Tag Archives: jean shepherd

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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Jean Shepherd and the Dayak Curse

shep2On April 6, 1966, Jean Shepherd began his radio show by warning listeners that they were about to take part in an experiment of great scientific import in conjunction with a major university. It would be a potentially dangerous experiment, so if any listeners wanted out, they should switch to another radio station immediately.

As soon as his theme song was over, he played a recording of a flute. It sounded like a field recording. You could hear crickets chirping in the background. Once the music ended, Shep told his listeners this was an ancient, mystical flute played by the Dayak tribe of Borneo. This flute was intended to be used only in battle, as it had magical properties that would kill any male under the age of 18. Since the flute’s effects took 72 hours to fully take hold, he encouraged any teenage listeners to send their name to WOR on an index card with the word CURSES written on it, so that the university conducting this experiment could monitor their health.

It’s easy to say, in our more sophisticated age, that this was obviously a hoax. People were considerably more gullible back in 1966, particularly in regard to any sort of media. As you listen to this show, notice that Shep (who was not above laughing at his own jokes) does not crack in the least. He delivers all the details soberly and in as straightfaced a manner as he can. I can only imagine what kind of panic Shep’s “experiment” could have caused, or how many complaints it must have drawn to his radio station. Broadcasters don’t do things like this now, and they certainly didn’t do them in 1966.

Shep performed variations on the Dayak Curse “experiment” several times before and after this one, but the example from 1966 is by far the best version and the best recording. It’s also one of the best examples of exactly what he used to do on the radio. And though Shep rarely took calls on the air, he did so in this show to talk to young listeners, who invariably tell him they “feel kinda funny” in adorably thick Queens/Bronx accents.

If you stick with the whole show, you’ll hear Shep use a few news items on sea monsters, drunk sailors, and car-hating elephants, topped by ad copy for a tranquilizer disguised as a proto-feminist tract, all to comment on what he called The Human Comedy. You’ll also hear what radio commercials sounded like in 1966 for The New York Times (extremely pretentious) and Miller High Life (extremely brassy).

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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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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.

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

Embracing the Audience of One

Years ago, I worked on a biography of Jean Shepherd, performing research and doing interviews with people who worked with him. As I’ve written on this site many times, Shepherd is one of my artistic heroes, someone whose craft I admire as something uniquely his own which has no real parallel before or since. But the more I delved into his life, the more it seemed he was a damaged, strange man.

It was difficult to find people who knew Shepherd in his heyday and were also willing and able to talk. Many of his contemporaries and friends had died; others, like Jules Feiffer and Paul Krassner, proved difficult to contact. The same went for people I knew or suspected were influenced by him. I was aware Terry Gilliam had been a Shep fan in his youth, and I even had some contact info for the man, since the company I worked for had done a few books about his films. Alas, he did not return my faxes. (Yes, this was a long time ago.) Garrison Keillor wrote me a brief but polite letter in which he stated he grew up in Minnesota and therefore Shepherd–whose primary radio work was done in New York–didn’t really have any influence on him.

One of the few people who’d worked with him whom I was both able to get in touch with and wanted to talk to me was Fred Barzyk, who had produced most of Shepherd’s television work for PBS. At Barzyk’s invite, I was able to go to the WGBH archives in Boston and view some of these shows, most of which have not been seen on TV in decades. This included an odd show where Shep stood on a dock in Boston Harbor and delivered a version of his radio show there directly to the camera, monologuing for half an hour and then abruptly stopping.

Continue reading Embracing the Audience of One

Jean Shepherd, “Christmas Cards”

Last year, I shared a few Christmas-themed Jean Shepherd shows as part of my Holiday Triumphs (the counterpart to my Holiday Horrors). If you don’t know who Jean Shepherd is or my continued obsession with him, check this out. I’ll wait here.

Back with us? So, despite sharing several of his Yuletide stories with you last year, this one eluded me, perhaps because it’s not really a story at all. It’s a show from Christmas Eve, 1964, in which he talks about trends in Christmas cards, comparing ancient cards he has to the cards he received for this holiday. His basic premise, one he often hammered on in his shows: “I submit that you will find more about a public in its attitudes toward its great rites, whatever they might be, than in any amount of pious editorials.”

It’s fascinating to listen to this show from nearly 50 years ago and hear what has changed since then, and how little hasn’t, and to get a glimpse of how Christmas cards reflect each era in which they were produced. If you listen to his descriptions of the Christmas cards he received just prior to this show, you can hear the faint echoes of the cynicism and delusion of the decade to come. Especially as the show closes, when Shepherd relates a very dark conversation he had with a junior high-aged kid about his view of the universe.

As you listen to what this kid says, keep in mind that even The Beatles had barely happened at this point in history. The 1960s weren’t quite yet “The Sixties,” but Shep was adept at recognizing a faint note of something in the air that had eluded everyone else so far. (A straw in the wind, he used to call it.)

It’s one of Shepherd’s more philosophical entries (as opposed to his “I was this kid, see…” tales). The audio picks up mid-show, and the sound quality is not fantastic, but I think you will enjoy it nonetheless. Yes, you. Don’t look at me like that.

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A Thousand Clowns and Shep-Colored Glasses

thousandclowns.jpgIn a recent edition of The Sound of Young America, Jesse Thorn interviewed Barry Gordon, who starred in A Thousand Clowns in its Broadway and Hollywood incarnations (1962 and 1965, respectively) as a young man. The play ran for years in New York, and the film was a big hit that won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Martin Balsam. (It was also nominated for Best Picture, among other categories.)

Nowadays, it’s a fairly obscure film, not in print in any home video format. Its general availability has hovered between “not” and “barely” for the last 30 years or so. Every now and then, you can catch  A Thousand Clowns on Turner Classic Movies, although if you blink you might miss it.

