Home » Intrinsic nature of his art
Category Archives: Intrinsic nature of his art
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.”]
“In hoc Agricola conc” would appear to be a spoken shrug of the shoulders.
DOING IT FROM WINDOWS
“Hurling invectives” is a funny/hostile activity Shepherd did from time to time, but hardly any have been described/recorded by his listeners. The best known reference in the media is the one where, in the film “Network,” the TV broadcaster tells his listeners to open their windows and yell, “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” Also, with a small variation, Ronald Reagan, in a political speech, quoted this phrase from the film.
More importantly, wherever they may have gotten the idea,
Twisted Sister’s most popular song is, “We’re Not Gonna Take it!”
They yell part of “We’re Not Gonna Take it” from windows:
“Razzmatazz” is a less frequent Shepherd saying, but it refers to a very important aspect of his early-career interest in jazz and his continued jazz-related improvisational monologs.
Final set of Shep’s words from my large spreadsheet
just perfect for printing and taping together.
[See previous blog posts for first three parts.]
Other important Shep material forthcoming!
The first interior part of my Shep booklet contains three of Shepherd’s best-known sayings, beginning with the most important one of all: EXCELSIOR, YOU FATHEAD. The self-contradictory implication seems typical of Shepherd’s way of thinking.
Several well-known people have done parodies of the Longfellow poem, “Excelsior.” Shepherd commented in several different ways on his references to the saying, but, considering one of his well-thought-out comments where he says that “excelsior” refers very closely to his own life while noting the Longfellow poem, and also, the way I describe his usage in Excelsior, You Fathead! (see pages 214-217. For the poem itself, see the front section of EYF!) The one aspect I hadn’t realized at the time of writing the book is that the response to the phrase, being “Seltzer bottle,” probably refers to the fact that there used to be an Excelsior Seltzer bottling company.
Next set of Shep’s words coming soon.
Jean Shepherd, master raconteur and wit, in his several decades of radio monologs, entertained and enlightened radio listeners with his commentaries, anecdotes, and stories. Frequently sprinkled among his talks were various words and sayings for which he became known.
In the spring of 2001, after I’d begun listening more and delving deeply into his radio broadcasts, I put together nine of his better-known sayings and, for my own benefit and for those who might be interested, I described them and organized them into a CD jewel-case-sized artists’ book.
One side of the large, folded paper sheet contains these nine sayings along with my short interpretations of the background and meanings, superimposed on a grayed-out reproduction of the best-known, iconic image of Shep broadcasting. (Photo by Fred W. McDarrah, November 30, 1966.) For those inclined, the complete set could be printed out and attached to form the front of the sheet as I produced it. The back side of the sheet contains, in enlarged-type, just the nine sayings themselves along with the enlarged image of Shep. As some time has elapsed since I made this booklet, I might alter it slightly, but I’m still satisfied with it.
First, here is the opened-out case with the back, spine, and front.
This view: the back shows one of the sayings.
SAYINGS WITH DESCRIPTIONS TO COME
In Network, the film in which the television newscaster, Howard Beal, having a nervous breakdown, tells his audience to open their windows and shout “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore.” The whole piece of business is the equivalent of Shepherd’s “hurl an invective,” except that on Shepherd’s broadcasts, he did the actual hurling, not the audience. Broadcaster Doug McIntyre suggests that “Howard Beal is Jean Shepherd.” California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, quoted by Time magazine in 2005, hurled an invective a la Beal when referring to his 2003 electoral campaign anthem, Twisted Sister’s invective against the status quo, “We’re Not Gonna Take It Anymore.” As the rebellious, if not quite as fluent, governor put it, “I was sent by the people. We are mad as hell and we’re not going to take it any longer.”
There have been several variations on Shepherd’s “hurling an invective,” including a few in which mere communicating one’s bond with other Shep fans—without a word said—is the point. In one, Shepherd tells listeners to blink their house lights on and off, and in another:
…take a white towel or handkerchief and wave it in the air. Just get up and wave it in the air, you know! And signal down the beach to the guy—you’ll see another guy a couple of miles down waving and you’ll know that he’s with you. (July 2, 1960)
Nonverbal is the exception—Shepherd fans are familiar with his pleasure in words. Some fans remember his fondness for the word “hairy” and have heard him refer to some music or activity as having “hairy vitality.” That his close friend Shel Silverstein, who sported a dark, unruly beard and head of hair, named his first album Hairy Jazz (1959), suggests that Shepherd’s use of the word is no coincidence. One can imagine the two of them tossing the word back and forth between them in those hairy, late 1950s. One might wonder but never know who first uttered the immortal word hairy.
