Thinking about Shep, Lois Nettleton, Sinatra, and The Beatles.
Ringo, it’s reported, asked Frank Sinatra, through an intermediary, if he would record a song in honor of his wife for her 22nd birthday, Aug. 4, 1968. Sinatra recorded and sent to her (Maureen Starky) his reworded rendition of “That’s Why the Lady [Maureen] is a Champ.” It’s said the original disk is rare, but the audio is on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QyyF8_cq7SM.
Degrees of separation?
Shepherd∋The Beatles because he traveled to the British Isles and traveled with them/wrote the Playboy interview appearing Feb, 1965, despite having disparaged them numerous times.
ZERO DEGREES OF SEPARATION
Shepherd∋Sinatra because Shep was zero degrees from The Beatles, and Ringo got Sinatra to write “That’s Why the Lady is a Champ,” which makes Shep and Sinatra one degree.
ONE DEGREE OF SEPARATION
Shepherd∋Sinatra because Shep and Lois Nettleton were romantically linked, and in part married, from 1956 to about 1967–and Sinatra was romantically linked to Lois Nettleton in 1971-2.
ONE DEGREE OF SEPARATION
Shepherd∋Sinatra∋eb because I once met Shep, and spoke and corresponded with Lois, I’m some mixed-up combo of degrees of separation to Shep and ‘Ol Blue Eyes, too.
? DEGREES OF SEPARATION ?
Nick Mantis∋Barack Obama∋eb because I know Nick, and Nick suggested to Obama in 2006 that he run for the Presidency [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ko-6WiU6MK8].
ONE DEGREE OF SEPARATION!
This is all quite amusing to the main person involved (me, sorta). But, though there are some legitimate connections in “degrees of separation,” a lot of it is happenstance. What seem to me of somewhat more significance are the circumstances in which people diverge in ways unexpected. Shepherd and myself, for instance– for all my enthusiasm and obsession with Shep and his work and way of thinking. For example, Shepherd was a great enthusiast of classical music, opera, and modernist jazz–and he intensely disliked rock and roll.* I, on the other hand, like (but only rarely listen to) classical music and opera. Modernist music (Gillespie, Parker, Coltrane, etc.), although I recognize it must be extraordinary, find it totally incomprehensible–in ten seconds its apparently (to me) insistent meandering drives me nuts. Jean did turn me on to the sweet, elegant jazz of Django Reinhardt:
Jean [Django’s non-Romany first name] Reinhardt
Among other musical enthusiasms, I’m attuned (pun) to The Beatles, The Stones, The Who, Dylan, Springsteen, a handful of the more popular pieces by Eminem, as well as late Sinatra.
Where have I gone wrong–or at least missed out?
I would love to understand/appreciate Parker/Gillespie/Coltrane, but I never will–just listening carefully doesn’t cut it.
Shepherd should have been able to understand/appreciate some of the finer rock and roll–and even Eminem,–but as far as we know he never could. He never, to my knowledge, played rock on his broadcasts.
[More ironic in the caption than “Tambourine Man”
would have been “Like a Rolling Stone”
or “Positively 4th Street.”]
Shepherd, why didn’t you like what I like
and why don’t I like what you did?
As some inexplicably say, “That’s what makes horse racing!“
* Shep’s good friend during his last years says that he and Jean talked extensively about rock and roll. Did Shep actually listen to it and think about it–maybe even positively? Strange!
Although there is no ultimate answer to the question of veracity in Jean Shepherd’s travel tales, I believe that they mostly conform to his style of telling the truth about what happens during his trips. I believe that what he relates really happens as he broadcasts them. Yet, one occasionally comes across an incident such as this one in Paris. The narrative seems more formal and well-honed than most of those in which he tells us of his adventures. He probably worked on the outline and at least some of the details to a good extent before he improvised it on the radio. It certainly must conform to his attitudes about the French. Near the beginning he insists: “This is a true story,” and maybe, indeed, it is, down to the last detail.
• • • • • • • • • • • •
FRENCH FARCE. Part 1=LE DRUGSTORE.
• • • • • • • • • • • •
All right now, look. Let’s set the scene. Have you ever in your life just—oh, it maybe happens two or three times in a guy’s life where he is suddenly plunged into what could be described as a peculiar inverted-fantasy-nightmare-impenetrable scene—that looks like something that he has seen before—or imagined before—or dismissed before—that he can’t believe it.
Now listen carefully. Here’s the scene now. This is a true story. I’m not going to give you any preface as to how this happened, because how it happened is too long and that would take four more quarto volumes to get into it. Because these scenes—it doesn’t matter how it happened. It happened.
Here you see me, your old friend—me. Here you see me, and I am sitting on the floor of an apartment in the heart of Paris. I am sitting on the floor, scrunched down, and we are all gathered around a low marble coffee table that looks like it is at least four-hundred years old. And on the walls there are ancient, stained prints. It is an apartment of almost exquisite sensibility. Of almost painful civilization. It is the kind of apartment where you feel that the taste is so muted and so quiet, so casually calculated, and yet so long-drawn-out in an infinite number of mirrored walls and years that go back to perhaps the beginnings of the French people, that one does not question. A terrazzo floor. And I am sitting down with my knees cracking.
The first thing you begin to notice about the truly civilized Frenchmen is they’re little. They are little people. Have you noticed this? Little, natty people. Their suits are all kind of cut in at the waist, with little, thin pants, and they wear sparkling white shirts and little thin ties. And all of their hair is very thin on the top. I’ve noticed this among hundreds of the truly—you might say—the end-line of decadent families. And I am sitting down on this terrazzo floor and I am slowly spooning Iranian caviar, a dark, gray, succulent caviar, on thin French bread. I am squeezing the lemon on it. And I’m with a group of people who are total strangers to me.
• • • • • • • • • • • •
Finally, the man who has brought me here, who is a young French count, arises. It is his apartment, which is perhaps only a spit-and-a-half distance from the Arc de Triumph. Right in the heart of Maurice Chevalier country. He gets up and moves to the record player and a moment or two later we begin to hear the sound of Spanish guitar music filling the apartment. My friend Reno has put on his record player—his Columbia 360 Record Player.
And sitting across from him in this little soiree is his wife, Felice, and next to her is Gerard. Gerard, a tall, thin, ascetic, a kind of epitome of French taste. A young up-and-coming avant-garde, and yet, with-touches-of-the-gothic, interior decorator and architect from the Sorbonne. And next to him—next to him is his wife, Colette. O la la—Colette! Colette, the epitome of the French girl, of the true—let us say, zee sexy de le maison, ho ho! The sexy lady of the house.
And next to her is a Corsican. A tall, thin, languid Corsican named Felipe. Felipe, who, I have discovered, listening to their involved, subtle, beautifully muted French conversation—Felipe has traveled all the way up from Corsica, his home, to spend three days in an attempt to see if he can make any time with Colette, who is the wife of Gerard, the young architect. And sitting next to me is Reno, the husband of the family. And suddenly I find myself in the middle of a deep de Maupassant short story. The subtle interplay of sexual inference. And, by the way, the French are exceedingly—particularly if you get high enough up in certain circles—very graphic. Very graphic in their stories. And I am sitting in the middle of all this, attempting to grab ahold of it, attempting to somehow be part of this swirling scene right out of a bad French farce.
And I begin to realize that these French farces are not really French farces. That is the way the French really are! I couldn’t believe it!
And all night long the Corsican sits attempting to make time with Colette. They nuzzle, he nibbles her ear, and all the while Gerald, her husband, pays not the slightest attention. “It is just Colette’s little game.” Later he says that to me: “It is just Colette’s little game. I cannot take her from her hobby.”
I say, “Her hobby?”
“Everyone has his hobby. She has hers, I have mine.”
I have never felt more like a man from the Great Frontier Plains than I felt that night. This quiet, muted little interplay of subtle nuance, and all the while I sat, hairy, kind of big, a kind of bulking—and I’m not a big bulking man! But in this company I was a big, bulking, hairy man. I felt somehow that I had been transmuted into King Kong among the Lilliputians among these little Napoleonic prints hanging on the wall.
