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JEAN SHEPHERD & BOB DYLAN

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?

dylan as woody

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?

dylan-i-cant-2

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?

dylan-smiling

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?

dylan-and-obama

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?

dylan-writings

Keep on Rockin’

dylan-nobel-2

[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.”]

________________________________________________

JEAN SHEPHERD–Dreaming of the Overnights

THE POSSIBLE DREAM

Of course the “quest” never ends.  By persistence, luck, and bumbling happenstance, little grail-ettes have appeared during my searches.  Yet he who quests, sometime must recognize that, as for his personal dream of the grail and his being able to listen and contemplate those overnight Jean Shepherd programs of early 1956, the search, for him at least, must end, and the grail, in his imagined future, will surely emerge from somewhere, sometime. 
n.JS overnight CD 2

Proposed covers for a boxed set.

Someday this may be more than an impossible dream.

Surely, somewhere, tapes must still exist, the ultimate missing link between Shepherd’s tadpole days in radio and his glorious years on WOR Radio from 1960 onward.  Maybe the “Jazzman,” as I call him, who claimed to have tapes of those one-to five-thirty nightly jazz-like performances in words and other sounds, will deliver the goods he’s been neglecting all these years.  Maybe the tape hasn’t yet gone to dust—damn you, jazzman!  Or maybe some other recording angels will remember their stash of grails and come forth, giving gold to the world of audio art.

With each word I write and publish about Shepherd’s career, I’ve hoped that the grail would appear as in a dream, in time to be written about and published in a book and audios.  It has not happened.  And I doubt that significantly more new material about Shepherd’s career will emerge that could be formed into another book that would include such a grail.  So the permanent and easily accessible format for disseminating information and interpretation about it will probably never happen.

Yet I can imagine that loads of tapes will someday appear, enough to provide reams of transcripts and analysis sufficient for some sort of publication.  But who would publish it and who would read it?  Maybe a combo—CDs of broadcast excerpts with some written discussion of their content?  Only some few supremely dedicated fanatics (Shep-cuckoos such as myself) might buy such a treasure, although the content would surely be such that would entertain, enthrall, and enlighten hordes of listeners.

Should audios appear, and recognizing that they were spoken by Shepherd in a manner to be heard in the late, night-people hours when life is mostly tuned down to an attitude meant for gentle and improvised allurement, I suggest they be listened to, most appropriately, as late at night as the listener can stay awake.

Maybe someone will self-publish and store in dusty closets, boxes of these CDs with text, waiting for sales.  That may be my only reasonable hope, but how reasonable is that?  Beyond that, maybe Shepherd has the last word regarding what we insignificant humans get so excited about:

“Can you imagine 4,000 years passing, and you’re not even a memory? Think about it, friends. It’s not just a possibility. It is a certainty.”

 –Jean Shepherd, 1975

__________________________________________________

JEAN SHEPHERD–Early Shep Forensics

WHEREFORE ART THOU, EARLY SHEP?

Some familiar with my thinking about Jean Shepherd’s early radio work will remember some of my comments regarding his “overnight” New York broadcasts (January to mid-August, 1956). Lois Nettleton, Shep’s early “The Listener,” when she read those dates in my EYF! book,  couldn’t believe it only lasted that short a time! I put it all here together, with my familiar comments.

(Some of this info gotten from http://www.flicklives.com)

shep1952

Cincinnati and Philadelphia 1/30/1947-1/30/1954

Earliest reported broadcasts (no comments about earlier-than-this-Shep on the radio).

All that is available that I know of is a short snippit from the beginning of a Cincinnati show and his last two half-hours from Philadelphia. These two suggest that, as some have reported, his casual, improvised, and stream-of-consciousness style began and continued for some time during this period. That no recordings of the period have yet surfaced might well be because affordable recording equipment was not yet available to the general public.

young shep

New York WOR “overnights” 1/7/1956-8/13/1956

This is the period of listeners most appropriately referred to as “Night People,” and included late-night listeners such as jazz musicians, artists, Lois Nettleton, etc. A few people have reported listening during this period, but have no extensive memories. This period includes the I, Libertine hoax, the Sweetheart Soap commercial, and his reporting that he had been fired. A few people reportedly retain recordings from this important period, but none have come forward with any. Early tape machines readily available (but expensive) were then for sale and probably mostly bought by musicians wishing to record others and themselves. (My mother bought one to record her violin playing, so I began using it to record Shep as early as Sunday nights, September, 1956.)

