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JEAN SHEPHERD–Travel–Peru–a Phony Tale? Part 10a

“A Peculiar Kind of Galloping Disbelief”

Shepherd being questioned about the truth of his travels:

One of the problems is–I think–I don’t quite understand yet, it has not been explained to me. A growing–even in my own mind I can’t quite put the things together–there’s a growing, peculiar kind of galloping disbelief that people have in our country–in everything they hear. Can you explain that to me–seriously. Like, anything that a politician says, “is ridiculous political talk, and obviously is not true.” You’ve heard that many times. And the simplest statements today, are challenged.

Barsotti-Truth-2-580.jpg

For example, I have received a large number of letters from people (I won’t say a large number, but enough to make it significant) from people who doubt that I even went to Peru! Now, why would somebody come on with a whole big shlamou about going to Peru. And going to the headhunter country of Peru and so on, and it’s all just a thing in your imagination? Now I’m going to read a letter here. It says:

“Dear Mr. Shepherd, I was terribly sorry…”

(Now the only reason I’m doing this is to make a point about this peculiar kind of growing disbelief that is galloping throughout our soc–You know, I have guys come up to me after I do a Limelight show  and they’ll come up and say, “Aw, come on now, Shep. now come on, just level with us–you never really lived in Indiana.” [laughs] Why would I invent living in Indiana!? I can’t comprehend this! And so, I don’t know quite what to say about that. Guys will come up and they will say, “Aw come on, Shep. You never really were a White Sox fan, were ya?” Well, I’ll admit, that’s hard to believe–that anyone would be a White Sox fan, but nevertheless they’ll ask you that as if you somehow invented that you were a White Sox fan. So I often will ask somebody, “So where do you think I was–where did I come from? If I didn’t come from Indiana? Why do you think I would have invented that?” They sort of look–funny look–they say, “Aw, come on, why don’t you just come out, why don’t you level?” I say, “Okay–Trenton. I’m from Trenton.” They say, “All right, fellow, why don’t ya just say it all the way!” That’s the end of that.

I don’t know. I’m just curious about that problem. And I can understand why politicians must be frustrated when they’ll come on–and I’m not saying all politicians tell the truth–I’m not saying that. Nor does anybody–tell all the truth about himself.)

Aw, Shep, now ya got it! “Nor does anybody–tell all the truth about himself.” You do recognize, don’t you, the extent that you don’t tell all the truth about yourself?

It may well be true that there’s a galloping disbelief in this country (in the radio interview of you in 9/1965) but–don’t you understand that there have always been at least a few listeners who felt that your stories–kid stories, army stories–were mostly pure fiction? (Your 1966 disclaimer in the first kid book, IGWT: “The characters, places, and events  described herein are entirely fictional, and any resemblance to individuals living or dead is purely coincidental, accidental, or the result faulty imagination.”) And if they were fictions, maybe your travel tales–to Peru or elsewhere, and maybe lots of other stuff you say–were fiction, also? I believe I can usually distinguish in your talk, what is mostly true/what is mostly fiction. I know the travel narratives are true, but don’t ya see that YOU caused the problem ya got with truth/fiction?

You want to hear that letter? Obviously an intelligent-type person:

“I was terribly sorry that you did not make that trip to the Amazon Basin in Peru. I told my husband how nice, Jean Shepherd’s going to Peru and he has asked all his faithful to say goodbye to him at the Pan American [terminal]. ‘Oh,’ said my husband, ‘it’s very nice that he can make such a  trip.’ However, Saturday you were heard at the Limelight and not in Lima, Peru. This is not humor. We went along with Australia.” See, obviously she believes I went to Australia. “But will we go along with what you have to say about all those birds, snakes, and flora in the upper valleys? Oh, no….”

Now why is this? there are a dozen listeners who continually write me letters, who feel, deep down inside that what I do is go to different libraries and read up on a country and come on and do a whole series of shows about them. I don’t know why that is. I know that nothing I can say on here and tonight will convince them this is not so. They will say, “Oh, come on, of course you’ll come back and say that you did it. Come on. We know, we know better….”

I think that this is a growing, fascinating trend in our country. The person  will say, “Why did I hear you at the Limelight?” ….I put tapes on the show that I [had] recorded. It was an old show, and I said that I was [playing] recording[s] all the time I was in Peru. Nevertheless there is a sizable body of people who feel that this was all invented….Maybe because there’s creeping show-biz-ism in our world.

Yes, yes,Shep, but it’s sort of like “hoist by your own petard.” They ain’t gonna believe you. Remember what you said in the Alan Colmes last interview when you were talking about your fictional stories:

“…that’s the best way to tell a good story, in the first person–that it sounds like it actually happened to me. It didn’t.

“It’s a story I invented but I put it in the first person so it would sound like–you know–a narrative, the guy telling the story.”

You want it both ways on the air–telling fiction like it really happened to you, though you know that some won’t be fooled  (in your books’ epigraphs, you insist that the kid stories are your created fictions). But when your travel narratives on the air really did happen to you, you somehow want listeners to believe they actually are true. No surprise when some won’t keep your true-sounding fictions and your true-truths properly separated. With your elegant ability to conjoin fiction and truth ya got nothin’ to blame but yourself.

Don’t think that I’m criticizing what you do on the air–I’m just surprised that you find the problem to be part of society’s state of mind, without recognizing that a good part of the issue is the one that the style of your art’s varied formats have in themselves created.

Yes, in recent years, we’ve gotten proof that you were there with the headhunters in Peru:

Shep chief hat Amazon0004

shep peru tape deck

I know you didn’t photoshop these from images taken in your backyard in Trenton.

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JEAN SHEPHERD–Obdurate Acts, Extenuating Circumstance–& Road Not Taken (8)

Thinking about Shepherd’s important moments and decisions in his life.

How did he get to where he became.