About ten minutes after the last smidgeon of caviar had disappeared and the first bite of cold chicken was beginning to be enjoyed by the company with a little French bread and a subtle Alsatian wine, the company began to warm to its task of civilized interplay. The intercourse of subtle minds.
Now, you get the scene. This was in Paris.
This is Paris
I had been in Paris many times, but I had rarely been in Paris the way I was two weeks ago. You’ve heard a lot about Paris. So many people talk about Paris. There are more movies about Paris, and they’re all clichés, I find. Just like the movie about New York is always a cliché. You always have the scene of the Empire State Building, but they never show you the Grand Concourse in the movie. And whenever they make a movie, somehow Queens is left out. They never include Flushing as part of New York. Well, that was the beginning of a weekend, the likes of which I have never spent anywhere, in any foreign country. Really. Because I began to see the American against the backdrop of an older civilization—I don’t want to be pompous about it—that was alternately jealous of the new civilization, and resentful of that new civilization. And at the same time, embracing that new civilization.
• • • • • • • • • • • •
And so, we had finished za last beet of chicken, the little poulet. After we had sipped the last Alsatian wine, vin ordinaire, we are out on the dark streets of Paris, whistling through the night in two French automobiles of particular anger, whistling through the darkness on our way toward what Reno describes to me—he says, “I wish to show you some of za life Americane. Za American life is very heep and we Paresians have many things which are very much like the American! And I wish to show you zat.”
I want to see what they consider “an American life.”
He says, “How would you like to go to zee drugstore?”
I say, “The drugstore?” It never would occur to me in America to say to my friends, “How about going to the drugstore with me?”
He says, “The American drugstore.” Always around everything he says is a kind of vague tongue-in-cheek putting down: “Zis is American, American life. Of course we don’t take it seriously, you see. It is a ball, however.”
• • • • • • • • • • • •
Do any of you know what is current right now, the big topic of conversation, the big topic of conversation in Paris, and, indeed, all of France. I mean other than anything political—what everybody really is talking about? Wherever you go, in a cocktail party you hear this, wherever six people gather to wait for a bus somebody will mention it. You ride down a great boulevard or you’re at the Place de la Concorde, everywhere, you see great posters talking about this in spectacular colors, magnificent designs.
And he says to me, “I shall take you tonight to show it to you.” So we head out into the French countryside to see what the French consider part of the American way of life. And it really is about as American as, let’s say, as an average weekend on Mars would be like. You know what I found, in my world travels, for what it’s worth? That anything that the people in the neighborhood in any country—wherever you go—whenever I’ve gone—whatever they relate to modernity, whatever is modern—and they vaguely don’t like it, they ascribe to America. Even if there’s nothing at all in America remotely like this. Whatever a Frenchman does not like about the new France, he says, “Is American.” It’s their own brand of twentieth-century insanity. Somehow, the world has discovered a fantastic scapegoat. That if kids break the windows along a string of shops: “Zat is because zey have seen zee American movie. Zey are attempting to be like heep—zee American Beatnik.” And yet whatever they like they ascribe, of course, to themselves.
So we go whistling out into the dark. I’m having a fantastic time because immediately I begin to dig them, they begin to dig me, and they begin to open up to me. One of the worst insults as an American—at least to me—is when they turn to you and say, “Oh, yes, but of course you are not zee ordinary American.” Somehow implying of course, that all Americans are slobs and idiots, fools, and naves, but “You are zee different one.”
On the other hand I then begin to do the opposite to them. I say to Reno, “But of course you are not the average Frenchman. The average Frenchman, he spit on the street, he throws the beer can out on Place de la Concorde, he drives like he is an idiot, he steals the antenna right off the Fiat, he is a slob, he knows nothing of politics of course.” Ohhh, he is purple! Because I’m giving back to him what he’s giving to me. And there is a kind of funny silence because they’re not used to getting it back in their own terms.
• • • • • • • • • • • •
So we’re whistling out through the night and we are going in the direction of “Paris 2,” which is the number one conversation subject in Paris. Now, what is “Paris 2”? It’s hard to explain it because there isn’t really much of a parallel to it in America, even though in Paris there is the myth going around that it is an American idea.
It’s way out in the French countryside somewhere. We drove up and down through lanes past little villages, through tiny streets with walled houses until suddenly, on a hillside, there it was, “Paris 2.” As we drew closer to it, it looked like we were approaching Disneyland. A kind of Disneyland. How can I describe “Paris 2”? I will begin to say that they think that it’s an American housing project. What they call luxury American housing, the kind where you buy an apartment. But actually when you get close to it—I’ve never seen anything in America remotely like it.
“Paris 2,” believe me, is really controversial in France. A group of French builders have built this fantastic cooperative housing project just outside of Paris and they sold eleven-hundred apartments when it opened the week before I arrived. This peculiar, strange-looking, other-world, vaguely fairyland, vaguely Howard Johnson, vaguely Texas place. That has no relationship to anything I ever saw in America, even though I may be describing it in American terms. And yet everybody in France believes firmly that “This is one of them American ideas. Very bad.” I couldn’t explain it to these people—this isn’t American!
At this point I’m really having a wild time. I’m really enjoying myself because the people I’m with are beginning to warm up. Gerard is beginning to feel his Alsatian wine, and Colette is beginning to tell dirty jokes in French, and Felipe is beginning to feel his oats, and Felice is having her fun, and Reno is nervous with me—he is supposed to be showing the better side of France and now they were all drunk. Oh, we were having a wild time. So Reno says to me, “We should go to the drugstore.”
[There are several “le drugstores” in and around Paris.
This is the one on the Champs Elysees.]
I said, “The drugstore.” It never occurred to me to go out on a big night on the town and go to the drugstore. Now get this—this is the country, friends, way out in the country, the equivalent of being somewhere near Flemington, New Jersey. There’s nothing. But right in the center of “Paris 2,” the hub of this establishment, on the hillside, is this thing! It looks like a sort of big mushroom all lit up.
Fantastic lights all the way around. Inside of it there must be a thousand light bulbs hanging at all different angles. It is lit inside like a stage set. Yellow, green, purple, mauve, amber spots all over the place. There it is, sitting on the hillside. Big thing. Must be the size of a football field. I can’t figure out what it is. He says, “This is the drugstore.”
We drive closer, a big cloverleaf in front of it and a giant parking lot. The place is mobbed with people, all sitting at different levels in big, plush, white, round booths that are like nightclub “conversation pits.” Gigantic things, white and puffy and sort of 1933-Jean Harlow style. Fluffy boudoir sort of things, all kind of very feminine, by the way.
Inside of this place are all kind of little shops—cashmere sweaters, very expensive perfumes and things. But they have absolutely no pharmacy or drugs anywhere. The drugstore in Paris has done away with drugs. You cannot buy any. I say to myself, “I’ll buy some razor blades.” Forget it. This is not a drugstore. It’s just called a drugstore.
And all the lights and the place is just blaring—it’s throbbing with rock and roll—dungadungadungadungadungadunga—and everyone is quietly sitting, nobody is dancing. It’s not a discotheque. They’re all in these conversation pits. French waiters are hurrying back and forth and up and down bringing frozen oranges and they’re bringing pressed duck and they’re bringing all kinds of magnificent food and ice cream and the whole business.
I’ve never seen anything in my life like this and we sit down in this thing and Girard turns to me. Girard the architect. And he says, “This is the sort of thing which I think has made the American not very well liked anywhere. Zis kind of American thing we have here.” He says, “Zis is fun to go to, but zis not French!”
I say, “This is not French? Are you kidding me! French? I don’t know what it is, Girard, but it ain’t American.”
He says, “Ah, come on, this is American. American drugstore.”
