NEWS: December 2017

December 30, 2017

Oklahoma's Carpenter Square Theatre opens the New Year with "Ages of the Moon", one of Sam's last plays. The comedy-drama about two old friends plays January 12-27, 2018. All performances are at the theater, located at 800 W. Main in downtown Oklahoma City. "Ages" continues some of the themes that have been ever present in Sam's work, such as the troubled and comical sides of family life, friendships, and experiences of love. Byron and Ames are old friends reunited by mutual desperation. Ames has retreated to an old shack to lick his wounds after his wife kicked him out of their house for some adulterous indiscretion he can’t even recall. Over bourbon on ice, they reflect and bicker until fifty years of love, friendship, and rivalry are put to the test at the barrel of a gun.

Terry Veal directs with assistance from Michael Greene as stage manager. Rob May and Michael Kramer co-star as Ames and Byron. Reservations are highly recommended for the intimate 90-seat theater.  Visit for more information.

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Counterpoint Press has announced that "Sam Shepard: A Life" by John J. Winters will be published in paperback in March. It will include an epilogue recounting Shepard's last days, the many tributes that poured in, and more. Upon Sam's death last summer, John issued the following statement:

I was in Chicago when word reached me that Sam had passed. Though I'd heard that his health had been failing for some time, the news somehow surprised me. I never doubted that when it happened it would bring me great sadness, which it did.

Sam will be remembered as an American original. He was an important American writer, one of the greatest American playwrights of the past half century, and as an actor he graced the screen with an authenticity that was always coupled with a surprising vulnerability. To encounter his work in any medium meant never forgetting it.

I hope my book will remind people why he mattered, and with any luck, will be around to tell future generations about this talented and versatile artist. I believe he will be well remembered for many generations, if not longer. As one of the many saddened commentators following Sam's obituary in the Times put it: "Punch a whole in the sky, Sam." I'll add only, God speed, and thank you for the words and images.

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Dustin Illingworth, LA Times, book review:
"Spy of the First Person" is an eloquent, if necessarily brief, valediction. At just 96 pages, its effect is one of atmosphere rather than narrative, an aching requiem sung in the shadow of extinction. It is also partly autobiographical. Like Shepard, the narrator is an old man dying of a debilitating illness. His flickering consciousness ranges over great temporal distance, blending present-day observations with fragments from a disintegrating past.

From the NY Times, 12/29/17 - Deaths in 2017:
Pillars of the theater fell: the directors Peter Hall, who towered on both sides of the Atlantic, and Max Ferra, who championed the work of Latinos; the British actors John Hurt, Roy Dotrice and Alec McCowen; and the playwrights A. R. Gurney and Sam Shepard, though “playwright” alone does little justice to the uncontainable Mr. Shepard’s manifold artistry, which branched as well into movies, television, music and fiction.

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Mick LaSalle, SF Chronicle, 12/29/17 - 2017 in Review:
Sam Shepard
: We had other notable movie deaths — Jerry Lewis, in particular — but before Shepard became ill, he was at the top of his game. Thus, at 73, he was a real loss to the art. He thought of himself mainly as a playwright, but his acting was hardly a sideline. He had a philosophical quality in his very being, a kind of courageous acceptance of the truth, and an honesty that called forth honesty in others. He was a convincing hero, and as a villain he was terrifying, because he still maintained his familiar aura of moral certitude. Nothing could dissuade him. Sam Shepard was a great actor.

When Sam died in July, LaSalle wrote the following: "'I didn’t go out of my way to get into the movie stuff,' Sam Shepard once said. 'I think of myself as a writer.' And in the end, it’s as a playwright that Shepard will probably be most remembered. But then again, maybe not. Plays have to be produced and rehearsed and presented to the public. But movies are everywhere, and Shepard not only made a lot of them, but lots of very good ones spread out over three decades. He distinguished himself in these films as a strong and distinct screen presence."

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Michael Cavna of The Washington Post wrote, "From music to movies, we mourn pioneers and performance icons in 2017." As a memoriam for a way to say "thanks", he posted this work from the Comic Riffs sketchbook.


December 29, 2017

The New York Times Magazine featured an article on those who had died this year. The photo below was labeled - "The writer Sam Shepard's hat, at his son Walker's home in Louisville, Ky". The quote is from his other son Jesse.

