Category Archives: Pointless Nostalgia

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The Snark, Hunted

You may recall that a while back, I wrote a post about a failed attempt to do a “dramatic reading” of Lewis Carroll’s nonsense poem, “The Hunting of the Snark.” Nevermind; you don’t recall that. Nor should you.

Regardless, the reason I made that failed attempt is because Jean Shepherd used to read this poem on his radio show, and his recitations of it were one of my dad’s favorite things. He would attempt to recreate the effect by repeating certain lines in his best Shepherdian low. For the snark was a boojum, you see…

I could only guess at what Shepherd’s own version sounded like, because even though he reportedly read the poem on the air many times, there were no examples readily available. I scanned the darkest depths of the interwebs for months until I decided that alas, all of Shep’s readings were lost to the mists of time.

And then this morning, a man named David Director emailed me. He had a college roommate who taped many Shep shows in the early 1960s, as Shep fans often did back in the day. He had the foresight to make copies of some of his roommate’s tapes, including a series of shows from January 29-31, 1963, during which Shepherd read “The Hunting of the Snark” in its entirety.

David was kind enough to send me an mp3 of Shep reading the introduction to the poem (“Fit the First”) and to also give permission to share it here. So now, thanks to David (and his erstwhile roommate, David Singer), I present to you Jean Shepherd reading the opening to “The Hunting of the Snark.” Enjoy.

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Jean Shepherd on New York Baseball Fans, 1963

On the way to work this morning, I listened to a Jean Shepherd radio show from April 1963 in which he discussed the attitude of New York baseball fans in general and Yankees fans in particular. The reason I listen to 50-year-old radio shows is because of how amazingly prescient Shep was, especially when discussing philosophy or commenting on media and show biz. He was no less insightful on the “lesser” topic of sports and fandom.

In this clip, you’ll hear Shep (a Chicago native and lifelong White Sox fan) talk about how nutty the WIN NOW! attitude of New York fans looks to outsiders. He relates the grumbles of a Yankee fan friend who couldn’t stand the thought of his team not winning a pennant in 1959. He also shares memories of a trip to Yankee Stadium with his old pal and fellow Chicagoan Shel Silverstein, when the two of them witnessed Mickey Mantle get booed for the audacity of not hitting a home run that afternoon. Shep provides a passable Shel Silverstein impression to boot.

Shep tops things off with some thoughts on the then-fledgling Mets, the real reason the Dodgers’ and Giants’ move to California was lamented by the press (their gravy train stopped running), and how the New York WIN NOW idea extends to all sports.

I find this fascinating because it is a contemporary account of what fan attitudes and fan experiences were like during the late 1950s and early 1960s. In our cemented memories, this era is rendered in Ken Burns-ian sepiatone nostalgia. But when Shep was speaking, the era was still The Present, and thus could be discussed in an unvarnished way.

When studying most aspects of history we accept that, in order to really understand a time, you have to get as close to contemporary accounts as humanly possible. When it comes to sports, however, we often let ourselves be swayed by myth-making. That makes this Shep clip even more rare, and valuable. I hope you enjoy it.

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The Bootleg Circus

circus030The circus was coming to town. Some bootleg circus. I was only seven years old but I could spot a bootleg circus. A bootleg circus tries to fool you with names that sound vaguely like “Ringling Bros.” A bootleg circus sets up in the rocky, swampy field across the street from your future high school, behind the lot where the town kept its busted school buses and surplus road salt.

My dad was excited about the bootleg circus, way more than he was for most anything. He did not often express enthusiasm for anything. Especially not for something as corny as the circus. His default expressions stayed within the narrow range between sputtering anger and sarcasm. Even the things he liked were approached without much visible delight, with an unspoken acknowledgment that said I have seen this a million times before.