I say, “No! This is not like Liggett’s, This ain’t like Walgreens. This is like no drugstore. I’ve been in drugstores out on the Coast. I’ve been in Schwab’s in Hollywood. Nothing like this! There is nothing remotely like this.”
We spent the evening in The Drugstore. Isn’t it fantastic how the American is blamed all over the world and he doesn’t have anything to do with it? It doesn’t do any good to deny it. You just might as well go along with it and pretend like, “You think this is a drugstore, you should see the drugstore at home! Ohooo! Zis is nothing compared to what we have! Ohooo. We have zee drugstore that covers fifteen or seventeen or twenty blocks, we have seven-story drugstores. And I’m sitting in the middle of this, one of those wild nightmare nights, and I’m eating a mocha sundae, trying to pretend like this is my scene, this drugstore scene.
• • • • • • • • • • • •
Stay tuned for
“FRENCH FARCE. Part 2=LE RIOT “
• • • • • • • • • • • •
“I’ll award the brass figlagee with bronze oak leaf palm to the first person who can tell me…”
Brass Figlagee With…
The brass figlagee, with its made-up silly word, is a Shepherd invention, poking fun at the world of real awards given for real accomplishment….Within the same sphere of humanity’s array of foible-filled activities, there lies the peculiar fascination with trivia, often arcane and frequently inconsequential detail.[See EYF! starting on page 105 for more detail.]
How the Brain Stores Trivial Memories, Just in Case
The above is the title of an article about a new study “that suggests that a surge of emotion can make the old newly relevant.” New York Times, 1/22/2015 article by Benedict Carey. Shep would have loved it, especially the bizarre aspect of how the study was conducted: conducted at NYU, it consisted in part of people being connected to a “Pavlovian fear conditioning machine.” Yes. The article begins:
The surge of emotion that makes memories of embarrassment, triumph and disappointment so vivid can also reach back in time, strengthening recall of seemingly mundane things that happened just beforehand and that, in retrospect, are relevant, a new study has found….
The findings fit into the predominant theory of memory: that it is an adaptive process, continually updating itself according to what knowledge may be important in the future.
The new study suggests that human memory has, in effect, a just-in-case file, keeping seemingly trivial sights, sounds and observations in cold storage for a time in case they become useful later on.
Trivia is not Trivial
“I’ll award the brass figlagee with bronze oak leaf palm to the first person who can tell me…”
“Shepherd, with his pleasure in details, and his
insistence that there is often more to life
than most of us perceive, delighted in showing off
his knowledge and his ability to make
unexpected connections.”–[See my EYF! pages 106-110.]
Those doing the scientific study were lead by a postdoctoral fellow in cognitive neuoroscience. The study involved watching photographs scroll by on a computer screen and being subjected to shocks that were “uncomfortable but not painful.” The memory effect in humans is referred to as “retroactive consolidation.” I suggest that, had Shepherd become aware of such a study, he would have laughed/groaned, and would have been satisfied, rather than be a lab specimen subjected to uncomfortable–but not painful shocks–satisfied with his own un-induced “retroactive consolidation.”
“Now stop a minute here, madam, stop–these little bits of trivia–you begin to see that they do have a universality and some kind of a deep, sinister meaning.” —Shepherd, March 3, 1961.
And I remember one afternoon, walking along a winding street in Dublin, right near the river. And that’s one of the most beautiful rivers in the world. And across the river you could see the brewery and you could smell the Guinness Stout hanging in the air. What a country!
We’re walking along this winding street that was a little wet, and I’m with Shamus, and I said, “You know, Shamus, it’s a funny country.” And this is after I had been there two or three times. The actual feeling of Ireland began to drift down into me. When you’re first there, all you’re interested in is the great dialog and the dialect and the way the people talk.
Shamus and I were going out to lunch. Shamus is a writer in Ireland. Almost all Irishmen are writers in one way or another, even if they never write, even if they only talk. Again, maybe it’s that sense of something lost and gone which cause Irishmen to be what they are and talk the way they do and think the way they think. And we went into this tavern.
The curious thing about Ireland too, is the love/hate quality about it. That all Irishmen love Ireland and hate Ireland. Maybe it’s like life itself. Maybe this is why Ireland has a unique place in the hearts of everyone all over the world. Because I suspect that more of life—I mean the real quality of life is—can be found in Ireland than anywhere else in the world.
Just like your own life—you hate it and you love it. It’s hard to know which is the more important. And you keep going back and forth, drifting around between those two poles—love and hate, love and hate. And in Ireland it’s always there. You look around and it’s green and soft, you can smell the sea, hear the birds and bells, and there’s that drifting haze and peat bog and smoke and the magnificent horses and the beautiful cattle and the roads, the winding roads and the old castles. And you have the sense of love and hate. And it’s not really hate, it’s sadness really, more than anything else, because I don’t think most people hate life, they get sad about life. And at the same time they don’t really love life, they exhilarate in it. They ecstasy in it.
And this is the way it is in Ireland. You can’t say you love it, you can’t say you hate it. And the Irishmen themselves, you notice—most Irishmen leave Ireland and then spend the rest of their lives writing about it. Sean O’Casey, James Joyce, Frank Sullivan, you can go on down the line and there they are, all of them.
You know, Ireland is a country I don’t talk much about. Well, I have Irish blood in me and you can probably tell that. The Irish are born storytellers—and, well, there’s a word for it. My grandmother was a Rafferty and the type she was, was South-Side-of-Chicago-Irish, which is very different from the Boston Irish.
The first night that I was in Dublin. It’s a funny thing about Ireland. It is a silent country. Very little sound in Ireland. And this, perhaps, adds to the strange poignancy of the country. There’s a curious kind of silence that hangs over even the biggest cities! Even in the middle of a giant traffic jam, somehow it’s muted. Silent. And I remember walking out of the hotel that I was living in, which was not far from the river in Dublin. It was March and the streets were wet. There was a kind of grayness, a sort of wrapped-in-cotton softness to everything. Ireland doesn’t really get cold, you know, like we get cold here in New York or in America, because it is an island country and the sea tempers everything—it doesn’t get warm either. It’s always sort of muted, and it’s always vaguely green and gray. It’s always a sense of somehow somebody hasn’t quite opened the curtain. There’s a quality continually of you can’t quite see in Ireland. Even in the bright sunlight it’s muted and soft.
I was walking along, it must have been about nine or ten o’clock and I’d arrived at night, and I checked in, and I walked out and it was vaguely foggy. So, I was walking along a winding street—it was a stone street, the bricks were rounded and wet and kind of slippery and gleaming. You could see the fog hanging around the streetlights. And there was something that was kind of bothering me and I couldn’t figure out what it was. A strange thing. And then I began to discover what it was. I could hear my own footsteps. The first time in a long time I’d ever heard my feet on a street in a big city. I could hear my feet and I could hear them echoing from side to side. And then, as I became conscious of this, I could hear feet all around me, I could hear feet in the next street, I could hear feet of people ahead of me, behind me. And then I heard sounds of windows—someone would open a window. I would hear the sound of a door close and I walked along the street and made a turn and it was a soft light—there’s not much brightness in Dublin when you get out of the main square where the recent explosion was—if you can remember a year or two ago. Everything is quiet and dark, and I saw a tavern and I went into the tavern bar.
Bars and taverns in Ireland are almost exclusively masculine, you know. This is the bar. The tavern world of Ireland is a special thing and it’s almost always masculine, or very old ladies. Somehow, when people get to be very old, they cease to have sex—I mean they have no sex about them at all. And so you find old ladies quite often in a very masculine bar. Something called “The Boar’s Head” or something called “Paddy’s Shillelagh,” and you go in and they have these huge spigots and that long bar and all the men are standing, wearing their caps and leaning against the bar and drinking that magnificent beer, and that fantastic stout they drink in Ireland. One of the world’s greatest beer countries must be Ireland.