"He was always a pinch-front kind of guy, the style is kind of a triangular crease in the front. It’s a strong reminder of the man — of him being outside and on location and involved in the day. There is a practicality and a confidence to it. It’s a well-worn hat. His work was key to his day and it was always about process and project. I was a wrangler on Silent Tongue; it was my first job. I briefly doubled my dad on Don’t Come Knocking because the production wouldn’t let him run a horse hard because he might get hurt as the star. It was the last location work I did with him."

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In a recent podcast from Playback, director Scott Cooper discusses his latest film Hostiles, but also talks about his relationship with Sam having cast him in Out of the Furnace. After being given the script, Sam called Scott from Paris and said, "Well, this seems like a cousin to Buried Child". After filming, their friendship continued and they stayed close. Sam described the two of them as "two peas in a pod". The kindred spirits would often converse on horses, politics, literature and discuss their individual projects. In a recent interview with GQ, Scott talks about his younger days - "I was afflicted with a certain wanderlust. You know, wanting to travel and this kind of idealism of a vagabond lifestyle. Which I never really did lead. But it sounds great when you read Sam Shepard. One of my former pals and mentors."

Scott then tugged on his denim jacket. "Sam gave me this coat," he said. "I had commented to him on many occasions how much I liked it on the set because I did! Sam was probably the most effortlessly cool person I've ever been around. And his work spoke to me on a very deep level."

Scott Cooper wearing Sam's jacket

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Author Howard Norman has contributed his remembrance of Sam at this link and concludes, "To me his writing will, for a long, long time, continue to dignify literature."

December 24, 2017

Liz Nord, No Film School:

RIP: 17 Film Luminaries We Lost in 2017

These influential figures will be missed by the film industry and beyond. One comfort we have as creators is that, after all the toil and trouble we go through to put our work out into the world, that work has the potential to outlive us and continue to move people long after we are gone. That can certainly be said of the people on this list. From genre-defining directors to DPs who made us see the world in new ways, here is one of the names that we hold close to our hearts from those who left us in 2017.

Sam Shepard is the type of artist who will be remembered across every discipline of culture. While the plays he wrote (44 in total, three of which won Pulitzer Prizes) are some of the greatest contributions to American theater, the themes that sprouted from his mind have gone on to inspire generations of filmmakers, actors, and writers to delve into the darker side of family life, friendships, and experiences of love. He was also a well-respected actor, garnering an Oscar nomination for his role as Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff (1983).

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Here's a page from a PDF of the Midway Messenger:

December 17, 2017

Sam's pal Johnny Dark has been silent since his friend's death and many of us wondered what his thoughts were, especially since the film "Shepard & Dark" had revealed their relationship ending on a rather sour note at that time. Today UK's Guardian posted Johnny's remembrance of Sam, and typically he exposes some raw edges in their 54-year friendship. I like Johnny because he doesn't believe in bullshit.

We first met in 1963 in New York’s Lower East Side when it was a neighborhood of actors and theatres and artists. He was introduced to my wife, who had two daughters, and he married the eldest [the actress O-Lan Jones]. We hit it off right away: I liked him very much. He was 24 years old and in the early stages of writing plays, and he was getting some recognition. He was very unpretentious and friendly, and he was always like that, up until the end.

Then my wife and I left New York, and when Sam and O-Lan came to California to visit us, we all decided to live together as an extended family. We took a series of houses and lived together for about 15 years with Sam, his wife and son, O-lan's younger sister and my wife. We were in our late 20s, early 30s; he was three years younger than me. It was unusual to have another male in the house – my son-in-law – who was also a best friend. For their little boy Jesse, it was an unusual set-up to grow up in, but he only realized that years later when he met his wife’s family, which was much more conventional.

Sam and I got up to a lot of mischief. He was starting to write some of his best-known plays at the Magic Theatre in San Francisco, so we had a lot of opening night adventures. We had motorcycles and we raced around, we travelled. I was a writer and he was a writer, and we both loved movies. He was an alcoholic and I was a drug addict. And we had an inflated sense of how wonderful we were.

It was during this time that he was first approached to be in a movie. Bob Dylan called to ask him to go on the road with the Rolling Thunder Revue to do some writing for a movie they were making. And on the basis of that, the director Terry Malick called and asked him if he would like to be in "Days of Heaven", with Richard Gere, an unknown at the time. That was his first experience in the movies, and from there he had a dual career as a playwright and a movie actor.

