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Monday
Jun202011

“The Bear Missed the Train” - Jean Shepherd on a Hot August Night  

alexkerheadI am always listening to The Brass Figlagee, the podcast that offers a mother load of Jean Shepherd’s old broadcasts from the late 50s to the late 70s on WOR in New York.  Shepherd, who died in 1999, was the highly influential pioneer of “talk” radio, which relies on the creativity and charisma of a single voice and a loyal audience.  I’ve written about him before and about his initial reaction in a 1964 broadcast to another pioneer, Bob Dylan.  Shepherd was known for his extraordinary prescience, especially in reference to trends, most of which he found facile.  He tried not to see the importance of a trend, or an exception to any time being an “important” time.  “All times are the most exciting times,” he once said.  His response to Dylan was an exception.  He underestimated Dylan’s cultural significance. 

 

However, an otherwise innocuous broadcast eight years later, on August 25, 1972, gives an excellent sense of how he also understood how much the times had been a-changing.  He even appears to acknowledge that much of it has passed him by.  During the broadcast, he makes observations of the news abroad and at home, and we can even see weird juxtapositions in the commercials on his show that night.  All of it provides a living window into 1972, in the middle of a time of enormous transformation in popular culture.

 

First, the commercials are fascinating.  “For temporary relief for minor anxiety, try Compose,” one ad says.  We hear a woman speak about the anxiety she has been feeling of late, and a male voice answers, “Have you tried…Compose?”  What was Compose?  Valium?  I haven’t been able to find a single online reference.  Another ad from the Christian Reform Church reminds listeners that God has “an unchanging message in a changing world,” and that “there is so much we would just assume tune out and turn off,…but we can’t.”  While pharmaceuticals try to grapple with crises of the self, messages of spirituality allude to Timothy Leary.  How like our time, too. 

 

Shepherd himself offers no commentary on these.  Instead, he relays news of the nude.  Six women in Sweden, he tells us, were driven “jaybird naked” around Stockholm only a week before, advertising a local brothel.

 

“So you see,” he says bitingly, “culture is moving on.”  

 

He adds that for more “jaybird naked fans,” of which he feels there are more and more, he quotes a story about the 1972 Miss Nude America, who will be earning $1,500 a week, which I would venture was more than Shepherd was making at the time. 

 

“Get your transcriber out,” Shepherd says, as he quotes Miss Nude herself:

 

“My husband is very proud of me.  He quoted me some poetry, saying something about this being my one chance in life and that my tide was coming in.

 

globochem3x1minus1 Shepherd was never really a moral purist.  Indeed in his broadcasts from this time he never speaks about being scandalized by the X-rated movie houses replacing the old vaudeville and movie palaces around New York City.  (As a boy, my sheepish father would lead me quickly past Times Square’s porn houses that were located right next to our actual destination of the Radio City Christmas show.  As he rushed me through, hoping I wouldn’t notice the changed scenery, I felt handled much as a child does as he is saved from a house fire.)  What upsets Shepherd is the absence of subtlety in culture at large.  In a society where people were being rewarded for merely removing their clothing, Shepherd feels that everything is about obviousness now.  Nothing is considered important beneath the surface any longer.  Not sex, not talent. 

 

Nor humor.  He switches the subject to baseball, specifically to baseball fans.  He asks about Mets fans, “Has anyone noticed the sad decline of the signs at Shea Stadium?”  He insists that when the Mets came into existence in 1962, the fans brought humorous homemade signs to baseball games at the Polo Grounds that reflected their frustration over the team’s haplessness.  He remembers one sign from the early 60s that merely said “How long??”  Another poked fun literally behind the back of the infamous Mets first baseman Marv Throneberry:   “Please Catch It Marv – I’m Sitting With My Mom.”  Or another was what Shepherd called a “cry in the dark,” a simple statement of “HELP.”  His favorite, though, was both sardonic and formless – a sign at the ball game bearing the simple yet loaded interrogative:  ? 

 

Now, in 1972, ten years after the Mets’ formation, Shepherd says he feels there are no more funny signs at Mets games.  Instead, he insists that the crowd is filled with “Archie Bunkers and little Archie Bunkers,” the very same character satirized on All in the Family whom Shepherd feels all of America is now unselfconsciously emulating.  He appears to suggest that instead of making a mark with an intelligent observation, all people want is to simply be on TV.  Now nothing is worth seeing, except, he supposes, the people who are simply seen.  Instead of funny signs, the TV sweeps the crowd at baseball games and finds fans holding up signs that say things like, “Fair Lawn, New Jersey Loves the Mets.”  No one says anything interesting anymore.  Nothing is subtle.  Everything is just out there, obvious and bland. 

 

***

 

Throughout the show that day, Shepherd plays a novelty song called “The Bear Missed the Train,” which he played often on his program, a humorous take on the song “Bei Mir Bist Du Shoen,” which in English was made famous by the Andrews Sisters in the 1940s.  The lyrics to the song he plays are ridiculous:

 

The bear missed the train,

The bear missed the train,

The bear missed the train,

And now he’s walking.

 

But how poignant that Shepherd, a talk radio pioneer, is playing a song about missing the train.  By the 70s, Shepherd had lost much of the attention he first received when he broke onto the talk radio scene, yet to me, the things he said that day in 1972 seem eternal.  We imagine the 60s and 70s were the most radical of times, the times Dylan said were changing.  And they were.  But we often lose a sense that the cultural call to a different drum is often a fad, too.  Though he may have aspired to greater fame, Shepherd cannot help but notice in 1972 that the revolutions of openness and change are mostly just that – trends and fashions, and they are surface-level.  It is a train that he missed, for better or for worse. 

