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The film, annotated, in part.
Years ago I wrote and submitted to a movie magazine, my overall description and commentary on that great American Christmas movie. But it was rejected, the editor said, because the mag had published a general article about the movie a few years before. Here’s a slightly-edited part of the introductory matter I wrote, plus a paragraph from the 2016 holiday issue of the magazine Vanity Fair.
• • • • • • • • •
“Was there no end to this conspiracy of irrational prejudice against Red Ryder and his peacemaker?”
In case the reader doesn’t know, A Christmas Story (1983) is the movie about a kid who wants a BB gun for Christmas. His mother, teacher, and even Santa Claus, tell him that he’ll shoot his eye out. He (a cute kid with glasses), his kid brother (very whiny), his parents and friends, live in the steel mill town of Hohman (actually Hammond), Indiana. Their world is just as we remember life used to be or feel it should have been. Yet almost every incident in this sort of picturesque, just-like-it-should-be world, ends in disaster. But then the kid gets the gun and the parents show mutual affection, so all imperfections convert to life as we dream of it. The End.
• • • • • • • • •
NOSTALGIA (Jean Shepherd: “Get it out of your skull!”)
Although director Bob Clark once said that they worked hard to give A Christmas Story a recognizable sense of what many people would remember from their past, he did not suggest that the film was seriously meant to be an exercise in nostalgia. Clark called it “an odd combination of reality and spoof and satire.” That is not nostalgia.
Jean Shepherd, for all the humor and joy he expressed in his decades of nightly radio programs, had a negative view of life’s ultimate meaning, and often expressed an intense dislike of nostalgia. From his earliest radio days he insisted that, despite evoking the past, his stories showed that the past was no better than the present. On one radio program he put it this way: “My work, I think, is anti-sentimental, as a matter of fact. If you really read it, you realize it’s a putdown of what most people think it stands for—it’s anti-nostalgic writing.”
A QUOTE FROM THE VANITY FAIR HOLIDAY ISSUE, 2016
Shepherd’s biographer [sic*] Eugene Bergmann points out that the line in the film that best describes Shepherd’s attitude toward life is when they’re getting ready for Christmas dinner and the Old Man is sitting in the living room reading the funny papers. “The viewer can see the Bumpuses’ hounds starting to trot past him, but he doesn’t see them, because the paper is blocking his view. And, of course, we know what’s going to happen—the hounds are going to get hold of that Christmas turkey.” So Shepherd says, in his voice-over narration, ‘Ah, life is like that. Sometimes at the height of our revelries, when our joy is at its zenith, when all is most right with the world, the most unthinkable disasters descend upon us.’”
*As I continually explain, my book is not and never was intended to be a “biography.” It’s a description and appreciation of his art.
With all of this, A Christmas Story is the funniest, most enjoyable, wittiest, clever and most satisfying film you’re ever likely to see yearly for twenty-four hours straight starting Christmas Eve.
Over fifty million people watch at least parts of it every year as it’s shown on Turner Cable television. Some families, in their Christmas passion, have memorized the dialog and the narration, repeating them along with the film. (Despite watching it yearly and remembering most details, my wife and I laugh unfailingly at the same places.) Most watch it yearly, filled with the teary-eyed nostalgia they bring to it, though most of them undoubtedly do not know what the film is meant to be about and that there is only the tiniest bit of authentic happy-days that I think was probably (through a producers’ arm-twisting of the script-writers) tagged onto the end. The viewers’ ignorance is bliss. Yet, they might increase their pleasure in this delightful creation by understanding more about the film, because knowledge and insight, as we know, is a very satisfying sort of adult bliss worth adding to one’s heretofore innocent enjoyment. Viewers will come to understand why the kid nearly shoots his eye out.
• • • • • • • • •
Let’s follow A Christmas Story
from its opening titles to its picture-postcard, sugarplum end.
Of course not enough people read opening titles, but in this case, it’s worth taking the trouble,
because who created the film and narrates the entire thing is of much relevance to what it’s all about.
