Sam Shepard, The Last Of The Punk Rock Cowboys

Sam Shepard_Patti Smith


VILLAGE VOICE: He was — even more as time went on — the living, breathing image of a cowboy: tall, preposterously thin, ruggedly handsome, and maximally taciturn unless words were absolutely necessary. The few brief times I encountered him in this century, I would always think for an instant that I was encountering an ambulatory myth — The American Cowboy — and not my longtime acquaintance, Sam Shepard, the playwright, that quirky constructor of hypnotically fascinating plays, who had really wanted to be a rock drummer and had somehow settled for being a world-class movie star instead, while continuing to turn out quirky, fascinating plays.

The cowboy exterior was a genuine part of Sam’s complex reality. He loved horses and raised them; he didn’t care much for urban life and its endless technological encroachments. He didn’t like air travel — a writer-character in his play Angel City goes from the East Coast to Hollywood “by buckboard” — and I would be surprised to learn that he owned a smartphone. What he did own that belied the strong-and-silent cowboy exterior was a questing, reflective, poetically visionary mind, steeped in art, literature, and philosophy. Put it another way: Sam’s breakthrough film as an actor was Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven (1978), which features long, lingering close-ups of its main characters. The other actors’ faces look attractively composed in these shots; Sam’s face, though equally still, reveals a thought process going on behind the eyes. It should; you are watching him write Curse of the Starving Class and Buried Child, which appeared not long after the film was shot.

The profusion of plays that Sam turned out (45 is the current approximate total) testifies to the range of his mind’s activities. They come in all shapes and sizes, from seemingly (but not really) traditional small-cast two-acts to sprawling spectacles and gnomic sketchlike dialogues. Some of the early plays take their strategy from abstract-expressionist or pop art painting (Jackson Pollock was a lifelong admiration). A middle period draws on modern jazz, surrealism, and science fiction. MORE

PATTI SMITH: He would call me late in the night from somewhere on the road, a ghost town in Texas, a rest stop near Pittsburgh, or from Santa Fe, where he was parked in the desert, listening to the coyotes howling. But most often he would call from his place in Kentucky, on a cold, still night, when one could hear the stars breathing. Just a late-night phone call out of a blue, as startling as a canvas by Yves Klein; a blue to get lost in, a blue that might lead anywhere. I’d happily awake, stir up some Nescafé and we’d talk about anything. About the emeralds of Cortez, or the white crosses in Flanders Fields, about our kids, or the history of the Kentucky Derby. But mostly we talked about writers and their books. Latin writers. Rudy Wurlitzer. Nabokov. Bruno Schulz.

“Gogol was Ukrainian,” he once said, seemingly out of nowhere. Only not just any nowhere, but a sliver of a many-faceted nowhere that, when lifted in a certain light, became a somewhere. I’d pick up the thread, and we’d improvise into dawn, like two beat-up tenor saxophones, exchanging riffs.

He sent a message from the mountains of Bolivia, where Mateo Gil was shooting “Blackthorn.” The air was thin up there in the Andes, but he navigated it fine, outlasting, and surely outriding, the younger fellows, saddling up no fewer than five different horses. He said that he would bring me back a serape, a black one with rust-colored stripes. He sang in those mountains by a bonfire, old songs written by broken men in love with their own vanishing nature. Wrapped in blankets, he slept under the stars, adrift on Magellanic Clouds.

Sam liked being on the move. He’d throw a fishing rod or an old acoustic guitar in the back seat of his truck, maybe take a dog, but for sure a notebook, and a pen, and a pile of books. He liked packing up and leaving just like that, going west. He liked getting a role that would take him somewhere he really didn’t want to be, but where he would wind up taking in its strangeness; lonely fodder for future work. MORE