(A well-known jazz musician/critic has not yet come forward with his recordings.) As I’ve done before, I implore people to come forth so that such early recordings are preserved–before those recordings are tossed in dumpsters by the Shep-enthusiasts’ heirs.

New York WOR Sundays 9:05-1:00 A.M. 9/9/1956-9/11/1960

From the few extant recordings of this period, Shep’s style might be assumed to be similar to his previous overnight style, though my guess is that the overnights (because of the late hours) may well have been even more laid-back, and he seemed to have played, during the Sunday nights, less extensive musical interludes.

1955-mm-dd_022_Into_Unknown_Front

“Jean Shepherd Into the Unknown With Jazz Music”

I include this 1955 recording with its cuts of Shep intermixed with jazz music, because it represents early-Shep in a form probably similar to some of his earliest radio work.* It includes some of his references such as the Little Orphan Annie decoder pin.

  • *The musician/composer listed, Mitch Leigh, I believe, is the same one who went on to create the musical “Man of La Mancha.” (Attempts to contact him to discuss what he remembered about working with Shep on this early creation, failed. Now he’s dead.)

_____________________________________________

JEAN SHEPHERD: Celebrity Fans, Friends

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.

UNDOUBTEDLY LISTENERS

COMEDY

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)

WRITING/PUBLISHING

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.)

MUSIC

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)

THEATER, MEDIA

Fred Barzyk (Video director–major Shepherd TV)

John Cassavetes (Actor, Director–Shadows)

Ron Della Chiesa (WGBH Broadcaster)

Bob Clark (Film director—Porky’sA 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)

•   •   •

POSSIBLE/PROBABLE LISTENERS

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.

____________________________________________

JEAN SHEPHERD–Obdurate Acts, Extenuating Circumstance–& Road Not Taken (9)

The Road Not Taken
by Robert Frost
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
 .
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
 .
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
 .
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

In EYF! I prominently designate the period from early 1956 to some time in 1960 as Shep’s

GREAT BURGEONING.

What follows is more delving into this thought. (Please be aware that I believe that Shepherd’s 45-minute shows from the early 1960s to his last show on April 1, 1977 contain many masterpieces, and are a major part of Shepherd’s claim to greatness. See my many  EYF! chapters–consisting of the majority of the book–in this regard.) Yet, the change from overnight shows (and the related and intermediate period of long Sunday night shows from 1956-1960) to the 45-minute shows most basically and most well-known of the 1960-1977 period, present interesting questions regarding  the road not taken.

THE ROAD NOT TAKEN

When he was fired during the summer of 1956

and would be rehired to begin in September, 1956,

what options did Jean Shepherd (and WOR) have?

what where

This in part must be seen without having the “overnight” programs available for study. (When will somebody, please, contribute some recordings of his overnight shows?) We can assume that to some extent, they were similar–but maybe more laid back than the Sunday night programs. Sunday nights, with the earlier hours–having only a small sample to go by–must be seen as an only partly known, transition between all-night and the 45-minute shows that dominate Shep’s best-known, final seventeen years of radio.

Recently I read a great and fascinating book about Robert Frost’s well known poem, “The Road Not Taken.” Yes, the book is titled The Road Not Taken; it is by David Orr; it is 172 pages; it consists entirely of why the poem has been misinterpreted by nearly all who have read it and who describe it erroneously. It’s a wonderful, easily understood book, described on the flyleaf: “Yet in spite of this extraordinary devotion, almost everyone gets ‘The Road Not Taken’ hopelessly wrong.” Why is this related to Jean Shepherd? Because it was in the summer of 1956 that Jean Shepherd faced a path in the woods and had to make a choice that would determine the future of his career, his art, and his life.

motivation.creativity

Is the poem, “a paean to triumphant self-assertion, in which an individual boldly chooses to live outside conformity? Or a biting commentary between self-deception, in which a person chooses between identical roads and yet later romanticizes the decision as life-altering?” The later is the surprising answer  regarding the poem.

