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Remembering Sam Shepard on his birthday
Today Sam Shepard would have turned 80 years old. So strange to think of him gone, so strange to reconcile the passing of time. I was in my early twenties when I met Sam. Our relationship was like the moon with it’s many phases. In fact we both got tattoos together at the Chelsea Hotel in 1971. Mine was a lightening bolt, his was a crescent moon. When Sam passed away on July 27, 2017 I was on the road. I had only left him some ten days before and the aura of his presence was still with me. I wrote this piece for the New Yorker, and thought perhaps you may like to read it. Tonight I return to New York. See you in the Cafe tomorrow….
He would call me late in the night from somewhere on the road, a ghost town in Texas, a rest stop near Pittsburgh, or from Santa Fe, where he was parked in the desert, listening to the coyotes howling. But most often he would call from his place in Kentucky, on a cold, still night, where one could hear the stars breathing. Just a late-night phone-call, out of a blue as startling as a canvas by Yves Klein; a blue to get lost in, a blue that might lead anywhere. I’d happily awake, stir up some Nescafe and we’d talk about anything. About the emeralds of Cortez, or the white crosses in Flanders fields, about our kids, or the history of the Kentucky Derby. But mostly we talked about writers and their books. Latin writers. Rudy Wurlitzer. Nabokov. Bruno Schultz.
-Gogol was Ukrainian, he once said, seemingly out of nowhere. Only not just any nowhere, but a sliver of a many faceted nowhere, that when lifted in a certain light, become a somewhere. I’d pick up the thread, and we’d improvise into dawn, like two beat-up tenor saxophones, exchanging riffs.
He sent me a message from the mountains of Bolivia, where Matea Gil was shooting Blackthorn. The air was thin up there in the Andes, but he navigated it fine, outlasting, and surely outriding the younger fellows, saddling up no less than five different horses. He said he would bring me back a serape, a black one with rust colored stripes. He sang in those mountains by a bonfire, old songs written by broken men in love with their own vanishing nature. Wrapped in blankets he slept under the stars adrift on Magellanic Clouds.
Sam liked being on the move. He’d throw a fishing rod or an old acoustic guitar in the backseat of his truck, maybe take a dog, but for sure a notebook, and a pen, and a pile of books. He liked packing up and leaving just like that, going West. He liked getting a role that would take him somewhere he really didn’t want to be, but would wind up taking in its strangeness; lonely fodder for future work.
In the winter of 2012 we met up in Dublin, where he received an Honorary Doctorate of Letters from Trinity College. He was often embarrassed by accolades but embraced this one, coming from the same institution where Samuel Beckett walked and studied. He loved Beckett, and had a few pieces of writing, in Beckett’s own hand, framed in the kitchen, along with pictures of his kids. That day we saw the typewriter of Synge and James Joyce’s spectacles, and in the night, we joined musicians at his favorite local pub, the Cobblestone, on the other side of river. As we happily staggered across the bridge he recited reams of Samuel Beckett from the top of his head.
Sam promised me that one day he’d show me the landscape of the southwest, for though well- traveled, I’d not seen much of our own country. But Sam was dealt a whole other hand, stricken with a debilitating affliction. He eventually stopped picking up and leaving. From then on, I visited him and we read and talked, but mostly we worked. Laboring over his last manuscript, he courageously summoned a reservoir of mental stamina, facing each challenge fate apportioned him. His hand, with a crescent moon tattooed between his thumb and forefinger, rested on the table before him. The tattoo was a souvenir from our younger days, mine a lightning bolt on the left knee.
Going over a passage describing the western landscape he suddenly looked up and said, I’m sorry I can’t take you there. I just smiled, for some-how, he had already done just that. Without a word, eyes closed, we tramped through the American desert that rolled out a carpet of many colors- saffron dust, then russet, even the color of green glass, golden greens, and then, suddenly, an almost inhuman blue. Blue sand, I said, filled with wonder. Blue everything, he said, and the songs we sung had a color of their own.
. We had our routine: Awake. Prepare for the day. Have coffee, a little grub. Set to work, writing. Then a break, outside, to sit in the Adirondack chairs and look at the land. We didn’t have to talk then, and that is real friendship. Never uncomfortable with silence, which, in its welcome form, is yet an extension of conversation. We knew each other for such a long time. Our ways could not be defined or dismissed with a few words describing a careless youth. We were friends; good or bad, we were just ourselves. The passing of time did nothing but strengthen that. Challenges escalated but we kept going and he finished his work on the manuscript. It was sitting on the table. Nothing was left unsaid. When I departed, Sam was reading Proust.
Long slow days passed. It was a Kentucky night filled with the darting light of fireflies, and the sound of the crickets and choruses of bullfrogs. Sam walked to his bed and lay down and went to sleep, a stoic, noble sleep. A sleep that lead to an unwitnessed moment, as love surrounded him, and breathed the same air. The rain fell when he took his last breath, quietly, just as he would have wished. Sam was a private man. I know something of such men. You have to let them dictate how things go, even to the end.
I was far away, standing in the rain before the sleeping lion of Lucerne, a colossal, noble, stoic lion carved from the rock of a low cliff. The rain fell obscuring tears. I knew I would see Sam again somewhere in the landscape of dream, but at that moment I imagined I was back in Kentucky, with the rolling fields and the creek that widens into a small river. I pictured Sam’s books lining the shelves, his boots lined against the wall, beneath the window where he would watch the horses grazing by the wooden fence. I pictured myself sitting at the kitchen table reaching for that tattooed hand.
A long time ago Sam sent me a letter. A long one, where he told me of a dream he had hoped would never end. He dreams of horses, I told the lion. Fix it for him, will you? Have Big Red waiting for him, a true champion. He won’t need a saddle, he won’t need anything. I headed to the French border, a crescent moon rising in the black sky. I said goodbye to my buddy, calling to him, in the dead of night.
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