The Man Behind The Brilliant Media Hoax Of "I, Libertine"
February 15, 2013 12:53 PM   Subscribe

"In the 1950s, a DJ named Jean Shepherd hosted a late-night radio show on New York's WOR that was unlike any before or since. On these broadcasts, he delivered dense, cerebral monologues, sprinkled with pop-culture tidbits and vivid stretches of expert storytelling. 'There is no question that we are a tiny, tiny, tiny embattled minority here,' he assured his audience in a typical diatribe. 'Hardly anyone is listening to mankind in all of its silliness, all of its idiocy, all of its trivia, all of its wonder, all of its glory, all of its poor, sad, pitching us into the dark sea of oblivion.' Shepherd's approach was summed up by his catchphrase: a mock-triumphant 'Excelsior!', followed by an immediate, muttered 'you fathead ... '" (via)

Shepherd and I, Libertine previously.
posted by Rustic Etruscan (24 comments total) 33 users marked this as a favorite
Growing up in Jersey in the '70s I would fall asleep at night listening to WOR ... Jean Shepherd, followed by Bob Grant, followed by Garner Ted Armstrong and The World Tomorrow.

Which, in retrospect, explains quite a lot ...
posted by ZenMasterThis at 1:11 PM on February 15, 2013 [3 favorites]


"The kitchen door flew open. It had been left ajar just a crack to let the air come in to cool the ham.

"I rushed to the kitchen just in time to see 4293 blue-ticked Bumpus hounds roar through the screen door in a great, roiling mob. The leader of the pack - the one that almost got the old man every day - leaped high onto the table and grabbed the butt end of the ham in his enormous slavering jaws.

"The rest of the hounds-squealing, yapping, panting, rolling over one another in a frenzy of madness -pounded out the kitchen door after Big Red, trailing brown sugar and pineapple slices behind him. They were in and out in less than five seconds. The screen door hung on one hinge, its screen ripped and torn and dripping with gravy. Out they went. Pow, just like that. "HOLY CHRIST!" The old man leaped out of his chair. "THE HAM! THE HAM! THOSE GODDAMM DOGS! THE HAM!!""

I own a Bumpus hound and can vouch for this description. He ate most of an unguarded pepperoni stick this afternoon, dammit.
posted by MonkeyToes at 1:20 PM on February 15, 2013 [5 favorites]

"In the heat of battle my father wove a tapestry of obscenities that as far as we know is still hanging in space over Lake Michigan."

Has there ever been a more evocative description of a father at work?
posted by entropicamericana at 1:39 PM on February 15, 2013 [12 favorites]

Growing up in Jersey in the '70s I would fall asleep at night listening to WOR ...

Me too. By the time A Christmas Story came out, I'd already heard most of those stories on the radio years before. I actually saw him live in concert somewhere around '80 or '81, he was just as wonderful live as he was on the radio.
posted by octothorpe at 1:41 PM on February 15, 2013 [2 favorites]

I'm a big Theodore Sturgeon fan and have a copy of I, Libertine... but still haven't read it.
posted by Zed at 2:21 PM on February 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

Beer, the Mother of Us All

I first encountered Jean Sheperd back in 1967 on KRAB FM in Seattle. (Which was one of the first independent noncommercial radio stations in America. Where I did radio, myself, in the 70s, lucky me...) Someone on KRAB had a friend in New Jesey who would tape the shows -- on reel to reel, mind you, 'cause this was back in the day -- and mail them to KRAB, where we would hear them a week later. And because of this, I watched his Jean Sheperd's America in 1971 when it ran on PBS. This was the best of the litter, in my opinion, and Beer, the Mother of US All! was our toast and catchphrase back in that day.

I love Jean Sheperd. Jean Sheperd was the pioneer of talk radio and what talk radio should be and should have become.

It's too bad the Jean Sheperd Archives are long gone, sigh...
posted by y2karl at 2:55 PM on February 15, 2013 [3 favorites]

It's too bad the Jean Shepherd Archives are long gone, sigh...