Probably a vast majority of viewers don’t know who Jean Shepherd is, despite the fact that,
prominent among the opening titles they would read the following four:
Metro-Goldwyn Mayer Presents
A film from the works of Jean Shepherd
• • • • • • • • •
Ralphie as an adult
• • • • • • • • •
Based upon the Novel
In God We Trust
All Others Pay Cash
By Jean Shepherd
• • • • • • • • •
Jean Shepherd & Leigh Brown
& Bob Clark
• • • • • • • • •
The title “Ralphie as an adult,” refers to Jean Shepherd doing the entire narration we enjoy so much. He had previously used this narrative style in his 1970s television drama, “The Phantom of the Open Hearth,” and he described the style in his introduction to the published script of it, writing: “The Narrator is actually the voice of Ralph, grown up, but at the same time he is somehow mysteriously in communication with the viewer.” Fans of the 1988-1993 sitcom, The Wonder Years may well recognize that form of narrative. Shepherd, who, because of his use of it for A Christmas Story in 1983, had been considered for the narrator role in the sitcom, but had then been turned down, apparently because his adamant beliefs regarding his creative endeavors were considered too difficult to deal with. Bitter for many years, he claimed that The Wonder Years producers had stolen from him not only his technique, but some plot lines.
For those unfamiliar with Jean Shepherd, note that he improvised his nightly radio program in the 1950s through early 1977, and that most of the film’s content was told by him on his shows in the early 1960s without a script. Then he wrote down the stories and they were published in Playboy, then in his books In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash and Wanda Hickey’ Night of Golden Memories and Other Disasters. Shepherd, a major jazz personality in the late 1950s, is also known for his other films, several television series he created, as well as for hundreds of live performances around the country for decades, and for perpetrating one of the great literary hoaxes of all time: the I, Libertine affair. (You can look it up.)
Merry Christmas to all,
and may none of you ever
shoot your eye out.
• • • • • • • • •
“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!
“Keep your knees loose” is certainly another major saying of Shepherd’s. Especially as it also expresses a major part of his overall philosophy—emphasizing that in reacting to all of life’s potential successes and potential failures, flexibility in one’s response is crucial!
FINAL SET OF SHEP WORDS TO COME
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
Shepherd claimed that he created some of his stories as metaphors, and indeed, we can find them in many of his kid stories. Not all of his kid stories have morals to teach us, yet more of them do than we first suspected. Those morals can lurk inconspicuously even in the most innocent-seeming kid story. In addition to metaphors and frequent disasters that were incorporated into A Christmas Story (which you can discover yourself, dear movie-watcher), one might consider his story, found in this collection, of kids popping pills from a newly discovered medicine cabinet as a comment on the1960s drug culture. Then there’s Shepherd’s story of being defeated in a Morse code contest, entwined in an exquisite monolog with the dangers of Mark Twain’s treacherous Mississippi—a mighty, metaphorical river of life with hidden impediments. It’s one of Shepherd’s masterpieces in this book, and it deserves reading and re-reading.
Many of his stories are simply humorous. Most are funny, some are educational, and some merely show us what life is really like for a kid. Which is another way of saying that they show us an intriguing point of view regarding life’s little realities. Expect some disasters. Disasters descended from the heavens, disasters perpetrated by fellow-kids, and disasters self-inflicted. Many provide morals of sorts–education is what life is about, and is indeed, a major attribute of many Shepherd stories about kids. While he makes us laugh he tickles the better parts of our minds.
WARJA LAVATER 1 of 2
I became interested in artists books (which I’d never heard of before), when, in MOMA’s bookstore, I pulled off the shelves a small boxed book depicting the story of William Tell. Other than the opening titles for the symbols used, it didn’t have words—only abstract compositions manipulating the symbols into simple and elegant story-telling. The creator was Swiss artist, Warja Lavater. I eventually bought a couple dozen of her books from various sources, most of them accordion-fold so that, when opened out, they show, left to right, the entire colorful imagery of the story. Articles about much of her work refer to her “folded stories,” “images as words,” and “pictograms.”
The stories are so well-depicted in symbols that, with some general idea of the fairy tale/fable, one can usually understand what’s happening just by the way she tells it with color/shape/composition. I’ve been struck by the esthetic effect as well as by the ability to tell a story without words. Introductory text in an exhibit of her work described her thinking:
Convinced that the imagination of the reader must be allowed free reign, Lavater declared that “fairy tales must not be illustrated.” In order to provide these tales with the open flow and ambiguity of oral narratives, Lavater developed abstract pictograms to represent rather than illustrate the characters and main features of the stories. In New York’s Chinatown, she came across folding books—leporellos—that allowed for a continuous flow of images, uninterrupted by the cut of pages as in traditional bound books.