But what happened is he ran off with Jessica, which was a big upheaval. One day he just didn’t come home. Everyone was surprised except me. They started a life together, and eventually had two children. We started to write letters to each other because he lived in various places, Virginia, Minnesota and New Mexico. We were both big letter writers: we’d write about women, drugs, various stories. And we’d talk a lot about literature: his main man was Samuel Beckett, mine was Jack Kerouac. He read a lot of plays too – Shakespeare and Oscar Wilde.

We were friends in our 20s, 30s, part of our 40s, and then he fell under Jessica’s influence to a certain extent. He started going through a change there. And you have to factor in the tremendous effect that becoming famous through movies has on a person. It’s a terrible influence. Wherever you go, the whole world is giving you special treatment, and that’s a very damaging thing for the ego.

I was never particularly interested in his plays: they were filled with humor, but also with violence and chaos, so it always amazed me that people were attracted to him based on his plays. He drew another audience through his movies, and that was outstanding. He was a very handsome, popular young man. It was a form of mass hypnosis. He played Chuck Yeager in "The Right Stuff", the man who broke the sound barrier, and people thought Sam broke the sound barrier.

One of the things we had in common was that we were very private people. We were both loners, and when we got older, it became more intense. He had a very difficult time with relationships. He left his first wife, he ended up leaving Jessica and the kids, and living alone on his ranch in Kentucky. His love before anything else was writing. He was really a lost soul, looking for something impossible. He couldn’t maintain relationships at all. Even when he was with Jessica, he bought a place that was far away so he could run off from it all. Ever since I met him, he was running away. And he described himself like that to me. Restless. Discontented. Lost. Those things don’t matter that much when you’re young, but when you’re older, they become more and more difficult.

When Sam came to visit me in Deming, a little town near the Mexican border, he’d check into a motel and call to tell me he was in town, and we’d meet every day in a local road-side restaurant. We’d sit for hours, talking and reminiscing. Until the end, when he started getting sick: he had ALS and emphysema. He even had trouble lifting his cup to his mouth at that point. So mostly what we talked about was his illness. He was driving around the country seeing if he could find some kind of cure for it.

That was difficult. He knew he was dying. There’s no cure for either disease: they get progressively worse. From what I could see he was getting more depressed, more angry, going through all the stages people go through when they’re dying. He had been busted for the second time driving drunk. All of these things were happening at once for him. His life was falling apart.

The last time he came through here he was having a lot of trouble driving. He shouldn’t have been driving at all. He was losing control of his whole upper body, having trouble controlling the truck. He was driving to his farm in Kentucky, travelling with a large oxygen machine because of his difficulty breathing. The morning he left I had to load the machine on the truck and all of his medicines, and he just got into the truck and drove off. I took a load of pictures of him that morning and they may be the last photos ever taken of him.

So it goes from the light in the 60s, and youth, to the dark at the end. He had a great need to be adored and applauded. I have some of that too. We were very similar in a lot of ways, but we had very different styles in the way we dealt with each other and other people. He was a big influence on me, in a good way and a bad way. He was a big part of my life.

December 11, 2017

Patti's tribute to Sam last Tuesday in celebration of his book release was written up at this Vogue link. It's a great overview of the evening by Rebecca Bengal. In the following, she describes Patti: "Taking a seat on the edge of the stage as her longtime collaborators Lenny Kaye and Tony Shanahan played a rendition of the folk ballad 'Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie' —a cowboy lament for the man with the cowboy mouth—she rocked to its loping rhythm and seemed briefly overcome. Then she caught herself, flashed a warm smile to Shepard’s three grown children, Hannah, Jesse, and Walker, seated in the second row." And later in the evening, Patti tells her audience, " We were friends for more than half a century." The photo below is one of my favorites:

A few more reviews of "Spy of the First Person" have surfaced this past week. Sam Sacks of The Wall Street Journal quotes the old man in the story - "The thing I remember most is being more or less helpless and the strength of my sons." Sacks writes, "At last he has no choice but to accept the company of others as he travels through the wide American somewhere." Yes, the lone cowboy needs someone to scratch his itch or wipe his ass. Biographer John J. Winters, who wrote "Sam Shepard: A Life", refers to Sam as the "wounded cowboy" who retires to his Kentucky home to await death. In his review, Winters writes, "When the doctor tells him there’s a problem, his response is pure Shepard: 'I know something is wrong. Why do you think I’m in here? He just looked at me with a blank stare.'" Reading that, I can feel an icy wind sweeping over my face and it feels prickly...