Some repetition and a continuation to not really a conclusion

in enigmatic, unsatisfactory endings–that can only continue.

WHAT DOES ALL THAT MEAN!?

Why–was he happy with his choices–what might he otherwise have done?

This is a difficult area and one which I usually avoid, because it is to a large extent speculative, and based–inevitably–on incomplete/inaccurate information. But maybe by doing little more than listing some milestones, one might get some clues about the Jean Shepherd enigma.

shep at 6 closeup

Photo courtesy of

Steve Glazer and Bill Ek.

I believe it of value to note and define, what to my mind are important points of Shep’s life and career. Some relate strongly to his creative world. Surely there will be some disagreements in this list. (It should be noted that, although years of publication are given, some of these activities/creations obviously were in progress at least in the previous year as he worked on the project.)

•   •  

1955

Moves to New York City, the center of the artistic/intellectual life he desired. It leads to almost all of his important creative achievements. At some early point in his life in NYC, he becomes involved with many of its artistic activities, including connections to: Greenwich Village and the Village Voice; relationship with Lois Nettleton; his reported introduction by Shel Silverstein to Leigh Brown.

leigh h.s.photo

•   •  

1956-1960

This is the period I describe as “The Great Burgeoning.” It includes what I can think of as crucial and innovative parts of his professional life: Overnight, improvised radio from January to August 1956; Village Voice connections; connections to the modern jazz world including emceeing important jazz concerts,  narrating Charles Mingus’ “The Clown,” and writing periodical columns on jazz; creating his I, Libertine book hoax; promoting John Cassavetes’ Shadows; editing and writing intro to his George Ade book. (From the front page of the Voice, the first image shows left to right: Shep, Lois Nettleton, Anne Bancroft.)

v,voice obie photo

the clown cover

libertine_cover

shadows title credit

•   •   

1966

Convinced (according to Hefner by Shel;  Lois said convinced by herself and other friends) to transcribe and edit his improvised stories and get them published (Playboy and in books).

IGWT cover

•   •  

1971

Creation of first season of the television series

Jean Shepherd’s America.

_JS_America_logo

•   •  

1983

Co-creation and narration of movie A Christmas Story.

ralphie glasses

•   •  

(1977?) 1984-1999

Moving to Florida. Shep had numerous times expressed that New York City was his true home because of its vitality, artistic ambiance–why did he move? Finances? Lessening of his intellectual interests? Other?

sanibel_house_006_02

•   •  

1985

Creation of second/final season of the television series

Jean Shepherd’s America.

usa flag of jsa

•   •  

1998

Leigh Brown, helpmate, supporter, and love of his life, dies.

leigh,shep 1977

•   •  •   •   •  •   •   •  

10/16/1999–into the future

Shep dies. Tributes and remembrances flow from many sources.

zippy.shep

•   •  •   •   •  •   •   •  

(As always, I’d appreciate any and all comments,

including additions, subtractions, corrections,

and further thoughts.)

KYKL bottle cover

Excelsior & seltzer bottle

More to come

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JEAN SHEPHERD–Travel–Peru Part 10, Leavetaking

Jean Shepherd, traveler, has returned from the greatest adventure he ever had. Tariri, chief of the Sharpas, former headhunter of the Amazon, on the last night Shepherd was with them, recognized the wonderful gift Shep had given to them (Interacting with them one-on-one) and expressed it in a way that made it manifest to all who listened to Shepherd tell the story. For all those who know that Shepherd sometime fell short of his human obligations, this story of Tariri’s recognition of Shepherd’s gift should give pause to those who judge him without recognizing this mitigating circumstance.

Besides telling of his Amazon adventures on several nightly programs, Shepherd does a show-and-tell on one of his Saturday night live broadcasts from the Limelight Cafe.

limelight shep

Shep during a Limelight session.

Portions of that follow, and cap off his Peru travel narratives. Unfortunately, we can’t view any of his souvenirs–but neither could his radio audience.

Among the objects he brought back and which he describes to his listeners are a native violin and Tariri’s paddle.  These two objects have their own stories to tell and they are important parts of Jean Shepherd’s unforgettable adventure in the Amazon. The violin and the paddle are physical reminders of the special human contact he made with these “primitive” people.  The stories embodied in these two objects help explain why Jean Shepherd is a world-class traveler and, in important ways, a world-class missionary exemplifying human sensibilities and promoting understanding.

I was in the Peruvian jungle, about seven or eight-hundred miles on the eastern slopes of the Andes, visiting a tribe of headhunters.  Real ex-headhunters called the Shapra Indians.

Just a couple nights ago I was in a tiny clearing that these Indians made, where they lived.  They’re nomadic, they move throughout the jungle.  They’ll move maybe ten miles or twenty miles up or down-river, to different clearings that sometimes their ancestors lived in.  In fact, the clearing we were in had been lived in by their ancestors some hundred years before.  And they knew it.

It’s a funny thing about the Indian memory.  They have no written language, any of these tribes.  And that’s what the missionaries who were there are working on.  They have no way to keep their history.  All they do is tell stories and each one of their heads is filled.  What corresponds to our education is an Indian’s head full of myths and lore, knowledge about the jungle, and stories of his ancestors.  Which, by the way, is what our education consists of too, in a very real way.

[I condense a couple of Shepherd’s descriptions here

and continue with Shep’s narrative.]

This is a bloodwood war club used by the Awupa Indians, which, up to a very recent time, had not been contacted by any kind of civilization.  They were one of the worst, most feared tribes in all the Amazon Basin….It’s swung and they catch each other right on the side of the neck.  It’s heavy and beautifully balanced.  You get this thing in your hand and something happens to you.  Your soul begins to grow hair.

