:: Buzzwords Archive: December 2010. Click here for the latest posts.

3:AM Cult Hero: Jean Shepherd (published 26/12/2010)

By Robert O’Connor


Jean Shepherd (WOR, 1966.  Flicklives.com)

When writing the profile of George Ade, I came across a collection of his stories with an introduction by Jean Shepherd.  In it, he writes well of Ade, but the highlight of it is how he writes of the Midwestern United States.  Shepherd has many beautiful descriptions of the region like “between these major metropolis lie countless hamlets whose only ambition is to become incorporated and to beat the County Seat at softball,” and “The thing about the Midwest is that hardly anybody really feels part of something.  Everyone is always leaving.  No one ever comes except on business or to see ailing relatives.”

Shepherd also pokes fun at Chicago’s pride – “one newspaper calling itself the World’s Greatest Newspaper and they believe it” and the city’s ambition to build the world’s first mile high skyscraper.  “No one quite knows what will go into it.  Or cares, for that matter.”  Shepherd wrote that in 1961, 13 years before the Sears Tower came to dominate the city skyline and almost 50 before the Burj Khalifa was finished.

Shepherd, like Ade, grew up in northwest Indiana in the town of Hammond, in the northwestern corner of the state.  He was in the Army Signal Corps during World War II, but afterwards got a job in the media, first in Cincinnati, then Philadelphia and in 1956 he landed a job at New York’s WOR.

Shep’s show had humorous anecdotes, commentaries and he’d organize wild stunts.  The most famous of them was a protest against the New York Times bestseller list and how they calculated their list – by including in their calculations the number of requests for the book.  He asked his listeners to walk in to bookstores and ask for a book called I, Libertine by Frederick R. Ewing.  The book didn’t exist.  After seven weeks of promoting the imaginary book and winning the condemnation of the Archbishop of Boston, the book appeared on the list.  Shepherd, along with friend Ted Sturgeon wrote a real book with the same name under the same pseudonym and it became a bestseller again.

By the early 1960s, Shepherd was known nationwide for his humorous anecdotes and commentaries about ordinary life in America, much like George Ade had done.  In 1964, media scholar Marshall McCluhan said in his book Understanding Media that Shepherd “regards radio as a new kind of novel that he writes nightly.”

Like Garrison Keillor after him, Shepherd would tell humorous stories about the Midwest and play novelty songs.  But unlike Keillor, Shepherd would accompany himself on folk instruments like the Jew’s harp or the kazoo.

In 1971, Shepherd moved into screenwriting and giving live performances of his show.  He also collected stories he told on the radio and published them in Playboy, and again in books.

For those who weren’t around during his WOR days (which he later dismissed, oddly enough), Shep’s most famous work is the film A Christmas Story, which he wrote and narrated (and had a cameo in).  It’s the story of Ralphie, a kid in 1940s Indiana and what he wants for Christmas – an Official Red Ryder Carbine-Action Two-Hundred-Shot Range Model Air Rifle – and how he is told by everyone – his mother, his teacher, even a Santa at the mall – that he’ll shoot his eye out.

There are also a lot of great Christmas moments like when Ralphie’s parents just stare out the window and watch the snowfall at night.  And being the 1940s, there’s plenty of things from Christmas Past like the Ovaltine decoder ring Ralphie gets in the mail.

The movie got mixed reviews and didn’t do well at the box office when it first came out.  It then came out on video and became a perennial Christmas favorite, to the point that TNT shows the film continuously in a 24 hour marathon on Christmas eve.

MORE: Flick Lives // A Christmas Story: Excerpt, Excerpt, Excerpt // Other screen credits // I Libertine (article on the scandal and another) // Archived shows on WOR (Clipmarks, Internet Archive) // Books of stories told on the show // Amateur radio sound bites (scroll to Jean Shepherd)

The Missing Links (published 25/12/2010)


Lean on Pete is half the length of Freedom but twice the novel…Should we be wringing our hands for Roth and DeLillo? Could anyone seriously claim that Freedom is better or even within a mile of Underworld? Hardly.” Battersby on why Franzen is the perfect illustration of the triumph of hype over literary merit. * Don DeLillo: “Novels will become user-generated. An individual will design his own novel, with him as main character.” (via @ballardian) * “He’d lost his magic.” First sentences from the novels of Philip Roth. * The American Psycho idea, Ben Myers on the serious novel as musical. * 10 L.A. literary hotspots. * W.G. Sebald, writing in pictures. * Paul Collins on on Barbara Newhall Follett, much-lauded child author who disappeared without a trace in 1939. * Flann O’Brien‘s Sexton Blake stories. * Jon Savage takes a tour through Captain Beefheart’s back catalogue. * 12 most unintentionally disturbing Xmas ads. * Space-age Xmas 1973. * 10 alternative Xmas tales. * Xmas cameos in literary fiction. * George Orwell‘s recipe for Xmas pudding. * Flann O’Brien‘s guide to recognising Xmas bores (via @slovobooks) * Merry Xmas everyone!