Almost everything is still available as podcast downloads through iTunes, following the same indexing conventions. Shep Archives was a thing of awkward beauty, though, and I miss the search and filtering functions.
posted by Kinbote at 3:59 PM on February 15, 2013 [2 favorites]

There's also Shep-A-Day (RSS). I was a bit young when he was on the radio, but I did see him perform live once in Clinton, New Jersey. Funny, funny guy.
posted by maxim0512 at 4:54 PM on February 15, 2013

Steely Dan's Donald Fagen, for whom Jean Shepherd was a big hero, wrote a wonderful appreciation of the man which you can find here. Highly recommended.
posted by Seekerofsplendor at 6:20 PM on February 15, 2013 [2 favorites]

Growing up in Jersey in the '70s I would fall asleep at night listening to WOR ...

Me three. Also because my parents and grandparents had all lived at Fort Monmouth, where Shep was stationed for a while, there was a strong sense of connection.
posted by Miko at 7:59 PM on February 15, 2013

It would have been so fun to be alive and doing this sort of thing back then. I love the internet all day, every day but I miss the magic of hearing something on the radio or seeing something on the TV and having no way to find out more, more. more. It was what it was and your mind ran wild trying to imagine the people or things behind it.
posted by Our Ship Of The Imagination! at 9:53 PM on February 15, 2013 [2 favorites]

In 1980, one of the local network-affiliate TV stations in my town took a stab at producing some original entertainment programs for late night on weekends. One of the shows they made was a one-hour special conceived, written by and starring Jean Sheperd.

The script required a couple of bits of music to be recorded, and because I had done some other work for the producers recently, they called me. They needed three minutes worth of generic cocktail piano music that sounded sort of familiar but wouldn't necessitate paying royalties to anyone, and a couple of short five-second bumpers. No problem.

They also needed to record an accompaniment for a song that Jean Sheperd wanted to sing, specifically "A Pretty Girl Is Like A Melody." I warned them that I didn't know that particular tune. "Oh, don't worry - he's sending the sheet music for it," they assured me, and knowing that my sight-reading skills were dicey at best, they added that I'd have some time to do a few run-throughs without Sheperd before he got to the studio.

So I take the gig, go to the studio on the appointed day, record the background bit and bumpers in about 20 minutes, and so far everything's fine. They hand me the "sheet music" that Shepard had sent, which turns out to be a photocopy of a one-page chart from a old fake book. So I hand-copy the changes onto another sheet of paper for legibility's sake, and start running them down to get them under my fingers.

A little while later, Jean Sheperd arrives. Now when they called me for the gig, I really didn't know who he was - they told me he had had a successful radio program years ago back east, but in the pre-Internet era, there really was no way to get a quick & dirty overview of someone's career like there is now. Also, this was three years before the film of "A Christmas Story" came out. I'm guessing that at that particular time, Sheperd's career may have been at a relatively low ebb, and he may have taken this job as much for the money as anything else.

Anyway, he comes in to the control room, we're introduced, and I can't help noticing that the guy looks like hell. I don't smell any booze, but he has that sort of disheveled, unshaven look common to those who drink a lot, and seems a little disoriented, not really focused. Still, I'm thinking it's no big deal, we'll just knock this out and after that, it's not my problem.

(You know where this is going now, right?)

So, we go into the studio proper to do a run-though of his tune. I tell him I'm going to play a four-bar turnaround and then hold a chord for his entry. He nods, I play the turnaround, hold the chord, nothing happens. We try it again, same result. "I don't think that's my key," he volunteers. OK, what is your key? He doesn't know.

So, we start running through the intro in all the different key signatures, a half-step at a time, and this is when the real problem become apparent: Jean Sheperd can't really sing. He has major timing problems just finding his entrance, and no matter what key we try the song in, he wobbles out out of tune within three or four notes.

By this time, I'm starting to sweat a little bit, because the clock is ticking. I am made more nervous when Jean Sheperd gets kind of a nasty glint in his eye and says something to the effect of, the reason I can't stay on key is because you're not playing the melody!

Now, anyone who regularly accompanies singers knows that, as a general rule, you're not ever supposed to play the melody while the singer is singing. That's the singer's job, and a lot of them will get quite pissed at you if you do it.