And Winters goes on to point out an observation that no one else thus far has mentioned. He writes, "Shepard’s last written reflection is, appropriately enough, about fatherhood, something he’d dealt with in life, on pages and stages, for more than a half century. However, notably missing from 'Spy of the First Person' is any mention of his own father."

How true, but what about the glaring absence of a certain woman who was the love of his life for almost 30 years? She's missing from the pages of this "fictional memoir" and her presence is missing from his final weeks on his deathbed, but at least brave Patti Smith/Mighty Mouse arrived to save the day. As you can witness in the documentary, "Shepard & Dark", perhaps Sam never had the courage to address those painful issues that were too close to his heart, not even at the end of his life.

December 6, 2017

Last night Patti Smith performed at a tribute concert for Sam in celebration of the release of his book. The event took place at St. Ann & the Holy Trinity Church in Brooklyn. During a performance of "Dancing Barefoot", Patti forgot one of the lyrics and began laughing. "What is it? I've sung this nine million times," she said. "You know what, Sam really liked when I did this. He would actually taunt me and be somewhere and get my attention so I would mess something up. And he had this coyote laugh, I can't explain it. So I'm sure he's enjoying this right now."

December 5, 2017

Guess how I spent this afternoon? Yes, reading "Spy of the First Person". We'll call my thoughts "Musings by Coymoon". Let me preface this by saying except for "The One Inside", I have thoroughly enjoyed the stories of Sam Shepard, and even more so when they were narrated by him, such as his audiobook, "Cruising Paradise". In this last volume of his work, I find a man completely absorbed in the physical deterioration of his body without any reflection on life and death.

These stories, often fragments, equate to nothing more than dream sequences that we all experience. As Jocelyn McClurg (USA Today) points out, "The reader must follow the flow; but, like trying to decipher someone's dreams, it's not always easy." Shall we call in Dr. Freud? Except for the last two chapters of this sparse book, there's nothing significant or meaningful and what you'll find mostly on these pages are the ramblings of any old man obsessed with the restrictions that his illness has brought upon him. Nothing more. However, I believe I did recognize his friend Johnny Dark and wife Scarlett [Olan's mother].

Wouldn't "love" be a word that would frame your remembrances of someone? Wouldn't "death" be a word that could be better defined as you "stand on the edge of life and see the Darkness"?  [The Seventh Seal]

I am a stickler for writing reviews for books, film [Roger Ebert being the worst!] or theater without giving away the plot or without including way too many quotes. If you go read through the many reviews, you probably have already read this book! Truly!

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I always wanted to take this photo

December 4, 2017

Tomorrow "Spy of the First Person" will be released and I expect my edition to arrive shortly thereafter. Presently, the EW web site is featuring actor Michael Shannon reading an excerpt from the audiobook.  Shannon appeared with Sam in "Mud" and "Midnight Special." In addition, the actor performed in several of Sam's plays. This year alone, he participated in a June reading of "Curse of the Starving Class" and acted in a five-week run of "Simpatico" at the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton, New Jersey.

When "The One Inside" was published, I indicated my dislike of its cover with a photograph by Mexican photographer Graciela Iturbide. Dark and depressing. Here again is another of her images called "El señor de los pájaros en Nayarit (1984). Tibetans believe vultures are angel-like figures that will take the souls to heaven, but in the bible, when blessings and curses are given to Israel, God warns them, "Your carcasses shall be food for all the birds of the air and the beasts of the earth, and no one shall frighten them away". Under this curse, the gathering of the vultures symbolizes the height of defeat, disgrace, and personal insignificance, when no defenders are left to keep the scavengers from tearing a human body apart just as they would a dead animal. What is Sam trying to say?

In an inversion of a typical dedication page, where the author often thanks his or her family, "Spy of the First Person" is dedicated to the author himself: "Sam’s children, Hannah, Walker and Jesse would like to recognize their father’s life and work and the tremendous effort he made to complete his final book."

And obviously it was a struggle for our writer to finish his last work. When using his typewriter became too difficult, he wrote out his notes with  pen, and when that became impossible, he used a tape recorder. In the end he simply dictated his words to his daughter Hannah or his sisters Roxanne and Sandy.

