Saturday, May 12, 2018


There was a period of time during the 1980s when Sam Shepard seemed on the verge of growing to the size of Godzilla and eating us all. In short order he won a Pulitzer for his play Buried Child, and acted in Days of Heaven, a critically acclaimed film that became part of the rotation in art houses everywhere. Then he earned an Oscar nomination for playing Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff. Paris, Texas, from Shepard’s screenplay, won several awards on the international circuit. By the time he starred in a screen adaptation of his own play, Fool For Love, directed by Robert Altman, Shepard was being heralded in Time magazine as a cross between Eugene O’Neill and Gary Cooper. Adding to his mystique was Jessica Lange, the flashy blonde actress at his side. 

Meanwhile, in colleges and amateur theater companies across America, aspiring actors and directors mounted scruffy productions of Shepard’s plays, especially his early, drug-fueled epics, the ones with titles like Cowboy Mouth and Operation Sidewinder, the ones that captured the angst and paranoia of the Vietnam era. Kids who’d never even been near a horse or a gun were mouthing Shepard’s loopy fantasies about a long lost America, and spicing up their scene study classes by gamboling through True West, the play that would make stars of John Malkovich and Gary Sinise. It was a hell of a time. Shepard was king. 

Shepard was responsible for a kind of staged surrealism, ignoring traditional plots in favor of characters that shifted like chimeras. He borrowed bits of Becket and other absurdist writers to bring something new and vital to American stages. His experimental plays were laced with his love of rock ‘n’ roll and jazz and cowboy mythology. Plays poured out of him like lava. When he turned to writing the family dramas that would cement his legacy, he’d already amassed a body of work that would’ve made him the Babe Ruth of the 1960s Off-Off Broadway era. 

The Shepard story, as told by John J. Winters in Sam Shepard: A Life, is one of American angst combined with American showbiz. Shepard, born in 1943, is probably not as significant now. The audience that once appreciated his explosive psychodramas is gone; the one that has replaced it prefers cheesy musicals that are fun for the kids. The new batch of acting students, brought up on YouTube and The Bachelor, probably look at Shepard as an artifact, like a Pop art flag. They may not want to chew the scenery in one of his plays or, in Shepard’s words, perform “relentlessly without a break.” They may not even know he was a movie star.

Small wonder that, despite occasional revivals of his better-known plays and even some new works, the New York stage doesn’t appear to be pining for Shepard. Yet Winters, who has written for the Boston Globe, Playboy, and elsewhere, makes a reader yearn for Shepard’s times, when a play could premiere upstairs at St. Mark’s Church in-the- Bowery and become a word of mouth sensation, as well as his work. He also unveils Shepard as a morose neurotic, and a near casualty of a stormy personal life.

Shepard was born Samuel Shepard Rogers just outside of Chicago, but spent his formative years in Bradbury, CA. His parents were teachers, but he wasn’t a great student, preferring to play drums with his buddies from Duarte High. Though he often teased interviewers that his youth was something like Rebel Without a Cause on Benzedrine, he was actually an earthy kid, interested in animals and farming. He was even a member of his high school’s cheering squad. There was nothing idyllic about his father, though. Sam Rogers, a World War II bomber pilot, was a hostile drunk. Father and son butted heads until one particular confrontation – described  by Shepard as a “holocaust” - inspired the youngster to move away and drop his surname, anything to divorce himself from his unpredictable and violent father.

He worked briefly with a touring group of actors, but got off the bus in New York in 1964 and began writing plays, the sort that could be performed in someone’s apartment or in the basement of a Greenwich Village bar. The Shepard style, Winters writes, was “a wild mix of Becket and Brecht, but as American as if it had poured out of Bird’s trumpet, or been chanted by his Highness, Allen Ginsberg himself.” By the time he was 22, the New York Times pointed to Shepard as the “generally acknowledged genius” of the scene.

