By Ray Schultz
There were rumors months ago that Sam Shepard was ill. I suspected it was liver trouble caused by his reputed alcohol consumption. But it wasn’t: He died of Lou Gehrig’s disease, a malady caused by genetics. It was nothing he did to himself.
And I was saddened in several ways—for one, over the suffering he must have endured with that illness. As a Shepard character says of a deceased singer, “He was going out, and he knew it.” Then there was the loss of this figure who was on the cultural stage for over 50 years, whose work I and many other people enjoyed. Finally, it reminded me of the passing of time.
The first Sam Shepard play I saw was Forensic and the Navigators, at Theater Genesis, upstairs from Saint Mark’s Church on the Bowery. It was a snowy Saturday night in January 1968. The playwright Lanford Wilson showed up wearing jeans and sneakers.
The play started in darkness, with the cast singing a spiritual: “We’re gonna be born again, oh Lord.” Soon the two guys in the cast were being instructed on the proper way to prepare Rice Krispies—you could hear the cereal snapping, crackling and popping. Shepard’s future wife Olan Johnson gave a lively performance. It ended with exterminators arriving. The small room filled up with steam and colored lights flashing through it. .
I have no idea whether Shepard ever took LSD, but this play was trippy. And it was funny—all that blather about the myth of the west obscured just how funny he was. In this way, Forensic and the Navigators was in line with the other one-acters he seemed to jot off, like Chicago and Icarus’ Mother.
You have to remember the time. The Fillmore East was a block or two down 2nd Ave., and the East Village Other had its office there. You could get the best Danishes in the city in Ratner’s, the old dairy restaurant.
Shepard was a figure in the neighborhood. You’d see him at the luncheonette on 10th, buying a container of tea to take a rehearsal. And he was at the acid-drenched party at St. Mark’s church on New Year’s Eve 1969, dressed in full hippie regalia.
The first Western-themed play that I recall was The Unseen Hand, which was presented on a double bill with Forensic and the Navigators downtown in the spring of 1970. It was a futuristic play in which some cowboys are projected into a bleak Mars-like landscape. A character plaintively asks, “There’s no more trains?”
It was a fine companion piece to Forensic and the Navigators. But the new Western direction wasn’t clear at the time. What was obvious was that Shepard wanted to be more than a playwright: There he was in the lobby, playing drums with the Holy Modal Rounders.
I didn’t get it: would Pinter or Beckett do this? But I later realized that Shepard had a rock ‘n roll sensibility, not a trait I admired in a playwright. It came out in The Melodrama Play (a bad play), The Tooth of Crime (a great play) and Cowboy Mouth, the piece he wrote and performed in with Patti Smith.
And it emerged when he accompanied Bob Dylan on a tour. I wondered why a talent like Shepard had to cozy up to a rock star. But his onscreen presence in the resulting documentary led to his getting a role in Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven, in which he was a quiet, haunting figure. And he was off on his movie career.
In between, Shepard wrote some of his best plays, like Buried Child and True West, for San Francisco’s Magic Theater. I can quote lines from memory (forgive me if I get them wrong). In Buried Child, a character says, “I was thrown out of Arizona. I don’t want to be thrown out of Illinois.”
In True West, in which two adult brothers battle it out, exchange roles and are pulled apart by their mother as they grapple on the floor, one rejects a dinner plate showing the capital of Montana. In effect, he says, “I don’t want to see Montana when I’m eating. When I’m eating, I’m here.”
We saw the original production of that classic, starring John Malkovich and Gary Sinese.
Shepard had a certain integrity as a writer. But at some point, I feared that he had lost his sense of humor. He made a film with Wim Wenders called Paris, Texas, a slow-moving work that was symbolized for me by the guitar going, “boiiiinnng!”
Later, Shepard and Wenders made a movie called Don’t Come Knocking, in which he played a Western movie star who escapes the set. It was savaged by the critics, but I kind of liked it. His mother, portrayed by Eva Marie Saint, keeps a scrapbook of his DWI arrests. It had a little of that old anarchic spirit.
Contrary to reports that Shepard hated New York, he was often in the city. Andrea and I would go to a Moroccan place called Orlin on St. Mark’s Place at midnight to write headlines and eat pasta with potatoes and pesto.
Shepard would sometimes be there, eating by himself, reading a book. Maybe he’d have a drink with his meal Nobody treated him like a celebrity. He looked like a man who could survive and enjoy life on his own. Maybe that’s the Western spirit they’re always talking about.