Tag Archives: Sam Shepard

Homage to Sam

“There are times when I can’t help thinking about the past. I know the present is the place to be. It’s always been the place to be. I know I’ve been recommended by very wise people to stay in the present as much as possible, but the past sometimes presents itself. The past doesn’t come as a whole. It always comes in parts.

In fact it comes apart…”

When Sam Shepard died in July 2017, I wrote about what a strong influence his writing has been for me through the years. His final work, Spy of the First Person (Penguin Random House, 2017), is an undeniably autobiographical work of “fiction” written by Sam Shepard in his final year as he suffered from ALS.

The book is a labor of community and love. When Shepard began the book, he could still write. As his motor skills weakened, his children and sisters devised ways to help him keep the work going – recording devices, transcription, dictation. Shepard’s long-time friend and erstwhile collaborator Patti Smith assisted the writer in editing the book into final shape. Shepard’s involvement in the book continued until his death; he even chose the haunting cover photograph for the publication – a Graciela Iturbide photograph of a weathered man looking up at birds flying overhead.

When Shepard died, his children took the book to fruition and publication. The triumphant result is a book that reminds us what a masterful writer Shepard is and how masterful he remained until the end. In a touching twist, the book is dedicated to the writer by his children.

The book’s first-person narration is a duality of the observer and the observed. An unnamed man watches a sick man on a screened porch across the street, musing on the man’s situation and the events he can make out through the screen. The sick man, aware of being watched, becomes alternately paranoid and reflective as his memory travels far into his past – and childhood and youthful experiences become juxtaposed with visits to medical clinics.

The narrative consciousness of nature around us is strong and vivid, with detailed descriptions of landscapes and wildlife – particularly birds. One is reminded of playwright Shepard’s skill with monologues and all of the memorable moments he gave his characters in raw and mind-bending dramas spanning decades.

The narrative flow between the two voices is fluid and we lose track of which speaker’s voice we are reading. That is fitting as it becomes clear that the narrative voices are almost certainly of the same man, pondering his sickness and observing his physical degradation with a still sharp brain.

Spy of the First Person culminates with a celebratory dinner at a Mexican restaurant teeming with “a lot of noise and a lot more tequila.” The sick man is surrounded by his children, his sisters, and friends. In these final pages the man reveals the names of the people around him – Jesse and Walker – his sons; his daughter, Hannah; Roxanne and Sandy – his sisters. The names are the same as Sam Shepard’s children and sisters.

As the group leaves the festive restaurant, the man says, “The thing I remember most is being more or less helpless and the strength of my sons. A man pushed by his sons in a wheelchair from a crowded restaurant to a street with nobody on it. A man sitting on shaggy wool with a Navajo blanket across his knees.”

Sam Shepard the man is gone but Sam Shepard the artist lives on in a body of work that had majesty and resonance to the very end.

Photo of Sam Shepard by Grant Delin

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Sam Shepard (1943-2017)

  At the start of my directing classes, I often mention a quote by Sam Shepard that I read somewhere a long time ago. The playwright says that what he likes about live theatre is the same thing he likes about music: “It goes out into the air,” he says, “and it disappears.”

The first show I directed in graduate school was Shepard’s “Fool for Love” and when I was a young director starting out I said that I would be happy to direct nothing but Sam Shepard plays for the rest of my career.

That didn’t happen and I did broaden my horizons but I kept close track of Shepard as both a playwright and as an actor and looked for the opportunities to pull his plays into the classroom when I was a teacher. I only directed one more Shepard play, “Action,” for the public; in that play, a roasted Thanksgiving turkey is torn apart and a raw fish appears in a tub of water. In True West, radios, toasters, and typewriters are beaten to a pulp with a golf club. Shepard’s plays are demons to prop.

I frequently use Shepard’s plays and monologues in acting and directing classes and still harbor a desire to direct and act in his long monologue, “Killer’s Head,” in which a blind-folded guy strapped in the electric chair rambles on about horses and the blue pickup truck he plans to buy today.

