Sam Shepard, 1943-2017

In this week's mini-episode of the Substandard, JVL, Vic, and I briefly discussed the life and work of Sam Shepard. After the podcast (subscribe, etc.) I want to share a brief excerpt from a fantastic New Yorker essay on a part of Shepard's life I, honestly, didn't know much about: his work as a playwright.

As I mention on the show, I'm not, like, a big theater guy? It's just not my scene. So I had no idea—really, just no idea—until a few years ago that Shepard was a really big deal. Like, a Pulitzer Prize-winning big deal. In other words, I learned a lot from this 2010 New Yorker piece:

Shepard’s early plays, written between 1964 and 1971, were full of surprises and assaults on the senses—people spoke from bathtubs or painted one another, colored Ping-Pong balls dropped from the ceiling, a chicken was sacrificed onstage. The plays express what Shepard called the "despair and hope" of the sixties; they act out both the spiritual dislocation and the protean survival instinct of traumatic times. Better than anyone else writing in that fractious hubbub, Shepard defined the fault lines between youth culture and the mainstream. "You were so close to the people who were going to the plays, there was really no difference between you and them," he said, pinpointing both his work’s value and its limitation. The mockery, the role-playing, the apocalyptic fears, the hunger for new mythologies, and the physical transformations in his work gave shape to the spiritual strangulation of the decade—which, in Shepard’s words, "sucked dogs." "For me, there was nothing fun about the sixties," he said. "Terrible suffering. . . . Things coming apart at the seams."

In their verbal and visual daring, Shepard’s early plays aspired to match the anarchic wallop of rock and roll. He had been playing drums since the age of twelve, when his father, a semi-professional Dixieland drummer, bought him a secondhand set and taught him how to play. (He continued drumming into his adulthood, with such bands as the Holy Modal Rounders and T Bone Burnett’s Void.) In his writing, he gravitated toward rock’s maverick energy; he listed Little Richard among his literary influences, along with Jackson Pollock and Cajun fiddles. (Later, he befriended Keith Richard, lived briefly with Patti Smith—"He was a renegade with nasty habits / he was a screech owl / he was a man playing cowboys," she wrote of him—chronicled Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue, and co-wrote, with Dylan, the eleven-minute song "Brownsville Girl.") In plays as varied as "The Tooth of Crime," "Forensic & the Navigators" (1967), and "Operation Sidewinder" (1970), music and song are a crucial part of Shepard’s dramatic attack.

There's a bunch more in this vein and I strongly recommend reading it. Needless to say, this is not the stoic man's man I think of when I think of Shepard: the farmer watching his crop go up in flames in Days of Heaven or the general watching Somalia turn to shit in Black Hawk Down—though one can definitely see glimpses of his cool as hell test pilot in The Right Stuff.