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Further comments from the syndicated Shep sets. I wish more syndicated sets could be produced at the same price and format as these original ones.
-Radio Spirits-From the program notes set
In “Playing the Tuba,” Shepherd expresses his lifelong devotion to music. He organizes this show in a progressive sequence, commenting on the common habit of meaningless humming—then moves us from this mindless noise to the beginnings of artful sound. Only humming that constitutes a tune, he points out, is music. He tells us how in eighth grade he began practicing the tuba for his school orchestra and that from the beginning he was obsessed: “I was a dedicated tuba man.” In the telling, he has fun making a beginner’s awkward tuba notes with his mouth. Shepherd has always been a master at entertaining his audience with sound effects, especially ones he creates by using his mouth as an instrument to produce all the sounds one might expect from some zany orchestra, and here he renders the tuba (even adding some cuckoo kazoo) with utmost fun and skill.
He goes on to describe playing in the orchestra, commenting that it was the first time he’d ever created beauty. We are learning about his joy in making art. He concludes with a paean to great composers—especially of difficult, modern music—and to the musicians who play the music, explaining that no one appreciates great compositions as do those who have to perform them. Shepherd has done more than entertain us—he has given us his personal take on the evolution of sound from meaninglessness to art in a forty-five minute artistic riff on his own love of music. All music lessons should be this much fun.
-Radio Spirits-From the program notes set
Pomp and Circumstances
“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. He continues, “You sit on the edge of your bed and you try to match your socks and you bust a shoelace and your nose runs and all that? And you have a vague feeling that to that truly great, this does not happen.”
Then he talks about his grandfather, who “walked through life exuding great propriety.” Already we can hear in our minds that music played during graduation in human memory, “Pomp and Circumstance,” especially when he follows with “we have an innate hunger for pomp-circumstances.” In the ultimate comic put down of propriety, he does a great absurd kazoo performance of the music. This alone is worth the price of admission. He evokes an image: “You are graduating from the Ohio Institute of Chiropractics and Metaphysics.” Picture doing that with great propriety.
-Radio Spirits-From the program notes set
The Fatal Flaw
“The Fatal Flaw” has to do with petty thievery and two kinds of death rattles. The thievery has to do with the lack of a sense of morality when encountering a gigantic, faceless institution, and the rattles have to do with the death of a Model A and the near death of a boy named Shep.
Shepherd comments that soldiers steal from the faceless army—and that steel workers steal from the mill, a circumstance illustrated by those working in the “tin mill,” who steal small piece of valuable tin until a detection device eliminates that thievery and they have to come up with another material to make off with. Some of young Shepherd’s co-workers in the mill decide to steal benzene for use as gas in their communal car. However, that theft leads to disaster because the benzene overheats the engine, which reacts by dying in a horrible meltdown.
The near death of young Shep happens because of a car out of gas, a long rubber hose, and a couple of jugs. We know all about the unlawful siphoning of gas from other people’s cars, the miscreant sucking until gas starts flowing, then quickly transferring the end of the hose to containers to capture the gas. As one can guess, Shepherd the sucker, new at the job, swallows over a quart of the poisonous stuff.
What makes the tales of tin, benzene, and gas down the gullet so entertaining is 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 affects. 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 struck again!
End of Part 2
Today is April Fools’ Day. On this date in 1968, Shep told the story about the April Fools’ Day trick played on him when he was in grammar school. He replayed the tape of that earlier broadcast rather than speaking live on his last day broadcasting on WOR, 4/1/1977. Near the end of the tape, Shep comments about the kid trick. (And, coincidentally/ironically, about what WOR had done to him):
“Humiliated before the entire world.
They heard! I couldn’t figure out why they did it to me.
Why did they do this to me? ”
Selections from the Program Guides. Recorded in 1964-1965 for syndication by Hartwest Productions but “lost” for decades, over 250 programs surfaced and began being marketed by www.RadioSpirits.com, starting in 2005. These CDs of nearly unheard (because nearly un-broadcast), recorded Jean Shepherd programs began appearing. I’ve written the program notes for all nine of the four-and-eight CD boxed sets so far released. (I receive no remuneration beyond the original fee I received for some of the latter of the nine.) Here’s a short selection of those comments.
(The Hartwest syndicated material is now in the hands of: http://www.filmsaroundtheworld.com/Jean Shepherd Radio.php and is being sold at the price of $14.99 per program by them and by www.amazon.com. They are produce-on-demand and have no program notes. (I’ve had no input on these). I bought Volume 4 because I wanted to hear what he had to say about his cooking. The rest I’d like to hear but not at that price.)