Many of her small books of fables and similar subject matter are 5”tall X 4” wide, that when opened form a continuous artwork over 9’ long. (It’s only practical to show just parts of several. Many of her complete books are still available for sale through the Internet.)
Red Riding Hood with its Opening Symbols
William Tell Aiming at the Apple William Tell has Pierced the Apple!
On his Son’s Head. Soldiers Hold
Back the Crowds of Citizens.
Through her agent, Warja and I met at the Museum, where she wanted to see and discuss with me my earliest Invertebrate Hall exhibits that use graphic layout to help diagram the information. We both recognized, that in our approach to conveying information/story, we shared an affinity.
“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.
Jean Shepherd is my most elaborate and long-lasting artsy fartsy subject matter. My obsession and constant work on Shep-projects, that started roughly 10/19/1999, has no end in sight. It’s a constant theme of my daily life, including my searches on ebay where I encounter false hits such as the differently spelled name of a country/western singer, non-Shepherd encounters such as a 19th century poet, parts of names of actors, movies, books, etc., and objects of other sorts that include the name Shepherd.
I preserve and display my Shepherd files in “The Shep Shrine.” This includes his poster; his books; my Shep-books; books about radio including some with text about him; his original drawings; his films and videos; many audios of his broadcasts; text and audios of interviews of him and me; media articles and audios about him; photos of him; file boxes of my continuously updated book notes and background info; my original handwritten published and unpublished notes and manuscripts of books about him; text and info and props regarding my play about him and my Shep-blog; a box devoted to many “Shep People” associated with him, especially about Lois Nettleton and Leigh Brown; a copy of his will; a large “Excelsior” banner; Excelsior Seltzer bottles; a small glass-topped box containing kazoo, jews harp, nose flute, and brass figlagee with bronze oakleaf palm; voluminous esoterica and various etceteras. And a one-of-a-kind Jean Shepherd bobblehead.
The Shep Shrine and Me
Jean Shepherd, as always, needs more recognition and effective promotional methods. He is quoted as having said, “You could be on New York radio for many years and be widely unknown.”
In my Excelsior, You Fathead: the Art and Enigma of Jean Shepherd,
preceding the book’s title and the rest of the 495 pages, I begin with accolades:
In the late 1950s Jack Paar’s late-night TV program was the first big Tonight Show to gain wide popular viewership. (Remember that this was the show, earlier staring Steve Allen, that Shepherd was reportedly brought to NYC to take over—but the evidence shows that this was not so). Alexander King, as a guest, became very popular on Paar’s show. This resulted in high sales of several of his books.
King told autobiographical stories with entertaining wit and charm. The first paragraph of an Amazon Customer Review of a King book by Jon Richfield—-describes him well–at least as he appeared on TV: “King was a mercurial spoiled brat with enormous talent, great compassion, great selfishness, idiosyncratic tolerance and intolerance, impressive culture, totally variegated experience, a marvelous capacity for talking about it, and enormous charm. He raises serious doubts about some of what he says, but says it all with such natural conviction….”*
The New York Times obit of 11/17/1966 described his Paar appearances as providing “…witty, pungent, irreverent and continual outflow of comments on life, art, woman, sex, psychiatry, celebrities, narcotics addiction, and just about any other topic that happened to annoy him at the moment.”
FIRST BIG KING BOOK
King’s charm, wit, and quirky energy captivated the audience. Shepherd’s style, being more of a slowly articulated description that relies on a build-up of humorous situation, did not grasp and hold a studio (or a home-viewing) audience sufficiently, I believe, which is why Shepherd-telling-a-story on television by simply talking, as he did on his radio shows, did not work. Fellow-performers on TV such as Ernie Kovacs and Victor Borge seemed to recognize this and undercut Shep—on live TV.
*King once claimed that he’d published his translations of Ovid’s love poems (43 BC-17 AD), even though he knew no Latin. He said that he gathered various translations of the poems and reworded them for the better. He said that he received acclaim for the best-ever translations of Ovid. Amusing story and very possibly true–but I’m not convinced. In fact, it may also be that, just as with Shep, little that King told was more than a smidgeon true to fact.
