A WRITE TO ONE’S OPINION?
Sometimes, in order to get a sense of some new book that I’m interested in, in addition to checking professional reviewers, I’ll check out amazon.com’s Customer Reviews and, rarely, the members’ comments on goodreads.com. That is an unfortunate habit on my part and I’ve gotta stop doin’ it. Just like on Wikipedia, anyone (no matter how intelligent and literate–or not) can write what they want and others–such as myself–can maybe believe there’s some truth in the review.
Even such revered sources for reviews as The New York Times are not entirely trustworthy–Somebody at the Times made the egregious error of letting Shepherd review Mort Sahl’s memoir.
I’ve read articles commenting on the fact that the Internet’s attribute that allows anyone/everyone to write what they think/believe gives people the feeling that they know what they are talking about and feeling, and, significantly, want to let the world know it, too. It’s an uncontrolled ego-booster. (Gee, sort of what a blog does and is.)
I sometimes make the even bigger mistake (egotist that I am) of reading some of the more recent Customer Reviews of my own books. From what I understand, many authors do. Most of the reviews of my books are very positive, but when I encounter a negative one and find myself explaining to myself that “the reviewer has gotten it all wrong and if only they’d realized that…,” there is where I understand once again that ya can’t win ’em all. (“That’s what makes horse racing.” What does that mean?)
I recently submitted my JEAN SHEPHERD KID STORIES book manuscript to a small book publisher. I just hoped he didn’t check out a few of the less than four-star Customer Reviews of my published Shep books and maybe even believe them and think that they represented what the general public might think. If only he’d read all 47 of the Customer Reviews he could get a better overall picture! I commented in my query letter to him that he might appreciate the extensive and highly enthusiastic EYF! Associated Press review that went nation-wide, written by John Skoyles, a professor at a Boston college (an unknown-to-me gentleman-and-a-scholar!) As one might imagine, I recommend it to one and all:
And that’s the truth!–Or is it an opinion?
JUST THE FACTS, MA’AM
Truth and the lack of it are inevitable when studying and deliberating much regarding Shep. Of course there is uncertainty in all of life, but much uncertainty in the world of Shepherd seems to come from two causes.
One is that he did a lot of faking on purpose–his stories are told with such an air of verisimilitude that we can never know the whole truth and nothing but the truth about much of them. He also faked such things as his age, and he held back so much of his real life, such as the fact that he’d been married four times. He faked much more and, surprisingly, sometimes his memory failed him, such as saying that he’d come to New York in 1958 (especially when the I, Libertine, firing-hiring-Sweetheart-soap capers, and jazz concerts such as “Jazz Under the Stars” and Loew’s Sheridan happened in 1957 in NYC).
Another cause of fiction is that so much of what is stated about him is based on erroneous material that is repeated constantly on the assumption that what one believes (because one encountered something said or written), is true.
When I first checked out Wikipedia years ago, I was shocked at the amount of error in it regarding Shep. I fixed much of it but one can never know how much has crept back in the moment one’s back is turned. (I don’t know who or why someone posted a second comment about my EYF!)
Recently, while researching a Shepherd subject, I thought I’d check Wikipedia again to see how the world of Shep facts and fictions is going. Without implying that I know it all and am never wrong–I hadda fix some stuff again. http://www.wikipedia.org
Shepherd spoke about writing and literature from time to time. He expressed how much he enjoyed reading. He discussed some serious literature such as the novels of Thomas Wolfe, and mentioned that he felt that he and Nelson Algren surely “vibrated” to each other. Of course we know that he frequently disparaged Norman Mailer and his writing. He mentioned Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. He once spent a program reading the work of various serious poets he liked, and he on occasion read haiku, which, with its extremely short and compact form relaying symbolic meanings, would attract him in its relationship to his own stories. I wonder if he did the “serious” poet program in response to people who may have commented that most of his poetry reading consisted of stuff on the level of R. W. Service.
Service is fun. Service is cornball. Service’s familiar, comic poems have narrative–they tell a story as, frequently, does Shep’s own material. I enjoy Shepherd’s overly dramatic renderings of some of Service’s best-known poems, and I have a copy of his LP of reading Service. (He once commented that a particular Service poem was deeply serious–maybe to counter negative comments he’d received about the majority of them?)
Related to the over-the-top literature Shepherd liked, of course, is his use of Longfellow’s “Excelsior.”He seemed to especially like funny/quirky stuff such as Archy & Mehitabel, with its poet cockroach who typed lower case on an office typewriter. Come to think of it, it was Shepherd who introduced me to Service, haiku, and Archy & Mehitabel.
There is also the genre of “recitations,” which were memorized, moralistic stories popular in rural areas in the 19th century, Shep said. He commented:
“… the work that I do [on radio]…is a form of recitation, a form of imaginative drawing upon our own life and out own emotions to paint a picture, in a sense, of something that most of us don’t feel day by day. and I have a great sense of empathy for the early recitation artists and monologists….every time there was a gathering of the community, a social affair, Charlie would be called upon to give his famous recitation, his recitation of “Life is But a Game of Cards…”
“Asleep at the Switch” was another poem read by Shepherd, and several times he read the long poem by Langdon Smith, “Evolution,” accompanied by appropriately violin-suffused, dramatic music.
There it is:
storytelling, metaphor, and moral, creating an aura
with humor & bombast–
Jean Shepherd’s favorite literature to perform on the radio–
My design sketch for the Hall’s inaugural banner that
hung from the Museum’s main entrance.
Among my most treasured memories of decades designing exhibits at the American Museum of Natural History was the years I spent designing and supervising the installation of the permanent Margaret Mead Hall of Pacific Peoples.
[The entire Hall is filled with ART, but the final touch for me is how I dealt with
the issue facing installation of the Museum’s biggest ARTIFACT.]