Knopf editor LuAnn Walther says, "People think of Sam Shepard as the solitary cowboy of American myth riding off into the distance, but in truth, he was dedicated to his family his whole life." I beg to differ. Does this include his parents? All his children?  Have you ever seen a photo of Sam with his sisters? She continues, "He was adamant that he didn't want the book to be categorized as a novel even though he was told it could create marketing problems. He said, 'why does anybody need a label.' You have to remember that Sam was always adamant through the years that he would never write a memoir. But what about a memoir of his dying?

Hannah says, "The line between fact and fiction in his own work was always very ambiguous to Sam, I believe. Many things blended together for him." Note that she refers to her father by his first name. And again when she states, "Sam was suspicious of technology, and the failure of these devices and computer programs just confirmed his lack of faith in them, I think. Recording was a very different experience for him than the physical act of writing, and he found it somewhat disorienting, but adjusted."

He made the final edits just a week before his death, dictating small changes to his daughter as she read the manuscript to him, start to finish. "Some of the funniest lines in the book, in my opinion, he added in our last edit," Hannah says. She chooses not to point out which lines. "I would rather keep this personal, as a memory between me and my father."

In a March 2010 interview with The Guardian, Sam opened up a bit about his only daughter. He revealed, "I never thought about having a daughter and then I had a daughter and it was a remarkable thing. It was very different from having a son and your response to it. With a son, it's much more complex. And it's probably because of my stuff in the past. With a daughter, I was surprised at how simple it is." It's to her, he says, that he intends to leave his notebooks, "because she's the one who's asked for them."

December 2, 2017

In 1998 PBS' Great Performances presented a television special by Oren Jacoby called "Stalking Himself". The documentary emphasized Shepard’s identity as an "odd, contradictory presence on the American cultural scene."

"He’s well-known but unknown, handsome and seductive but willfully remote," Will Joyer wrote in a New York Times review of the film. "He’s almost too easily the archetype of the authentic American, at home in the wide open spaces but not really at home anywhere."

In the documentary, Shepard also said he was uneasy about being too easily pinned down as a character he’d played on TV.

"I think we’re faced with a dilemma now that’s terrifying. You can just get rid of you altogether and make you an image," he said. "In fact, we prefer the image to the human being. We’d rather watch you on television than talk to you."

I think that's a very interesting observation and certainly applies to him.

After Sam died, filmmaker Oren Jacoby spoke about the difficulty in making this documentary:

"It was my first time working with Bob Richman, already highly regarded as a cinéma vérité cameraman. Still, it was a shock when we started shooting a rehearsal on our first day and Bob kept filming our main character (Sam) from behind or the side, always at a distance, and mostly pointing his lens at the other people in the scene. After a few minutes of this, I started first to whisper and then physically to try and nudge him around to the front, so we could at least see both eyes of the man our film was about. 'Trust me,' Bob said, 'he doesn’t want me there.' It was as if he had some special cameraman radar and was picking up a vibe that there was this invisible line that should not be crossed. (Bob told me recently that Shepard was the hardest and 'most private' subject he’s ever dealt with in all his years shooting documentaries.)

"But we respected that line and slowly, over the months that followed, we gained Shepard’s trust (or at least resigned acceptance – or maybe he just forgot we were there!) and Bob was able to move around and film him from the front. Then, one day, after repeatedly putting off our request for a one-on-one on-camera interview, Shepard turned to me and said something like, 'OK, let’s go do this.'  We found a corner near a window so we wouldn’t have to take time to put up lights or spoil the mood and filmed an almost two-hour conversation. Shepard went into a deeply personal exploration of his life and career, something he never did again on camera, and something that would never have happened if Bob had barged in front of him on our first day.

When Jacoby was asked what memory stands out for him today, he replied:

 "I remember a moment when we were filming him doing a series of plays in New York and he was collaborating with different directors and one of them was Joe Chaikin, who had been somebody that he really admired and learned a lot from in his early days as a playwright. Joe Chaikin had recently suffered a stroke and had aphasia and didn't have the same language that he'd had as a younger man when they'd worked together. And to see how Sam was very protective of Chaikin and kind of loved and respected him and wanted to, you know, help him still be able to work, even though he'd been through this illness — it was just a very tender moment watching them working together."

"And another great moment I remember with Sam is we were in a rehearsal room and there was an upright piano in a corner, and in a break in the rehearsal, he went over and started pounding out this amazing kind of jazz blues on the piano, Albert Ammons or one of these 1920s Harlem piano players."