I plan to pair Shepard’s True West with Suzan-Lori Parks’s Topdog/Underdog in my fall directing class. It seems to be an interesting project for analysis – two plays exploring brothers in conflict.

When I heard about Shepard’s death, at 73, a few days ago, I felt like an old friend was gone. My first memories of Shepard are probably from reviews of off-off Broadway productions in the Village Voice in the early ‘70s. I think the first time I heard about Patti Smith was when she and Shepard had collaborated on the play Cowboy Mouth. In addition to writing plays, Shepard was an erstwhile drummer for the Holy Modal Rounders and co-wrote with Bob Dylan. His plays sounded like hallucinations of American life, of family life, of the lie of the American dream; they sounded like the kinds of statements I wanted to bring to life as a director.

When I began to read those early plays, I was not disappointed. They are full of humor and pathos, complex and transient characters who might live in an altered reality just a few blocks away, and images that never leave the memory.

Shepard’s popularity spread as much due to coolness of character and nonchalance to increasing fame as to the skill and beauty of his writing. No one else could wear jeans and a tee with such effortless style. The camera loved him and it was inevitable that he would become a strong presence in film. His face, the squint, the shock of brown hair that he constantly pushed back, the crooked teeth that seemed to add to the appeal rather than diminish it, and his lanky gait made him the logical subject for photographers like Bruce Weber (whose portrait of Shepard illustrates this essay).

He was ornery, opinionated, and cantankerous, even when he was young. He took advantage of his aging and a changing society around him to become even more of a character. “I don’t have a computer,” he said. “I don’t have an Internet. I don’t have the e-mail. I don’t have any of that shit.”

His plays are a joy for actors and directors because he leaves so much room to explore, so much acreage for the imagination to roam. There are no answers, I imagine him saying, and that’s the answer.

One of the most enduring Shepard images – in plays and films full of enduring images – is the tale of the eagle and the tom cat that ends Curse of the Starving Class. The eagle and the tom cat are fighting over lamb testes and the eagle lifts the cat into the air:

…They fight like crazy in the middle of the sky. That cat’s tearing his chest out, and the eagle’s trying to drop him, but the cat won’t let go because he knows if he falls he’ll die. …And the eagle’s being torn apart in midair. The eagle’s trying to free himself from the cat, and the cat won’t let go. …And they come crashing down to the earth. Both of them come crashing down. Like one whole thing.

In Shepard’s works, like in Harold Pinter’s plays, the playwright introduces an outsider into the dysfunction who tries to find some logic and order in the turmoil and often just confuses things further.  Shepard’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Buried Child memorably uses this device and Martin, May’s hapless date, serves that purpose in “Fool for Love.”

In “Fool for Love,” the bed in the middle of the room creates the literal and figurative obstacle between the doomed lovers, Eddie and May. They bicker and fight and embrace under the watchful but distracted eye of a spectral Old Man who may be their common biological father.

“HEEZ MY HAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAART!!!” Beth wails about the man who almost killed her in A Lie of the Mind.

Sam Shepard wrote plays in which the love spiral and the death spiral are often indistinguishable.

Sam Shepard has gone out into the air now, and disappeared. His plays will be around as long as theatre-goers like a challenge.

The Oasis

I woke up this morning craving a cheeseburger from The Oasis.

If you travel from west to east on University Boulevard in Tuscaloosa you will go through downtown and the heart of the University of Alabama campus. Continuing past Alberta City and the iconic neon sign of the Moon Winx Lodge (which survived the April 2011 tornado despite devastation all around it) you’ll pass through Five Points and a less populated area of Tuscaloosa’s edges. Eventually, University merges with U.S. 11 in Cottondale. Just past that merger point, one might almost miss The Oasis, a ‘50s-era roadhouse on the left.

If you’re in the neighborhood, try not to miss it. I haven’t been there in a long time but the place makes a vivid impression.

