Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Sam Shepard, and qualities past compare

Shepard & Lange by Bruce Weber, 1984

I wish someone had told me Sam Shepard and Jessica Lange broke up, because I’m nearly sure that, oh, thirty years ago or whatever, their getting together was the chief reason I started to believe in romantic love. Of course you have to grow up sometime, and I’d have missed a big point about Shepard’s celebrated writing if I clung too close to a comforting shadow. But then you may perhaps recall the special allure of the Shepard/Lange story.

Circa 1981, he was married, but not happy. (In a poem of the period he wrote feelingly, ‘I’ve about seen/ all the nose jobs / capped teeth / and silly-cone tits / I can handle // I’m heading back to my natural woman.’ This was reproduced in a book to which we will shortly turn, and next to a photo of his first wife...) As for Lange, she had a daughter (named Shura!) from another relationship (with Mikhail Baryshnikov!). But then she and Shepard crossed paths, and that was that. ‘No man I've ever met compares to Sam in terms of maleness’, Lange was quoted a few years down the line. Patti Smith, a former Shepard flame, had formed a similar impression: ‘He was just everything that one could want... he had this animal magnetism. It was almost visceral... He was born for rock n' roll.’

That’s a very high bar to set in terms of ‘maleness’; and I just can’t think of a man who wouldn’t be impressed by these estimations, coming from such estimable women. But here’s what really got me dreamy about the Shepard-Lange fandango. In an interview he gave to The Face around 1984 – which took place in some diner, likely close to the locations for a movie he was making with Lange called Country – the reporter recorded Shepard noticing Lange pass outside the window, maybe 20 yards or so away, whereupon he pushed open a slat in the window (one of those windows, see) and shouted for her to come over and give him a kiss. Playfully she fended his request away for some moments, but he kept imploring, unabashed, and at last she sashayed his way, and he tried to lean out the window, only those damn slats proved too obstructive. So Shepard spend a minute or so wheedling a slat right out of its frame. So he could lean out and Lange could give him a kiss. Which she then did.

Now, we should all have that kind of relationship: it’s what God wants.

As late as 2010 Shepard was telling the Observer’s Carole Cadwalladr that he and Lange’s relationship was ‘tumultuous’: ‘Yeah, well, we're definitely an incredible match. But, you know, not without fireworks… although at this point, you know, she's the only woman I could live with... What other woman would put up with me?’ Now it appears as if the relationship may well have been over when that interview took place. Must all things change, et cetera?

I found out this distressing news from googling about after reading a Paris Review interview with Shepard about his craft, which, like every Paris Review writer’s Q&A I’ve ever read, is utterly superb and constitutes a lesson in how and why to write.Shepard, it has to be said, is a more striking and compelling figure of a man – has led a rather more intriguing life – than the average scribe; and it’s a very easy thing to get pulled into his laconic, reticent telling of the way he’s gone about things.(Consider, too, this fine Details interview with Jeff Gordinier in which Shepard's  very succinctly right reflection on what age will do (‘It’s crazy, you know. Time is just nuts’) leads him without fuss into an anecdote about resuming his friendship and working relationship with Patti Smith, including a recording of 'Smells Like Teen Spirit' on which Shepard played guitar, which is quite a thing.)

In fact, the more I think about Shepard, the more I feel as if he’s been – if not everything to me – then a very great many things.

(i) Frances (1982) was one of the first grown-up movies I saw, and aside from being generally impressed by its grit and pathos, I felt about the 'chemistry' between Shepard and Lange the way people talk – and I appreciate but don’t see – about Bogart and Bacall (since Bogart was no pin-up, whereas Shepard in his prime looked... well, like Patti Smith said.) The Right Stuff (1984) drove this 'attractiveness' thing home. Of course Shepard has offered many great variations on why he never felt like being a movie star, turned down umpteen big films, quite often because he ‘couldn’t be bothered to take his shirt off.’ We should all be so lucky to be so unbothered.

(ii) When I was 13 I had a car-windscreen sticker stuck onto my schoolbag that read I Paris Texas: arguably the ineffective and yet greatest piece of movie marketing ever attempted. (Bravo, Palace Video.) And I can’t say the lads in the schoolyard were very impressed. But I really did love Paris Texas: adapted by Shepard from his book Motel Chronicles, and possibly the first ‘art movie’ I ever saw, and the one that sort of instructed me in the near-mesmerically uneventful rhythm of those kinds of pictures. One sort of knew it had been made by a foreigner, which also seemed to explain the presence of Nastassja Kinski. Yet it was equally clear to me that it was a Western; and that may be why for a few years I preferred Paris Texas to the kinds of Westerns that had cowboys in them.