But, after asking Sheperd if he was sure that's what he wanted, we picked the key that seemed closest to being the "best" for him (for some values of "best"), I scrawl out the transposed chord changes, and we start trying to lay it down. What followed was a very awkward 40 minutes, trying to get 90 seconds worth of something close to an acceptable rendition of the song.

I'd play the intro, launch into the melody, and Sheperd would lag anywhere from a half a beat to a couple of beats behind me. Then we'd get to a rest, and he'd jump ahead to the next phrase, basically completely ignoring the timing of the song. We go back and forth like this a few times, restarting the song again and again, by the end of which he's not really even attempting to sing any more, more like talk-singing and then mumbling the words.

(And for you kids out there, remember that this was long before Pro Tools and similar things existed that could have corrected some of these problems electronically. Basically, what we had in this situation were gain controls, EQ, reverb, and some razor blades.)

As all this is going on, the producers are getting more and more freaked out, subtly but visibly, because they're realizing that this most likely is going to be unusable. When we get to the end of the two hours allotted for the session, one of them comes in from the control room and says, "OK I think we've got what we need." Jean Sheperd thanks me, briefly and somewhat gruffly, turns and walks out, never to be seen by me again.

After he leaves, I ask the producer, "Do you really have what you need? Because, you know, I tried my best, but I think all of those seemed pretty rough to me." She told me they thought they could cut two or three of the takes together and end up with something they can use. And a couple of weeks later, I got a check from the station for the agreed-upon amount, so I figured it was all good, though I did wonder if Sheperd might have been on his way to having some sort of breakdown.

A few weeks after that, the show airs. The bumpers sound good, and the generic cocktail piano bit works just fine in context. However, the version of "A Pretty Girl Is Like A Melody" that makes it to air is a rather truncated one, consisting of the piano intro and Sheperd "singing" two lines and then...fading to nothingness. Maybe 10 seconds total.

Kind of an anti-climactic end to the story, I know, but hey, at least I got paid and got a "celebrity encounter" tale out of it. The station in question stopped trying to produce original shows not long after that, for reasons you can probably guess: too expensive, too much trouble, not generating enough ad revenue.

I have worked with a few other "famous" people since then in various capacities, but for me, this still stands as the weirdest such occasion.
posted by Nat "King" Cole Porter Wagoner at 10:28 PM on February 15, 2013 [12 favorites]

....and I realize now that I've misspelled "Shepherd" throughout my very long comment up above. Mods, any chance of a fix there?
posted by Nat "King" Cole Porter Wagoner at 10:41 PM on February 15, 2013

A Pretty Girl is Like....
posted by msalt at 12:01 AM on February 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

For many of us who grew up in rural America in the late 1940s and early 1950s, night time was truly magical. The melange of obscure Irish fiddle music, Pennsylvania polkas, livestock prices, ranting ministers, greetings for “shut-ins,” and obituaries sponsored by the local mortuary that were the staple of local broadcasting faded at sundown and out of the wondrous night sky came the sound of the 50,000-watt clear channel big city AM stations—WLS and WCFL in Chicago ;(the Voice of Labor, which had a great all-night jazz disc jockey named Sid McCoy) WBZ in Boston; KYW in Philadelphia; WSM in Nashville, home of the Grand Old Opry, and WWVA in Wheeling, the other home of live country music.

For me, the most magical of all was WOR in New York and a late night philosopher named Jean Shepherd. Shepherd was one of those guys who just too hip for this planet—like Dexter Gordon, Jimmy Rowles, Tommy Flanigan, Mort Sahl—guys who were cool when cool was hep and people who weren’t hep were squaresville. Vootie dudes, you dig? Whether the hip flowed from their horns or pianos or mouths, it was the riffs that blew the most...

Jerry Bowles

As a callow youth growing up in the wilds of New Jersey, a kid tagged as
too smart, too heavy, and too nearsighted, I took great comfort in Shep's
shows from 1966 to the early 1970s when I left the metro area. Shep was
funny, inspirational, philosophical, and educational. Sometimes

One of his great gifts was I always felt as though he was talking directly
to me, that we were partners in the daily struggle against the squares, the
meatballs and the conformists...

