THE SCENE: Sam Shepard joins Jesse Shepard for a reading
at City Lights / Father and son share a moment, but
without the literary drama
When Jesse Shepard was 9 or 10, he and his family set
out on a cross- country road trip. His famous dad,
playwright Sam, was at the wheel.
Jesse was writing a postcard to his grandmother. For
some reason he was describing places, such as the Grand
Tetons, that the family had yet to reach. When he tired
of that game, he asked his dad what else he should write
"Try writing about what you're seeing right now,"
replied his father.
It turned out to be great advice, said Jesse, relating
the tale to a rapt overflow audience Thursday at City
Lights Bookstore. He glanced to his left and smiled at
his father, who was sitting in the front row.
Jesse Shepard was appearing at the venerable mavericks'
bookstore to promote his first collection of stories,
"Jubilee King." His dad, as good fathers do, was on hand
to lend his support.
It sometimes seems as though all of Sam Shepard's
considerable body of work is engrossed with the other
kind of male authority figure - the bad kind. The
fathers who wouldn't show up at their son's literary
coming-out party, or would get there late, only to drag
the boy to a saloon across the street, where they would
inevitably stumble into some bad behavior together.
But Sam and Jesse seem to get along swimmingly. After
both men had read from their material, an admirer asked
tentatively whether this particular father-son
combination had suffered any of the struggles so common
to Sam's manly archetypes.
Sam allowed as to how much of his writing borrows from
his rocky relationship with his own dad.
"My relationship with Jesse has been the complete
opposite," he said. He paused and turned toward his son,
a question furrowing his brow. Rakish waves of hair
swept back from the center of both foreheads.
There was one incident, Sam Shepard began to say.
Something about a dog. Jesse Shepard immediately cut him
off with a broad grin: Too much information.
Jesse, a confident, wry reader with a trim
strawberry-blond beard, opened the evening with two
lengthy excerpts from his book. "Everything hinges on
selling the Plymouth," began the first piece. The car,
he explained, had no reverse.
His father leaned forward in his seat, running a
thumbnail along his front teeth. Across the room from
the lectern, an old, slightly stained blowup of the
cover from Sam's "Motel Chronicles," first published two
decades ago by City Lights, hung alongside a Charles
When Jesse was through, the patriarchal Shepard stepped
to the microphone with a red folder in hand. He read
from "Fool for Love," "True West" and other signature
plays; he recalled his long relationship with San
Francisco's Magic Theatre. He spoke of his affection for
magic realism ("it's a different code") and Samuel
Beckett ("I mean, he was the guy. Like listening to
Thelonious Monk for the first time").
He told of sitting in a bar in Cedar Rapids earlier this
week, gazing at "the endless CNN bull...," where he
first learned of singer Nina Simone's death.
In memoriam, he read an old piece that recounted his
young, anonymous days in New York City, where he once
worked as a busboy at the Village Gate.
"I used to bring Nina Simone ice," the story began. For
her scotch. Shepard remembered the tough singer removing
wig in her dressing room, pasting her fake eyelashes to
the mirror. He lost the job, he said, when he spilled
candle wax on a businessman as Simone sang "You'd Be So
Nice to Come Home To."
Another story that drew enthusiastic response was told
from the point of view of a school-age boy - one of
Shepard's two kids with actress Jessica Lange; Jesse's
mother is actress O-Lan Jones - quizzing his father for
information about the 1980s for a social studies paper.
Comically, the father claims utter ignorance of
everything that happened during the entire decade.
Some minutes later, Shepard introduced an excerpt from
"Fool for Love," recollecting its premiere at the Magic.
"God, I don't remember how far back that was," he said.
"It was the '80s," someone blurted, earning the night's
As the two generations of Shepards began signing books,
their audience filtered onto the drizzly sidewalk
outside. A pair of passers-by quizzed each other on the
"Who's Sam Shepard?" the man asked. "I thought he was
the one who killed his wife."