Sam Shepard died last week. ALS. I didn't know -- didn't even suspect he was sick. Just old-ish. A bit rough around the edges perhaps from life and drugs and alcohol.
I won't go into a long memorial post about him and his work, some of which had a profound affect on me when time was. He was the only playwright I know of who could accurately capture the spirit and the feeling of life in the hills and valleys east of Los Angeles before the end of the world that it once had been.
Until recently, I didn't know much about his personal life. Didn't care, really. He was a writer, an actor, an artist, and a presence who could -- somehow -- capture the essence of a particular time and place and the people who tried to survive in it, the times and places and people I knew, had lived with, perhaps had been and still was.
When I found out he'd been brought up on an avocado ranch in Duarte, California, in the '40s and '50s, of course it was obvious. This was the why and the how of his ability to capture the essence of what I knew to be true about... that part of the West.
Duarte is less than 10 miles from where I lived from 1954-1959. While Duarte is hard up against the San Gabriel Mountains and I lived on the flatland below, I could see the mountains rising proudly out my living room window, and sometimes I would sit on my back fence and watch them burn as they did practically every year when the weather was hot and the wind was high.
In 1954, the land north of our house, across the concrete drainage ditch that has once been an intermittent stream used by the vanished Gabrielenos Indians, were acres and acres of orange groves protected from the infrequent frosts by strategically placed smoky smudgepots. The avocado trees up in Duarte needed similar protection, though I don't recall Shepard ever writing about it directly.
While I tend to focus on material memories of what it was like back there and then, he was focused on the spirit of the time and place, and its effect. For me, listening, reading, watching and participating in his works when I could -- infrequently, true, but often enough -- was exhilarating and sometimes scary. How did he know?
Unlike many of those posting comments on his NYT obit, I never met him though I was told he came to a rehearsal of "True West" I was working on. For whatever reason, I wasn't there that time.
He was called "Cowboy" -- not that he was a cowboy, just that he knew. We call our next door neighbor "Cowboy," though he's not one, not now anyway, and his name is Kevin. But he reminds me a bit of Shepard, and though we don't have a lot in common, there's enough...
It seems too soon for Shepard to be gone, but not really. He was only a few years older than me, but he clearly had a greater ability to share his inside and insight than I do. Those who sing his praises now that he is gone probably don't quite know what he was really doing. I sometimes wonder if he did.
Vaya con dios, amigo.