I know what you’re thinking. Why am I not more interested in knowing more about a very famous guy from my home area of the Calumet Region who
But it’s not really Tesich that we’re talking about here, is it? We’re talking about someone else who did all of the above. That be Jean Shepherd...
That be Jean Shepherd, the famous WOR radio guy who wrote A Christmas Story (and who published a novel, I, Libertine, that wasn’t at first a novel at all). It really is kind of odd that these two guys, Tesich and Shep, grew up just a couple of miles from each other – albeit at different periods – and lived somewhat similar lives and created somewhat similar art and died a few years apart… and not once in my whole life have I heard them mentioned in the same sentence.
That being said, I don’t have any interest in learning more about Steve Tesich. I just don’t. But I do these days have some weird urge to know more about Jean Shepherd. And it has nothing to do with A Christmas Story, or his famous book – In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash.
Like everyone else in America, I watch A Christmas Story every holiday season. Like everyone else, I laugh about the Bumpus’s dogs, Ralphie eating soap and Flick getting his tongue stuck on the basketball poll. By the end of the movie, I feel good about Christmas and I feel good about Hammond, Indiana. I get the same feeling when I plod through Shepherd’s books like Others Pay Cash, Open Hearth and Fig Newtons.
But that’s as far as it goes. Yes, it’s always nice to watch Shep’s movie and to read his books. But they don’t inspire me, not like reading Bukowski or Conrad or watching Five Easy Pieces with Jack Nicholson or For the Good of the Game with Kevin Costner. In the end, there’s nothing that special to me about Shep’s movie or his books, other than he’s from my home area. I don’t even go to the Jean Shepherd festival every year in downtown Hammond, the scene of the big parade in A Christmas Story. I promote the hell out of the festival on my show, but I don’t go. There’s no pull.
This is changing. And it started with a story that Gary Bell told me. Bell’s an assistant US attorney whose late mother was on the Hammond school board for a long time. In the 80s, the city brought Shepherd in to honor him for his success and for writing about Hammond. But, evidently, by the time Shep left after the weekend, it was pretty much good riddance. There was evidence that he was arrogant, loud, rude, and drunk for much of the time.
Now that interests me. Another thing that’s got me looking more at Shep comes in an article at Slate.com by Donald Fagen. Yes, that Donald Fagen, the one from Steely Dan. Evidently Fagen can not only play the piano and sing, he can also write. Here he talks about listening nightly to Shep:
He (Shep)was talking to me—I mean straight to me… as if some version of myself with 25 more years worth of life experience had magically crawled into the radio, sat down, and loosened his tie. I was hooked. From then on, like legions of other sorry-ass misfits throughout the Northeast, I tuned in every weeknight at 11:15 and let Shep put me under his spell.
That’s what Shep meant to youth like Fagen and Jerry Seinfeld, who attributes much of his success in comedy to listening as a youth to Shep. But it still doesn’t draw me in. Here’s the kind of thing that draws me in about Shep. It’s from Fagen’s article.
As the years rolled by, Shepherd rankled at being confined to the ghetto of radio and must have come to see his crown as King of the Hipsters as a crown of thorns… Like a lot of fine-tuned performing artists, Shepherd increasingly exhibited the whole range of symptoms common to the aging diva. He became paranoid and resentful… (and) gradually succumbed to that very real disease of self-loathing and its accompanying defenses. Disappointed in the way the world had treated him, he retired to Florida's west coast and died in 1999
Here’s a couple of intriguing questions – what the hell happened to Shep in his later years that would make him, as Gary Bell described, arrogant, loud, rude and drunk much of the time? And what would make Shep so bitter that Donald Fagen could decry him as a disappointed aging diva narcissist? That I’d like to know.
But it’s still not a pull, a driving urge to know more. There is one thing, however, that falls into the gotta have it category. And that is the radio itself. As Fagen notes in his article, recordings of Shep’s radio shows are all over the Internet, and that is a really good thing. So if you ask what I’ve been doing for the past ten days of not doing my morning radio show – on the station where Shep got his start – just go through the history on my web browser. Shep this and Shep that.
It’s not his movie or his writing or even videos of his live performances. It’s recordings of his radio shows. All of it’s brilliant. Shep was brilliant. His radio was brilliant. That, in case the three or four of you are interested, is what I learned on my Christmas vacation.