Cowboy Mouth

In the 1971 play Cowboy Mouth, written with Patti Smith over the course of several sleepless days and nights, the main character, Slim, struggles with the meaning of art and the role of the artist. The passage in which Cavale (played in the first production by Shepard's then-lover Patti Smith while Shepard himself took the role of Slim, the only time he played one of his own characters) exhorts the young man to be "like a rock-and-roll Jesus with a cowboy mouth" (in Fool for Love and Other Plays, p. 157) is particularly telling in the way that it prefigures Shepard's three-step process with regard to identity.

In fact, Cowboy Mouth may be seen as Shepard's most thinly-veiled autobiography. Having left his wife of two years, O-Lan, to take up residence in the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan with Smith, Shepard seems to point directly to this conflict in the text of this play. Midway through the play, Slim complains to Cavale: "What am I doing here? I don't know who I am anymore. My wife's left me. She's gone to Brooklyn with the kid and left me. And here I am stuck with you." (p. 154)

Shepard's wife was at the time living in Brooklyn with their one-year-old son, Jesse, but Shepard left her. Here Shepard recasts himself as a victim, as Cavale is said to have kidnapped Slim at gun point. One may read this as a reconfiguration of the facts, though the impression is that the character Slim and the playwright Shepard are, in a powerful way, victims not so much of literal kidnapping but of their own irresistible urge to act out their fantasies. Shepard chose to act out this particular fantasy on the stage, despite the facts that his affair with Smith was hot gossip already and his wife was starring as Mae West in his other play, Back Bog Beast Bait, which opened as the first of a double-bill with Cowboy Mouth.

This was an extraordinary moment in American theater; it was the momentary nexus of Shepard's multiform impulses and perhaps the masterpiece of Shepard's life-as-dramaturgy.

Cowboy Mouth was performed only once with Shepard and Smith in the starring roles. Just before the second night's performance, Shepard abandoned the role, leaving New York City for New England without a word to anyone in the production. What was so disturbing about the experience of playing Slim on stage may be easily deduced. Besides his fear of live audiences, Shepard must have found this convergence of art and reality maddening. Since Cowboy Mouth, Shepard has repeatedly attempted to conceal his personal life, yet he has regularly put himself and his extraordinary ambivalence in the spotlight through his writing because he cannot resist the performance.

The text of Cowboy Mouth begins with two thumbnail sketches of the main characters, Cavale and Slim. The physical descriptions here could not more closely resemble those of Smith and Shepard. (p.145) The setting, too, seems to approximate what surely the audience imagined to be the couple's surroundings at the Chelsea Hotel:

A fucked-up bed center stage...Scattered all around on the floor is miscellaneous debris: hubcaps, an old tire, raggedy costumes, a boxful of ribbons, lots of letters, a pink telephone, a bottle of Nescafˇ, a hot plate. Seedy wallpaper with pictures of cowboys peeling off the wall. Photographs of Hank Williams and Jimmie Rogers. Stuffed dolls, crucifixes...A funky set of drums to one side of the stage. An electric guitar and amplifier on the other side. Rum, beer, white lightning, Sears catalogue. (p.147)

This setting evokes many elements of Shepard's life-- much more so, one must imagine, than Smith's-- , and each item, precisely noted and cataloged, carries meaning forward from these characters' past. This is a metaphorical setting, from the "fucked-up" nature of the situation to the presence of guitar and drums on the periphery, signifying artistic escape. Hank Williams and Jimmie Rogers and the "pictures of cowboys" provide a poignant reminder that Slim is, by nature, a cowboy, native to the wide-open spaces, and that he does not want to be here in this cramped squalor, where only an emblematic representation of cowboy life is possible. Slim is part of a supposedly authentic American tradition, but he is displaced. Shepard, likewise, would have us see him-- in this context and others-- as a displaced cowboy, a reluctant star, or as one persona masquerading as another. For any one aspect of his multiform persona would be only partly true, and it is only in the multiplicity of roles that Shepard is truly unprecedented and original.

The Chelsea Hotel was at that time already famous for its legendary tenants, which included Tennessee Williams and Dylan Thomas (Wilcox, p. 100). It was also known as the one-time residence of Bob Dylan (who changed his name in homage to Dylan Thomas), a fact which was not only known to the audience of this production of Cowboy Mouth, but of obvious concern to both Smith and Shepard. In fact, they seem to be borrowing details from the well-known love affair between Dylan and Joan Baez-- in essence, borrowing their masks.

