Jean Shepherd's "Dead Sea Tapes"
Eugene Bergman, who is working on a book about Jean Shepherd, e-mailed me asking to resurrect an ancient (1973) recording in my collection of Shepherd tapes that meditates on the topics of obsolescence and decline in the West.
The reason that Bergman was interested was to substantiate Shepherd's bona fide interest in technology history, an aspect of the man which is often overlooked. The fact that the author of A Christmas Story was a philosopher and media prophet is less well-known than it should be.
I did my part today, digitizing the old reel-to-reel tapes into MP3 format and uploading them to the Web. The theme of these recordings, which I have dubbed the "Dead Sea Tapes", is how machines fade, and how future civilizations will likely find our own times completely opaque because they will have long forgotten how to use these machines, upon which our trusted collective memories are placed. This monologue takes skillful aim at many over-hyped fads and trends of the 1960's, including "The Now People", "The Flower People", and "The Swingers", but it's not dated, in fact, in our own age of raging obsolescence, it's more current than ever.
Jean Shepherd was a contemporary of The Beats known for pioneering media-jamming experiments (Shepherd invented the "mob-in" and wrote a phony book that "gamed" the NY "book reviewer mafia" in the late 1950's. One of his more famous on-radio stunts inspired the fictional Howard Beale's "Mad as Hell and I'm Not Going to Take it Anymore" antics in Paddy Chayefsky's 1976 film, Network, he was also the uncredited inspiration for the central character in Herb Gardner's A Thousand Clowns). Although Shepherd never claimed to have invented the concept of Dead Media, I would place him as one of this movement's unconsciously prescient forebearers.
Jean Shepherd took the long view of things in a way that he acknowledged often had a "considerable irritant quotient" for Americans viewing themselves as magically immune from the laws of history. He died in 1998, but will be long remembered by people who cannot easily forget the past.
The files can be downloaded by clicking on the following links:
For those interested in wire recorders - a technology referenced in The Dead Sea tapes, an excellent site called "The History of Sound Recording" provides insight into this lost breed of machine. For more information on Shep, go to flicklives.com - the essential Shepherd Studies site.