We were standing there. I dropped in and had my beer and then I went back out into this street after I’d heard the soft, murmuring voices, a curious kind of music that is always in the air in Ireland. And I walked down the street and a little further and I could see people ahead in the haze. You know the halo-effect you get when there’s a fog and a light is shining through it. I saw these people walking along through it and the light shining off their rubber raincoats, and I heard their feet echoing.
And I went home that night—I went back to the hotel room, which looked like it had been built roughly in the eighteen-seventies. It had this curious kind of striped wallpaper with vines growing up the side of it, and a great wooden cabinet up against the wall that was made out some kind of bent, dark-brownish wood, with a key sticking out of it and great doors all varnished and heavy. And the ceiling was thirty feet above my head with what was left of gas jets, believe it or not, still sticking out of the plaster. They had just recently put in electricity. You could see it was sort of jerry-built. It was a green wire, you know the kind of electrical wire that has green silk over it—that old kind of wire that grandmas have in their houses attached to their lamps—green wire came down and there was a yellow light bulb. And this was my room in Ireland. And the threadbare carpet. And I was reminded of my grandmother on the South Side of Chicago and I sat down on that squeaking bed and I took out of my bag a copy of one of my absolutely favorite books—James Joyce’s The Dubliners.
Whenever they talk of Joyce, they always speak of Finnegan’s Wake, or they talk about A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, or they talk about Ulysses, but to me, some of the best of all Joyce is found in The Dubliners. And once you’re in Dublin and Ireland in general, you understand what Joyce is talking about with these stories of the old priests and the young boys and the river and the story of the girls under the street lights, and all of it comes to life in an unbelievable way. A great writer. And particularly in this evocation of a strange, elusive mood.
And so I lay in bed, this lumpy bed that smelled like straw and smelled like old bedsprings. I looked down, I could see that worn carpet. One thing about the Irish, somehow, there’s a curious kind of honesty. But it’s not the kind of honesty that we talk about—honesty—honesty. They have an honest poverty. They don’t mind if the carpet is worn. Nobody seems to say anything about it. It’s all worn, you can see it’s unraveling at the edges.
And I’m lying in the bed there with the yellow light bulb hanging over me and I could hear the footsteps outside. I’d opened these high, old fashioned windows that opened up to the outside air. That foggy air was drifting in. I could smell the river and I could hear these feet walking past. And it was Ireland.
I’m the kind who gets up very early in the morning, whenever I go anyplace because I figure I could sleep a lot back home. So I am up at five-thirty in the morning and I’m awakened by a sound of banging and rattling. I was almost on the ground floor in my hotel room, and I got up and looked out the window and down below me was a man delivering milk in big bottles. He was wearing this cap and he had a horse. This was something I had not seen or heard of in a long time. There was this horse and this big wagon with rubber tires, the bottles banging, and off he went with the clipping and the clopping in the dark, soft, easy air.
It sounds like it’s something out of the ancient past but it’s not. Ireland is still there. This is one of the reasons why there is a strange sense of poignancy about Ireland. As you ride along the roads in Ireland you keep coming upon old horses pulling old carts with old men sitting on piles of straw and peat, looking with watery-blue eyes at the soft gray hills. It’s a curious feeling. And they’re not there for the tourists, they’re there because they’re there. They’re there because that’s the way life is. And so I thought that afternoon, as the sun came up and I walked all over Dublin.
I remember that night I was sitting in a theater in a garage. A friend of mine—I’m moving backwards in time and space here, the way Joyce does. This friend of mine said, “Would you like to go to a strange theater? A good theater. I know you are doing a lot of off-Broadway.”
At that time I had been doing a lot of off-Broadway acting. I’d been in several off-Broadway productions that they’d heard about in Ireland. He said, “As an off-Broadway actor you’d be interested in this.”
And we went down an alley. It was maybe eleven or twelve o’clock at night, and we drove up this little old rattle-trap Anglia, his car. We drove up and down a dark, cold, dank alley and finally we arrived back of a garage, and he knocked and a man looked out, peered at him, said, “Oh, oh come in, come in. Who’s this who is with you?”
And he introduced me. And we were now in a dank little theater that had been built into what looked like a stone garage that was part of a whole series of garages, and it had maybe seventy-five seats at the most and the people sat in this cold garage that was unheated, and they wore coats and fur hats and we sat huddled and watched the rehearsal of a play that was beginning to go into production, up on this tiny, postage-stamp stage.
There must have been no more than five of us sitting in this little, dark, huddled theater, and all five of the people in some way had other business with this production. And I sat and watched them rehearse. They were actors from the Abbey Theatre who were acting after their Abbey work. They were doing this in their off-time. It was an underground theater.
And this man sat next to me and he’d been drinking. And he turned to me and he said, “You’re Shepherd, aren’t you?”
And I said, “Yes.”
He said, “Ah, Night People.”
And I said, “Yeah, Night People.”
He said, “Ah, Night People. A-huh.”
And I could smell the whisky about him. And that was the night that I met and got to know Brendan Behan. And that was before Brendan Behan had his first production. And he was sitting in this theater and they were about to do his first show. He was sitting hunched down and we talked for hours after that and went out to a tavern on the other side of Dublin that night, that was open. It was like an underground tavern, because they have very strict liquor laws, believe it or not, in Ireland. And people have to knock twice and crawl in through the basement window to get in after curfew hour. And this is another reminiscence that has little importance to the afternoon that I spent with another friend, Shamus.
I was meeting Shamus for lunch, and we went down this long, winding street, and we finally came to this tavern where Shamus always ate. He was a newspaperman. A genuine, ink-stained wretch in the Dickensian sense. They really are, you know, the Dickensian newspaper still exists in places like Ireland and Scotland, where there is ink and the guys who write for the papers actually get ink stain. And so I was with this ink-stained wretch, who, by the way, was also a member of the IRA I got to know very well, and we talked much about the IRA. And so we were now sitting in this tavern and around us were all these men, and they were all in one way or another connected with the IRA, The Irish underground.
You know what they eat quite often in Ireland, in an afternoon for lunch? It’s a funny thing, Irish food. You don’t hear much about real Irish food in America, but the one thing I recall having, as we sat down, was a plate of mushrooms, fresh mushrooms, that had been picked that afternoon. And fried in butter and served with braised kidney. In Ireland, a mushroom, in a way, is their equivalent of French fried potatoes. As you know, you go into a tavern in America and you can get French fries with almost anything you eat. In Ireland in that kind of place, the one thing they sell is these magnificent, tiny, button mushrooms—which grow so much in this climate of Ireland, that sometimes you stand and you look down on the shady side of a hill and it seems to be all white and gray, and when you get close to it you see that it’s coated with a soft covering of tiny button mushrooms that have grown since the night before and they fry them in butter.
fried in butter.
So we sat there and ate the buttered mushroom in this tavern in Dublin, and I said to Shamus, “You know, Shamus, it’s almost a cult now, isn’t it? This thing of James Joyce.”
He said, “Yeah, as a matter of fact, you know, Joyce is probably Dublin’s biggest business now.” He said, “Joyce is our big industry now here.”
And I said, “Wouldn’t that have kind of amused Joyce? Don’t you think that Joyce would have been kind of bugged by this?”
And he said, “Yes. You know, I knew him well.” He said, “I knew Joyce when he lived here in town and I knew him when he was an ex-patriot. I knew him then.”
And I said, “What did he feel about Ireland after he became this famous person—everybody loved him?”
There was a long pause. We were eating the mushrooms and you could hear the taps drawing the stout, drawing the fantastic Irish beer, and all the men were sitting around—it was lunch time, this was not tourist time. People do not go to Ireland at that time of the year—it’s considered one of their worst times of the year as far as climate is concerned. It was just a lot of Irish working men and men from the newspapers, all sitting around drinking and talking. And Shamus looked out over the crowd and he said, “Aye, half of these men here knew him.”
And sitting over in a corner was a man who looked a little like a debauched Charles Laughton. Great handlebar moustache, the kind of handlebar moustache that comes out of Dickens. And he was sitting there, and Shamus said, “Sean, come over here.”
