Shep (big)

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.┬áHe 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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woodyallen

What The Woody Allen Scandal Means For Me, A Very Important Writer

Surely no one wished to be in Woody Allen’s shoes when Dylan Farrow’s new accusations came to light earlier this week. But I assure you, gentle reader, neither did you wish to be me, a Very Important Writer, at that moment. For the news sent me into the kind of turgid self-examination and moral reassessment known only to Very Important Writers, the men to whom the world looks for guidance.

As you are no doubt wondering, how does an allegation of pedophilia make me, a Very Important Writer, feel? As shocking as it may sound to you, this is not a question I could answer immediately.

Foremost on my mind when hearing of Dylan Farrow’s tale of unconscionable sexual abuse and violation of trust was, of course, how would I enjoy Woody Allen’s films again? Could I restrict my enjoyment to one viewing of Annie Hall while sitting on an uncomfortable chair as penance? Would it be more prudent of me to watch his more difficult films such as Interiors instead? It was a quandary not to be considered lightly, and a burden that only I, a Very Important Writer, should be asked to bear.

You can be sure that when I, a Very Important Writer, heard this news, it caused me to pace about my brownstone, lost in the recesses of my Very Important Thoughts. The walls of my humble $3.5 million home soon grew too confining. I phoned up a Very Important Writer friend of mine, but he was busy preparing for the Bread Loaf Conference, and of course also preoccupied pondering the same questions about Woody Allen’s work as I. Could we ever enjoy Allen’s films again, he wondered, and if so what would be a respectable time to wait to do so? We reassured each other that we, two Very Important Writers, should be able to solve these dilemmas in our own due time.

Hoping to clear my head, I took a stroll around my colorful Brooklyn neighborhood, peering in the window of the antique shops and the coffee shops and the charming bistro that used to be a laundromat. I stopped at my favorite watering hole and sipped a 12-year-old scotch while exchanging pleasantries about a local sports team with the ruddy-faced barkeep. I sought solace in a delightful ethnic snack from a food cart while trying out snatches of Catalan I learned during one torrid summer in Barcelona. I believe I made myself understood, for all the deficiencies in my accent, and the considerable drawback that the delightful ethnic snack’s vendor was not from anywhere near Catalonia.

And as I ran across these people, I tried not to burden them with my own burden. To do so would have been unfair, for it is a burden they could not possibly have understood, no matter how much my soul yearned to cry out, You do not understand the grief Dylan Farrow’s lost childhood has caused me, a Very Important Writer.

I returned to my home, which began to seem very much like a prison to me. A prison with an ample garden and vintage pressed tin ceilings, but a prison nonetheless. The latest issue of The New Yorker was waiting in my mailbox, but it gave me no succor, despite a fascinating feature on the oldest bookbinder in Northampton. Nor did I find any relief in a sojourn through an advance reader’s copy of Franzen’s latest, The Tepids of Winona.

Alas, it is only in work that a Very Important Writer can find peace. We are much like the ant in that sense, or the miner, or the humble mechanic who toils on my Audi. And so I resolved to document my inner turmoil, because I wanted you, gentle reader, to know that even I, a Very Important Writer, can not answer every question. I must press forward nonetheless, though I can think of no person who has been hurt more by what Dylan Farrow was subjected to than I, a Very Important Writer.

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Greene Avenue, 1930

My grampa isn’t my grampa yet, so let’s call him Frank. Frank lives in Brooklyn or Queens, depending on what year it is. He doesn’t change his address, but the borough containing that address changes with the whims of city surveyors.

The subway is a recent addition to his neighborhood. The place is rapidly urbanizing, but there are still some signs of its small town past, like farms. A few small farms lie nearby, some only a few blocks away.

Thanksgiving is on the horizon, and Frank’s dad wants to take advantage of this proximity. He knows a farmer close by with more turkeys than he knows what to do with. Rather than drop way too much dough on a bird from the butcher, Frank’s dad figures he can buy one of these young turkeys, raise it in his backyard, and get it nice and fat in time for the big holiday. He doesn’t have a very big backyard, but how much room does a turkey need, really? All they do is eat and sleep. He’s seen neighbors raise chickens and roosters in their backyards. A turkey can’t be any harder.