For Shepherd, what was his thinking regarding why he chose to change from the late-night route to the earlier, and eventually, the shorter time period? In what ways did he imagine it as life-altering and better? Was he right? What did he gain? What did he lose? Did he then or later understand all the important consequences of his choice? Did he believe, in later years, that he had made the better choice? Did he tell himself, as does the poem’s speaker, that his choice had made all the difference?

work balance life

He certainly could not have told himself that he took the path less traveled by, because the path he chose led to easier and more popular hours, more exposure and bigger audiences, more sponsorship, wider work in more media. In certain ways, he became more popular. Is this what he wanted? Did he realize all the ramifications of this popularity?

There are quite a number of books on decision-making. In an op-ed essay in the August 25, 2015 New York Times, David Brooks’ column is titled “The Big Decisions.” He ends the column with: “It’s probably safer to ask ‘What do I admire?’ than ‘What do I want.'”

What more is there to it than that?

? ¿   OVERNIGHT   PROGRAM   VS.   ? ¿

Was he tired of the hours and preferred the easier lifestyle of more “normal” hours?

Did he think he’d get more listeners broadcasting during earlier hours?

Did he realize what kind of changes in the type of listeners he would get with earlier hours?

Did he realize that the more hip audience he’d had might not follow him into evening hours?

Did he realize how the earlier and shorter hours would force him to change the nature of his style and content?

Did he understand that earlier (and ultimately shorter) hours would change the nature of his laid-back improvisation?

Did he recognize (as Lois Nettleton said she and he both did) that the shorter, tighter format was in some way not quite as “unique” and pure “genius” as Lois felt?

Did he realize that he would not be able to pursue on the air the kind of jazz he preferred?

How much did the potential for more sponsors (more $) affect his decision?

Did his jealousy toward the celebrity/success of some of his contemporaries (Mort Sahl, etc.) contribute much to his decision?

.

WE DON’T KNOW

AND

PROBABLY NEVER WILL

__________________________________________________________________

 

JEAN SHEPHERD–Obdurate Acts, Extenuating Circumstance–& Road Not Taken (8)

Thinking about Shepherd’s important moments and decisions in his life.

How did he get to where he became.

Some repetition and a continuation to not really a conclusion

in enigmatic, unsatisfactory endings–that can only continue.

WHAT DOES ALL THAT MEAN!?

Why–was he happy with his choices–what might he otherwise have done?

This is a difficult area and one which I usually avoid, because it is to a large extent speculative, and based–inevitably–on incomplete/inaccurate information. But maybe by doing little more than listing some milestones, one might get some clues about the Jean Shepherd enigma.

shep at 6 closeup

Photo courtesy of

Steve Glazer and Bill Ek.

I believe it of value to note and define, what to my mind are important points of Shep’s life and career. Some relate strongly to his creative world. Surely there will be some disagreements in this list. (It should be noted that, although years of publication are given, some of these activities/creations obviously were in progress at least in the previous year as he worked on the project.)

•   •  

1955

Moves to New York City, the center of the artistic/intellectual life he desired. It leads to almost all of his important creative achievements. At some early point in his life in NYC, he becomes involved with many of its artistic activities, including connections to: Greenwich Village and the Village Voice; relationship with Lois Nettleton; his reported introduction by Shel Silverstein to Leigh Brown.

leigh h.s.photo

•   •  

1956-1960

This is the period I describe as “The Great Burgeoning.” It includes what I can think of as crucial and innovative parts of his professional life: Overnight, improvised radio from January to August 1956; Village Voice connections; connections to the modern jazz world including emceeing important jazz concerts,  narrating Charles Mingus’ “The Clown,” and writing periodical columns on jazz; creating his I, Libertine book hoax; promoting John Cassavetes’ Shadows; editing and writing intro to his George Ade book. (From the front page of the Voice, the first image shows left to right: Shep, Lois Nettleton, Anne Bancroft.)

v,voice obie photo

the clown cover

libertine_cover

shadows title credit

•   •   

1966

Convinced (according to Hefner by Shel;  Lois said convinced by herself and other friends) to transcribe and edit his improvised stories and get them published (Playboy and in books).

