Ishmael vs. Ahab vs. Jean Shepherd vs. Myself: One Night Only!

To my father, the height of art was Jean Shepherd reading poetry. Shepherd often read poetry on his radio show–performed it, really, as vaudevillians once did with famous verse of their day. The poems could be genuinely great writing like classic Japanese haikus, or melodramatic slop like “A Drunkard’s Dream.” He made no distinction between high and low art, and recited both with equal fervor.

Of all the poems Shepherd read on the air, my father loved most his reading of Lewis Carroll’s nonsense poem “The Hunting of the Snark.” He spoke of it rapturously, as people often do of things they know they’ll never see or hear again, and was fond of repeating the poem’s last line, in a Shepherd-esque low, For the snark was a boojum, you see…

I’ve been listening to old Jean Shepherd radio shows for well over a decade now, ever since new interweb technology allowed people to digitize their old reel-to-reels of his broadcasts. And yet, it was only some time last week, while listening to one of these shows on my commute home, that I realized I’d never heard Shepherd’s rendition of “The Hunting of the Snark.” My father always spoke as if this was something Shepherd did regularly, and yet I’d never heard it? I felt personally insulted, as if the thing was hiding just to screw with my head, and determined I must find it.

Anecdotal evidence indicates that Shepherd read this poem annually in the early 1960s. But when I searched The Brass Figlagee—an enormous cache of Shepherd shows in podcast form—I found nothing. The fansite has listings for a few programs from 1962 and 1963 whose titles fit the bill, but none of these are available in any form (begging the question how anyone knows the content of these shows in the first place). Max Schmid, a DJ at WBAI and old time radio enthusiast, has literally hundreds of Shepherd shows available for sale, but near as I can tell, none of them contain The Snark.

I plumbed the depths of the internet for days, poking around the scary corners where I sometimes venture looking for old baseball games on DVD, into long-dead Angelfire sites and LiveJournal pages. No dice. I begged on various social media, hoping someone would know what I was talking about, and received some helpful suggestions and offers of help but no paydirt. I pursued dead ends far longer than I should have, unable to convince myself that this thing was lost to the mists of time.

I couldn’t bring myself to concede defeat, though, at least not entirely. Since I couldn’t find this recording for love or money, I convinced myself to do something I’m almost too embarrassed to write down: Record a reading myself. My insane thought was, if all the Shepherd versions were lost forever, perhaps I could do a rendering that would approximate the feel and intent of the original, or at least what I imagine the original was like. It was such a idiotic and childish notion, I simply had to do it.

One night, after I believed my daughter was safely asleep, I made my attempt, bellowing the lines into Garage Band. I should note that I’d never actually read this poem before, and its arcane, flowery English was more difficult to sight-read than I anticipated. I also grossly overestimated my own voice-acting chops; listening to a playback, it was hard to avoid the fact that my recitation was lacking a certain ineffable something. (Talent, maybe.) It sounded very much like a reading, not a performance.

A half hour into this mad quest, my daughter padded out to the living room. I’d woken her up and she wanted to know what I was doing. I explained I was trying to record myself reading a long poem. She scowled and asked, “Why?”

This one little word was like a snap of the fingers, waking me from a trance, because it made me realize I had no real answer. Whatever charm this poem might have had for my father when read by Jean Shepherd eluded me now. What’s worse, I didn’t even like “The Hunting of the Snark.” It was clever in a Victorian sort of way, but so what? What I really liked was the idea of what this poem meant to my father. The actual object meant nothing to me. So why did I fell compelled to have Shepherd’s reading of it, even if only in a bastardized version I made?

Because I’m an Artifact Person. If I love something, I want to have The Thing so I can treasure it and refer to it forever, whether that thing is an album or a book or a movie or a baseball game. Artifact People are driven by the belief that if they just acquire every last bit of knowledge on/about/adjacent to something they love, they will then receive some grand universal truth. Artifact People are Ahabs, always searching for that One Thing, even when a sane mind would tell them to knock it off.

My father was a Story Person. To him, having an entertaining tale to tell was more important than acquiring the things relating to that tale. He did not want to be bogged down in facts. The memory of something was enough, because you could weave anything from what you remembered, or thought you remembered. Story People are Ishmaels, telling you what happened filtered through their own sensibilities, insisting their story is just about whales and is not a metaphor or an allegory or any sort, even when you know they’re lying through their teeth. Even when they know you know this.

