wine, we eat the fish, all done beautifully. And there are a couple of other guys who have drifted in from the desert and everyone’s shoveling in the shrimp.
We go back out into the night and we drift down the street and here’s a Moroccan coffee shop, truly Moroccan because a lot of people who came to Israel in the early, founding days, were North-African. A couple of swarthy Moroccans are sitting there waiting for you to come in and drink their Moroccan coffee, which is vaguely scented. There are about ten or twenty types of Moroccan coffee, and two types that are illegal. Flavored with stuff that if you ever drank it you would be floating around the ceiling for a week and a half. So you sip coffee and the juke box is playing Moroccan music and outside is that velvet, strange, soft, ethereal night. And the lights of Aqaba are stretching off into the distance. A jeep goes by—AWAWAWAWAWAWA! with three soldiers in it with Thompson submachine guns over their soldiers—into the darkness.
Marc Spector, who had been working for WBAI, was hired as an associate producer to work with Jean and Leigh Brown at WOR during 1974-5. They were traveling a lot in those days and needed someone to handle the show while they were away. Part of Spector’s job was to work in Shepherd’s tiny WOR office space. He remembers the heavy ten-inch tapes on metal reels of previous Shepherd shows stacked up there. Spector kept a log of every show and they were documented extremely thoroughly with handwritten notes on the tape boxes, including an identifying title for each show on almost all of them. (Because these original tapes seem to have been lost or are unobtainable, current program names are not those original ones, but are those made up years later by people who recorded the shows off the air or by those, such as Max Schmid, who later distributed the copies.)
Spector remembers that Jean was “rarely in the studio when the theme [music] started. He usually was still in the control room and he’d usually say, ‘hit it.’ He would stay as long as he could in the control room because he was talking to the engineer, trying to engage him, trying to get something going, trying to get an idea—feedback—and sometimes the theme would be running out….And you could not say to Jean ‘Twenty seconds. You’ve got to get in the studio.’ And that’s why, if you notice, there’s no consistency between where he starts his monolog over the theme.”
I suggest a different cause for the differing times when Shepherd would begin or stop talking during his opening and closing theme. Note that Shepherd was equally varied in when he ended his monolog—sometimes when the end theme began and sometimes during the final musical notes. This variation was consistent with Shepherd’s easy-going style, and more than likely he played with this variation, this element of uncertainty, not because he was otherwise occupied, but that he allowed it to happen on purpose, just for the fun of it. When he began and ended his monolog during the theme probably related to Shep’s wanting the beginning and ending of his shows to be part of the uncertainty-factor in his show’s content. When he ended his talk during the end-theme, probably had to do, at times, with how much he felt he still had to say during that program. *!
In discussing how unusual Shepherd’s style was in relation to the rest of WOR’s morning and afternoon chatting couples who appealed to an old-fashioned, conservative, coffee-klatch crowd, Spector suggests that when Shepherd made fun of little old lady listeners who might be critical and find his program objectionable, he was taking a swipe at the WOR’s audience for the rest of the talk-program schedule.
“Martha Deane” was the entertainment name for several WOR
talkers who used it over the years. “Dorothy and Dick” was the
WOR couple Dorothy Kilgallen and Dick Kollmar, who talked:
*! “Anonymous” has this to add:
< I do remember him commenting that the theme was also a sort of game he played for his own amusement, that he knew there were listeners trying to record the whole theme . So he said that at some point he would always interrupt it just to drive the would be recorders crazy. I vaguely also remember him letting it go through completely at least once.> See comments for this post for the entire comment.
Bedouin Bazaar Visions
Visions, imaginations, fantasies. On occasion, Shepherd mixes them all into a delicious fruitcake of a dream. So you have trouble understanding what is true and what is only true to our fondest desires. In their own way they are all rather real–what is more real than our inner, fondest desires?
I’m down in the heart of the Bedouin bazaar in the middle of Nazareth, and it’s a long, narrow, twisted, involved street. It’s about six feet across. And as you go step by step you get deeper and deeper into another world. And you get further and further away from America. And each step the smells get more subtle. Oh, yeah, there’s stuff you wouldn’t believe that smells, friend. Oh, yeah, and when you get a montage of these aromas, it does something to your soul.
You know, I’m a typical American. There’s a certain point when you think you’re hip and then all of a sudden you encounter something totally alien and all your hip-ness departs. I walk into this place, and here is this Arab sheik. He’s got this tarbush on. He says, “Ah, you are zee American.”
I say, “Yeah.”
He says, “Come into my shop. Let us sit down and speak of what perhaps you would like to take home to America as a little gift.”
So we sit down and immediately he brings out this Turkish coffee and we sit at this tiny inlaid table. Me looking at him, him looking at me.
Then he says, “What was it you desired to take home as a souvenir?” There is a slight flicker of his shoulder and I see a figure behind in the darkness appear from behind the beaded screens. It is this fantastic alabaster dream. What a chick! Whooo! She has these almond eyes, and she just appears for an instant—and then disappears.
His eyebrow flicker just slightly. He says, “Is there anything you see?”