This calculation doesn’t take into account Frank, and his sister Kathy. Once the turkey comes home and takes up residence in the backyard, they look upon it not as a future meal, but a pet. Frank and Kathy bring it scraps from the dinner table. They pet it and play with it, even though the concept of “play” seems too complex for a turkey to grasp. They name him Tom.

This presents a dilemma for Frank’s dad. He knows the kids are attached to the turkey and don’t want to see it slaughtered. He is inclined by nature to make them happy. He is not the whip-cracking type of dad, but a sentimental sort, a lover of pranks, a story teller. He ushers at St. Aloysius on Sundays, then goes from church straight to The Eagle’s Nest to bartend and exchange jokes.

Frank’s dad is also a Great War veteran. He served in France to display his patriotism at a time when the propaganda of the age said the True Americanism of anyone of German descent was suspect, a time. And it is 1930, which means Frank’s dad is a dad at the beginning of the Great Depression. He cannot afford to simply throw away food, even food whose name is Tom.

So despite his fun-loving, accommodating nature, Frank’s dad takes the turkey, chops its head off, plucks it, and hands the carcass off to Frank’s mom, who will cook it.

If the idea behind killing the bird was to not waste food, this proves poor reasoning. Frank’s mom and dad eat, but Frank and Kathy do not. They sit in their seats at the dinner table and stare at pieces of what was once their pet and burst out crying, wailing “oh, Tom…” Frank’s dad sees no point in berating his children, but reminds them that this is all the food they have. They can eat this on Thanksgivng or eat nothing. They choose nothing.

Frank will become my grampa and he will tell me this story, and in his telling it will be a funny story. He will imitate his young self crying over a turkey and laugh at the memory. He will have gone to war in a strange land, just like his father, and will come home in one piece and have to raise children on a tight budget, like his father. In his rearview, the plight of a turkey will come to seem like small potatoes.

You could call this cold or cruel, but I know my grampa was not a cold or cruel man. Just the opposite, just like his own father. Grampa just knew that parenting requires difficult decisions, and in a no-win situation, perhaps laughter is called for.

I believe that today of all days, if you can use your childhood pain not for brooding, but for laughing, then you should be thankful.

Letterman 10

Late Night 10th Anniversary Special, 1992

Last year, David Letterman “celebrated” 30 years as a late night talk show host. “Celebrated” gets quotation marks because he didn’t mark the occasion at all, really. Even this year, when Letterman entered his 20th year of hosting The Late Show on CBS, the milestone was barely noted at all. Bill Murray (first guest on Letterman’s NBC and CBS shows) made an appearance as Liberace for some reason, but that was Letterman’s only concession to the date. He apparently loathes anniversary specials and is now at a place, career-wise, where he doesn’t have to do anything he doesn’t want to do. Like work on Fridays, or answer questions about not wanting to do an anniversary special. (This Times article on Letterman’s 30th year in late night features zero quotes from the man himself.)

That’s a shame, because it was an anniversary special that first exposed me to David Letterman as a young lad. I assume so, anyway. As a kid, I never would have been allowed to stay up late enough to see Late Night as it aired. I had no real chance to see any of Letterman’s genius until I caught a prime time anniversary special full of clips. When I saw Letterman crushing things with a pneumatic press and throwing things off a five-story building, I thought to myself, in my own little kid way, “This is what TV was made for.”

Whilst scouring my VHS archives recently, I found a tape containing the Late Night 10th Anniversary Special, which aired February 6, 1992. This is a unique artifact for many reasons. Johnny Carson’s retirement was imminent and Letterman had already been officially passed over as his replacement. This, plus a decade of accumulated slights by NBC and parent company GE, made it abundantly clear he would leave the network when his contract expired in 1993.

