My first two blog posts on the subject of Syndicated Shep (of over 200 recorded by him roughly in 1964-1965) describe the nature of this material, show the CD boxes, and give some of my descriptions of the 56 individual programs as featured in my program notes to the sets.
Not having given serious thought to the “Syndicated Shep” material since I’d done the program notes a few years back, I feared that I might have earlier over-praised it all. Nothing to fear. Having now completed my review and my condensing of versions of the individual program descriptions, I find myself delighted at the high quality that Shep maintained doing the first 56 recorded programs.
Here are parts of the program notes for the remainder
of the sets (4 boxes=28 recorded programs).
POMP AND CIRCUMSTANCE Jean Shepherd again demonstrates his broad knowledge and unusual turn of mind in this series of programs. Even when he comes back to one of his familiar subjects and themes, his take on them each time makes them new for us.
CD 1 “Choosing Up” …in a tragedy in the world of children, the seemingly minor disappointment of not being chosen for a game or a team could be a major trauma and can make kids “…know something that they’ll never forget for the rest of their lives.”
CD 2 “No Rest for the Wicked” Demonstrating his predilection for combining several themes into one program, he then takes us through a discussion of the artificiality of most comedy and some acerbic comments on his home base, WOR, in casting itself as “the family station.”
CD 3 “Straws in the Wind” …before we know it, we find ourselves among the duped and guilty as he asserts that society has nudged us–businessmen, politicians, and all the rest of us, into artificial and destructive roles in the theater of our lives.
CD 4 “The Midwest Humor Tradition” This will captivate everyone fascinated by the style of Jean Shepherd and the mind behind the style….he expresses with his own humor, insight, enthusiasm, and the bravado of his over-the-top renditions.
CD 5 “Ribbon Velocity” …part of this program deals with the arcane matter regarding the technical details of a well-constructed studio…stick with the program, because shepherd is not only going to teach you something worth know, but he’s going to give you a social critique as well as entertain you.
CD 6 “Slob Art” Shepherd seems to be able to fit many of his gripes against those aspects of humanity he doesn’t like into the category of slob art. In this program’s screed, he comments that he accepts honest slob art, although he comments on “the unbelievably primitive humor” of such manifestations of as the whoopy cushion.
CD 7 “Western Spectacular” …The preceding is a buildup to his extended riff on some basic movie cliche themes, decade by decade, from the 1930s onward. For this he has assembled the appropriate movie-type music as accompaniment….He produces here a delightfully enjoyable extravaganza, full of musical and narrative bombast.
CD 8 “Pomp and Circumstance” “Have you ever had the vague feeling, friend, that your life is almost totally ridiculous? That there is no dignity at all?” What a way to begin a program titled “Pomp and Circumstance.” Sometimes Shepherd likes to start out with an unexpected comment that shakes things up. We know that it will tie into his eventual theme.
TICKET TO RIDE Shepherd loved to travel. Shepherd loved to be in different places and see/do different things. Playboy sent him to the British Isles for a week. He brought his tape recorder. He did not expect to be exposed to current culture fads there and have to escape from rabid young girls:
CD 1 “Secret Mission Edinburgh” In the first of four syndicated recordings made during his October 1964 trip to the British Isles, taped in his hotel room in Edinburgh, Scotland, he sets the scene in his own, special way. He practices his Scottish accent and he plays a bit of Scottish music….
CD 2 “Highlands” He describes more of Edinburgh, including its look, sounds, smells, and the friendliness of the people.
CD 3 “Back in London” England is just the place to see the new, outrageous trends clashing with tradition, and these trends are becoming the most visible of their exports to the United States–rock and roll is on the rise–the “British Invasion” is about to begin!
CD 4 “London Wrap Up” All this ferment gives him the opportunity to describe and decry pop culture in general and rock and roll in particular….he can at last reveal his secret: he’s traveling with and living with The Beatles….he goes to considerable length to speak of the rare and wonderful reportorial opportunity he’s been given. As he puts it, “I wasn’t really traveling as an observer–they began to accept me as part of the gang.” The way he describes the scenes of scrambling away from adoring fans along with John, Paul, George, and Ringo–running in the streets and climbing down fire escapes–you can picture him as a fifth Beatle in their film, A Hard Day’s Night.
Paul, John, Ringo, and George
escaping down a fire escape in
A Hard Day’s Night.
(I’m still seeking a photo of Shep with the Fab Four.)