When it came to words in all their manifestations—from the single word to the full-blown story, Shepherd was a master. We’re familiar with how he would diverge from the main thread of a story and, with only moments remaining, bring it all back home, concluding the tale. Here’s a variation I’d have to re-listen to many programs to confirm—it’s a subtle variation. Soon after Shepherd died, a listener wrote a letter to the editor of The New York Times, commenting on a major piece about him published in a March 2000, “Week in Review” section, titled “’Creeping Meatballism’ and Other Peculiar Riffs on America.” The fan comments that sometimes a Shepherd story was nestled inside another, one starting before the previous one ended. Useful resources for investigating such profound matters are the many thousands of Shepherd enthusiasts—I asked members of the Shepherd email group what they thought. Suellen, a frequent e-mailer, responded in a way I thought had it right:
“It was his way of linking apparently unrelated subjects seamlessly one into another, not only creating yet a third (or fourth or fifth) subject but bringing everything back together at the end and having it all relate and make some ridiculous kind of sense, making me wonder why I never saw it like that until Shep put it all together.”
As with most musings on the particulars of his art, that supreme egotist and Shep-Cuckoo, Shep himself, had something to say:
Thought I wasn’t going to get back to that [subject]! You guys just don’t realize you’re dealing with a pro. You don’t! My work is highly complex. It really is. Weaves in and out. Themes weave in and out. A vast basket weave of conflicting emotions and sensuous, subtle narrations, and you’ve got to know it! You don’t read James Joyce sittin’ there and working the Daily News crossword puzzle at the same time. No sir! (June 29, 1973)
At least for now, some final words on Shepherd’s words. He loved the old radio program Vic and Sade. There are many examples of the program’s mix of authentic and dog Latin used to comic effect. A rather elaborate one comes from Vic and Sade: The Best Plays of Paul Rhymer, edited by Mary Frances Rhymer, foreword by Jean Shepherd. Vic’s wife, Sade, who enjoyed poking fun at his lodge and its Latin mumbo jumbo, read from a pamphlet advertising a book of rules for wives of lodge members:
“Yp voomer in pluribus hunk.
In hoc signo veni vidi Webster stockdale horse.
Ip extra-curricular feep.”
End of Part 2 of 2
“Hurling Invectives,” in a sense, is what Shepherd did nightly (which is to say, he spoke out, even though usually in the most subtle way), but also because one of his well-heard-about (but rarely heard) bits was to instruct listeners to place their radios on their open windowsills, loudspeakers directed outward, turn up the volume as he “hurled an invective,” meaning that he would hurl a disconcerting epithet out into the night. A major one that I heard and recorded from November, 1957 I transcribed in part on pages 210-211 of EYF!
Myrtle! This is the third time you’ve come home drunk again! [etc., etc.]
In later years, he would occasionally refer to invectives, once even hurling a minor example, and once promising one but not producing it. Other early ones he did hurl have not so far been found on tape, and any others he may have done in the 1960s and 1970s remain to be discovered.
So it was with great anticipation that I heard him on a recording of a 1976 program announce what he said was to be an invective, with an extended introduction regarding radio placement and turned-up volume. What he played, however, was the complete recording of an extraordinary, operatic-sounding, warbling, off-pitch and out-of-synch woman in overblown vibrato, accompanied by orchestra and chorus rending the Petula Clark song, “Downtown.” Yes, “rending” is the word, because Mrs. Elva Miller’s 1960s hilarious singing tore into shreds whatever she rendered. She had more than her fifteen minutes on such TV venues as Ed Sullivan, Johnny Carson, and Laugh-In. Shepherd’s joke of substituting this for his words-as-invective we all anticipated is a tribute to her performance. A tribute equal to his occasional playing of the warbly Arturo Mouscatini version of “The William Tell Overture.” That he played “Downtown” as a complete performance unto itself is quite unusual for Shepherd, who rarely allowed any music-as-music-alone on his program after the 1950s.
