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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Celebrating Sam Shepard and the Artistic Life

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First off, before reading anything I have to say, do yourself a favor and check out this beautiful, eloquent tribute from Patti Smith.

Sam Shepard is one of my literary heroes, and it can suffice to say that my development –as a writer– would be incomplete without his positive influence. And, perhaps more importantly, my personality, such as it is, would be less happy and less, period, without his masterpiece, True West. I’ve been on record, literally for decades, wondering if and when smarter minds will prevail and make the production (recorded for PBS in the early ’80s) available to the public. Inexplicably, it never has been. That we live in an era of 24/7 everything, for free, and this performance, featuring the lean, hungry and brilliant John Malkovich, and Gary Sinise, before idiocy set in, survives only on old VHS cassettes and (thankfully) YouTube is a travesty.

Anyway, I could say a lot about what Shepard’s writing has meant to me, but a picture speaks proverbial volumes, right? Check this out:

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That’s, obviously, from a journal, circa 1990-something.

Sure, I’m embarrassed by how breathless and adolescent it seems. But that’s what young crushes are all about, right?

And I was young, and I was smitten.

If I’m older now, I hope I’ve learned a bit about both writing and life. But that initial enthusiasm remains, only now, having gotten a decade or two experience under my belt, my reaction to Sam Shepard is more like awe. That type of originality and brilliance is not something you can imitate or necessarily aspire to; it’s sui generis. But in addition to standing alone as superlative art, it also is a touchstone of inspiration. If you can’t at least attempt something unique and moving, why bother?

For that alone, I’ll remain grateful to have discovered Sam Shepard early, and ensuring he was never far from my eager eyes.

It’s 2017, which means (among many other things) that an increasing number of icons from the 2oth Century are going to be leaving us. That they’re irreplaceable is obvious; but some icons are more iconoclastic and inimitable than others. There should be a special place in our hearts, as writers, readers, Americans, humans, for role models like Sam Shepard.

 

 

 

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“On This Day” or, Take My Life, Please

The author, en fuego in '09

The author, en fuego in ’09

Remember when Facebook was still new?

The novelty of being able to keep tabs on everyone, like e-mail on amphetamines, with pictures (and now, video, and all the other things we can incorporate instead of actually living life moment by moment) was, naturally, addictive.

I loved it, then, and still (mostly) love it, now, because I –and, I’m sure, you– can attest to the non-superficial ways it enables one to stay in touch: to be informed, to engage and be engaged, to eavesdrop, to laugh, “like” and mostly scroll past. I see people now I’ve not talked to in person for months, or years, and still feel like I’m up to speed on the important things: what they’re doing, how their kids are, what silly things their pets have done, what friends or relatives they’ve lost, which movies and albums and books they’re enjoying (or hating), how incredible their meals are on aesthetic levels, etc.

We’re all, also, guilty of the alternately transparent, amusing and pitiable spectacle of the ways we manufacture our reality for public consumption.

Who can blame us?

With great power comes great responsibility, right? (By power I mean the capacity, with a flick of the keyboard, to assume the mildly divine authorial license to craft our own narrative. By great responsibility I mean editing the unflattering pictures and ever-present danger of TMI.)

We probably all do –and should– process these narratives, equal parts hopeful, trusting, resentful, with more than a shovel full of salt; we know most of us are obeying the 21st Century impulse to put our best face forward, literally and figuratively. In a way, the people ostensibly leading the healthiest and most satisfying lives — the ones who’ve sucked so much marrow out of life it’s oozing onto their wrinkle-free smirks — are sadder than the handful of friends we all have who use social media as a ceaseless cri de coeur: the people who are seeking sympathy might well receive a portion of solidarity that Facebook can provide (if a paltry consolation for that human touch, a few thumbs up, shout outs and, in extreme cases, direct messages, it’s definitely better than nothing). Those golden gods and goddesses, on the other hand, likely aren’t looking for approbation so much as attempting to quell their own fears of inadequacy or unhappiness. Of course, there are also the folks who really do work hard, stay in shape, raise wonderful children, love their partners, glow with salubrity in every selfie, and generally have karmic insect repellent for all the world’s pesky problems. Fuck them. (Just kidding, mostly.)

