“I don’t think I’ve written about anyone more American than Sam,” says Robert Greenfield, the author of a new biography, True West: Sam Shepard’s Life, Work, and Times, about the Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright. “In so many ways, he’s the iconic figure — the loner, the stranger, the outsider.”
Greenfield has previously written books about everyone from Jerry Garcia and Timothy Leary to Bill Graham and Electronic Frontier Foundation cofounder John Perry Barlow. Even the late Burt Bacharach. Moving on to the theater world might seem like a challenge, but when Greenfield’s agent called to suggest the Sam Shepard project, the veteran rock journalist realized that their worlds had overlapped. Sitting back in his Carmel office, he reflects: “I lived in New York when he was in New York. I lived in London when he was there. And I lived in Los Angeles when he was trying to sell screenplays there.” They also share a music connection: Shepard briefly played drums for underground folkie group The Holy Modal Rounders and worked on a far-out and eventually scrapped screenplay for The Rolling Stones, whose adventures Greenfield chronicled in a pair of books about the British rockers.
While in New York, Shepard had helped encourage the music career of Patti Smith, with whom he had a brief affair when they were living in the Chelsea Hotel. “Sam bought Patti her first Gibson guitar,” Greenfield says, adding that the playwright also encouraged her to set her poetry to music at an early reading at St. Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery. Smith asked future collaborator Lenny Kaye to join her, and the rest was history.
During their Chelsea stay, Shepard and Smith cowrote Cowboy Mouth, a play that took its title from a line in Bob Dylan’s “Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands.” Later on, Dylan hired the playwright to write the screenplay for Renaldo and Clara, an ill-fated film chronicling his Rolling Thunder comeback tour. Shepard ultimately walked away from the tour — he hated living in hotel rooms, and none of the musicians could be pinned down to read dialogue. But his appearance in snippets of the movie caught the eye of director Terrence Malick, who cast Shepard in his film debut, Days of Heaven. “Sam was always in the right place at the right time,” Greenfield says. “Talk about being plugged into the zeitgeist.”
He’d come a long way from his Southern California childhood. Born in Pasadena, Shepard was raised in Duarte, a nondescript town in the San Gabriel Valley. Although his father was a World War II pilot and he played astronaut Chuck Yeager in the film version of Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff, Shepard had a lifelong fear of flying. (His cross-country car journeys for film and literary projects to avoid air travel were epic.) Nevertheless, again in a move that put him in touch with prevailing cultural winds, Shepard moved to London in 1971 and soon found producers for his plays, featuring noted actors like Bob Hoskins and Stephen Rea.
When he returned to the States — after initially getting a cold shoulder from the American Conservatory Theater — Shepard forged a relationship with the Magic Theatre in San Francisco, which presented 12 of his plays, including Buried Child (which won him a Pulitzer Prize in 1979), Curse of the Starving Class, True West and Fool for Love. His connection with Magic Theatre founder and artistic director John Lion came about through Beat poet and playwright Michael McClure, whom Greenfield describes as “the Prince of the Underground” and was revered by everyone. “It was a small community, including [TheRight Stuff director] Phil Kaufman. Ed Harris and Sam, who were both in the cast, were out drinking at Tosca’s every night.”
Shepard’s life took another dramatic turn when he met Jessica Lange on the set of Frances. “They fell madly in love,” although Sam was still living in Marin with his first wife, avant-garde actress O-Lan Jones, Greenfield says. “He would go to Los Angeles on business or whatever pretext, and meet [Jessica] at the Chateau Marmont.” He ultimately divorced Jones, later parted ways with Lange and moved to Kentucky.
But through it all, Shepard stayed true to his craft, despite struggles with alcoholism, broken relationships and a lonely battle with amyotrophic lateral disease (ALS), which took his life in 2017. “Here’s someone who died with his boots on,” Greenfield says. “Nobody except his immediate family (initially) knew he had ALS. But even though he’d lost the use of his hands, he was able to dictate his work to a tape recorder” for Spy of the First Person, a posthumously published account of his struggle. Fittingly, his old partner in crime, Patti Smith, moved into Shepard’s horse ranch to support her friend and help midwife the final manuscript.
Apart from his cowboy cult, leading-man looks and celebrity relationships, will Shepard’s plays stand the test of time? His biographer and critical consensus offer an emphatic yes. “They’re about family agony, which we’re all familiar with, pleasantly or not,” Greenfield says. “They’re an intimate look at the dysfunctional American family.”