One Shepherd drawing I’m aware of is unlike the rest in media, appearance, and effect. (It’s not even done with a Rapidograph.) Done on an eight-by-nine inch sheet of gray paper, it depicts overlapping outlines of cartoon heart-faces apparently drawn with a red-violet felt-tip marker, the simple facial features drawn with a pen. The hearts form a sequence from left to right, starting upright, but a couple leaning a bit, the final one prostrate, as though in a swoon, the entire effect beyond our full understanding. Yet the words under them, written with a regular pen, say clearly, “I can’t fight it. I love you. J.” Obviously not cold and objective, but heartfelt. It is a valentine to his wife, Lois Nettleton, and thus private, not meant for public scrutiny. (Shepherd kept his emotions hidden from the public to such an extent that, in his twenty-one years of New York broadcasting, the only emotions of his so far heard, have been when he was performing in the throws of some maniacally comic, musical interlude, when artfully portraying some fictional event or when disparaging someone in the control room. there was obvious emotion behind his commentaries regarding the Kennedy assassination.
As for his personal life, the public at large was not even aware that he and Lois Nettleton knew each other, much less that they were married for over six years.) Though lacking detail and much context, this valentine is humorous and poignant, but with a full meaning that probably died with the sender and recipient, and which remains for the rest of us a puzzle that can only be seen as another part of the artist’s life that will always be in its essence unknown—enigmatic. Another one of the few instances of a personal connection to Shepherd’s life.
Jean’s Valentine to Lois.
For Shep, so unusual and so unexpectedly expressing a feeling,
this is one of my favorite pieces of Shepherd memorabilia.
Surprisingly, considering Shepherd’s need for acclaim and a more exalted status as a significant creator in his time, he seemed to care little for what happened to his drawings. True, there were those few used to accompany his Village Voice writing, and those that appeared in two books, but that was about it. He seemed to only sign a few, including some that are in private hands, and the one framed on Lois Nettleton’s kitchen wall, seen after her death, is also signed. But of the several dozen that she had stored in a closet in the apartment she had shared with him thirty years before, and that were eventually auctioned, only one bears his name.
END PART 5 of 5
DEE SNIDER & TWISTED SISTER
The following Artsy, inspired by a very good documentary recently watched, is a shorter, revised version of a description previously posted.
A fellow I know casually, Mark Snider, asked me what I do now that I’m retired. I responded that I’ve been obsessed by, and have written about, Jean Shepherd. Mark said that he was a big fan and that his brother, Dee Snider, was also. He said “Dee Snider” as though I should have recognized the name, but I didn’t. “Twisted Sister,” said Mark. “Who’s that?” said I. Mark told me that “Twisted Sister” was a rock band and Dee was the lead singer/song-writer. I said I’d love to talk to him about Jean Shepherd. Mark gave me contact info and I invited Dee to visit me in my Shep Shrine at our house.
Dee Snider in performance.
Twisted Sister is a glam, hair, heavy metal band most visible in the 1980s, though they still occasionally perform. Their performance style and the content of their lyrics are akin to that of artfully controlled intensity, but remain not nearly as fierce as that of some other groups, because they are organized and carefully crafted by the sensibilities of their lead singer/songwriter, Dee Snider. They’re best-known song, “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” is more unsettling in its video than in the lyrics themselves.
Dee Snider’s most impressive singing style is a frequently screaming-as-loud-as-he-can while remaining artfully in tune. As a seemingly manic primitive, he sports outrageously wild and frizzy yellow hair, red lipstick, blue paint on his cheeks, and tattered sartorial outrage calculated to delight rebellious teenagers and whip most parents into a frenzy of disgust. Dee’s parents had introduced him to Jean Shepherd’s program while he was still a teenager.
He’d listened with his transistor radio hidden under his pillow. Snider is a very big Shepherd cuckoo and he shares some enthusiasms with Shep, including the thrill of motorcycling.