IGWT cover

•   •  

1971

Creation of first season of the television series

Jean Shepherd’s America.

_JS_America_logo

•   •  

1983

Co-creation and narration of movie A Christmas Story.

ralphie glasses

•   •  

(1977?) 1984-1999

Moving to Florida. Shep had numerous times expressed that New York City was his true home because of its vitality, artistic ambiance–why did he move? Finances? Lessening of his intellectual interests? Other?

sanibel_house_006_02

•   •  

1985

Creation of second/final season of the television series

Jean Shepherd’s America.

usa flag of jsa

•   •  

1998

Leigh Brown, helpmate, supporter, and love of his life, dies.

leigh,shep 1977

•   •  •   •   •  •   •   •  

10/16/1999–into the future

Shep dies. Tributes and remembrances flow from many sources.

zippy.shep

•   •  •   •   •  •   •   •  

(As always, I’d appreciate any and all comments,

including additions, subtractions, corrections,

and further thoughts.)

KYKL bottle cover

Excelsior & seltzer bottle

More to come

_____________________________________________

JEAN SHEPHERD–Obdurate Acts, Extenuating Circumstances (3)

THE SHEPHERD’S LIFE

A Tragedy in Obdurate Acts

and Extenuating Circumstances

Burgeoning

“It was unique and it was profound and it was real genius!”

young shep

  1956-1960

The chart below should be seriously contemplated for comparison with Shepherd’s fine,

but less far-flung creative work, from 1960 onward.

                  great burgeoning 2great burgeoning 1

One might title this period

High On a Mountaintop.

Jean Shepherd’s first years in New York, starting with the beginning of

his “overnight” broadcasting,

were an assorted fervor of glorious activities.

Below are some major examples.

Far-flung extemporaneous monologs, “invectives”

Within New York City’s highest levels of artistic activity connected with The Voice, Greenwich Village, the avant garde, etc. Shepherd associated with such as: Amram, Silverstein, Feiffer, Antheil, Gardner, Mingus.

Look, Charlie theater piece 

Cassavetes and the promotion of Shadows

Village Voice and The Realist

I, Libertine and The America of George Ade

Promoter and participant in the forefront of modernist jazz

As Lois Nettleton put it, “He had headlines!”

Jean Shepherd must have felt himself to be an

innovative master of the highest

modern urban/urbane arts

–and rightly so.

The above list is extraordinary and unprecedented. A major problem is that we have as yet no available examples of his early 1956, overnight, four-and-a-half-hour shows to give us a reasonable idea of what they were like–we can only assume, for now, that they were probably similar to and even more loose than his subsequent four-hour Sunday night broadcasts. My impression is that he played some extended–if not complete–cuts of the major jazz masters of this period. (Talking from 1 AM to 5:30 five or six nights a week most probably was a bit different from Sundays only, 9 PM to 1 AM.)

I repeat here, from an earlier post: In an interview with Doug McIntyre, January 2000, (Just a few months after Shep’s death) Lois Nettleton commented that Jean’s improvisation on radio was a higher art than acting:

“…acting is not shallow, it is an art with depth and all of that,

but it seems almost–almost, less profound,

less important than what he was doing.

I mean I think what he was doing was so

it was unique and it was profound and it was real genius!”

Stay tuned for Part 4 of

THE SHEPHERD’S LIFE

________________________________________________________

JEAN SHEPHERD-Whiz-Bang Biography of Jean Parker Shepherd, Esq.

excelsior sign

What’s Shep all about, anyway?

Who knows?

Shep-HowardJ.'s

All about?!?

I wish I knew.

Chapter 1    ??? Chicago South Side??? I’m a kid, see. Hammond, W. G. Harding.

Chapter 2     …Dorothy Anderson, Helen Weathers, Flick, Eileen Ackers, Patty Remaley, Ester Jane Albery, Randy Shepherd, et al…..

Chapter 3    !!! Steel-mill mail boy!!!

Chapter 4    !?!?→↑→↓ Crowder, Murphy. T/5  →↑→↓,!?!?

camp crowder postcard

Chapter 5    Cinci, Philly, married (Barbara Mattoon), divorced, married Joan Warner.

