Sam Shepard and the Art of Expressing the Unsaid

TRUE WEST: Sam Shepard’s Life, Work, and Times, by Robert Greenfield

The first rule of being Bob Dylan’s friend, it’s said, is to not talk about Bob Dylan. A similar code of omertà appears to apply to Sam Shepard, the playwright and actor, and it has held since his death in 2017. A lot of people have lined up to not talk to his latest biographer, mostly the same people who lined up to not talk to the previous ones.

Robert Greenfield’s “True West: Sam Shepard’s Life, Work, and Times” is the fourth life of Shepard, after Ellen Oumano’s in 1986, Don Shewey’s in 1997 and John J. Winters’s in 2017. Greenfield has persuaded 38 people to submit to interviews, according to his source notes. It’s not a shameful number, but this isn’t Robert Caro supersleuthing.

Judge a party not by who’s there, the old credo goes, but by who isn’t. The missing voices include those of O-Lan Jones, Shepard’s first wife; his longtime partner, Jessica Lange; his lovers Patti Smith and Brooke Adams and Joni Mitchell (her song “Coyote” is about him); and myriad friends and collaborators, including Terrence Malick, Keith Richards, Ed Harris, Peter Coyote, Wim Wenders, John Malkovich, T Bone Burnett, Diane Keaton, Ethan Hawke and Dylan himself, with whom Shepard, in “Brownsville Girl,” wrote the abiding lyric “Even the swap meets around here are getting pretty corrupt.”

Greenfield’s book is faithful to Shepard’s life, while it skips like a stone along the surface. Shepard spent much time laying down cover, and tending to his own mythology. He gave a lot of interviews about hating to give interviews. Like Dylan, he was laconic in person while, in his work, he spilled words by the bucketful. Like Dylan, too, he threw out a million ideas and images and left them for others to try to pick up.

Shepard reflexively lied about his life, so there’s a lot to untangle. He was so handsome, so fine and flinty and long-boned, that he was a shock to be around — he made people stupid, or teary, or angry or skin-starved, sometimes all at once. He mostly got away with wearing those John Deere hats and chewing on toothpicks and dispensing regular-fella observations such as “I learn more at the racetrack than from Shakespeare” and “I just stay in the movie business to feed my horses.” You wish the photo insert (why only one?) went on for a couple dozen pages.

“True West” is the first biography of Shepard since his death, at 73, from complications of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease. His body was ambushed in other ways. His smoking caught up with him. He needed a stent for a blocked artery. He carried an oxygen machine.

By his late 60s, the wheels were coming off. He got a second D.U.I. at 72. He rarely chose well, in terms of his acting roles, but did he need, near the end, to appear on the Discovery Channel series “Klondike”?

Greenfield is a prolific journeyman biographer who has written the lives of Jerry Garcia, Bill Graham, Timothy Leary and Burt Bacharach, among others. His Shepard book lacks a certain density, and a critical sensibility, but it’s well organized and cleanly written. It neatly covers the bases.

Richard Hell was born Richard Meyers, and Iggy Pop was Jim Osterberg. Ramblin’ Jack Elliott? He was really Elliot Adnopoz. When Sam Shepard arrived in Manhattan in 1963, at 19, he went by Steve Rogers, though his full name was Samuel Shepard Rogers III.

His father was a B-54 Liberator pilot during World War II, whose drinking and macho, unruly moods informed the characters in some of Shepard’s best plays, including “Fool for Love” (1983). Shepard grew up in Southern California, in South Pasedena and then in Duarte, on an avocado ranch, though both his parents taught in exclusive high schools. He thought he might become a veterinarian. He began writing plays while in community college, before dropping out.

Shepard knew Charles Mingus’s son, Charles Mingus III, in high school. The younger Mingus helped Shepard get a job busing tables at the Village Gate, a nightclub in Greenwich Village. Where did Shepard’s faculty for language come from? Greenfield can’t explain it. But the plays started pouring from him, dozens of them.

Shepard’s early works, with titles like “Shaved Splits” and “Back Bog Beast Bait,” were hallucinatory cascades of rapid-fire assertion and they broke with nearly every convention. Everything Shepard wrote was stripped bare and a bit out of whack; Beckett and Pinter stood sentinel over his shoulders. Gone was any remnant of soggy humanism or stabs at Arthur Miller-like “depth.” His plays were staged at young downtown experimental theaters like Café La MaMa, Theatre Genesis and Caffe Cino.

Sometimes he’d have a rock band onstage, an assault on the mock emotion of show tunes. Sometimes that band was the Holy Modal Rounders, with whom he played drums. (In 1968, at San Francisco’s Avalon Ballroom, the Rounders opened for Pink Floyd.) Shepard was the person who convinced Patti Smith, a poet, to try standing in front of a loud and unruly group of musicians, to become a rock star.

He won his first Obie Award in 1967 for “La Turista.” Elizabeth Hardwick reviewed it in The New York Review of Books and called it “a work of superlative interest.” He was 24 when Michelangelo Antonioni brought him to Rome to help write the screenplay for “Zabriskie Point.” Later that year, he lived in Keith Richards’s country manor while working on a screenplay for the Rolling Stones. He stayed at the Chateau Marmont while in Los Angeles and bought land in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, near Philip Glass and Robert Frank.

Shepard’s friends back in New York thought he was getting awfully full of himself. They tried on one opening night to kidnap him, as a kind of intervention. What they didn’t know was that he wasn’t yet in full flower. Between 1977 and 1985 he wrote his best and most mature work: plays including “Curse of the Starving Class,” “Buried Child,” “True West,” “Fool for Love” and “A Lie of the Mind,” many about disintegrating families. The stature of most of these has only grown. They still make you reinterpret your experience.

He had that rare gift, among playwrights, for being able to articulate what’s unsaid right alongside what’s said. He hated to fly and wrote some of his plays while driving, pinning his papers to the steering wheel.

Shepard’s fame peaked in 1983, when he appeared as the laconic West Virginia test pilot Chuck Yeager in Philip Kaufman’s film of Tom Wolfe’s best seller “The Right Stuff.” He received an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor, losing to Jack Nicholson in “Terms of Endearment.”

Greenfield rakes this material toward a series of tent-pole scenes. These include clashes with authority figures including Antonioni; Dylan, who made him feel square; the theater producer Joe Papp; and the director Robert Altman, who made a film of “Fool for Love.”

The sections on Shepard’s time with Smith are lovely. They drifted in hairy-pitted love through the corridors of the Chelsea Hotel, a Robert Doisneau photograph come to bohemian life. Shepard was newly married to O-Lan Jones when he crashed into Smith. Jones knew, and he knew, that he was a hero-heel. The usual rules bent around him. In 1985 he told Newsweek about his early years in the city, “I rode everything with hair.”

He met Lange on the set of the 1982 movie “Frances.” She was six years younger and had just had a child with Mikhail Baryshnikov. Though she and Shepard never married they were together for nearly three decades, much of that time spent on a 107-acre horse farm near Charlottesville, Va.

Shepard’s later plays were not among his best, but such was his stature that audiences tended to feel that the failure was their own, for not fully appreciating them.

Shepard’s is a hard life to screw up, and Greenfield doesn’t. His writing about the playwright’s final years is detailed and moving. Despite the D.U.I.s and the mediocre television shows, we glimpse his personal dignity. It was as if Shepard were following Shakespeare’s stage direction: “Keep some state in thy exit, and vanish.”

TRUE WEST: Sam Shepard’s Life, Work and Times | By Robert Greenfield | Illustrated | 432 pp. | Crown | $30

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