“I hate endings. Just detest them. Beginnings are definitely the most exciting, middles are perplexing and endings are a disaster. …The temptation towards resolution, towards wrapping up the package, seems to me a terrible trap. Why not be more honest with the moment? The most authentic endings are the ones which are already revolving towards another beginning. That’s genius.”
Where do I begin? He passed away a few week ago now. When I saw a friend talking about him in the past tense on Facebook my heart sped up and I of course Googled him. Gone at 73. Immediately the tears came and kept coming. I’ve never met this man. But I kept crying on and off for a few days. I’ve been thinking about him every day since he passed.
We take other people’s deaths and make them about us. (See: June Falling Down) And I guess I’m about to do just that.
I first found his plays as a senior in high school before I knew him as an actor. I was obsessed with On the Road and I could feel the Beats all over his writing. But cleaner and darker.
He was from the Midwest but he was a cowboy, I could see in his pictures. And when he was young he looked an awful lot like my dad (My mom tells me my dad was always proud of that). My dad later became rounder while Sam Shepard stayed skinny. But his brow, his nose, his blue eyes always reminded me of my dad and gave me a flash of an idea of what my dad would look like older. I’m sure that’s part of why I cried.
When I was living in New York, going to NYU, I saw him. Three or four times at least we passed each other on Washington Mews as I cut over to my morning Irish Theatre class. The first time, like magic, I looked up, and there was Sam Shepard strolling down the cobblestones. Look away, look away, look away. Nope, I stared right at him, couldn’t help it. He smiled and said hi and I said hi back. He laughed the next few times we passed each other. The last time I saw him we rounded a corner at the same time and his dogs almost ran right into me.
I told my dad about seeing him. This was the fall of 2008 and my dad was home sick going through treatments. He told me to ask him if I could buy him a coffee and ask him questions about writing plays. I was too young and had no idea what my questions could possibly be yet, but I decided I was going to do it. Of course, I never saw him again.
But this doesn’t explain it, doesn’t explain who or what Sam Shepard represented to me. And I know he was a complicated person in real life, a dark person, and that’s its own story, but his work, how he pulled it off, meant everything to me.
I was completely miserable my first few years of college. I was in a theatre school near Chicago surrounded by really loud, well-spoken, very actor-y kids and it was hell for an introvert like myself who could barely put a sentence together. I had switched from being a film major to a theatre major the summer before freshman year because I saw a couple Shakespeare productions that told me I had to learn how to do that. But when I got there I became lost almost right away. No voice, all inhibitions and stutters. (Did you know that this loud persona you so adore is complete bs learned from being surrounded by actors/waitressing? yup.)
I still don’t fit in great with the theatre world. Though I’d certainly like to. Just a certain slice of the theatre world. I’m just not fabulous or big or loud. I mean, I’m fine with that stuff, I used to want to be a Broadway dancer for cryin out loud (we’ll get into that at some point later..). But I like gritty and dirty. And I didn’t really know that existed in theatre when I was 18. I felt like I had to change myself to fit. Then I remembered Sam Shepard.
I found a biography on him in the university library while getting lost looking for monologues. I must have checked out and re-checked out that book for the majority of my two years at that school. It certainly didn’t hurt that I was already obsessed with Bob Dylan’s New York of the 60s, but here were Sam Shepard and Patti Smith writing a play together in the 70s at the Chelsea Hotel.
And here was Sam Shepard looking like a cowboy. And here acting in movies, riding horses, and being beautiful with Jessica Lange.
I remember he said he wanted to be a rock star but he couldn’t so he wrote plays instead and I said, me too! I watched a documentary on him in which he said New York isn’t a place you live – it’s where you go work and then you leave. I learned he took long road trips and wrote plays while he drove.
I mean, the romance of it all is almost too much to bear, but I still love it as I write it up.
But what I really couldn’t believe was that somehow he managed in his plays, in his persona, whatever – he managed to make theatre cool. And raw and dirty. I suddenly got what it really meant to paint pictures onstage. And what it really meant to create an electric experience in person – and why you would want to be there in person for his plays. And I suddenly felt tied to him and to it.
I hate the flashy parts of show business. I hate that junk. I’ll do it if I have to and I’ll have a good time with it (and I’ve already had to with June) because it gets the word out, but it has nothing to do with what you’re actually working on, what you’re expressing. Especially if you’re digging into a real sense of place like, I don’t know, small town Wisconsin or a seedy motel in the desert. How strange it is then to get dressed up and pose as if the whole movie you’re premiering isn’t you crawling around with a bear attack wound. For example.
And this seems crazy at a time in which we regularly use words like “multi-hyphenate” but just in 2006 I had a good amount of people telling me that, yeah, being a writer and an actor (I hadn’t imagined directing yet, although I already had done some) sounds great, but you really won’t be able to do either one very well if you’re doing both. You have to choose.
And here was Sam Shepard, a master of both forms.
And I do mean a master actor. He’s very possibly my favorite. Because you don’t see any seams. Think about the movies you’ve seen him in: He just seems like a guy hanging out with a bunch of actors around him. He seems like part of the scenery, like he was always there. He was jaw droppingly naturalistic.
We don’t appreciate the talent and the incredible relaxation in a person it takes to just be there, to just hang out after “action.” And he had it. It can’t be taught. Refined certainly, but not taught, I don’t think.
I also felt this sorrow when Sam Shepard died about losing this kind of man. It’s terrible to generalize but I also felt this way about losing Levon Helm. This kind of man from the country who also spoke rock and roll. Masculine, from the earth, making art, a cowboy sensibility. I’m fully romanticizing, but I do not care. Our world is changing way too quickly and our foul president is tweeting and here I am writing a blog post bemoaning it all, but it still hurts.
I think, what are we going to do when we lose Robert Redford? Bruce Springsteen? Bob Dylan?
I don’t know. I love these guys. I love a sense of place. I love raw writing from people who are/were clearly well-read and articulate and wise/foolish.
I suppose when it comes to Sam Shepard he was a link for me between performance and film and who I really am. He wrote out all of his darkness, he was experimental, he showed up as himself. He was from the country and there was no hiding it. He was dark and quiet and there was no hiding that either.
The greatest lesson feels like: “be the most yourself.” An awkward sentence, but it makes sense to me, and that’s good enough. I’m so glad Sam Shepard was alive and did his work and I wish he could be here longer, but that’s the way things go.
(and did you know Sam Shepard has a connection to Door County?)