However, my dad would periodically latch onto something and decide we must do/see/hear it as a family. Every six months or so he’d declare I feel like having a steak. Whereupon we’d find ourselves at Loughran’s, an Irish pub like every other Irish pub you’ve ever seen except that it had prime rib and it was a 5 minute drive away. Once that desire was sated, he’d revert to his usual smirking ways until another six months had passed and the prime rib bug bit him again.

So it was with this bootleg circus. He proclaimed he wanted to see it, so we would. His level of excitement for such earnest entertainment was remarkable in itself. What made it even crazier was his enthusiasm was inspired by the bootleg circus’s featured performer: Tiny Tim.

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Seizures

As the subway doors unlatch, someone shoves me in the back, hard. This is more than the usual L train jostle. It is especially aggressive even for the Union Square stop, where the “I’m ignoring your humanity to make my commute slightly easier” brush-by is standard operating procedure. This move must have sinister purpose behind it, I assume. And so I pivot from my 7:30 am perch on the overhead bar and turn to face my aggressor. I have nothing planned other than a dirty look. I do this all the time even though it’s a move with no upside whatsoever. At best, I will get to see the face of someone who regards me as little more than an insect. At worst, I will find myself in a fistfight.

When I turn, I see the man who shoved me. Shaved head, black windbreaker scuffed with sheetrock dust and eggshell paint. He has the lumbering gait of a drunk launching himself from one parking meter to the next on the long walk home. He may very well be drunk, for all I can tell. This wouldn’t be the first guy I’ve seen stewed to the gills at this early hour on the subway. Then he careens into a woman much smaller than him, his shoulder stooping to her height. It doesn’t look intentional. He’s fighting something, and losing. His knees buckle beneath him, and his head begins to twitch and jerk.

“He’s having a seizure!” a woman yells. It sounds like dialogue from a script that doesn’t trust its director to explain things visually. I almost laugh, and yet I understand the urge to yell out something the second it hits your brain at a weird moment like this one. The crowd parts around the man, and the sudden lack of bodies speeds his descent. However, he has enough control of his facilities to lower himself, first sitting, then prone as he continues to shake.

The train remains paused. Not to address the man’s condition, but to let out the large crowd of people who depart at Union Square. Some of those who remain stare, while others look away, embarrassed. No one is quite sure what to do. We’re all spooked, myself included. But I’m spooked for a different reason. This all feels too familiar to me.

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Jean Shepherd: Strange Tales of New York

shep2I have often waxed at great length about my love of Jean Shepherd’s radio show, here and elsewhere. I’ve written about and shared many kinds of programs of his over the years: nostalgic, anti-nostalgic, childhood tales, army tales, philosophical meanderings, and various combinations of the above.

Another thing he did well on his shows—something I haven’t really touched on before—is his ability to convey a mood of eeriness, of creeping, unnameable terror. Around Halloween, he loved to dedicate shows to stories about the Jersey Devil (and occasionally its lesser known cousin, the Kentucky Devil). He did many other shows about the pull of the supernatural and the fear of ghosts. But more often, he would talk about the terror of the everyday, the weird, creepy things happening right under our noses.

For no good reason at all, I want to share one such show, which aired on April 14, 1970. It starts with Shep sharing a bone-chilling news story from New Orleans, where creepy things tend to happen with some regularity. But then he shifts into a tale from the days when he first moved to New York, and his somewhat desperate attempts to find friendship in a city that can make newcomers feel crushingly alone. The story starts out amusing, involving wild parties, random encounters, and lapsed drunken monks (really), but it quickly deteriorates into a sad and chilling arena. Shep closes out the show with another story, this one about helping a friend investigate an apartment he’s interested in renting. Finding a place to live in New York is terrifying enough, but this story goes beyond even the usual level of terror and into a special, weird place.

Though Shep’s stories in this show refer to things that happened in the 1950s and 1960s, there’s something eternally New York about these stories, a very New York brand of loneliness and sadness and squalor that few people wrote about then and even fewer write about now. I found it genuinely unnerving to listen to because it all felt so real to me, and I find it amazing he was able to convey this feeling with only his voice (although a creepy Stockhausen composition helped, I suppose).