And Sean got up and dropped cigar ashes all over the place and came and sat down at our table with us.
And Shamus said, “This is my friend Shepherd. His mother was a Rafferty.” That kind of made me “in,” you see. My grandmother would have flipped her cork if she’d thought that all of a sudden I was using her South Chicago Irish, which is much different from Boston Irish. Much different. I can’t tell you how different the worlds are. You’ll find a lot of the South Chicago Irish written about in the works of James T. Farrell, who wrote the Lonigan Trilogy. Lonigan, you know, was a typical South Chicago Irishman. Studs Lonigan. Lonigan is an Irish name, and my father lived one block away from Farrell in the land of the Raffertys.
You know that almost all of the people who worked in the stockyards on the South Side of Chicago and who worked in the steel mill, were Irish at one point in the evolution of the Irish in America. And they had a very important impact on the whole life of Chicago. Bathhouse Kelly, Bathhouse John, that whole crowd. And even today, I would say, and I would dare to suggest, that Chicago is a more Irish city than is Boston. Boston is something else again. Oh yes, they have had a Mayor Kelly in Chicago for a long time!
So, as I sat there, Shamus said, “His mother is Flora Rafferty, from Cork, you know.”
I said, “Yes.” I have no Irish accent at all, but I have an Irish look. So I sat there and looked vaguely sinister, and then Sean said, “Ah, good to see you,” and we drank some more stout and then Sean said, “And what are you doing here?”
I said, “Just being here. It’s the best thing to be.”
We sat for another ten minutes and then Shamus said, “He’s curious about Joyce, you know.”
And there was a long pause.
Sean said, “I always was too, you know, although I was one of his old friends.”
We sat for another long, pregnant moment.
He said, “You know, this is where he actually really came, you know. He lived here, in this tavern, not the one all the tourists go to, you know.”
And I said, “What did he do?”
“You know, what he really did here, you know—ate mushrooms.”
James Joyce, 1904.
So we ate mushrooms. Outside, people walked past, you could see the gray, soft fog drifting in from the sea, and you could smell the river, and you could hear a footstep now and again, and then it became one o’clock suddenly, and the men all got up and went back to work. And I was in Ireland.
Shamus said, “I’ll see you tonight.”
I said, “See you tonight, Shamus.”
And he walked down the street with his coat collar turned up against that kind of cutting March wind. And I’d been in Dublin on St. Patrick’s Day, which is very different from being in New York on St. Patrick’s Day. Very different indeed.
And the river flowed on. And there it was. Ireland. That strange, indefinable, peculiar, tugging, poignant, beautiful, gray, green, soft, shadowy country. Where there really are elves and there really are fairies, and they really do eat fried, buttered mushrooms on a quiet Friday afternoon.
Shepherd, on his radio program, promoted Greenwich Village, The Village Voice, and other aspects of the then-prominent culture identified with it, such as jazz and the Beats. He narrated a TV video about it and narrated the commercial film “Village Sunday.” (His love, Lois Nettleton, plays the part of a young woman strolling along, observing the scene.) He obviously appreciated the Village culture, and in the 1970s, live there for years.
I recently encountered a 600-page book, The Village–A History of Greenwich Village, 400 years of Beats and Bohemians, Radicals and Rogues (John Strausbaugh, 2013).I’ve read the sections on the 1950s and 1960s, encountering a few good pages with an overall description of Shepherd, especially regarding the I, Libertine affair. My Excelsior, You Fathead! is mentioned in passing and is listed in the bibliography. The chapter with the Shep material, titled “Village Voices,” focuses on, among other items, Shep, Mailer, and the Voice. Epigraphs for that chapter:
You have no idea what a terrible lure this place is to people who live outside of this place. –Jean Shepherd
Greenwich Village is one of the bitter provinces–it abounds in snobs and critics. –Norman Mailer
[I do believe that the Shep quote refers not specifically to the Village but to all of New York City.]
The Shepherd-section, hitting most of the high points in a few pages, containing little if anything not generally known about him, ends with:
Despite his adoring listeners, Shepherd increasingly chafed at limitations of regional radio. After leaving WOR in 1977 he concentrated on film and television with some success, the bittersweet (mostly bitter) 1983 holiday film A Christmas Story, which he wrote and narrated, is considered a seasonal classic. But he never quite achieved the status he thought he deserved as a modern day Mark Twain or Will Rogers and withdrew to Sanibel Island off the Florida gulf coast where, a self-professed sorehead, he lived in relative seclusion until dying of natural causes in 1999. No doubt he’d find some rueful satisfaction in knowing that today copies of I, Libertine are collectors’ items going for as much as $350 for the hardcover and over $200 for the paperback.
[If one has the persistence to wait, one can get a paperback these days for about $50]
I enjoyed and found well-done, the author’s extensive material on the Beats, Shepherd, the folk scene, Mailer, the Voice, the emergence of Bob Dylan, and other surrounding material. There are no major errors regarding Shepherd, and the author seems to have used good and knowledgeable sources. Few if any other descriptions of Shepherd that I’ve encountered seem so on-the-mark. One might assume that the rest of the book is also good.
Village Voice front page,
with Shepherd, Nettleton, and Ann Bancroft.
Shepherd takes several trips to Ireland and speaks of it a number of times on the air. He indicates that it is one of his favorite places. His programs about the country tend not to be story-telling affairs. He entertains us not with such exciting tales as being on an aircraft carrier or in the Negev Desert or traveling with the Beatles or jamming with former headhunters of the Peruvian Amazon. He entertains by evoking a sense of place—the Irish countryside, small towns along the way, daily life of the people, and little, detailed descriptions of his encounters. You feel that you are there. With this he keeps us spellbound. It’s little wonder that, as a great storyteller, he claims to have Irish blood in him and that one of his favorite books is James Joyce’s Dubliners. Though told on different St. Patrick’s Days, both of the following evocations seem to refer to the same occasion in Dublin.
One of the most enlightening St. Patrick’s Days that I ever spent was in Dublin. I was in the hotel in Dublin—they don’t celebrate it, you know. I celebrated it once in Dublin, I celebrated it in Cincinnati, I celebrated it a couple of times in the army, but of course, St. Patrick’s Day goes by like any other day in the army. However, in Dublin—very interesting.
When I travel, I travel very early in the morning. I reverse my total lifestyle when I’m travelling. I’m out at the crack of dawn, because most of the cities that you can travel around in are really at their most interesting before and during the morning rush hour, to see how people go to work.
For example, people going to work in Amsterdam—a fantastic sight. Almost the entire population is on bicycle. You see a whole crowd of women all on bicycles, and guys dressed up in suits with their briefcases. They all have these goofy-looking bicycles. They look very heavy, not elegant at all in our style, very practical, functional bikes, very dull-looking. Hundreds of people all going along and they move like sparrows—great crowds of them go from light to light.
Early morning is very groovy in countries, wherever you go. One of the great early-morning towns is Dublin. The end of winter and they have a long, foggy, curious kind of spring and yet it’s always green there, it’s never really winter as we have. They don’t have great drifts of snow, but it gets very cold and dank. It’s Ireland. I remember this morning on St. Patrick’s Day. It was gray.
Here I am standing in Dublin. If you’re curious, I have my credentials. My grandmother’s name was Flora Florence Rafferty. And there I am in Dublin in a bar at eight o’clock in the morning. In Dublin you go to the bar at eight in the morning—this is breakfast for this particular Dubliner I was with who was a writer for the Irish Times. Eight o’clock in the morning. This is not my scene, but this is where he went so the bartender comes over and he’s got this rag and he’s wiping away. Ireland’s a funny country. I don’t think there’s a country in the world that you more immediately feel at home in than Ireland. This is a fact about Ireland.
