VIN SCELSA was a free-form broadcaster at WFMU, where his program The Closet ran from 1967-1969. He hosts Idiot's Delight, heard Sunday nights on WNEW.
I remember the first time I heard Jean Shepherd. Whenever I was home sick from school (circa late-1950s), I spent all day in bed listening to the radio. At night, my mother would send me off to sleep by putting on "easy-listening" WPAT, and I would drift in and out of fever dreams with their dentist office schlock in my ears.
On one such night, I suddenly couldn't stand another moment of those godawful syrupy strings ... and I reached over to the table radio next to the bed and started fiddling with the tuning knob. Dialing through the AM whine and static, I landed upon the chuckling voice of a man who immediately sounded to me like the aural personification of what was, up until that moment, my bible of irreverent, hip "outsider-ness"- Mad Magazine! Suddenly, there in the dark, I found myself in the presence of a grownup who not only used words like "clod," but actually talked about "kidhood" with such accuracy that my fevered 11-year-old brain immediately sensed a kindred spirit! That's all it took - one tale about Flick, Schwartz, Randy and Ralph - kids just like kids I knew! - growing up in a Midwestern steel town under the weary beer-soaked gaze of "The Old Man" ... and I was hooked! Since his show was on after lights out, I became one of those kids forced by parental prohibition to listen to Shep surreptitiously, with a small plastic transistor radio tucked under my pillow, like a partisan glued to a clandestine rebel radio station! Listening to Shep became my own private excursion into a world of hip, jazzy, literate humor that was totally different from anything in my middle-class Italian Catholic upbringing. My mother would have been shocked to hear someone like Shep speaking over her WOR - the station that kept her company during the day while she did household chores - her Rambling With Gambling bastion of middle-class conformity.
For a precocious pre-teen, exiting the becalmed Leave It To Beaver 1950s and entering the brave new world of the soon-to-explode Sixties, Jean Shepherd was my first and perhaps my most influential guide into a realm of rebellion, non-conformity, art, music and joy. (Not to mention a main inspiration for getting into radio! During the early years of my career, if someone said, "You remind me of Shep!" or "You musta listened to a lotta Shep as a kid!" - I glowed!) And he was my personal secret - which only added to his mystique. It would be years before I knew anyone else who listened to him; and then, of course, I discovered that just about anyone I had anything in common with grew up hooked on Shep, with a radio tucked under the pillow, just as I did.
Jean Shepherd showed me that the little plastic box under my pillow could contain a magical world; that radio could present ideas, stories, characters, and words word words, in addition to music. Shep taught me that nothing can be more provocative on the radio than the honest-to-goodness sound of an infectious laugh directed at life's absurd and beautiful ironies. Shepherd cut through the bullshit in whatever medium he inhabited - radio, print, nightclubs and lecture halls, television and films - by speaking a witty, down-to-earth, unique brand of American truth.
Ain't no one else ever gonna come close to what the man accomplished ... in the dark ... with a microphone, a kazoo and 50,000 watts!
BOB RIXON has programmed free-form, monologue-heavy radio on WFMU since 1981.
Although Shep seemed to occupy a space at the center of the Beat scene in New York City, he comprehended (as did Kerouac) that the movement's rejection of middle class life for existential "cool" was bogus. Those hipsters with the beards & those chicks with the berets were all clearly products of their upbringing & of Time magazine, their affected language copped from jazz musicians.
Of course, I didn't understand this at age 12. But I did see the connection between the societal rituals & the blasted, industrial landscape of Shep's Indiana & the New Jersey I knew. Those of us who lived on the fringes of Paterson, Passaic, Newark, Perth Amboy & New Brunswick were intimately familiar with that landscape & those rituals. Our rivers were bubbling brews of toxins. Smokestacks choked at the sun. We inhaled massive amounts of diesel fumes when we stood on bridges trying to drop rocks down train engine exhaust pipes. I loved the fields behind my father's plant in Woodbridge, across from the prison. I have no idea what those dirt mounds contained, but I enjoyed playing on them. We didn't think much of the air being bad or the water poisonous, because those problems were linked to jobs.
