Sam Shepard: Cowboy Poet

An ode to the literary lone ranger.
08/02/2017 12:08 pm ET
A young Sam Shepard on his horse.
Alfred A. Knopf
A young Sam Shepard on his horse.

Sam Shepard was the definitive cowboy poet, a sort of literary lone ranger who rode across America’s plains and deserts casting the harsh light of truth to the myth of the happy and loving family and home we all like to remember but that is mostly a mirage.

In plays and fiction he employed language that was at once poetic and volatile, passionate yet precise, to pillory the hypocrisies that permeate some of our most dearly held illusions. Not only can we not go home again, Shepard reminded us why we wouldn’t want to if we could.

Apart from the alcoholic or crazy parent or relative, there are the real skeletons in the closets, the things about which one never speaks, children buried in the cornfields. Shepard’s work both for the stage and printed page were rooted in Greek tragedy, but spoke to the timeless and inherently human contradictions of love and hate, tenderness and violence that inhabit us all. He never pulled a punch.

Shepard was the son of an alcoholic and mostly absent and disinterested father who appears in one way or another in just about everything he wrote, and to whom Shepard dedicated his first important collection, Seven Plays. In fact, all of Shepard’s writing was to varying degrees autobiographical. But it was his singular ability to make his startling tales universal that set him above most writers of his generation.

Shepard was fiercely individualist both as a writer and a man, and he guarded his privacy with the tenacity of a pit bull. And he was equally fierce in his loyalty to friends and colleagues. He disdained celebrity to the point of declining authors’ tours or book-signings for his fiction, though he would do readings from time to time, especially if paired with another writer he admired.

Shepard loved horses and pickup trucks, and probably would have preferred to be the wrangler on the movies he made rather than be in front of the camera. He was a natural as an actor and not just because of his rugged good looks. There was a stable of actors he admired and to whom he turned for a new play or a revival, and it became a mark of honor to be regarded as a “Sam Shepard actor.”

He rather famously hated to fly, preferring to drive to locations when he was making a movie. It was not so much a fear of flying, though that was part of it, but also because he loved driving across the American heartland in his truck, staying in roadside motels, eating in diners, and just feeling at one with the country.

Often in those motels, Shepard would spend his nights writing. Sometimes inspiration would hit him even while he was driving and he would pull over to the side of the road to finish a section of dialogue. He wrote in longhand or on an old beat-up typewriter, though it was increasingly hard for him to find new ribbons for it.

He was not a big fan of punctuation and his raw manuscripts were sometimes hard to decipher. He was always respectful of editor’s suggestions, would listen carefully, then usually dismiss them, though he occasionally accepted some with gratitude.

Shepard had an uncanny ear for language, the way people naturally speak. His dialogue in plays and stories was almost musical. It came naturally for him. He had been a drummer in a rock band in his early years and had collaborated with Bob Dylan on a couple of projects, though his own taste in music in later years ran more toward the Red Clay Ramblers.

Shepard did not often write overtly political plays – there were only two: States of Shock,”a 1991 work that takes place in a family restaurant while a war rages outside, and The God of Hell, a 2004 play set on a Wisconsin dairy farm and involves a G-man searching for a terrorist suspect who is hiding in the farmer’s basement.

In an unpublished interview at the time of The God of Hell, Shepard spoke of a divided America that was almost prophetic. “There is a real chasm in the country now,” he said. “The biggest certainly since Vietnam. And there is always a propensity for violence. Things could really get ugly. If the military starts getting involved – not elsewhere, but here – it could go into a police state. We’re not that far removed from a real crisis.”

When he was diagnosed a couple of years ago with the illness known as Lou Gehrig’s disease and that would finally take his life, he told only a small circle of friends and family. Although part of the reason for keeping the news secret was his insistence or keeping his private life private, another was that he wanted to finish his last book without the encumbrance of well-wishers.

As the disease took its toll, he found it difficult to hold a pen or even peck at the typewriter. His lifelong friend Patti Smith and his daughter Hannah helped him finish the book, The One Inside, which was published earlier this year. It was one of his most autobiographical and in it he wrote briefly about his own anguish when a central character discovers his limbs won’t move.

The cowboy that was Sam Shepard may have gone. But the poet will live as long as there is theater and books.

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