Elva Miller and a warbling mouse-catini
Mrs. Miller and Mouscatini obviously struck Shep’s funny bone. They strike mine too, but my hope for more real invectives remains, so far, deliriously unfulfilled.
End of Part 1 of 2
Inflatable Wacky Waving Tube Guys
There may be a few unfortunate souls who, though they often drive buy avenues full of cheek-by-jowl selling-emporiums, have never seen an inflatable wacky waving tube guy. This deprived populace has never had its heart skip a beat uplifted by a tall, thin, vacantly smiling, wriggling wiggle-guy jouncing in ways human masters of movement can only hope to accomplish momentarily and incoherently. Wind dancers, arms a-flailing, electric fan forever blowing up their fundaments, never stopping. Never, not ever, ever.
One might think that these stretched-out humanoid clowns, contorted beyond anatomical constraints, are totally boneless—invertebrate and bodyless. In fact that’s what they are. Their mindless stare and grin inspired—brought to life–by nothing but driven wind.
One might add their type of art to a category of kinetic sculpture that includes Alexander Calder’s mobiles. But mobiles have a gentleness, a soothing, Zen movement about them—while wind dancers are incessantly manic.
Some may find them annoying—their choreography a visual affront to reality and serenity. I, however, gaze entranced, wishing I could loose-jointedly join in the fun. If these human artifices, these artsy buskers, had a contribution-hat out on the sidewalk, I’d toss them a three dollar bill. Do they ever repeat themselves? Has anyone preserved their choreography in labanotation?*
And, if their disjointed, gangly moves remind one of Elaine Benes (Julia Louis-Dryfus) “dancing” in Seinfeld Season 8 Episode 4, find that on YouTube for an exercise in comparison-and-contrast.
Why does no one invent a desk-top,
inflatable Wacky Waving Tube Guy
(or a dancing Elaine Benes)
I can stare at whenever I feel the urge?
Sometimes my lava lamp is too slow-motion.
It could use a defibrillator.
*Labanotation is a precise notation system for describing
and preserving human motion (especially dance).
Labanotation for a sequence in
“Dance of the Sugarplum Fairies.”
I never would have guessed.
I recently noted an LP record titled “The Best of Jean Shepard.”
So I thought, why not a “Best of Jean Shepherd.”
This proves to be a difficult task to compile, in part because there are so many audios of his broadcasts and so many published stories and other works. My memory is deteriorating and I can’t listen to and reread all his published work. I’d appreciate suggestions about what to add to my list, including sources/dates and reasons for the choices.
As a representative selection for possible inclusion with my EYF! (which never happened–it was nixed by the publisher as too expensive) and for eventual distribution as a premium for WBAI, I compiled a CD-worth of excerpts from Shep programs.
Assume that, as a given, I choose the broadcasts below because I feel or assume they are well-told besides having the particular attributes that especially gab me.
I, Libertine,.First comments and suggestion of a hoax. (4 ?/??/1956) One of the great “Holy Grail” Shepherd broadcasts. I have not heard it but I have thought about it and read little bits about it so often that it is a permanent part of my “memory,” and it must be one of the great moments in literary and shepherdian history.
March on Washington. Narrative told the day after the March. (8/29/1963) Shepherd describes his trip, not as a reporter, but as just another American. This conforms to his attitude as an informed and enthusiastic American patriot.
JFK Assassination. First day back on the air. (11/26/1963) Shepherd, from time to time, had described his feelings about psychological issues in America, and he takes this opportunity to reiterate some of them and link them to the assassination.
“Blues I Love to Sing.” Program I describe and partly transcribe in EYF! (6/16/1957) Shepherd interacts with the singer on the record and expresses his joy in the narrative situation he depicts. This but a ten minute portion of the four-hour program. He uses what is a familiar image from his earlier days of the “figure tattered and torn.”
“Why I am Such a Sorehead.” Discusses Mark Twain and Morse code–I describe in EYF! (1/6/1965) He integrates into his narration, Twain, one of his favorite predecessors. He develops the metaphor of the Mississippi as a dangerous path in life, and relates it to one of his favorite activities, Morse code, suggesting that we all have some activity that, in reality, we are not as good at as we think and hope we are.
