In the flurry of obituaries for Sam Shepard, who died last Thursday, at 73, from complications related to Lou Gehrig’s disease, the playwright and actor appears in close up, as an uncompromisingly honest anatomist of family traumas, and in long shot, as the last mythologist of the American West. He grew up “all over the Southwest, really -- Cucamonga, Duarte, California, Texas, New Mexico,” yanked from place to place by his Air Force-pilot dad’s postings, but when he moved to New York in ’62, he seemed oddly at home in the bohemia of the Lower East Side, plunging into the experimental theater scene orbiting around La MaMa. His Gary Cooper features, laconic way with words, and cowboy cool seemed right, somehow, for the post-beat, proto-punk underground that produced Andy Warhol’s 1968 movie, Lonesome Cowboys, and Velvet Underground songs like “Lonesome Cowboy Bill” (1970), both ironic, deadpan jabs at the moribund myth of the American Frontier (at the very moment that John Wayne was performing CPR on it in True Grit). In his early play, Cowboy Mouth (1971), binge-written in the Chelsea Hotel with his then-lover, Patti Smith, Shepard reimagines the high-plains drifter of John Ford legend as a wannabe Keith Richards, “a street angel…with a cowboy mouth.”
Coming of age at a moment when the rock guitarslinger was coolness itself, both Shepard and Smith, like many Boomer writers, sublimated their dreams of rock stardom into bravura improvisations on the typewriter. “First off let me tell you that I don’t want to be a playwright,” wrote Shepard, in 1971. “I want to be a rock and roll star. I want that understood right off.”
I got into writing plays because I had nothing else to do. So I started writing to keep from going off the deep end. That was back in ’64. Writing has become a habit. I like to yodel and dance and fuck a lot. Writing is neat because you do it on a very physical level. Just like rock and roll. A lot of people think playwrights are some special brand of intellectual fruitcake with special answers to special problems that confront the world at large. I think that’s a crock of shit. When you write a play you work out like a musician on a piece of music. You find all the rhythms and the melody and the harmonies and take them as they come. So much for theory.
That sensibility animates Hawk Moon, Shepard’s 1973 collection of “short stories, poems, and monologues” dedicated to “Patti Lee” (Smith). Most of the obits have focused, rightly, on Shepard the playwright—he wrote some 55 plays, one of which, Buried Child (1978), won him a Pulitzer—and Shepard the actor, a veteran of more than 50 roles, most notably Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff (1983). Still, it’s a pity so little mention has been made of Shepard the prose poet.
No doubt, Hawk Moon is early, immature Shepard, half-baked in spots, overegged in others. The London Review dismissed the book as “scrappy and inconsequential,” rolling a derisory eye at its “breathless, unpunctuated prose-poems and cute little seven or eight-liners in free verse in the style of Richard Brautigan.” Yet the reviewer conceded that the best of the fleetingly brief stories—flash fiction decades before the term was coined—“are sharp, macabre histories of urban fear and violence” that are very much of their moment (“the mechanized world of motor-car, radio culture, rootlessness and nuclear threat”) yet can still see the “mythical world of the Frontier, the Wild West, the prairies” receding in the rear-view mirror.
At their best, Hawk Moon’s poems and short, short stories have the fishtailing, careering momentum of Jayne Mansfield’s deathmobile, which, as it happens, puts in an appearance, in “The Curse of the Raven’s Black Feather”: “Visions of wrecks. Visions of wrecked stars; Jayne Mansfield’s severed head. Jackson Pollock. Jimmy Dean. Visions of wrecked cars. Asleep at the wheel.” We can hear the incoming buzzbomb squall of punk rock in Shepard’s hopped-up, free-associated imagery, and in the manic glee of his depictions of a post-‘60s America gone to seed.
In “Seven is a Number in Magic,” a marauding gang of feral kids—close kin to William Burroughs’s Wild Boys, on “customized Schwinns and stolen bikes with raccoon tails flying from the handle bars…and mud flaps with red and orange reflectors and the Ace of Spades stuck in their spokes”—surround a gaggle of nurses, out for a night on the town. Slashing the young women “with silver car antennas like whips,” they steal their purses. When one of the nurses makes a run for it, a boy gives chase, “doing wheel stands and burning rubber right on her heels.” Lopping off her ear with a switchblade, he brandishes it in triumph. The next day, alone on a rooftop, he threads a leather thong through the ear and hangs it around his neck, a fetish object for the Lord of the Flies. “He stands up and raises a fist to the sky. The Gods are well pleased.”
>Mark Dery is a cultural critic and essayist, based in New York. His latest book is the essay collection I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts: Drive-By Essays on American Dread, American Dreams. He is writing a biography of the artist and legendary eccentric Edward Gorey for Little, Brown.