Excelsior, You Fathead! The Art and Enigma of Jean Shepherd
Eugene B. Bergmann
495 pages. Applause, 2004, $28.
When I was around 10 or 12 years old – back in the late 60s and early 70s – I discovered Jean Shepherd’s nightly radio show on WOR AM in New York. Every evening at 10:15, Shep would come on the air, following his theme music (Strauss’ Bahn Frei), and talk for 45 minutes. He would just talk – there was no script, though people who knew him have suggested that he spent hours preparing for his shows – seemingly improvising, riffing on current events, his pet peeves, and telling stories. When listening to Shep, it always sounded like he was talking to me; like there was no one else listening to the radio. It was the stories that got me hooked, especially those about him growing up in Hammond, Indiana, a small town near Chicago. Shep talked about his time in the Army, and about the events of his childhood, which occurred between the age of about 7 and 17, events that happened to him and a few of his friends, such as Flick and Schwartz.
Shep and his friends were average kids, with the usual preoccupations of kids that age – my age – and the stories were bittersweet memories of their growing up in the Depression. Some of them were funny, others poignant, but Shep brought to these oft simple stories the true art of the storyteller. He always managed to make them last up until the final theme music, weaving threads and events until his time was up. I would be held in a spell for those 45 minutes, just before I went to sleep, as I entered his world.
I was a real Jean Shepherd fan back then. Not only did I buy his books (two books of stories, In God We Trust – All Others Pay Cash, and Wanda Hickey’s Night of Golden Memories and Other Great Disasters), his records (LPs of him reading from the books, or more scripted versions of the stories), and I even took up the instruments that he played on the show: the kazoo and the Jew’s harp.
Shep contributed greatly to my worldview, teaching me the power of stories and how the true storyteller could take control of the listeners’ minds, but also through the seemingly simple profundity of some of his observations.
Over the years, I had forgotten about Jean Shepherd – his stories were still someplace in that mushroom soup of memories that dated back to those pre-teen years, but they didn’t surface often. But recently, thanks to the Internet and a group of fanatics, I’ve been able to rediscover the joys of listening to this great artist.
And now (to finally get to the meat of this review), a new book examines Jean Shepherd, his art, his legacy, and his philosophy: Excelsior, You Fathead! The Art and Enigma of Jean Shepherd, by Eugene Bergmann. This book, written by a true Shep fan and fanatic, is a compendium of thoughts about Jean Shepherd, his work, his life, and, as the title suggests, his enigma.
Because Shep was an enigma. Having created his own radio genre, he eventually got tired of all the advertising that the radio stations tried to squeeze into his show and left, gave up, walked away from more than two decades of radio. He was a trendsetter – and, in a way, a minor cultural icon in the early days – but he hated trends, and hated following them even more. He was a unique friendly voice, but could be, at times, arrogant and opinionated.
Bergmann’s book is not a biography; instead, it is a collection of chapters that examine different periods of Shep’s life and work. There is no attempt to rationalize the complex relationships he had with his family, nor his personal life, beyond some basic anecdotes. However, this book, with its many excerpts from Shep’s radio shows, gives the best overview of what Shep was like, and what his shows were about. While the book is a bit disjointed, so was its subject.
If you’re familiar with Jean Shepherd, you’ll know why you should buy this book; if not, you may want to buy it to discover one of America’s most unique comic voices (though comic is by far too simplistic a word to describe Shep). And if you want to hear him at work, some 1,500 shows are available for download at the Jean Shepherd Archive, or, to hear a few random shows, check out the Jean Shepherd Podcast, or check out the Brass Figlagee podcast on iTunes.