Theatre critic Michael Feingold once remarked that the paradox of Sam Shepard consisted in his having “the mind of a Kafka trapped in the body of a Jimmy Stewart.” It was Franz Kafka who wrote that “a book must be the ax for the frozen sea in us.” And in the more than 40 plays that Sam Shepard has written since 1964, this American playwright has been breaking open that frozen sea with an originality of vision, a jolting intermingling of humour and grief, a profound examination of the hopes and failures of the American family and an astonishing ear for the cadences of the American idiom. With plays like The Unseen Hand, Curse of the Starving Class, Buried Child (for which he won the 1979 Pulitzer Prize), True West, Fool for Love and the recent A Lie of the Mind, Shepard has cloaked himself in the mantle once worn by Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams.
This Franz Kafka with a lariat, this desert-haunted cowboy-stranger, has also, as an actor, attained the popularity of matinee idols such as Jimmy Stewart and Gary Cooper. With his lean, Sam Shepard lanky, cleft-chinned, high-cheekboned, snaggletoothed, blue-eyed good looks, Sam Shepard has been a magnetic presence in films such as Days of Heaven, Resurrection, Frances, The Right Stuff, Country and Fool for Love. In the words of The Right Stuff‘s director, Phil Kaufman, “[Shepard] has a quality that is so rare now – you don’t see it in the streets much, let alone in the movies – a kind of bygone quality of the Forties, when guys could wear leather jackets and be laconic and still say a lot without verbally saying anything.”
Born Samuel Shepard Rogers III on November 5th, 1943, in Fort Sheridan, Illinois, Shepard was an Army brat whose family was stationed for various periods in South Dakota, Utah, Florida and Guam and finally settled down on an avocado ranch in Duarte, California – an end-of-the-road valley town east of Los Angeles. At 19, he left his family and came to New York City as an aspiring actor and musician, started writing his super-energised, music-driven early plays, eventually moved to London with his actress-wife, O-Lan, and son, Jesse, then returned to northern California. He now lives on a farm in Virginia with actress Jessica Lange (with whom he appears in the film version of Beth Henley’s play Crimes of the Heart, directed by Bruce Beresford) and their daughter, Hannah, and Jessica’s daughter, Alexandra. Like Bob Dylan, whom he resembles in many ways, Sam Shepard is an intensely private person who shies away from journalists, preferring to allow transformed glimpses of himself to appear in his plays and in books like Hawk Moon and the wonderful Motel Chronicles – collections of poems-meditations-dreams-journals-visions. (Don Shewey’s recent biography, Sam Shepard, gives an insightful view of the playwright’s life and particularly of his complicated, shattered relationship with his alcoholic father.)
In conversation, Sam Shepard is happy to speak directly about things that concern him and indirectly about issues of superficial or only “personal” importance. With an undeniably engaging blue-eyed squint and a kind of Western-swing twang to his voice, he continually displays an unnerving, surprising and charmingly boyish sense of humour. But most disarming of all is the way he unhesitatingly confronts, explores and clarifies the most painful and sorrowful of matters – loss, separation, disillusionment, powerlessness, weakness, fear, lies.
In his most recent play, A Lie of the Mind, Sam Shepard has made his most fearless, controlled and deep penetration into the realm of the American psyche. For in this story of two American families – with its revelations and reconciliations of the relationships between and among a violent son, his battered wife and his angelic brother – the playwright shows how personal and social dreams and lies are one and the same, creating, as he once said Bob Dylan created, “a mythic atmosphere out of the land around us. The land we walk on every day and never see until someone shows it to us.”
It was in an old-fashioned, unassuming drugstore on Carton Drive in Beverly Hills, California – one of Shepard’s favorite “reading” haunts – and in the tearoom of the Chateau Marmont Hotel, in Hollywood, that the following interview took place earlier this year.
In many of your plays, your characters often perform music onstage, and the feel of your plays is often that of a jazz improvisation or of extended country, blues or rock & roll songs. When did your preoccupation with music begin?
Sam Shepard: My dad was a kind of semiprofessional Dixieland-type drummer, and I learned the drums from him. When I was about twelve, we bought our first Ludwig drum set from a pawnshop – a marching-band bass drum, great big tom-toms and big, deep snare drums. We stripped the paint off of them, varnished them and then set them out in the orchard to dry.
