John Shepherd is the man who whispered to the stars and aliens

John Shepherd is the man who whispered to the stars and aliens

For years he has been trying to make contact with extraterrestrials through music from his grandparents' living room. But he has nothing of the possessed, and today he is a docile old sage. John Was Trying to Contact Aliens is the Netflix doc who tells his story

There are photos that contain an interesting story and do not need explanations to be told. A long hair from the 70s struggling with huge machines in the living room with his grandmother sitting by his side in an armchair embroidering is one of them. Director and editor Matthew Killip found it - and was immediately hooked - in In Advance of the Landing: Folk concepts of outer space, Douglas Curran's book from which the creators of The X-Files drew to. the creation of the first season, centered on several people who have thrown themselves into body and soul, spending all their money and much of their time,

trying to establish contact with extraterrestrials.

The guy with the tight shirt and hands on the knobs of the huge machine is called John Shepherd, and for over 25 years he has been trying to make contact with aliens through music. From the living room of his grandparents' home. On Netflix there is John Was Trying to Contact Aliens (in Italian John and music for the aliens), a small 16-minute documentary winner of the jury award for Best Short Documentary at the latest Sundance that tells his story.

John Shepherd was born in Northern Michigan in a small rural community. Abandoned by his father when he was still a baby and by his mother not long after, he was adopted by his grandparents, who raised him in a small cottage. They didn't know it would become the base for his inter-space radio station, and that they would be its prime admirers and financiers. John's original intent was to establish contact with some form of alien life, and he soon realized that the best way could be to try to do so through the universal language of music. Obviously not pop, but preferably instrumental or, as Shepherd calls it, "cultural and creative". And then jazz, afro, the enlightened German experimenters (Kraftwerk, Tangerine Dream, Harmonia), Brian Eno and, he is keen to emphasize, gamelan, a genre of Indonesian origin. The reason for these choices (as well as for personal tastes) he explained in this interview: "There is no need for translation if something can be felt through the soul and the mind. There is always that middle zone between reality and music that gives access to an imaginary landscape: you can try to understand it, or simply relax and navigate the flow. "

Shepherd in the flow has navigated us to a lot of time. Said this way, it may seem like the story of one of the many weirdos in the American province, a UFO shot with a bit of a freak, an unrealistic one to look at with a smile. Killip's close look, however, shows us a very profound character, even aware of the ambition of his research but no less convinced of its necessary nature, at least for him. “I didn't find significant results, but in terms of inspiration, creative ideas… it filled and gave meaning to my life”. John has never been a particularly well-known character, but over the years television has not infrequently visited him, to present a version that is always very epidermal. In this appearance in a program by Joan Rivers, for example, it is very easy to glimpse the hidden but aggressive irony of a world - the television world that is all exterior and needs immediate results - really struggling to frame the meaning of this individual's research. shy but firm. The incomprehensible ability to go on after (at the time) 18 years of practically nothing, the clarity of saying "like an artist who doesn't sell paintings continues to paint, I continue to design equipment and work on ideas". Too much for a late show.

There is a kind of sadness that runs throughout the film, but it is a sweet melancholy, conferred by the innate poetry of this now elderly man, with docile eyes, with a pleasant tone of voice and the dialectic of an old wise man who has seen things about it. Perhaps because, you can immediately guess, life must have reserved large spaces of solitude for that boy who looked at the cosmos in a small town in Michigan. John talks about all this calmly and simply. About the period between the ages of 12 and 14, when he discovered he was gay, for example, he only says that "it was not easy", that, so to speak, in that part of the United States "there is not much understanding".

But John Shepherd is not just a dreamer who has embarked on a mission greater than himself. John Shepherd is a genius, a self-taught man who over time has come to build a two-story high transmitter with a power of 60,000 volts. While watching John Was Trying to Contact Aliens one question remains pending. How did you manage to afford equipment that initially occupied an entire room, two years later a living room, and which soon became so cumbersome that it required the construction of an outbuilding in front of the house? Neither John nor his grandparents were millionaires, and for this reason Shepherd fished in military surpluses and wholesale markets, but above all he invented his own solutions with waste materials, with microwave ovens and everything that could somehow be useful for transmitting millions of kilometers into space. The large tower located outside the house that allowed the transmission, for example, was obtained from an old ski lift.

And he succeeded in transmitting, he set up the Strat project (Special Telemetry Research and Tracking), he designed new instruments in a creative process in continuous evolution that probably represented its real reason for being. A sort of perennial performance by an artist of sound, light and electricity, and a nonconformist, as he himself declared he would like to be described. The equipment, however, had become so bulky that maintenance costs, while kept as low as possible, became simply unsustainable in the late 1990s, and in a moment of "frustration, almost depression", Shepherd was forced to finish the Strat project.

But an artist continues to paint even if he does not sell paintings, and John Shepherd's life did not stop at that experience. If anything, he borrowed from it his tireless research capacity, which in the

1993 led him to say, here on Earth: "Contact has been made".

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