1955-mm-dd_022_Into_Unknown_Front

Chapter 6    NYC, Jazz, WOR, burgeoned, night folk, divorced.

i libertine jpeg i hope

Chapter 7    Libertine,  ↓ fired/rehired=Sweetheart, married Lois Nettleton↑.

jean and lois c.1962

Chapter 8    Playboy, IGWTAOPC, divorced.

Chapter 9   TV

Chapter 10  ACS (aka In God We Trust, etc.)

Chapter  11   Married ↑Leigh Brown. April Fool=1977: bye bye, WOR.

leigh,shep 1977

Chapter 12  Lady Finger Lake Road on Snow Pond Lake: Sanibel Island. 

sanibel_house_006_02

sanibel3

    ↓Leigh died 1998. JPS died: RIP 1999↓.

Chapter 13  ↑Radio Hall of Fame, EYF!

Chapter 14   Seinfeld nails it↑.

Paley_Center_Jerry

Chapter 15  Pulitzer Prize, Nobel Prize, Oscar, Obie, etc., etc., etc., (Not altogether true.)

1981-_hammond_award 2nd annual

But why doesn’t Shep have far more important tributes–like Harvey Pekar, creator of the American Splendor graphic/autobiographical novels? Recently  a statue  was created in Pekar’s honor, installed in his favorite Cleveland library:

pekar desk at Cleveland library

Pekar stepping out of a “comic book page”

on a real library desk.

Oh, sure, Shep got a Community Center:

3.150003_community_center_sign

But, is Shep immortalized in a booblehead? Pekar is!

pekar bobblehead1

NO!!!

(not yet)

[Bobblehead is ridiculous, right?

But how many of us would like to see (and possess)

a Jean Shepherd bobblehead?

Damn near all of us fatheads, right?]

you fathead sign

_____________________________________________

JEAN SHEPHERD Night People and “The Nervous Set.”

HIP AND “NIGHT PEOPLE”

It appears from circumstantial evidence of his early activities in New York, that Jean Shepherd was the essence of “hip.”  With the change to shorter programs earlier in the evening, he probably didn’t seem as hip except in the minds of what was becoming his predominantly younger audience.  He remained extremely intelligent, knowledgeable, entertaining, and sometimes arcane, but not what the cutting edge of hip would still call hip.  (Don’t get the impression that I was ever hip—the most I can claim is that because of Shepherd’s recommendations I was an early and long-time subscriber to The Village Voice and The Realist.

1960-10-dd_010_realist_20_cvr

As a member of the “predominantly younger audience,”

I found Shepherd hip then, and, in a modified way, I still do.)

Yes, Shepherd was hip, so he must have been aware of and curious about the nature of a Broadway musical of 1959, The Nervous Set.  Based on an autobiographical novel by Jay Landesman, with lyrics by his wife Fran Landesman, it seems a witty, cynical send-up of both the hip and the square.  With characters said to portray Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg among others, set in New York in 1950, it’s described as “the intensely cool, hopelessly hip jazz musical about the Beat Generation,” and “a loving evocation of the Beat Generation, with all its warts and contradictions,…”

Connections to Shepherd include his affinity for the Beats, his friend Jules Feiffer’s promotional artwork for the play, and more directly, by one of the songs.  Titled “Night People,” it repeats Shepherd’s “night people” phrase, which he’d used at about four years before the play opened.  The phrase had been in the air since Shepherd described characteristics of people who were awake in the middle of the night, and who were by implication, his early hip radio listeners.  [Actress Lois Nettleton, eventually Shep’s third wife, was one of those early listeners.] Although I’ve suggested the following before, I’ve never fully articulated it.  My sense of Shepherd’s use goes something like this:

1) In early 1956, when he broadcast nightly from 1:00 to 5:30 A. M., he must have begun referring to those who were awake late at night, and many of whom listened to his program, as “night people,” giving the sense that they were a special breed who, through inclination, occupation, or other imperative, felt more comfortable in the dark, less-inhabited hours, when they could be more open to their less-conforming temperaments.  He may have put it a bit too strongly, specifically referring to a “wild tossing of the soul and brooding.”  Yet even these tendencies would have been found among the rarified and embattled souls whose affinity toward Shepherd’s style and tone led them to cling to his word as balm and sustenance.  Ah, those lucky few who heard him then!

