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Holy Ghostly: Encounters with Sam Shepard

By Jeff Wood.

Holy Ghostly

Sam Shepard blew up in my teenage brain like an atom bomb. When I was in high school in the eighties in small-town Ohio, one of my friends worked at the local newsstand which doubled as the only video store in town. One day he came across a videocassette of True West, and on a whim he took it home to watch. That videocassette never made it back to the store. Instead, it got passed around at school like a cult totem until we wore it out, transforming all of us that opened up its contents. We’d simply never seen anything like it. Even the format was weird: a filmed version of Shepard’s stage play – which somehow made it seem simultaneously real and unreal. It was so strange and exciting and alive that it seemed like it had made it into this small-town video store by mistake, or that it had been planted there as part of some subversive operation intent on blowing some unsuspecting teenagers’ minds.

I’d been doing local theatre for some time, but I still recall my viewing of that videocassette of True West – with Gary Sinese and John Malkovich of Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre – as my first conscious encounter with the theatre, and really, with a psychology of art in general. I remember being infected and transformed by it, and more importantly, I remember realizing why. The text and the actors were transforming the audience because they were themselves transforming in their own radical encounter with the text and with each other. I saw the characters Austin and Lee, but I also saw the actors and the text crafting Austin and Lee. I realized I’d never really seen anyone act before, or the act of acting writing. And boy did that have consequences. In one fell swoop my encounter with that film opened up the possibilities of writing, acting, poetry, American mythology and pathos, and a language that could grapple with the surreal and monstrous complexities of family, my own family, and a literature of the land… a total geography. All of America, it seemed to me.

True West also directed my gaze, my longing as a Midwestern teenager, westward. Plenty has been written on the fertility of Shepard’s troubled relationship with his father; and in turn the American literary father-figure that Sam Shepard himself inadvertently became. For a time, True West was mine – a spectre I couldn’t shake. And something of a voodoo compass hovered there when I would lose my way.

In college I got a chance to play Ice in one of Shepard’s earliest plays, The Holy Ghostly. We staged it outside in a natural amphitheatre and started at sunset. Once the sun went down, a campfire was our only light source. One of the characters in The Holy Ghostly is the dead body of Ice’s father and the campfire takes on the qualities of a living character, a primal centerpiece to the hallucinatory tale. An intimate polarity was established between the inhuman, a cosmic combustion, and our own fragile, mortal incantations, all in the space of a scrappy piece of desert campsite. Conversations with a dead body and a campfire? On stage? I thought this was heaven. I was learning what leaps of imagination and language could be taken with a script, how they applied to a sense of place – an American place – and I was learning how truly hallucinatory it is to be an American.

So I took off into that mirage. After I started traveling around the American West I joined a production of Fool for Love directed by a fiery young director named Susannah Martin at a tiny hole in the wall in San Francisco. I thought I’d really hit it big – doing Shepard in San Fran! And in a way I had: the play is a goldmine. It was the most thrilling time in life. I drove up to San Francisco from LA, auditioned for Eddie, and didn’t leave town until the production was finished. During rehearsals, we took the small cast of four down to Needles, in the middle of the Mojave Desert, where we rehearsed in a motel room. In the evening after rehearsal, the tequila bottle got drained, the hot wind started blowing, and very strangely, all the cats in town started howling. I remember sitting in the parking lot of the Needles Motel, drunk on tequila, watching all the cats howl. Later that night we discovered why – the town got hit by a 7.1 earthquake, an earthquake that came to be known as the Hector Mine Earthquake. Still drunk, we spilled out into the parking lot, got down on our hands and knees, and rode that earthquake like a sea monster. The concrete turned into a kind of liquid and the particles of the hot desert air were quaking like aspen leaves. We couldn’t tell whether it was our eyeballs that were shaking, or the world. That terrifying metaphysical relativity seemed to me to be a master-class in what Shepard was all about. It must have done something for us: Dean Goodman, of Bay Area theatre lore, said he hadn’t seen “Shepard” done like that in years. We staged Fool For Love like a rattlesnake-dance of ceaseless motion in the round. The best review I remember – maybe the only one I got – was the one that said they could smell me.

I was ecstatic with California, and Shepard’s America. And I was totally broke. In a turn from one of Shepard’s own plotlines, my younger brother flew out to San Francisco and saved my ass. He came to the last show, paid to have my Volkswagen repaired, and we hit the road, speeding back to Ohio for our sister’s wedding. It was the end of December when we left and dropping down into Reno on the far side of the Sierras the desert was cold and clear. We took Route 50 – “the loneliest highway in America” – all the way across Nevada, listening to the radio when we could pick up a station. Mythic stretches of straight-road rolled out wide open between small hilly ranges like sets of waves. During one of the long runs a feature rose up on the horizon and got bigger and bigger, jutting up from the playa. It seemed kind of weirdly shaped and we squinted and leaned forward in our seats. We had no idea what it could possibly be. As we got closer to it I threw the car into neutral and let it roll up on this strange sight all the way out in the middle of the desert, all by itself. It was the legendary Shoe Tree – a lone cottonwood by the side of the road completely covered with sneakers slung up into its branches, all caked with desert dust and a post-apocalyptic, other-worldly aura. Incredible. We’d never heard of it before, so discovering it like that was like a vision, straight out of Mad Max. But I don’t believe we even made any associations at the time. We just stood there looking up at it while we took pisses. Looking at what it was. Nobody else out there at all, in the middle of nowhere, at the center of everywhere. No cell phones. No internet yet. Where you were was exactly where you were. This was 1999, and it was all coming just around the corner. How quickly and completely everything would change.

