SAM SHEPARD – No Joke, He Was The Real Deal

Stephen Fife

Writer, Non-Registered Critics

I was in the presence of an extraordinary man, reinventing himself on the brink of disaster, and realized that this had always been the case with him and his work.  His whole life had been in the company of death, and this reminder of his own mortality informed everything he did in the theater and in life…. It was the sign by which we all recognized him as a true teacher and seer… And it was, finally, the root of his inspiration, which he transferred to us with amazing generosity and sweetness.”

Sam Shepard in 2011. Photo: Brian Ach/Wireimage

These words were Sam Shepard’s tribute to his friend and spiritual mentor Joe Chaikin (as printed in my theater memoir, BEST REVENGE), but they could of course apply to Sam himself.  He started out this tribute by quoting from the opening lines of his collaboration with Joe, The War in Heaven:

I died the day I was born/ and became an angel in that day/ since then there are no days/
there is no time/ I am here by mistake

Sam also read these lines at Joe’s memorial event in 2004 at the West Bank Theatre Bar in New York City, but I remember feeling at the time that those lines perfectly described Joe but not Sam.  Sam seemed to belong wherever he was, and in no sense did he seem to be anywhere by mistake.  I had come upon Sam a few years before that walking towards me on a street in midtown Manhattan.  His presence there seemed as incongruous as that of a wild horse in Central Park, but at the same time he “belonged” – not on West 55th Street, but in his own world, in the reality he carried around with him, which was palpable and distinct.

As I have recounted in my memoir, Sam Shepard was the playwright-god for me and many other playwrights in my generation.  There was a spontaneity, a wildness and an authenticity to his early work that broke all the playwriting rules in ways that we aspired to.  The generation I belonged to hated Neil Simon and TV sitcoms and the impulse “to entertain” that these represented, where there had to be a joke every 15 seconds, and where the writer’s  job was to plant setups and payoffs and manipulate the audience  with “twists and turns” that made them into passively happy consumers.  (Something that we’ve gone back to, by the way; mostly because consumerism is the law of the land.)  Sam’s work was alive and unpredictable without trying to be so.  His voice was critical of American materialism and mindless violence, but it steered clear of being either academic or didactic (at least in the early plays), and it was fun.  He unleashed torrents of words, but they had rhythm, and your spirit could dance to them.  He was a beat poet without the bullshit poses, without the chest-beating narcissism, and without all that self-hatred.  He was cool.

Sam and Patti Smith in the East Village, 1971

It was a running joke in my memoir that for years I would walk into rooms that Sam Shepard had just left. I felt like I knew him because I had so many friends who did, and they spoke of him with such enthusiasm and comraderie, but in fact I’d never met him, never exchanged a word.  That changed on the day of Joe Chaikin’s memorial in a manner that was as surprising as an early Sam Shepard one act.

First, Joe had been eulogized by Susan Sontag, then Sam had come out and read from The War In Heaven, nearly breaking into tears a few times.  Then both Susan and Sam had disappeared into a backstage area, while the rest of us began mingling and getting drinks from the bar.  Everybody kept talking about what a landmark this was – the passing of a generation, the end of an era.  I’m not going to start naming all the legends of Off-Off-Broadway who were there, but there were plenty.  Then Susan came out of a doorway and went off with her friends, and then Sam emerged.  He was taller than most of us, visible in a crowd.  For reasons that I will never understand, he fixated on me, walking over, giving me a big smile and patting me on the shoulder while leading us over to the bar.

A few years before that, Joe Chaikin had directed my adaptation of the Yiddish play God of Vengeance in Atlanta, and I had gone down there for the month-long rehearsal period just because I admired Joe and wanted to work with him.  During that time – and in my subsequent sporadic correspondence with him – Joe had spoken frequently about Sam, always with affection.  Could Joe have spoken with Sam about me? Doubtful, I decided.  More probably, Sam thought I was somebody else, a Jewish friend from the old days.

