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[personal profile] alexpgp
Occasionally, something small triggers a synapse, which nudges a dim memory, which elbows a nagging recollection, and the next thing you know, you're on the Internet chasing an unscratched itch with a Louisville Slugger. With me, it started as a snippet from a poem I'd heard on the radio a generation ago. Eventually, Google yielded the name of the poem, The Ballad of Yukon Jake, and then I did a search on Jean Shepherd, whose voice recited those lines to me from a radio speaker when I was young. I learned he died in October 1999, just a little over a decade ago.

I imagine many of you may be asking, "Jean...who?" That's right. Go ahead. Make me feel old.

Who was Jean Shepherd? Well, “Shep” was a rare talent who observed the world, extracted the silliness, pretension, humor and absurdity, distilled it down to "white lightning" strength, and then administered it in liberal doses that left you rolling on the floor, laughing yourself blue.

My first encounter with Shep was purely accidental. About a week after my fifteenth birthday, I was under the covers in my bedroom, in the dark, surreptitiously listening to my new, 8-transistor AM pocket radio. This was strictly against my parents’ rules, but I figured, hey, it was Saturday night, and if God hadn’t intended for me to use the earphone, the radio wouldn’t have come with one.

I was blindly tuning around for something that sounded interesting when BOOM! I tuned in a signal that nearly blew out my eardrum.

It was some guy, holding forth in front of an audience. He called them “fellow sufferers” and referred to us radio listeners as “wretched reprobates,” and for a moment, I thought I’d picked up a come-to-God broadcast from someplace in the boonies – a neat trick from Queens, New York – but there was too much laughter in his voice. I took my thumb off the dial.

The speaker was spinning a tale involving him and some buddies named Schwartz and Flick, and the audience kept howling with merriment, and I could tell the storyteller was laughing, too. Pretty soon, so was I (and, under the circumstances, trying to do so quietly).

And so began my time as a Shepherd fan. I wasn't a dyed-in-the-wool kind of fanatic, but I always managed to listen once or twice a week. I recall that on weekdays, Shepherd broadcast his show from the WOR studio between 10 and 11 pm, and on Saturday nights, he'd do a show from 9 pm to midnight at a club called The Limelight in Greenwich Village.

Then again, come to think of it, maybe I was something of a fanatic. Looking at my high school yearbook, I note that, among the standard mix of Biblical and other high-falutin' quotes selected by the members of my graduating class to set off our respective mug shots, I was the one who proclaimed The king is dead! Long live Jean Shepherd!

After acquiring a tape recorder, I captured a number of Shep’s broadcasts, and I listened to some of them so many times that I ended up memorizing – by osmosis, apparently - poems such as The Shooting of Dan McGrew and The Pines, by Robert W. Service.

Then there was the, um, minor scam I pulled in freshman year at college at the student newspaper office, pitching my attendance at a Shepherd press conference at Town Hall in Manhattan as newsworthy, but really with only one thought in mind: to obtain press credentials to see Shep in person, up close and personal. (It didn't quite turn out that way. I got into the press conference, just barely, together with about every journalism major within 200 miles of Central Park. All of us stuffed a small room to hear Shepherd hold forth on I’ve-long-forgotten-what and to lead us, at the end of the event, in his trademark cry of “Excelsior!”)

Shepherd did talk radio way before talk radio was cool, at a time when radio personalities relied on their own talent and imagination and not telephones to fill the air time. Shepherd was an artist, a raconteur, and in his own way, a rabble-rouser.

One story from before my discovery of Shep was his I, Libertine hoax, in which he asked his late-night listeners – whom he christened “the night people” (as distinguished from those who went about their mundane lives engaged in what Shep called “creeping meatballism”) - to go into bookstores the following day to ask for a book titled I, Libertine. The gimmick? No such book existed.

