The British media finally caught up with the existence of Sam Shepard some eighteen months ago. He had, after all, just been nominated for an Oscar for his performance as Chuck Yeager in the film about the first American astronauts, The Right Stuff. And news of his romance with Jessica Lange, whom he was then partnering in Country, had just broken. Arthur Miller’s marriage to Marilyn Monroe had caught the headlines in the past, but to get the girl and join the top league of male box-office stars at the same time was a new story. There was much dissection of Shepard’s life-style, the subtleties of his sexual attractiveness, his resemblance to Gary Cooper: but only the occasional small paragraph to indicate that the man under discussion was America’s most innovative young dramatist since the late Sixties, had won the Pulitzer Prize in 1978 and certainly hadn’t said goodbye to writing yet.
I would like to think Shepard had some control over the two photographs that made the covers of the Colour Supplements at that time. One showed him down on the ranch, in full cowboy gear, with one of his favourite horses. The other showed him in silver spaceman suit, bubble helmet at the ready, about to enact Chuck Yeager. An ironic delight in role-playing is central to Shepard (the fact that the son of a wartime pilot was playing one of America’s most famous flyers was given an extra dimension by the fact that Shepard refuses ever to fly himself), but so also is the attempt to harness two main impulses of the American character: nostalgia for the straight old days of the West, and pride in a computerised space-age future.
Shepard has always been an elusive man, with an elusive talent. In Motel Chronicles he tells us that his family have named their eldest son Sam through seven generations. But the mothers have always nicknamed the sons, ‘so as not to confuse them with the fathers when hearing their names called in the open air while working side by side in the waist-high wheat’. ‘The sons came to believe their names were the nicknames they heard floating across these fields,’ Shepard continues, ‘and answered to these names building ideas of who they were around the sound never dreaming their real legal name was lying in wait for them written on some paper in Chicago and that name would be the name they’d prefix with “Mr” and that name would be the name they’d die with.’ It’s one of the strengths of Motel Chronicles that a passage as simple as this can share the resonances of some of the major themes in Shepard’s plays: a mythic view of ‘family’ as perhaps the only continuity possible amid the insecurities of modern America; a preoccupation with the father/son relationship (crucial to Paris, Texas and to his latest play Fool for Love); a romantic belief in the virtues of isolated, rural America as opposed to the city deviousness of, say, Chicago; and a fascination with the precariousness of identity and the importance of names, the name given or the name acquired.
Names are important in the theatre. You can gauge a dramatist’s certainty from the rightness of his characters’ names, the inevitability of his titles. Shepard has written over forty plays in little over twenty years and there’s hardly a dud title among them. Geography of a Horse Dreamer, The Tooth of Crime, Suicide in b Flat, Icarus’s Mother, Cowboy Mouth, Forensic and the Navigators: they all arouse expectation without explaining or revealing. The fairground barkers of the old Midwest would have appreciated the technique. Shepard even got to work on his own name. Junked the family name of Rogers and took his second name of Shepard in its place. Samuel Rogers became Sam Shepard.
It’s important to understand that what Shepard was renaming was his own existence. He wasn’t coming up with a fancy nom de plume. Seven years after his first theatrical success in New York in 1964, he was still claiming to be an accidental, if not totally reluctant dramatist. ‘I don’t want to be a playwright,’ he said in 1971. ‘I want to be a rock and roll star ... I got into writing plays because I had nothing else to do. So I started writing to keep from going off the deep end.’ Clearly there’s an element of bravado in that statement, but it’s also true that Shepard has adopted a resolutely non-literary stance throughout his career, a stance which I believe has helped him to achieve the startling immediacy of his best dramatic work. Life comes before Art for Shepard. Writing is usually an inadequate substitute for the event it describes.
It’s a point of view that Shepard expressed in callow, aggressive, unpunctuated form in his younger days when he claimed that rock music had made ‘movies theatre books painting and art go out the window none of it stands a chance against the Who the Stones and Old Yardbirds Creedence Traffic the Velvet Underground Janis and Jimi ...’ Much more penetratingly, in 1980 at a playwrights’ workshop in Marin County, he said: ‘There is the tendency to trade in experience itself for language, which never really captures it and ultimately cheats the experience. We are always referring our experience to something else as in “this reminds me of ...” There’s a sense of hardly ever living in the present, and this kind of nostalgia comes through in the writing.’ Here Shepard is touching on the central alertness without which good plays cannot be written.
Although Hawk Moon was not published in the USA till 1981, much of its writing seems to date from the brasher, more belligerent tone of the early Seventies. Described as ‘a book of short stories, poems and monologues’, there’s something scrappy and inconsequential, lightweight, about the collection. There are breathless, unpunctuated prose-poems and cute little seven or eight-liners in free verse in the style of Richard Brautigan. (A Californian professor once plucked a volume of Brautigan out of my hand and hurled it to the ground claiming it was causing the Death of Literacy on the American Campus.) The stories are stronger, but with a maximum length of four pages they are often too tersely anecdotal to gather real momentum. The best are sharp, macabre histories of urban fear and violence. In ‘Seven is a number in magic’, a bunch of 12-year-old bike-riding Hispanic kids cut off the ear of a nurse they ambush and treat it like a bullfighting trophy. ‘Montana’ describes a man with a murdered woman in a 23rd Street hotel room in New York. He plasters the body with dollar bills, plays rock music, dresses in full cowboy gear, incinerates the corpse in the shower and goes out to hail a Yellow Checker cab, saying: ‘Montana, please.’
