When I was this kid in a small New Jersey town, after it was supposed to be bedtime, I'd listen to the radio in the dark, so my mother would think I was asleep. If I wasn't listening to the Yankees, or a strange kind of music where the notes didn't exactly follow each other, I'd be listening to Jean Shepherd, a late-night storyteller who moved me so powerfully with his words that I grew up wanting to be a writer.
WOR, his New York radio station, had such a strong signal that it carried Jean Shepherd's flat Midwestern voice with his sardonic, offbeat, intellectual musings to maybe twenty states around midnight, so he affected my friends Matt and Steve and Bonnie and Walt and Joe and Bobby and Buzz the same way. There we were, countless kids all over America, going to school with dark circles under our eyes from staying up late to listen to Jean Shepherd on the sly.
It was heady, hooking our imaginations to his. We Believed him. He Knew Something. He was our voice, the voice of small-town America, a voice raised more in regret than in relish, a voice reviving memory after memory of How It Really Was, a voice raving about "creeping meatballism" or rhapsodizing about his mother's meat loaf or recounting the remarkable mishaps of his friends Farkas and Schwartz, a voice that elliptically removed us from Innocence to Experience, a voice that ruminated on the mysteries of Existence, and shrugged.
"Dear Jean Shepherd," I wrote to him when I was sixteen in the final fan letter of my life, a letter he never answered, "when I grow up, I want to marry a man just like you." And so, when I am grown-up and a writer, and Jean Shepherd has grown older and put his stories into books and on TY, we finally met in the Park Avenue offices of his publisher (A Fistful of Fig Newtons; Wanda Hickey's Night of Golden Memories; In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash ). The Voice is much bigger than the bonsai plant his agent/producer/lady friend places on the table; once the bonsai expected to be very big, but with gradual pruning it has been trimmed down to permanent miniature size, and that is why it is possible for an entire yew tree to fit in a teacup, but that has nothing to do with Jean Shepherd - or does it?
Jean Shepherd does not quite resemble the possessor of a $100,000 income, a Maine cabin, a Florida condo, a Delaware Water Gap retreat, and his own airplane as much as a carny barker trying to con you into a game of chance with a cracked frying pan for a prize. From his blue leisure suit whose fibers never graced a living thing to his spiky hair and thin beard matted by body oils or bad air, to the silver sand dollar pendant he wears over a shirt gaping open between the buttons, to the Styrofoam cup of coffee he holds, he is slightly seedy.
"I'm one of the great underground performers. In spite of the fact I have millions of fans," he proclaims, "I can't imagine why [someone] wouldn't know about me . . . I've had three best-sellers, I've published forty-eight stories in Playboy. Critics have done papers on me. I've influenced more kids. I've done thousands of shows at colleges. I've been on the Carson show many times and on the Merv Griffin show. I've had my own television series for years on PBS. And yet [some people] never heard of me. Now you're understanding the nature of twentieth-century fame. It's one of those things you accept as a fact of life, like the rain. Is the rain frustrating? No, it's just there . . .
"See, I was part of the whole beat, hip movement. And it's very difficult to explain, I was part of that whole crowd. I came up-friends of mine at the time were people like Mailer and, ah, Jules Feiffer, this is, the whole Village crowd. I was really kind of one of the centers of it. In fact, I was a character in Jack Kerouac's On the Road. I'm the Angel-Headed Hippie, the guy they're always listening to on the radio. Did you ever read the book?" Yes-twenty years ago. "But I'm saying that was a whole movement, and it brought in almost everything we've got today, as far as art is concerned. The kind of acting that Dustin Hoffman does. It had great ramifications all the way down the line."
Does he see himself as great? "That's something I can't answer. How can I say that? I'm not Woody Allen, who would say no or yes . . ." How would he explain Jean Shepherd to a Martian anthropologist? "How would you?" he says, laughing. "I couldn't. I don't think the individual can. It would be like asking, ah, Thomas Wolfe, do you see yourself as a gargantuan, unbelievably talented, totally undisciplined, ah-" He pauses. Genius? "Genius?" He laughs again. "How could he answer that?"
Son of a dairy office manager who moonlighted as a cartoonist, Jean Shepherd grew up in Hammond, Indiana, and Chicago. He began in radio as a teenage actor for syndicated serials, playing Billy Fairfield in "Jack Armstrong." He can still sing every word of every verse of the theme song of "Little Orphan Annie" and other children's radio shows of the thirties, yet today he dismisses radio as a "huckster medium." After installing radar in North Africa for the Army, he attended a string of colleges on the GI Bill, studying engineering, psychology, liberal arts, and drama without graduating; he calls himself an early dropout. He's worked as a steel company mail boy, a sports car salesman, a factory laborer. His legendary WOR radio show ran on and off from 1956 to 1977, though he insists it started in 1959.
