My Excelsior, You Fathead! The Art and Enigma of Jean Shepherd was published over ten years ago (!) and I’ve been gratified by the vast majority of very positive reviews from the general public and from the media.
SOME POSITIVE COMMENTS
Very laudatory reviews and comments have come from the Associated Press; Talkers Magazine–the publication of the talk radio industry (“This is a very important book because it is one of the few thoughtfully researched volumes written about a radio star–ever….Get the book….”); Lois Nettleton; Dee Snider; Walter Sabo–CEO of a communications consultant firm (“This book captures the spirit and genius of his work….This is a great book.”);
Broadcasters and print contributors who have interviewed me and/or have just read and critiqued the book were also kind; as are most of the http://www.amazon.com Customer Reviewers:
Meticulously researched, this was obviously a labor of love for the Author. Absolutely the most fascinating biography I’ve read in years.
Doug McIntyre, who began and gave up on a Shep biography, and who is a bi-coastal radio broadcaster of his own shows, as well as a video documentary-maker, commented on his Customer Review titled: A FIRST RATE ANALYSIS OF RADIO’S GREAT GENIUS:
“Shep’s life is nearly impossible to capture in a linear biography. He told so many versions of events it really is a work of forensics to piece it all together, however. Bergmann did a wonderful job of presenting Jean’s art in its proper context, including important observations about the influence of Jazz on Shep’s art. (Radio is inherently a Jazz medium) As a writer who tried and failed to write a biography of Jean Shepherd I know exactly how hard this project was and applaud Eugene Bergmann and thank him from the bottom of my heart.”
Doug has also commented that the form of the book, by design or fortunate happenstance, seems inspired by Shepherd’s own, apparently non-linear organization that overall ties together neatly. [ I may have his wording here a bit askew, but I think that’s the jist of it. eb]
SOME NEGATIVE COMMENTS
“Someday Shep will get a biography worthy of his genius, but this one is a godawful mess. The writing is genuinely awful, with all the personality of a washing machine’s instruction booklet.” [Oh well! –eb]
“A lot of good information about the life of Jean Shepherd was left out. Many details of his life were either missed or overlooked. I would hardly call it a biography.” [I commented: Good–I don’t call it a biography either! Despite what my publisher and many others say, see the book itself, page 14, where I say it documents and describes what he produced, and it is an appreciation and analysis of what he accomplished.
I responded to another Customer Review comment: “How was Excelsior, You Fathead! organized and why? Two major ideas govern the form of the book. Most importantly it’s a document and exploration of Shepherd’s radio and other creative work. Secondly it deals with those biographical materials that give some sense of his life in its relation to his creations. The book has a chronological framework, with thematic chapters interspersed where they help our understanding of what he did and how he did it. I would hope that the concluding paragraph of each chapter, and the comment at the beginning of each of the book’s parts, help the reader understand the logic of the book’s format.”
With that in mind, here’s how I organized the book, by section:
ACCOLADES FOR JEAN SHEPHERD
In case you aren’t aware, dear reader, what a major figure Shepherd is in 20th century American consciousness, read this–it’s put right up front where you can’t ignore it! Who was that guy Jean Shepherd, you ask? Never heard of him! Here’s what a lot of important-type people think of him–so there! Sort of surprises you to see all those people there giving tribute, doesn’t it? And that was before the ultimate accolade: Seinfeld delivered it too late to include in EYF!
INTRO TO SHEPHERD
A general intro to Shepherd in a couple of short chapters to give a sense of his quirky nature, initiating the unknowing and reminding all-knowing enthusiasts. As he effectively seemed to speak to each listener individuall , I indicate how I, too (as I am the one who wrote the book), was captivated by him.
His true and fictional life/activities before the great New York years: childhood, army, pre-New York City radio.)
HERITAGE AND ENDOWMENT
[As I introduce this part in the book]: “Shepherd studies the art of humor–its history and its uses. With this knowledge he will be able to exploit his fine talent for observation–expressing what he sees in himself, his countrymen, and the common humanity around him.”
THE GREAT BURGEONING
That “heritage” noted above is the base for all that follows, beginning in New York (his intellectual goal). His life/art from 1955-or-6 to about 1960, involving his many-faceted radio work and involvement in other arts–and in the other fellow- creators and common folk he encountered. I, Libertine, jazz, etc.
With all of the above, one can proceed to delve into what tools he used to perform his magic, and then explore many of the themes that dominated his mind and work.
TOOLS IN HAND
[As I introduce this part in the book]: “Throughout his career, Shepherd was a master of the tools of radio–sound and those special sounds called words. He delighted in the nature of the medium, and we experience the very complex, personal, and entertaining art he created.] The titles of these two chapters spell it out: “Bahn Frei: Sounds,” and “Hurling Invectives: Words.”
Ending the “Word” chapter with the Dictionary of American Slang’s inclusion of Shep’s “night people” phrase, the final paragraph, going into the next Part, with it’s Shep philosophy chapter segue: ” ‘Social commentator,’ Yes, that’s part of what Jean Shepherd was–but he was more than that–he was a commentator on the whole human condition. He observed, described, commented, and evaluated–he responded with joy, wonder, irritation, and despair–sometimes all at the same time. He had many themes and variations–but as we will see, he never let us forget what to do with our knees.”
ENCOUNTERS AND CONTENTIONS
How did those tools come in handy on the air? Expressing himself in his “philosophy,” interacting with others in the control room and and the offices of WOR, and dealing with the need to make dough.
REFINEMENTS AND CONVERSIONS
Was radio all there was? He wanted to be acclaimed as a literary fellow=”My novel.” He realized that radio was dying as a major art form, and he expanded his reach into other fields of entertainment. Writing, acting, video, film. There may have been envy and desperation in that mix. In the later radio section (1960-1977) I describe and illustrate some of his masterpieces from this era, such as his eulogy of JFK and his description of his Morse code contest.
SUMMING UP TO A BOODLE-AM SHAKE
Pulleying in all the loose threads, cords, and chains. The pendulum swings back and forth over the life and career of Jean Parker Shepherd: the good and the bad. He wants it all. He can’t have it all. He gets plenty.
I end the book with a short and rather enigmatic transcript of Shepherd’s metaphor of observing a distant, disappearing ship and how he is trying to figure out how to communicate to you (his audience):
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.