Monday, January 16, 2006

Vin & Shep: the soul brothers of New York Radio

Although this post isn’t really about WNYC radio, I’ll start off by saying that I think that it’s the best radio station in New York – maybe the best public radio station in the country (especially on the AM side) –and that I listen to it a lot. A LOT. Because of that fact, I am a proud subscriber, with my checking account debited $10.83 a month (it’s pretty painless that way). And, because I give them all that dough, they give me my choice of a “free” gift every year – you know the drill, take your pick, an umbrella, tote bag, CDs, the usual stuff.

A few months ago, I opted for a copy of “Excelsior, You Fathead!”, the recently published biography on Jean Shepherd (1921-1999), written lovingly by Eugene B. Bergmann. Leonard Lopate did a show on the book, which is why I suppose it was offered as a WNYC premium. (You need Real Audio installed on your computer to hear many, if not most, of these these audio links.) Eugene sums up “Shep’s” appeal pretty succinctly in the interview: “He had this ability to talk to you as though you were the only one. It was as though he and you were carrying on a dialogue. He was a great conversationalist, except that he was the one doing the talking.”

Jean is probably best known today as the writer and narrator of the classic holiday movie ”A Christmas Story”. But his WOR-AM radio show, to me, is why he “matters”. Listen to him. You can catch him on WBAI every Tuesday morning at 5:15 am (!) on Max Schmid’s great “Mass Backwards” show. If you can’t get up that early – or don’t have a “Radio TiVo” hooked up just yet - take a listen to “A Day at the Races”, his broadcast of January 7, 1965, which is available (along with quite a few other shows) at the Mass Backwards website.

And – and! – if you know how to download podcasts via Apple’s iTunes, you can download archived Jean shows right to your iPod. Seriously. I mean, jeez, that’s great stuff. (I have plenty to say about podcasts – I love ‘em – I’ll get around to it. I swear. There’s so much to talk about…)

When I got the book – which I love, even though it jumps all over the place chronologically, which confuses this easily-confused reader - I noticed that Vin Scelsa is quoted on the back cover: “Ain’t no one else ever gonna come close to what the man accomplished… in the dark… with a microphone, a kazoo, and 50,000 watts!” Now Vin is a hero of mine – and once I started listening to him on his Sirius radio show last night, I realized that Vin is the spiritual inheritor of Jean Shepherd. Listening to Scelsa is the closest thing you’ll find to listening to Shepherd: they are both brilliant, soulful, only-in-New York genius radio monologists, inventive and funny and kind and obsessive and generously talented.

Listen to them – both. You need to.

My favorite Scelsa show, ever, took place sometime in mid to late June 1982, shortly after the writer John Cheever died. Vin spoke eloquently of the man, quoted from his books – now this was on a weeknight on a major commercial radio station, WNEW-FM, if you can believe it, seems impossible now – and ended up segueing into the Talking Heads’ “Once In a Lifetime”. With just a song, Vin brilliantly paralleled John Cheever and David Byrne’s brilliant portrayals of bewildering American suburbia (“And You May Tell Yourself/This Is Not My Beautiful House!/And You May Tell Yourself/This Is Not My Beautiful Wife!”) And: I got chills. I’ll never forget it.

Vin’s “Idiot’s Delight” can be heard on Saturday nights, between 8pm and midnight, on WFUV-FM; his shows are archived as Windows Media files here. You can also hear him on the FANTASTIC free-form Sirius station “Sirius Disorder” (Channel 24), which just may be my favorite music radio station ever, on Wednesdays and Thursdays between 12 noon and 2pm, with replays of the daytime shows on Sunday nights at 8pm and Thursday nights at 1am.

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