THE FATAL FLAW
CD 1 “Terraplane” He delights in describing how in the steel mill (where he worked for two summers as a teenager) workers talked to their giant machines and the machines talked back. We can hear their dialog through his extraordinary ability to create sound effects with his voice with seeming accuracy and comic effect that make you laugh out loud. He is setting us up for the rest of this program, which focuses on the sounds and other characteristics of a very special automobile….With this mastery of sound, Shepherd produces one of the funniest programs known to Shepaholics!
CD 2 “Supermen” Shepherd talks about what he sees as the three major forms pf being a “superman” in order to lead up to one of his favorite themes: the pervasive rise of the ego on our world.
CD 3 “Comic Strip Studies” What we hadn’t heard until we listened to this program is his declaration that “I am a student of the comic strips the way other guys are students of Greek myths.”….Shepherd says, summing it all up, “our great myths forever and ever, enshrined in four colors.”
CD 4 “The End of the World” He comments that, as for the end of the world, “I suspect that we would all like to see it happen,” because that way we’d know how it ends, and we wouldn’t be missing anything. Shep, whether you’re discussing small matters of the end of the world, we can depend on you to be entertaining–and realistic.
CD 5 “Life Imitates” From time to time Shepherd discussed the unreality of theater and film, and here he examines what he finds to be an important question: “Does show biz imitate nature, or does nature imitate show biz?”
CD 6 “Hunger for Balderdash” Here’s a Jean Shepherd excursion into philosophy and the ridiculous…accompanied by intermittent, very loud snippets from a recording of the in-your-ear, bombastic, Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto #1. In a university philosophy course he and fellow students find that each philosophical belief they study regarding “ethics” is, in turn, equally seductive…A frustrated student beseeches the professor, “…Tell us, which one is right?” The professor looks down, smiles, and says, “Well, you see, that’s the trouble.” With this profound answer hanging in the air, up swells more thrilling bombast–more of that thoroughly enjoyable and overwrought Piano Concerto #1….a piece of music we intellectually question, but the power of which we thrill to just the same….
CD 7 “Appetite for Self Delusion” “Do we really believe there s such a thing as equality, and do we want it?” We believe that “all men are created equal,” yet “we have an insatiable desire to create our own gods that must be better than we are.” Shepherd enjoys showing us the unpleasant fact that sometimes our ideas don’t conform to our emotional responses.
CD 8 The Fatal Flaw” What makes the tales of tin, benzene, and gas down the gullet so entertaining are not the bare outlines of the stories, nor even the exact words of Shepherd’s verbal concoctions, but his style, his details, his tone of voice, and, especially in this program, his melodramatic vocal sound effects. The accelerating engine roar ending in a car’s histrionic death rattle, and then Shep-the-siphoner’s howls, yowls, roars, yawps, screams, screeches, shrieks, and near-fatal retching. Shep the master has stuck again!
WONDERS Here is another wonderful mix of Jean Shepherd’s musings, as recorded for Hartwest Productions syndicated radio programs in the mid-1960’s. As always, the scope is broad and quirky. Surprising and delightful mix of silliness and sagacity that keeps Shepherd’s fans coming back for more.
CD 1 “Jackdaw” …Shepherd uses this bird’s habit of accumulating seemingly useless objects as a metaphor for the human propensity to buy unnecessary stuff.
CD 2 “Dillinger” Shepherd is familiar with the general attitude toward the man because he grew up in northwestern Indiana–where Dillinger lived and robbed banks. Shepherd’s mother, a mild-mannered housewife, commented that she’d always dreamed of being a gun moll.
CD 3 “Singing and Song” He tells listeners not to send him letters “about how I should take vocal lessons. That ain’t what I’m here for.”….Shepherd fans enjoy what some would describe as bad singing. Fans know that he is a jazz master of silly song renditions, mixing scatting and over-the-top mock-seriousness at every opportunity.
CD 4 “Things Used to be Better” CD 5 “The Mountain King”
CD 6 “History is All Around Us” CD 7 “Transported in Time” CD 8 “Wonders”
WONDERS became the last of the RadioSpirits syndicated boxed sets of Shepherd programs, and, as it had an unusually fast turn-around time for production, I was asked to only describe a couple of programs and add a short chronology of Shepherd’s life and work for the program notes. That chronological information is widely available in various forms, so I’ll just do a very short chronology-short-form:
Jean Shepherd, humorist, born in 1921,
was the master of improvised talk radio,
did lots of other good stuff, died in 1999,
and his art still survives in the ears, brains, and hearts of all who experience it.
(More of these syndicated recording are now being released.)