-Radio Spirits-from the program notes set
The X Random Factor
These syndicated programs are quality Shepherd, with all the style and verve of his live broadcasts. The listener might note a few minor indicators of something a bit different, none of which is in any way negative. You’ll hear that his “Bahn Frei” theme music on these Hartwest programs does not have the mysterious Shepherd “Ahhhh” at the very end that was a fixture of his shows for over a dozen years—the syndicated show music ends purely as Eduard Strauss intended. In addition, very frequently over the years Shepherd used fragments of usually quirky music to set a mood, to talk around, to play with—either in words or to accompany with kazoo, jew’s harp, nose flute, or head thumping. In the syndicated shows heard thus far, he seems to have more carefully pre-sketched (but not in any way scripted) the nature of each particular show. And within that sketch, he appears to have more diligently chosen and orchestrated into the whole, excerpts of a less quirky music, which also provide more of a focus to the general tenor of that program.
-Radio Spirits-from the program notes set
In “Foretelling the Future,” Shepherd philosophically—and oh so humorously—refutes the widely held beliefs that life and commercial products are always improving and predictable. He has fun denying the idea of progress. Related to that, his ever-present belief is that predicting the future does not work because our ideals and ideas do not jibe with reality. Human illusions, foibles, and impenetrable human complexity abound—all of these confound the “experts” in their attempts to pin down the future. What joy Shepherd has in life’s absurd unpredictability: “That jagged, peculiar, Yorkshire pudding of existence, the raisins and the grapes and the oysters and all the rest of it. The lobsters and the clams and the cabbages and the kings. All floating like some enormous mulligatawny stew.…” Listen—participate with Shep in his delight in all of life. Shepherd knew that we all have various personal styles and foibles within us, and he did not exclude himself.
Part 2 to come.
(I’ve written what’s below in as artsy a manner as I can.)
For years on the air, Jean Shepherd occasionally spoke negatively about dogs—especially about how owners would let them defecate on the sidewalk and not scoop the poop. I don’t think he’d ever owned a dog at that time.
In one of his books, he wrote and published a burlesque titled “S.P.L.A.T!” Writing as though in a dream and being interviewed on TV (a medium he demeaned) by “intellectual” celebrities of the day such as Steve Allen and David Susskind (both of whom he demeaned in the burlesque), he was asked about the meaning of the name of the organization he represented. After several pages of snide prevarication, he responded: “It stands for Society for the Prevention and Limitation of Animal Turds.”
Our previous dog died years ago, and we decided to wait a while before getting another. Within a very little while (about a week), I suggested that we go to the North Shore Animal League (“just to look,” as I put it.)
We asked if they had any puppies. The young fellow brought out two pups in arms from the same litter, one small, short-haired and brown, the other dark tan and longer-haired. I pointed to the longer-haired one: “That’s the dog for us.” Allison and I and our sons Evan, ten, and Drew, eight, each held him and checked him out. We filled out the paperwork and brought him home.
Evan, Drew, and Augie as Pups
We adopted him on August 1 and Allison named him August, aka Augie, Augustus, Augie Doggie Bergmann. Augie slept in bed with Allison and me for the rest of his life. For the last year or two, we realized that Augie was really getting old—he’d had to have many of his teeth pulled, he was almost blind and deaf, and sometimes walked into things. We lifted him off our bed in the morning and lifted him onto our bed at night. During the day, mostly, he slept and I spent time on the sofa holding him close. He began eating not three, but only two cans of what our vet recommended–Mighty Dog. As an appetizer, with each meal, we gave him several heaping tablespoons of vanilla yogurt along with the Mighty, which we heated a bit to increase the aroma.
Now almost eighteen (yes, 18), Augie’s health had deteriorated. He would wobble on his feet, pace back and forth and stare into space until we put him on the sofa for another nap. We didn’t know if the pacing was a sign of distress. One early evening he collapsed. Allison, Evan, and I rushed him to a 24-hour emergency pet service where they examined him, tested, and X-rayed him. The vet said the pacing could be dementia and that with steroid shots, we could keep him alive for maybe a week or a month. In the consultation room Augie was totally unresponsive, and for the first time ever, we heard him whimper and moan. We agreed that the time had come and we cried and held each other after we gently stroked Augie.
Last photo of Augie Doggie Bergmann
with my hand caressing him.
(Photo by Evan Bergmann)
After Allison, Evan, and I left the pet emergency care facility, my text message to son Drew, now living in Colorado, reported: “We said goodbye to Augie and are driving home crying.”
1981 dedication in A Fistful of Fig Newtons by Jean Shepherd:
“To Leigh and Daphne—Who share my bed, my board, and walks along the sea. May they never regret it.”
(Most people who read that dedication must think that Shep lived, walked by the sea, and bedded two women.)
