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Excelsior You Fathead: The Art and Enigma of Jean Shepherd

June 12, 2008

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Excelsior You Fathead: The Art and Enigma of Jean Shepherd – by Eugene B. Bergmann

Greetings all.
I was this kid, see….
And for a few years during my adolescence, in a situation that today would be all but incomprehensible to most kids of that age, I spent close to five hours a day glued to the radio.
No, I did not grow up in the 1930’s. This was a period in the mid 70’s, when radio as a creative medium was making one last valiant charge into the valley of death. WOR in New York had a line up starting in mid-afternoon that began with Bob & Ray, and closed up shop late in the evening with the voice of Jean Shepherd.
It wasn’t just me either. A large group of my junior high school friends, and my Dad (who introduced me to Shepherd in the first place) listened every day, and discussed it all the day after.
There was something about Shepherd that struck a nerve in my 12 year old brain. He spoke about childhood, with what is widely – and mistakenly – believed to be nostalgia. However, what he was bringing to the table was – for us kids anyway – an unvarnished look at the truth of childhood, in which things were not at all rosy, but set us up for the inevitable disappointments of adulthood.
This is not to say that he was some kind of gloom-monger, but rather that he dealt in realism, in addition to the fact that he was funny as hell (as were Bob & Ray, but that is a story for another day).
I, like pretty much everyone else lost touch with Shep when some dipshit management school type came into WOR in 1977 and cleaned house, making way for an onrushing wave of mediocrity, sure to expand the audience but just as sure to put a bullet in the head of radio’s last big chance. A coup de disgrace, if you will.
A few years later, when ‘A Christmas Story’ came out, I was in college and it blew my mind that a mainstream movie had been made based on the stories of Shep (and narrated by him as well). Years later, when the film became a holiday perennial, and Shep a household name of sorts (at least for a new generation) I was able to sit smugly back and rejoice in the fact that I was on that particular bus years before the pack.
In recent years, alongside the advent of the pocket sized MP3 delivery device, I was able to go whole hog in an aural orgy of Shep when I discovered the Brass Figlagee podcast wherein lay a huge stockpile of old Shep airchecks to be downloaded and appreciated at my leisure.
It was during a recent search on the interwebs (oddly enough non-Shep related) that I happened upon a mention of what appeared at first to be a biography of Shep. Naturally I ordered myself a copy forthwith.
That book – ‘Excelsior You Fathead!: The Art and Enigma of Jean Shepherd’ – is not really Shep’s life story – but in fact a deeply researched and most importantly deeply understood critical biography dedicated to exploring Jean Shepherd’s more than 40-year body of work in radio, TV, movies and print.
The author, Eugene B. Bergmann has listened to (and transcribed) hundreds of hours of Shepherd’s broadcasts, his written work and available TV shows and gotten deep inside the world he created (real, imaginary and combinations of the two). During the course of over 400 pages Bergmann explores the recurring themes in Shepherd’s work, the philosophical and social motifs therein and how real life contributed to his work and vice versa.
Shepherd was a creative genius, in many ways creating a spoken novel over the airwaves over the course of more than 20 years on New York radio (bracketed by several years before and after when he was in essence setting the stage and subsequently winding down). He was also – like many a great creative artist – a deeply flawed individual. While Bergmann doesn’t dwell on Shepherd’s flaws, he does – where necessary – reveal how they were manifested in his work, his relations with his colleagues (and how those relationships affected his work) and how his real life, in his formative years and as an adult informed work largely assumed (again mistakenly) to be autobiography.
‘Excelsior You Fathead!: The Art and Enigma of Jean Shepherd’ is absolutely essential reading for those who are already fans of Jean Shepherd, but should also be passed on to anyone who needs to be reminded that electronic media wasn’t always a cesspool of banality.
Not only is Shepherd ripe for rediscovery, but also deserving of such. It may be that the time for any mass appeal is past, if only because the national attention span is so terribly stunted. Perhaps Shepherd is doomed to always remain a ‘cult’ artist. Considering the effect that kind of popularity has on some things, maybe that’s not such a bad thing.
Great book.

Now reading – Not sure yet…going to the book store tonight…

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2 comments

  1. I very much enjoyed and appreciated your essay on my book. I’m also happy that you saw its essence so clearly. Yours is one of the (few) very good descriptions of what I tried to accomplish in the book.

    My follow-up book on Shep is almost ready to seek-out a publisher. So much new info surfaced since Excelsior came out–some of it from people who read my book and responded to me with material that been previously “lost.” Comments to me from Lois Nettleton, his third (yes, third)wife, written just before her terminal illness, contact from a romantic interest of Shep’s from before Lois. This lovely woman I refer to as the Vampire Lady.” Long-hidden letters from Leigh Brown to her best friend, etc.

    Excelsior,

    Eugene B. Bergmann


  2. Thanks Gene. I look forward to the follow up.
    Larry



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