The Good Shepherd

His comic look at life in the '50s formed the foundation for a seminal Christmas 'Story'. But there is more to Jean Sheperd than little boys and BB guns.

A Christmas Story

Publisher: Broadway
Subtitle: The Book That Inspired the Hilarious Classic Film
Author: Jean Shepherd
Price: $14.95
Length: 144
Formats: Hardcover
ISBN: 0767916220
US publication date: 2003-10

When talking classic holiday films, it’s not unusual to hear A Christmas Story mentioned in the same breath as A Christmas Carol and It’s a Wonderful Life. Every holiday season it’s hard to miss - nay, avoid - little Peter Billingsly playing Ralphie Parker, the nine-year-old bespectacled towhead dreaming of a BB gun for Christmas (despite the chorus of adults who caution, “You’ll shoot your eye out!” )

The 1983 film, directed by Bob Clark, is a fixture on television every year. Beginning early in the season and shown on and off until Christmas, it's everywhere. Even Ted Turner's TBS Superstation favors fans with an all-day marathon. On December 25th, Ralphie’s dewy-eyed expression graces living rooms across the country. It's as common as mistletoe, garland, or a wreath.

Despite its present popularity, the movie didn’t start out as an instant classic. When it was first released in 1983, it flew under the radar. In fact, some considered it a flop. Yet in the years since, the wide exposure from television combined with the undeniably witty sense of humor have won it many fans. The result is the establishment of a new Yuletide tradition.

The movie’s success makes it easy to forget or even overlook the fact that it’s based on five short stories by radio personality and writer, Jean Shepherd. Three of the five tales were originally published in Playboy between 1964 and 1966 and all subsequently ended up in two of Shepherd’s short story collections: In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash and Wanda Hickey’s Night of Golden Memories. In 2003, the stories were republished in one book titled, A Christmas Story: The Book That Inspired the Hilarious Classic Film.

The original tales include the familiar anecdotes that later wound up in the film, such as the infamous leg lamp; the war between Ralphie’s father (“The Old Man”) and the family furnace; Ralphie getting his Little Orphan Annie Society decoder pin and discovering the secret message is just an advertisement for Ovaltine; the next door neighbors’ vexatious dogs; and Ralphie’s legendary fight with neighborhood bully, Grover Dill (known as Scut Farkus in the film), which causes him to spurt forth an “unbelievable tornado of obscenity”.

The film has added content that is missing from the book, and vice versa. For instance, the next door neighbors with the horrible canines have their own story titled “The Grandstand Passion Play of Delbert and the Bumpus Hounds”. This hilarious yarn revolves around the family moving in next door to Ralphie and taking over their neighborhood with their “sea of wreckage spread like a blight onto the surrounding yards.” This story alone makes the book worth buying. I found myself wiping tears away as I read about the clan who Shepherd describes as “so low down on the evolutionary totem pole that they weren’t even included in Darwin’s famous family tree.”

As in the film, the stories are narrated by Shepherd from the perspective of an adult looking back on his childhood. In the book, however, we actually get to read about Ralphie as an adult, navigating his way through more mature situations. An example can be found in the beginning of the story about the leg lamp titled “My Old Man and The Lascivious Special Award That Heralded The Birth of Pop Art”/ Here, we witness our matured hero chatting up a fellow art fan at the Museum of Modern Art. Just as he thinks he’s about to land the girl, she’s whisked away by her lesbian lover, whom he describes as “a tall broad-shouldered figure wearing black cowboy boots and tight leather pants. . . her cheekbones topped by two angry embers for eyes.”

The short stories also aren't limited by season. They take place throughout the year instead of only at Christmastime like in the film. In the book, the Bumpus’ hounds run off with the family’s Easter Ham instead of the holiday turkey, and Ralphie’s scuffle with Grover Dill takes place on a “hot, shimmering day” in late spring.

Despite the time and seasonal differences, Shepherd (who wrote the screenplay along with director Clark and Leigh Brown), manages to weave the tales together seamlessly. He also added scenes that fans of the movie have come to know so well. Besides writing and narrating the film, Shepherd also has a cameo as the man who directs Ralphie and his little brother to the back of the line in the department store while they wait to sit on Santa’s lap.

The actors also augment Shepherd’s already lively characters. Billingsley, the face of A Christmas Story, is pure and defiant at the same time, capturing the essence of what makes little boys special. Ian Petrella gives added life to Randy, Ralphie’s “kid brother”, who makes sculpture with his mashed potatoes and repeatedly topples over after his mother bundles him up in a snowsuit that could double as wall insulation. Melinda Dillon is excellent as Mrs. Parker, the doting mother and understanding wife, and last but not least Darren McGavin is spot on as the infamous 'Old Man'.

As I read the book, I kept picturing McGavin’s face twisting up and his eyes rolling as he ran into the obstacles of his everyday life -- the unruly furnace, the Bumpus’ dogs. When I got to the part of the book where he receives the leg lamp in a box stamped “fragile”, I distinctly heard McGavin’s voice in my head say, “’frageelay’ it must be Italian.” Interestingly, Clark actually considered Jack Nicholson to play Mr. Parker but wound up going with McGavin in the end. Although I’m sure Nicholson would’ve been brilliant as The Old Man, I can’t imagine anyone else playing him.

Although Shepherd died in 1999, his story lives on in film and in print. If you’re looking for something to summon the holiday spirit this season, A Christmas Story: The Book That Inspired the Hilarious Classic Film is an excellent choice. The slim volume is a quick and fun read, chocked full of the same hilarious witticisms about a middle American family that make the film so amusing and memorable. No wonder it's become a new Yule tradition. Shepherd's stories definitely bring joy to the world.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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