All of which is to say, I do my best, most days, to moderate my mostly good-natured envy and use it as inspiration (sleep and procrastinate less, be kinder, care less about how much everyone cares about everything, etc.), and I try to, as the kids say, keep it real. Certainly, I’m mostly trying to respect the self-imposed social media contract by keeping the more unsavory aspects to myself, and the motivation there is both benevolent and selfish. The nitty-gritty of life’s rich pageant is best left to journals, texts and long-suffering spouses.

I think a great deal about the information overload we all attempt to navigate, and as an insatiable consumer of all-things-cultural, my issue is less with filtering out the crap and trying to keep up with the authentic and irresistible. I’m of the opinion that one can never be too informed, so the bizarre mixed-blessing of having so many intelligent and diverse friends (thanks, all) is the luxury, the exorbitance of incredible content. (One reason I still don’t subscribe to any podcasts, regardless of how much I know I’d adore some of them, is I don’t have the time; I already lament the hours I used to dedicate to reading books, writing about them and trying to write them, not to mention the endless struggle to not be fixated on a handheld device (our poor eyes) every waking second. It’s another reason I seldom surf Twitter; it’s too much. Yes, there’s a plethora of easily ignorable effluvia in those tweets, like so many digital dust mites, but it requires time and effort to scroll past them; the real issue is all the amazing links to columns, interviews, video clips (sigh) and insights that, without question, will make the lucky reader more aware and alive. The thing is, it’s too much of a good thing: keep up or die trying. And that shit will kill you.)

Perhaps the notion of info-overload is particularly top of mind as it’s the impetus (if not specific subject) of my next novel, now officially a work-in-progress. I’ve written a great deal about the uneasy intersection of technology and life (politics, art, creativity, commerce) as a poor man’s industry analyst; I’d like to explore, through autobiographical fiction, the ways these pressures and the urgent pursuit of some undefined, evanescent ecstasy are shaping our behavior, on macro and especially micro levels. In other words, the same stuff every novelist writing about the times in which they live attempts to do.

But mostly, I’m reflecting today on the unanticipated and often illuminating gift Facebook provides, via its “On This Day” back-to-the-future feature. Old posts, including the comments, pictures, and videos, are a reminder, however pleasant or painful, where we were a year, or two, or –in this case– eight years ago. Among other things, these reminders are undeniable snapshots of where (and who) we were. Have we grown, in both the good and bad ways (guilty of the latter; hopeful about the former)? Are we keeping our promises to each other, and ourselves? Are we at once the same and different in all the right ways? Is this magical online diary of our journey telling the story we want others to hear? Most importantly, is it, with its pixels and opinions and portents, corroborating the story we need to tell ourselves?

I think, and hope, the most honest answer is: To Be Continued.

Here’s what I had to say, eight years ago, when responding to the viral (“tag, you’re it”) entreaty of posting 25 “random facts” about myself. I enjoyed reading what my friends wrote, then, and I’d enjoy revisiting them, now. I’m mostly content that I’d stand by just about all of the things Murph, aged 38, had to say for himself. Not sure if they’re flattering or implicating, but they’re definitely true.

The author in '09: not a rock star then or now

The author in ’09: not a rock star then or now

1. OK: I just spent some serious time crafting my list and I felt pretty good about the way it turned out. And as I went to post it, my page “timed out” and I lost it. There has to be a lesson in there somewhere.

2. I crave time by myself, and I seldom feel alone.

3. By far the most difficult thing I’ve endured to this point is watching my mother fight–and ultimately lose–her 5 year battle with cancer. By far the most humbling, and inexplicably amazing experience was being there with her (and my family) the entire time.

4. Ever since my mom died, I’ve gotten together every Tuesday night with my old man for dinner. I call it “pops night” and with very few exceptions, we have not missed a week since 2002.