2) Then came the firing/rehiring of September 1956, when the renown he thus achieved and the Sunday evening hour, promoted a larger audience, including an intelligent and perceptive majority of them maybe not brooding with a wild tossing of their souls, yet (ready for a pun here?) attuned to him and more likely seated at the kitchen table, homework done, listening on a maroon plastic Zenith AM/FM radio with its big, simulated-gold dial (See my EYF! page 18).

With this audience, he must have seen the need to expand the meaning of “night people,” so in part he promoted an aspect of it, a distaste for what he called the “creeping meatballism” of the mass culture’s conformist and consumer-oriented pressures.  Near the beginning of the earlier-in-the-evening broadcasts (beginning in September, 1956), his article, “The Night People vs. ‘Creeping Meatballism’” appeared April 1957 in that phenomenon of kid-revolt against the conventional culture and consumerism, Mad Magazine.

1957-04_Mad_page_41

In the article, he referred to Night People as “…people who refuse to be taken in by the ‘Day World’ philosophy of ‘Creeping Meatballism.’”  For “day people,” read “conformists.”  At the end of the article, he gathers all perceptive Mad readers and potential listeners into his arms, commenting that no matter how consumer-addicted, one is still an individual, and “every one of us, I don’t care who he is, has a certain amount of ‘Night People’ in him.  And once a person starts thinking and laughing at the culture,…he can never go back!”  Indeed, who of us ever went back?

3) By the time he began broadcasting earlier in the evening, although he may have continued to suggest that his listeners were “Night People,” he didn’t use the term as originally defined but left its understanding open to wider interpretation.  I asked Shepherd fans about his post-overnight usage and reports suggest that later acolytes were not referred to as afflicted with a night person’s wild tossings.  Personally, despite a bit of sleep apnea with mild limb movement, I’ve never tossed wildly.

Without being able to listen to any–much less all–of Shepherd’s overnight broadcasts, we can’t know the whole truth, but in numerous articles the media promoted Shepherd’s use of the term.  An interviewer in 1964: “You referred to your audience as ‘night people.’”  Response: “Well, not really.  That’s not as simple as it sounds.  In fact the phrase ‘night people’ came out of that show that I did.  I never called my audience ‘night people.’”

In response to my 2006 query by email to The Nervous Set’s author, Jay Landesman, he neither confirmed nor denied a connection between Shepherd’s use of the term and the song, but merely promoted to me an expected new production insipidly re-titled Fun Life. (It never happened.)

the nervous set art

LP recording. Note Feiffer drawing on left.

The song can’t be interpreted as a positive comment on what Shepherd meant by the phrase.  The ironic and pompous orchestration and the original cast’s ironically smug rendition make it a two-edged sword—putting down both day-people blandness along with the play’s idea of night people who have a superficial enjoyment of such stuff as neon lights.  Certainly the lyrics of the song don’t evoke what Shepherd felt were serious, highly intelligent, and sensitive people seeking solace, if not fulfillment, in the night.  The song refers to the night people as “restless neon light people, the bright people.”  Sneering at “sober little clay” day people because they never have time to play, the song ends with “We always run before the sun can spoil our fun.  Because we’re night people.  Night people.  Night people.” Listen to it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EsKc8i8yOx4 

The impression is of superficial, late-night party animals.  Neon lights and the lyric’s tinsel stars have nothing to do with the Beats or Shepherd’s term.  We know Shepherd disapproved of superficial uses of his phrase, as indicated in the broadcast segment below.  He must have been incensed at the distortion of his idea and the use of the term, and he might well have been referring, at least in part, to the play here—his comment occurs within about a year of the play’s opening:

And you know, incidentally, it has bothered me so much what has happened to the term “night people,” which I have always regretted coining.  This was a term which I coined, and I will stand accused and guilty of it.  And I notice that people have taken it up and used it to cover all sorts of sins of omission and commission.  It has nothing to do with Walter Winchell’s world of bus boys—nothing to do with Walter Winchell’s world and Damon Runyon’s world of cab drivers.  This is not the night people that I’m referring to.

I’m talking about people with that wild tossing in the soul that somehow makes them stay up till three o’clock in the morning and brood. (June 4, 1960)

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