Enjoy (if that’s the word). Just don’t listen to it with the lights off.

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Your Future in Pictures

This is a picture from my grandparents’ wedding.

wedding

In the middle, you see the happy couple. To the left, my grandfather’s family, the Leykamms. Most German last names have literal meanings, but I’ve never been able to determine what “Leykamm” means, if anything. What I can tell you, and what you can surely see, is that the Leykamms are having a blast.

The woman you see in mid-uproarious laugh is my great grandmother. When I was little, she used to steal my blanket and hide it, usually by sitting on it, because “you don’t need that thing.” She found this very funny, mostly because Little Kid Me didn’t think it was funny at all. She would eventually give it back, with the admonition that I “should learn take a joke.” That may seem cruel, but looking back on Little Kid Me, I know I was an uptight kid, too uptight for my own good. She thought she was doing me a favor.

My mom describes the Leykamms as “beer garden people.” Fun loving types. My grandfather’s father bartended at a local joint, the Eagle’s Nest, on the weekends. That wasn’t his regular gig; I think he did it partly for extra dough, but mostly for kicks. My grandfather used to say of his parents, “they never left us at home.” In other words, when they went out for a good time, they took the kids with them. Fun was a family affair.

On the right, you’ll see my grandmother’s parents, the Bauerleins. Bauerlein means “little farmer” in German. The Bauerleins appear very different from the Leykamms. They look a lot like little farmers, actually. Stoic. A bit uncomfortable indoors. Though they are smiling, it seems rather forced, almost through gritted teeth. My great grandfather’s suit looks old fashioned, even for the era. It’s closer to The Jazz Age than The Swing Era.

My great grandmother looks like it’s taking all her strength to smile. She had a tough life. Nowadays, someone like her would be treated for clinical depression. In those days, you were told you suffered from “nerves” and would also be told to just deal with it (especially if you were a woman).

My grandmother was a very loving, nurturing person, but there was an edge to her. Her favorite phrase was this too shall pass. She loved to ask you how much you paid for something so she could be annoyed by the answer. She had this syllable she would frequently intone–if I had to spell it out, I’d choose uy, though that’s a poor approximation. Basically, uy meant, Here we go again. Whenever she said something a little harsh or mean, my grandfather would say it was her Bauerlein coming out.

To be fair, there are extenuating circumstances to this scene. You’ll notice my grandfather is wearing an army uniform. He was on leave and would ship out overseas soon after this wedding. I know he made it home in one piece, but no one in this picture could know that. For all the Bauerleins knew, their daughter might soon be a widow. I’d have to think that has at least a little bearing on their expressions.

Then again, the Leykamms had to be just as concerned for their son, but you don’t see that on their faces. These were just two different kinds of people. The Leykamms couldn’t help but have a good time, no matter what. The Bauerleins couldn’t help but worry about what might happen down the road.

I’ve always felt within me this war between two impulses: the desire to laugh and crack wise and have a great time, and the tug of worry. I’ve never really been able to narrow down what I do and choose one thing in which to specialize. One minute, I’m writing something dumb and silly, the next I’m getting angry about the world or wondering what the hell will happen next. Whenever I’ve pushed one aspect of myself down, it just pops up, bigger and angrier, in another spot. At times I’ve thought this was a bold choice on my part, an unwillingness to be pinned down, man.

And then I look at this picture, and I think that maybe this wasn’t a choice at all. Maybe I had to be this way. And it’s not even due to my own upbringing, but the meeting of two people well over 60 years ago.

All of us like to think that we’re our own people, that we define our universes and chart our own courses. In reality, so much of what we are was set in motion decades before we were born through the union of two people, the clash of two viewpoints, the mingling of two sets of DNA.

The difference, then, is what you do with your raw materials in those tiny spaces that are only yours.

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 Flicklives.com 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.

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