Previous anniversary specials were more befitting Late Night’s weird, almost community access sensibility. Take, for example, the fourth anniversary special from 1986, wherein Dave, Paul Shaffer’s band, and a crew of technicians conduct the show from the cabin of a 747 flying from Miami to New York. Not a flight they’ve chartered, but a scheduled flight, full of confused, oblivious passengers who find themselves the unwitting audience (and occasionally, victims) of this program.

Then, take a look at the 10th anniversary special below, filmed at Radio City Music Hall with Rockettes, an all-star band, and huge studio audience. It’s almost an audition for the spiffier, toned-down show he’d soon do at 11:30.

Letterman killed The Talk Show Host by creating a talk show in which the host very obviously thought the very idea of a talk show was bullshit. It is strange to see him in this 10th anniversary special, attempting to undo that killing, in his own way. He even seems genuine when thanking the audience for waiting on line to get inside.

For all of the Picture Day propriety, though, there is still plenty of weirdness on display. Observe the studio audience and note that it is packed to the gills with mooks. From the outfits worn and the reactions hooted, you’d think it was Howard Stern on stage. I swear I spotted at least three dudes in Boomer Esiason jerseys. This serves as a reminder that during their respective 1980s heydays, Letterman and Stern were often spoken of in the same breath, comedy-wise, as being (each in their own way) purveyors of edgy, take-no-prisoners laffs.

You will also see a brief appearance by Bill Murray, Letterman’s first ever guest and kindred spirit in practicing the fine art of fake sincerity. Live Stupid Pet Tricks make an appearance as well, but the real treat here is to see the clips from old shows and be reminded of just how strange Late Night was. Try not to think about how, because of Letterman’s acrimonious split from NBC, we’ll probably never see these clips outside of YouTube again. (And while you’re at it, try not to think about how we’ll never see Conan O’Brien’s greatest stuff for the same reason.)

In the final half hour, we receive another reminder of how many amazing bands Letterman had on his show, bands that never would have appeared on The Tonight Show, or anywhere else on TV at the time, for that matter.

This leads into a special live rendition of “Like A Rolling Stone” by Bob Dylan, backed by a band with an insane assemblage of musicians. I remember watching this as a kid and cringing because I hated Bob Dylan. Now I watch it and…I still kinda cringe. I’ve tried with Dylan, I really have, but me and him are never gonna happen. Since he’s the most influential songwriter of his age, I’m willing to concede the problem lies entirely with me, not him. I blame the abundance of harmonica in his tunes. I’ve reached the point in my life where I actually enjoy some of his songs, but once the harmonica kicks in, I check out. No harmonica here, but Dylan’s voice, ew boy…I think I’d take creepy Victoria’s Secret Dylan over this.

And as always, for you weirdos who like commercials, here’s a collection of ads that aired during this broadcast. Featuring: The hilariously failed Reebok “Dan & Dave” campaign, an NBC-4 News “special report” on “Sex & Sports,” a promo for a Matlock movie where he visits “a town that makes its money on murder!”, and a slew of rock-stupid Budweiser spots.

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26th Street, 1996

Thanksgiving looms, but the weather refuses to get cold. The temperatures dipped little by little from August heat to a mild October chill, then stayed there. I find this unsettling.

This school year has found many ways to be strange to me. NYU is in the midst of a housing crunch. Dorms near “campus” are needed for incoming freshmen and upperclassmen. That means sophomores like myself get the shaft. Most of my friends were placed at a brand new dorm on Broome Street, far away from classes but at the interesting nexus of Chinatown, Little Italy, and Soho. (At this time, Soho is still vaguely interesting. Hard to believe now, I know.)

I did not land in Broome Street. I landed in 26th Street. This dorm was originally intended for the exclusive use of NYU’s dental students. Out of necessity, it has been drafted into the plan for dealing with the overflow of non-dental students. This arrangement that pleases no one.

