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–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.
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.):
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:
Stay tuned for Part 6