Additionally, the phrase "cowboy mouth" first appeared in the Bob Dylan song, "Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands." (Wilcox, p. 103) The sad-eyed lady with the cowboy mouth is assumed to be Joan Baez, who in turn sang of Dylan, "Singer or Saviour, it was his to choose." (Ibid) In this, we see Shepard and Smith both quoting from and attempting to elevate themselves to the level of their generation's mythic artists, both in their highly visible affair at the legendary Chelsea and in their apparently boldly autobiographic enactment of that affair on the stage of the American Place Theatre.

The action is introduced with the revelation that Cavale has kidnapped Slim "with an old .45" and that "She wants to make him into a rock-and-roll star, but they fall in love." (p. 147) In other words, there is coercion involved, yet the captive falls in love with his captor-- a kind of Beatnik Stockholm Syndrome-- and it is this deeply frustrated ambivalence which charges the play. Similarly, Shepard's own ambivalence towards any one role demanded by his muse (embodied here by Cavale / Smith) is the central theme of his public career from this point on.

Early in the play, Slim expresses absolute defiance of Cavale's dream of making him a star ("My wife! My kid! Kidnapped in the twentieth century!...I ain't no star! Not me! Not me, boy!") (p. 147), but seeks to release his frustration by playing the guitar and singing a song titled "Have No Fear." The song is "loud rock-and-roll with a lot of feedback" (p.151), as if the frustration Slim feels becomes manifest in boisterous lyrics like, "Have no fear / The worst is here / The worst has come / So don't run." (p.152) The fact that Slim even stands up to sing points to his almost irresistible urge to be exactly what Cavale wants him to be, however. Slim chafes against the demands of his muse (armed, as she is), yet expresses his frustration and defiance through the very art he aims to deny.

This would become a central theme in Shepard's work: he would go on to describe his frustration with writing in words and his defiance of fame as a celebrity. Consistently, Shepard enacts and inhabits the roles which most trouble him, and the fruits of those frustrations are his writing, as seen in the recent "Three Stories." Frustration and ambivalence over role-playing are constants, yet the urge to play the role is paramount.

Even within the characters of Cavale and Slim, there is an urgent need to role-play, to act out a variety of behaviors: Slim "growls like a coyote and howls" (p.149); Cavale and Slim "walk through the room as though it were the city" and pretend to shop for shoes (p.150); and Cavale "plays dead" (p.152). These two characters, as they borrow the myth of Dylan and Baez and derive significance from the real-life Smith and Shepard, enact roles within roles, overlay masks with masks in their compulsion to perform.

Later in the play, Cavale describes more fully the rock-and-roll savior she has in mind: "People want a street angel. They want a saint but with a cowboy mouth. Somebody to get off on when they can't get off on themselves. I think that's what Mick Jagger is trying to do...what Bob Dylan seemed to be for a while. A sort of god in our image." This figure, she contends, will satisfy the needs of modern people who no longer feel a close connection to Jesus. "Any great motherfucker rock-'n'-roll song can raise me higher than all of Revelations. We created rock-'n'-roll in from our image, it's our child...a child that's gotta burst in the mouth of a saviour." (p. 156)

The optimistic belief that individuals, or even a generation, might create a self-sustaining myth speaks volumes about the play's context, that of Off-Off-Broadway in 1971. Further, the ideal "saviour" Cavale imagines would exist within a complex relationship between performers and the audience: the "people" need the savior, and salvation will come from the "mouth of a saviour" in a performance not unlike those of Mick Jagger or Bob Dylan. The savior must, however, be responsive to and reflective of his audience-- a "god in our image." Only after a reciprocal relationship between performer and audience is established can salvation be achieved.

For his part, Shepard, like the character Slim, demonstrated his frustration with the theater culture of New York by leaving it for England just after his appearance in this play. To be the rock-and-roll savior of American theater, apparently, was not so easy, the problem of identity too vexing. Consequently, Shepard discarded the mask, reunited with O-Lan, and fled to England several months after the performance of Cowboy Mouth. Like the characters Slim and Cavale, Shepard seems to have adopted a multiform persona, grown weary of its charm and its responsibilities, then sought to discard it. The play itself, however, leaves behind evidence that Shepard might yet hope that an audience's fervent belief in a myth-- even the commodified, synthetic, juvenile, myths of the cowboy and the rock star-- represents a kind of realization of that myth.

Next: Patti Smith, Star-Maker

Return to the Table of Contents