Tales of a True Yardbird
by Jim Clavin (June 26, 2013)
Jean Shepherd was a storyteller. We have no idea how far back he began to weave his tales, but we can say with certainty that we know from when they evolved. When you think of 'Shep' telling a story you almost automatically hear the words "I was this kid, see..." because so many of his tales rose out of childhood experiences. Not just his, but those of the kids he grew up with which he carefully wove to maximize the listener's interest.
But he didn't stop there. After he had verbally told these stories on the radio or at live performances, and having documented many of them in magazines such as Playboy, carefully honing them along the way, he yet again began weaving them, this time to each other in a series of books beginning with "In God We Trust - All Others Pay Cash." These books did not have a plot. They had a theme - 'childhood'. The ups and downs of growing up as a kid in a mid-west steel town.
At the same time, he was also known for his stories of being in the Army. Most of these were told during his "Live at the Village Limelight" performances every Saturday night in the mid sixties, before a live audience, where he worked the crowd for two hours using only the stories, his voice, and his body language as tools. For his weekly radio shows he substitutes strategically selected cuts of music for his body language to help the listener visualize what they can't see.
Like his 'kid stories', these also found their way into the pages of Playboy, but never into a book form. There were constant rumors as early as 1967 and late as 1976 of a book of Army stories being published 'soon'. The title changed over the years. First it was to be "T.S. Mac" and then, in 1970 during a WRUC interview, he said it was being re-titled. In a December 1976 New York Times article we learned "The Secret Mission of the Blue-Assed Buzzard" was due out in January.
Unfortunately that did not happen for one reason or another. The stories remained as individual tales, some making it to print in Playboy, but many surviving only as recordings captured over the years on reel to reel tapes by his fans. Fortunately most of these have survived through time.
Now thanks to the efforts of author Eugene B. Bergmann, who wrote the only book on Jean Shepherd, "Excelsior You Fathead, The Art and Enigma of Jean Shepherd", those verbal tales from the radio have been collected and painstakingly transcribed into book form as "Shep's Army - Bummers, Blisters, and Boondoggles"
Following an informative introduction to Shep and his Army, Gene places all the stories into five parts, each part a category of in the timeline of Army life - entering the Army, boot camp and training, life in a permanent duty assignment, leisure time in the Army, and mustering out. He not only skillfully places these into a chronological order, but at the beginning of each part he gives us his view of the things Shep was trying to communicate to us.
This is a must read for all Shep fans as it offers us a chance to 'hear' those tales all over again in a manner that, although not a book of stories woven together by Shep, it's the next best thing. It doesn't take long once you start each chapter to switch from reading to 'hearing' Shep as you turn the pages.
Gene closes the book with an explanation of Army phrases which most of us need no explanation of, but to the uneducated takes the mystery out of the military slang. He also provides the original show dates from which he transcribed the stories.
One important point here is that Shep may have told a story several times over the years, but he often revised them either purposely, as part of the honing process, or inadvertently. Some readers may remember the stories a little differently based on which 'version' they heard. But in the end, they were all worth hearing.
To both Gene and Jean - the "Brass Figlagee with bronze oak leaf palm"