As Senior Exhibit Designer at the Museum, I was told by the Exhibit Department Chairman that a major re-installation of our Pacific Peoples Hall would be designed by an outside design firm and that I would be responsible for its supervision and realization in its new space. (It had been designed by a former designer and had been universally criticized—The New York Times review was titled, “I Could Cry, I Could Just Cry.”) I was highly dismayed that I, a full-fledged designer, would be responsible, in such a diminished position, for overseeing someone else’s design, having to do the clean-up job of every possible design flaw—and then be blamed for any unavoidable problems that resulted. We held meetings with our director, my boss, Margaret Mead, as well as curators in our Anthropology Department and the outside designer. I surprised the group by presenting my own re-design solution, and, given the chance to compete by the director, with my mock up of a portion of the hall created by me in a month or so proving its superiority, I was given the job as the hall’s designer. (I won’t go into details of the other proposal’s major design flaw that would have resulted in a disaster beyond anyone’s ability to correct.)
Margaret Mead had been a curator at the museum for fifty years, but she was best known in the field as a major force in anthropological studies of Pacific Peoples, bringing her insight to her very popular books and to her widespread public media appearances regarding social issues in the 1960s and 1970s. She was a force to be admired and reckoned with. (I originally wrote “feared,” which also was true.)
When I ascended the narrow, winding stairs to her tower offices in the Museum for the first time to meet her one-on-one to discuss my thoughts for her hall, I was nervous. My hands were sweaty and cold, a factor I knew she felt when we shook hands. We spent a half hour discussing the hall and my design ideas. At the end she commented that she knew that we would work well together and produce a superior hall. When we shook hands goodbye my hands were warm and dry. She knew how to deal with the underling essential to her permanent hall’s legacy.
In the following months, before we knew of her terminal illness, I would go across the street from the Museum and meet with her in her apartment, spreading out my floor plan of the hall on her living room coffee table, and we would arrange plexiglas model exhibit cases on each section of the hall’s plan until we were satisfied with the anthropological aspects of the design. When she was too ill to manage, I worked with another anthropology curator until the hall’s completion.
THE NEW HALL
The previous hall installation was very cold in feeling (largely because of its dominant white paint on walls and columns, and the omnipresent ceiling lighting which shed a blandness that failed to distinguish artifacts from surroundings and created reflections and confusion.) I won’t discuss other major flaws, except to comment that, with various changes to layout and other matters, my lighting and reorganization of case placement eliminated reflections and confusion, and my use of appropriate color in the subject areas created warmth and coherence.
A major focal point of the old hall—and the hall that preceded it—had been a cast of an Easter Island head that stood at the far end, and that would do the same—but more dramatically—in my new design.
Easter Island with a couple of heads.
For the major physiological studies that a Museum anthropologist had done decades before regarding the inhabitants of the Island, its government offered as a gift, one of the original stone heads. The Museum found that its weight would have crashed it through the floor, so the anthropologist, on the island, made a multi-piece mold from which the head was cast in New York and put on display. That old cast was lowered from the existing window of the old installation, down one floor and through the corresponding window to the new hall’s space.
Museum metal-workers lowering the head out—
and then down–into the new space.
I had intended to close off the window with a painted wall in the sky-blue color appropriate for the head. But the Museum workers who, for a year, had been reconfiguring the exhibit cases of the hall to my design, had come to love that large window view, and argued that I should retain it. At first I disagreed, saying that the public, in the Pacific environment of the hall, wouldn’t want to see out to New York’s Upper West Side.
Then I realized that, as I’d designed the space with the head on a grass-colored, upward-curving green carpet, I could have the window installed with a translucent, rippled glass and sky-blue sheeting that would allow light and suggest the sky behind the head. The mottled effect would disguise the outside scene, yet maintain the look of the outside—cloudy days or clouds in a blue sky, and, in the evening, the street lights giving a feeling of stars in the night sky. I exult in my design solution jump-started by the two Museum metal-workers.
New hall with blue “sky” behind the head
and sky blue paint on walls.
Green “grass” carpeting on floor.
[In reality, the colors and effect are far more subtle than in the photos.]
Only one problem remained to complete my tale. The Museum’s Director told me to put a railing on the green “grass” carpet so that the public could not approach to scratch, and thus disfigure, the painted plaster head. I commented that this would place an artificial barrier to what was, in a museum setting, a rare opportunity to have an open and appropriate environment around an enormous artifact. I pleaded for time to find a solution. I asked the supervisor of our Museum Reproductions section if he could apply a tough clear coating to the head.
In the head’s final position, I privately tested that coating and then phoned the Director. He met me in the hall by the head. Without a word, I pulled from my inside jacket pocket, a hefty hammer and with all deliberate strength gave that giant artifact–
several vigorous whacks on the nose.
He looked at the nose, he looked at me.
“Gene,” he said, “you win.”
[Music stops.] Now look. Now look–we’re gonna level, we’re gonna level here. Just for one minute. And don’t you think that I’m here just–night after night just to entertain you, do you?
The more I read and type this Shep-rant the more I see that this form that he’s using is so very different than that of his more familiar 1960-1977, 45-minute programs! I’ve said this before? I’m saying it even more vociferously now!
As much as I like this free-er form Shep, I wonder. Is this earlier Shep actually the more unforced, just talking, just musing, “letting it all hang out,” unstudied Jean Shepherd persona that Lois Nettleton and he preferred–sustainable? When he switched to the 45-minute format, did he realize that not only did a 45 minutes format work against this unguarded Shep, but, if one was going to continue this radio gig for untold years, one could probably not keep this mock-hostile (?) attitude up.
You can’t improvise one’s (rather nasty) curmudgeonly self five nights a week for years. Is it too much all of a sameness after a while? One has to have a format that allows one to bring forth and attach ideas to (improvising in a more controlled format environment). In that one can expand one’s attitudes–downer, funny, informative, mix-em up more.
Is this what I’ve been grasping for in each attempt to analyze and distinguish Shep’s performance variations over the years?