This is a wife-beater. Notice that it’s pretty.  It’s got style.  This wife-beater is used in the only known competition they have—it’s a wife-beating competition, and the wives love it by the way! All of you think of an American girl getting beaten—no, no, this is a very different scene because the wife there has her ways of getting back–have you ever sat down to a meal of half-cooked monkey? …it is a strict rule that the women prepare the food.  There’s a taboo against men doing it.  So he’s dependent on her.  He’s not going to say, “I’ll fix supper tonight if you’re that way!”  No, no.  All she’s got to do if he gets smart is to melt into the jungle—and then he’s in trouble.  Real bad trouble.  He’s got to go out to a neighboring tribe, brain somebody, and steal his wife. So how do they compete in wife-beating?  It’s done ritualistically.  You’re eliminated from the contest the minute you draw blood—that’s a bad wife-beating.  Just a little gentle flick on the hindquarters.  Just to keep her moving, see?  Wouldn’t that be great at Macy’s?  I think you’d sell a lot of these.  In the tribe that uses these, they are very prominently hung on the center-pole of the house.

[Shepherd then shows some arrows and a blowgun. He shows a feather

headdress and a bead necklace] 

Leigh here is wearing the type of beads they make for themselves.

I’ll show you probably my greatest possession of anything that I have.  Because there’s a very important story connected with this when we played music together.  When I played “Greensleeves” there was absolute silence.  I told the interpreter to tell them “that’s a love song.”  She told them, and one of them, who was a young boy, said, “That is so sad it made me cry.”  He loved it.

The Sharpa Violin and Bow

We had a great time for about a half an hour and then the boy crept off into the darkness.  I’m going to show you something you will never see again—this is what he brought out.  His name is written on it.  This is his prized possession.  Somewhere back in the jungle is Arushpa, a sixteen-year-old boy, and this is his violin, which two years ago he made by carving it out of a single piece of wood.  He has tacked, somehow, a very thin lath over it and on the top there’s a little face.  A tiny face carved in it with two little blue-bead eyes, and I asked him what those were and he said, “This is a nose and that is a mouth.”  He said it sings to you.  “It’s the face of the violin singing to you.”

Here’s the bow he made.  It’s a tiny piece of wood with a piece of palm-leaf fiber.  He took them and played.  It’s fantastic what he gets out of them.  Well, he gave me this violin because he said he wants the people in America to see how his music is made.  Now he’s at work making another one.

Chief Tariri’s Paddle

About three in the morning, Tariri–who had had such a wonderful time and his children had enjoyed our music that night–wanted to give me a paddle.  This is very important to them because they live on the river and a man’s paddle is more important to him than his bows and arrows, because it takes longer to make one.  This is carved out of a solid piece of a certain kind of wood which, when I asked him what kind of wood, he said, “the wood that does not know how to break.”    It’s carved by hand, they rub it with bone and various other things, and it’s not flat, it is gently concave and the other side is rounded, and they stand on the top of this tiny dugout canoe and they paddle back and forth.

When he said he wanted to give me a paddle I said, “I appreciate that, and I’d like you to sign your name on it.”  That’s important.  For thousands of years these people have had no written language.  And it’s now the greatest thing they have gained from civilization.  I couldn’t describe to you how proud they are of the fact that they can write their names.  To ask him to write his name is like the greatest complement—you know, you say “write your name”—that means “you’re just like me, you do these things.”  And he said, “Of course.”

So we went to bed.  Here it is, about three-thirty in the morning and I can hear the frogs down by the river and I can hear a few parrots beginning to wake up, and I see over in his hut across the small clearing, a tiny light.  Now this sounds corny.  It’s a very dramatic thing.  This headhunter chief, who had killed upwards of thirty to forty men—a real headhunter—he’s sitting there wearing his red headdress and his beads in the dark with that little light, trying to write his name on the paddle and I’m watching him as he’s working away.

This is the paddle that was used just this past week by an ex-headhunter chief on one of the most remote rivers in the world.  Thousands of miles and ten light years away from our world.  These people are just out of the stone age.  And this is the greatest gift that he could give me.

Chief Tariri’s Farewell Speech

In the early morning, Tariri gave his little speech on the river bank when we were about to get back into the plane and fly away—a very touching, strange quality of leaving this little group of seventeen people in this dark jungle, flying away, tears coming in their eyes when they let you go.  Tariri, standing on the shore wearing his regalia—he wears a beautiful feathered headdress and beads.  He gave me his paddle—to a male in this area, a personal piece of gear—it’s very important to him, and he gave me his own paddle at three o’clock in the morning in this tiny clearing.  One of the most touching things I’ve ever seen in my life.

Tariri said: “We have never seen this kind of white man.”  He just loved it.  He said, “This is the first white man who has ever come to us who has participated with us, who has done things with us.”

Chief_Tariri

Shep chief hat Amazon0004

On a different broadcast, Shep described the occasion this way (This is such an important, symbolic event in Shepherd’s life that it’s worth repeating this variation):

Many white men come to them and give them medicine,

white men come and preach to them, white men come and study them.

But no white men ever came to entertain them. And be part of them.

When I left, Tariri said,

“We have never seen this kind of white man.”

He said he loved it. He said–to use his exact phrase, he said,

“This is the first white man

who has ever come to them

who has participated with them.

Who has done things with them.”

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JEAN SHEPHERD–Obdurate Acts, Extenuating Circumstances & Road Not Taken (7)

THE SAD, UNFULFILLED REMNANTS OF A STORY

(With a few minor repeats, but worth it.)

1966-10-07_022_IGWT_photo_doubleday

UNHAPPY?

Let’s bring some threads together.  Maybe they weave themselves into one of the shreds of truth about Jean Parker Shepherd.  So he was unhappy despite all he had accomplished?

Barry Farber: “A towering success, but I think inwardly he knew, compared to himself, and his potential—he felt like a failure!”

Herb Saltzman: “You know, there were many guys who would have achieved his success and would have really been happy with it.  He was never happy.  I don’t think he spent many happy times.”