When a black Hummer pulled up outside our house, a tall, thin man dressed all in black like a motorcyclist got out and I greeted him at the door. It was Dee Snider in mufti.
Dee, with his yellow hair pulled back under a black baseball cap, the peak turned to the back hiding a good part of the protruding ponytail, now in his fifties and still performing with the band, seems neither extravagant nor berserk. He’s a regular guy offstage—at least for the three hours we spent together—so even his performance persona has its off-duty mufti.
Dee Snider and me in my Shep Shrine.
Snider said that, “Jean totally affected my storytelling ability. I think it was by osmosis. We learn from people we listen to.” He’s gotten many accolades for his storytelling on his radio program and, he commented, “I’m known to have a pretty vast vocabulary, using words and phraseology that others don’t use, and I didn’t know exactly where that came from until I realized, upon this reexamination I’m doing now, that Jean has a massive vocabulary.” About word-usage, Snider referred to lyrics in his song “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” including, “Your life is trite and jaded, boring and confiscated.” As he put it, “Not words your average heavy metal rock song would include. I wasn’t very good in English, but I’m taken with Shepherd’s mastery of vocabulary. His mastery of the English weapon.” Dee stopped himself: “I was going to say ‘using the English language as a weapon.’ Jean used the language as a weapon, and it’s a powerful, powerful tool—offensive and defensive tool, you know–and when it’s working for you, boy, there’s nothing like it!”
I asked Dee how Jean’s attitudes and world view may have influenced him. Dee: “Well, you know, I’m definitely all about sarcasm [He laughed]. It’s at the core of my sense of humor and my sensibilities and certainly Jean was cynical and sarcastic—to a fault. Here’s Jean as a mentor and as a teacher to us, the misguided youth, and he’s got our ear. And every night here’s someone, a grown man, with very strong political, personal, psychological views filling our heads with his ideology. And the biggest thing to come away with, I guess, besides the storytelling, is his sort of cynical views and his condescending attitude—he looked down on most people, and I dare say that that is a part of my personality I struggle to keep in check. [We both laughed.] Because it’s not nice! And we want to be nice. [More laughter.] And it’s wrong to think everybody’s ants and you’re Gulliver.
“But I think also, behind the cynicism, hid a love. I can’t believe it wasn’t there. At the same time he seemed to yearn for some of the simplicity that he experienced in his youth and he seemed to be able to step away from it and appreciate the value that these things had. When I’m in the moment I find it very difficult to really appreciate experience that’s happening. Especially the ridiculousness sometimes, of what’s going on around me. But when I step away, when I get on the mic—what I want to call my biography is Just Give Me the Mic—‘cause I love the microphone, whether I’m singing or talking I seem to be able—now that I’ve stepped back from it—to analyze it and see it for what it was, for better, for worse, the beauty in it, the ugliness in it, the ridiculousness. I don’t know if I got that from Jean, but I think I did.”
I’d saved some of the more difficult subjects for near the end of our talk. I asked what he thought Shepherd would have felt about Twisted Sister and his stage persona and what kind of dialog they might have had. Dee said that Shep “would have had disdain.” Of course, we knew that already. He did comment, however, that, “The music Shep was passionate about, jazz, was in its own way, for the Beat Generation, what rock and roll is. A music that challenged the norm. It wasn’t accepted by the mainstream. It was the new jazz, it was against the grain. He didn’t like change.”
Regarding fans, Dee commented: “As a performer—and a successful one—I often have people who come up to me and they’re very excited, but they really don’t know me or my band—they really just grasp the surface of what I’m about, but I appreciate their enthusiasm, their excitement, and I don’t expect them to know better.” He commented that Twisted Sister plays many kinds of heavy metal rock, yet they had very big success with a couple of very catchy—what he called “anthemic tunes”—such as “We’re Not Gonna Take It.” As he put it, “That’s what we’re known for, and thank God there was something. That’s what really connected with the masses. Your true, hardcore fans, like you for Jean or me for Jean, may know there’s a greater depth, but the average person, you have to say, ‘Twisted Sister—you know the song ‘We’re Not Gonna Take It,’ and they go, ‘Oh, that work? I know ‘We’re Not Gonna Take It.’ And with Shepherd you have to say A Christmas Story—that’s Jean’s ‘We’re Not Gonna Take It.’” Yes, totally the way I introduce Shepherd to the unknowing.