What becomes increasingly clear is that Shepard is ill at ease in his own voice (where the poems come from) and not too certain of his role as detached narrator either. The atmosphere is ostentatiously anti-cultural, sometimes gratuitously distasteful; the tone is strident, tough, out to shock. It’s like Rimbaud on the rampage, without much trace of the literary talent. Six or seven times, however, he really hits his stride and it’s usually when he’s dealing with the parts of America he loves; or finds fluency and poise in the monologue of an assumed personality. ‘Illinois’, for example, celebrates the state where he was born; ‘Back in the 1970s’ is an account of the hippy invasion of the Canadian backwoods; and ‘Claw Cloud’ a surrealistic fantasy about a Midwestern farmer plucked off his tractor and whirled out to sea by a tornado. Other fine pieces are ‘Voices from the Dead: Cowboy’, about a rodeo rider bucked to death by a steer; ‘Rhythm’, which starts out by describing the standard progression of rock-and-roll chords and turns into a dazzling catalogue of the visual and aural rhythms that can be experienced everywhere in the world outside music, ending with the laconic question, ‘And you call yourself a drummer?’; and, most strikingly, ‘The Curse of the Raven’s Black Feather’.
Here Shepard combines his love of rock music (the piece is an extended musing around the talent of Keith Richard), his preoccupation with the Travelling Man (the narrator is driving north to Canada, and later seems to cover most of the freeways of America), and his superstitious belief in the interventions of Fate (the driver hits a black raven, killing it, and then follows the voice of the raven’s feather instructing him to deliver it to the town of Noir in Louisiana, if he is to avoid its curse). It’s an example of personal myth-making, with the raven transmuting at various points in the tale into Keith Richard, into the idea of death, into the dark centre of creativity. It’s appropriate to the whole collection that the Rolling Stones should be Shepard’s heroes:
Keith and Mick. Like brothers. Like evil sisters in disguise. A two-headed beast. The opposite of Paul and John. The dark and the light. I’ve always been pulled toward darkness. Toward black. Toward death. Toward the South. Good. Now I’m heading the right direction. Away from the quaint North. Away from lobsters and white churches and Civil War graveyards and cracker barrel bazaars. Toward the swamps, the Bayou, the Cajuns, the cotton mouth, the Mardi Gras, the crocodile.
The story exemplifies the imaginative gift which has made Shepard uniquely successful in his attempts to grasp the sensation of the American experience in single play after single play. For Shepard the two Americas exist simultaneously: the mechanised world of motor-car, radio culture, rootlessness and nuclear threat; and the ancient, often mythical world of the Frontier, the Wild West, the prairies, Indian spells and superstitions.
To move from Hawk Moon to Motel Chronicles is to breathe a different air. ‘The tallest sky he’d ever seen. The sense of being deep below Heaven. The distance. The clear sight of Time standing still.’ I discovered this book on the shelves of the City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco, just after it had been published there. I travelled on with it through Seattle and Vancouver and back to Los Angeles. I read it carefully, six or seven pages at a time, fearful that its astonishing clarity would not be sustained. When I finished it, I felt, as I still feel, that it gives a more perceptive insight into the nature of being American than any book I know apart from William Carlos Williams’s In the American Grain. A special sort of American, of course. Nothing to do with the traditions of the Eastern seaboard or the Deep South. Born in Illinois, but into an Air Force family, Shepard has been travelling from the start. He was brought up in rural Southern California. Spent time in New York, but didn’t take to it. Came to England in 1971 and stayed an amazing three years, racing a greyhound at White City, sitting taciturn in the corner of the Royal Court’s Sloane Square pub. He’s never written about England, but the most popular – and perhaps the best – of his earlier plays, The Tooth of Crime, was written and given its premiere here. Back to America and a ranch and horses; but still travelling, first as the chronicler of Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue in 1975, then as surprise film-star in Days of Heaven, Resurrection, Frances and others. The entries in Motel Chronicles are dated from Texas, Utah, Nevada, Wyoming, California, New Mexico. Frontier territory aching with space, but empty of history. Written in motels, the book celebrates a nomadic, rootless, perpetually mobile way of life. It’s a continuation of the America Thom Gunn discovered:
At worst, one is in motion; and at best,
Reaching no absolute in which to rest,
One is always nearer by not keeping still.