Fred Barzyk: “Happy!…The only time he was happy was when people would come up to him and say how great he was.”

What had he had?  Lois Nettleton: “…he had headlines!…I remember in the Post he was—he was just a big celebrity!”  This was the time of the I, Libertine affair, the firings from WOR, and the highest level jazz connections.  The “great burgeoning” period of the late 1950s in New York, his overnight extemporaneous work, association with the highest avant-garde, the Beats, the intellectual elite who were his most impressive “listeners.” The more evidence we accumulate, the more I think about it, the more certain I am that this was the period when, with what he was involved in and creating on the highest level, he peaked.

shep closeup

WHAT DID HE WANT?

Lois Nettleton makes the same point as have others who knew Shepherd: “I think if he had gotten the public fame and acclaim that Mort Sahl got, [cover of Time Magazine and related celebrity], I think that would have been very good for him, although with him, who knows, he might have not been satisfied with that.”  Coming out of the heady postwar artistic ferment, he could have remained there with Mailer, Kerouac, Mingus, Pollock, each a unique giant, and Shepherd with his art of sound, unprecedented in his own field of improvisation and Mark Twain-like humor and commentary.  (I can’t leave Lois with the implication that she was mainly impressed by his headlines, so I’ve got to repeat what she most importantly said: “I really want him to be recognized for what he was—a brilliant genius.  The wonderful, wonderful unique—the wonderful thing that he was.”)  Widely recognized for what he was—a unique giant in his own field.  This, I believe, is what he wanted.

shepherd-wor_1970

What happened?  He could have had it, he should have had it, because he’d already had it and knew he had it—right there in his hands until his dreams were undone by some unfortunate shift in timing or emphasis, and, he must have eventually been aware, of miscalculated alternatives.  Did the kid-stories and the kid-fans such as myself and many who are reading this, do him in?  I repeat words of “The Jackdaw Story.”  Shepherd himself: “And by the way, for those of you who think kid stories made me what I am today [laughs], you’re crazy.  Not at all.  They’ve held me back from what I should have been.”

shep in gocart

For his particular long-form of humor and intellectual engagement as practiced in the late 1950s and even the more accessible style of the 1960s and 1970s, his artistic style was incompatible with that larger constituency he coveted.  That mass audience was now watching television, a medium not suited for his extended monologs—his style too laid-back and subtle and thus beyond the mental capacities of a countrywide, adult mass audience.  Maybe he realized this, or maybe he didn’t realize what the shift to earlier broadcast time periods would do, even with his four hours on Sunday nights for a while.  Maybe the larger audience of high school and college kids was the best he’d be able to garner.  Maybe he thought he could have it both ways—artistic heights and celebrity such as had Jack Benny, Norman Mailer, and innumerable others, not damaged by accumulating more young listeners on that lessening national influence called “radio.”

1966-08-dd_022_playboy_pic

INEVITABLE DECLINE?

Maybe he did it with full understanding of what the effects would be?  Maybe the cultural dynamics of how people were spending their time under the onslaught of TV made the rapid decay of radio-as-it-had-been an inevitable disaster for him in his ideal medium.  Maybe he miscalculated the effect on his style caused by the more abbreviated forty-five-minute format.  Maybe he was capitulating to the inevitable decline of radio?  I quoted Shepherd in regard to radio’s decline, and what strikes me now is that he’d articulated this harbinger of his own doom so early, his late-night programming already ended, at the turning point between his longer and much shorter programs:

It’s sad that a whole art form grew to fruition and suddenly disappeared….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.  (July 9, 1960)

Channel_Cat. 1 png

Maybe when it was too late he wished he had made different choices?  During this transition period around 1960, he may have been responding to radio’s decline and the choices he’d made by focusing on an acting career but somehow this did not work out.  He needed to improvise, not memorize a script.  Between a rock and a hard place?  He made his choices, or was forced into choices by circumstances beyond his control.  Opposed to my speculation and Shepherd’s own assessment, many listeners argue that his mid-1960s period and his kid stories were his crowning glory.  They can prove it to their own satisfaction?  Yes, and I don’t have a definitive response, but I don’t believe “a matter of taste” is an accurate answer.  I’m up against what I can only fend off by relying on that lovely, that delectable, that conveniently apt word “enigma.”

thurber excelssior

ENIGMA

Enigmas upon enigmas.  The enigma of self-defeat and self-creation.  Regard some of his debilitating human foibles and flaws—compulsive talk and overbearing ego, inability to distinguish his truths from his fictions both in his work and in his life, abrasive self-centeredness, sometimes abusive personal interactions.  What did he make of it all and what do we make of it all?  (And while we’re at it, why did this great lover of all that was the glory of New York City, MOVE TO FLORIDA?!?!) Was Jean Shepherd just an enigma?  Maybe he was also an alchemist.

shep as ewingshep as ewing

shep as ewing

        ALCHEMIST?

Maybe we are the beneficiaries of his intuitive genius through a mysterious psychic alchemy, the transforming of the sometimes base metals of obsessive talk and character flaws such as self-obsession into the gold of art.  Consider this, I say with conviction and yet enigmatically: without the base metals we would not have had the gold.

classic shep image

STILL MORE TO COME

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JEAN SHEPHERD–Travel–Peru Part 9

Jean Shepherd is back from the Amazon

Indicative of the profound experience Jean Shepherd has had in the Amazon, his preconceptions and change of mind—and admitting to them on the air—are nearly unprecedented.  His ways of thinking about the delights and dangers of the Amazon; the particular nature of primitive peoples and how they live; and even the work and nature of at least some missionaries, will never be the same.

“I guess I came back changed.”

When I left to go visit these people, I had the usual hip, urban attitude towards the “native,” and particularly what we call the “unspoiled” savage.  That anyone who went and tried to bring any kind of help to them was, quote, destroying them.  You know the feeling.  And I’d like to say that, after having been out there and having been around these natives and listened to them talk and watch what was happening, and heard things about the other tribes in the area, I came away with a totally different concept.

