The Lost Jean Shepherd Tapes
If there's anyone to blame for my penchant for digging through vast quantities of electronic garbage in search of some transcendent truth that may or may not be there, blame Jean Shepherd.
Shepherd, who died on October 16th, 1999 was an extraordinarily gifted story-teller, brilliant humorist, and "philosopher of the underground." He is probably best known as the author of A Christmas Story, the popular film which in recent years seems to have supplanted It's a Wonderful Life as America's favorite holiday film. Shepherd was also the author of several best-selling, quasi-autobiographical novels, numerous magazine articles in Playboy and The National Lampoon, and was the producer/narrator of a series of PBS television shows which aired in the 1970's, including "Shepherd's Pie" and "Jean Shepherd's America".
Despite Shepherd's considerable achievements in film, print, and television, his best, most incisively satirical, and flat-out funniest material was improvised for his nightly radio show on WOR-AM, a 50,000 watt New York station that blanketed much of the Northeast with his unmistakably insidious brand of free-form, unscripted audio mayhem for more than 20 years.
Radio Historian Max Schmid has called Shepherd "the best man ever to sit before a microphone". Others have compared his satiric genius to James Thurber, George Ade, and Mark Twain. Shepherd had a singular talent for identifying the absurdity of the 20th Century Human Condition, American-style. His matchlessly original free-form style was an enormously influential force on other monologists, from Spaulding Gray to Garrison Keillor.
Radio, unlike television and mass-style print media, is a medium which, in skillful hands, delivers an intimately personal experience and Shep's confessionary enumeration of certain disastrous milestone life experiences taught his listeners that our own sufferings were universal in scope. Shepherd was a serious man who used humor in the same way Jonathan Swift did - as a weapon levelled against false idols in high places. He was a teacher, not a preacher, and his "object" lessons in life were by turns heart-breaking and spine-ticklingly hilarious.
Shepherd had so many dimensions that only a book-length treatment of his life and work can possibly do them justice. But his collective radio works leave this listener with one major lesson: that life, even one thoroughly submerged in the midden heap of cultural effluvia that is Our Time in America, is infinitely worth living. That hope, even if it's crazily misplaced, is as inevitable a force of nature as gravity or the movement of the continental plates. And in our impoverished era of Howard Stern-style hyper-infantalism and shock-jock hate for hire, that's such a revolutionary message that I'd be willing to bet it will outlive the jive-talking idiocy that passes for radio entertainment today. (But now, I'm starting to sound like an ersatz "deep thinker", and Shep wouldn't like that much, would he?)
Shepherd's radio legacy survives thanks to the unpaid, volunteer efforts of thousands of his fans, who over the years recorded airchecks of his WOR broadcasts, often on cheap cassette machines or crummy reel-to-reel decks. Many of these rare recordings are now becoming available, thanks to the efforts of numerous dedicated individuals, including Jeff Beauchamp, Jim Clavin, and others.
For those wishing to explore some truly impressive Shepherd resources, one's first stop should be Fathead Central (AKA "The Jean Shepherd Project").Also, a visit to Max Schmid's page is a required stop. Max is one of the world's foremost authorities on Shepherd, and has hundreds of Shepherd airchecks for sale, some of which go back as far as 1960. If you're interested in exploring the Cult of Shepherd further, go to the excellent Web pages maintained by Jim Sadur and Bob Kaye, two men who've done the most to keep Shep's legacy alive and thriving on the Net. An excellent list of links to other Shep sources is available at flicklives.com/Misc/Links.htm.
Warning: discovering Shepherd has been known to shatter ideologies, uncover repressed memories, transform personalities, and provoke uncontrollable urges to sacrifice sacred cows. Just because Jean died doesn't mean that Shepherdism isn't alive, gathering steam, and creeping like a noxious cloud through the bullshit world that you shouldn't ever think is impervious to wit, wisdom, and your own penetrating gaze.
Believe me - it isn't.
Here are some bandwidth-friendly, Real Audio files of some of Shepherd's memorable airchecks. These recordings were bequeathed to me in 1977, and while it is possible that some of them are duplicated in the extensive catalog of recordings maintained online, it is equally possible that these are the only surviving airchecks of this material, which date from the mid 1970's.
Jean Shepherd: Selected Airchecks
Army Story: Medical School Exam
A chilling, tragic, hilariously funny story with universal implications.
Army Story: Four Day Pass
How an innocent impulse to "go home" to Hammond, Indiana produced a disastrously traumatic result.
Summer in New York
Shepherd rides the 7th Avenue Subway knee deep in old Daily News editorials, and contemplates the eternal Truth of Summer in New York.
The Fate of Tommy Moore
A meditation on the implacable cruelty of fate, the folly of existence, the birth of The Beatles, and the strange allure of "cheap guitar music."
The Egg Caper
A corruscating account of making a TV commercial. (Note: the audio quality of this recording is sub-standard, but if you can bear it, you'll hear one of Shep's best stories).
Old School Notebook
Shep pores over an old High School notebook, and is forced to face a traumautic set of memories he'd sooner forget.
An ancient laughtrack serves as the catalyst for another terrible encounter with Shep's past - this time, a romantic disaster. (Note: this recording was evidently made using a cheap Lafayette microphone aimed at an even cheaper AM radio - as a result, you can hear a mysterious real-life couple having dinner and washing dishes in the background).
John Dillinger's Finger
Although many seem to think that Shepherd's oeuvre consisted of playful reminiscences of his youth, his work often delved into darkly disturbing meditations on the nature of mankind. In this classic, highly scary tale, Shep tells of an early encounter with the grotesque which may, in his words, "make you get up, run into the john, and retch for a half hour." Consequently it's an ideal track to listen to on Halloween Night.
Laughter in the Face of Time
This is a 15-minute improvised section from one of Shep's shows devoted to the trauma of going back to school. Unfortunately, the story itself is truncated, but the surviving fragment stands on its own, in terms of being a nearly Nietzschian meditation on the nature of Time, Mortality, and Will.
Jesus Saves!/Nightlife of the Gods
This hilarious, thoroughly eerie story recounts the night that Shep ran across a roadside religious zealot, and segues into a droll discussion of polytheism. The recording quality of this aircheck is, unfortunately, rather murky. One can only speculate whether a segment such as this could be aired today without jeopardizing the station's FCC license.
New York as Medieval City
Shep enjoyed going on a polemic from time to time, and in this 30-minute segment from a 1976 show we find him accusing trendy New York of a truly cardinal sin - that of being being backward, atavistic, and (horror of horrors), medieval. Although it's a serious show, Shep injects a rich dose of penetratingly ironic humor into his rant against a nostalgia-prone town "unwilling to let go of its past".
Self-Help and the American Dream
In this complete 32-minute segment from a 1976 show, Shep scoffs at the burgeoning self-help and human-potential industry, which he sees as the direct linear descendent of the 19th Century Medicine Man. Although this show was recorded almost 30 years ago, many would agree that America's core belief systems (which Shep argues are based on an irrational belief in magic) and mass-huckster industry have changed very little in the interim.