Shep understood this. His dad brought home a paycheck & that was all he needed to know. He fished in a stinkpot of a lake because that was the lake for fishing. He tolerated the eccentricities of people because being "average" is about Madison Ave. & insurance actuaries. Nor did Shep idealize childhood. He correctly saw it as a litany of traumas beginning with psychotic playground bullies & ending hunched over a toilet after the prom, puking one's brains out, any chance of getting laid utterly lost.
Underneath Shep's cynicism lay a true empathy for life as it is really experienced in America. He was neither a snob nor an elitist. But he was funny as hell. I wish more poets had listened to him.
IRWIN CHUSID observed his 25th anniversary as a WFMU broadcaster on February 20, 2000. His book Songs in the Key of Z: The Curious Universe of Outsider Music will be published in May.
The demise of Jean Shepherd caught a lot of his fans off-guard. Death is often unexpected, but in Shep's case, he had long ago ceased to exist for many once-ardent loyalists. Reading his New York Times obit was like discovering a forgotten trunk of adolescent memorabilia: baseball cards, Robert Benchley anthologies, and scuffed 45s. Shep's death rekindled fond memories - but also symbolized how yesterday's heroes are trinkets on today's souvenir keychains.
I was a fanatical listener to Shepherd's WOR radio broadcasts throughout my late '60s high school years. His edgy, satirical monologues seemed the perfect mindwash against the purity-civics mental hygiene a clueless adolescent absorbed in classrooms every day. Shep should've awarded degrees. I learned more about the realities of life each night from his crafty 45-minute diatribes than I did in a 6-hour school day. I'll never forget Shep's observation that people are not created equal, that societies - even supposedly egalitarian ones like America's - consist of hierarchies. Get used to it, he chuckled, and know your place. Seems obvious now, but to a 16-year-old, it was an eye-opener. Shep's mixed-media career and sly perspective impressed and influenced me tremendously. The guy did radio, wrote fiction and screenplays, gave unclassifiable live performances - a perfect role model for a teen afflicted with chronic short attention span. Shepherd was a raconteur, bon vivant, wry observer of the American animal. He was a beatnik who actually made a living. I was introduced to the work of legendary debunker H.L. Mencken through Shep, who dropped the writer's name often enough to intrigue.
I wanted to grow up like Shep: with not one career, but many, free to explore whatever piqued my curiosity, eager to venture into uncharted professional terrain. Which is exactly what I did: radio, writing, producing, playing drums, teaching, and maneuvering along the fringes. Largely thanks to Shep, when people ask what I do for a living, I'm at a loss where to begin. "Lots of things," I sigh, before reeling off a litany of "hats." I must strike new acquaintances as a hopeless dilettante.
But I'll bet being Jean Shepherd meant never having to explain what you did for a living. You were "Shep," no resume necessary. In the '60s and '70s, I attended Shepherd's amusing standup shows at Seton Hall University. A solitary figure onstage, pacing around and pontificating before "friends" in an 800-seat living room. Later he appeared annually at NJ's Summit High School doing much the same thing: detonating verbal fireworks for 90 minutes, padding restlessly back and forth, brandishing a hand-held mic like a Rabelaisian evangelist, unaccompanied by music, sound effects, or opening acts. When I interviewed monologist Joe Frank in 1991 and asked about his early radio mentors, Shepherd was the first name evoked. Frank rhapsodized glowingly about Shep's intimate approach, how a faceless voice could mystically communicate one-on-one with an unseen listener. I went to see Shep at SHS with several WFMU colleagues in the mid-1980s. During the Q&A session which invariably followed his good-natured, rambling monologue, our admiration was deflated by Shep's metamorphosis into an arrogant, self-absorbed asshole. He boasted about his numerous awards, made a big deal about how much A Christmas Story had grossed, and seemed intent on playing up his status as a cultural icon. His braggadocio was devoid of irony or restraint. One fan asked if he would ever return to radio. "Yeah," Shep sneered, "when you go back to eighth grade!" This was a performer who held his audience in contempt. I left the hall with a sense that this man was no longer worthy of my respect or attention. He was dead, far as I was concerned. The obit appeared a dozen years later.
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