“Shermy the Wormy.” My transcription in Shep’s Army. (9/4/1964)
“Fourth of July in the Army.” My transcription in Shep’s Army. (7/3/1963)
“Lister Bag Attack.” My transcription in Shep’s Army. (6/17/1966)
“Boredom Erupts.” My transcription in Shep’s Army. (9/18/1969)
“Private Sanderson.” My transcription in Shep’s Army. (1/13/1971)
“Naked Baseball in the Army.” Told on the air, published in Playboy.
“Troop Train Ernie.” Told on the air, published in Shep’s A Fistful of Fig Newtons as
“The Marathon Run Of Lonesome Ernie, The Arkansas Traveler”
“Og and Charlie.” He told stories several times about these two cave-man-type-near-humans. They were a good metaphor for how Shep felt that humanity still was–not quite the mentally/emotionally advanced race we think we are.
Peru–The whole group of programs focusing on his trip, from how it came about to when he got home to contemplate the experience. At the time, he felt it was the best travel experience he’d ever had.
In addition to all of the above, one must add some of the innumerable bits and pieces of his delightful and cuckoo musical interludes on his silly little instruments–including on his sometimes silly head.
I made my own classical guitar. I’m fascinated by how the shape/formation of objects combine form with function. (It’s my design training still influencing me after all these years.) How does the form of a guitar contribute to its sound? Encountering a two-semester, adult evening class in constructing (not from a “kit”) a classical guitar from the raw materials one buys in a shop that supplies such to professionals, I took the course.
I kept notes and I took photos. Two parts of the classical guitar that might vary are the shape of the head and the luthier’s (guitar-maker’s) choice of how to configure the inside structural supports for the top of the body. I designed a simple, classical head, and chose internal struts for the body’s top that I thought would enforce high notes on the higher strings, and lower tones for the lower strings. I redrew all the instruction pages for the instructor’s future use–the upper left of the head is one of my pages.
An eb element of the rosette
around the sound hole.
I also designed and made the wooden rosette with my eb initials, and designed and installed my label.
While I was peacefully working on my guitar construction, my then-wife, from Granada, Spain, threatened me with a kitchen carving knife and I grabbed and rolled up for protection, my Sunday New York Times Arts Section (Yes, the Arts Section–it was the closest at hand), and that’s as far as I’ll take that true story. Except that I did incorporate the episode into my fact/fiction unpublished novel, The Pomegranate Conspiracy.
I completed my guitar at the end of the course, and practiced playing, struggling
for several unsuccessful years. Now my guitar is hung on a wall.
I love classical guitars and guitar music. I also like looking at Picasso’s guitar collages. So much so that I played around with one of his collage reproductions. First, with a color copier that scans one color at a time, I let it scan the first colors, then slightly shifted the original for the scanning of the black. Then I printed it and applied black-and-white photo prints of the underneath side of my guitar top, half on each side, with, in the middle, a photo of myself playing my newly completed guitar. One might title it:
“The Picasso/Bergmann Guitar Collage.”
I’m Conflicted About This Artsy Of Mine.
Is it a witty, clever, personal homage to an artist I greatly admire,
done by manipulating one of his works
(that he had first made by manipulating and reconstructing stuff),
or is it a fartsy, esthetic travesty for which I should be ashamed?
→ It is a unique collaged collage ←
Would Picasso have liked it? *
Printings, Pricing, Inscriptions.
For someone who is widely unknown among the vast, deprived American public, Jean Shepherd’s books, nearly a half-century after he wrote them, continue to sell, which I can verify because I keep tabs on the current printings of his two best-selling books in paperback. In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash, as of this writing, has gone through over three dozen printings, and Wanda Hickey’s Night of Golden Memories, And Other Disasters has passed its twenty-fourth printing.