Motel Chronicles is part-journal, part-autobiography, part-scrapbook. Memories of childhood; meetings with his father (now living hermit-like on the edge of the desert); the strange rituals of rising before dawn to embark on a day’s filming. Shepard treats his past as he treats American history in his plays: it’s only important if it can live alongside the present. Nudging towards the condition of fable or myth, it must be as vivid as the moment-by-moment rhythm of the play or the life it is summoned to join. Out of this impulse comes the astounding speech in Fool for love where Eddie remembers his father walking him miles across town and out into the country to find the father’s other secret family and see for the first time the kid half-sister he is to love for the rest of his life. In Motel Chronicles we are told that the newly-born Shepard wanted to leave the delivery room and walk out into the frozen wastes of Lake Michigan – but the window ledge was too high! The child remembers a circle of floodlit plaster dinosaurs stranded in the prairie spaces of Dakota. Fact hovers continually on the edge of creative fiction. The past is tailored; humorously, vulnerably, to answer the needs of the adult man.
Shepard the playwright was always precociously certain. But in this book Shepard the man has become wiser, more centred. In Hawk Moon you feel a continual effort to seem ‘mean’ (a favourite Shepard word, in the sense of tough, laconic, taking no shit). That effort now has different dimensions:
Tonight I’m pushing everyone away. I’m camped out by my favourite window and no amount of harmonica playing, rattle of dishes, laughter of voices from other rooms deep in this house can draw me out. The fading light is what I really crave. Cars with their headlights just coming on. Owls testing the fields. This mean streak slowly fades as the real black night rolls in.
I always get weird around Indian Summer. My whole organism feels tricked. Just as the body starts to fall in love with flying golden Poplar leaves. The smell of burning Madrone. The wild lure of Fall gets cut to the bone by Indian Summer.
The people around Shepard are recorded in a series of fiercely affectionate portraits (none more striking than the long, controlled, devastating account of an English friend who suffers a brain haemorrhage). And there is a continual evocation of the untamed open spaces of America with which Shepard identifies – Californian upland, the deserts of Texas and New Mexico, the prairies of the Midwest:
I was deep into eighty acres of sprouting new pasture and my head wouldn’t stop ... I was wondering how far to go. Exactly the same question I’d had before when swimming out in the ocean. What’s the point where it becomes dangerous to go any further? And I recognised that the point of wondering comes when you think you’ve gone too far.
Travis, the central figure of Paris, Texas strides across the landscapes of Big Bend and Fort Stockton, Texas, as a man who has gone too far, but arrived nowhere. In the wake of a wrecked and violent marriage, he has taken to the road, a disconnected derelict. Not simply rootless, he spends the first quarter of the story as a man without memory, or even language, nursing some dark inner wound. With great delicacy Shepard charts his return to human warmth and commitment through his relationship with the young son he left behind five years before. With his resolve to find the boy’s mother Travis implicitly acknowledges the pointlessness of continually walking towards the horizon and the justice of his brother’s reaction when he finds him travelling the road: ‘Would you mind telling me where you’re headed? What’s out there? There’s nothing out there.’ Wim Wenders, the film’s German director, was credited with bringing a detached European curiosity to the discovery of a new, exotic side of America. His achievement was, rather, to realise with great visual flair the landscape and fractured personalities of Shepard’s individual American vision. Only at the end of the film did an uncharacteristic sentimentality and verbosity intrude to mute the final impact.
The handsomely produced Paris, Texas is a detailed commemoration of the movie. Or is it an embalming? I doubt whether the book can have much resonance for anyone who has not previously seen the film; and even for those who have seen it, though it can work as a memory aid, there is something profoundly unsatisfactory about transmuting a film into a series of stills, however numerous, large and lavish in their colour reproduction. Movies move: stills are fixed, frozen, dead. You would need the temperament of a butterfly-collector to enjoy these pinned-down moments, though there is a haunting quality about some of the close-ups of Harry Dean Stanton’s face as Travis, and about those high, desolate Texan skies. The use of a double-page spread for all the frames also fractures some of the images irredeemably. The most valuable section of the book is the script itself. A pity its printing is small and spidery, and French, German and English versions run down each page in narrow, competitive columns. I would have thought a running counterpoint between dialogue and visuals (text and freeze-frames are firmly segregated) would have made for a much more stimulating book. The admission that the text is a description of the finished film, ‘not the screenplay as it was written by Sam Shepard before the film went into shooting’, makes one very curious as to whether some of the film’s final portentousness may be the responsibility of Wenders rather than Shepard.
Like William Carlos Williams, Shepard came and took a hard look at Europe, then turned his back on it. He remains resolutely a Redskin. His achievement has been to avoid the naivety and macho sentimentality of Kerouac and the Beat boys, his predecessors on the road. Ironically, too, his interest in those who live near the edge, people who travel with the minimum of emotional and historical baggage, aligns him with the best of Existentialism, even though he has come at it by quite a different route, learning it from life and the folklore of the Frontier, rather than in the lecture-halls of the Sorbonne. The dependence on the present moment can seem culturally shallow, but it’s a valid response to the America Shepard takes as his theme. And it’s a crucial stance for the dramatist: from it come the coiled energy, the explosive resonance, and the sheer high spirits that have made his last three plays, Buried Child, True West and Fool for Love, some of the most exhilarating dramatic work of recent years. They all achieve what Shepard has described as the crucial element in theatre: ‘writing that leaps off the page and is alive IN THE AIR’.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.