Sam Shepard as Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff (image: Warner Bros.)
The first image I have of him is probably the same one a lot of people have—those who remember the film, anyway.
Two men riding in an ambulance to the scene of a plane crash. They see a figure in the distance. “Sir. Over there. Is that a man?” the driver asks. The passenger smiles and exclaims, “Yeah, you’re damn right it is!”
And there’s Sam Shepard. Walking away from the fiery crash, his face black with smoke, hauling the remnants of his parachute.
The film is The Right Stuff—one of my favorites—and the centerpiece of that film is Sam Shepard’s performance as Chuck Yeager. I was probably six when I saw it for the first time, and for years the images that stuck with me were all of Shepard—chewing gum and staring coolly at the plane that would make him famous; making a slick remark to the two government suits who will pass him over for the astronaut program; and most of all, striding out of the wreckage of that burning plane—evoking this impossible cool as he played perhaps the greatest pilot who has ever lived.
These are the images that came to me when I heard of Sam Shepard’s death on Monday. But that’s all it was. Images. My own imaginary ideals of an imagined man.
But yesterday, I read a remembrance of his life and what he was like as a man from someone who loved him. And all at once this towering artist disappeared as a concept for me. He became real. Close to me. Close to people I know. And as he took form, the sense of the hole left by his absence became profound.
* * *
Yesterday, Patti Smith, Shepard’s lifelong friend, penned a remembrance of him for the New Yorker. There’s no point in trying to capture what she says. I’ll just let you read it here:
Artists like Shepard (and Smith for that matter) baffle and terrify me. The pace of their work and the breadth of their talent is so extraordinary that I feel not only inferior, but like I’ve spent my first 38 years doing little more than treading water. What terrifies me the most is their work ethic, because in it, I am self-centered enough to see my own tendency to drift (case in point: this is my first blog post in months).
A Sam Shepard is a shooting comet to me. I knew him from his acting, slightly less for his plays. Surface knowledge, that’s all. I knew he got an Oscar nomination for his role as Yeager in The Right Stuff, and that he co-wrote Paris, Texas. I knew he was considered one of the greatest playwrights of the American theater, and that he won a Pulitzer for Buried Child (which I’m pleased to discover had its New York premier on the day I was born).
And past that paltry amount of surface knowledge is the man. A relentlessly curious, staggeringly prolific artist. He wrote over 40 plays. He acted and directed and taught courses on theater. He rode and trained horses and lived a life of more or less ceaseless wandering. He sang and played guitar and banjo and can be heard on several albums recorded by people he encountered, and people he knew well.
He made a loud sound while he lived: a sound whose echoes continue to resonate. He was a man who put his stamp on the world.
I think of artists like this. Constantly throwing rocks into a lake and seeing the motion they generate as it ripples out, sound bouncing off the canyon walls. How does one do that so often, and with so much success? How do they not only have the curiosity to constantly be gathering so much wool, but the drive to always be spinning something beautiful out of it?
And I also think: Why does it take their absence for me to see the shape that they made? Why does that have to be the thing that shatters the sound barrier?
I frequently tell people that my favorite part of getting older is watching my friends succeed. To see them turn their dreams into something real, and something that resonates outward in ever widening circles. I hear my friends’ records broadcast on the radio. I see them publish books and win awards. And I remember them picking the banjo on a street corner for loose change, or scribbling in a beat up notebook, or recording an album in the living room when we all did what we did because it just seemed like the thing we were born to do. And if we said we were going to change the world, we probably felt like that was just the thing to say, too.
I can’t imagine it was that different for Smith and Shepard when they started out. They wanted to create because it was their nature. They wanted to make great things because that was an extension of themselves. And somewhere up the mountain they must have looked back in amazement. Did we really cover that much ground?
I’ve been lucky enough to see my friends launch into orbit, or at least get in position to. And perhaps the fear I’m feeling now is simply one of being left behind. When you find your tribe, you want to stick with them. You want to arrive at the same peak of the same mountain and howl at the moon as a pack.
* * *
Re-reading Smith’s tribute to her friend, the thing that strikes me most is the familiarity of the images. Maybe I’m hunting for that. But I see parallels between the people I know who are trying to build their lives into something they love and looking to people like Smith and Shepard for guidance. There’s a sense, to me, that we inhabit the same country. That there are more of us out there. And if there are, then there are more stories like his, like hers, waiting to be sung.
I listen to Sam Shepard. I pray I can make a sound that loud. And deep down, I know there are more of us out there who can.
(photo: Irish Times)