Sam Shepard as Butch Cassidy in the 2011 film BlackthornEXPAND
Sam Shepard as Butch Cassidy in the 2011 film Blackthorn
Magnolia Pictures

The Beats Between Sentences: A Sam Shepard Appreciation

I always thought I’d meet Sam Shepard … after all, we were both drummers. We both had rock groups on Elektra Records (The Doors, The Holy Modal Rounders). We both had turned from music to writing, looking for the beats between sentences.

Recently, I performed at the Ace Hotel honoring Harry Dean Stanton on his 90th birthday, which triggered memories of Sam’s script for Paris, Texas, Wim Wenders' masterful film of the lonely, expansive West. It starred Harry Dean as the introverted male looking for himself. I had originally befriended Dean years before, sitting in with him on Dylan’s "Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door" at the Mint on Pico.

Years before that, 1984 to be exact, I was cruising TV channels and stopped on a PBS show because the energy coming off the boob tube was palpable. The actor John Malkovich was berating his brother (Gary Sinise) so viscerally, I was riveted. I had never seen such focused anger on any TV show, let alone in a film (in this case, an adaptation of Shepard's True West). Who was this playwright channeling such angst? With that, I started tracking Sam Shepard.

I went to see a small production in West Hollywood and felt the same energy. Bottled-up rage. And I identified with it. Why? Must have tapped into some inner stuff that I hadn’t processed yet. I then read most of Shepard’s work and turned into a fan.

Later that year I performed a one-act play that I had written, and a one-act by Shepard. Chris Silva was my producer (who had produced Sam’s works Off-Broadway), and he got me booked into La MaMa Theatre on the Lower East Side of New York. It was exciting because that was the space in which Sam and Patti Smith had done Cowboy Mouth, an early work that took its title from a line of Dylan’s. Ellen Stewart introduced me each night, as she did for Sam years before — a lineage I was pumped up about stepping into but was also intimidated by. Iggy Pop came down, but no Sam.

In 1987, a piece in Esquire caught my eye — Shepard interviewing Bob Dylan. It wasn’t very good; two introverted genius word men trying to connect … or trying not to. It was then that I thought the two drummers should meet.

In mid-'90s, actor-director Darrell Larson had put together a tribute to playwrights at the Met Theatre in L.A., and Ed Harris asked me to accompany him with some percussion on a reading of Shepard. I was doing another piece that evening, and Mr. Harris handed me an empty 5-gallon Sparkletts water bottle, saying, “Could you drum on this?” I turned it upside down, put it between my legs, and Sam’s words provoked me into beating the shit out of that plastic barrel. In 1999, Ed asked me to help him with the soundtrack for Pollack, the painter’s biopic. He had made great career strides doing early Shepard, and now was a world-class actor-director.

A few years later, I traveled to San Francisco to see Sean Penn, Woody Harrelson and Nick Nolte in a new Shepard play, directed by the playwright. In the back of my mind was the hope of running into Sam. I got to the rehearsals, and they said he’d just left town. Driving back to Kentucky, where he lived, takes time when you won’t fly.

Shepard certainly found the beats between sentences. Seeing John Malkovich beat the crap out of his brother's typewriter with a golf club in True West certainly was visceral. No playwright since Beckett captured male angst like Sam. Something in me totally related.

It seems the male psyche is now on the bridge to what Dylan describes: “The new warrior's strength is not to fight." Channel that rage into something creative. Sam Shepard did it in spades. He played the cards he was dealt, and turned it into a literary flush. For that, they gave him a Pulitzer.

The last few years, I was thinking that the two drummers would soon get together, but now it has to be on the other side. Another great reason to look forward to “Breaking on Through.”

John Densmore was a founding member of The Doors, with whom he has been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. His autobiography, Riders on the Storm, was a New York Times bestseller. He is also an actor and producer with numerous theater, TV and film credits, including his one-man show Skins and the award-winning documentaries Juvies (executive producer) and Road to Return (co-producer).

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