Sure and begorrah, it’s time for another one of New York’s nuttiest days. Sure and begorrah, it’s St. Patty’s Day! I don’t think there is any holiday that gets New York as completely involved as St. Patrick’s. Now, a lot of people are going to say Christmas, but I don’t think so. I think there’s something about St. Patrick’s Day that completely involves this nutty town. And I’ve never seen it anywhere else—even including Ireland! Which is the nuttiest part of it all.
St. Patty’s Day in New York
I’ve been in Ireland several times, and I remember one day, I’m in Dublin and I’m standing in the bar in the Shelbourne and I’m hoisting a few. After all, when you’re in Ireland you must do as the Romans do. I’m having a little of the Irish mist and looking into the mirror and standing next to me is probably the most Irish of all the Irishmen I’ve ever known. A genuine Irishman. Can you imagine an Irishman with a name more Irish than Shamus Kelly?
Old Shamus looks at me and I look at Shamus. We’re sipping the dew, and I said, “Shamus, we’re in Dublin.”
He says, “Ah, Dublin.”
We look back in the mirror again, and over the mirror they had this painting of this naked lady, very large naked lady, an Irish naked lady. She has red hair and she looked very Irish. That’s one of the reasons why that painting was over the mirror in the bar there—because she is so Irish.
We’re both looking into the mirror and Shamus suddenly says to me, “It’s a shame I can’t be in New York at this time of year.”
I say, “What’s the matter, Shamus?”
“There’s nothing like New York on St. Patrick’s Day.”
I say, “Nothing like New York—on St. Patrick’s Day?” I say, “But Shamus, we’re in Dublin on St. Patrick’s Day!”
“Ah,” he says, “Nothing, nothing. St. Paddy’s Day in Dublin is just another day.”
Oh, I’ll tell you, New York! Do you mind if I do a little reminiscing about Ireland tonight? One of the most poignant countries is Ireland. I can’t explain it. I’ve been in many countries. I’ve been pretty much all over the world and each country is beautiful in its own right. There’s no question about it, because we’re living on a beautiful earth. It’s beautiful from the eye of man. This is the way we define beauty.
So, if you’re standing in the Negev Desert, I find it beautiful. I’m in the streets of Bangkok with that hot, searing, oriental sun racking down, I find it beautiful. I find Ireland beautiful. A superb country. But each country has a word—in my own mind—that kind of captures it. For example, you must say this about Israel. Israel is exciting. America is a dynamic country. Everybody I know who comes to America says there’s something in the air about America. It’s a dynamic, strange country. I’ve been to countries that could be called languid—you step out of the plane and you walk down the street and it’s like you’re in the middle of some kind of soft, warm syrup—it’s a languid country. Then I’ve been in countries that are lascivious. Oh yeah. They’re not the ones you think they are. People generally think of Sweden. Not at all. I find Sweden one of the great, last bastions of true prudery.
Ireland. Ireland is a poignant country. In a curious sense, hanging over all the hills. I remember one time I was driving to Dublin. I was all by myself in this little English Ford and I stopped by the side of the road, and off in the distance you could see these light blue hills, and between the blue hills and the road there were maybe three or four miles of peat bogs. And there was a soft, grayish blue, vaguely pink smoke rising. A few little houses between me and the mountains, and it was absolutely silent. I looked over this long, low, rolling field, this peat bog. You could smell the grass and you could smell the peat and smell the smoke. It was all mingled in the air, and in the distance I could see this low-lying hill, a low ridge of hills.
They were purple, vaguely grayish, and kind of misty, like clouds drifting away. Behind me on the left was another short hill that rose. It was green. You know Ireland really is green. It’s a combination of its geographical location and the sea air that’s always sweeping in over this country. It’s absolutely green—it’s beautiful.
Off to my left was the sea and a short hill. And rising out of this hill there was a mound of red and gray granite stones—what was left of an ancient castle that had slowly given up, drifted down into the darkness of the ancient past, and now all you could see was this pile of stones outlined against the sky. This was not tourist country, it was an old, old stone home that had finally lost the battle. And I could smell the smoke. It was silent. But you could hear bells ringing on cows. There’s always a cow somewhere near you in Ireland.
And I don’t know why, but I had a feeling, not of how beautiful this is—which it was—I didn’t have a feeling of what a great place to be—which it was—but a feeling of how sad all this is. What a sad place Ireland is. In a curious kind of way, and yet it’s a place where there’s a lot of fun, and a lot of joy. Don’t misunderstand me—it’s not that the people are sad—not at all, but there’s that poignant quality, that quality of something vaguely lost.
And with that bluish tint, that always-hanging gray, blue, green, soft haze that is in Ireland, after you’ve been in Ireland maybe a month, you really do believe in elves and fairies and little people—you honestly do. Because, if they’re anywhere in the world, they’re in Ireland.
by Mark Roberts
You really do believe in elves and fairies and little people.
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Jean Shepherd was an icon in his time. Now he’s not. What happened?”
× × × × × × × × × × × × × × ×
Photo by Dan Beach
What!– ME largely forgotten?!
The author of The Atlantic article, shown above, is wrong–as I trust we all know. Jean Shepherd is not largely forgotten. Let us begin by admitting that even at his most popular, it was, relative to big celebrity fame, a “cult” enthusiasm. So there were never many millions who knew his name and appreciated what he did. Many aspects of his life and work that are a part of American culture remain, by the majority of Americans, unnamed–unrecognized. For example, we can imagine that the vast majority of those who love A Christmas Story have no idea of the name of the creator and narrator. But, besides all the popularity of A Christmas Story, the movie, there’s the straight play based on it shown in innumerable tiny town throughout the land, and the musical based on the movie.
There’s Jerry Seinfeld (“He formed my entire comedic sensibility. I learned how to do comedy from Jean Shepherd,” See Seinfeld’s Paley Center tribute to Shepherd in January 2012) Billy Collins (U.S. Poet Laureate) Donald Fagen, Dee Snider, Don Imus, Harry Shearer and most of those in the arts and media today who consider him their master and still discuss him. New essays and comments about Shep continually appear on the Internet.
Among us regular folks, over a thousand audios of his 45-minute radio shows are easily and cheaply available by the hundreds per CD–captured and preserved by dedicated enthusiasts over the decades. There are three websites (check out www.flicklives.com), two email groups, a blog with extensive illustrated essays about him. There are two major books about him–my 500-page appreciation and overview of his career, and the 2013 book of my transcriptions of almost 3 dozen of his army stories told on the radio, for which I’ve been interviewed numerous times–twice by NPR, once by CBS TV, etc. Shep’s own books continue to sell, as can be noted by checking the colophon page of the top 2 trade paperbacks, where one sees that the re-printings have gone into well over two-dozen each. (From time to time I check this out at my local B & N, where I inevitably find one or more of Shep’s books for sale. IGWT has now reached 46 re-printings). A documentary about his work is being worked on these days by Nick Mantis. I could go on for hours–and frequently do.
See the list of dozens of 1960s then-renowned comic figures in the book Seriously Funny and ask how much celebrity and fan-enthusiasm they have today. Some of the very greats from the golden age of radio–Fred Allen, Jack Benny–how much interest in them, listening to them, reading them, watching them– is there today compared to Shepherd? In terms of current enthusiasm, aren’t all of them more “largely forgotten” than Shepherd is?
How many comics/humorists have so many
enthusiasts dedicated to them decades
after they left the spotlight?
Excelsior, you fathead!
Jean Shepherd’s reporting about his extraordinary experience of being with the Beatles concludes with his description of a riot on stage and his own comments on what it was like to be a part of the Beatles’ world and to be surrounded by a mayhem of pre-pubescent girls gone amuck.
The Beatles sat in total control of their world. They would either give people an audience or they would deny them. And believe it or not, it got to the point where I began to feel special myself because they talked to me! Yes! This is the kind of nuttiness that must have created a Hitler. Must have felt good to a guy to walk in and have Mr. Hitler say, “Oh, hello, hi, Hans!” We all have a secret desire to somehow be greeted on a first-name basis by somebody who is a real myth and a legend. And up to that point, I’d been a non-believer. And I saw this happening.