I say, “Well, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha.”
He says. “That is exactly what I thought. Now let us speak. What was it you want?”
I can see by a flicker of his left hand that it is expected of me to discuss water pipes, which are over here all piled up, marked “For Tourists Only.”
I say, “How about a water pipe?”
He says, “Ahhh. I have superb water pipes. I have many water pipes. Zis one was made during the reign of the Turks. And zis goes back to the Byzantine Empire. And I have ozzers.”
I say, “I’m interested in ozzers.”
He says, “Ahhh, I can see you are a man of taste and discretion.”
Behind us I can hear this oriental, this Arabic music, begin to play toomdatoomdatoomdatoom. I can hear the sound of those pipes Eioroiretoomdatoomdadatoom. And boy, I can feel my blood boiling.
And he says, “I can arrange to have whatever you wish sent to you duty free.”
I say, “Duty free?!”
I say, “Well, he he.”
We settle back for a long moment like that. And there is a sudden moment, a sudden instant, and once again I see this alabaster form. This time it’s another alabaster form.
He says, “I have much in stock.”
Little did I realize at that moment that I had engaged myself in a subtle bargaining, a subtle but very, very well-established pattern. I was about to buy, gentlemen, the ultimate souvenir. Haven’t you, as an American, as a traveler, haven’t you wanted someday, to bring back the one thing that really said it? Yes! And you get it back home and it just turns out to be a rotten little vase. Just a crummy vase, and you see them up and down 42nd Street. And you lugged it back in your bag six-thousand miles and it turns out to be a rotten little vase. Well, I am sitting with this Arab sheik and he says to me, “Of course, you realize, that zes things take time.”
I say, “How much?”
He says, “It depends on za sort of negotiation that you wish to enter into. Do you wish to pay cash or do you wish to charge it?”
Little did I realize how spectacularly successful my Diners Club card could be. Well, I am sitting with this guy for fifteen minutes and we are talking back and forth with this subtle innuendo of two old, experienced men of the world. Until finally, he says, “Za deal is complete. It was a pleasure to do business with you. Her name is Fatima. Of course you can call her anything you care to. She prefers Fatima.”
And I say, “Fatima. Fatima! Oh boy, wouldn’t they love to see Fatima in Hammond, Indiana!” Yes, Fatima! Little did I realize that I could get her not only duty free, but I could get her disguised as a lamp. That’s how she’s coming in. And it is through a long, involved, subtle negotiation like that that I finally achieve the ultimate! I don’t know how long the law’s going to let me get by with it. I don’t know, but I’ve had that moment of fantastic success. I’m watching now for the call from the American Express Company. I wonder how she’ll be wrapped. I wonder what you say when that first moment comes. “Come, Fatima, come.” A true slave! Imagining this first moment was the most fun I’ve ever had. I don’t think anybody who has ever bought a Doberman Pinscher has had as much fun as I had.
Well, I’ve made my peace and I’m going to continue to live with it. You know it’s a funny thing about people. When you travel out and you learn about your land, you know. I am in the middle of this fantastic scene in a town north of Tel Aviv. This is another time when you discover yourself. It’s a low mud hut and I’ve been taken in by this guy who says, “So you really want to see how za native world loves?”
And I say, “Yeah!”
So we go into this place. It’s all lit with purple lights and I can see people lounging on the floor. There’s guys wearing tarbushes. You ought to see an Arab when he’s in his full regalia. They wear shades. You ought to see an Arab in his shades. That is an Arab in full heat. Two o’clock in the morning. Here they are. They’re all in this dark place. I can hear the tinkle of little bells somewhere in the distance. I can smell some subtle aromas, which even by just smelling them, I know they’re illegal. I step over these bodies. I’m in this dark den of iniquity in the Middle East. We’ve all vibrated to that.
And out of the darkness comes this man who runs this place and he says to me, “What is your pleasure?” What is your pleasure?! What are you going to do when somebody asks you that? In the middle of what appears to be a den of decadence, of decadence beyond measure! He says, “What is your pleasure?” And the only thing you could think of is, “You got any Coke?” It’s terrible being an American! We’re very uncreative sinners, you know?
So, in the middle of all that, I’m sitting there and I can remember my mother. I’m a little kid, see. This is one of the remembrances that I think clouds our thinking about places like that. I can remember my mother, she’s got this fantastic hang-up. A hang-up on Gary Cooper. I remember going to this movie with her—we followed it all around the Midwest. Every afternoon she was off she’d take me to see the picture with Gary Cooper in the French Foreign Legion. My mother had this idea in her head that if she could only get to the desert, Gary Cooper would grab her. Or Rudolph Valentino would grab her. She could see herself being carried away on a horse. Off into the desert to this tent made out of camel hair.
Rudolph, the Arab sheik
and Mrs. Ann Shepherd.
For those of you who are wondering, we will be broadcasting live at the Limelight this week. I’m going to wear my tarboosh and I am bringing my Arab slave girl down to the Limelight to make a personal appearance. She arrived today and I’m delighted to report she arrived undamaged, duty-free, and she’s magnificent. Alabaster skin, sparkling eyes. Oh, by George, it’s the perfect souvenir.