The Oasis is the kind of place that would have been referred to as a “beer joint” when I was growing up. It’s in a squat one-story red brick building with double neon zigzags across the top and “OASIS” centered up and left of the glass front door. Pick-up trucks are usually dominant in the front parking lot and motorcycles are often pulled around on the side. A free-standing neon sign tops a pole just to the right of the building. It is topped by the words “THE OASIS” flanked by saguaro cacti and a big neon “BEVERAGES” below. East Tuscaloosa along University Boulevard has long had some great neon.

The small entrance counter and cash register directly in front of you as you come in the door open into a basic dining room to the left with a few booths, tables, and a bar. Of course there was always a great jukebox.  A closed off barroom with a pool table is in the back with its own entrance near the rear of the building. I think I have peeked back there exactly once.

Be warned: Because the Oasis is out of the city limits (I guess) the place is still smoker-friendly and one dines there in a haze of stifling cigarette smoke. I guess it was always a smoke-filled room but I didn’t notice it so much in the days before strict non-smoking regulations. Now it hits you as soon as you open the door. I had recommended the cheeseburger to my parents a few years ago and they went in and immediately went out because of their health problems and the smoke (which I had forgotten to warn them about). The waitress came out and took their order and told them she’d bring it out to the car.

The Oasis has always felt to me like a place where one might go to cheat on a spouse. Maybe it’s the country music playing on the jukebox and the smoky atmosphere. Maybe it’s the clientele. I think it’s a combination of all of the above. Even if the waitress approaching the table doesn’t start off with “What’ll you have, darlin’?” you’ll feel like she did. The wait staff is friendly, experienced, and earthy. They have never suffered fools gladly.

The Oasis cheeseburger seals the deal. It’s a perfect old-style all-beef patty cooked on a flat-top grill with American cheese melted on the top. This is nestled beneath a pillowy top bun with the works – onions, tomato, lettuce, pickle, ketchup, and mustard. Some poll ranked the Oasis cheeseburger as among the top five cheeseburgers in Alabama; I find such rankings annoying but this one got it right by recognizing the Oasis (and I think the winning cheeseburger was Chez Fonfon in Birmingham).  Accompany your Oasis cheeseburger with a generous order of hot crinkle-cut fries. The Oasis was always the kind of place that would wrap a napkin around an ice cold long-neck beer to absorb the cold bottle’s moisture.

I passed The Oasis hundreds of times before I stopped and ate there. In the 1980s a jazz musician friend took me to The Oasis for the first time for lunch. (On that same afternoon, he convinced me how much better my life would be with a pair of Vuarnet sunglasses and I overspent on sunglasses for years after.)

I longed to be a “bad boy” back then but never really had what it took to pull it off. The Oasis, however, instantly spoke to my bad boy instincts and after that first trip I often looked for a good excuse to make the drive east on University.

I was directing a production of Sam Shepard’s “Fool for Love” in 1986. Shepard is a favorite of mine and the twisted and longing love story of an emotionally damaged couple in a run-down motel room in the Mojave Desert is a great example of his singular aching vision. One night after a Friday night rehearsal I told Kitty, the actor playing the female lead, that we were going to do some research on her role after the Saturday afternoon rehearsal and that she should dress in character.

On Saturday afternoon Kitty showed up for rehearsal wearing a little too much make-up and with her honey-brown hair dyed jet black. She wore a low-cut red blouse, skin-tight jeans, and spike heels.

“Perfect,” I said. “Where to?” asked Kitty.

After rehearsal, Kitty, the stage manager, and I piled in the car and headed out to The Oasis. It was mostly a male clientele late on a November Saturday afternoon. I started handing Kitty quarters to feed the jukebox. Every eye followed her as she leaned across the jukebox and picked out the most plaintive cryin’ in your beer tracks.

Kitty, who was already a skilled actor, was finding her character with each sip of a cold one and with each quarter in the jukebox. We paid up and headed for the car. As Kitty was getting in the car, a group of women in a pick-up truck slowed down. One of them rolled down the window and yelled “Slut!” at Kitty. The truck and its women sped away, slinging gravel in the wake.

“Well that was fun,” said Kitty with a sly grin. “Where to next?”

We decided to go to Leland Lanes in Alberta City and bowl for a while.