I was in high school then in Duarte and started playing in a band called Nat’s Cats. We performed old swing music, kind of Dixieland stuff, and gradually moved into rock & roll. Trumpet, clarinet, drums – that was the trio. In this same high school that I went to, there was a student named Mike Romero, who also played the drums. So this competition started – a kind of drum wars! – and I once went over to his place and stayed up all night and listened to jazz records for the first time. Then we played for hours, and I discovered what the left hand could do – letting the drum hand ride – because a rock 8 roll drummer would turn the hand over and smash the snare drum, while the jazz drummer would hold the stick in his open palm so that he could get this snap out of it. Mike Romero was the guy who turned me on to that, and all of a sudden the drums opened up for me. And when I moved to New York City in 1963, I started playing drums for the Holy Modal Rounders.
“I’ve always felt a great affinity with music. Writing seems to me to be a musical experience – rhythmically and in many other ways. But I don’t think that that’s so unusual. Most of the old guys had the same sense – Christopher Marlowe thought of himself as a musician. Just another musician killed at a bar.”
I’ve always felt a great affinity with music. I’ve felt myself to be more of a musician than anything else, though I’m not proficient in any one instrument. But I think I have a musical sense of things … and writing seems to me to be a musical experience – rhythmically and in many other ways. But I don’t think that that’s so unusual. Most of the old guys had the same sense – Christopher Marlowe thought of himself as a musician. Just another musician killed at a bar [laughs] … and there’s that theory that he was Shakespeare.
One of your fans told me that you were Shakespeare. And like you, Shakespeare didn’t go around promoting himself in the media.
I think that’s because he didn’t exist. I think there was a whole cover-up for him.
Yeah. I think there’s a big mystery about Shakespeare, but it’s too late to confirm it [laughs]. I mean, look at the plays, the way they suddenly shift gears – from the earlier period to those later tragedies. Something happened that nobody knows about. I think he was involved in something deeply mysterious and esoteric, and at the time they had to keep it under wraps. There’s an awful lot of amazing insight in his plays that doesn’t come from an ordinary mind. And there was a tremendous monastic movement at that time. Who knows what he was into?
Shakespeare didn’t mince words either. “To be, or not to be” is right to the point [laughs]. You can’t get much more to the point than that. That is the question. Are you going to be here or not? What’s the deal? Are you going to be or not be?
When did you make that decision?
Well, you decide that every day.
Do you sometimes wake up and wonder about it?
For me, it’s been a process of overcoming a tremendous morning despair. It’s been diminishing over the years. But I still feel this trace of this thing that I can’t really track down.
Some people are just “up and at ’em!”
I’ve tried desperately to be like that – 6:00 a.m. and bang! Feed the horses and milk the goats. I used to work a lot on ranches where I grew up, and I had to rise at 5:30 in the morning. In fact, there’s something healthy about going against the grain of the laziness of the body.
In a prose poem you once wrote called “Rhythm,” you make It sound as if everything is rhythm: “Oilcan rhythms, ratchet wrench rhythms. Playing cards in bicycle spokes…. Water slapping rocks. Flesh slapping flesh. Boxing rhythms. Racing rhythms. Rushing brooks….”
Well, it is, pretty much. But there’s that distinction between tempo and rhythm, where tempo is a man-made invention…. In San Francisco, I once studied with an African drummer named Kwaku Dadey, who had been playing since he was seven years old in Ghana. I’d always thought that polyrhythm was an invention of contemporary jazz, but it turns out that it’s an ancient African concept. And I remember that one day about eight of us got together to play congas: we played in rhythms of 5s and 6s and in 6/8, 3/4 and 4/4 time simultaneously. Everything stacked and piled up, and you had to carry some of the lines three or four measures to catch up, but eventually it all worked out. It was hard to believe!
There was no connecting principle?
Of course there was. Like the ocean. If you’re playing an individual part and I’m playing an individual part and we can’t figure out how these two are going to merge – assuming you’re sticking to your part and I to mine – they just eventually merge. I don’t know how. But the rhythmic structures underneath each one of these parts all somehow map out. And what’s the principle of that? It’s way beyond music…. That man was an amazing teacher, with an understanding of the crossroads and of how everything fits together. I learned a lot from him.
When I see your plays, I’m sometimes reminded of songs written by the Band.