•the perfect souvenir•
Many locales and situations are subjects for Shepherd
allegories and metaphors. More examples:
Excelsior as a metaphor for unwarranted idealism.
Seltzer bottle as the proper response to “excelsior,” as I commented in Excelsior, You Fathead!” the “self-deluding pomposity of ‘Excelsior’ should deservedly elicit a slapstick clown’s squirt of seltzer in the face!”
Excelsior seltzer bottles in my Shep’s Shrine.
Keep your knees loose as a metaphor for being flexible in life, with its obverse, in the Army’s directive to avoid falling off a pole: “Keep your knees tight,” representing the need to act counter-instinctively in the military.
Og and Charlie, the symbolic cavemen, as not only our former but current selves: not yet civilized. As the old joke has it, the missing link between savages and civilized man is us.
Ludlow Kissel’s giant Fourth of July bomb that goes awry—as Shepherd said, it represents the desire we all have to blow up the world.
Equally, the murderous Mariah and its duplicate, Wolf, the two battling tops that disappear, lost down a sewer, are our seemingly invincible armaments that simply destroy each other. insert image
The great ice cream war, with two stores in competition, each lowering its price to the level of self-destruction. What should be a simple pleasure becomes the subject of conflict and riot. Also a symbol of total war with its mutual destruction.
Shep, Schwartz, and Flick, as youngsters, begin popping pills which they encounter in a medicine cabinet of an empty house. They become very ill. Shepherd, telling this story, says that he is sometimes asked to tell of his first experience with drugs. Obviously the question is asked in order totell some tale of the kind of drug-taking that became so dangerously common in the 1960s and 1970s. He turns this around, telling a kid story in order to give an anti-drug allegory.
The old man’s Chinese nail puzzle and the three ways he has of solving it by destroying it as a metaphor for solving problems by cheating.
Shepherd’s fly hook caught in his ear as symbolic of “doing everything right”—in his radio career— yet having it injure him anyway, by being released by WOR, the firing which was scheduled for a couple of days after he told the allegory.
Seated near the back of the school room because his name started with S in a world of alphabetical arrangements, causing difficulty in hearing the teacher as well as not being able to read the blackboard, suggesting that totally arbitrary circumstances in life can cause important problems.
Morse Code and Mark Twain’s River episode described in EYF! pages 357-360 about being a “sorehead.” He uses expertise at Morse code as a metaphor for there always being someone better than you are. He uses the Mississippi River as a metaphor for life always having some hidden dangers that can kill you. (January 6, 1965)
Eating escargot for the first time as symbolic of all the wonderful things out there beyond the narrow minds of one’s immediate environment.
“Cowboy X” is Jean Shepherd himself, who makes his mark everywhere for what he accomplishes, yet who is unrecognized by the “not very smart” townspeople—the ignorant American masses.
Considering the above interpretations, he seemed to be enamored of allegories and metaphors. And, as these are only those that have been easily remembered from the over a thousand available programs heard, and these shows are only part of his radio broadcasts that have surfaced and are available for listening, many more recognizable ones undoubtedly exist out there somewhere, waiting to be found and interpreted—or misinterpreted. As one email correspondent put it: “…to paraphrase Freud, ‘Sometimes a leg lamp is just a leg lamp’” (Frank in Jersey). Ah, yes, some might be wrong interpretations, but Shep also produced many direct, unequivocal doozies:
“New York is a summer fistfight,” and walking up Sixth Avenue “knee-deep in cigar butts,” frequent disparaging comments on the thoughtless slovenliness of Americans.
Warren G. Harding school as being made of balsa wood and silly putty.
A simile from In God We Trust: “[Hohman] clings precariously to the underbody of Chicago like a barnacle clings to the rotting hulk of a tramp steamer.”
His mother’s knee: “She had this huge, giant, wonderful old granite knee. Had these handholds,” as symbolic of a child’s image of the mother as a chiseled-in-stone subject of truth, wisdom, and security.
Kidhood as a jungle is the direct ,extended, many-faceted, hyperbolic metaphor in Shepherd’s own narration at the end of his television drama, “The Phantom of the Open Hearth,” taken from the published script:
“The male human animal, skulking through the impenetrable fetid jungle of Kidhood, learns early in the game just what sort of animal he is. The jungle he stalks is a howling, tangled wilderness, infested with crawling, flying, leaping, nameless dangers
“He daily does battle with horrors and emotions that he will spend the rest of his life trying to forget or suppress. Or recapture. His jungle is the wilderness he will never fully escape, but those first early years, when the bloom is on the peach and the milk teeth have just barely departed, are the crucial days in the Great Education of Life.”
Shep in “Phantom of the Open Hearth”
Pretty strong, that one. But others can hold their own, too. Whether Shepherd used metaphors and allegories consciously or not in every sited instance is impossible to say, but that he used them sometimes is undeniable. In fact, I suggest that Shepherd’s penchant for the vigorous, descriptive language he is so admired for, especially in his writing, owes much to his sometimes strong and surprising metaphors.