75,000 Watt Prophet

Jean ShepardHe was Howard Stern's crazy grandfather, Don Imus's hip cousin, and Wolfman Jack's uber role model. He was the first reporter to hang out with the Beatles when mere mortals weren't allowed within a mile of them, Charles Mingus dug him so much that they improvised a talking/jam together the likes of which has never been equaled in jazz, and he had such a quibble with movie Dr. Strangelove that Stanley Kubrick's mother -- his MOTHER -- demanded that Stanley go talk to him about it (and after that Kubrick became his friend and begged him to be the voice of HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey, which he turned down). Shel Silverstein, the hippest kid-poet this side of Alice, looked up to him like a guru. Andy Kaufman called him a true comic genius. And, oh, along the way he authored a collection of anti-sentimental fiction/memoirs that redefined the genre, gave Mark Twain and David Sedaris a run for the money, and led to the classic modern holiday movie A Christmas Story, and all that is still just scratching the surface of Jean Shepherd, someone you probably have never heard of.

Enter Excelsior, You Fathead!, the far-ranging, passionate, and inspired biography of Shepherd, by Eugene Bergmann (Applause). Here is a biography that not only reads like fiction, it's stuffed with delicious passages of the unique fiction/non-fiction stew that only Shepherd could concoct.

Caveat: Excelsior, You Fathead! has faults. Faults that author Bergmann honestly 'fesses up to right from the get-go, and faults that do nothing to harm the work. Bergmann admits that he is a huge, honking, rabid, foaming-at-the-mouth fan of the late Shep. But in this case, that's a good thing. Because, unlike, say, being a fan of Britney Spears or Nicholas Cage or just about anybody else, being a fan of Shepherd makes you fanatically honest, cynical, sarcastic, and hard-bitten. You're in a rather warped elite.

There weren't many "night people," as Shep's followers were sometimes called (because they would sit next to their radios all through the night listening to their electronic shaman spin his tales until dawn). But the faithful made up in fury what they lacked in numbers. So Bergmann portrays Shep warts and all (pretty good-sized warts too: four wives (that he could find), two kids Shep tried like hell to ditch but who he couldn't quite abandon, and a maniacal penchant for biting the hand that fed him that kept him perennially in the underground, despite his desire to be the big chief.)

Shepherd may not have been a nice man, but he was a genius. Of that, you are certain. Bergmann transcribes extensive "obits," poetic rants that read almost like long, verbal John Coltrane saxophone solos. He mines Shep's philosophy, a kind of furious, of-the-moment humanism that took no political sides -- and no prisoners. The only small gripes I have are that I wish it had a full bibliography of all of Shep's published works and extent recordings, and it would have been great if they had included a CD of some of Shep's better bits with the book, so you could better hear him in your mind's ear when you read his transcripts. Everything else, the passion, the fury, the scholarship, the quotes, I forgive them all. Because Shepherd is just too cool, too important, too delightful not to know about and sample. Read Shep's books, most notably In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash, and Wanda Hickey's Night of Golden Memories and Other Disasters; search out his recordings on the web (www.flicklives.com) and get to know him. But don't discount this wonderful introduction along the way. Excelsior!

'Til next time...

Ken Krimstein Ken.jpgMr. Krimstein is a writer, professor, cartoonist, father, and grump who lives in Chicago. So there.