My father had no regard for hanging onto mere things. My mother once bought him a beautifully bound set of the complete Sherlock Holmes for their anniversary. He lent out one of the volumes to a casual acquaintance and it was never seen again. The remaining volume sat in our stereo cabinet for years, tilted in its slipcase, mourning its partner. This was more due to carelessness than some Buddhist disregard for the material world, but it also came from the fact that he’d rather tell you about having read all of Sherlock Holmes than pull the actual book from his shelf.

One Christmas, a few years before my father died, I burned a ton of MP3s of Jean Shepherd shows on disc for him, trying to pick out the ones I thought he’d like the most. I also bought him a book of poetry by Robert Service, whose verse about the Yukon Shepherd often read on the air. To top it off, I gave him a copy of the biography of Shepherd I’d worked on. He looked genuinely appreciative, but did not spent the rest of the evening not listening to any of these shows or reading any of these books. He preferred to share memories of old Shepherd shows he’d heard as a kid, of Shepherd reading out the poetry I’d just given him, particularly the overwrought “Shooting of Dan McGrew.” A buncha the boys were whoopin’ it up in the Malamute Saloon

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One month later, visiting my mom’s house again, I discovered that all the gifts I’d given him—the CDs, the Robert Service book, the Shep bio—lay on an end table right where he left them on Christmas day, untouched since then, gathering dust. My first reaction was to feel hurt and angry, in a very foot-stamping childish way. He didn’t want any of this? He didn’t even want a biography of this man that I helped write?

The simple truth was no, he didn’t. All these things could do was pollute his memories, damage his stories. In his mind, it was better to hold onto those things than to have them shattered by such ugly things as facts. It was the same reason he never bothered to tell anyone he was dying. Not his family, not his friends, not even his employer as they sent him on a plane to Nepal, where he would breathe his last conscious breath. How do you weave a story from that?

There is a Story Person in me, someone who likes to weave tales and can sacrifice cold hard facts for the sake of a joke. But I also have the impulse to set things down, like this post. Or this one. Or this one. Or this one. I kept writing about my father because I thought if I laid the facts down in a codified way, I could retroactively figure him out. I even toyed with the idea of tracking down some of his AA buddies and interview them, since they appeared to know him so much better than I did. Turn it into a book, maybe. Once it was all in a book, then I’d really know Everything about him, right?

But of course I wouldn’t. He was no more truthful with them than he was with me, or anyone else. If I did talk to these people, I would receive stories he saved for others, and that’s it. Setting these stories down on paper, where they could never be altered again, where they’d be set in stone—the very idea would have terrified my father.

The infuriating thing about Jean Shepherd—another Story Person—is that while hundreds of his shows are preserved for posterity, there are literally thousands more that are lost, and the odds of any of these missing shows being recovered lie between slim and none. As a fan, you have to resign yourself to the fact that we have all of him we will ever have, and that is that. If I had Shepherd’s reading of “The Hunting of the Snark,” I know it wouldn’t make me happy. I’d listen to it, and I might enjoy it, or I might be puzzled why it spoke to my father. And then I’d move on to the next hint of The Answer.

So it is with my father. After he died, the resentment and anger I once felt toward him for most of my life was channeled into a weird cousin of fandom. I “got into” him in the same way I once “got into” Elvis Costello or Frank Zappa. I wanted all his albums, I wanted to read all the interviews, I wanted to get all the live bootlegs I could.

Now, I’ve collected all I can. There is no secret vault full of unreleased material. As of today, it’s been seven long years since he’s gone, but I can finally drop the harpoon.

3 thoughts on “Ishmael vs. Ahab vs. Jean Shepherd vs. Myself: One Night Only!”

  1. As I read this, it strikes me that I, too, am both an Artifact Ahab and a Story Ishmael. Being this way is a joy, but often a lonely one – so few Ahabs can open up to your tales, and almost no Ishmaels will embrace your relics.

    In the pre-internet era, especially, you really had to be one or the other. Carrying everything in your head would have crippled you mentally – and even just focusing in-depth on the archives, or on the lore, was usually crippling socially. The internet is changing this, but slowly and with uncertainty.

    It doesn’t surprise me that this kind of activity – saving and preserving the ephemeral – was confined to the big cities and the solitary personality. Alienation was step one: clearing the decks of human attachments and keeping them clear. You needed a life and a place where alienation was okay. I don’t know how alienated Max Schmid is, but I’ll bet he couldn’t, or wouldn’t, have kept all of Shep on reel tapes in a 3 bed, 2 bath stucco in Dobbs Ferry.

    I was a New York solitary for a decade or so and it was an indispensable time in my life. I’ve left New York and hope to leave the lonely saver’s life, but not its treasures. I think it’s possible – nowadays.

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