And furthermore I’m going to tell you another thing. We’re gonna have to–this is a moment now, since its almost time to quit. Almost time to quit. We might as well shell it out. I’m not here to play for laughs. I’m not here to entertain you really, you know? I’m here for a much more devious purpose than that.
To begin with, many people here at this very radio station do not even know I am here. They just see it on the log–“The Jean Shepherd Show.” They’re all home there watching television. Doesn’t make any difference. They don’t know.
But I’ll tell you what I’m here for. I am here, and am an extension of–your conscience itself. I am here because I know where you went wrong. I know where you went wrong. The reason I know where you went wrong is because I know where I went wrong. And since I know where I went wrong, I know darn well where you went wrong!
[All this is spoken in mock-argumentative terms.]
So don’t give me any of that jazz! Do you hear me? Any of you! You have fouled up too! You are caught in the same thing. All of you. So don’t–give–me–any–of–your–lip.
STUDY THIS REMINDER!!!
That’s what I’m here for. [Music starts.] So play it cool and easy. I know. You know. We should be honest for the first time. You are not fooling me and I am not fooling you. The thing to remember most of all is that you’re not fooling me. Just because I come out of that crummy little plastic box on the top of your refrigerator does not mean you can push me around….The wrong spot! Yes, by the short ones. So–you know– in the end you’re just gonna have to rely on style. Because you got no content! So don’t try to get by with a message–you ain’t got it….
I am not here to play those old familiar melodies that all of you whistle in your sleep. Not a bit of it. Not a bit of it. I am not here to mouth those old familiar platitudes that fall like autumn leaves from the bottom of bank calendars. Oh no.
Enough? He goes on and I’ve got a bit more transcribed, but enough. I know he had to quite this earlier style, or maybe even I could not have followed him, with all his incorporated funny bits, into the future.
Even so, he could not last forever.
He let go in early 1977.
Have you stayed tuned?
Are you in tune?
How about twanging your tuning fork!
Before we get back to Shep–By sheer coincidence, I recently decided to get two big used books of cartoons by Matt Groening. They are repros of the Life In Hell cartoon he did before starting the TV Simpsons. The opening one seems to me similar to some of Shepherd’s humorously hostile style I’m transcribing, which is more gently, mock-confrontational–Groening’s is more in-your-face nasty/funny. I wonder if Groening is a Shep fan. (Groening seems to have started the series in 1977, and this opening one in the book is copyright 1980, while Shep’s broadcasts ended in April, 1977).
Top 2/3 of the opening cartoon in the book.
And look at him there–with his compassionate gaze. You know, one of the Eastern colleges is not teaching a course in compassion 1 and 2? [Shep’s voice is rising mock-dramatically.] You have to have a course–two or three preliminary courses. One of them is creative friendliness, 1 and 2. And, of course, after that two courses in adjustment. And you’re ready! So burn that incense, and burn it clean and hard.
Just keep–what’s the matter, Eddy?! [Shep is talking to his engineer.] Just bring it up! What’s the matter? Is it running out?! Oh, there we go. So keep it going, keep it going. Never stop, for crying out loud. [That, he says, as though not only talking to his engineer, but in tone as though it’s a wider–a universal–comment.] It’s like the time–but then again I suppose the time always shall be the time, the time, the time, the time. Pick it up, Stan. Up over there on top again. There’s always one above and one above that, and one above that. Now look–I’ll tell you how to straighten it out, mac! You’ll have slipped again. Again and again and again. Can’t you see Pandit Nehru, coming home after a hard day as a statesman–there must be somebody, there must be somebody who says, “You’re getting commercial, Pandit. You’re fooling again. Now get back on that–.”
And there always has been and there always will be. You’re doing it wrong! Ah. A. A, you have made another mistake.
Did I ever tell you the time that I saw a guy caught–held in security–in fact pinned to the wall–by a ditto machine. It was operated by an eighth power modem and it used gelatin rolls. Ever seen a guy with a gelatin roll wrapped around him from a ditto? Ever see it? Do you know what a gelatin roll ditto machine is? You haven’t even seen one. [I have no idea what he’s talking about.] I know a guy who tried to eat one once. The gelatin just looked good. You know–I mean, you know–an old paste eater–returning to the scenes of his old triumphs.
Oh, but there were two types of paste eaters in my youth. There was the kind of guy who ate it raw–as it came out of the can–right out of the jar, right out of the tube. these were the hard drinkers. And then there was the aficionado, the gourmet who liked it when it had a thin crust over it. He liked the crunchiness of it, the aged-ness of it. The cheddar-cheeseness of it. So, you know, we shall split off into two ranks every time, every place, no matter what we do. So don’t–don’t worry.
Shep on the back of Wanda Hickey.
Not worrying a bit.
Just–just cling as hard as you can to that water wing. That water wing. The one that’s taking in water–fast. That hasn’t done much flying. But nevertheless–is there waiting. So come on, daddy-o, let’s do it, you know? I know how you’ve gone wrong! I know how you’ve gone wrong!
Third third of first Life in Hell.
You have come to the right man–for the first time in your life. I–know–where–you– Yes. I know, you have done it again. You are wrong again. STOP!
The music stops.
The engineer has been un-tuned
and stopped in his tracks.
STAY TUNED FOLKS!
Sometimes Shepherd discusses his thoughts about what he is doing on the air. In part, this shows his interest in the nature of his performance, and also it’s probably a way for his listeners to realize that there is more to his work than coldly coming into a studio and talking. In a Seattle radio interview on KRAB-FM in October, 1971, he sets a little scene while talking to one of the interviewers:
When I am doing a radio show it’s really a performance. I don’t talk to the microphone or to the listener—I talk to myself. I’m having a continuing conversation with the other half of me, which keeps laughing maniacally and saying, “Oh, what a crock of canal water.”
And then I keep saying, “No, no, you don’t understand.” And so, when somebody is listening in, I have never yet gotten over that. All the years I’ve been on the air, all the shows I’ve done, I’ve never yet gotten over that curious little feeling of surprise that somebody actually listens. It’s private to me. I never think in terms of the audience.