Nobody got angry at the Beatles. Oh no. When the Beatles would throw somebody out, like the countess—just hurl her out in the street, she felt pleased to have spoken with them for a moment.
So it got to that point where I would come into their room and John would look up and say, “How ya doin’, Jean?” I would glow! The Beatles recognized me! When one of them would say to me, “How’d ya like a drink, heh? Here, have a drink,” and he’d hand me a drink, and that great warmth would come out again, and I realized that I had been admitted to Olympus! I was allowed to be on the same plain with a world phenomenon. Fascinating! And when I got out into the privacy of a hotel hallway, all of a sudden I’d say to myself:
“What are you doing? This is a rock and roll group—these are the Beatles. For god’s sake, Shepherd, get a grip on yourself!”
And then the door would open down there and McCartney would stick his head out and say, “Hey, Jean, when you come back, knock twice, we’ll let ya in.”
He’d slam the door and I’d say, “God recognizes me!”
I learned something then. I learned how impossible it must be for a reporter to remain objective in the presence of the very great. Notoriety can be greatness, you know.
As I rode through the countryside, I found myself becoming not only a Beatle fan but a Beatle! Yes—when the screams were out there, they were screaming for me! And so, one of the band-boys—one of the kids who work in the Edinburgh theater—all he did was set up the drums. He came backstage and there was this little window looking out over the alley where there were eighteen million kids screaming to the Beatles, and he was talking to one of the Beatles about setting up the equipment. Then he turned and walked to the window—just stood there for a moment, and then pulled the curtain back and looked out and there was a fantastic
He pulled it closed. He turned back to us standing there and said, “Just once I wanted them to scream for me!” Just once. That sounds like I invented it, but so help me, that’s exactly what happened.
Which brings up a point—how many of you secretly scream for whatever it is you scream for—whether it’s a presidential candidate, whether it’s a philosopher, whether it’s a Beatle? How many of us scream just out of a sheer exuberance of screaming for something? Anything that will respond to us screaming. I have a feeling that one day, in some of our major countries there will be mechanical devices which will be set up to receive and record the quantity and quality of screams that we can hurl at them. And that we will have favorite machines. Somebody will like the green one, somebody will like the red one, somebody will like the blue one. And every night they will put another one of these on stage for us to go scream at.
It’s a curious thing to be backstage with the Beatles and see the kind of madness they engender. You know that when the Beatles are on stage, not one person listens. A good twenty-five to thirty minutes before the Beatles come out, their screaming starts, and of course they’re all standing. Have you ever seen paintings by Hieronymus Bosch?
Hell portion of Bosch triptych–
“Garden of Earthy Delights.”
Well, let me tell you, the wildest scene of all is not to watch the Beatles—I stood on the stage apron just back of the curtain where you could see out and they couldn’t see you, and I watched the audience. Whoever was staging this did a fantastic job. They had red lights playing over the audience—just back and forth, red and green spotlights up into the balcony and over into the lodges and into the theater pit.
And this entire mass of screaming, waving, insane, wild human beings you couldn’t even relate to as human beings. It was like looking at some kind of swarm of beetles or gnats, some kind of insane wasp nest that had been stirred up.
And then it had to happen. Even the Beatles themselves had never seen anything like this. We were playing a town called Leeds. Leeds is an industrial city. An ordinary kind of place—like Gary, Indiana or like Union City, a lot of factories and refineries. Sort of a tough, nothing-city in England. An ancient one but very nothing. Nobody was expecting what happened. It just came out of the combustion. The Beatles were on stage and the waves of sound were coming up. Screaming, screaming, just roaring out, one after another, it was getting higher and higher.
Leeds, the Odeon Theatre with Shep and the Beatles
The road manager, standing next to me, had heard thousands of these. He said to me, “This doesn’t sound right.” He called two of the stage hands. “Get over back of me. Something’s going to happen. It sounds funny.”
Sure enough it did. More and more it was coming in wave after wave and quicker and quicker and suddenly without any warning, it was like a big wave coming right out of the ocean—it broke right over the parapet and there were about fifty girls on stage.
It went BROOOOOOM! And the Beatles staggered back, their zippers popping. This great wave of girls all poured on the stage and it was a fantastic melee, and the stagehands, constables, and me, we all rushed out—big scream for us—part of the show—and what do you think the girls were doing?
The girls were tearing off their clothes—not the Beatles’ but theirs! Literally tearing their clothes off on the stage. Fifty of them.
And we all were throwing these chicks like footballs, back into the crowd. And they were all about eight-years-old! Nine-years-old! You grabbed one and her bloomers were flying. And the rest of the crowd went RAAAAAAAA! and we were throwing them back.
One of them had crawled under the stage, and she came out of the wings like a shotgun shot—BOOOOM! like a little bowling ball. She rolled three times and knocked Ringo’s drums over, and as she rolled, she was peeling off clothes, wildly peeling. Ringo grabbed her by the neck and pushed her. “Get away from me!” And she let go a fantastic AAAAAAAAAAAAAAA! Ringo yelled, “Pull the curtain down, man!” BOOOOM! down it came and the Beatles were trapped with seven naked five-year-olds.
What a moment, I’ll tell you! A great moment in the English Theatre. Of course that ended the show for that night. The next day the Press blamed the Beatles:
“The Beatles once again have caused violence to strike our small city here.”
I’m thinking of all those parents at home with little girls named Agatha. Little, skinny girls eating their oatmeal, and the mother says,
“Did you enjoy the Beatles last night?”
I can only imagine a picture of little Agatha flying through the air, trailing her pants behind.
I began to have a real understanding of what this is all about. It has nothing to do with rock and roll. The Beatles often talk about this: “I wonder what the next act is gonna be like.” When you get to the underbelly of all this that’s going on, you wonder really, in what direction. The third day I was there Pravda had an editorial with a picture of a riot that had occurred over the Beatles in an English city. Translated, it said, “Another example of Western decadence.” Is it or isn’t it? Are they telling the truth or are they not?
Shepherd has been in the underbelly of Western decadence, 1960s- style in the British Isles, and he has come home to tell us and Playboy readers all about it. His interview of them took place in the town of Torquay on the English Channel, the south-western coast of England, following the Beatles performances in Exeter, on October 28, 1964, about ten days after he’d met them. In Playboy, Shepherd describes the hotel setting as consisting of a padlocked suite with a “goodly supply of Coke, tea and booze.”
PLAYBOY asked if they were primarily entertainers or musicians
JOHN said they were money-makers first, then entertainers.
RINGO said they were entertainers first because they were entertainers before they made money.
John, Paul, George, Ringo, and Shep traded questions and remarks for about six pages in the February, 1965 issue of Playboy. The published interview is not as exciting as Jean Shepherd’s spoken descriptions of his experiences in the land of Richard the Lionhearted—his hard days’ nights’ adventures with four regular fellows who had only recently been inexplicably, miraculously, transformed into a performing entity known forevermore as The Beatles.
The Beatles Performing
Jean Shepherd Performing
A couple of months ago, a New York Times front-page article appeared regarding audio books, noting that, “The story was conceived, written and produced as an original audio drama for Audible, the audiobook producer and retailer.” This might indicate an increase interest in audio stories–such as Shepherd’s radio stories (and maybe his other broadcast material).
The article goes on: “Some see the current audio renaissance as a modern version of the Golden Age of radio drama….”
Shepherd sometimes talked about his view of how the whole world of storytelling on radio had so soon faded from away after a relatively short life:
It’s sad that a whole art form grew to fruition and suddenly disappeared. It would be as if somebody had invented painting and great painters had flourished for—oh, maybe twenty years and then everybody forgot about painting because everyone discovered ceramics. Or they discovered sculpture and—they—they just completely from that day on—because radio can do things that television and the movies and the stage can never do. It plays with the imagination and the mind [in a way] that I think no other medium can ever approach.