I love Levon Helm – he’s one of my favorite guys. You know, Levon once shot himself in the leg while practicing his quick draw! [Laughs.] And there’s another guy Levon once told me about who shot his nuts off – another drummer, by the way – and Levon said that he’s never played the same since [laughs]. Oh, boy! Carrying a.45 in your crotch when you’re playing the drums is really asking for trouble!
Do you remember the Band’s song called “Daniel and the Sacred Harp”? It tells the story of a guy who buys a magical instrument that he has no rights to, and while he’s playing his heart out on it in a meadow, he notices that he’s lost his shadow, perhaps his soul.
A bad sign. You know Dr. Faustus, by Christopher Marlowe? I’d love to make a film of that sometime. I even prefer it to Goethe’s version because of Marlowe’s incredible language.
You seem to like Marlowe a lot. When did you first read him?
I’ll tell you – aside from assigned reading in high school, I didn’t read any plays except for a couple of Brecht things when I was living in New York City. I avoided reading out of arrogance, really. But when I went to England in the early Seventies, I suddenly found myself having a kind of dry spell. It was difficult for me to write, so I started to read. And I read most of the Greek guys – Aeschylus, Sophocles. … I studied up on those guys, and I’m glad I did. I was just amazed by the simplicity of the ancient Greek plays, for instance – they were dead simple. Nothing complex or tricky … which surprised the hell out of me, because I’d assumed they were beyond me. But now I began to comprehend what they were talking about, and they turned out to be accessible.
They’re a lot about the family romance, aren’t they?
They’re all about destiny! That’s the most powerful thing. Everything is foreseen, and we just play it out.
You don’t think a person can shape his own destiny?
Oh, maybe. But first you have to know what your destiny is.
When did you think you knew your own?
I’m not so sure I do. I’m not saying I know my destiny; I’m saying that it exists. It exists, and it can become a duty to discover it. Or it can be shirked. But if you take it on as your duty, then it becomes a different thing from dismissing it altogether and just imagining that it’ll work itself out anyway. I mean, it will. But it’s more interesting to try to find it and know it.
What was the first thing you ever wrote?
I remember that when I was a kid, I wrote a story about a Coke bottle. You know that in the old days Coke bottles had the name of the city where they were manufactured inscribed on the bottom – St Paul, Dubuque, wherever. So I wrote this story about this bottle and its travels. It would get filled up in one town, some-one would drink it and throw it out the window, and then it would get on a truck and go somewhere else.
You seem to have found your own voice, on the outskirts of Duarte, all on your own.
You know, Duarte was a weird accumulation of things, a strange kind of melting pot – Spanish, Okie, black, Midwestern elements all jumbled together. People on the move who couldn’t move anymore, who wound up in trailer camps. And my grandmother, my father’s mother, was part something … maybe American Indian, I’m not sure what. She was real dark, with black eyes, and I don’t know what that was all about – there was a cover-up somewhere back there.
But as far as my “voice” goes, I’m not so sure it’s “mine.” I had a sense that a voice existed that needed expression, that there was a voice that wasn’t being voiced, if you want to put it like that. But is it “mine”?
“The shock of violence brings something. I’m not suggesting violence is a way of catharsis. But an accidental confrontation can bring about an awakening. A man can believe himself to be in control of his emotions, yet in the flash of an eye he can lose it totally and be shocked into seeing what he’s really made of.”
Your most recent play, A Lie of the Mind, seems like a real bringing together and transformation of many of your oldest and deepest “voices.”
That’s 21 years of work there. It was a tough play to write, because I had the first act very clearly in mind, then went off on a tangent and had to throw away two acts and start again. And then it began to tell itself. Like a story you’ve heard a long time ago that’s now come back.
A writer once stated, “Insight only occurs as a lightning-bolt. The text is the thunder-peal rolling long behind.”
Did I write that? [Laughs.]
No, the critic Walter Benjamin did. What was the lightning bolt for A Lie of the Mind?
The incredible schism between a man and a woman, in which something is broken in a way that almost kills the thing that was causing them to be together. The devastating break – that was the lightning bolt.
But isn’t it this lightning bolt that woke them up? It seems as if Beth, the battered, brain-damaged wife, who appears to be crazy and living in a dream world, is in fact the clearest-seeing person in the play.