“It’s private to me”
It’s like if you’re sitting in your room, your own room someplace, let’s even say more intimate than that—let’s say a bedroom somewhere and you’re doing something. Let’s just say you, Helen [one of the interviewers]. Let’s just think a hypothetical thing. You’re sitting there weaving the great, mystic doily of all time. You’ve got the secret doily, this gigantic doily that has the history of the world woven into it, see. You’re weaving away there, see.
And you put it down now and you go out. You go to the A & P. You’re in the frozen food department and someone comes up and says, “Helen, my god, that doily is fantastic.” Someone you never saw before, see?
You say, “Oh really? You like it?”
“The thing you did on the pyramids.”
[Helen comments, “You say, ‘Back off.’”]
Well, that’s what I do. But the thing is, it’s a very private thing…. There’s an old actors’ axiom. It has lot of—it even deals in a way with Pirandello, and it says, “If you’re ever on stage and you start hearing yourself talk, you’re in bad trouble.”
Think of this: “I’ve never yet gotten over that curious little feeling of surprise that somebody actually listens. It’s private to me.” Shepherd, in a way, feels that he is talking only to himself. Doesn’t that remind one of the idea that each listener indeed feels that Shepherd is talking to him/her alone?
Doesn’t it all remind one of how many creators are so locked into their own thoughts and feelings while they work, that each one feels that he is in a world of one? Truly, it does seem that Shepherd, especially, is within himself. That he is, most of his waking moments, self-absorbed. I suppose we mostly all are. When I’m in the middle of some engrossing project, sometimes I have to mentally jolt myself into remembering that I’m also part of a family, neighborhood, world.
“By profession I am a drama critic, by conviction a believer in the abolition of capital punishment; by birth, English. The reader may find it odd that a lover of the mimic deaths of stage tragedy, an enemy of judicial killing, and a native of a country which has immemorially detested those blood sports which involve personal hazard should have succumbed to bull fever, joined the aficion, become a friend and apologist of the Spanish bullfight. And indeed it is odd….But now the bullfight seems to me a logical extension of all the impulses my temperament holds—love of grace and valor, of poise and pride; and, beyond these, the capacity to be exhilarated by mastery of technique. No public spectacle in the world is more technical, offers less to the untaught observer, than a bullfight.” –Kenneth Tynan, English and American theater critic and author, beginning his 1955 book, Bull Fever.
I was an aficionado of los toros. That is hard to believe for most people who know me (including my wife). I blame it on my cousin, Raymond B. Anderson, who, when I was an impressionable pre-teenager and he was years older, gave me advice on what to read. He suggested Hemingway among other authors. He loaned me his copy of Death in the Afternoon. I soon became hooked on Hemingway, bullfighting, and Spain. I ended up reading and collecting virtually all of Hemingway, becoming an enthusiast of the bulls, and marrying a young woman from Granada, Spain. Over the years I’ve seen a total of about a hundred bulls (usually it’s 6 per afternoon, with 3 matadors) “fought” in Spain, Mexico, and Peru.
My poor-man’s first edition.
LET ME TELL YOU ABOUT IT.
I hate boxing, wrestling, and cock-fighting, etc. I am not a brave person. I have never been in a fight. I never hurt a living thing other than killing–and regretting it– mosquitoes and flies. However, I recognize that I, as well as most civilized people, live in a world in which there is little left of the primal essence and intensity that is our ancient heritage (all to the good, but we’re left with boxing and wrestling, etc.). In the modern, civilized world, there is nothing that combines our primitive being, fear/bravery, esthetic skill, our esthetic joys and terrors played out in REAL LIFE, and our “moment-of-truth” decisions, as does the art of toreo. (I’ll use a word like this rather than the inaccurate term, “bullfighting.”) Maybe toreo’s minor enactment of existential dread in our mostly sanitized modern world is worth some moral price?
Having run through the streets
before the bulls in Pamplona, July, 1966.
Toreo is not a sport nor is it “fighting”—in Spain it’s not found in a newspaper’s sports section, but in a separate section titled Toros. It is not an “equal contest” as are sports, yet there are many strict rules regarding how the encounter is allowed to proceed. Neither the ring’s judges nor the public will tolerate breaking of these ritually determined rules. The judges administer fines and the public whistles and throws cushions. The rules are meant to properly allow for a “good” encounter—if the bull, at any phase of the ritual, is overly harmed (to make the matador’s job less risky than permitted), the encounter loses its efficacy: the power and emotion are diminished as it would be if Beethoven’s “Fifth” were played on a kazoo. Neophytes in the crowd don’t know anything about what’s going on. They think the opening passes by the matador’s assistants (that are a tentative testing of the bull’s reactions) are part of the ritual, akin to believing that an electrician, adjusting the priest’s microphone before a high mass, is part of the religious ceremony.
It’s an ancient ritual of man against a force of nature in which the bull virtually never “wins,” and the man may die and only temporarily perseveres until he is tested next time in the ring. The only “fight” is between the matador and his own bravery and sense of integrity. The man is up against certain aspects within himself: his bravery in the face of death; his decision as to how much of himself he is willing to brave at the moment; his esthetic sensibility regarding how to encounter with his choice and execution of passes, how close he’s willing to approach the horns of his potential death. In addition there’s his skill in knowing as much as he can about the nature of all bulls and learning in-process about this particular bull, improvising his strategy regarding this bull’s temperament. Properly orchestrated in the symbolic world of brute nature and a man, the man in the ring evokes the audience’s desire to encompass all those qualities within themselves, while facing the bull in twenty minutes of emotional intensity.
(How many people hunt down and kill birds, deer, and other targets just so they can beat their chest like a cave-man hero? And how many cattle are killed daily to give us the pleasure of wearing leather shoes? Or eating a good slice of London broil. I prefer mine with just a touch of red in the middle and a touch of burnt meat on the edges, while not at all thinking of “meat” that is actually an animal’s dead “flesh.”)