Yet the whole idea of radio acting—you know some great radio actors who in their field were as fine as, and in many cases even better than, anybody performing on Broadway, anybody performing in the Shakespearean repertory today. Some great actors rose to become really fine artists in the field of radio back in the 1930s and early 1940s. And the whole— the whole canvas is gone now. The whole thing is gone. It’s really a shame because this was a fine medium and is—it’s as though there was a big sleeping giant out there. A huge, sleeping giant that’s lying out there, that one time people hunted, that one time excited people and has now long since somehow been forgotten by the people. And it’s lying out there in the jungle there, just—just completely untouched as though it’s a whole new mind-land, let’s say, a universe of the—of the psyche is lying out there untouched, and will be untapped. (See my EYF! pages 97-98)
Shepherd (and others) had defended the special attributes of radio for creating a reality. The Times article quotes: “‘You can create a picture in your mind with sound that’s every bit as vivid as a movie,’ said the novelist Joe Hill,…’A lot of filmmakers who work in horror say what’s really scary is hearing, not seeing.'” The article also notes that, “Some are shunning the term ‘audiobook’ and trying to rebrand their content as ‘audio entertainment’ or ‘movies for your ears.” A new way of promoting audios, says the Times, is to”blend the immersive charm of old-time radio drama with digital technology.” This means incorporating sometimes considerable sound effects, music, varied voices, etc.
[Shepherd very much enjoyed the Paul Rhymer radio sitcom, Vic and Sade.
It played with the small minds and incidents
in American life.
Maybe not a serious example of great acting (?).
But exceedingly witty.
Vic, Sade, author Rhymer,
and one of the Rush players:
Art Van Harvey, Bernardine Flynn,
Paul Rhymer and Bill Idelson.
The Times quotes Jeffrey Deaver, described as a “lawyer-turned- thriller writer,” to end its article thus: “There are so many time-wasting alternatives to turn ‘The Starling Project,’ into a traditional book.” Deaver is hoping the project will help him: “This is an easier way for people to get access to good storytelling.”
Shepherd created his audio art with only his voice, and maybe a bit of crinkling paper or desk pounding–maybe he would have approved this technologically enhanced form of sound-in-stories.
Or maybe not.
So the big concert went on and the people screamed and yelled. It was almost like a fever in the air. It was like the bubonic plague. As if the entire country has decided it’s going out of its skull. And they have appointed the Beatles to be the reason.
And the Beatles don’t even sing anymore, they just go out on the stage WHOOOOOOO! it starts, they wave a little and they leave the stage. And the roaring continues for hours.
About two hours later I’m in the back seat of the Beatles’ car and we’re heading for the Scottish Highlands. A very interesting experience. These hills climb all the way to the sky. The country is probably the most beautiful in the world, next to Switzerland, and possible even Switzerland included.
You can’t believe it. It’s two or three o’clock in the morning and we are screaming down a highway at ninety-five miles an hour in a gigantic Austin Princess, which is about the size of a supper-deluxe Rolls.
An Austin Princess
They’ve got it floored, screaming through this little country road, taking corners on one wheel WHOOOOO! in the back with the Beatles. I say, “What’s the matter, what are you doing?!” They’re all sitting back there changing clothes.
Their clothes zip-on. You can’t put on those little skinny suits they wear. Their pants zip all the way up the back. They have a guy who zips them and they walk out on stage. Have you noticed the Beatles don’t move much when they’re on stage? No Elvis-movements. They just sort of stand there. The curtain goes down, it’s wild, they all turn to the right and a guy rushes out and unzips them and then they walk.
I’m riding through this countryside with them. Can’t believe it. This is Britain. This is what we in America have a vague sense of inferiority about. And at two o’clock in the morning the road is lined with dour-looking people just looking out from haystacks, “waitin’ for tha Beatles” to go by. Two o’clock in the morning and you can see them holding lanterns up, and we’re sailing through the countryside and every car they see they throw rocks at. You see the rocks bouncing across the street and the Beatles say, “Get down, here they come from the haystack, watch this nut!” BOOP! PING! you hear the rocks. And I’m sitting there—Ohhhh! What would King Arthur have thought? How would he have handled it?
We went deeper and deeper into the countryside until we finally arrived at the loch where we were staying. The Beatles have more security regulations governing where they stay than that which governs the President. People are sworn to secrecy all over the countryside, and they always stay outside of town in the most likely place. The most likely place for anything but Beatles. They’ll stay in a little place that’s marked “Diner.” Just staying there overnight. Or they’ll be in a little place marked “Motel” and they’ll stay there.
We were staying in a tiny inn next to an ancient Scottish loch, which is one of the most ancient and most revered. In fact, Bonnie Prince Charlie had fought a battle twenty feet away from where I was staying. They had a little plaque out there. Rob Roy had robbed somebody twenty feet outside the other way.
This was really Scotland.
We arrived about three o’clock in the morning and the innkeeper was there. You could see that this was the greatest moment in his entire life. He had been knighted, he had been designated, but this was like a visitation. It was like a second coming or something had happened there.
He stood by the door, bent over. “Are the Beatles there?”
I said, “Yes, they’re going to be coming.”
“Are you with them?”
I said, “Yes, I’m one of the party.”
He said, “May I shake your hand?”
“Put ‘er there!” I’m one of the Beatles party. Somehow that made me part of this whole scene.
The Beatles slowly straggled up the hill in the darkness, and one after the other they came in through the door. A couple of managers arrived out in back in their little car. And we went into the bar.
I want to give you a little vignette in the Beatle world that you never hear about. Strange world—I can only say that this is the world of—I guess the word would be almost—delirium. It’s surrealistic.
Remember, it is three o’clock in the morning. We are next to an old, old Scottish loch with hills surrounding it. There is not a sound for miles, a sullen, quiet, angry countryside. And all of us go up to the tiny bar at the inn. Paul, John Lennon, George, Ringo, the manager.
The innkeeper brings out a bottle of sherry. Apparently, a bottle of sherry he’d saved since the last coronation and he is saving for the next one. He says, “Would you like a glass of Sherry?”
John says, “Sherry? What’s this sherry? Who drinks sherry, man?!”
“What will you have? I have anything you want.” He’s got Scotch, he’s got all the fine drinks there.
Each one of us is poured a little drink. We start to sip the drink when, without warning there’s a sound outside in the darkness. A hum, like the hum of angry bees—at three o’clock in the morning. And it’s getting closer and closer. It is coming like a big storm. And the Beatles are doing nothing, they’re just sort of standing. And I say to the man behind the bar, “What is this, a storm?”
“I don’t know what that sound is. Must be something on the road.”
Just when he gets this out of his mouth, the door slams open and there stands a Scottish constable, who says, “Are the Beatles staying here?”
The man behind the bar says, “Yes, sir, yes, sir.”
The constable says, “I have just called out all available men. There are twenty-thousand people coming this way. What are you going to do about it? What have you done to us?”
The Beatles, calm, are just drinking their Scotch.
That night we spend in total darkness, in the hills, with a ring of policemen. Five hundred policemen keeping the entire British Isles away. You can hear the hum of them out there. You can hear them in the trees. You can hear them in the hills. Once in a while you can hear a little wail and it would trail off.
A couple of the very famous local gentry had been allowed to come and see the Beatles at first hand. A tall, thin girl, obviously the sweet, Beatle-fan-type had just been admitted to see them and she comes over and stands behind one of the Beatles. She can’t believe it. Because they’re not real people anymore. They’re kind of like dolls or strange automatons. And here they are!
She just sort of looks at John, and by mistake she brushes one of the Beatle’s coats. He whirls on her and yells, “Get your filthy hands off me!”
She sort of ducks back.
“Nobody touches me after midnight!”
“Yes, yes,” she says timidly.
There is a kind of embarrassed pause and the Beatles keep on eating. Finally, she says shyly, “May I have your autograph?”
One of the other Beatles looks up at her and says, “Will you clear out?!”
“Thank you, thank you,” and out the door she goes.
End of Part 3