The Love Books of Ovid:
A Completely Unexpurgated
and Newly Translated Edition.
Internet search shows several booksellers
offering this 1930, privately published book.
All booksellers (and the book’s spine) show
King only as illustrator.
(21) FULL COLOR NEWSPAPER WARS
The New York Times, from time to time, has published some esthetically lovely photographs. Beautifully composed, wonderfully colored. One might say, “masterpieces.” They compare with some of the great painted masterpieces of violent centuries past. Many of these depict the ravages of wartime. They’ve made me stop and wonder at my own intellectual/emotional conflict. I’ve saved scores of these images and concocted a couple into an elegant, cedar, cigar-box-artifact meant to preserve and remind. (It needs to be noted that some of the lovely photos I’ve saved from the Times are simply beautiful and not disagreeable in content.)
Man and grandmother: homeless refugees.
Women: grieve over the yellow head, cheerful red and white-striped cover
with body beneath.
There are still elegant photos in the Times, and I look forward to those to come.
One Shepherd drawing I’m aware of is unlike the rest in media, appearance, and effect. (It’s not even done with a Rapidograph.) Done on an eight-by-nine inch sheet of gray paper, it depicts overlapping outlines of cartoon heart-faces apparently drawn with a red-violet felt-tip marker, the simple facial features drawn with a pen. The hearts form a sequence from left to right, starting upright, but a couple leaning a bit, the final one prostrate, as though in a swoon, the entire effect beyond our full understanding. Yet the words under them, written with a regular pen, say clearly, “I can’t fight it. I love you. J.” Obviously not cold and objective, but heartfelt. It is a valentine to his wife, Lois Nettleton, and thus private, not meant for public scrutiny. (Shepherd kept his emotions hidden from the public to such an extent that, in his twenty-one years of New York broadcasting, the only emotions of his so far heard, have been when he was performing in the throws of some maniacally comic, musical interlude, when artfully portraying some fictional event or when disparaging someone in the control room. there was obvious emotion behind his commentaries regarding the Kennedy assassination.
As for his personal life, the public at large was not even aware that he and Lois Nettleton knew each other, much less that they were married for over six years.) Though lacking detail and much context, this valentine is humorous and poignant, but with a full meaning that probably died with the sender and recipient, and which remains for the rest of us a puzzle that can only be seen as another part of the artist’s life that will always be in its essence unknown—enigmatic. Another one of the few instances of a personal connection to Shepherd’s life.
Jean’s Valentine to Lois.
For Shep, so unusual and so unexpectedly expressing a feeling,
this is one of my favorite pieces of Shepherd memorabilia.
Surprisingly, considering Shepherd’s need for acclaim and a more exalted status as a significant creator in his time, he seemed to care little for what happened to his drawings. True, there were those few used to accompany his Village Voice writing, and those that appeared in two books, but that was about it. He seemed to only sign a few, including some that are in private hands, and the one framed on Lois Nettleton’s kitchen wall, seen after her death, is also signed. But of the several dozen that she had stored in a closet in the apartment she had shared with him thirty years before, and that were eventually auctioned, only one bears his name.
END PART 5 of 5
DEE SNIDER & TWISTED SISTER
The following Artsy, inspired by a very good documentary recently watched, is a shorter, revised version of a description previously posted.
A fellow I know casually, Mark Snider, asked me what I do now that I’m retired. I responded that I’ve been obsessed by, and have written about, Jean Shepherd. Mark said that he was a big fan and that his brother, Dee Snider, was also. He said “Dee Snider” as though I should have recognized the name, but I didn’t. “Twisted Sister,” said Mark. “Who’s that?” said I. Mark told me that “Twisted Sister” was a rock band and Dee was the lead singer/song-writer. I said I’d love to talk to him about Jean Shepherd. Mark gave me contact info and I invited Dee to visit me in my Shep Shrine at our house.
Dee Snider in performance.
Twisted Sister is a glam, hair, heavy metal band most visible in the 1980s, though they still occasionally perform. Their performance style and the content of their lyrics are akin to that of artfully controlled intensity, but remain not nearly as fierce as that of some other groups, because they are organized and carefully crafted by the sensibilities of their lead singer/songwriter, Dee Snider. They’re best-known song, “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” is more unsettling in its video than in the lyrics themselves.