One sits directly on the concrete surrounding steps of the plaza.
As on the ancient Greek stone steps of an open amphitheater.
Unless, like most, one rents a cushion. As Barcelona, in 2011, banned the corrida,
a cushion (a portion of my 9” X 13” one shown here) I found in the arena
after a visit to the plaza’s museo, would be one of maybe just a few remaining.
The hoped-for emotional intensity doesn’t happen often at the event called a “running of the bulls” (in Spanish, corrida de toros). One has to attend and endure some disappointing bull-encounters to experience–when all the aspects synthesize–a near-ideal.
Tauromaquia goes back a few thousand years in the West (see Goya’s 19th century depictions), but it only became formalized recently in Spain, and its esthetics, if I understand its history properly, only became high art with the early twentieth century innovations of Juan Belmonte, who chose not to move out of the way of the charging bull, but to create the frightening emotion embodied by standing rigidly still and controlling death to closely-but-safely pass by him, creating a moment more intensely emotional than the scripted leap and twirl of a ballet dancer. (By the way, I am a big fan of Balanchine’s dance.)
A series of passes (like a series of linked ballet moves) executed closely and with elegance, often result in the matador’s suit of lights being smeared with the bull’s blood–a stark dichotomy to the fineness of his splendid attire. Belmonte’s example led to the elaboration of elegant passes that advance the drama, as they must, to “the moment of truth,” the most intense moment of all, when man and bull are most in danger, and the bull will inevitably die. To exaggerate a comparison, would we be happy at the end of Hamlet if Hamlet didn’t die, but lived out a long and tranquil life? Hamlet has a predetermined and scripted end—and it isn’t “real.” Toreo is a fusion of art with real life. Real life—something we, in our civilized existence, seldom experience to any high degree. The audience, through the matador, is transfixed by a ritualized expression of life, death, fear, and artistically controlled bravery—the height of which is given us, in a few moments of escalating intensity, with a human’s triumph or tragedy.
….I can only say that many Americans, Englishmen, and Europeans generally, have found the bullfight something worthy of attention. That one of our premier artists chose to elucidate it both in his youth and in his older age is worthy of note, and I have never been ashamed to follow in his steps. Bullfighting is far less barbarous than American boxing, and the death of men comes far less often,… —James Michener in his introduction to Hemingway’s The Dangerous Summer, which recounts his following the 1959 season of competition between the two finest matadors of their day, Luis Miguel Dominguin, and Antonio Ordonez.
Hemingway preferred Ordonez. I saw Dominguin and Ordonez only once each, between 1966 and 1973. Both showed thorough understanding of the bulls and performed extremely well. Dominguin seemed cold, bloodless—a supreme technician at work. Ordonez seemed a highly skilled artist with flesh and blood and soul, at one with his bulls. By the way, a good torero feels an emotional kinship with the bulls he kills. The lead human participant is the matador–the “killer”—of bulls.
To get an idea of a really good performance, see:
[When first posted, this was short with only Ordonez; now much longer]
eb on the defensive—
In an ideal, perfect world, I can’t defend the corrida de toros.
Yes, it is brutal in parts and it does hurt animals. But still—
here are a couple of personal mementos:
IN THE RING AFTER HAVING RUN IN FRONT OF THE BULLS IN PAMPLONA
A SEAT CUSHION FROM THE BARCELONA BULL RING
AS A TOURIST I VISITED A BULL-FIGHT SCHOOL IN MAJORCA–
At the authority’s invitation to the audience,
I was first to jump into the ring, confronting
a small, harmless heifer—
I induced it to make one pass.
From the very small and untutored crowd,
I received an “¡Ole!“
FIRST PAGE OF MY ESSAY IN
CURATOR, THE MUSEUM JOURNAL.
MY TICKET FROM THE SPRING 1980 SEASON
OF 8 CORRIDAS IN LIMA, PERU.
I SAW THE FIRST 7 BEFORE HAVING TO FLY BACK TO NYC TO WORK & HOME
(Those were probably the last corridas I will ever see. I remember the ambiance: the heat of the sun; the brassy blare of the plaza band’s pasodoble; the acrid whiff of a Spanish cigar; the exhilaration after a matador had brought us to an emotional peak; the exultant roar of the crowd’s ¡Ole!)
I enjoy my loving family, my books, my artworks, my sofa,
my TV for some innings of Yankee Stadium’s manicured grass;
maybe a raw performance of blood sport on a CD–Dylan or Janis Joplin.
–I save my ticket, my photo, my cushion—
memories of 35 years ago: a touch of real blood
from my pagan past.
I wrote the above thoughts in January and have been tweaking them a few times. On February 2, 2016, the New York Times had a major article on the front page of its “Sports Tuesday” section, about the current hero of the bullring, 40-year-old Jose Tomas, who, in the ring that Sunday, had been knocked down twice but not gored. (Note that the Times located the article under “sports,” as it does not have a section devoted to Toros.
Jose Tomas that Sunday
Geoffrey Gray, the article’s author, writes, “Tomas’s performances were savage ballets, a blend of elegance, fearlessness, timing and sacrifice. He seemed determined to pass bulls ever closer to his body, pushing the boundaries of how close a man could get.” Gray quotes Allen Josephs, a university professor and fellow aficionado, “We want the great matador to bring the animal closer and closer and closer. It’s playing with death. Why do we play with death? Because by playing with death, in some ways, we overcome it.” Gray continues, “In a real sense, bullfighting is more religion than sport, a ritual left from the ancient world.” He goes on to quote the professor again: “You know, the matadors are really the only high priests from the pagan days we have left.”
Coincidentally, on that same 2/2/16, I read the end of Julian Barnes’ introduction to his new book of articles about art, Keeping an Eye Open: “Art doesn’t just capture and convey the excitement, the thrill of life. Sometimes, it does even more: it is that thrill.”