Yes, she’s the most sensitive. I’ve had a couple of experiences of people very close to me who suffered brain damage and who underwent surgery. And the most startling thing in both of these cases was the sense of one’s own helplessness in relation to what these two people were going through because of the innocence of their states. We use words all the time – we take them for granted – and suddenly you’re faced with people who have no language…. It’s gone. And you become aware that language is a learned function – it’s an obvious fact – but at that moment you truly become aware of it, when you realise that it can be lost. Those people are on the open end of the stick. They’re vulnerable and alive to the fact of language … while we’re dead to it. We usually don’t understand how it affects people and what kind of luxury it is to have language. So it shakes you up.
It’s extraordinarily moving when Beth, pointing to her head, says, “This is me. This is me now. The way I am. Now. This. All. Different. I – I live inside this. Remember. Remembering.”
It’s interesting how you can be lost in an area like memory – memory is very easy to get lost in. Some things can’t get lost, though, because they’re based on emotional memory, which is a different thing from just trying to remember the name of a person or some fact. But to remember where you were touched has more of a reverberation. It remembers itself to you.
At the beginning of A Lie of the Mind, Jake’s talking to his brother, Frankie, on the phone, and the latter says, “Jake! Don’t do that! You’re gonna disconnect us again.” And you notice how the word disconnect and later a word like remember almost act as ritualistic and key words in the play. Yet the words also pass by unnoticed because they’re so well rooted in intense but simple colloquial speech.
I think you have to start in that colloquial territory, and from there move on and arrive in poetic country … but not the other way around. I’ve noticed that even with the Greek guys, especially with Sophocles, there’s a very simple, rawboned language. The choruses are poetic, but the speech of the characters themselves is terse, cut to the bone and pointed to the heart of the problem. It’s like Merle Haggard tunes like “My Own Kind of Hat” – I do this, that and some other thing, but I wear my own kind of hat… Real simple.
A wisdom teacher once said that the most difficult barrier in one’s life is the conquest of lying – lies of the mind.
But how do you come to see that? It’s a hard pill to swallow that everything is a lie. Everything … even the truth! But if you even begin to approach that awareness, then something new takes place, because you start to see that there’s another dimension of a relationship between yourself and the truth – the real truth as opposed to the real lies. Because everything, in a way, is suggestion: I suggest to myself that I’m brave, though it turns out that I’m a coward. But the suggestion is so powerful that I believe it, even in the face of my cowardice. The truth is that we can’t face the truth…. And it seems to me that the first step is to find out which is which. Because if you go off believing that one part is strong and it’s actually weak, you’re going to be in for a shock!
As when Jake beats his wife up?
The shock of that kind of violence brings something. I’m not in any way suggesting that violence is a way of catharsis – I don’t believe that at all. Nor do I believe that acting out one’s anger is necessarily going to clean you of it; if anything, it may just provoke more anger. But that kind of accidental confrontation, especially between men and women, can bring about – even if only temporarily – a kind of awakening. Because a man can believe himself to be in control of his emotions, yet in the flash of an eye he can lose it totally and be shocked into seeing what he’s really made of…. But to get into that kind of thing with a woman is a cowardly act. And if he’s a man at all and doesn’t see that, there’s no way he can be truthful with himself.
Doesn’t Jake, by wounding Beth, make both him and her wake up?
But they wake up into a lostness. They’re not found in that state – it’s not like, “Oh, now I realise my situation and I know where to turn.” It’s a lost-ness. Lostness can be profoundly rejuvenating in a way – it’s a desperate time and full of despair and all that – but being really lost can start something that’s brand-new. Now, there are different kinds of lost-ness – you can be lost and not know what street you’re on; you can be lost emotionally; you can be lost with other people; you can be lost in yourself. I think you continually turn around that circle – finding yourself lost and then getting relatively found.
To me, writing is a way of bringing things back together a little bit. If I can at least write something, I start to feel that I’m gathering out of that lostness something that has some kind of structure and form and something that, one hopes, can be translated to others. I don’t know if you can ever get totally found – I’ve met people who are convinced that they know what direction they’re going in, and they seem to be very together. But maybe they’re believing in a lie. … A belief in a lie can be very powerful. And then again maybe some of it’s true…. Who’s to say?
Some of your characters do seem to have staked a legitimate claim in the realm of truth. Beth, for instance.