 

The novelty of nudity, the novelty of ordinary people being on TV are no longer so novel to us, but his observations about our American love of obviousness, about our willingness to watch anything just for the sake of watching something is still profound, especially as we enter our second decade of omnipresent reality television.  What would Shepherd make of it?

 

“I didn’t intend to do a show on baseball tonight,” he says, as his he wraps up that August night.  “This isn’t a show about baseball.  It’s a show on the decline and fall of an entire structure.”  He leaves it to us to figure out what that structure is.  He adds that “tonight we’ve examined the slowly accumulated hints that the path of the destruction of the empire is clearly laid out.” 

 

But just before he ends his show, he manages to quote from the poem that Miss Nude America’s husband apparently alluded to:

 

There is a tide in the affairs of men.

Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;

Omitted, all the voyage of their life

Is bound in shallows and in miseries.

 

Whether Miss Nude America knew it or not, this is Brutus from Julius Caesar.  Even without the benefit of the Internet, Shepherd did know it, and one wonders whether or not he understood what it meant to omit the tides or to miss the train. 

Reader Comments (3)

Very interesting figure. His prophetic concerns remind a great deal of Edward R. Murrow, who I guess would have been a more formal newsman when compared to Shepherd, but I imagine he had an influence on Shepherd none the less. Which is what I see as a distinction between the newsmen of today vs. yesteryear. Regardless if they were serious men doing serious work or more raconteurs offering an entertaining respite, there was, I like to believe, and equal concern for the direction of American culture. Today's newsmen and Hollywood reporters are so pigeon holed in their responsibilities. They are either fear mongering, loud-mouth blowhards or kitsch pop-culture twits masquerading as newsmen. There is no cultural commentary within context, with exception of someone like Bill Maher, who himself is so confused by the developments of today that he is constantly contradicting himself.

I like the conclusion with Julius Caesar and I admire Shepherd's literary awareness of it. It's coincidental, if nothing else, that Murrow also was very familiar with the play and its cultural and political themes, and used it in his infamous debate with Senator McCarthy.

"The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,/
But in ourselves, that we are underlings" -Act I, scene ii

Probably my favorite line of any Shakespeare and one I imagine Shepherd would have agreed with.

Thanks for the lunch!

June 22, 2011 | Registered CommenterPatrick Edmonds

Loved this post. It is admirable how you manage to write with your own distinctive voice when discussing the message of another.

I'm interested most by the observations on a culture that has lost its subtlety and where obviousness is the only thing that sells. Shepherd's ability to juxtapose coarseness with a vague snippet of Shakespearean drama set against the backdrop of another culture's decline is remarkably sharp. Even though the 70s seems very remote to us now, your post helps explain how and why technology and entertainment have made us more like Huxley's Brave New World with each passing decade. The scary thing about reading about the foresight of commentators like Shepherd is that none of the vacuousness of American entertainment should be unexpected. It was foreshadowed 40 years ago and seems almost by design, or at least willfully chosen by the masses. It makes me wonder if there are not Mustapha Mond world controllers hiding away libraries full of Shepherd's broadcasts, because in their view at least a dumbed down populace is easier to control.

It makes the Ryan Dunn story all more sad. We worship reckless jackasses who mock and profit from society's fading sensibilities, and then we feign shock and sorrow when this behavior leads to premature deaths. Of course, I, like most others, am hardly blameless when it comes to sometimes contributing to this cultural decline. But rather than succumb to the fad, I think if we can at least recognize what media choices we make and try to improve the quality of what we consume, then we have made a start in the right direction. We have to make a concerted effort to reject the obvious laughs and adopt more subtlety before we too are drowned out in a clear pool of our own self image.

The remaining problem is by whose standard are we to judge what is tasteful and what is not without reverting to snobs and xenophobes?

Lots to think about in your post. Hope to see more.

June 22, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterNick Carraway

"The novelty of nudity, the novelty of ordinary people being on TV are no longer so novel to us, but his observations about our American love of obviousness, about our willingness to watch anything just for the sake of watching something..." This really sums up your post well.

I have to say that American pop culture is not something to be proud about, and I can understand the disdain of Shepherd. From baseball to beuaty pagents, he is right to see the shallowness of American culture, and you are keen to point out how we struggle with it today.

Television is omnipresent and the willingness of Americans to cling to this and pass it onto the generation is part of the issue. The real issue is Americans unwillingness to study and improve their own life by logical and informed decision. We eat exactly what we are fed. We cling to pasttimes as if they were a religious experiences. We admire success for any reason if it equals money and fame.

We do this to belong. It is a whole culture who needs to be accepted and we are accepted if we watch television and accept their life style. And yet, America has always been able to reach a deeper level because of our personality to non-comformity.

If we turn off the televisions and radios for just a week, I wonder what intellectual achievements and social groundbreakings we can make. I wonder if we just allow ourselves to think and see the world as it is, and not through some media personality, perhaps we can come to a vision of our potential.

I like Shepherd's ideas and sometimes we need to see how shallow we are in the hope of wading to deeper waters. I will check out more of his ipods and the site.

June 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJames Dugan

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