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Sam Shepard 1943-2017

Sam ShepardIf you want to convince someone — even yourself — that Bob Dylan is a great singer, a place to go might be “Brownsville Girl”, an 11-minute epic from the otherwise threadbare 1986 album Knocked Out Loaded. More specifically, attend to the first line of the penultimate verse, at 8:51. “Strange how people who suffer together have stronger connections than those who are most content,” Dylan sings in a ruminative and rueful tone, delivering the line in a single breath, exhaling the sentence in such a way as to create a complete design, the internal rhythm gently coiling with a sing-song inflection and a slight but telling deceleration on the last four words, making the sense of it linger after the sound has moved on.

The chances are that the line which inspired that miniature masterpiece of phrasing was written by Sam Shepard, who composed the song jointly with Dylan and whose fingerprints are all over its wonderfully strange storyline and the details of character and incident with which it is studded. They were friends, and no library of books about Dylan is complete without Shepard’s The Rolling Thunder Logbook, originally published in 1976, the year after the tour it describes took place.

Shepard’s death, at his home in Kentucky at the age of 73, was announced today. About 20 years ago I went to hear him read his short stories at the Battersea Arts Centre. It was all there. The voice, the looks, the presence. After the reading had finished he remained on stage, talking quietly to someone, while the audience started to leave. As we reached the lobby there was an exchange between a handsome couple, a man of about my age and his wife, who was looking back over her shoulder. “Oh, all right, then,” he told her, in a tone of fondly amused tolerance. “Just go back and have another look.”

7 Comments Post a comment
  1. Jeffery L. Gifford #

    Sorry to hear this about Sam Shepard. He made the word literate sound like something anyone could try their hand at.I’m with you on the ROLLING THUNDER LOG BOOK as it was the key to opening my ears to a period of Dylan that my mind had previously skipped the track on, and was just so damned readable. Thanks for the heads up.

    July 31, 2017
  2. Jeffrey Farrell #

    I had just played the track before I read your words. You have it exactly right. Thank you

    July 31, 2017
  3. Oddly, my favorite Sam Shepard role is where he plays the redneck macho hero, Chuck Yeager. He captured so well Chuck’s “push the envelope” spirit. I watched the clip today of when he portrayed the breaking of the sound barrier. I love the moment also when he tries to take the Lockheed Starfighter into space. It took someone like Shepard to portray that “right stuff” that Chuck Yeager had.

    July 31, 2017
  4. Saverio Pechini #

    Loved his short stories . And his drumming with the Holy Modal Rounders.

    August 1, 2017
  5. John Kieffer #

    Sad news. Great to be reminded of Brownsville Girl which is such a wonderful song. I recently re-read his Motel Chronicles – an excellent collection of his writing. I seem to remember my ex- having a similar response to Sam as your audience member in the lobby at BAC!

    August 1, 2017
  6. Alas, I’m more or less ignorant of Shepard’s plays and writing, though not of his reputation. I too found myself listening to that great Dada song “Brownsville Girl” yesterday after noting the news of Shepard’s death while trying to record a performance of Tristan Tzara’s “The Death of Apollinaire.”

    Sorta seemed to fit, even if I couldn’t get Gregory Peck movies in there.

    August 1, 2017

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