Primarily because it is an inevitable problem that civilization will creep in and is creeping in on these Indians because there are great oil deposits in the jungle.  Great mineral deposits—gold is found there and there is gold mined and gold is panned in the rivers.  Prospectors are there and if these people have no language, have no written way to understand the complexities of the world that’s coming in on them—know how to read and write—they will be totally destroyed, just like we destroyed many, many tribes as we moved West.

And these missionaries are trying to prevent that by giving them a language that can be preserved, so that a thousand years from now somebody will be writing in Shapra, and their literature can be preserved and they will have a way of dealing with civilization when it comes in on them. Of course, not only that, they take to the Indians something which is of inestimable value and that’s medical aid.

I guess I came back changed, no question about it.  We walk around town, we walk around our world, and it’s unbelievable how much we take for total granted.  One thing I learned out of this experience—which was a tremendously moving one to me—was how resilient and how tough and how un-killable, in a genuine sense, mankind is, and even you and I.  I wasn’t in this camp twenty-four hours and found myself drinking the river water without question about it, eating the roots and the vines and one thing and another they dug up and gave us for food, and I realized very quickly that if need be, we can survive.  We really can.  And not only that, it’s a pleasant survival.  It’s hard but it can be done and it is done.

Maybe you heard Tariri—he was interviewed on various shows here a couple of years ago.  Yes, they flew him here to New York.  He had no concept of what the city was like.  He said, “They have all these places, all these stores, and they have all the beads (beads meaning wealth), all the wonderful things, but you know what they don’t have?”

“What?”

“They don’t have monkey meat!”

That was his idea of saying that these people think they have everything but the poor fools haven’t even made it, because to him, the prime, greatest delicacy, was monkey meat.  He loved monkey meat and he couldn’t see why they didn’t have monkey meat at the D’Agostino.

This has been a great experience for me and again I would like to thank all the people who made it possible.  The Luden’s Company.  They sent us there—to give five-hundred pounds of candy to the natives, who went out of their skull—you should have seen them.  There were guys running around throwing “5th Avenue” candy bars in the air yelling and hollering.  A mother came up to the interpreter, really worried.  She had a little kid by the hand and she asked the interpreter, “He ate the whole box!  Will he die?!”  He’d eaten a whole box of Luden’s Cough Drops.  Just popped them down one after the other.

But they loved it and we had a great time.  It was not done as a promotion or gimmick for Luden’s.  It really wasn’t.  It was one of those strange, believe-it-or-not stories.  Luden’s had no idea there were even such people called the Shapras, so they weren’t down there promoting Luden’s Cough Drops with the headhunters—who don’t have much need.

Shep chief hat Amazon0004

Shepherd with the Sharpas.

[Until the image of Shep playing his instruments with them surfaced, the torn, ragged photo above, which I’d neatly cropped for my EYF! had been the only one to survive some New York photo-file disaster (originally 8″ high by 10″ wide–at least half the image–to the left–is lost). So, beyond the Shepherd broadcast audios, little seems to have survived for the historical record. I’d hoped to find preserved info and more photos in some carefully cataloged files–I contacted the Luden’s company and they had no file for the Peru trip–or anything else, and the company they had been sold to claimed not to have any Luden’s files either. As for the 20th century’s historical record-keeping, kinda makes ya wonder.]

luden's

Cough Drops for the Headhunters.

You should have seen the moment when they put on their T-shirts with the big block L on them.  Oh, what a time!  I’ll never forget it.  I’ll continue the story tomorrow. 

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JEAN SHEPHERD–Obdurate Acts, Extenuating Circumstances (6)

THE SHEPHERD’S LIFE

A Tragedy in Obdurate Acts

and Extenuating Circumstances

“Just a philosophical question. I mean, who does who in–in life?

Or–and this is the worst question of all to ask–

do you do yourself in?

Aaaaa!

“Oh no, it can’t be! No, no, that’s ridiculous!

No, no! Society did it to me!

Rotten, crummy, evil society!” 

(Jean Shepherd, January 22, 1966)

THE TRAGEDY

The scheduled time slot (overnight) for which he was one-of-a-kind got changed to his style’s detriment (so say some of us–it was a different kind of genius).

The medium in which he was fully prepared and the outstanding genius, faded in that aspect in which it–and he–excelled.

The audience for which his original style excelled, changed and expanded into adolescent acolytes who overwhelmed him–positively with their adulation and overwhelmed him negatively by overcrowding him in his personal space (Remember that WOR had to hire a guard to keep them at bay).

The audience, for whom he was an important mentor, included his two children for whom he was an abominable parent.

Apparently, the pursuit of greater respect, renown, dough, and additional outlets for his art produced a broadening of his professional endeavors.

º

The extraordinary fields and activities in which he excelled, diminished in popularity:

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Radio as a medium.

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He was a modern jazz aficionado–

evidence of change:

“A few years ago I was deeply involved in jazz—and in fact in my private life I still am.  … I used to work in jazz a great deal.” He names many major performers he worked with and mentions the Loew’s Theater late-night concert featuring Billie Holiday. (November 23, 1971)

 He does not explain why his interest has diminished to just private–but not public manifestations; during this program of jazz-nostalgia he plays not just snippets but complete jazz recordings, naming the performers and commenting on the pieces, just like the knowledgeable disc jockey he used to be;

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I, Libertine hoax mentality;

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(Blame the  popularity of TV).

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Culture-determined, diminished attention span of audience;

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The varied skills he possessed to a high degree, failed to adequately replace, in other media,

his loss of  radio as  his prime medium.

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Could/would he have continued to produce his unequaled radio art if increased money and desire for celebrity not been a factor?

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That his frustration and anger at the world’s unfairness sometimes overwhelmed the better parts of his persona may well have been inevitable.