5. I haven’t been to church in many years, but I have no regrets about being raised Catholic (for one thing, it has provided ceaseless writing material) or being exposed, at an early age, to the the complicated powers of a ritual.

6. Making new friends is a great way to keep the heart and mind engaged; maintaining old relationships is all about the soul.

7. I realized, as I genuinely enjoyed seeing and reconnecting with people at my recent 20 Year High School Reunion, how fortunate I am. I understand that those formative years are difficult, even horrible for many people, and I’ll never take for granted that I was very lucky in many ways. (Incidentally, can you imagine if we’d had email or cell phones in high school? Me neither.)

8. My miniature schnauzer Leroy Brown is one of the miracles in my life, and I’m going to have a very tough time when he goes.

9. I used to spend unhealthy amounts of time agonizing over how to rank my favorite bands, or songs, or albums. Or how, say, a list of the Top 100 songs of all time would look. Unhealthy amounts of time.

10. I kept a journal, starting in 5th grade (props to Mr. Taliaferro!), through high school and after. I seldom, if ever, revisit those old spiral notebooks, but it’s good to know they are there, just in case.

11. If I never drive cross country I’ll have a hard time forgiving myself. (To his credit, Matt Gravett tried to convince me, several times, to accompany him when he made the journey. Rain check!)

12. As soon as I discovered The Beatles in 3rd grade, that was that.

13. Apparently, I’m difficult to reach on the phone.

14. Watching my friends become parents has enriched me in direct proportion to how much I’ve seen it enrich them.

15. Seeing my niece slowly turn into my sister has provided me more amusement than it should. And the teenage years have not even begun yet. Ha!

16. I viscerally detest violence, yet I always enjoy hockey fights. (Thoughts?)

17. It actually infuriates me that “True West” is not available on DVD (“True West” is a remarkable play by the brilliant Sam Shepard that was filmed for TV and shown, on PBS, in the early ’80s. It stars a young John Malkovich before he became John Malkovich and Gary Sinise before he became…whatever he became. But seriously, it’s intolerable that this masterpiece is not easily available for people to discover and fall in love with. Until I hear a better reason, I’ll remain convinced that it’s just a plot to piss me off, as I seem to be the only person who has ever seen it!)

18. Every year I tend to care less about college sports (except for GMU basketball!), and even certain pro sports. And yet, I somehow found the time to buy the Red Sox season package last year. So…if anyone needs to catch a game between April and October, holler at your boy.

19. I’ve never played a flute in my life, but I’m reasonably certain that, if provided one, I could play much of Jethro Tull’s catalog on it. In fact, the first time I saw Tull live (’89) I was convicing people all around me that I was Ian Anderson. But that might have been the mushrooms.

20. It’s certainly a cliche, but still: if everyone in the USA had to wait tables for one week (or more) before turning 21, our country would be infinitely more progressive, tolerant and equitable.

21. The recent (and ongoing) financial meltdown–and the obvious, predictable ways it unfolded–have, against all probability, made me even more steadfast in my left-leaning views. Also: while the concept of Hell has for quite some time seemed rather childish to me, I would love for it to actually exist, if for no other reason than to eternally house (among other worthy candidates for admission) the richest of the rich who actively and with impunity disenfranchise others in the sole pursuit of further enriching themselves.

22. Whoever dies with the most toys spent entirely too much time accumulating a lot of useless shit.

23. Mozart, Symphony 41. It’s all in there.

24. Having people confide in you is sustenance for your soul.

25. I’m pretty much exactly who I want to be. But I’m still working on it.

 

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“You are making that toast sound like salvation or something…”

 

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Some people see the face of Christ in their pancakes; other folks are more interested in creating their own miracles.

An inexorable sign of the ever-impending Apocalypse?

Signal of man’s restless and irrepressible technological advancement?

The sine qua non of cyber-dork exultation? 

All of the above, obviously.

Personally, if I want to synthesize an apotheosis of the Holy Spirit and the surreal, I turn to Sam Shepard’s True West. Among many other things, the concept of toast as salvation is addressed in some detail.

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