Think Small, the small give-away promotional book published by Volkswagen in the heady days of the original Beetle, contains cartoons and short humorous essays by Charles Addams, Harry Golden, Roger Price, H. Allen Smith, Jean Shepherd, and others. The longest piece in the book, by Shepherd, concerning his teenage experience buying his first used car, unlike the rest of the contributions, has nothing to do with the VW. Think Small, thirty years after original publication, now sells for prices varying from about four dollars to well over a hundred, depending on the ignorance or whim of many internet book dealers. Some years ago I paid ten dollars when that was the lowest-going price.
The bibliographic details of my special subject are not endless, but I, like an object-specific magnet, seem to attract some of the rare and peculiar elements of Shepherd’s writing life. When, sight unseen through the internet, I bought a used first of his Wanda Hickey, it was my surprise and great good fortune to receive in the mail, a Dover, New Jersey ex-library copy with, as an insider’s little joke done decades before, a presentation sticker affixed to the inside front cover proclaiming that its donors were the Dover High School orchestra’s tuba section (as most Shepherd fans know, in some of his radio commentaries, he described his high school experiences playing the tuba). My surprised acquisition of this little treasure is a fortuitous occurrence that some others would have sufficiently appreciated.
Finally, a few words about a specially inscribed copy of Shepherd’s In God We Trust that I had in my covetous hands, but could not possess. After actress Lois Nettleton, Shepherd’s third wife, died in 2008, her executor showed me her copy of Shepherd’s “novel.” She had been an important part of his early radio career and, after his death in 1999 she corresponded with me about him. I may well be the world’s only kook with a special interest in the association of Shepherd and Nettleton, but the executor would not let me buy it for the pittance I could afford, as he expected to sell it for a bundle. To my knowledge, neither Shepherd nor Nettleton fans ever pay even two hundred dollars for material associated with them, and the relationship of the two must not be of much interest to any of them. I very much doubted that the book dealer subsequently offering it for sale would find a buyer willing to part with even a fraction of his two-thousand dollar asking price. I lust after that book, but from my little allowance I could have just about afforded a tenth of the two grand. Recently I found that a Shepherd enthusiast with much deeper pockets than mine, had come up with the many hundreds necessary (how many hundreds?) and now has that copy.
The potential value of the book (dollar value to a dealer, and intellectual value to me) lies in its inscription. Inscribed at about the time that they parted, Shepherd wrote on the half title page:
“To my own Lois, without whom this book would have been finished two years sooner—! Love—Jean Shepherd (Mr. Nettleton).”
By sheer coincidence, I recently encountered a reference to a book written many years earlier, with its acknowledgement attributed to Franklin P. Adams, one of Shepherd’s favorite writers: ”To my loving wife, but for whose constant interruptions, this book would have been finished six months earlier.” So, with a little work, I encountered from another of Shepherd’s favorites, P. G. Wodehouse, his dedication of his book The Heart of a Goof, published in 1926: “To my daughter Leonora Without whose never-failing sympathy and encouragement this book would have been finished in half the time.” A case of unattributed borrowing? But that is a minor matter to a Shep-kook.
One might wonder what circumstances led to Shepherd’s inscription to his wife—especially in this copy of his book that was a later printing of the first edition (Horrors!). But what were the never-to-be-understood circumstances behind such an apparent attack by Shepherd? I can understand how one might think such thoughts, but I don’t see how a relationship could survive the open expression of such a comment—in ink on paper—in his treasured “novel”! I don’t usually seek sordid details regarding my subject, but gathering bits of evidence, which I have been able to accumulate through single-minded quests for Art and Art alone, I wonder if, soon after Lois had thrown him out of their apartment and changed the locks, he hoped somehow to evoke sympathy leading to a reprieve through this inappropriately tangled wit. Did he thus send her this poisoned copy? (A reliable source told me that Shepherd dearly wanted to return to her.) This all gains some credence as these circumstances happened during the same period during which, from time to time on his radio show, he had mock-seriously, mock-humorously, sung, “After you’ve gone, and left me crying….” Overly intimate matters I’d gathered as I’m not-Shepherd’s-biographer. How in heaven’s name did I ever get caught up in detective work and a soap opera scenario?