“The first couple of times,” said Shep, “the response is going to be ‘I, Libertine? Never heard of it.’ By mid-day, you'll hear ’Sorry, we just sold the last copy!’ By late afternoon, they’ll be saying ‘It’s back-ordered!’” Would I, Libertine make the best-seller list? Who could tell? Shep’s practical joke took on a life of its own.

Rumors cropped up suggesting the book had been banned in Boston. Listeners wrote in, saying they had dared to submit term papers on the book, and had received respectable grades in return (including the occasional "deep" comment about the book from a prof). Eventually, a publisher hired Theodore Sturgeon to write the book based on Shep’s outline, and I, Libertine actually went on to become a short-lived bestseller.

Besides his radio work, Shep wrote books and articles, and later produced a PBS series called Jean Shepherd's America. But I think what he will always be remembered for is his movie-length tale of A Christmas Story, light-heartedly relating the Yuletide tribulations of a boy named Ralphie in Depression-era Indiana. No doubt you’ve seen it, as it’s a classic offering on the tube during this time of the year.

As with perhaps too many things in my life, I moved on from Shep to other things without too many thoughts or backward glances. I was saddened to learn of his death. Sad, too, to know he missed one of the finer opportunities in recent memory to snicker at society's foibles when the year changed from 1999 to 2000. He would have had a lot of fun with that, I think.

Then again, we might not have survived the laughter.

Excelsior!

Date: 2009-12-18 12:11 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] mallorys-camera.livejournal.com
Love, love, love Jean Shepard. NPR did a series about his radio work not so very long ago (last summer?) It might be in their archives.

Date: 2009-12-19 01:54 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] alexpgp.livejournal.com
I'll have to check that out, thanks!

I found two of my old reel-to-reel Shepherd tapes not long ago (at least, I think they're Shepherd tapes). But nobody around seems to have the equipment to play them any more!

Cheers...

Date: 2009-12-18 04:16 pm (UTC)
shadowwolf13: (Default)
From: [personal profile] shadowwolf13
He sounds like a really talented man! I'll have to see if I can find some old recordings and listen to them. :)

Date: 2009-12-19 01:55 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] alexpgp.livejournal.com
There used to be a bunch of them on the web. WBAI used to play old Shepherd shows (I don't know if they still do).

Cheers...

Date: 2009-12-18 06:12 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] supremegoddess1.livejournal.com
I love the way you tell tales.

Date: 2009-12-19 01:56 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] alexpgp.livejournal.com
Thank you!

Cheers...

Date: 2009-12-18 09:36 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] alycewilson.livejournal.com
Not to make you feel old, but my dad loves Jean Shepherd, too. I loved following along with you on your journey. It reminds me of the many happy hours I spent listening to the Dr. Demento program in high school, as well as my days of college journalism.

Date: 2009-12-19 01:56 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] alexpgp.livejournal.com
Glad I could be of service! :)

Thanks for reading!

Cheers...

Date: 2009-12-20 09:52 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] mstrobel.livejournal.com
Dittoing shadowwolf13, I want to hunt down and listen too now! This was heaps of fun to read :D The I, Libertine hoax is pure genius.

Date: 2009-12-21 03:52 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] alexpgp.livejournal.com
There's a surprising amount of Shepherd material on the web, and WBAI broadcasts a show (called "Mass Backwards") that regularly features Shep.

Thanks for reading!

Cheers...

Date: 2009-12-20 11:41 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] cacophonesque.livejournal.com
What a fun tale! I loved how you told this... and it made me feel like there really aren't these sorts of characters around so much in popular culture anymore.

Date: 2009-12-21 03:54 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] alexpgp.livejournal.com
Thanks for the compliment! I must say, though, I hadn't intended to convey that feeling (though I think you're right). In any event, Shep was one-of-a-kind.

Cheers...

Date: 2009-12-20 11:45 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] norda.livejournal.com
Thanks for sharing this. I'd never quite appreciated Jean Shepherd in my youth.

