- I remember that day well!"
Jean Shepherd was once described in Cue magazine as "a philosopher without portfolio, a wit who never tells a joke."Shepherd was, to a generation of metro New York youth - mostly guys and the types never voted "Mr. School Spirit" - a bastion of charismatic iconoclasm. From the late 1950s to the late '70s, he practiced the art of the intimate, humorous monologue on WOR-AM radio, usually for 45 minutes a night. No in-studio guests, zero listener phone calls. For that matter, he didn't air many commercials (and those few were for unusual advertisers, like the Rover 2000-TC auto). The show was entirely based around the mesmerizing transmissions from one man's imagination.
Shep reminisced about his hapless days in the Army signal corps, and about his boyhood in Indiana's Great Lakes industrial wasteland, immortalized by the imaginary town of "Hohman." Shep's domain, said Herb Gardner, was "a world of long trolley cars, itchy wallpaper, tin-foil collections, creative sitting, lumpy letters and empty Ovaltine cans." Though he rarely discussed current events per se, Shepherd offered wry observations about the national scene. He was fond of quoting acerbic humorist H.L. Mencken, and his perspective on the country could perhaps best be summed up by the Sage of Baltimore's reply to the question, "Why, if you find so much lacking in America, do you live here?" HLM's reply: "The same reason men go to zoos."
"Shepherd is merely a vehicle," said satirist Paul Krassner, "for communicating to us not only that the emperor has no clothes on, but also that we are all naked emperors.
"Shep evoked New York's beat scene (he was part of it) during the 1950s, spinning first-hand vignettes of Kerouac, Mingus, Feiffer and Ginsberg. Upon first arriving in NYC, he wrote for the nascent Village Voice, and later for Playboy, Krassner's The Realist, and Car & Driver. His best-selling books included In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash; Wanda Hickey's Night of Golden Memories; The Ferrari in the Bedroom, and A Fistful of Fig Newtons. The multi-media hacker wrote and narrated the perennial film classic A Christmas Story, and scripted and hosted the PBS-TV series Jean Shepherd's America. Details of his adult life were cloaked in secrecy, and upon his death, uncertainty swirled around his true date of birth, some circumstances of his three marriages, and his refusal to acknowledge his two children born to his first wife.
Shep was a seminal influence on many present and former WFMU staffers and listeners. His passing on October 16, 1999, prompted these recollections. -I.C.
LOU "THE DUCK" D'ANTONIO hosted a free-form program (for many years called The Hour of the Duck) at WFMU from 1962-1990. He lives in Randolph, VT, and hosts Jazz Spectrum on the Point in Montpelier.
I'm sitting in the cafeteria of the Public Service Coordinated Bus Company in October '58. This annoying character by the name of Dundas McDonald interrupts me - I'm regaling my fellow diners with another story about my sainted, but feared Granma Rebecca, who'd just been arrested by the NYPD for bringing her umbrella to bear on the shiny pate of the manager of the Brooks Brothers store in Manhattan - to say I should listen to this guy on WOR. He sounds just like me, but he rants about things like steel mills and GI life.
Having been in and around radio since the fourth grade - my listening tastes were quite refined - I was chagrined to realize that I may have been missing something, so I tuned in. I heard this guy talking about a Gogomobile, and my wife says "Who IS that, Lou? He sounds just like you!" I didn't hear it. Not a bit. This guy was a blooming, bloody genius. Irritating. Corny at times. Lousy at doing "voices." Narrow and opinionated. But, man did he SPEAK TO ME. He knew the possibilities and uses of the medium. And therein lay the genius. He came to occupy a place in my radio pantheon alongside Ransom Sherman, Ken Nordine, Bob and Ray, and Red Barber. They all had THE GIFT.
At 'FMU, from time to time someone would say I reminded them of Shep, or refer to the Duck as a Shepherd ripoff. Never bothered me. What did tick me was that only a scant few made reference to the other role models - though I openly stated that one of my riffs, a pitifully undertalented organ virtuoso, was a bastard nephew of Bob & Ray's intermission musician, Webley L. Webster. Nobody seemed to mind, and that really pissed me off! No matter what we do, we're successful at life if we respect the elders, while embracing the new, and what we are is a synthesis of all that. No listener ever accused me of being an Uncle Louis ripoff - because they didn't know my uncle. But there was more of him in the Duck than Shep, Red, Bob, Ray, and the rest.
During an Hour of the Duck one evening in the early 70's - on my birthday - a listener calls to say that Shep over on WOR had just played the portion of the William Tell Overture that I used for my WFMU closing theme, and grunted "Happy Birthday, you fathead" toward the end. I figured the listener was playing with my head, so I mentioned it on mic, and another person called to verify.
Next day I write a note to Shep asking him about it. A few weeks later I received in return a sorry-ass form letter thanking me for my nice note and my interest, and inviting me to join the bastard's fan club. Enclosed was an autographed 8 x 10 glossy. I sent it back, along with a Polaroid snap of the Duck that had a wine stain in the lower left-hand corner.
On the Sunday I got word of Shep's demise, I came on mic during Jazz Spectrum to back-announce a set and head into a spot break. I hadn't planned to do a tribute, eulogy, or anything. But the break ended with an incredibly stupid commercial for athlete's foot powder. Impelled by some uncontrollable force, I launched into a Duck-worthy Ramble that somehow meandered its way to Shep, and I concluded by saying that if there was one soul out there who remembered him as I did - before he became the bitter denouncer of all the brilliant stuff he did on radio - I would appreciate hearing from that person.
A minute later, as I'm spinning Mingus, the phone lights up. "Hello, this is the Point."
"EXCELSIOR! YOU FATHEAD -- AND QUACK! YOU BASTARD!," came the reply. And he disappeared into the night.
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