(iii) On account of this Paris Texas love, I went out and bought my own copy of Motel Chronicles, possibly the first book I owned from the imprint of Faber and Faber. Young people have always got besotted by America because of its art, even terse and tough and non-ingratiating art such as Motel Chronicles, because wide open spaces under big skies where still one can connect nothing with nothing have their very own poetry. Motel Chronicles had that effect on me. (A dozen or so years later, once I had the extraordinary good fortune to be published by Faber and Faber myself, I learned about the key role in all this of the influential figure of Walter Donohue, who had worked with Shepard on the Paris Texas script, overseen the picture’s green-lighting at Film Four, and acquired Motel Chronicles for Faber once he took up an editor’s chair there. Like many things to do with Mr Donohue, that is another story. The main point is that a link to Faber must have been quite important for Shepard – because they published his hero, 'Mr Beckett'.

(iv) The first Shepard plays I saw were filmed versions, beginning with True West, on television, starring the Chicago Steppenwolf boys, Gary Sinise and John Malkovich.(Shepard has called Malkovich – and I agree – ‘one of my favourite actors on stage because he is so outrageous. I mean, he just doesn’t give a shit.' And True West could instruct a young man how to write a play, if not necessarily a good one. As Shepard says of the play’s brothers: ‘I mean, basically they’re the same person. It’s just a split. I just wrote ’em as two characters, but they’re basically two conflicting parts of one person...')

Then came Robert Altman’s theatrical film of Fool for Love, which, you can see even by this trailer, wasn’t particularly good. But then Shepard was never sure about the play, which was sort of about him and Lange: ‘More than anything, falling in love causes a certain female thing in a man to manifest, oddly enough’, he told Paris Review. ‘I had mixed feelings about it when I finished. Part of me looks at Fool for Love and says, This is great, and part of me says, This is really corny. This is a quasi-realistic melodrama. It’s still not satisfying...’

(v) The play of his I finally got to see on stage was Lie of the Mind, around 1987, at the Royal Court. It’s 25 years ago now but I can still see and hear in my head the stunning coup de theatre where Beth (Miranda Richardson), beaten half to hell by her husband and comatose since, sits up in her bed with a terrible shriek.

(vi) The first exchanges I had with Sean Penn over my effort to persuade him to approve my writing a book about his life and work were in autumn 2000, while he was rehearsing Shepard’s The Late Henry Moss in San Francisco, with Nick Nolte and Woody Harrelson. Sean raised his eyebrows when I told him the book might take as little as three months of his time, if it were done with passion. Three years later I was still dogging him around Marin County... And round that same time Harrelson explained to me why autumn 2000 was a testing time for Shepard, who had been drinking too much for a while, an illness that beset his father and which, by all those references to ripple wine in Motel Chronicles, the reader might have feared. This is what Harrelson said:

'Sam was going through some stuff. Within a week into it, Sam doesn’t even come to rehearsal. We all come in, he’s not there. Comes in the next day, he’d had some major deal with his heart... And the doctor’s told him he can’t smoke any more cigarettes, but – but [laughs] – a glass of wine in the evening can help to thin the blood, you know? Well, he didn’t know who he was dealing with... The good thing about Sam, even though he was smoking cigarettes like a fiend, he wasn’t drinking. Well, once the doctor opened that door for him, it was a whole different ball of wax...'

(vii) A musical score for Henry Moss was composed and performed on the stage by T-Bone Burnett, the brilliant songwriter-musician-producer who can even be forgiven for turning Bob Dylan on to Jesus. Back then I’d loved Burnett’s contributions to records like Elvis Costello’s King of America and The Golden Palominos’ Blast of Silence without putting down the money for his solo albums. The one I finally bought, quite recently, was The Tooth of Crime, a set of songs that he wrote originally for a mid-1990s staging of Shepard’s play about a war of style between two rockers young and old, Hoss and Crow. It’s a wonderful record and it puts you strongly in mind of the moods in Shepard’s work. This song is 'Dope Island.' 

(viii) And now it turns out that a whole new record of songs has been released, inspired by Motel Chronicles. It’s by The Dark Flowers and called Radioland. The Dark Flowers are a loose ensemble and for this project they’ve enlisted vocal talents ranging from Jim Kerr of Simple Minds and Peter Murphy, once of Bauhaus – bands I listened to before I even saw Frances – to Dot Allison and Catherine AD, whose work is held in high regard around this parish.

(ix) There’s a view that over the last 20 years Shepard has acted in more movies than have been useful to his productivity as a writer. Though I don’t think Shepard takes that view himself, and I am not qualified to comment. I do wish I had seen States of Shock, written around the time of the first Gulf War, and The God of Hell, which was timed for that year’s US presidential election. Maybe the chance will come again. I wouldn’t want to just read them, that’s for sure.

(x) In 2009 Shepard gave Paris Review some new vignettes in the style of Motel Chronicles, including the one known as ‘the one about Shania Twain.’ His voice is inimitable.

(xi) In 2010 he told Carole Cadwalladr: ‘The funny thing about having all this so-called success is that behind it is a certain horrible emptiness. All this stuff is happening. And yet it is not what you are after as a writer... there's this feeling… what is it, then? And, I guess, it's the writing itself which is important.’

(xii) And right at the front of this extract from a PBS documentary (below) we return to where it probably all began for Shepard, and where, as it happens, Shepard began for me, and for so many people: Shepard on his father, from Motel Chronicles.

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