How to Kill a Cliché: Celebrating Sam Shepard

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Lee: …That’s stupid. That’s one a’ those?—?whadya’ call it? Whadya’ call that?
Austin: What?
Lee: Whadya’ call it when somethin’s been said a thousand times before. Whadya’ call that?
Austin: Um?—?a cliché?
Lee: Yeah. That’s right. Cliché. That’s what that is. A cliché… that’s stupid.

True West (1980)

My personal mantra, for more than two decades, has been doing everything humanly possible to make my life more artistic. That doesn’t merely extend to pursuing creative goals, but actually striving to some sublime, evanescent sweet spot where the lines blur: art as life and life through and in art.

From my own experience and what I’ve seen, read and heard, even our best literary practitioners have had a difficult time doing this with success. Most writers are on record, with equal parts regret and impunity, confessing that in order to fully dedicate themselves, it was inexorably at the expense of friends, family, life itself. Conversely, the inimitable Oscar Wilde lamented “I put all my genius into my life; I put only my talent into my works.”
The moral? Artists, too, are only human. Even the best of the best can only do so much, and something has to give.

This is one of the many reasons Sam Shepard has long been both idol and inspiration, as a writer and person. Off the top of my head, I’m not certain I can pinpoint anyone from the 20th Century who more fully realized his potential, as individual and artist. Like Wilde, he was blessed with talent and charm (not to mince words, he was a beautiful man), and he somehow managed to incorporate virtually every cliché of Americana, distilling it into his own, unique persona.

Semi-tortured artist, channeling our pathologies via works that were, on arrival, sui generis? Yes. Prototypical rugged individual, who mostly shunned the hackneyed trappings of fame, preserving both his integrity and his soul? Yes. Man’s man comfortable in the outdoors, and adept at working with either animals or his bare hands? (Quick: think of how many playwrights you’d actually be able to hunt with, get shitfaced with, talk books and music with, and with whom you’d hope to have by your side if your car broke down in the middle of nowhere. Unlike most contemporary men of the pen, Shepard could change his own oil, literally and figuratively.) The dude who got to spend quality time with Jessica Lange? Yeah, he did that too.

Oh, he was a pretty good actor, as well. A leading man who, like Neil Young, preferred heading into ditches of his own design.

As I said, clichés abound, but Shepard somehow wore them like rented tuxedos, suitable for the occasion. Actually, that’s not accurate; Shepard never rented or borrowed anything. That was the point of him.

Shepard managed to be his own man while inhabiting what we talk about when we talk about masculinity?—?both the manufactured and instinctive types. He was, in short, the real deal. Jim Harrison came close, Charles Bukowski, in his way, was a kind of poor man’s everyman; Ernest Hemingway was a legend in his own tortured mind (but, in fairness, he could walk the walk on a fishing boat or in a bar brawl). I’m still not certain there has been a superstar who stayed at the top of his game, on so many levels, for so long. To invoke the overused parlance of our time, Shepard acted like he’d been there before, even though he was continually exploring previously unmapped territory. Perhaps he’d appreciate the irony of using clichés to describe an iconoclast who obliterated cliché.

My favorite fact about Shepard, which has been confirmed in myriad interviews and features over the years, is that he could?—?and regularly did?—?just get in his car and drive. Anywhere, nowhere. He wasn’t running away, and this never seemed like some half-ass Jack Kerouac trip (In fact, I can’t recall a writer who more convincingly invoked nostalgia without being cranky; who could articulate what we’ve lost or are losing, sans sentimentality).

Check this out:

So they take off after each other straight into an endless black prairie. The sun is just comin’ down and they can feel the night on their backs. What they don’t know is that each one of ’em is afraid, see. Each one separately thinks that he’s the only one that’s afraid. And they keep ridin’ like that straight into the night. Not knowing. And the one who’s chasin’ doesn’t know where the other one is taking him. And the one who’s being chased doesn’t know where he’s going.

That’s from True West, arguably his best play, and probably his most autobiographical. It contains multitudes in ways that would make Whitman blush; it’s about nothing in ways that make Seinfeld seem like even less ado about little; it’s about everything (or at least identity, men and America) in ways that manage to make even DeLillo seem inadequate, or at least academic. Like a much less loquacious David Mamet, it captures and celebrates the drunk poetry of passive-aggressive male dialogue (not to mention the poetry of drunken men not being poetic) and nails both violence and ritual in ways that recall?—?and rival?—?the best work of Flannery O’Connor and Martin Scorsese.

In this one play, Shepard somehow manages to diagnose and deconstruct what it means to strive: as an artist, as a man, as a son, brother, father and failure. There’s plenty of humor, of course, but there’s also an unblinking desolation that Cormac McCarthy has made a career out of: we can attempt to outrun or outgun fate, or reality, or even cliché, but it’ll find us, eventually, alone and vulnerable. Go West, young man, the cliché says, and many men?—?famous and infamous?—?have died trying.

Did any writer go as deep and dark, so far and insightfully, into the machinations of mythologization and destruction inherent in our American Dream mythos, as Shepard? Plays like Buried Child (1978) and Curse of the Starving Class (1978) lay bare the hard scars of family dysfunction, the near-impossibility of self-invention (or reinvention), and the unappeasable thirst for something sweeter, better, different.

Shepard, with a historian’s appreciation for, and understanding of, a less complicated but more complex era, became a custodian for posterity. His ability to translate archetypal dreads for audiences without his acuity make him preternaturally modern. Time won’t touch his work, because his characters, and their concerns, are never here nor there; they might hope or need to be anywhere but in the present tense, but the forces compelling their motion (forward or backward) are infinite, and immutable.

Shepard needed to be everywhere, and nowhere, in order to write the way he lived, and vice versa. Self-aware but not above some old-fashioned existential angst, his art didn’t reflect his life so much as subsume it. Above all, he understood that conformity is the biggest cliché of them all. Even when he lit out for the lower frequencies, he always knew where he was going.

*This tribute originally appeared in PopMatters on 8/8/17.

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