True West: Sam Shepard’s Life, Work, and Times by Robert Greenfield


Review by Brian Tanguay

There are many ways to describe Sam Shepard, but the one word that immediately comes to mind for me is protean. Playwright. Actor. Director. Screenwriter. Short story writer. Horseman. Prior to reading True West by Robert Greenfield, I’d read a decent chunk of Shepard’s work, including Motel Chronicles, Cruising Paradise, great dream of heaven, the play Simpatico, Two Prospectors — the collection of letters Shepard exchanged over forty years with his friend Johnny Dark — and the last thing Shepard wrote before passing away in 2017, Spy of the First Person. I felt I knew something about Sam Shepard, but with such a seminal and prolific figure there is always another layer to peel back. True West isn’t the first biography of Sam Shepard and likely won’t be the last, but it certainly makes a valuable contribution to our appreciation of Sam Shepard’s place in American letters. 

As a biographer, Robert Greenfield has written about Timothy Leary, Jerry Garcia and Burt Bacharach, and penned several books about the Rolling Stones, and his deep knowledge of rock and roll history was useful in his approach to Sam Shepard’s life and work, particularly the early days in New York City when Shepard was making the scene in the creative cauldron of Greenwich Village, playing drums for the Holy Modal Rounders and beginning to write. This part of Shepard’s life wasn’t as clear to me because I’ve not read much of his early material, the one-act off-Broadway plays, often staged in church basements, clubs, or other small venues. As Greenfield illuminates, much of this early work was infused with a rock and roll sensibility. 

Leaning on three previously published biographies and numerous interviews, Greenfield examines Shepard’s childhood and adolescence in South Pasadena and Duarte, California, and the fraught relationship Shepard had with his father, Sam Rogers. A product of the American rural midwest, Sam Rogers was a B-24 bomber pilot during World War II who returned home with undiagnosed PTSD as did thousands of his generation who saw combat in Europe and the Pacific. But unlike Vietnam vets a generation later, World War II vets returned as victorious heroes, treated with honor and the GI Bill, even though many were as psychologically or physically damaged. Sam Rogers was a heavy drinker, the sort of alcoholic who tormented those around him when he was on a bender. His rage and irresponsible behavior became the enduring raw material of his son’s plays and fiction. 

Besides possessing enormous literary talent and the rangy all-American good looks of a cowboy-poet, Sam Shepard had incredible fortune and uncanny timing, which explains why he always found himself in the happening scene, whether Greenwich Village in the 1960’s, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Keith Richards, Bob Dylan, Patti Smith and Joni Mitchell, or hanging out at the Chateau Marmont in Los Angeles with Mick Jagger. Wherever it was happening, Shepard was there, not because he was chasing after it, but because it found him. But despite living and working during a period of social change and upheaval which included the Civil Rights Movement, the Summer of Love, and mass protests against the Vietnam War, Shepard’s focus was trained on the interior, the psychological and individual. The only nod Shepard gave to the counterculture was drugs; he smoked pot and experienced LSD.

True West isn’t a hagiography. Greenfield paints a full picture of a complicated and mercurial man who was often bemused by success and celebrity. Shepard struggled with alcoholism and doubt and regret. In a letter to Johnny Dark written around his fifty-fourth birthday, Shepard lamented “how incredibly selfish I’ve lived my whole life — everything geared to what I might gain out of it — even in my relationships with family & those I think I’m closest to.” Shepard, as is well-known, deserted his wife O-Lan Jones and their son Jesse to take up with the actress Jessica Lange. Some years prior to that Shepard had left Jones for a brief fling with Patti Smith. He wasn’t oblivious to the pain and heartache he had caused others.

As a playwright, Shepard is best known for his trilogy of plays — Curse of the Starving Class, Buried Child, and True West — all of which deal with family relationships and an American brand of manhood, anger, and violence. In these plays as well as in Shepard himself there resides a pronounced restlessness, reflecting in some ways the energy of American society in the postwar era. Shepard lived a nomadic life, with stints in New York, Los Angeles, and Sante Fe, as well as rural Minnesota, Wisconsin and Kentucky, and because he had a lifelong fear of flying he drove thousands and thousands of miles on America’s highways and roads. His sense of the country was deeply embedded. 

Sam Shepard was a private man who could be petty as well as profound and uncompromising. As Greenfield writes, “Sam Shepard himself was never easy to describe or understand. Complicated and complex as both an artist and a man, he created work of the first order, but always remained a puzzle, not just to others, but to himself as well.”