The dental dorm is a charmless Brutalist slab near First Avenue, a few short steps from Bellevue, New York’s biggest and oldest public hospital. This proximity makes for some lively nearby foot traffic, particularly in the wee hours on the weekends. And Bellevue is not my only interesting neighbor. One day I come home from classes, turn on the news, and see Ti-Hua Chang (the victim of all of NBC-4 News’ thankless tasks) reporting on an incident at a methadone clinic down the block on Second Avenue. I had no idea there was a methadone clinic nearby, because methadone clinics rarely put up shingles outside their front doors. Go one block north and you find the Straus Houses, the last projects on the east side between here and Harlem.

Straus HousesAll my friends get cannolis and dim sum, and I get Manhattan’s last crummy neighborhood. It isn’t a dangerous neighborhood, just crummy. Unscrubbed, down in the mouth, just this side of hopeless. The architecture is so ugly that anyone who lives in it can’t help but feel they’d been dumped here. Everyone I see on the street looks unhappy to be where they are, be they medical student or methadone enthusiast. Even in this disturbingly warm November, it always seems gray here. At least I will only be here for one school year. Others don’t have the luxury of coming and going with the semesters.

Continue reading

120_minutes_nevermind

A Few Minutes with 120 Minutes, 1991

Recently rediscovered within the Vast and Dusty Scratchbomb VHS Archives: A nearly complete episode of 120 Minutes, MTV’s “alternative music” program. This aired December 15, 1991, and provides some insight into what exactly constituted alternative music (at least as far as MTV was concerned) during the waning days of the First Bush administration.

I’ve chopped this up into three pieces to ease playback and preserve some of the flow of the original. The first half hour of the show is missing from my tape, so we pick it up with host Dave Kendall introducing a clip from a live Cure pay-per-view special. I remember more than one friend ordering that special and borrowing the tape from them, then trying to figure out a way to copy it. Never cracked the code before I had to return it.

Though this apisode aired and was presumably taped after Nirvana “broke,” you’ll notice very little Seattle stuff here. Grunge would soon dominate the 120 Minutes playlist, but during this particular episode the videos leaned heavily toward industrial (Ministry, Nitzer Ebb), British shoegaze, and indie rock like Urge Overkill.

If you watched that first video, you heard Mr. Kendall tease a mini-documentary on The Clash, and here it is, narrated by Kurt Loder. There’s some amazing live footage here that I’ve never seen anywhere else, from the band’s early days, their 1982 concert at Shea Stadium, and lots of stuff in between. Also, some interesting testimonials from Joe Strummer, Mick Jones, and Paul Simonon.

And here’s the last half hour of the episode, which contains some curious Christmas music from Hoodoo Gurus and The Wedding Present. Stick around past the end credits to catch an episode of the weird animated omnibus Liquid Television. This show does not seem quite as mind blowing to me as it did back when I was in junior high, but then what does, really?

Finally, if you’re one of those weirdos like me who enjoys watching old commercials, here’s a playlist with ads that aired during this episode, plus a few spots from 1992 I found on the same tape. Highlights include:

  • Promo for MTV’s Best of 1991 programming featuring Cindy Crawford and background music of “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” which is as much 1991 as is legally allowed by law.
  • In the same dated vein, a promo for an issue of People Magazine that promises the lowdown on all the dirt from the set of Hook.
  • Casio Rapmaster keyboard, which looks and sounds exactly like what you think it does.
  • An unsettling Christmas-themed commercial for Playboy.
  • The now-forgotten TurboGrafx 16 gaming console.
  • Weird wrap-around promo for the band The Ocean Blue, which starts with an ad asking you to stick around the real ad.
  • A Super Nintendo commercial featuring a fresh-faced Paul Rudd.
  • Strange ad for Introspect jeans; can’t decide if this is misogynistic or simply dumb.
  • Foot Locker spot featuring Karl Malone’s LA Gear Mailmans, which, yes, was a thing.
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Lower East Side (Mostly), 1996

I’ve written in this space about how when I was in college I used to wander through different neighborhoods in New York City, absorbing all the sights I could. Sadly, I have very little documentary evidence of my trips, unless you count my memory. However, I recently rediscovered a whole pile of old photos I took back then, and included in this pile are some pics from a walk I took through the Lower East Side and the East Village in May 1996. In my head, 1996 seems like yesterday. In reality it’s almost 18 years ago. These pictures make that time seem even longer.