º

Larry Josephson: “I don’t think it’s possible to perform at the level that Shepherd did and have that kind of ego and drive–to be on the air five or six nights a week and yet be a sensitive, caring, loving human being. You have to get up and concentrate the energy–drive, whatever–to be a performer. It narrows your ability to give warmth and love to kids, women, and friends….I’m sure here and there there’s somebody in the world who was a very great creative artist and also a nice person, but I can’t think of anyone.”

º

We’re all born butterflies. Each one of us. With these beautiful, magnificent wings ready to fly in the sunshine. For those slow barrel rolls and loops. And slowly, oh, ever so slowly we burn those wings off–in flame And we wind up where we are now. Me sitting here. You sitting there….It’s a funny thing. We loose our wings in the sneakiest way possible, and it’s when we least expect it’s about to happen. (Jean Shepherd, November 25, 1958 [?])

I mean, anyone who looks at life with a cold unprejudiced, agate eye of truth must realize that life is basically in extremely bad taste. (Jean Shepherd, date unknown)

We ought to have  a Dream Collection Day….As a kind of public recanting, you see….Everybody would have to do it together–all together, we’ll clean out all these broken, old, sad, poor, wonderful, idiotic, debilitating, defeating dreams. (Jean Shepherd, November 22, 1959)

[Note above how early in his NY career he said these things.]

Shepherd from time to time commented on the discrepancy in life between what we assume is reality to be expected and the actualities of life. Therein lies much irony. Should examples of this be called “humor”? In a reference I recently encountered, a Lois Rubin has been quoted:  “The great American joke” is “the incongruity between promise and reality, things as they should be and as they are.”  I find this discrepancy as commented upon several times by Shep, but I’m not quite sure he was sufficiently aware that it also applied to him. And I’m not so sure he’d describe this as humor. He expected much more, and this is a good part of his tragedy.

Close friends of theirs say that in their final years (In Sanibel, Florida) Leigh drank and both of them lived like recluses. I don’t even like to think of them that way–a way in which they seemed to have given up. Laurie Squires: “After Leigh died, I called, and he sounded like a broken man….”

1997 Shep christmas

A Reality, 1997.

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classic shep image

For Me, the Reality Always.

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We are not the “vast hordes” he once described us as being, yet–yet still

Jim-Gene-Lou

–we three here represent part of the small horde

of Shep enthusiasts.

And Jean Shepherd still speaks to all of us:

Hear it? Listen, listen–you hear it? I’ve been trying to say it. What I have been trying to say all along. Yeah. There’s not much time left. But you’ve got to hear it. You’ve got to be able to hear it. I guess you can’t. I guess everybody hears what he is hearing. Nobody else can hear it. 

Did you hear that?

Oh yeah.

You know, it’s going to be summer soon.

Yes. Yes.*

–Jean Shepherd, 1960?

º    º   º   º   º

Obdurate Acts,

Extenuating Circumstances.

The End.

THE END–BUT WAIT! I RECENTLY ENCOUNTERED

WHAT WAS TO BE THE FINAL SUMMING UP

OF ONE OF MY “MISCELLANEOUS” SHEP BOOK MANUSCRIPTS.

OH YES, AND A RECENT BOOK

ABOUT A ROAD NOT TAKEN.

SO SEE THE NEXT POSTS–

A SUMMING UP OF ALL THESE LAST

TRAGEDY-LIKE COMMENTS.

See EYF! last page of text, p.439-440 for longer quote.

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JEAN SHEPHERD–Travel–Peru Part 8

Sol and Lee Chamberlain and I were in our hut and we sat around this little lantern and we just didn’t know what to say about it.  These people were so overwhelmingly kind and beautiful to us.  No connection with the “noble savage” concept or you’re idea of hospitality.  You could see they were doing all their little things that they could do for us.

Music

jews harpkazoonose flutes

Modern American jews harp, kazoo, nose  flute.

I want to tell you this little story.  This is one of the truly great experiences of my life and I want you to accept it as that.  I’m just telling you what happened.  After supper I went over to my bag and I took out my jews harp, and they were all looking, smiling.  And two little girls about two or three years old had attached themselves to me and they were holding my arm and sort of petting it.  Just beautiful.  I’d look at them and they’d giggle, and they loved my beard—they’d reach up and pull it.  They loved to feel it, and they were laughing about it.  It turned out that the reason that they loved me was that Indians are beardless—no beards at all but their ancestor had beards.  Tariri said that the children laughed whenever I said anything because they said that “He is the first big monkey who talks.” I was like a big monkey to them.

I said, “Dori, call them all around,” and they stood there.  They didn’t know what was going to happen.  I said, “Tell them I will play for them.  This is an American folk instrument.  This is what the natives of America play.  I’m a native of America.  I’m not going to play a violin or an organ or sing a hymn, I’m going to play what the natives just like you play.  I’m also a native.”

I took the jews harp and I sat up on the table and I began to perform.  And there was a moment—the kids giggled and Tariri looked, and Arushpa looked.  I played You Are My Sunshine, and I finished it and they were astounded!  And I said, “Now I will sing the song for you.”  They were so enraptured by that, their eyes were shining.  And then I took my kazoo.  I said, “Now I will play another native American instrument.”  You couldn’t believe it, they loved it so!  And then I took out my nose flute and that threw them, because they play flutes.  The kids died—they were rolling on the floor and Tariri was yelling.  I played You Are My Sunshine, and Red River Valley.

shep peru tape deck

Shepherd holding jews harp. Luden’s Lee Chamberlain

holding microphone, tape player in front.

Sol Potempkin must have taken the photo.