“A ritual left from the ancient world.”
My ancient, primitive world left behind 35 years ago.
So I’m this 63-year-old guy and I’m in a booth at the Museum of Television and Radio on 2/15/2002, listening to a Shep program broadcast 12/20/1959, and I’m doing my best to transcribe it. No, actually–I’ve caught myself–I’ve got a small cassette recorder hidden there in the dark and I’m recording it to transcribe later. Not many of this sort have surfaced yet. It’s one of Shepherd’s really laid-back, ironically amusing “philosophical” broadcasts that I like so much.
Now, about fourteen years after I’d recorded and transcribed in longhand (it’s now early 2016), I look over the eleven pages of script on ruled yellow paper. That’s only about 12 and-a-quarter minutes out of one of his extended programs. I know about how long because I just read it aloud–trying to give it the pacing Shepherd had–timing it with a stopwatch. (I do what I gotta do to get these blogs down right.)
This program of his really is a downer, but, remembering how ol’ Shep can tell it, I know just the kind of amusingly ironic tone he’s giving it, so I know I laughed while listening then just as I’m laughing now. (I hope this hint has readers also listening to Shepherd in their minds as they read.)
Now I’m wondering how much of it I can put down here without losing the audience. I’ve got to give it a try, and maybe break it into a number of separate posts. I hope that will keep the readers/listeners glued to Shep’s philosophical rant–(with the help of a meaningful simile-cum-pun) like bubblegum tossed on the sidewalk now stuck to the souls of their psyches.
…each one of us. Someone who stands off to one side and tells us how we can get it all straightened out. How we are going wrong. How we faulteringly missed the step, the eternal roadway of damnation. Always. I think there is a giant monkey on the back of everyone. It is truly. It is the individual corrective agent. The giant monkey of “Now look, you’re going wrong, and I know how to fix it up. I know how to cure it.” It might be a man, it might be a woman, it might be an incense burner for all I know. But there is that monkey on the back of everyone.
And nothing seems to deter them. They’re always there. They’re always waiting for their moment. And it’s no wonder–it’s no wonder that a good portion of mankind continues to believe in black magic of one kind or another. That the woman who looks out of the television screen, out of that commercial with the great flashing teeth, and she says, “I have just discovered the new wash-day miracle.” It’s going to straighten it all out! All of it! Happiness will flow through your family like a great river of Karo Syrup. A new miracle. And somehow it seems to be true–there is a new miracle. Until the next miracle. Until the next miracle. Until the next miracle. The next miracle, and the one after that.
Yes, be the first one in your neighborhood, friends, to burn Lucky Me-Joe Incense three times a week. according to the directions on the box. The sweetness will last for days. Your friends will love to visit you–and remark on the delightful perfumed fragrance that fills your home.
The burning of incense for luck was a secret belief known to the ancients and people of many different ancient, ancient, ancient, long-forgotten cults. It drives away your enemies and brings out those who will, in the end, be your true loves. Now–there is no guarantee that this will happen. We only say that it has happened in the past. So burn it, burn it, burn it.
To be continued.
Yes, Shep knows how we have gone wrong.
Will he reveal his secret verbal ingredient?
I try to avoid psychoanalyzing Jean Shepherd–or anyone else. (My Excelsior, You Fathead! indicates some bits about Shep’s attitudes, but mostly these are described by those who knew him, rather than through my own interpretations.) But–after perusing a new book about Shakespeare’s evolving attitude toward women as seen in his plays–I thought it of interest to attempt to objectively describe some aspects of Shepherd’s life and works as it relates to what might be interpreted as his changing attitude toward women.
Shepherd, in his talk and writing, infrequently deals with the female of the species, so the following is not suggested to be any kind of encompassing description–much less a conclusive analysis–it’s just some observations that might have some connection to Shepherd’s way of being and his creative works.
His kid stories mainly relate to young boys at play, and a few of his teenage stories do relate to dating. His army stories infrequently relate to encounters with women. One, in my Shep’s Army concerns a sexual encounter (implied). Another story, about when he was stationed in Ft. Monmouth, NJ (a very short stay, I imagine) relates to he and a buddy encountering a sad woman–I don’t remember the details and don’t like the story much. Not much else.
Some of the material and thoughts here are based on comments found in Excelsior, You Fathead! Chapter 13, “Tiny Embattled Minority.”
MOM AND SOME EARLY “LOVES”
Fictional mom in A Christmas Story
Some really young females in Shep’s early life–
Dawn Strickland, Esther Jane Albery, Dorothy Anderson
[Dawn Strickland cropped from photo courtesy Steve Glazer and Bill Ek.]
Mom is traditional, nurturing, hard-working over the kitchen sink and cooking the conventional meat loaf. Conventional both in fiction and as one might gather about her when Shepherd speaks of his “real” mother. Soon after he graduated from high school, his father left the family forever by driving off with a young female co-worker in a convertible.
Shepherd told various stories of his experiences (mostly in fictional form) with grammar-school and high-school girls, sometimes on dates, some of whom he had a crush on. He reportedly wrote love letters to Dorothy Anderson while he was in the army in his early 20s.
Years later (1959), in Shep’s theater piece “Look, Charlie,” it’s said that, in a very old-fashioned image of female-as-underling/slave girl, he scripted actress Lois Nettleton, his girlfriend at the time, to feed him grapes as though he were a Roman emperor and she a servant:
Lois, as subservient hand-maiden,
presumably as seen in the theater piece,
depicted in Shel Silverstein’s
for “Look, Charlie.”
In those early days, Jean Shepherd seemed to have a very traditional image of girls and women. His early marriages seem to show him with a similar attitude.