In terms of pure aesthetics, these pictures are not very good. They were taken with a crummy point-and-shoot that had no zoom. This made it very difficult to get the shots I really wanted, because that would have required standing in the middle of traffic. So I’d either have to take very close shots or stand across the street and get wide-angle shots of entire blocks while cars raced in front of me. I usually chose the latter.

Picture quality is further compromised by the fact that all shots were developed at a Genovese on 8th Street. Genovese (one of many NY stores no longer with us) was a drug store that had a photo developing department that employed very few Ansel Adams.

Despite these considerable deficiencies, I want to share these pictures because most of the sights they captured no longer exist. I look at these pictures now and I can remember what the Lower East Side felt like in the mid-90s, when it hadn’t quite become hip, and certainly hadn’t become insanely expensive. If you strolled down Rivington Street on a Sunday afternoon, it wasn’t full of people stumbling their way to brunch. It had an unsettling ancient quiet that was impossible in most of Manhattan. The only sounds you heard were old signs swaying in the breeze and neglected buildings slowly crumbling.

I try not to be one of those insufferable types who longs for a city where “realness” was exemplified by nonstop murder and romantic heroin addictions. However, I look at these pics now, particularly the ones taken on Rivington Street, deep in the heart of what is now the most insanely expensive part of the Lower East Side, and I wonder what happened to the folks who got pushed out by the unstoppable wave of gentrification and development.

One of these pics shows a huge lot on Suffolk Street. You used to see many lots in the area like this, stretches of nothing that were reclaimed by local residents to be ersatz community gardens, junk yards, and flea markets. You can’t quite make it out in the photo, but there was a shack adorned with Puerto Rican flag insignia, whose occupant played a faint salsa soundtrack at all hours. The site is now occupied by a row of very ugly and very expensive condos.

When I took these pictures, the gentrification of the Lower East Side and East Village had already begun in earnest. It was confined to very specific blocks, but a sharp eye could see that it would soon creep everywhere.

Sometimes, you didn’t even need to look very hard. It was right there in front of you. In one photo, a repair shop on West 4th and the Bowery is being converted into the Bowery Bar. The mural on the wall of the building next door is being painted over to mark the occasion, an artsy non sequitur replaced by an enormous advertisement. You can literally see both the working class and bohemia replaced by luxury.

I realize that if you didn’t live in New York back then or don’t live here now, none of this means anything to you. In an effort to display just how much has changed, I’ve paired the old photos with new ones I took recently at the same spots. I did my best to recreate the perspective of the original pics, though in many cases changes in the landscape made precision impossible. And of course, there are the differences in lighting that result from May sky vs. November sky, and the differences in overall look between cheap point-and-shoot and fancy digital camera.

Some sites changed little, synagogues and churches mostly. At St. Patrick’s on Mulberry (the original St. Patrick’s), even the road work sawhorses look the same. Most of these spots have changed, though, enormously. It almost doesn’t matter if that is a good or bad thing, because the change has happened and cannot be unchanged regardless.

While taking the new pictures, I stumbled on a bunch of storefronts that had the look of turn-of-the-20th-century, florid serifed lettering and striped awnings. I thought it was an affectation adopted by boutiques, but then remembered that a TV series was being filmed down here, one set in the early 1900s.

The bustling squalor of that time seems quaint to us now, though life was tough and cheap for the people who lived in the Lower East Side back then. Few shed tears when the residents of the 90s were slowly pushed out for luxury condos and bars. Perhaps one day we’ll see them as picturesque enough to tell their stories. Continue reading

A potentially explosive collection of verbal irritants