Patti Smith, Star-Maker

Shepard's relationship with Patti Smith reveals much about the artist as young man. As with the recent revelations about the relationship photographer and self-conscious celebrity, Robert Mapplethorpe, shared with Smith in the Chelsea in the 1970's, one sees a large degree of artistic posturing in supposedly private acts. Image was of great concern to Smith, Shepard, and Mapplethorpe, and the glamorous squalor of their personal lives quickly began to rival their art in the public consciousness. In a 1971 poem written by Smith titled "Sam Shepard: 9 Random Years (7+2)," there exists an extreme concern with the near-mythical significance of their public image. Indeed Smith may serve as our greatest Shepard informant: having been so close to him at such a crucial time in his career as well as her penchant for confessional art make Smith's work of seminal interest here.

The poem opens with an image of Shepard as a James Dean-like youth as "he plunged off a cliff / the people all gathered / and pointed to him / they said there goes a bad boy." (in Shepard, Mad Dog Blues and Other Plays, p.153) Later Smith furthers the myth of the outsider cowboy figure:

He yodelled like a cowboy, rolling and sliding

all over them big dinosaurs.

People stared at him, he didn't care

he was a renegade with nasty habits

he was a screech owl

he was a man playing cowboys. (p. 154)

There is a self-consciousness to the heroic figure Smith portrays, as in "playing cowboys" that seems to prefigure much of Shepard's later work in film. Also, Smith mythologizes her subject as a kind of super-sexual Pecos Bill:

Sam was till playing with monsters.

he swore to the great waters:

engulf my spirit

give me room

a new rhythm

He lost himself in rivers:

the Snake River

the Colorado River

the North Platte River

the Mississippi River

He drank up the ocean-- any ocean.

Ocean...he was lost for days.

He fed on sand and seaweed, squid and the sting

of jelly fish

flying fish

silver fish

There were sun spots in his eyes, his tongue was

thick like fur.

Not a woman in sight he masturbated

and came for hours

like a river. (p.155)

What is especially interesting in this passage is its interplay of real and imagined heroics. In the first line of this passage, we are shown Shepard "playing" with monsters, as if the Herculean tasks he undertook were somehow contrived, self-created, and, in a sense, staged. What follows is a catalog of heroic deeds which seem to draw on Native American and pioneer mythology-- exploring the great rivers of the American continent and drinking up the oceans. Sex is not far behind, though, and the culmination of the stanza is not so much a sexual conquest, but an illusory one of masturbation which tends to suggest that the artist's narcissism itself is heroic-- God-like, even-- in its power to create, or re-create, the very landscape.

The passage suggests that Shepard's greatest gift is his heroic transformation of reality-- his own personal reality first and foremost-- into myth. Even from Patti Smith, a woman with whom Shepard was presumably intimate, one gets the sense that Shepard is acting out a role that is not entirely sincere, or even human. Smith concludes her poem in the following way, defining her subject through icons of popular culture:

So Sam just looks out on the river.

the badlands keep pulsing through his anatomy

the kind of bad that's open and innocent:

the passion of a forest fire

the beauty of a poisonous flower, scorpion, snake.

Flames: the shot of silver:

James Dean's death car...the silver Porsche

the stiletto...the pushbutton blade

the sliver of moon carved on his fist

mad dog dawn foaming at the mouth

heart like a garage

car...speeding like a demon.(p.158)

Smith is maybe guilty here of bad poetry, but one must recognize the reliance on props and cultural symbols to evoke who Sam Shepard is, or what he might mean to the reader of this poem. Even though Smith proclaims Shepard's innocence, nowhere in this work do any of the man's emotions come out. Instead, what we read is a celebration of a somewhat two-dimensional bad-boy superhero, who could just as easily be a professional wrestler as a playwright. The mythic status of James Dean is invoked, as are stock images of street violence ("stiletto...the pushbutton blade") as hackneyed as those from West Side Story. Finally there is escape; Shepard speeds away from us, or perhaps from his empty heart ("like a garage"), "like a demon." Escape is a recurrent theme in much of Shepard's work and one which this poem suggests is central to the way Shepard defends himself in relation to the world.

Like Slim (who yearns to escape the claustrophobia of Cowboy Mouth), or Shepard himself (who joined a traveling theater company to escape his troubled home life and alcoholic father), or even Shepard's real father (who eventually abandoned the family in order to drink himself to death in the desert), one understands that escaping a role's dissatisfying consequences is crucial to an understanding of this complex psyche, as Smith-- Shepard's most enthusiastic audience at the time-- surely knew.

The reference to the "sliver of moon carved on his fist" in Smith's poem is to the tattoo which Shepard had done by a Mexican gypsy while he and Smith were together-- she got a lightning bolt on her hand. (Allen, p. 141) This, too, suggests the kind of romantic revision of which Smith was prone and Shepard clearly capable. In fact, Shepard once revisited the significance of this tattoo in his writing, in the 1973 collection of short, prose memoirs, Hawk Moon:

Hawk Moon month November month my birthday month month of cold set in month when secrets start whisper on the high mesa high old ancient sacred land of Hopi month Antelope deer and antler clan first signs of barren empty need for prayer first dance snake in mouth dance spirit dance snake mouth painted hand and lightning bolt month of washing long black hair my month of birth month-- the Hawk Moon month.(p. 11)

Here, in Shepard's own words, we get a fanciful re-creation of the author's mythical birth every bit as pseudo-mystical and bombastic as Smith's. An army base in Illinois, where Shepard was born, is transformed into the high desert of the Hopi. Instead of a deeply troubled American family, we are given hints of a pre-literate, mythical origin in this revision of the writer's beginnings. Note that Smith's complimentary lightning bolt is referenced as the author seeks to mythologize his own birth. Smith seems to have left her mark on Shepard in more ways than the merely physical. Perhaps Smith helped to teach Shepard the high art of self-mythology and human theater, of which she was already a master and one which would help the young playwright create what has already eclipsed his written and staged pieces-- his public image. As Richard Gilman wrote of Shepard in 1981:

[W]e either take our places in a drama and discover ourselves as we act, or we remain unknown (as some indeed choose to do). In the reciprocal glances of the actors we all are, in our cues to dialogue, the perpetual agons and denouements that we participate in with others, identities are found, discarded, altered but above all seen. Not to be able to act, to be turned away from the audition, is the true painful condition of anonymity. But to try to act too much, to wish to star, the culmination and hypertrophy of the common desire, is a ripeness for disaster.

(from introduction to Seven Plays, pp. xx-xxi)

Applied to Shepard's career, one recognizes his perennial need to perform, or to try on various personae. Even the briefest of glances at the laundry list of roles Shepard has explored (rock drummer, screenwriter, actor, director, etc.) suggests a constant search for public expression and visibility. One may also find in Shepard's career the fear that he will go too far, that he will "try to act too much," especially in his coyness with the press. This ambivalence is the central struggle of Cowboy Mouth, as well as many other of his plays. More importantly, however, Shepard seems to have been struggling with this personally for the last fifteen years. His far-ranging imagination seems unable to resist what his work itself scorns. More than just a reluctant celebrity, Shepard is the author of, and the starring actor in, what has become one of the more curious dramas our culture has seen. It is the drama of an actor who wants fame, but who is too smart not to distrust it.

Next: It's Only Rock-and-Roll

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