Shepard’s approach was forged over a series of what seemed like haphazard accidents: being handed a copy of Waiting for Godot at a party; seeing Peter Brook’s legendary production of Marat/Sade; being introduced to the great European poets during a seven month fling with rocker Patti Smith; and a friendship with Bob Dylan that inspired Shepard to give more thought to his creative process. All of this fed Shepard’s desire to fill in the gap between classical playwrights of the past and the new audience of the ‘60s and ‘70s.

That Shepard almost became a rock star as the drummer for the Holy Modal Rounders, a quirky country rock outfit that appeared on Laugh-In and released several albums, is less a testament to his versatility than to the wild, sprawling energy he had in those days. A four-year stint in London during the ‘70s introduced him to more influences; his plays grew more complex, and increasingly personal. “I’m not doing this to vent demons,” he said. “I want to shake hands with them.”

Shepard, as portrayed by Winters at this point, was a mix of the creative thrill seeker and the belligerent diva, a man struggling with drug-induced terrors and family anxieties. In Shepard’s own words, “It was impossible to enjoy anything back then.” He played the renegade playwright to the hilt, drinking and fighting and raising greyhounds, treating commercial success as a joke, preferring to leave audiences confounded rather than satisfied. He was also showing signs of self-destructive behavior that would grow more pronounced over time, until he became a kind of parody of his drunken father. It happened slowly, though, as if the old Shepard “curse” needed years to ferment and take hold.

Shepard sometimes found solace in the teachings of G. I. Gurdjieff, a Russian spiritualist and crackpot. Gurdjieff, a precursor to L. Ron Hubbard, proposed that we live in a state of “waking sleep.” Of course, Gurdjieff had the key to waking us up and helping us find enlightenment. Long dead by the time Shepard discovered him, Gurdjieff had plenty of acolytes to carry on his work. Shepard spent decades as a devotee, even buying ballet shoes so he could practice Gurdjieff’s special dance steps, moves designed to help us sleepwalkers live in the moment. The chapters concerning Shepard’s commitment to Gurdjieff are among the most amusing in the book, though it’s no surprise that Shepard eventually gave up on the old mystic.

Regardless of his inner turmoil, Shepard kept writing. He filled the stage with aliens and ghosts and menacing drifters, all staggering through the debris of a shattered America. For theatergoers bored by the machinery of Broadway, Shepard was a savior.

In the early 1980s, when the country was shifting into a prosperous new era, his profile was high. His handsome features and easy manner made him a natural for movies, where he met Lange. The lanky playwright and the blond bombshell fell in love and entered a tumultuous relationship. Unfortunately, Shepard met Lange while he was still married to his wife O-Lan, a woman who had been with Shepard through some lean times. Leaving O-Lan for his exciting new lover hung a cloud of guilt over Shepard that never quite evaporated.

They seemed the perfect alternative Hollywood couple, he with his indifference to fame, her with her wild physicality onscreen, and her own mistrust of the movie business. You wouldn’t know she was a flighty, depressed sort. Nor would you guess that he would become a blackout drunk known for “fights with loved ones, the shakes, nausea, and shitting his pants in public,” as well as marathon bouts of self-pity.

After A Lie of the Mind, the 1985 masterpiece that swept nearly every theater award of the year, Shepard’s writing powers appeared to ebb. He started new projects only to burn them in his kitchen sink. He settled into life with Lange, but as a playwright he slid into a protracted decline. The alcohol, the changing tastes of the public, an epic case of writer’s block, advancing age and ill health, wore him down.

The relationship between Shepard and Lange began to fray in 2005, and Winters depicts the Shepard of that time as a broken soul. He was still revered for his earlier works – a revival of True West starring Phillip Seymour Hoffman and John C. Reilly was a surprise Broadway hit - but his new plays were destroyed by critics and were poorly attended. On the plus side, he started to show a talent for writing short stories. He also found steady work as an actor, with a new generation of filmmakers smitten by his craggy face and reputation. He kept appearing in movies, usually as a cowboy figure, just to make payments on his Kentucky horse ranch. (Earning money has been a lifelong problem for Shepard.)

