Culture & Criticism Since 2003
Sam Shepard was one of the great western writers of our times. By that I mean to say that Shepard brought the uncanny ability to tell the stories of the people and voices that populate the western portion of the United States, painting pictures of this terrain with the sound of how we think and speak.
Sadly, Shepard, 73, died July 27 at his home in Kentucky of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS or Lou Gehrig’s Disease), a neurodegenerative affliction that causes muscles to atrophy at an accelerated pace, eventually leading to death.
Most initially learned about Shepard in the 1970s in light of his groundbreaking work in theater where his western-themed plays merged Beat Generation sensibilities with an Orwellian vision – the result was an original and sensual dance across the stage that blended the way people move with the way they dream and wonder, with the way they think and see and feel. No one had ever written plays quite like this before, and Shepard quickly leapt from the avant-garde Magic Theater in San Francisco to the center of the national stage.
Sudden as a wildfire, publication of his plays became events: “Fool For Love,” “True West” and “Buried Child” brought Shepard critical acclaim; a stream of offers to act for the big screen coincided. In the blink of an eye, he garnered lasting international fame because his screen depictions, just like his writing, was readily believable to anyone who witnessed him work. Roles in “Days of Heaven” and “The Right Stuff” made him a movie star – those handsome hard-hewn lines that shaped his face was the stuff that caused ladies both young and old swoon in their seats.
But even though Shepard acted in over 50 films and also wrote that many plays, he was still just a cowboy poet driven by the pockmark smell of ranches and horse dung and sultry nights in September. There he goes again: One man alone in the shadows, hunting for black-tail along a pine-framed cliff that intersects the ancient face of the Pacific northwest.
Two examples from the Shepard bibliography prove my point. The first is an often-forgotten book of random writings and poems called “Motel Chronicles” (City Lights Books 1982). This is Sam Shepard in pure naked form, writing as breathes, capturing the shape of the faded west via the sound of bells – it’s all in that moment just before they fall mute and give way to the chirp of poisoned rats dying in the north corner of the barn at dawn. And the poet writes:
is it a rooster
or some woman screaming in the distance
is it black sky
or about to turn deep blue
is it a motel room
or someone’s house
is it the body of me alive
(At page 20)
The second piece is a song he co-wrote with Bob Dylan in 1986 titled “Brownsville Girl.” I call it a song, but it’s really a movie set to music. It probably means different things to different ears; to me it’s a story about lost men driven mad by landscapes. I also view it as the autobiography of Bob Dylan and Sam Shepard put to popular song. And they wrote:
“Something about that movie though, well I just can’t get it out of my head
But I can’t remember why I was in it or what part I was supposed to play
All I remember about it was Gregory Peck and the way people moved
And a lot of them seemed to be lookin’ my way”
I found it ironic to hear that Shepard succumbed to ALS. I think most writers have a secret fear of dying of a neurological disease like ALS. I confess that it’s one of my most profound fears – condemned to bed, unable to think clearly or command pen across the trembling lips of the paper, unable to fulfill my calling as scribe.
You see, more than anything, poets are men of conversation – minds in constant motion, talking down shadows from the walls. Lock that thought firmly in your grasp, then imagine the horror that the playwright felt under these circumstances: Victimized by the insidious Gerhig’s Disease – paralyzed in a half blind haze, unable to write himself out of a scene of utter powerlessness that he had actually envisioned years before in another form (as memorialized in a narrative from “Motel Chronicles”):
“Certain thoughts I’m afraid might actually come true. I mean, not the thought so much as the thing the thought’s about. The subject of the thought. Like, for instance, I might think that I accidentally cut my head off with a chain saw. I see it. In the thought. The thought provokes this picture: (Head flying. Neck bleeding. There I am. Standing in a field. Underneath an oak tree. My red chain saw is above me. Meadowlarks are singing. A Redwing Blackbird lands in the tree. The chain saw kicks back and chops my head off.) I shake my head saying to myself, “No! Don’t think thoughts like that! They might come true…”
(At Page 84)
Sam Shepard had many laudable attributes as a writer, no greater of which was his ability to put you in a place that existed only in his head, haunting you with his secret realities. And true to form, he’s doing that in death too: Forcing us to imagine what its like to be condemned to the insides of your own eyes, living the ancient shape of what the bards might call hell on earth.