Listening to the interview with Gordon reminded me not only of how much I love this movie, but of how I first heard of this film: My longtime obsession with Jean Shepherd, who himself was obsessed with A Thousand Clowns, though in a not-quite-healthy way.

Some quick background for those in need of it (those who don’t, feel free to skip ahead a paragraph or two) Jean Shepherd is best known for writing and narrating A Christmas Story, but my love of him has more to with his radio show, which aired on WOR in New York from 1955 to 1977. It’s hard to encapsulate exactly what he did on the radio; something in the Venn intersection of improvised monologue, storytelling, and sardonic commentary on the day’s events. It was done completely off the top of his head, with no notes, outlines, or anything. It is better experienced than described, so I’d encourage the curious to check out some of my Shep-related posts, or The Brass Figlagee, a podcast that makes available hundreds of his old shows.

When he came to New York in the mid-1950s, Shepherd had an overnight show that garnered a huge following among jazz artists, writers, and other Night People (a phrase he claimed to have coined, and just may have). By his definition, a Night Person was someone who probably had a day job to get up for in the morning but preferred to stay up into the wee hours, just brooding, because they were “bugged” about some inexplicable something. His monologues were a stab at trying to get at that something.

At that time, among his many pals in the nocturnal, creative set was the future author of A Thousand Clowns, Herb Gardner. They appeared together in a neo-vadevillian revue, Look, Charlie: A Short History of the Pratfall (which also featured another erstwhile Shepherd BFF and fellow Chicagoan, Shel Silverstein). The exact content of the show has been lost to the mists of time, but peep this page from its program, in which both Shepherd and Gardner are listed with their respective credits. (Also, note the illustrations by Silverstein.)

Shepherd used to promote Gardner’s “Nebbishes” cartoons on his WOR show, embellishing the spots (as he often did to those who dared advertise on the program) with his trademark rambling. Shepherd did not have many guests on his show–he preferred to work solo–but Gardner was one of the few, and he came on the program to promote Nebbishes in person. Gardner in turn wrote the liner notes to Shep’s second LP, Will Failure Spoil Jean Shepherd?

Shortly thereafter, the two men had a falling out, and the reason was almost certainly A Thousand Clowns.

Continue reading A Thousand Clowns and Shep-Colored Glasses

Holiday Triumphs: Jean Shepherd, “Earliest Christmas”

Continuing the fabled tradition begun all the way back in 2009, Scratchbomb presents Holiday Horrors and Holiday Triumphs: an advent calendar of some of the more hideous aspects of this most stressful time of year–with a few bits of awesomeness sprinkled in.

Thumbnail image for shep2.GIFOnce again, I present a holiday tale from Jean Shepherd to warm your hackles this Christmas. It is very typical Shep show, which is to say, all over the map and yet one cohesive unit.

In this episode from Christmas Eve 1971, Shep starts out by relating the eerie beauty of seeing power lines go down in a snowstorm. Then, he relates his earliest Christmas memory: seeing an insanely melodramatic adaptation of an extremely melodramatic seasonal poem, “The Bootblack’s Christmas.” He proceeds to recite some more examples of Yuletide melodrama, which he finds both ridiculous and amazing. This was a frequent topic of his: How humanity’s true nature was revealed in what he called Slob Art, the kind of junk that ordinary folks like. He was saying this literally decades before pop culture was seriously studied by anyone.

The show closes with a tale from Shep’s army days, when he got a two-day pass and hitchhiked from his base in New Jersey to visit Manhattan for the first time. There, he took in the wartime phenomenon called The Stagedoor Canteen, resulting in a chance encounter with a volunteer waiter who would go on to fame and fortune years later.

Mixed in, you’ll hear Shep do some holiday-related commercials, including a flying bird toy that used to advertise frequently on his show, and appeals from charity. He also shills for his own recently released album, The Declassified Jean Shepherd.

I snagged a copy of this album up years ago when I saw a copy in the used LPs section at the Amoeba Records in Berkeley (the only good memory of my sole trip to California thus far, a tale for another time), and it is an odd artifact. It’s comprised of clips from his radio show and a live performance at Carnegie Hall (which I’m pretty sure both of my parents attended), intercut with odd snippets of very early 70s rock music. A strange choice, since Shep was resolutely anti-rock. He was more at home with jazz; check out Charles Mingus’s “The Clown” to hear him collaborate with the legendary bassist/bandleader on an improvised spoken word piece that is amazingly prescient (and creepy) considering it was recorded in 1957.

But I digress. Please enjoy this collection of Chritsmas tales from the master of the monologue.

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Holiday Triumphs: Jean Shepherd, “Christmas Gifts”

Continuing the fabled tradition begun all the way back in 2009, Scratchbomb presents Holiday Horrors and Holiday Triumphs: an advent calendar of some of the more hideous aspects of this most stressful time of year–with a few bits of awesomeness sprinkled in.

Thumbnail image for shep2.GIFHere is another bit of holiday cheer from Jean Shepherd, who knew a thing or two about this subject. I usually don’t like to post excerpts of his shows, because I think they are high art and should be enjoyed as a whole. You wouldn’t hang up just one square inch of a Monet, would you?

However, if you don’t have the time to listen to an entire 45-minute program, you might enjoy this clip from his December 13, 1965 show. In it, Shep reads descriptions of board games on sale at the time and being pitched as excellent Christmas gifts for kids. Most of them are insanely violent, in a way that is virtually inconceivable now (at least in ads for things aimed at children). There is also an ad for a proto-fantasy baseball game that sounds like it was way ahead of its time.

Shep recites the ad copy almost verbatim, with a few wry asides, and like a true artist, he makes these words his own. Enjoy.

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