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Sam Shepard: the last cowboy standing

by John Maguire
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Sam Shepard
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It seems every time I look at the ever-flowing social media stream, I am alerted to the death of somebody in the public eye. There are those that evoke nostalgia, like Grotbags from my viewing of children’s television in the 1980s, and then there are the absolute icons. Over a year after David Bowie’s death, I still find it hard to take in that the Thin White Duke is no longer on this planet. There is also the ‘Mandela effect,’ where you think you have read that somebody is dead but they are very much alive. On Tuesday 1 August, riding a wave of energy after a shared reading session in the idyllic environs of Calderstones Park at The Reader headquarters, I skimmed through the debris of clutter online to notice that Sam Shepard had died.

Within minutes, voices from my past had messaged me or sent notifications and text messages. I heard from university friends and former work colleagues who all knew my deep passion for the work of this maverick creative spirit. Sam Shepard was someone who made me rethink my entire career path and move away from being an actor to consider the life of a writer. His words had a massive impact on me when I first discovered him while studying a module on American theatre at Aberystwyth University Wales, a course that also introduced me to great writers like Eugene O’Neill and Edward Albee. The lecturer, Hazel Walford Davies, was a complete legend. A woman who had that Huckleberry Finn quality of telling it how it is. No filter, no bullshit, just plain speaking. That kind of honesty is a rare quality these days.

When she recognised how Sam Shepard intrigued me, she invited me to take the keys to the office she occupied for two days a week on campus and use it in my own time to work through a shelf of recorded videos of interviews, documentaries and footage of his work. I will forever be indebted to her for introducing me to his portfolio and ways of working. The sheer trust – to give a 19-year-old with blue, blue, electric blue hair, the keys to her private working space when she had only known me for a few weeks – was really something else. Not surprisingly, I gained a first in that module. Her lessons taught me that writing a piece of academic work could be a joyful and creative experience.

I am envious of those who have not yet seen a Sam Shepard play as the first time will take you to a different place – perhaps his death will be a catalyst and there will be a revival of his back catalogue. True West, Buried Child, Curse of the Starving Class and The Tooth of Crime are only a few of his theatrically magic plays. His work deals with the death of the American dream, the decay of national myths and the search for roots and identity. His plays speak to the eye and the ear, with a fragmentation of structure like a fun-house staircase, where you are not certain when you will be knocked over, but you know that you will be.

There is a music that resonates from his writing: rock, jazz, blues, folk, country and western are all thrown into the mix, along with influences that range from science fiction to the open road culture and from vaudeville to westerns. At times, his plays are not of this world – they are shamanic, magic. They have a vivacity and elasticity that treat the audience to a heightened sensory experience. All this from someone who never wanted to be a writer, claiming:

…I don’t want to be a playwright. 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 me from going off the deep end.

His short stories are equally instructive and simply entertaining, like Betty’s Cats, which is a heart-wrenching observation of an eccentric woman who is being thrown out of her caravan due to the amount of cats she keeps. His observations are accurate and the dialogue hilarious.

I was always impressed by the creative love affair the writer had with the actress Jessica Lange, the tornado of talent that recently brought a humane rawness to Joan Crawford in her portrayal of the movie icon in the explosive miniseries Feud. The relationship between them looked like the kind of epic romance everybody should aspire to participate in at least once in a lifetime, one that is passionate, tempestuous and beyond loving.

John Cage stated:

Theatre exists all around us and it is the purpose of formal theatre to remind us that this is so.

The first play I ever picked up by Shepard was Savage/Love and I feel it illustrates Cage’s point. It is described as a theatre piece rather than a play. The work was the outcome of Sam Shepard and Joseph Chaikin’s experiments with a dramatic form stripped of accessories of plot elements and physical action, reduced to essentials of sound and utterances.

I rooted out my favourite poem from the play, The First Moment, and read it aloud on the evening he died.

The first moment
I saw you
I knew I could love you
If you could love me…

 

I really just wanted to look at your eyes all the time

 

And you said
Look at me with your eyes
Look at me with your eyes…

 

And right away I had this feeling
Maybe you’re lost
Until now

 

Maybe I’m lost
Until now

I told my soul mate that apparently, when writing and performing the piece, bongo drums and other percussion instruments were used to help gravitate the words and guide the beat. As I started to read, bamboo wind chimes on the porch picked up the melody in the night breeze and when I stopped, this accompaniment ceased. Sam Shepard was thought to be a shaman. We come, we go.

Goodnight Mr Shepard: cowboy, drifter and rock ‘n’ roll storyteller.


Theatre photo by Felix Mooneeram on UnsplashSam Shepard photo by Jimaize [Public domain]


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