In 1982 Daphne, Leigh’s dog, appeared in Shepherd’s PBS drama, “Great American Fourth of July and Other Disasters”
In 1988, Shepherd’s film Ollie Hopnoodle’s Haven of Bliss,
features the family dog, Fuzzhead (played by Daphne).
Daphne (aka Fuzzhead)
I think that between the early 1970s and 1981,
Shep fell in love with Daphne the Dog.
Among the unpublished chapters in my book manuscripts, I encountered a chronology that, in its concentrated form, might be worth contemplating as a very short description of Jean Shepherd’s activities from 1960 on. It’s not complete or definitive, but should probably exist in some form other than in electronic blips on my computer and CDs.
The relative importance of his early, “night people” adult fans diminished in proportion to the subsequent, much larger student population who listened and who also attended his many high school and college appearances, and his many live talks around the country. He met Leigh Brown, the cute, young, ambitious chick from the Village in the late 1950s, their relationship developing more strongly when she began working at WOR in the early 1960s. His live broadcasts from the Limelight Café in the Village on Saturday nights began in February, 1964 and ended in December, 1967. The basic week-nightly broadcasts were mostly 45-minutes long. One never knew what sort of subject or mood he would be in and what sort of seemingly incongruent mix he might dish up on an evening, and the variety and quality of the broadcasts remained very high.
Sometimes he would tell a story or comment on the passing scene, read a bit from one of his favorite authors, sometimes play tunes on kazoo, nose flute, or jews harp, or knock out a tune by thumping on his head. Some programs had all of the above and more. As he loved traveling, by taking his tape recorder with him he would bring back audio samples and commentaries for his programs from such places as the Peruvian Amazon, Ireland, Germany, Australia, and the Windward Islands.
Several times over the years attempts were made to extend his listening audience by sending tapes of the broadcast programs around the country by syndication. In one attempt, over 200 new programs were specially taped in 1964-1965, but little distribution was done before the project was lost and forgotten about in a warehouse. Recently, these recordings, four and eight at a time, had been produced and sold in boxed CD sets. Then, more were released one program at a time at a much more expensive rate per show.
Shepherd performed in several plays in the late 1950s and early 1960s, apparently wanting to concentrate on acting, but his then-wife, Lois Nettleton, noted years later, that as his natural style was improvising his own material, he had trouble remembering scripted lines. No record exists for any acting after the mid-1960s. Of note, “Asylum,” which never opened, was an original play by Arthur Kopit, not a revival, so that its failure to open is doubly unfortunate for New York theater as well as for Shepherd in particular.
Regarding live performances, for most of his career he concentrated on performing his own material. His attempt at doing his own storytelling by facing into the camera on television was not successful. He did create, narrate, and usually perform, in nearly two dozen programs of two series of half-hour shows for PBS, Jean Shepherd’s America, in which, for the most part, the small video crew traveled the country filming subjects that struck them as relevant parts of American culture (1971 and 1985). He also created Shepherd’s Pie (1978), a shorter series of half-hour programs featuring several subjects each, again mostly related to aspects of the culture that interested him. He created three hour-and-a-half stories based on groupings of some of his originally published stories. Most of his television work includes Shepherd himself as narrator, and he often appears on-camera. He also created a number of other individual television programs that appeared from the 1960s on.
Although his short stories told on the air were so good and so popular, it seems that only a concerted effort by friends Shel Silverstein and Lois Nettleton had convinced him to write them out and submit them to Playboy. (He had felt that the human voice was the most direct, and therefore best, medium, for telling tales.) The first story appeared in June, 1964 and the last of the twenty-three in August, 1981. He also wrote one humor piece for the magazine. Despite his antipathy toward the Beatles in particular and rock-and-roll in general, Playboy sent him to the British Isles in 1964 for their Beatles interview, which appeared in February, 1965. Playboy gave him a “humor of the year” award four times.
Most of his short stories and some of his articles were published in his popular books. He inevitably created odd and funny titles for his stories and books. Although some of the names in his stories refer to actual people of his childhood, Shepherd’s short stories are mostly fiction. (For example, Flick’s family insisted that he had never had his tongue stuck to a pole.) Shepherd claimed that the themes of some of these tales were metaphorical. For example, he noted that the BB gun story was an anti-war tale. One might also find an anti-war message in his story of waring tops, “Murderous Mariah.” Over the years, Shepherd wrote scores of articles for many diverse periodicals, and did forwards and introductions to books that related to one or another aspect of his wide-ranging interests regarding American culture.
Shepherd loved radio, but its importance in the culture began to decline in the 1950s with the coming of television. His creative interests in other media expanded and his WOR Radio work ended April Fools Day, 1977. Despite his love for New York City, he and Leigh Brown moved to a condominium in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. In 1984 they bought a house on Sanibel Island, Florida, where they lived, becoming increasingly isolated, even from friends, for the rest of their lives.