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I’ve felt so strongly [without anything but circumstantial evidence], that Bob Dylan must have listened to Shepherd in the early 1960s that I once made up a list of questions about it.
Hey! Mr. Tambourine Man,
play a song for me
In the jingle jangle morning
I’ll come followin’ you.
What questions would I ask?
Bobby, is That You, Woody?
Q: Mr. Dylan, sir, please, if I may, please. When did you start listening to Shep, please? Were you a Shepherd “night person”? Sir, please.
Q: How, please, did you find out about him, please?
Q: What about him got you interested in him, Mr. Dylan, sir?
Q: What were your thoughts about him then, and what do you think about him now?
Q: When did you stop listening to him and why did you stop?
Yes You Can–Love it!
Dylan quoted from a talk he gave in 2015:
“Sam Cooke said this when told he had a beautiful voice: He said, ‘Well that’s very kind of you, but voices ought not to be measured by how pretty they are. Instead they matter only if they convince you that they are telling the truth.’ Think about that the next time you are listening to a singer.”
[I intrude to amplify that by saying that Maria Callas and Frank Sinatra, without beautiful voices, convince me.]
Q: Are there any ways that you feel especially attuned to what Shepherd said and how he said it?
Q: Any specific ways you’ve thought/behaved/ created that you might feel have been influenced by his style?
Q: Any specific aspects of what he said that might have influenced your music/lyrics?
Nice Ta See Ya Smile, Bobby!
Q: He was very negative toward folk and rock–especially regarding you and Joan Baez–were you aware of that–did you care?
The King and the President,
who says he’s a big Dylan fan.
Q: What about your feelings about Shep–then and now?
Q: What do you feel are Jean Shepherd’s best attributes?
Keep on Rockin’
[Because Jean Shepherd in the 1960s demeaned both Bob Dylan and
Joan Baez, among others, I’ve often felt that not only did he dislike the
political protests they were part of, but that he did not objectively
listen to some of the better rock and other music of the time.
I wish I coulda talked to Shep and gotten him to listen carefully
to some good rock and to some fine Dylan,
and then gotten him to admit what he really felt.
I’d a started with “Mr. Tambourine Man,”
and worked up ta “Like a Rollin’ Stone.”]
THE COMPULSIVE I WANT, I WANT, I WANT IT STORY
I want a lot of Shep stuff for lots of reasons. To know more about Shepherd, to add to the historical record, both for itself and so I can publish it as part of my work on Shep, to be able to just look at the material and know that it’s mine there on the shelf or hanging from the ceiling, to just be able to think about my Shep stuff anytime I daydream—the typical obsessive collector.
The two-sided sign found at Snow Pond
I want that EXCELSIOR YOU FATHEAD sign from his vacation home at Snow Pond, Maine and that Audubon book with the Jean words and drawing to Leigh.
And I want to rummage through every last scrap of Shep-stuff they have stored away. I want some of that salvage material from Sanibel Island—just to look at and touch and know they are a personal part of Shepherd. And what goodies in attics or compost piles, worthy of dissemination, lie crumbling to ruin?
I want the travel journals that Shepherd said he kept of all his trips around the globe. Do they still exist? I imagine them as thick, hardbound black sketchbooks filled with commentary, insights, and maybe even drawings made on-site. What treasures, related to his great love of experiencing life in new places. What major treasures unto themselves and as private documents of his mind at work regarding one of his favorite enthusiasms—taking part in everything, everywhere he could—a passion of his that directly connected to his profound belief that one must experience to the fullest, as much of life as possible.
And those damn tapes of his overnight shows. Oh, jazzmen, camp-owners, salvager, oh, old flames (real-life loves and mere dedicated listeners alike), oh, even you bloody curators of middle-Europa Dracula Museums—come forth from your closets and crypts!
Emotion Outranks Technique 1 of 2
As a general rule regarding my enthusiasms in the arts, I tend to give some preference to emotional expression over technical agility. Understand that the expression must be backed with some facility to perform the act—not just awkwardly scatter emotion willy-nilly. Thus, my preferences might include Maria Callas, Bob Dylan’s singing of his own music, flamenco guitarist Diego del Gastor, and artists such as American modernist John Marin and English modernist Ivan Hitchens. (Marin and Hitchens Artsy to come.)
Callas, Dylan, Diego del Gastor
I know and understand little of opera, but I can appreciate that, even though it’s generally agreed that Maria Callas lacked the highest technical ability, her emotional/artistic ability prevailed.
