THE SAD, UNFULFILLED REMNANTS OF A STORY
(With a few minor repeats, but worth it.)
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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)
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.”
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.
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.
STILL MORE TO COME