I’ll probably never understand some of the enigmatic details of Shepherd’s life. Although interest in personal gossip is mostly a very natural human one, as for me, I’ve never cared about writing a tell-all biography or any other kind. I must remind myself that I am neither his bibliographer nor his biographer. In writing about him I try my imperfect but virtuous best to focus on the work, with essential biography only as it relates to that work. Thus, when I search even under metaphorical beds, salacious tidbits are sometimes inevitable encounters within my major responsibility: dealing with dusty boxes of stuff and foggy memories regarding his significant art, Art, ART!
“The wall is alive with the shapes of music….
The wall fills my heart with the shapes of music.
My heart wants to sing every shape it feels.”
[Lyrics altered from The Sound of Music.]
Despite having a tin ear and no sense of rhythm,
I’m intrigued by the shapes that create the sounds of musical instruments.
I am a “luthier,” a classical guitar-maker. That is, I took a course and made the instrument on the left.
Mom’s violin—while playing she moaned, so as a child I always thought she was in agony. I think that may have been part of my negative feelings about her teaching me to play. I was good and played in grammar school and high school orchestras. Later in high school, violin practice-time was abandoned in favor of tough homework. As an adult I realized that my mother moaned in an agony of ecstasy.
My wife, Allison, gave me the zither, which, for its shape and bulk, forms a kind of solidly emphatic crown atop our display of instruments on our living room wall.
Prima ballerina Suzanne Farrell’s autographed dance slippers evoke, for me, her dancing elegance.
The small guitar-shaped “charango” I bought from a luthier in Cuzco, Peru. This rhythm instrument is almost always part of Peruvian folk music groups. It comes in three forms: a guitar-shaped construction; a bottom that is smoothly sculpted wood in the shape of an armadillo’s back; and the more authentic kind I have, the bottom of which is made of an actual armadillo’s head and back–plates, hair, ears, and all.
My father’s banjo-uke reminds me of the only two songs he sang and accompanied himself on during my childhood: “It Ain’t Gonna Rain No Mo, No Mo,” and “If I Had the Wings of an Angel.” My father was a steadfast and loving husband and father. I always liked it when he picked up his uke to play.
I like the sounds of flutes in many shapes and sizes. Side-blown and end-blown. Wood, metal, bamboo, ceramic, bone.
Shepherd loved not only books, but their multitudinous components, words. Sometimes on his radio shows he would ask someone in the studio or a listener in “radioland,” to look up a word in a dictionary, just to be sure that he and his listeners understood it properly. During one show he announced with great pride that one of his invented phrases, “creeping meatballism,” a comment on conformism, had been formally attributed to him in a new dictionary of slang. He also enjoyed the references to himself in several New York Times crossword puzzles, and one can imagine his joy when, in 1972, he found that the Times puzzle of the day referred to him and his works in eleven words and phrases. A few years back, hearing a rebroadcast of this announcement, I rushed to the microfilm section of my local library to look it up and print it out, thus participating with Shepherd in his bibliophilia and the thrill of his honor, encountering such treasures in the puzzle as, VERBAL SHEPHERD, AIR SPIELER, and his favorite word, EXCELSIOR.
Although I recognize that many bibliophiles must also have unusual stories to tell regarding their own favorites, as a “Shep-kook,” it seems to me that the strangeness of my ragtag little batch of Shepherd books, references, and ephemera is without parallel and is worth describing.
What Author? What Book?
A publishing episode that must have driven Shepherd, the ever-striving author, crazy, involves a coffee-table book about one of his favorite subjects: The Scrapbook History of Baseball. Except for the acknowledgements page and a foreword, the book consists entirely of un-annotated, photo-reproductions of newspaper articles from the years 1876 to 1974. The book contains no authored text other than the duly attributed two-page foreword by Shepherd. Four baseball experts, whose sole job was to select the articles for reproduction, are listed as “authors.” But at best, those four compilers might more accurately have been titled “researchers.” Creator of that sole text, Shepherd might, in these strange circumstances, have been dignified with the title of “author.” Or have I missed something in the book-world’s definition of “author”?
