Tag Archives: jean shepherd

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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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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.

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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.

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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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