Only recently has it been confirmed that Shepherd had been married very early on. Nothing much is known of this brief and well-hidden marriage except for this:
Credit: Steve Glazer
Jean Shepherd’s second marriage was to Joan Warner, mother of his two children. (Joan does not want to be interviewed regarding her former husband–I’ve tried several times.) Evidence from some general comments and actions by Shep suggest that she had traditional ideas of what marriage should be. Here they are, the happy couple:
Shepherd had some general comments to say about adult women/wives. One comment related to a husband whose wife arm-twisted him into doing some work on their house– because of his digging around the house foundation, the end of the house sank. In another similar instance, the digging under the house demanded of the wife resulted in unearthing a den of rattlesnakes. He seemed to be suggesting that doing what a wife nagged one to do could result in horrible disasters.
Regarding the entire idea of a permanent commitment such as marriage, Shepherd seemed negative. In what one might be forgiven in interpreting as a comment on clinging women, Shepherd on a broadcast commented that some people were the hulls of ships while other people were the barnacles that clung to their undersides.
In an earlier post I suggested that Shepherd wanted to be free and able to do just exactly what he wanted without being tied down to a little house with a lawn and a picket fence, and that this may well have caused him to leave the family he was married to and seek freedom and further fame in the Big Apple.
Lois Nettleton, in an early interview after Shep’s death responded to a comment by saying that he had strongly disliked family get-togethers: “Oh, hated them!”
WOMEN’S LIB AND EQUALITY
Shepherd sometimes had strong opinions about women’s lib. On July 31, 1960 on his program he said:
“I’ll tell you–most chicks today want to be treated as though they are tender flowers–and they prefer to act like King Kong. You see there’s that neat split–you want me to pick up your handkerchief while you are kicking me in the duff–with a pair of hobnailed boots. Now which do you want? Now I can do either, and can take either.”
Maybe he’d just had a bad day, but there are other Shepherd quotes in a similar vein.
Shepherd’s third wife, Lois Nettleton, was a very intelligent, very independent woman. She wrote that she felt that they were both independently successful in the entertainment field and were a good match for each other. She may have agreed to playing the subservient woman in a scripted part in “Look, Charlie,” but it doesn’t seem her general style. She believed in and assumed that she had total equality with Jean.
Mr. and Mrs. (Lois) Jean Shepherd, early 1960s.
Lois Nettleton a few years later as a Hollywood star.
Lois commented, “To me, our marriage was an ideal pairing of two famous career people who didn’t need to lean on each other, who enjoyed getting to know more about each other each day. Who made no demands, were flexible, and loved getting back together again after long absences. Glamorous, exciting! Very naïve of me—but actually very good for him in many ways—even after divorce, which he tried to avoid, he wanted to keep the relationship.”
When Leigh Brown and Jean first became friends, he was married to Lois. Leigh became obsessed with Jean’s mind–and with his genius on the radio. She would do anything to have him. And eventually she managed to separate Jean from Lois. According to WOR General Manager Herb Saltzman, she began at WOR as a gofer and “She bought into the myth [that he was a genius].” She had seemingly given up all her early ambitions in order to be with Jean. But, little by little, she became Jean’s editor, agent, producer, co-creator (to some extent). By the time his career in radio was about to end, she could hold her own with his dominating personality. At the time that Jean left his radio career, they had been living together for some time, and in 1977, they married.
By the time Leigh Brown died in 1998, she had seemingly become a major force in Jean’s professional as well as in his personal life. Laurie Squire, their coworker and close friend for decades, puts it (quoted in my EYF!): “They were Jean Shepherd. She sublimated, but she had a very--I can’t emphasize enough–she had a very strong personality. And I think he admired that….Quite a temper. She could hold her own! The power behind the throne. He was the creative genius. She knew how to operate in the real world.”
From those who knew them well, it seems as though Jean could not live without her. He died the year after she died.
I’d say that by the end, she and he were equals.
She had made them so.
Why do people exert the considerable energy required to create stuff? Why did Shep?
What follows are my thoughts/interpretations of why Shepherd did what he did, in part contributed by my own attempts at self-interpretation. Any comments and additions are welcomed.
Looks great, doesn’t it!
Relates to left-brain/right brain.
(I made the mistake of checking the googled source:
it’s about ads and marketing. Wooden cha know!)
For me, there is a great enjoyment I have in giving expression to my ideas and feelings. This is irrespective of the possible quality of the result. From following Shepherd, I believe without doubt that he got great joy in self-expression. I believe that most artists in all fields enjoy expressing themselves. Some claim that this amounts to an obsession. Sometimes I feel this–I don’t want to stop for food or sleep.
PURE ESTHETIC PLEASURE
There is pleasure in creating something that one considers to be “a work of art.”
PURE ENJOYMENT OF PROVIDING INFO/EDUCATION/ ENTERTAINMENT
Shepherd, along with most other creators had this joy.
The above categories involve “self-actualization,” the being at one’s
best/highest level that humans are capable of.
See Abraham Maslow–including my post on his work.
This ain’t so bad. All of us need some of this, and artists tend to have it to a very high degree. It may even help them achieve all the other attributes listed here.
YA GOTTA MAKE DOUGH
This ain’t so bad. Most all of us gotta do this–unless born rich or happen to fall into it. One of the issues most artists have in life is how to balance the need to create with the necessity to make money to obtain food and lodging and a few goodies.
I don’t know how Jean Shepherd could have balanced art and money in any other way than he did. He might have continued–until he died–with his great art of improvised radio work at the sacrifice of more money and renown–but this would probably have driven his ego mad. I think that one of my heroes, Norman Mailer, determined and succeeded in promoting himself to the crass, real world in ways that for him, allowed him to write even his lesser writings in ways that, on some level, also produced work that had artistic as well as monetary value.
♥ ♥ ♥
I’m fascinated by raven rattles. These are objects used in ritual ceremonies by Northwest Coast Indians. They are carved with a raven and several lesser figures on or incorporated into it, using the typical, stylized shapes of Northwest Coast art. Ravens are usually depicted with something in their beaks. This is a “box of sunlight,” which the mythological trickster-bird opened and gave to humans (in a similar way to Prometheus giving light–fire/knowledge–to humans in the Greek myth).
