Sunday 24 September 2017

Obituary: Sam Shepard

Playwright, actor, writer, drummer and haunter of Dublin late at night

FUSING BECKETT: Playwright Sam Shepard — a restless, roaming man of talents
FUSING BECKETT: Playwright Sam Shepard — a restless, roaming man of talents

Barbara McCarthy

I was very flattered when Sam Shepard asked a friend could he be introduced to me on Wexford Street one night some years back.

He was tall, handsome, taciturn, cowboy-esque and he was impressed by my sartorial choices and wanted to know where I was from. It was 2am, and I just finished hosting my karaoke night in the Village - a long-running event which attracted stragglers on rollovers, musicians, artists and some mad punters around town.

Patrick Bergin, The Darkness, Kiefer Sutherland, Ryan Tubridy, GreenDay and Daft Punk frequented it over the years. I insisted he come the following week and he did.

You wouldn't think a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, Oscar-nominated actor, author, and self-styled "rock 'n'roll Jesus with the cowboy mouth" described as a "poet laureate of America's emotional badlands," who died peacefully in his home in Kentucky from complications related to Lou Gehrig's disease, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, would be into karaoke, but he visited a few times during that period in early 2007 when he directed his play, Kicking a Dead Horse, with Stephen Rea in the Abbey.

It was an amazing time in Dublin -the Tiger was yet to eat itself, people were spilling onto the street each night talking loudly and he was immersed in it. He asked me to come to his play. I never did. What an idiot.

One night I brought him to a party after my gig. There were musicians sitting in a badly lit dive above a shop playing bluegrass at 3am - that was when musicians could still afford to live in town. I left after a while. He stayed behind. Sitting silently, without pretension, happy in the dinge and fag smoke, absorbed in the music.

When I read Shepard's 'Buddy' Patti Smith's beautifully articulated tribute to her friend and collaborator in The New Yorker after he died, last Saturday, aged 73, I reminisced about that night. She described, how, during a trip to Dublin in 2012 to receive an Honorary Doctorate of Letters from Trinity College, the pair joined musicians in his favourite local pub, the Cobblestone. "As we playfully staggered across the bridge, he recited reams of Beckett off the top of his head," she recalled.

It encapsulated everything beautiful and poetic about a disappearing Ireland that a middle-American man, who transversed the bridge between the prairies and the big city, and who had Beckett's original writings hanging on his kitchen walls, would hold in his heart.

Jimmy Fay, who directed Shepard's plays True West twice (once for the Lyric in Belfast, and once for the Abbey), Ages of the Moon and Curse of the Starving Class, also in the Abbey in 2011, described him as "generous, razor sharp, experimental, strange, iconic, Elvis-like", while also being "utterly engaging, interested in people, an outdoors man, a great poet who always had to write".

He could fuse Samuel Beckett and Little Richard. He could combine pop rock with existentialist angst. He was able to make really odd, strange, beautiful plays. He gave a voice to the drama of the heartland. He was a horseman, who raised thoroughbreds, and loved jazz and read Proust. He was gloriously paradoxical.

"He was an extraordinary artist with a brain bigger than anyone else around him," Fay said. "And I was in awe of him."

Born Samuel Shepard Rogers VII in Fort Sheridan, Illinois on November 5, 1943, the eldest of three children, his early years were nomadic. His father was a bomber pilot in World War II, so the family moved from one military base to another, taking in South Dakota, Guam and Florida before settling in an avocado ranch in Duarte, California.

His father's experiences of war deeply affected him and he became an alcoholic, which later inspired Shepard's finest semi-autobiographical plays featuring dysfunctionality and darkness.

After abandoning an agricultural degree, he arrived in New York in 1963, a counter-cultural cauldron with "a cowboy mouth with matinee-idol looks", a mid-western drawl and vague aspirations to act, make music and write. After securing a job as a busboy at the Village Gate nightclub, he became part of the underground avant-garde movement.