I played about five songs and then Tariri says, “We want to sing,” and they all sang for me.  Arushpa came creeping out with his long bamboo flute and he played the very intricate music they play, and the other boy brought his out and they both played.  And I said, “Now I will play with you.  Let’s all sit in together on a session.”  Probably for the first time in the history of music there was a headhunter/Madison Avenue, flute-and-jews harp duet and we really swung.  I caught the beat of what he was doing—their music is pentatonic—a five-note scale, a very minor-sounding scale.  Well, they led and I followed with my jews harp and my nose flute and the three of us played and the crowd went out of its mind!

We stayed till three and four o’clock in the morning playing and singing and the translator had faded off into the darkness.  They’d never had anything like this in their lives before.  Many white men come to them and give them medicine, white men come and preach to them, white men come and study them, but no white man ever came to entertain them and be part of them.

More to come.

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JEAN SHEPHERD–Obdurate Acts, Extenuating Circumstances (5)

THE SHEPHERD’S LIFE

A Tragedy in Obdurate Acts

and Extenuating Circumstances

Cultivation and Leveling of

A Great, Communicating Art Form

And then the chick said, “Who listens to radio anymore?”

The guy says, “I sat there for a while and drank some of my wine, and my wine wasn’t piquant anymore.” (Jean Shepherd, April, 1960.)

.

Nobody worth his salt is listening to the radio at this hour of the night, I can tell you that. And I can tell you this–nobody worth his salt is doing radio at this hour of the night.” (Jean Shepherd, August 22, 1964)

radio listening

 Radio–when it was the major communicator

to the great American public.

By the late 1950s, the attention paid to radio by the public and the advertisers declined drastically with the onset of rock and roll and television. That Shepherd’s rise, with his genius for the medium, could not sustain itself through the historical happenstance of TV and rock, was a cultural phenomenon beyond his control. For him, a tragic cultural decline in the media he’d mastered.

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…–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. 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. (Jean Shepherd, July 9, 1960)

From emceeing important jazz concerts, he enjoyed the lesser artistic thrills of live shows such as the Limelight broadcasts, with the attendant young accolades elbowing for his attention.

His style and content on the radio was to be as open and descriptive of his life and ideas as possible. To be a mentor toward the thousands of youngsters who followed his every word. His overwhelming secret need, it seems, was to keep his private person as safe and as unknown as possible. He kept parts of his private life secret even from his close friends. From anything he might ever have said in person or on the airwaves, one would not have known that, as an adult, he ever had a girlfriend, any wives at all, and any children such as Adrian and Randall Shepherd. He definitely had such girlfriends as “The Vampire Lady,” Lois Nettleton, and Leigh Brown, and four wives: Barbara Mattoon Shepherd, Joan Warner Shepherd, Lois Nettleton Shepherd, and Leigh Brown Shepherd.

505_Shep_Family_1953

Despite the many instances and circumstances in which he was an important mentor to thousands, through his personal weaknesses he could sometimes be dismissive and cruel, and, deny the parenthood he had to Adrian and Randall (It is possible that, with his consistent denial of parenthood, the opening part of his last will was just a sad, inexplicable error.):

Shep will0002

Jean Shepherd was an original–a creator. It’s been said that Shepherd, in his career, copied himself a lot. True, but, in his defense, he created a tremendous amount of original material–and, when he chose, it was his to copy. What is of special concern is the contrast between the burgeoning of the late 1950s and his leveling off from then on, and the great loss of momentum in his last decade.

Some prefer Shepherd’s more honed stories published in print. From the early 1960s, he published 23 of his kid and army stories in Playboy, but these were not original written stories, they were his edited and augmented  stories originally improvised on the radio. I prefer his tellings on the air, with all his spoken abilities such as tone, volume, pauses, sound effects, and the shorter, more focused, spoken words. I commented on a Customer Review on Amazon.com’s page regarding my transcripts of Shep’s Army, in which the Reviewer writes that the printed stories are less readable when you take the content from tape: “Yes, there is definitely a difference between my edited transcriptions of Shep’s radio stories, and his previously published stories. For one thing, readers should be aware that (in my understanding of the matter), all of Shep’s published stories come from his stories broadcast on his shows–but he not only edited them for print, he augmented them with a fair amount of written content–he added to what he improvised on the air. One might then discuss whether Shepherd was a better improvising radio storyteller, or a better augmenting-writer-for-print. I, for one, prefer his creative improvisations–for me, this is his claim to uniqueness and immortality.” (And, truth is, I prefer my transcripts that remain truer to the improvised radio tales than I like the Shep-augmented stories that were printed. Note that my complete transcripts are not of any of his previously printed stories, which are copyrighted.)

As for his many curmugeonly complaints displayed in so many of his later published comical articles, I for one don’t find many of them funny.

Indeed, the fine and highly regarded 1983 movie of his, A Christmas Story, is an amalgam of his previous stories. And a movie is a collaborative effort. Mainly: the script by him, Leigh, and director Bob Clark, yet, the movie indeed, with his narration, is a high point of his later years–every time I watch it I laugh and tremendously enjoy it.

Compare the high level, high-ranging activities of the late 1950s “burgeoning” seen in the chart below (click on each part to enlarge) with the self-copying and more minor work from the 1960s onward. [I created this chart in 2002–to help me better visualize the over-all sweep of Shep’s creative works while working on Excelsior, You Fathead!–and also for the pure pleasure of seeing it in this form.] Remember that the stories, seeming a great burst of creativity in the second and third sections, plus the three long-form TV dramas (all collaborative works) are based on the radio originals. For me, his great accomplishment in his later works is the two-part (1971 and 1985), uneven and incomplete television series (If only he could have created another 100 or 200 episodes!), Jean Shepherd’s America:

JS career chart 1JS career chart 2JS career chart 3JS career chart 5

 

Stay tuned for Part 6

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JEAN SHEPHERD–Travel–Peru Part 7

After we had plunged through the undergrowth for about two miles in what to almost anybody would be an impassable jungle trail, and hacked through to this clearing away from the river, we arrived, and immediately Tariri took myself and the other two guys down to this little jungle stream that they live on that comes right through under the trees and we undressed and went into this water and took a bath.  He gave us a little pot to just pour the water over ourselves.  It was a great feeling.  They’re very clean and meticulous people and they’re also exceedingly modest.