One encounters Shepherd’s short stories everywhere. There is the hardbound, small publication, A Christmas Story, described on the cover as “The book that inspired the hilarious classic film.” But this book, first published in 2003, did not inspire the 1983 film. The book consists of five of Shepherd’s kid stories first published in the 1960s that were seamlessly synthesized into the film. Twenty years after that film was released, without even an attempt at cobbling them together into a logical storyline, those stories were gathered conveniently into a book. Though no crime, the malfeasance lies in claiming, two decades after the fact, that the book as a “book,” rather than that the selected stories in it inspired the film. This false promotion is a distortion inspired by sales-potential. As we know, a simple lie is more easily believed than a more complicated truth. Every so often I encounter much more important re-printings of individual Shepherd stories. He must have enjoyed seeing these stories in schoolbooks as subjects for studying English composition and style. And what pride to find, in another small volume, The Little Book of Fishing, one of his stories rubbing shoulders with those by the likes of Hemingway, Seamus Heaney, and Red Smith.
END OF PART 2
(25) JAPANESE ART—3 WAYS
I own Japanese art in various formats, mostly in reproduction, some original. On our bedroom wall, a trio of images represents three different ways of being. The two top ones are of 19th century woodblock prints, the traditional technique in which the artist draws on rice paper with brush and ink, artisans adhere this to a flat block and someone cuts away whatever is not the black lines. The line-block is then printed in black and the artist indicates on these sheets what and where each color should be. These sheets are adhered to blocks. Then a woodcutter cuts away on each block, whatever is not to be that color. Then all blocks are printed on each sheet to render the final originals of the work.
The left top print on our wall, by Hokusai (most famous work is the “Great Wave”), is not from the original blocks. It is a second edition, made by gluing first editions down on blocks and re-cutting every line—including every leaf of grass–then reprinting. (I compared my print with a reproduction of a verified first edition to encounter an occasional leaf of grass not properly rendered.) This image is from Hokusai’s “Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji.” Which consists of 42 views. It’s one of my favorites. I love the dynamism shown by the strong wind affecting humans, papers, hat, trees and leaves, and leaves of grass. I appreciate the dynamic swirl of the footpath, the little objects being swept off to the right, and the immense thin outline of Fuji.
The top right print is a high-quality reproduction of my favorite print by Hiroshige. His work tends to be more flat and stylized than Hokusai’s, which is more “realistic.” Here, in a simple and powerful composition, we see the strong wind and rain, bearing down on humans and the background trees.
As an enthusiast of traditional Japanese art, I spent some time observing, in process, the Japanese section of the American Museum of Natural History’s permanent Asian Peoples Hall. One of the museum’s background painters, Matthew Kalmenoff, worked on the small diorama of a country scene with traditional rice fields. As a coworker and friend of his, I asked to see his preliminary sketch for the curved diorama wall. I expressed delight in it. In his appreciation for the support I’d given him and his work over the years, he signed it and gave it to me. It is a treasure. I enjoy contemplating it and noting some of the painting’s compositional design features.
Two of the berms separating parts of the fields are not parallel with the rest, but come together at an angle at the bottom of the painting so that they enclose it, rather than presenting a visual barrier parallel at the bottom edge.
One of the clouds is perfectly positioned to be reflected in the water, highlighting the farmers.
Regarding the row of farmers planting, the closest one’s round hat is not quite facing the viewer—it’s close enough to a circle to grab attention, but not so much so as to form a bull’s eye that would be hard for the eye to escape. The other hats are even less shown as circles, allowing the eye to move diagonally up the row of them further into the picture. The distant figure with animal is in line to assist the eye to make the little leap even further toward the background.
The design then moves the eye in a zigzag pattern to the right, then, with the help of the land and water there, back to the furthest reaches on the left.
The small building in the middle right is just big enough to give some focus of attention and to prevent the entire right side from being too bare—it almost forms a small framing device, its large tree perfectly placed to block the water there from moving the eye too far rightward–indeed, it caroms the moving eye back to the left.
I see this painting every morning as I get out of bed. I delight in contemplating how Kal’s composition, in what was done as an unimportant, preliminary sketch, but which is so well thought-out, was so elegantly created.
I’ve encountered a photo of the completed diorama, with artifacts in the foreground. I see that, responding to the three-dimensional material, Kal changed a few of the background painting’s details. Magnificent! Rest in peace, Matthew Kalmenoff.