Joan Baez, in her August 17, 1963 Forest Hills concert I attended, brought out a scraggly guy I’d never heard of and he began to sing what almost seemed like a one-note song. But it altered a bit at the end of each line in a rough-hewn and intriguing way, and by the time he’d completed his rendition of “Blowin’ in the Wind” I was captivated—the next day I bought the only albums of Bob Dylan available, his first two. (I had heard others’ recordings of a couple of Dylan songs, but didn’t know who wrote them.) To this day, hearing “Peter, Paul, and Mary” or “The Byrds” singing Dylan songs, I shiver with dislike at their vanilla renditions that lack all empathy for what they render compared to the authentic Dylan. (I have the impression that Peter, Paul, and Mary are heartfelt activists for many good causes, but, for me, their performances don’t project that.) Dylan is not exactly a heart-felt performer–but for me, he has artistic integrity grasped tightly in his fists–and vocal chords. I enjoy few non-Dylan singers of Dylan songs except for Joan Baez. (Yes, and of course such performances as Jimi Hendrix doing “All Along the Watchtower.”)
I enjoy flamenco—especially guitar renditions. I enjoy the complex and rapid technical ability of Carlos Montoya, Sabicas, Paco de Lucia, Manitas de Plata, and their like. But then I discovered (in a book written by an American!) an artist without their flashy and captivating theatrics, one who played a slower, deliberate, more profound, more emotional flamenco in a style that seems more authentic to the origins and meaning of the art. Diego del Gastor lived in a southern Spanish town and didn’t care to record or concertize or tour or become a celebrity. Diego did not play with groups one might see on television, groups where the female dancers wear elaborate polka dot costumes, where ignorant tour-groups are brought–where I’ve seen Granada gypsies perform in their caves decorated with shiny brass pots and pans hanging from the ceiling. Diego was a true master artist. He had what in Spanish is called corazon, he had duende. He would pick up any old, tattered guitar at hand and play it, bringing out its soul. He taught a bit, he sensitively accompanied traditional singers and dancers–as is the flamenco guitarist tradition–and played for his friends in small, nearly private gatherings known as “juergas.” Now he is gone, but fortunately, a few times he had allowed himself to be recorded at these small gatherings–one can see and hear him play on several YouTube videos (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gvOIri5vuZw. Only in one of those videos, during a traditional flamenco celebration, does one see him on a stage.) I’d never seen him live, so videos–and audios captured from them–are all I possess of him. Diego has integrity. He is authentic. He enthralls!
Now I watch and listen to no other flamencos.
“Good Artists Borrow, Great Artists Steal”
by Shelly Esaak
“Assuming that Picasso did say this–and seriously, I would love to learn of a verifiable source–I think the words “Good artists borrow, great artists steal” constitute one of the most misunderstood and misused creative phrases of all time. To me, it means the difference between aping and assimilating; between copying and internalizing; between being unoriginal and innovative….
“Every artist of every stripe builds on that which was done by his or her predecessors. It’s only the great artists who manage to take things to new heights, in new directions. That’s what I think; end of rant.”
I quote the above because I’m about to discuss two instances over the years in which Jean Shepherd, whom I consider to have been a fine creator in many fields and a genius in radio, seemed to have copied/borrowed/stolen from two of his favorite people. (Or maybe the examples are instances of what might be called totally innocent, independent creation?)
P. G. Wodehouse
Shepherd said that, as a kid, he’d read all of Wodehouse and considered him one of the best and funniest writers. The printed dedication to Wodehouse’s 1926 book The Heart of a Goof is “To my Daughter Leonora without whose never-failing sympathy and encouragement this book would have been finished in half the time.” This is Wodhouse’s self-borrowing dedication from his 1910 book The Intrusion of Jimmy (In England A Gentleman of Leisure
) which reads “To Herbert Westbrook, without whose never-failing advice, help, and encouragement this book would have been finished in half the time.”
A copy of Shep’s In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash, which I held in my hand
(and still highly covet) when I visited Lois Nettleton’s apartment
soon after she died, has Jean’s inscription to her:
What I’ll probably never know is whether this inscription is a
thoughtless/unpleasant dig at Lois, or whether Jean meant, somehow,
that he was so in love with her that he had been distracted from his writing.