Dee Snider’s most impressive singing style is a frequently screaming-as-loud-as-he-can while remaining artfully in tune. As a seemingly manic primitive, he sports outrageously wild and frizzy yellow hair, red lipstick, blue paint on his cheeks, and tattered sartorial outrage calculated to delight rebellious teenagers and whip most parents into a frenzy of disgust. Dee’s parents had introduced him to Jean Shepherd’s program while he was still a teenager.
He’d listened with his transistor radio hidden under his pillow. Snider is a very big Shepherd cuckoo and he shares some enthusiasms with Shep, including the thrill of motorcycling.
When a black Hummer pulled up outside our house, a tall, thin man dressed all in black like a motorcyclist got out and I greeted him at the door. It was Dee Snider in mufti.
Dee, with his yellow hair pulled back under a black baseball cap, the peak turned to the back hiding a good part of the protruding ponytail, now in his fifties and still performing with the band, seems neither extravagant nor berserk. He’s a regular guy offstage—at least for the three hours we spent together—so even his performance persona has its off-duty mufti.
Dee Snider and me in my Shep Shrine.
Snider said that, “Jean totally affected my storytelling ability. I think it was by osmosis. We learn from people we listen to.” He’s gotten many accolades for his storytelling on his radio program and, he commented, “I’m known to have a pretty vast vocabulary, using words and phraseology that others don’t use, and I didn’t know exactly where that came from until I realized, upon this reexamination I’m doing now, that Jean has a massive vocabulary.” About word-usage, Snider referred to lyrics in his song “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” including, “Your life is trite and jaded, boring and confiscated.” As he put it, “Not words your average heavy metal rock song would include. I wasn’t very good in English, but I’m taken with Shepherd’s mastery of vocabulary. His mastery of the English weapon.” Dee stopped himself: “I was going to say ‘using the English language as a weapon.’ Jean used the language as a weapon, and it’s a powerful, powerful tool—offensive and defensive tool, you know–and when it’s working for you, boy, there’s nothing like it!”
I asked Dee how Jean’s attitudes and world view may have influenced him. Dee: “Well, you know, I’m definitely all about sarcasm [He laughed]. It’s at the core of my sense of humor and my sensibilities and certainly Jean was cynical and sarcastic—to a fault. Here’s Jean as a mentor and as a teacher to us, the misguided youth, and he’s got our ear. And every night here’s someone, a grown man, with very strong political, personal, psychological views filling our heads with his ideology. And the biggest thing to come away with, I guess, besides the storytelling, is his sort of cynical views and his condescending attitude—he looked down on most people, and I dare say that that is a part of my personality I struggle to keep in check. [We both laughed.] Because it’s not nice! And we want to be nice. [More laughter.] And it’s wrong to think everybody’s ants and you’re Gulliver.
“But I think also, behind the cynicism, hid a love. I can’t believe it wasn’t there. At the same time he seemed to yearn for some of the simplicity that he experienced in his youth and he seemed to be able to step away from it and appreciate the value that these things had. When I’m in the moment I find it very difficult to really appreciate experience that’s happening. Especially the ridiculousness sometimes, of what’s going on around me. But when I step away, when I get on the mic—what I want to call my biography is Just Give Me the Mic—‘cause I love the microphone, whether I’m singing or talking I seem to be able—now that I’ve stepped back from it—to analyze it and see it for what it was, for better, for worse, the beauty in it, the ugliness in it, the ridiculousness. I don’t know if I got that from Jean, but I think I did.”
I’d saved some of the more difficult subjects for near the end of our talk. I asked what he thought Shepherd would have felt about Twisted Sister and his stage persona and what kind of dialog they might have had. Dee said that Shep “would have had disdain.” Of course, we knew that already. He did comment, however, that, “The music Shep was passionate about, jazz, was in its own way, for the Beat Generation, what rock and roll is. A music that challenged the norm. It wasn’t accepted by the mainstream. It was the new jazz, it was against the grain. He didn’t like change.”