His first Gestalt pieces, Cowboy and The Rock Garden, caused confusion and some uproar when they were first shown Off Off Broadway. New York, it seemed, wasn't ready for such a raw injection of profane language and psychodrama.

He won OBIEs (Off-Broadway Theater Awards) for Chicago, Icarus Mother and Red Cross. In 1967, he wrote his first full length play, La Turista, an allegory on the Vietnam war about an American couple in Mexico and won his fourth OBIE. He won 13 in total.

His early science-fiction play, The Unseen Hand (1969), influenced Richard O'Brien's The Rocky Horror Show, while Operation Sidewinder featured a computerised snake, hopi Indians, black panthers, and his rock group, the Holy Modal Rounders, for which he played drums.

John Lahr, a former theatre critic at The Nation and the Village Voice, described it in The New Yorker. "He didn't conform to the manners of the day; he'd lived a life outside the classroom and conventional book-learning. He was rogue energy with rock riffs. In his coded stories of family abuse and addiction, he brought to the stage a different idiom and a druggy, surreal lens," Lahr wrote.

In 1979 he won a Pulitzer Prize for his play Buried Child, which was part of a quintet of family tragedies including Curse of the Starving Glass, (1977), and True West (1980), which depicted the rivalry between two estranged brothers, later to be played by actors including Philip Seymour Hoffman, Gary Sinese and John Malkovich. Fool For Love (1983) and A Lie of the Mind, (1985) established him as one of the visionaries of US theatre. By the age of 40, he had become the second most widely performed US playwright after Tennessee Williams.

When Curse of the Starving Class was performed in The Abbey theatre, in 2011, Shepard became the Abbey's most frequently staged playwright. Joe Hanley, who played the role of the explosive alcoholic father Weston in the semi-autobiographical play, said of Shepard: "He was the last of the great American writers. A theatrical and gifted man without ego."

At the time his playwriting was beginning to peak, with predictable oddity he became a romantic movie lead in movies such as Baby Boom. "The shift was so unexpected that many of his fans in the theatre thought it had to be somebody else when his name appeared with Richard Gere and Brooke Adams in Days of Heaven, but his on-screen magnetism was powerful enough to match, if not overpower Gere's own," film critic Gene Seymour said.

In 1983, Shepard was nominated for an academy award for Best Supporting Actor as his portrayal of pilot Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff. He also starred in Steel Magnolias, Terrence Malick's Days of Heaven, Frances with his partner-to-be Jessica Lange, The Notebook, Black Hawk Down, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and The Pelican Brief, with Julia Roberts amongst others. Recently, he starred as in Bloodline on Netflix.

Despite his many acting credentials, Shepard humbly insisted that his performances were 'hit and miss'.

In February of this year, his book, The One Inside - a collection of short stories - was hailed by actor Ed Harris. "The most intimate thing he wrote. Read that and it's like you're holding the essence of Sam in your hands," he said in an obituary in the Guardian. "Exploring his characters is like a bottomless pit. We just did 125 performances of Buried Child in London and we're still discovering things about these people at the end of the run."

Shepard was constantly working on something. Once one thing finished, he would move onto the next, be it a poem or a screenplay, but he also had a great impulse to hit the open road, as his ex-lover Patti Smith wrote in her evocative piece: "Sam liked being on the move. He'd throw a fishing rod or an old acoustic guitar in the back seat of his truck, maybe take a dog, but for sure a notebook, and a pen, and a pile of books."

Unlike modern stars, who court attention, Shepard was very private. He didn't like flying or the internet, used a typewriter and liked to roam the streets freely.

He married actress O-Lan Jones with whom he had a son, Jesse Mojo Shepard, in 1969. He met Jessica Lange while making the movie Frances in 1982. They were together for almost 30 years until 2009. They had two children, Hannah Jane and Samuel Walker. All three of his children were with him when he passed away.

He was cowboy, a badass and an enigma, who, according to Lange, wasn't easy going. "But no man I've ever met compares to Sam in terms of maleness," she said. She was probably wrong though.

She probably meant to say that no one ever compares to Sam.

Sunday Independent

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