True West: Sam Shepard’s Life, Work, and Times by Robert Greenfield

Sam Shepard hit Manhattan in 1963 when he was 20. “I just dropped out of nowhere,” he said, meaning the bedroom community of Duarte, just 20 miles northeast of Los Angeles, where his family owned a farm. He had no money, no connections, nothing to fall back on but his lanky, dimpled good looks, his street smarts, and his newly minted maverick Western charisma. He stared out at the world, as he later wrote of himself, “with eyes that looked confident and lost at the same time.” The stigmata of loneliness marked his raffish life.

Born Samuel Shepard Rogers VII, but called Steve, son of a violent, alcoholic high-school English teacher, traumatized by his Second World War Air Force heroics, Shepard replaced the despised “Stevie” for, he said, “the much more manly and mysterious ‘Sam.’ Although the same feelings of inferiority and weakness continue to run rampant through my every thought and action,” he wrote in a letter to his lifelong sidekick, Johnny Dark, in 2009. This enduring bag of rocks was Shepard’s complex emotional inheritance from his disappointed father, against whom Shepard defined his cryptic, heroic cowboy persona. “I had absolutely no idea of who I was but I knew for sure I wasn’t him,” he wrote.

Shepard’s adolescent habit of daydreaming is, he said, “where the writing comes from. I never really outgrew that horrible sense of not cutting the mustard, of being always ‘out of the loop’ with people and things around me, so I began to live entirely inside my imagination. I had long dialogues with myself as a kid where I was a professional golfer being interviewed by CBS after winning the Masters, or I was a famous horse trainer. I wanted to be famous for something,” Shepard said. He went on, “I wanted something turned around where I was the one revered and instilling a sense of awe in other people … Where I held a certain sway over them, a certain power, a deep mystery.”

Shepard took to New York’s subterranean life like a bass to a topwater lure, “trying to be an actor, musician, writer, whatever happened.” Up to then, he’d been a sheepshearer, a racecourse hot-walker, a herdsman, an orange picker, and a junior-college student. He stumbled onto the Off Off Broadway theater scene in 1964. “I’ll never forget the elation of finishing my first play—Cowboy. I felt I’d made something for the first time. Something was in the world that hadn’t been there before,” Shepard said.

He brought to the stage a new, freewheeling imagination, a druggy, surreal mix of unknown American landscapes and lingo, and a fun-house-mirror reflection of his own haunted, un-homed, hungry heart. He had fresh eyes. He had fresh rhythms. He had a desire to shine. He had found his destiny both as a playwright and as a pinup boy of the New York underground. “Get your image in line. The fantasy rhyme,” he counseled in The Tooth of Crime, the best play of his early years. Shepard did just that. He was catnip to the counterculture. “Suddenly I was caught in the little nightmare of my own making,” he wrote about almost immediate downtown celebrity. He grabbed fame’s live wire and never let go.

In those hectic, drug-addled early years, Shepard was playing drums with the Holy Modal Rounders; writing Zabriskie Point for Antonioni; hanging with Keith Richards and Bob Dylan, with whom he toured as an “adviser” and occasional song collaborator for the Rolling Thunder Revue. And bedding, among many, Patti Smith, who remained a lifelong friend, as well as Joni Mitchell, who wrote “Coyote” to memorialize their fling and Shepard’s prolific womanizing: “Now he’s got a woman at home / He’s got another woman down the hall / He seems to want me anyway.”

I knew Shepard. As the literary manager of Lincoln Center, I was responsible for bringing him uptown in 1970 with Operation Sidewinder, an event that to the theatrical avant-garde community was the equivalent of Dylan going electric. He was by turns playful, arrogant, aloof, wary. “Don’t you think it’s too smooth,” he said to me at the intermission of the first preview, sipping from the bottle of beer he’d smuggled in under his vest. “Gee, it’s not like Theatre Genesis. I don’t know anybody in the audience.”

He had found his destiny both as a playwright and as a pinup boy of the New York underground.

His fable, which required a behemoth seven-foot snake, a ’57 Chevy, and a Hopi ritual, put on stage both the counterculture’s sense of suffocation and its protean longing to change shape to survive a death-dealing culture embroiled in furious argument over Vietnam. “This is the place I was born, bred and raised / And it doesn’t feel like I was ever here,” the Holy Modal Rounders sang, Shepard’s song spelling out the alienation of his questing hero.

It failed as a play but not as a prophecy, which was well ahead of the uptown burghers in the audience, who were confounded by it, or the critics on the New York daily papers, who dismissed it. Back in the day, Shepard’s cowboy mouth may have been unlettered, but his poet’s heart read America’s spiritual malaise clearer than any of his contemporary playwrights.

“Most of my life has been consumed by flight,” he wrote toward the end of it. “I guess initially from the nightmare of my father’s wrath, which I never understood and still don’t.” He went on: “The frantic futility of constantly searching for a new place, a new life, a new partner.” Shepard spent a lifetime shaking off the indigestible imprint of his father only to end up recreating his father’s pattern of alcoholism, abandonment, and isolation.

He was stuck. He couldn’t be the best part of himself. “I don’t know why I keep returning to these horrible bouts of drinking and bad behavior,” he said after his 27-year partnership with Jessica Lange broke up. “I’ve ruined an amazing relationship just out of a callous disregard for anyone else’s feelings, and the worst part of it is that I don’t really know how it all happened.”

The open road became some kind of elixir for Shepard, at once a metaphor of his solitude and a totem of his melancholy. “That’s where I feel most at home—just driving,” he said, connected to nothing but his own momentum. Throughout the decades, Shepard constantly crisscrossed America in his cars. Motion embodied Shepard’s drivenness—the need to busy himself with his writing, his horses, his outdoor pursuits; it also kept alive his tormented heart’s hope for redemption.

Out of his adventurous life, Shepard produced more than 50 plays, starred in about 60 films, won the Pulitzer Prize for drama (Buried Child), and was nominated for an Academy Award for best supporting actor (The Right Stuff). To organize Shepard’s sprawling creative life and to connect the art to his own tormented emotional struggle for authenticity, a biographer needs to impose some kind of overriding narrative vision on the work and on the psychology of the man. Robert Greenfield’s True West: Sam Shepard’s Life, Work, and Times doesn’t have the candlepower to do the job.

Greenfield won’t risk interpretation of Shepard’s plays or his psychology. As a result, his over 400-page account reads like a kind of travel itinerary, naming the high spots but giving no real sense of detail. Shepard died of motor neurone disease in 2017, unable in the end even to raise his hand to write. “I just lie here waiting for someone to find me,” Shepard says in his last dictated autobiographical flourish, Spy of the First Person. Greenfield’s book looks directly at Shepard and misses him by a mile.

John Lahr is a Columnist for AIR MAIL and the first critic to win a Tony Award, for co-authoring Elaine Stritch at Liberty