Jeffrey Bernard doesn’t do Christmas (published 24/12/2010)


The Spectator dig into their archives to reprint a Jeffrey Bernard ‘Low Life’ column on having to endure the festive season:

Speaking as a man with little faith I find this whole business of Christmas one hell of an inconvenience. It must be even worse for a turkey. One of the things that annoys me is the fact that I can hardly find a table in any of the restaurants I use because of the number of wretches who only seem to eat and drink once a year. Where the hell are they in, say, August?

But one of the things about Christmas that I keep thinking about and which is rather odd is the fact that Jesus was born in what was obviously a pub. So God can’t be all that bad. And now to the awful business of buying a few presents. I would like to buy Edwina Currie an egg-timer filled with cigarette ash. No, it would be a waste of money. I would like too buy myself some anabolic steroids. I now tip the bathroom scales at 8st 12lb and it damn nigh kills me just to go downstairs to answer the telephone. It is new legs that I need for next year. Either that or a ground floor flat.

More: Tom Hodgkinson’s 1995 interview with Bernard.

Uptown Sinclair (published )

Via the unofficial official Iain Sinclair website, footage of last year’s LSE Literary Festival, featuring Iain himself and also Patrick Wright.

3:AM Cult Hero: Harvey Pekar (published 23/12/2010)

By Robert O’Connor

harvey-pekar(Everett Collection)

Harvey Pekar was an ordinary man whose love of jazz and books helped him have an extraordinary life.  And in the process he helped make ordinary life more tolerable for everyone else.

Pekar was born to Polish immigrants in Cleveland.  His father owned a grocery store and he lived above it.  He attended Case Western University in Cleveland for a year before dropping out.  He then worked a series of odd-jobs, including a stint in the US Navy, before getting a job as a file clerk at the Cleveland Veteran’s Administration Hospital (now named the Louis Stokes Cleveland VA Medical Center). He worked alongside Robert McNeill, a veteran who would be the subject of a biography by Pekar in 2003.

Pekar lived a block and a half from Robert Crumb, who was in Cleveland working at a greeting card company while drawing comix on the side.  They both shared an obsession with old jazz records and became fast friends.  Pekar was introduced to comics and realized that not much had been done with them except superhero stories.

He theorized for about ten years about what comics could do – whether they could tell stories about regular people much like George Ade had done – Pekar liked George Ade.

Finally, in 1975 Pekar decided to put out his own comic.  It was a series of nonfiction pieces written by him and illustrated by friends Crumb, Willie Murphy, Bob Armstrong and a few others.  The result was the first issue of American Splendor.

He then put out an issue of American Splendor every year.  They were self-published, but they caught on.  He was a frequent guest on David Letterman‘s show until in a 1988 appearance Pekar – who was always politically outspoken – criticized General Electric on Letterman’s show (which was on NBC which is owned by GE), resulting in him being banned – though the two patched up their differences and Pekar was a guest on the show several years later.

American Splendor also had biographies of jazz artists – Pekar was a prolific jazz and book critic as well as a comic writer.  In 1991 the series was published by Dark Horse, who kept it up until it was moved to Vertigo (a DC Comics imprint) in 2006.

Pekar also wrote a history of the Beat Poets, a graphic history of the SDS and adapted Studs Terkel‘s Working into a graphic novel.

Pekar also wrote the critically acclaimed graphic novel “Our Cancer Year” in 1994 with his wife Joyce Brabner.  The novel is a chronicle of his treatment for lymphoma.

Pekar retired from his job as a file clerk in 2001 and became a full-time writer, giving lectures and interviews more frequently.  In 2003, the acclaimed documentarians Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini made a biopic of Pekar titled “American Splendor” starring Paul Giamatti as Pekar.  The film won the Grand Jury Prize for Dramatic Film at the Sundance Film Festival and an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay.

Pekar was diagnosed with cancer again in 2010, and shortly afterwards was found dead on July 12, 2010.  In October it was determined that the cause of death was an overdose of antidepressants.

Like George Ade, Pekar championed the ordinary man through his work.  The big difference between the two was that Pekar stayed an ordinary man by working a menial job as a file clerk.  Pekar’s legacy is that he showed that comics could be just as varied as other art forms and deal with mundane issues just as powerfully.  His comics were not about superheroes, but about real people – who are even more fantastic.

MORE: Interview, Sound of Young America (mp3) // list of American Splendor collaborators // Boppin’ with Pekar // Archive of Jazz reviews, Austin Chronicle // INTERVIEWS: Fresh Air, New York Press, Walrus Comix, WPSU // OBITUARIES: New York Times, Wall Street Journal, La Cucaracha // Discussion of “American Splendor” film with Giamatti, Pulcini and Berman on Charlie Rose, 2003 // APPEARANCES ON DAVID LETTERMAN: First interview (1, 2), 1987, infamous show (article on the appearance, In These Times), later appearance (video is coded April 1993)