We ended up standing at that bar for several hours.  I drank like the social drinker I am, who only gets drunk with close friends.  He drank like a pro – constantly, compulsively and with enjoyment; and yet he never got shit-faced, never lost control.  People kept coming up to laugh or cry with him, and he was incredibly friendly and down-to-earth, or at the very least polite and patient with all those who came to worship their celebrity god.

Several women came up and chided him for leaving them in the lurch.  “Sam, you said you were meeting me at — restaurant, I stayed there for an hour, but you never showed up.”  “I am so sorry,” he’d say, “I really meant to come, but something came up” or “but it slipped my mind” or “it’s been really crazy.”  “Would you let me make it up to you?” he’d ask, and of course they smiled and forgave him and kissed him.  One dark-haired woman told him, “Sam, you promised that you would speak to my ladies group, and all these ladies showed up, eager to hear you, and you weren’t there!”  “So sorry, I feel terrible, can you forgive me?”  It took her a little longer than the others, maybe a minute or two, but she did.

As handsome as Sam looks in photographs, his appearance was less impressive in person.  For one, his teeth were bad, brown from all his smoking, and his mouth was pock-marked with fillings.  Then his shaggy brown hair was thinning on top.  Still, all those crags and wrinkles and weathered patches of skin somehow looked good on him. For someone who acted in so many Hollywood movies, there was nothing Hollywood about him.  (He seemed to regard movies as a great source of money, but he had zero interest in all the accompanying fru-fru.)  He was very much a flawed person and not a matinee idol.  In fact, the very idea of being an idol of any kind seemed to embarrass him.

Sam and Brooke Adams in Terence Malick’s “Days of Heaven”

He was excited that day, he told me, because his agent had just given him word that the Coen Brothers were going to make a movie of his play The Tooth of Crime  – something, in true Hollywood fashion, that never subsequently happened.  Otherwise he didn’t talk much about his work or his career or even about Joe.  Instead he went on at great length about his horse ranch in Kentucky, and how much he loved raising horses, and had I ever done any gelding?

Nope, I told him.  No gelding.  Had no plans to do any either.

Some long-haired musician came over, and they spoke with great enthusiasm about rock guitarists, especially some guy named Marc whose last name I can’t remember but who Sam called “the Picasso of the guitar.”  After the musician left, Sam turned to me and asked, “What is it with Arabs and Jews?  Why can’t they ever get their act together?”

If I knew that, Sam, I would be at the U.N., not here, I told him.

The question had surprised me, since it came right out of the lexicon of “things to say to a Jew in a bar when you’ve run out of topics.”  I was sorry that he felt the need to say it.  I didn’t need to be entertained, just being in his company was entertaining.  Then again, maybe all that liquor he’d been consuming had started to take its toll.

Sam had several admirers nearby, all young and blond and leggy.  Every now and then he would go over to one or another young woman and smoke a cigarette with them – still legal then – and drink and laugh and make out.  Eventually he left with one girl, causing the others to leave on their own.

I stayed on and finished my drink, chatting with the bartender.  Sam was an elusive guy, I could see that, he kept his demons private and under wraps.  But he wasn’t a phony or a boor, he didn’t make a big deal about his prodigious talent, his genius, and I never saw him look down on anybody.

I had been in the presence of an extraordinary man, a humble and genuine person, who had treated me with “generosity and sweetness.”  And I would feel like his friend, even if we never spoke again.  Which we didn’t.

One final note.  Get this book if you can: JOSEPH CHAIKIN & SAM SHEPARD: Letters and Texts, 1972-1984.  Edited by Barry Daniels.  Published by New American Library, 1989.  It’s simply one of the great books of American culture, and especially of the American Theater.  Otherwise, read Sam’s plays.  He wrote 44 of them, and all the collections are great.

Steve is a 5-tool writer (plays, screenplays, novels, poetry, journalism) who has had 11 books published, 10 plays produced, and has written for the New York Times “Arts & Leisure”, Village Voice, New Republic, and many others. He is one of the few people on the planet who can lay claim to spending time with Lee Strasberg, Stella Adler, Sandy Meisner, Allen Ginsberg, Andy Warhol, and Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, as well as so many other extraordinary people who refused to color inside the lines. He is always on the lookout for the original and the incisive.

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