At night we kept up our speed, no reason to slow down. But my car was still in terrible shape – no heat, so we spread a sleeping bag across our laps and I drove with socks on my hands, staring into the slice of road that my headlights were plowing through the night. Shooting over a small rise in that little station wagon like a bullet, the highway was suddenly overrun with cattle. There was no hope of stopping. They were right there. My brother and I both screamed ourselves wide awake and I don’t know how I did it but I tapped the breaks, found an opening in the herd, and slalomed through the cattle guard road-crossing. For miles afterward I think we both had an image emblazoned in our minds of what that scene might’ve looked like if I hadn’t made the gap. Cattle parts, and parts of everything, exploded across the desert highway at night.

By the middle of the night we were freezing, exhausted, and rattled. My nerves had been fried by months of traveling, rehearsals and performances on a fraying shoestring. I felt like one of those shoes whipping around on the end of a branch in the cold and black desert night. Even with my brother there beside me I felt how lonely it could be out there, broke and frantic, how lonely it could be anywhere. At the truck stop the smell of diesel fuel was a jolt of existential comfort – the citrusy aroma of civilization; the unexpected solace of infrastructure. You know where you’ve gotten to when diesel fuel smells like that – a polar outpost of the mind. We were quiet, frightened even, of the precariousness of our own lives, and the loneliness of that. Coming over a small range in eastern Nevada, the hills parted and we could see the town of Ely – I think it was Ely – spread out in the valley like a lunar station and totally covered in Christmas lights. It was a sight, all colors and warmth. A harbor, inside and out, even though we didn’t know a soul out there. I saw Christmas for the first time in that moment, or a kind of Christmas that made sense to me, some kind of prehistoric glimmering. The deep necessity of communal, theatrical forms, spectacular forms. All we have really, in the long night of outer space.

The next day up in the High Rockies in Colorado the weather got bad and my wiper fluid pump wasn’t working either. We had to take turns with a jug of wiper fluid, holding it out the window with our bare hands and pouring it onto the windshield as we slogged over the mountains. I felt so bad for our traveling conditions, a trip my brother had spent all his money on, that I wouldn’t let him drive a single mile of the 2500 mile journey. I wanted him to just ride, and sleep when he wanted, and look out at the country. My brother became my hero on that trip. Dropping down the front range into Denver and out onto the Great Plains, we had passed through the gates of the mythic landscape. We had made it. The magic slowly faded into a landscape that we recognized, slowly but surely melding into a more pastoral negotiation between the human and the inhuman, between people and the land. But even that was changing radically now, into something else. I was driving back into something coming that I couldn’t fully understand.

Back in Ohio I was deranged with hallucinations of American mythology, so many texts and films and monologues and miles, a real medicine show. I wasn’t sure what to do about it. But I noticed something: that thing that was coming around the corner. And I couldn’t take my eyes off it. An alien had landed. It was everywhere, going about its business in plain sight, and it was here to stay. The suburban housing boom of the late nineties looked to me like Halliburton, going in first as the infrastructural vanguard to a coming invasion, resulting in a total transformation of the landscape. I couldn’t tell what was assembling behind that bulkhead of concrete, asphalt and vinyl siding exactly – that invasion – but it was out there, coalescing on the horizon in Technicolor pixels like a heat wave projected and shimmering over the desert of the real. And it was already transforming everything, beyond our wildest expectations. Going into the turning of the millennium, wide-eyed and raw, I wondered how I could channel that hallucination that was being warped and re-formed with us as its instruments. How could I take on the Midwestern landscape that was my own? What is its own song of nature and genesis, its trauma? Is there a geology at work here that is being transfigured? What apocalypse of the mind was upon us then? We had no idea what was coming, really. But something was. Little did we know that the world was not ending, but the perpetual ending and regeneration of the world was just beginning.

How could I make a script out of that? I had no idea. A few years earlier I’d had a job as a land-surveyor out on one of those sprawling developments, and I’d found myself reading Kafka’s The Castle (also about a land-surveyor) in the backseat of a Chevy Suburban between work-sites in the dead of Ohio winter. Now I took a part-time job delivering pharmaceuticals out on that new world glacier. And I thought I might have something to go on. The country and the culture never got old before they got made brand new again. Who’s constructing this hall of mirrors, and which ones do we choose. What happens when the reflection doesn’t recognize itself anymore. Or what if it never had.

When Two Dollar Radio finally published that script as a book – The Glacier – in 2015, I wrote a letter to Sam Shepard describing these incidents and influences, and thanking him for them. I don’t know if he ever got the letter. But looking back on those magical intersections now, they seem like potent artifacts from a far-away time on a dusty old map. A voodoo compass. Like Sam. I understand again how important he was to a young artist, how important he is to me today, and how much we might really need him now – an artist who insisted on driving, in real time, or perhaps at the speed of ghosts, steering clear of the jet-lag and the twitter-burn. So that we might know where we really are.

I sure am going to miss him in this world.


Jeff Wood

Jeff Wood is an actor and writer from Ohio currently living in Berlin. He is a founding member of the experimental film/art group Rufus Corporation directed by Eve Sussman. His cinematic novel The Glacier was published in 2015 by Two Dollar Radio. His essays ‘Monuments of Fire’, ‘Death Stars’, and ‘Never Forget’ were recently published by 3:AM Magazine. He is an editor of the Berlin Quarterly.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, November 7th, 2017.