Regarding fans, Dee commented: “As a performer—and a successful one—I often have people who come up to me and they’re very excited, but they really don’t know me or my band—they really just grasp the surface of what I’m about, but I appreciate their enthusiasm, their excitement, and I don’t expect them to know better.” He commented that Twisted Sister plays many kinds of heavy metal rock, yet they had very big success with a couple of very catchy—what he called “anthemic tunes”—such as “We’re Not Gonna Take It.” As he put it, “That’s what we’re known for, and thank God there was something. That’s what really connected with the masses. Your true, hardcore fans, like you for Jean or me for Jean, may know there’s a greater depth, but the average person, you have to say, ‘Twisted Sister—you know the song ‘We’re Not Gonna Take It,’ and they go, ‘Oh, that work? I know ‘We’re Not Gonna Take It.’ And with Shepherd you have to say A Christmas Story—that’s Jean’s ‘We’re Not Gonna Take It.’” Yes, totally the way I introduce Shepherd to the unknowing.
And, with his unexpectedly articulated intelligence during the 1985 U.S. Senate hearings regarding labeling albums of possibly offensive lyrics—especially focusing on rock music–he befuddled the questioners. Thoughtful and articulate in his arguments against censorship, Dee effectively presented himself and his relatively witty and benign Twisted Sister, against the censorious beliefs of Tipper Gore. (The record industry labeled the albums anyway, leading, as one would have expected, to increased sales of those albums.)
Regarding other aspects of his personal life, I learned that Dee is the spokesperson for the March of Dimes “Bikers for Babies” program, and he chairs a Long Island ride for the cause. Bikers for Babies! I never would have guessed.
Ah, Shep, your influence in the culture is vast and often emerges in unexpected places, even into heavy metal. I enjoy some Twisted Sister performances on CD and DVDs. Though I suspect that as a neophyte, all I have so far is what Dee would call “a surface grasp,” it’s (gulp!) a beginning. Without you, Jean Shepherd, we might not have had quite the same driving intensity, intelligence, comic sensibility, and delightful mayhem of a Twisted Sister and the same surprising, thoughtful, many-sided personage of a Dee Snider.
More Than “A Surface Grasp”?
Before we leave Dee and Twisted Sister, let’s think about their loud, slow, insistent melodic line and lyric called “The Price.” Had Shepherd ever heard it, he might not have been able to get beyond the sound and presentation, as good and appropriate to the song as they are, but the words themselves would surely have resonated with him regarding his ambitions and the arc of his career as he contemplated them toward the end of his life. It would be difficult to find a song more forcefully and perfectly attuned to the deeper level of the art and enigmatic life of Jean Shepherd. It is a masterpiece. How inevitable that it’s conceived and performed by one of his most ardent and thoughtful fans. Here’s the beginning:
How long I have wanted this dream to come true.
And as it approaches, I can’t believe I’m through.
I’ve tried, oh, how I’ve tried
for a life, yes a life I thought I knew.
Oh, it’s the price we gotta pay, and all the games we gotta play
makes me wonder if it’s worth it to carry on.
‘Cause it’s a game we gotta lose, though it’s a life we gotta choose
And the price is our own life until it’s done.
“We Are Twisted F***ing Sister!”
Just the other night my wife and I encountered a two-hour documentary about Twisted Sister’s early years. We really like “We’re Not Gonna Take It’ and “The Price,” but we didn’t expect to appreciate the documentary because it only dealt with the group’s formative years. We sat mesmerized. An extraordinary display of the incredible difficulties TS overcame through that first decade! One of the best documentaries we’d ever seen. An internet description of the film:
In the mid-1970s, Dee Snider and his Twisted Sister bandmates claimed glitter rock for their own, cross-dressing their way to headlining every club within 100 miles of New York City, from New Jersey bowling alleys to Long Island beach bars. With gigs six nights a week, they were the most successful live bar band of suburban New York, selling out 5,000-seat shows fueled by their no-holds-barred stage presence and aggressive metal set lists. But by the early 80s, they found themselves balancing on a double-edged sword, hugely popular with local audiences but without a national following or a record deal to speak of. When Twisted Sister finally got their big break in 1983, they’d go on to become one of the biggest glam rock bands of the decade, their over-the-top live shows drawing sell-out crowds and their music videos defining an early MTV network.
How had we, New Yorkers—Long Islanders—not known more about them until Dee arrived at my Shep Shrine in black and pony-tailed, his cultured mind and his warm personality all in mufti? What other significant parts of our culture have we been blind to?