Like many people who have yet to achieve their ultimate, he's touchy about his age. "People assume that I'm a lot older than I am. Because everybody believes he was a kid when he listened to me." How old is he? "It doesn't matter." Well, I read he was born in either 1922, 1923, or 1925. ''Actually, it was '29," he claims. "Look it up in, if you really want to look it up, look it up in Who's Who," which says '29. "What I'm gonna say here, though, I don't want age written about, if you can help it. I know you're going to put it in, so it's all right. And I'm gonna say to you, you know why I don't? Because it doesn't matter how old Robert Redford is. . . . What difference docs it make, let's say, how old Cheever, ah, Updike is when he writes a short story? It's serious. I'm serious. And all these things just cloud-" He breaks off. I'm just trying to fix on the truth. "Well, truth - truth about what? Truth about my work?" Yes.
"Well," he continues, "nobody asks me about my work." I did. "No, not much." Then I'll ask more. "No, when you say work, ah, have you read any of my stuff?" Sure. "Well, a lot of people haven't. Many people come to me and they'll interview me and it turns out all they did was be a radio listener. . . An artist doesn't want people to be involved with him, he wants people to be involved with his work. Well, his work, period. Nobody ever asked me how I create a story. They say to me things like when I was a kid I listened to you. Well, that's like saying, ah, to J. D. Salinger, when I was a kid I read you, and then you don't say any more after that. . . . Nobody hardly ever talks about my work, they talk about me.
"Well, that doesn't irritate me, but it makes me wonder whether or not they ever heard me seriously." He seems to have total recall. "No, not at all. I'm a storyteller. My stuff seems like memory. It isn't. I will see something happen the afternoon of a show and create a story about it, but I will put it in the past. Are you listening to me," he says, laughing. So he was spinning short stories on the air? "Well, I was, yes!" he exclaims. "In fact, that's what McLuhan said. If you're curious, you can look it up in Understanding Media. . . . He paralleled me with James Joyce. And he's right. But you're - it would take somebody with the kind of insight that a McLuhan would have to discern that. . ." How did he evolve his method? "Well, it happened gradually. That's a difficult question, almost impossible to answer. That'd be like asking Picasso how he evolved his technique. He couldn't tell you, it just seemed natural for him to do that," he declares.
". . .My mother never asked me what are you gonna be when you grow up, that was never asked once in my house. My father could have cared less. I never thought about it. See, that's an eastern thing. That's why a movie like Fame would be absolutely incomprehensible to somebody in Indiana. It's a make-it attitude. You know, the title of the film says 'fame,' it doesn't say 'art,'" he says, laughing. "It says 'fame.' They don't give a damn what the hell they do to get famous. They want to be famous. In other words, fame is the end product of what you're going at, not a good performance or great art or a great play. A successful play is what you write," he sneers.
"That's epitomized to me in the plays of Neil Simon, to me the classic non-plays of our time. He doesn't know anything about the real world, he knows only about the make-believe world. All his people are involved in make-believe things." Does he know about the real world? "Well, I grew up in a steel town. You have to damn well know about the real world. If you didn't, for Christ sake, you wouldn't live ten minutes. And I'm not saying this as an example of superiority. There's just two kinds of worlds. That's why I can't really sit through a Woody Allen movie. He seems to live mostly in the world of fantasy. Well, I never had fantasies. No. Not the kind, gee, I wish I could have a date with Ursula Andress. Well, I'd go get a date with Ursula Andress," he says, laughing again. "And that's the end of it.
"I think we're tremendously affected artistically by the very earliest things. Like, take a Woody Allen. He seems to be only affected by movies. I never went to the movies, they did not interest me. I, I never had romantic fantasies about, ah, Humphrey Bogart. See, I came from the Midwest, where movies and musicals were just distant mutterings on the horizon. See, I've enjoyed life. Really. Literally. And as a kid I always thought writing was meant to be funny. I was absolutely fanatic about reading P. G. Wodehouse. How's that for an influence? "Now, I don't know what would have happened to me had I been, let's say nine or ten, and read War and Peace. I think that's why lots of kids grow up and their literature is so full of the kvetch, you know, life is hard, life is tragic, because so many novels are written like that. So if you're ten and read Vonnegut, you'll grow up thinking life is bad news. But if you grow up reading Shepherd, you'll come away thinking life is basically a giant joke, life is an endless shaggy dog story. It always seems like any minute now we're gonna solve it" - Jean Shepherd grins - "any minute now."
JANUARY 9, 1983