They live off the land itself.  They live off hunting and they’re beginning small adventures into agriculture.  They grow a very little field of bananas.  They don’t live in a village, at least in this tribe—they live in small family units.  Tariri has two little thatched houses built on a few poles.  A palm-thatched roof and a platform that they sleep on that they kind of enclose with palm branches.  amazon hut

This sort of thatched house.

There may be one or two males with wives.  They’re polygamous.  Wives with their children, and they’re unbelievably friendly and kind to their children.  I never heard a Shapra child cry.  Beautiful children.  By the way, the people are beautiful.

Let me tell you about the native beer—they don’t drink water.  I guess they learned over the centuries that water is deadly.  They drink a native drink.  It’s a lightly fermented, yellowish liquid which they drink after every meal.  It’s not much alcoholic, so don’t think in terms of the natives getting drunk and yelling and hollering.  It’s a food, and the alcohol, of course, is a part of the native disinfectant.

manioc

Manioc, (cassava) a tuber similar to yam,

made into food and drink, very

common in the Amazon.

You eat their food—if you don’t eat their food, it’s not really an insult, it’s a slight.  Can you imagine somebody arriving at your house and they bring their own lunch?  And they say, “You know, we don’t trust your food, so we’re bringing a lunch.”  So we ate their food.  They have a kind of yam they boil that tastes very much like roasted chestnuts.  They also have a kind of banana that’s not quite like ours.  They throw them in the fire to roast.  You split the skin after it’s been burning and it’s fantastically hot and succulent and absolutely delicious.

So we had eaten and they were burning a monkey for us.  Here’s the recipe for cooking monkey.  You get a spider monkey or a rough monkey or a howler. You just throw the monkey, fur, insides and all, onto the fire.  That’s the recipe.  An hour later you drag it out and call the gang.

[I wanted to include here a photo of a cooked monkey, but all the googled images were too horrific and disgusting. If ya wanna see one, google it yourself and don’t blame me–I don’t even wanna think about it. Instead I’ll show the travel accommodations I had while in Peru’s jungle, down the Amazon River from Iquitos, Peru, 600 river-miles NE of Pucallpa. We chose a tour company that seemed to offer the least touristy experience. Except for the low, neat wooden walls, this tourist hut is not too different from one common type of native thatched house. We slept on thin, pallet-like mattresses on the floor, covered by mosquito netting.]Amazon hut I stayed in

After we had eaten, it was dark now.  Darkness comes immediately in the jungle.  One minute light, the next minute dark.  Pitch black.  You cannot believe the blackness of the jungle and we could see overhead that the moon began to come out.  And the jungle moon is so bright in spots where it comes through the trees that you can literally read by it.  It is a brilliant white light.  There was nothing for miles—just us and Tariri’s family of seventeen and another young man who had arrived because he heard we were coming.  He was just a great, beautiful young man who had come, and Tariri’s son, Arushpa, who took a fantastic liking to us.  I discovered he was a musician.  A sixteen year old boy who took a great liking to us, particularly to me because of what happened.

Yes, more to come.

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JEAN SHEPHERD–Obdurate Acts, Extenuating Circumstances (4)

THE SHEPHERD’S LIFE

A Tragedy in Obdurate Acts

and Extenuating Circumstances

Consolidation

classic shep image

Why and how he was switched from the more innovative overnights (at the NJ transmitter) to the in-studio, earlier-in-the-evening slot, is unknown. That he seemed to have retained the impetus of the overnights into Sunday evening, is a major victory. He seemed to have retained the slow and easy-going style of the overnights (I’m assuming this, as the following, much shorter broadcasts are of a different kind–still seemingly loose, and definitely improvised, but a bit less free-flowing.) That this schedule gave way to those earlier, 45-minute weekday segments, also represents a change that resulted in a different kind of show with its own very high-quality use of the radio medium.

My chart, shown in the previous post on the subject–as well as in a much earlier post–shows the difference in his career trajectory. Most noticeable in the programs themselves would seem to be the much larger percentage of school-age listeners and what I observe is the absence of contemporary jazz.

Many prefer his more refined and organized, 45-minute improvised radio to his long, Sunday evening, looser style. There is something easier to take, more conventional, more traditional as art and organization in his 45-minute style. He recreated himself, and that is a great accomplishment. The variety from night to night over about seventeen years is a marvel to behold. His commentaries, wit, philosophical bits and pieces, his cuckoo musical interludes with jews harp, nose flute, kazoo, and head-knocking, his stories that seem both improvised and sometimes, somehow well-formed, coming out just right at the end of the show. We revel in the variety, the unexpectedness, the mastery.

Comic strip artist Bill Griffith, in his “Zippy the Pinhead” tribute, expresses it well: HIS WIT WAS LIKE A LIFE RAFT TO ME. I CONFESS…I WAS A CULTIST…AND JEAN SHEPHERD WAS MY GURU. WHO KNOWS WHAT DEEP SUBCONSCIOUS EFFECT HIS LATE-NIGHT LOQUACIOUSNESS HAD ON ME…?

Zippy detail 20005

The large influx of high school and college listeners was a good thing as far as sponsorship was concerned, and Shepherd also enjoyed the adulation. But he did not so much like the intense crowding of his personhood that such cult-like celebrity brought.

As I’ve suggested before, I believe that, despite such masterpieces of his post-1960 WOR days as: Eulogy of JFK; Morse Code and Mark Twain; March on Washington, etc., Jean Shepherd’s creative heights leveled off at the very high standard he maintained for another decade-and-a-half.

 shep portrait

Stay tuned for Part 5 of

THE SHEPHERD’S LIFE