Date: 2009-12-21 03:54 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] alexpgp.livejournal.com
Thanks for reading!

Cheers...

Date: 2009-12-21 02:47 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] joeymichaels.livejournal.com
I have to give you bonus points here. Not only did you write an excellent response to the prompt, you made this seasonal by giving a shout out to the writer, narrator and inspiration for the main character of one of the most beloved of all Christmas movies. I wonder how many people watch this movie every year and have no idea that its Jean Shepherd narrating - or that the story is semi-autobiographical?

Date: 2009-12-21 04:02 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] alexpgp.livejournal.com
Well, to be frank, the movie link was serendipitous (as was, frankly, the birthday link), but they did occur to me in writing the essay.

The aural memory of that night, listening to Shep hold court at The Limelight hit my cortex about 300 milliseconds after seeing the word "reprobate," because it's the only time I think I've ever heard the word used (at least, in a way that I'd remember).

Thanks for reading (and for the bonus points!).

Cheers...

Date: 2009-12-21 03:43 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] karmasoup.livejournal.com
A much more Brautigan-esque style of Lake Woebegone's Garrison Keillor. A little less midwestern, a little more punchy, and sounds like a blast! I'll have to look up some of his stuff... the literary hoax is hysterical, and did you know you can get a copy on Amazon for only $179.98 (http://www.amazon.com/I-Libertine-Jean-Shepherd/dp/B0006AUOHS)?

Thanks for sharing this!

Date: 2009-12-21 04:04 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] alexpgp.livejournal.com
I didn't know that!

Keillor has his moments, in my opinion, but I generally agree with your assessment.

Thanks for the comment!

Cheers...

Date: 2009-12-22 12:00 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] geordielass.livejournal.com
I'm thinking I need to check out Jean Shepard. :)

Date: 2009-12-22 06:54 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] alexpgp.livejournal.com
I think you'll be pleasantly surprised.

Thanks for reading!

Cheers...

Date: 2009-12-22 07:05 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] lostin-thestars.livejournal.com
This was awesome!

Both of my little brothers played Ralphie, 4 yrs apart in our local production of the Christmas Story.

Date: 2009-12-22 07:26 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] alexpgp.livejournal.com
Thanks! (Great userpic!)

Cheers...

Date: 2009-12-23 01:46 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] walkertxkitty.livejournal.com
I knew who Jean Shepherd was; when my dad was in the military those were the only types of programs which AFN would broadcast. I really enjoyed his unique brand of humor and wish I cold find some of the recordings myself. Good writing!

Date: 2009-12-24 02:00 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] alexpgp.livejournal.com
Thanks! It's interesting you mention Shep on AFN, because his material was by and large always somewhat mocking of authority and the status quo (his "creeping meatballism" was a good example), and occasionally swerved over into subversive (apolitical, but subversive nonetheless) territory.

Cheers...

Date: 2009-12-25 12:57 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] walkertxkitty.livejournal.com
Well, that was quite a few years ago. Now they probably wouldn't broadcast it but back then they were pretty liberal with the programming. Things like "The Shadow" and Shep were sandwiched in between informational programs on how to clean an M-16 or avoid STDs.

Date: 2009-12-23 08:18 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] baxaphobia.livejournal.com
Wow! I haven't thought of Gene shepherd in years! I listened to him with the same type of earphone on probably a similar transistor radio! hahah. Kindred spirits we!

Date: 2009-12-24 02:04 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] alexpgp.livejournal.com
That we are! Thanks for reading!

Cheers...

P.S. I hesitate to mention this, but as I understand a text-to-speech routine is part of your computer "interface," Shep's first name is spelled J-E-A-N. (I should write a book titled I, Nitpicker.)

Date: 2009-12-23 11:16 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] imafarmgirl.livejournal.com
Definotly before my time, but I can certainly understand looking forward to something every week.

Date: 2009-12-24 02:05 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] alexpgp.livejournal.com
Thanks for reading!

Cheers...

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