And, with his unexpectedly articulated intelligence during the 1985 U.S. Senate hearings regarding labeling albums of possibly offensive lyrics—especially focusing on rock music–he befuddled the questioners. Thoughtful and articulate in his arguments against censorship, Dee effectively presented himself and his relatively witty and benign Twisted Sister, against the censorious beliefs of Tipper Gore. (The record industry labeled the albums anyway, leading, as one would have expected, to increased sales of those albums.)
Regarding other aspects of his personal life, I learned that Dee is the spokesperson for the March of Dimes “Bikers for Babies” program, and he chairs a Long Island ride for the cause. Bikers for Babies! I never would have guessed.
Ah, Shep, your influence in the culture is vast and often emerges in unexpected places, even into heavy metal. I enjoy some Twisted Sister performances on CD and DVDs. Though I suspect that as a neophyte, all I have so far is what Dee would call “a surface grasp,” it’s (gulp!) a beginning. Without you, Jean Shepherd, we might not have had quite the same driving intensity, intelligence, comic sensibility, and delightful mayhem of a Twisted Sister and the same surprising, thoughtful, many-sided personage of a Dee Snider.
More Than “A Surface Grasp”?
Before we leave Dee and Twisted Sister, let’s think about their loud, slow, insistent melodic line and lyric called “The Price.” Had Shepherd ever heard it, he might not have been able to get beyond the sound and presentation, as good and appropriate to the song as they are, but the words themselves would surely have resonated with him regarding his ambitions and the arc of his career as he contemplated them toward the end of his life. It would be difficult to find a song more forcefully and perfectly attuned to the deeper level of the art and enigmatic life of Jean Shepherd. It is a masterpiece. How inevitable that it’s conceived and performed by one of his most ardent and thoughtful fans. Here’s the beginning:
How long I have wanted this dream to come true.
And as it approaches, I can’t believe I’m through.
I’ve tried, oh, how I’ve tried
for a life, yes a life I thought I knew.
Oh, it’s the price we gotta pay, and all the games we gotta play
makes me wonder if it’s worth it to carry on.
‘Cause it’s a game we gotta lose, though it’s a life we gotta choose
And the price is our own life until it’s done.
“We Are Twisted F***ing Sister!”
Just the other night my wife and I encountered a two-hour documentary about Twisted Sister’s early years. We really like “We’re Not Gonna Take It’ and “The Price,” but we didn’t expect to appreciate the documentary because it only dealt with the group’s formative years. We sat mesmerized. An extraordinary display of the incredible difficulties TS overcame through that first decade! One of the best documentaries we’d ever seen. An internet description of the film:
In the mid-1970s, Dee Snider and his Twisted Sister bandmates claimed glitter rock for their own, cross-dressing their way to headlining every club within 100 miles of New York City, from New Jersey bowling alleys to Long Island beach bars. With gigs six nights a week, they were the most successful live bar band of suburban New York, selling out 5,000-seat shows fueled by their no-holds-barred stage presence and aggressive metal set lists. But by the early 80s, they found themselves balancing on a double-edged sword, hugely popular with local audiences but without a national following or a record deal to speak of. When Twisted Sister finally got their big break in 1983, they’d go on to become one of the biggest glam rock bands of the decade, their over-the-top live shows drawing sell-out crowds and their music videos defining an early MTV network.
How had we, New Yorkers—Long Islanders—not known more about them until Dee arrived at my Shep Shrine in black and pony-tailed, his cultured mind and his warm personality all in mufti? What other significant parts of our culture have we been blind to?