And they’re the hardest ones to say anything about It’s much easier to define something that’s bent and go with the way it’s misshapen. But to define or give an impression of something or someone that’s clean is very difficult.
You know, there’s a great yearning to get back to that state, and there are all sorts of methods that have been developed for that purpose. I was just talking to an old friend of mine who’s having a nervous breakdown – the last person in the world I ever thought would be in that state. And he told me that he was thinking of going on a vision quest. There’s apparently a vision-quest cult based on the American Indian practice of going off for three days by yourself. And I said that that was great if it could serve the purpose of confronting the essentials. But I think it’s incredibly difficult to do that today. If it happens accidentally, as it apparently did to Werner Erhard … well, then, he’s a lucky man. But is that an excuse for starting an entire organisation based on his personal breakthrough? I don’t know…. And I think that the question of death – of trying to take a truthful look at it – is missing in a lot of people’s activities today. The health movement and jogging movement sometimes seem to me to reflect an incredible yearning to escape death – this fanatical thing of running to build up the body!
In his recent biography of you, the critic Don Shewey, who obviously greatly admires your work, makes several comments about your supposed macho image.
Just because machismo exists doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t exist. There’s this attitude today that certain antagonistic forces have to be ignored or completely shut out rather than entered into in order to explore and get to the heart of them. All you have to do is enter one rodeo event to find out what that’s all about… and you find out fast – in about eight seconds! So rather than avoid the issue, why not take a dive into it? I’m not saying whether it’s good or bad – I think that the moralistic approach to these notions is stupid. It’s not a moral issue, it’s an issue of existence. Machismo may be an evil force … but what in fact is it?
I knew this guy down in the Yucatán who was so macho he decided to demonstrate to this princess he saw on the beach how powerfully he could swim. So he swam out into the ocean, got caught in the current and drowned himself. Now, he found out fast. What was that moment like when he suddenly realised that because of his vanity he was going to die? I know what this thing is about because I was a victim of it, it was part of my life, my old man tried to force on me a notion of what it was to be a ”man.” And it destroyed my dad. But you can’t avoid facing it.
“Music and humour are both very healing. That’s the trouble with modern rock & roll: It’s lost its sense of humour. … I don’t think there’s hardly anybody worth shaking a stick at anymore…. Take all those Lou Reed imitators, for example. Reed could really write a lyric. He’s been ripped off left, right and centre.”
At the end of your play The Unseen Hand, an old Wild West gunfighter, who’s been brought back to life by Willie the Space Freak, reflects, ”A man’s gotta be still long enough to figure out his next move…. That’s the great thing about this country, ya know. The fact that you can make yer own moves in yer own time without some guy behind the scenes pullin’ the switches on ya.” It’s interesting that the American-pioneer myth and the spiritual mission and yearning you were talking about are often spoken of in exactly the same way. There seems to be a connection between these two things, such that true West equals true East.
It’s very strong, the connection between physical territory and inner territory. In America, we’ve run out of the former, and even though they talk about going to the moon and the planets as being an extension of that, it’s going to wind up at the same borderline. Now, the spiritual notion talks about something that’s more hopeful in a way, because the inner search doesn’t come to some Pacific Ocean, where it just builds Los Angeles – it’s a never-ending process. But it seems to me that there could be a real meeting between a true Western – meaning Western Hemisphere – spirit and the inner one … and it doesn’t have to remain on the level of being courageous with the land anymore. The land’s been discovered. There’s a different kind of courage that’s being called for now.
The poet William Carlos Williams once wrote, “The pure products of America/Go crazy.” And some critics have seen your plays to be about these kinds of “real,” indigenous, almost overly interbred Americans – now fragmented and deracinated.
I don’t know. Insanity is something you’re up against all the time. You always have to grapple with that. It’s much easier to go crazy than to stay sane. Much easier. Insanity’s the easy way out.
In your early writings, one finds a lot of harrowing depictions of demonic states and possession trances.
In those days, I had a lot of emotional earthquakes that I didn’t understand because I was in the grips of them. I didn’t realise even that much…. I was just running wild with them and didn’t know where they were taking me.
In your recent work – Fool for Love, A Lie of the Mind – however, you’ve been clearly and consciously entering right into the earthquake zone.