The main part of the body is the raven. On its back there is usually a red-colored, naked human with his tongue out, being given (at the tip of the giver’s tongue,) some important attribute. Sometimes the giver is a bird, sometimes a frog, etc. On the bottom side of the rattle, carved in slight relief, is a bird’s head with large eyes and various abstract shapes in typical Northwest style.
Vancouver Museum exhibit.
When I was designing “Chiefly Feasts,” a large temporary exhibit of Northwest Coast art that would travel to several other museums in the U. S. and Canada, I flew and drove to see and consult at other museums, with Allison and our young son. I’ve seen many actual raven rattles in museums such as the American Museum of Natural History, Chicago’s Field Museum, Vancouver University Museum Victoria.
My design sketch for one section of the exhibit.
For several years, every time I walked through the Northwest Coast permanent hall of the American Museum of Natural History where I worked, I’d stop and look at the good one on display. When our museum did a temporary exhibit brought in from another museum, I had the chance to hold a fine example during set-up time.
When I had more brown hair than white.
I’m holding it upside down
as one does during a native ceremony.
A conservator will tell you that the white gloves
are to protect the artifact.
From books, magazines, catalogs, I collect photos of raven rattles by the score.
Clockwise from lower left: At auction, $30,000-50,000;
Three views of a specimen at AMNH; For sale at a gallery.
In my belief, many I’ve seen are not well carved. I imagine that a good one would go for many times what I ever could afford. As much as I try to collect real stuff, a few years ago I encountered a replica for sale on ebay, thought it compared very well with photos of really good ones, and bought it for $125. The seller, owner of a NW-Coast gallery, had commissioned a half-dozen, made by a family of Indonesian carvers!
A major issue for me is: I’d rather have an authentic one carved by and used by the actual people of the Northwest Coast. But considering all the inferior specimens, actually distastefully/poorly carved authentic ones I’ve seen (even those beyond what I might one day be able to afford) would I really want such a poorly done job facing me nightly? Other than its aura of authenticity, it would be one that fails in all the visual attributes that make raven rattles in the ideal such a joy to behold. My Indonesian replica is better made than most authentic ones I’ve seen—it gives me an esthetic pleasure I’d never get from a badly carved authentic one that visually offends me. Faced with the reality, I’ve denied my ideal principle. I’m very pleased to view nightly in front of me in our living room, my Indonesian replica.
MY RAVEN RATTLE
Here is my ever-growing list of well-known people in the entertainment world who are/were listeners to Jean Shepherd. Following includes those who can be rather positively believed were listeners, either because they themselves claim they were or through other rather definite evidence. I note just one or two prominent fields for each listing. This list is not definitive–it’s just of those I can think of. I’d appreciate hearing about others–with source of the info.
Penn Jillette (Comic, magician–Penn & Teller)
Andy Kaufman (Performance artist)
Ernie Kovacs (Video innovator)
Bruce Maher (Comic, “the Rabbi” in Seinfeld)
Henry Morgan (Comic broadcaster)
Roger Price (Comic, author, editor of Grump magazine)
Jerry Seinfeld (Sitcom and standup comic)
Harry Shearer (Broadcaster, “Simpson” voices)
Bob Brown (Editor: Car and Driver)
Milton Caniff (Comic strip artist–pre 1955 “Terry and the Pirates”)
Billy Collins (Poet—U. S. Poet Laureate)
Kate Collins (Writer– humor/crime books—(“Flower Shop Mysteries”)
Ed Fancher (Publisher: Village Voice)
Herb Gardner (Cartoonist, playwright—“A Thousand Clowns”)
Jules Feiffer (Playwright, cartoonist)
Bill Griffith (Cartoonist–“Zippy the Pinhead”)
Hugh Hefner (Publisher: Playboy)
William Hjortsberg (Author–Gray Matters, Toro! Toro! Toro!)
George S. Kaufman (Playwright)
Jack Kerouac (Author–On the Road)
Paul Krassner (Writer, publisher)
S. J. Perelman (Comic writer)
Shel Silverstein (Cartoonist, writer)
R. L. Stine (Goosebumps book series)
Dan Wakefield (Author: New York in the 50s)
Tom Wolfe (Author: Bonfire of the Vanitites, etc.)
George Antheil (“Ballet Mécanique”)
John Cage (Shep describes him as early listener he talked with various time by phone)
Donald Fagen (Steely Dan)
Mitch Leigh (“Into the Unknown With Jazz Music,” “Man of La Mancha”)
Charles Mingus “The Clown”)
Dee Snider (Twisted Sister front man and songwriter)
Fred Barzyk (Video director–major Shepherd TV)
John Cassavetes (Actor, Director–Shadows)
Ron Della Chiesa (WGBH Broadcaster)
Bob Clark (Film director—Porky’s, A Christmas Story)
Bruce Conner (Avant garde film maker, sculptor)
Art D’Lugoff (Concert producer)
Barry Farber (Broadcaster)
Helen Gee (Founder of “The Limelight”)
Larry Josephson (Broadcaster)
Larry King (Broadcaster)
Arch Oboler (Playwright)
Lois Nettleton (Actress, wife)
Keith Olbermann (Media–politics & sports commentator)
• • •
There are also many who had connections to Shep and/or were described by Shep or others as having been his friends, but we can’t know which of these people were indeed friends or which of them may or may not have been listeners. For example, Bob & Ray were fellow broadcasters and friends of Shep; Shep claimed to be friends with Jack Kerouac; Lois Nettleton said that from time to time Shep went on sketching expeditions not only with Shep Silverstein, but with watercolorist Dong Kingman and Playboy illustrator LeRoy Neiman.
I also tend to think that a good portion of those connected to the Village, creative, and intellectual scene in New York City in the late 1950s and into the 1960s were likely to have been Shepherd listeners. These would include people like Laurie Anderson, Bob Dylan, and Woody Allen.
Please let me know of others, giving me whatever evidence you may have of connection to Shep.