Diorama in the Museum’s Hall of Asian Peoples
On a subject that I believe would be of interest to book-lovers in general in addition to Shepherd fans, I wrote the following article (with illustrations) and submitted it to a high-class magazine devoted to book-collecting. The editor’s response was that he liked it but wanted it to be rather more filled-out with what I felt was uninteresting, difficult-to-ferret-out, pedantic material I had no interest in putting in the required, self-induced and boring grunge work, to accomplish. I much prefer ideas to minutia. Here, with very minor adjustments, is what I believe will be of interest. There are a few details some may remember previously encountering in my work or that by others. But I feel that gathering all of this together, it forms a whole more valuable than the sum of its scattered parts.
STRANGE BUT TRUE ADVENTURES IN THE WORLD
OF A SHEPHERD BIBLIPHILE
I love books and I collect them and a few associated ephemera. Although I have thousands of books, my special gatherings run to a couple of what I call “poor man’s” collections—over the years I’ve bought what my limited budget permitted. I have almost all of Hemingway in first editions, but not all in pristine condition, and a couple of his earliest ones only in facsimile. The facsimiles themselves have risen in rarity and price, gaining admittance among the “collectables.” Although none are signed, when I had more than a bit of loose change, for use as a bookmark for reading his books, I purchased a wine card from a transatlantic liner, which he signed for the booze that he bought one afternoon. I have all of Norman Mailer first editions, many of them signed, most of them in pristine condition. Yet my special treasure is the first edition of his The Naked and the Dead with its rather worn and torn dust jacket, which he signed for me in person. I gather that this jacket is made of rather fragile stuff, so a poor man’s collection is not likely to have a pristine example. His signed letter to me regarding one of my unpublished manuscripts is framed on a wall over my desk. I have most of E. E. Cummings in firsts, but none signed. I make do with a signed postcard written by Cummings to New York’s 8th Street Bookshop. Like the Hemingway wine card, I also use it as a bookmark. So I possess, on a couple of crowded shelves, some ephemeral associations to some of the literature I love.
Cummings wrote poems in lower case,
but signed with initial caps.
In recent years my focus has altered to an area that is more unusual in its bibliographic focus. The subject is the American humorist, active in the second half of the twentieth century, Jean Shepherd. The area is much less well-known, though I find it fascinating, maybe in large part because I wrote the only book about him. In addition to many overflowing file boxes of background information, notes, and audio tapes and CDs of his radio broadcasts, I’ve accumulated the small group of first editions of all the books by this great American creative force, who was a humorist, author, film-maker, and creator of several television series. A major talk-radio innovator, broadcaster of thousands of shows over the decades, and creator of the holiday favorite movie, A Christmas Story, Shepherd talked about everything one can think of, for years improvising 45-minutes a night. Originally he had not wanted to write down his improvised stories because, I believe, as a raconteur he felt that the spoken word was the prime medium not only of humankind in general, but of himself in particular. Besides, he invented his spoken stories without a script and probably liked the idea of keeping them that way.
However, his wife at the time, actress Lois Nettleton, said that she and others urged him to write down some of his stories, and Shel Silverstein, his best friend, cartoonist, and children’s book author, with connections to Playboy, helped convince him to write them down and submit them to the magazine. From the mid-1960s through 1981, Playboy printed nearly two dozen of them, most of them fictions about his Indiana childhood, a couple of them fictions about his life in the Signal Corps during World War II. Many of these stories, and many of his articles on varied subjects published in varied magazines, were gathered into books such as In God We Trust—All Others Pay Cash. (He had a proclivity for making up odd titles for most of his stories and books.) The stories upon which the movie A Christmas Story is based came from these books.
Sometimes Shepherd discussed his love of books during his radio broadcasts. He was obsessed with reading—on one program he commented that if he couldn’t find other material to occupy him, he’d read the copy on Wheaties boxes, and, he said that if even more desperate, he would remove his shoe and read the words impressed in rubber on the bottom of his heel. He said that as an adolescent, he was first inspired to read after having borrowed from the library Thomas Wolf’s Look Homeward, Angel, finding it not totally understandable, yet supremely inspiring. It led to his lifelong love of reading and writing, and, undoubtedly, influenced his decision to publish his spoken stories in print. Apparently for the prestige value, he referred to his first book of gathered, strung-together stories, as a “novel.”
END OF PART 1