Patrick Curren
Eagan, Minnesota.
Jean Sheperd Memorial Message Board, Volume 3

Those testimonials, mostly written just after his death, are very affecting. He was a touchstone for so many people over so many years.
posted by y2karl at 1:02 AM on February 16, 2013 [3 favorites]

I grew up listening to Jean Shepard too.
The Internet Archive has hundreds of his radio shows, pick a year...
posted by Abinadab at 4:02 AM on February 16, 2013

Before you could get stuff like that on the Internet, my brother joined a group that traded his complete shows by CD in the mail. There were hundreds, and there was a really involved system of getting them in sequence, copying them, and sending the masters on. Every time I went to his house for years we listened to more Shepherd.
posted by Miko at 7:18 AM on February 16, 2013

For those of you, like me, who read Abinadab's Internet Archive comment and were then surprised to find only 40 files, note that most of the items in that list are actually directories full of files. (Which, I realize only now, is what "pick a year" meant.)

Sad to see that both the Jean Shepherd Project and the Jean Shepherd Archives are gone. Thanks to the brassfiglagee and the archive, it looks like most of that material is still available online. I was going to offer to seed a mail exchange with the first two sets of JSP discs, but spot checks suggest the archive collection is a superset of those.

I fear that without anyone actively soliciting tapes and encoding them, it seems unlikely that more Shep will turn up. I wonder what gems (amidst hours of unlistenable crap) are still out there rotting away on tapes in basements.

Now, all the fathead world needs is a carefully curated podcast of only the very best Shep. Unfortunately, the overlap between people willing to undertake that sort of project and those who are such far-gone fanatics that they think all Shep is great is likely to be nearly complete. I'm a fanatic when it comes to some other radio producers myself, so I understand the feeling. But, for me, 5% of Shep is amazing, 25% is quite entertaining, 60% is less interesting than many other things to which I'd rather be listening, and the rest is "turn it off" bad. But, it's well worth slogging through it all to discover that 5%.
posted by eotvos at 1:33 PM on February 16, 2013

Re-reading those comments on the Memorial Message Board really saddened me at times. Sheperd was a complex man and he had so much bitterness about the success of the likes of The Wonder Years and Garrison Keillor -- seeing them, as did many of his fans, as ripoffs of his work -- and his whole career in radio. Yet to read comment after comment recalling how this person or that listened to him under the covers as a child and feeling filled with delight and wonder and inspiration, and how this person or that recalled having had Sheperd read a letter they wrote with obvious approval and had them walking on clouds with delight for years thereafter, not to mention raising their status at grade school from pariah to cool kid literally overnight. It just seems so bittersweet to think how much he meant to so many people and yet how hard it was for him to see others achieve fame and glory using a formula he created and refined. And bittersweet, too, is to think of what a different universe it was then, that a mystical, mythic community was created around individuals listening alone to one man at night and how much it meant to them, how each person felt he was talking to them personally. Although I didn't know Sheperd until I was 19, I, too, remember the mystery and power of listening to far away radio stations late at night. That world is so gone.
posted by y2karl at 2:37 PM on February 16, 2013 [3 favorites]

He was smart to figure out how to use his medium. Today, public radio is half or more personal storytelling (the Moth, Snap Judgment, This American Life, Prarie Home Companion is the least of it.)
posted by msalt at 7:45 PM on February 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

Well, Sheperd's stories were fiction as are Keillor's tales of Lake Wobegon. The Moth, for one, is supposed to be about true stories, if I am not mistaken. This American Life presents examples of both fact and fiction. As for Snap Judgement, I am not sure.
posted by y2karl at 8:43 PM on February 16, 2013

"Fiction" may be simplistic, if you read his wiki page's section "Fact or Fiction." Then again, I heard a story on Snap Judgement today, about a guy whose dad was hypnotized into acting like a chicken whenever the word pomegranate was said, that rang very, very fake to my ears.
posted by msalt at 9:36 PM on February 16, 2013

Yeah, a lot of Shepherd's stories are based in reality, if embroidered reality.
posted by Miko at 9:45 AM on February 17, 2013

The Shepherd biography by Eugene Bergmann is worth seeking out. The book itself is as much of an enigma as Shepherd and won't answer most/all questions, but it will give you some insights. "Embroidered reality" is spot-on.
posted by quartzcity at 2:20 PM on February 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

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