(Also of perplexing interest is that the book is not a first printing and was published
at about the time +/- when they
were breaking up despite what are said to have been his protests,)
Whichever–of course this copying of Wodehouse was not
a public display, but a private act.
S. J. Perelman
Shep had Perelman on his show once (I recorded the talk), and therefore, I’m fairly sure that he appreciated Perelman’s written wit. I remember hearing Shep say once on a broadcast (anyone know when?), that some woman–his mother?–had on her head “aluminum rheostats.” Having a vague recollection of the phrase in Perelman, I recently searched for and encountered in the November 26, 1960 issue of the New Yorker, the Perelman story, “Monomania, You and Me are Quits,” with the following opening sentence: “My immediate reaction when a head studded with aluminum rheostats confronted me over the garden gate last Tuesday morning was one of perplexity.”•
I hope to never find another such worrisome item.
I’m sure everyone does these things–even Picasso.
Please, someone, comfort me in my distress.
[Well, heck, subsequent to the above I read David Kinney’s The Dylanologists (Simon and Schuster 2014) describing many of the obsessives who study every word and garbage scrap of Bob Dylan’s for “meaning.” Dylan is known for “stealing” material from prior creations, and he has explained that his borrowings are “quotations” and noted that it is a tradition, especially in folk music and jazz. Kinney refers to an extensive article by Jonathan Lethem in the 2/2007 Harpers, “The Ecstasy of Influence,” which includes:
…it becomes apparent that appropriation, mimicry, quotation, allusion, and sublimated collaboration consist of a kind of sine qua non of the creative act, cutting across all forms and genres in the realm of cultural production….Dylan’s art offers a paradox: while it famously urges us not to look back, it also encodes a knowledge of past sources that might otherwise have little home in contemporary culture,…Dylan’s originality and his appropriations are as one.
The same might be said of all art.
Well, heck again, yes, we all do it–and isn’t it amazing that I’ve only encountered two times (so far) in Shepherd?]
Shepherd, on his radio program, promoted Greenwich Village, The Village Voice, and other aspects of the then-prominent culture identified with it, such as jazz and the Beats. He narrated a TV video about it and narrated the commercial film “Village Sunday.” (His love, Lois Nettleton, plays the part of a young woman strolling along, observing the scene.) He obviously appreciated the Village culture, and in the 1970s, live there for years.
I recently encountered a 600-page book, The Village–A History of Greenwich Village, 400 years of Beats and Bohemians, Radicals and Rogues (John Strausbaugh, 2013).I’ve read the sections on the 1950s and 1960s, encountering a few good pages with an overall description of Shepherd, especially regarding the I, Libertine affair. My Excelsior, You Fathead! is mentioned in passing and is listed in the bibliography. The chapter with the Shep material, titled “Village Voices,” focuses on, among other items, Shep, Mailer, and the Voice. Epigraphs for that chapter:
You have no idea what a terrible lure this place is to people who live outside of this place. –Jean Shepherd
Greenwich Village is one of the bitter provinces–it abounds in snobs and critics. –Norman Mailer
[I do believe that the Shep quote refers not specifically to the Village but to all of New York City.]
The Shepherd-section, hitting most of the high points in a few pages, containing little if anything not generally known about him, ends with:
Despite his adoring listeners, Shepherd increasingly chafed at limitations of regional radio. After leaving WOR in 1977 he concentrated on film and television with some success, the bittersweet (mostly bitter) 1983 holiday film A Christmas Story, which he wrote and narrated, is considered a seasonal classic. But he never quite achieved the status he thought he deserved as a modern day Mark Twain or Will Rogers and withdrew to Sanibel Island off the Florida gulf coast where, a self-professed sorehead, he lived in relative seclusion until dying of natural causes in 1999. No doubt he’d find some rueful satisfaction in knowing that today copies of I, Libertine are collectors’ items going for as much as $350 for the hardcover and over $200 for the paperback.
[If one has the persistence to wait, one can get a paperback these days for about $50]
I enjoyed and found well-done, the author’s extensive material on the Beats, Shepherd, the folk scene, Mailer, the Voice, the emergence of Bob Dylan, and other surrounding material. There are no major errors regarding Shepherd, and the author seems to have used good and knowledgeable sources. Few if any other descriptions of Shepherd that I’ve encountered seem so on-the-mark. One might assume that the rest of the book is also good.
Village Voice front page,
with Shepherd, Nettleton, and Ann Bancroft.