“He washed his red shirt in the sink. Laid a motel towel on the floor. Laid the shirt on the towel. As he smoothed the sleeves and crossed them on the belly of the shirt he thought of his own death. Of how they might cross his arms just like the sleeves on his own dead belly.” -Sam Shepard, from MOTEL CHRONICLES
Sam Shepard’s recent passing has spurred me to look back through his books and movies, and just like when Jim Carroll died in 2009, I’m finding myself surprised to remember how much I’d forgotten, if that makes any sense. Surprised I’d lost track of how hard this guy’s work hit me at one point in my life, and how consistently his presence has hung around, kinda beneath my skin, absorbed.
I first discovered him in the mid-‘80s, when I somehow stumbled across MOTEL CHRONICLES, which seemed a straight up art-for-art’s-sake mishmash of poetry, prose poetry, road stories and reminiscences. It colored outside the lines, format be damned, and that was exactly what I was looking for. Then I found his ROLLING THUNDER LOGBOOK, an experimental little document about Bob Dylan’s legendary Rolling Thunder Revue tour, which swept through the Northeastern states in 1975. “New England is festering with Bicentennial madness,” Shepard wrote at the time, and the tour pulled along legends in its wake, like Allen Ginsberg, Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, T-Bone Burnett, Muhammad Ali, and of course Shepard, who along the way crafted his version of the tale.
Then my habit grew into the hard stuff when I found Shepard’s SEVEN PLAYS, one of which was “True West”, regarded by some as Shepard’s signature work. It’s about two estranged brothers who meet up at their mother’s house while she’s away, and they tangle into a kind of feud, swapping personalities, the writer and the thief, and they dig into some pretty tough mysteries about family and blood and life in general.
“You go down to the L.A. police department there and ask them what kinda people kill each other the most. Who do you think they’d say?…Family people. Brothers. Brothers-in-law. Cousins. Real American type people.”
The same time I was reading this stuff, I was also getting into Tennessee Williams, and to this day they remain my favorite playwrights. We all know about Billy Shakespeare, but Shepard and Williams were Americans, and they spoke my native language. I’ve stayed in lousy motels, I’ve been on the road, I’ve been out West and I’ve been to New Orleans…they were writing about my world.
In ’86 and ’87 I wrote a collection of poems called RENT PAST DUE, about my early days in Athens, GA, which I still regard as one my better efforts. Later I wrote, “In a sense it was the first rock n roll record I ever made; I just recorded it with typewriter and pen on paper, instead of Telecaster and microphone.” (And yeah, I’m still in the process of making it available again, along with my other lil books of poetry, essays, etc.)
Anyway, I generally remember RENT PAST DUE as when I first found my writerly “voice”, after all the important early influences: Kerouac, Bukowski, Hunter S. Thompson, McCullers and O'Connor, Baudelaire…but I’d honestly forgotten, until now, how much Sam Shepard was mixed around in my head too. And collectively in all our heads.
Hell, he gave Patti Smith a guitar back in the ‘70s, which helped begin her process of adapting her poetry for music, which wound up influencing everybody. He co-wrote the screenplay for PARIS, TEXAS (one of my all-time favorite movies, starring Harry Dean Stanton and featuring a classic soundtrack by Ry Cooder). He collaborated with Bob Dylan on “Brownsville Girl”, which remains one of the coolest songs ever committed to tape. He was nominated for an Oscar and won a Pulitzer. These last few years, he put his hand in one last time, a powerhouse role alongside Sissy Spacek in the Netflix series BLOODLINE.
He was a badass. He was brilliant. And we’re all gonna miss him more than we even realize.