I had no choice. At a certain point, you’ve got to do that, otherwise you end up writing diddley-bop plays. Now, the ear of the typical psychological play doesn’t have any reverberation anymore. Plays have to go beyond just ”working out problems” – that’s not the thing I’m talking about. What makes O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night such a great work, for instance, is that O’Neill moves past his own personal family situation into a much wider dimension. I read that play in high school, and I’ve always thought that that was truly the great American play. It’s so overwhelmingly honest – O’Neill just doesn’t pull any punches. You can’t confront that play without being moved.
It’s been said, in regard to that work, that children often live out the unconscious and fantasy lives of their parents.
Yes, but certain things that occur inside the family often leave marks on the emotional life that are far stronger than fantasy. What might be seen as the fantasy is, to me, just a kind of rumination on those deep marks, a manifestation of the emotional and psychological elements. Sometimes in someone’s gesture you can notice how a parent is somehow inhabiting that person without there being any awareness of that. How often are you aware that a gesture is coming from your old man? Sometimes you can look at your hand and see your rather. But it’s a complex scheme – it’s not that easy to pinpoint. Again, the thing is not to avoid the issue but to see that it exists.
Thinking of your brain-damaged character, Beth, in A Lie of the Mind and of the deeply musical way she has of expressing herself, I recall a statement by the German poet Novalis that goes, “Every disease is a musical problem, every cure a musical solution.”
To me, music and humour are both very healing. … That’s the trouble with modern rock & roll, by the way: it’s lost its sense of humour. It’s become so morbidly stylistic and sour – there’s no joy in it. And I think it’s disastrous that a genuine sense of humour has been smothered.
When do you think the smothering began?
It began with the Doors! [Laughs.] The Doors had no sense of humour – they were grim. Now, I knew Jim Morrison for a little while, and in fact he did have a sense of humour – a bizarre one – but he never really exhibited it onstage.
So what musicians do you like to listen to right now?
Billy Joe Royal, Ricky Skaggs, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Lou Ann Barton, the Blasters. I guess what I like is mostly country & western or else stuff that has a real blues feel to it. As far as straight-up-and-down rock & roll goes, I don’t think there’s hardly anybody worth shaking a stick at anymore. Guys like Clyde McPhatter used to sing their tail ends off! Today I only have a little hope for Texas bands [laughs] … Delbert McClinton’s still doing some stuff … but melodically and rhythmically, it’s not what it was. Take all those imitators of Lou Reed, for example: if they went back and listened to his early stuff, they’d see that he had a whole different feel … plus he was a helluva writer. He could really write a lyric. He’s been ripped off left, right and centre.
Coming back to Jim Morrison – you know, he felt he had a curse on his head. Because when he was a kid, he was driving with his family outside Albuquerque. And there was an Indian on the side of the road. His family stopped, and Morrison went over to the Indian, and this guy – Morrison thought he was some kind of shaman – threw a whammy on him. That’s probably when Jim Morrison lost his sense of humour [laughs].
“I don’t feel the same urgency about acting as about writing.”
Spells can be effective.
Their power lies in your believing them.
So how do you avoid the so-called powers of relentless and overintrusive fans?
Carry a gun! [Laughs.]
Just don’t carry it in your pocket! I can hear people saying, “His plays haven’t been the same since.”
Thanks for the warning [laughs].
I’ve noticed that the funniest moments in your plays are often intermixed with a sense of weirdness and sadness.
It’s a double-edged thing. If you look at Buster Keaton and Harry Langdon and Stan Laurel, there’s something tragic about them. The humour lies in their incredible innocence in the face of life, which doesn’t make sense.
Someone once commented that life is tragic to those who feel and comic to those who think.
I think that to a certain extent that’s true. One of the things I look for in actors is a genuine sense of humour. And if they have that, I immediately know that there’s a kind of intelligence working there that you won’t find in an actor who takes himself so seriously and who’s so wrapped up in the Method that he can’t see how ridiculous it is.
One of the characters in your play Curse of the Starving Class says something like, “What’s there to envy but an outlook?” One might envy your outlook.
Well, I’ve seen people with better ones [laughs] … you know, people who never find fault with anybody, for whom everything’s great, people who are positive all the time.
Not everyone, I gather, was totally positive about your first play-writing efforts in New York City.
Actually, there was only one guy who liked me [laughs] – Michael Smith of The Village Voice. Those first reviews were devastating. In fact, I was vulnerable then and was ready to pack it in and come back to California and get work as a hand on a ranch. But writing has been such a salvation for me for so long that it would be impossible for me to give it up now.