Alarmed by America’s turn to jingoism after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Shepard wrote God of Hell, a rambling, angry, but ultimately unsuccessful play that premiered in New York to a poor reception. He saw the new political situation as another Vietnam, but where he’d once titillated and surprised audiences with his wild imagery and mercurial characters, he now seemed tired and unfocused. “Seems like playwrights hit a certain place where they’re either repeating past work or trying to invent new stuff that has nowhere near the impact of the earlier work,” Shepard said. Audiences, too, had changed. He was no longer entertaining hippies in the village. Now he was putting his plays before the bus and tunnel crowd, tourists who wanted slick, frothy entertainment.

The more out of fashion he became, the more he seemed to wallow in his drinking and isolation. A pair of DUI charges put him, briefly, in the spotlight; his creepy mug shots appeared on the Internet and on sleazy gossip shows like TMZ. The first of these arrests, Shepard claimed, was the final straw for Lange. Though they’ve gone their separate ways, Winters mentions a few recent reports of the couple being spotted together. Winters dangles these instances like little carrots of hope, as if the old burning love between Shepard and Lange is not quite vanquished.

“The American playwright should snarl and spit,” Shepard once said. “Not whimper and whine.” Evidently, he saved his whining and whimpering for his notebooks, which he donated to Boston University and were helpful in Winters’ research. The man who emerges is not so much the mythical voice of the American West, but a doomed, self-absorbed, obsessive. Shepard’s muse, more than anything else, was fear, fear that he’d become his father, fear that he’d made a mistake in leaving his wife for Lange, fear that Hollywood would ruin him. After reading this book, one might think Shepard’s long expressed dread of dying alone and insane in a cheap Santa Fe motel is a real likelihood.

Winters is unabashed in his admiration of Shepard, but is evenhanded enough to dismiss most of the playwright’s later work. He describes Shepard’s stage adaptation of an Octavio Paz poem, for instance, as “ham-fisted and unnecessary.” He has a soft spot for Shepard as a man, though, and the most poignant parts of the book come when Shepard is older and needs false teeth, or spends a night in jail after failing a sobriety test. Though many describe Shepard as a grossly arrested adolescent who can still seem like a crude 19 year-old – and there are plenty of instances here to bear that out – Winters also shows us a sensitive man who would take time out of his busy schedule to help an ailing mother-in-law, or visit a sick buddy. He even learned to forgive his father, though the old man’s shadow darkens all of Shepard’s work. Shepard, in the end, is more complicated than even his most exasperating plays.

Winters’ research verges on the Herculean, though he misses a few small tricks. Shepard’s Geography of a Horse Dreamer, for example, was an obvious nip from Carol Reed’s The Rocking Horse Winner, a British film Shepard probably saw while living in London. Also, Shepard’s name was shared by one of the most notorious accused murderers of the ‘60s, the infamous Dr. Sam Sheppard, who was suspected of killing his wife. The equivalent now would be if a writer changed her name to Amanda Knox. Indeed, there was a time when people attended Shepard’s plays under the impression that they’d been written by an accused killer. Winters missed out on some tasty stuff by overlooking these items. Still, Sam Shepard: A Life, is remarkable. It’s hard to imagine a more thorough and readable examination of a literary figure.

The second part of the book, Shepard’s fall from favor, sweeps by quickly. It’s an unusual biography, in that Shepard never makes the heroic comeback, never finds his triumphant return to form. Winters suggests that Shepard has attained a kind of victory by still being alive, for there are moments where it seems Shepard is, like his father, seeking oblivion. But we wait for an implosion that never comes. He simply becomes a nervous old hulk, riddled with insecurities. Then again, the cheap motel in Santa Fe is still out there. Maybe there’s another chapter ahead. A sad one, no doubt.


Postscript: Shepard died shortly after the book's publication.

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