Too late to stop now.
Yeah, it’s too late to stop now … Otis Redding. There was a great singer!
Has acting also been a salvation?
No, not at all. I don’t have the same connection to it. With acting, I feel that I’m just struggling to get by. An actor is right on the edge, because all he has is the body…. Actually, I should say that acting and writing are related; I just don’t feel the same sense of urgency about acting as I do about writing. I’ve never been able to write a play while I’ve been acting in a film. It’s difficult to split your participation. You have to be very focused and fully occupied to write.
And then, of course, you’ve been directing your recent plays, too. Theoretically, you could actually be someone who directs himself acting in a play that you yourself have written.
Right. And I’m in the process of finishing a screenplay that I’m going to direct, but I’m not going to act in it.
Someone like Woody Allen does it all the time.
He can do it because in his roles he stands outside the character – he comments on the character rather than plays it … except in Broadway Danny Rose, where he does play a real character. And he’s probably the best one around who can write, direct and act. But I don’t think I could direct myself acting, because, for me, the two things are diametrically opposed. I don’t see how you can be inside and outside at the same time. Acting involves such a deep kind of penetration in, and directing demands an observation from the outside.
In Rolling Thunder Logbook, you describe your first meeting with Dylan, commenting that the first thing he said to you was, “We don’t have to make any connections,” … and you didn’t know whether he was talking about you and him personally or about the movie you were supposed to be working on with him.
Bob gets off the hook a lot with that approach [laughs]. He’s great, and I love working with him … but he would rather not commit than commit [laughs]. I wish you could hear the tune he and I wrote together in the spring of 1985. It’s at least 20 minutes long – it’s like a saga! – and it has to do with a guy standing on line and waiting to see an old Gregory Peck movie that he can’t quite remember – only pieces of it, and then this whole memory thing happens, unfolding before his very eyes. He starts speaking internally to a woman he’d been hanging out with, recalling their meetings and reliving the whole journey they’d gone on – and then it returns to the guy, who’s still standing on line in the rain. The film the song was about was a Gregory Peck western that Bob had once seen, but he couldn’t remember the title. We decided that the title didn’t matter, and we spent two days writing the lyrics – Bob had previously composed the melody line, which was already down on tape. He’s already gone through different phases with the song. At one point, he talked about making a video out of it.
I told him that it should be an opera, that we should extend it – make it an hour and a half or so – and perform it like an opera…. [An e11-minute version of the song, ”Brownsville Girl,” appears on Knocked Out Loaded, Dylan’s most recent album.] He’s a lot of fun to work with, because he’s so off the wall sometimes. We’d come up with a line, and I’d think that we were heading down one trail over here, and then suddenly he’d just throw in this other line, and we’d wind up following it off in some different direction. Sometimes it’s frustrating to do that when you’re trying to make a wholeness out of something, but it turned out OK.
You’ve actually done exactly that in many of your plays.
Yeah, but I’m trying to do it less than I used to [laughs].
Writing plays, playing music, acting, directing …
It’s just been one step at a time. I don’t deny that I’ve had some good luck. My dad had a lot of bad luck. I’ve had good luck. Luck is a part of it But I don’t know exactly how that works.
When critics say, “Well, Sam Shepard has now said everything he has to say In A Lie of the Mind – where can he possibly go from here?” that is, in a way, sort of casting a little doubt spell, isn’t it?
Yeah, it’s trying to do something to you, but you can’t pay any attention to that, because you’ve got other things to do. Being surrounded by parasitic people who feed off of your work – well, I guess you’ve just got to accept it And I suppose some parasites are okay, because they take things off of you. Once, in New Mexico, I observed these incredibly beautiful red-tailed hawks – with a wingspan of five feet – which start out gliding in these arroyos way down low. And these crows come and bother them – they’re after fleas and peck at the hawks and drive them nuts, because they’re looking for something else. And I watched a crow diving at and bothering this one hawk, which just flew higher and higher until it was so far up that the crow couldn’t follow it anymore and had to come back down.
So the answer is to outfly them.
Yeah, outfly them. Avoid situations that are going to take pieces of you. And hide out.
This interview originally appeared in the December 18th, 1986 U.S. issue of Rolling Stone.