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Considering Sam Shepard, Bob Dylan, angels, and icons who reject being icons

Sam Shepard at The Hollywood Reporter Lounge at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. Shepard died July 27 at his home in Midway, Ky.
Sam Shepard at The Hollywood Reporter Lounge at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. Shepard died July 27 at his home in Midway, Ky. Invision/AP

A couple of quotes stuck with me last week as I interviewed local people who shared their memories of Pulitzer winner and Oscar nominee Sam Shepard, who died July 27 near Midway.

On of them came from Johnny Jones, managing partner of Walmac Farm, who had known Shepard since the 1990s.

“He was a very complicated guy,” Jones said. “You always knew he left some things unsaid when you talked with him. He was very thoughtful but sometimes he was very thoughtful about what he wouldn’t say.”

What a concept: Thinking through what not to say.

In these days when people say or Tweet whatever pops into their noggins, here was a guy who took some care in what he said.

This little tidbit further burnishes Shepard’s image as the quiet, contemplative cowboy, the Dream Factory’s successor to Gary Cooper.

Shepard’s slow-waters-run-deep persona is magnified in a book of 15 one-act plays I bought earlier this year, when The Morris Book Shop closed.

The black-and-white photo on the cover depicts Shepard, brow furrowed, sleek hair parted in the middle, taking a serious drag on a cigarette. The ferocity of concentration hints at what’s to come on the pages inside.

One of the more interesting plays is called “Short Life of Trouble,” which is described as “a one-act play, as it really happened one afternoon in California.”

The play’s characters are two guys named Bob and Sam, as in Bob Dylan and Sam Shepard.

Serious Dylan fans know that Shepard and Dylan collaborated from time to time, most notably on a song they co-wrote called “Brownsville Girl.” It’s on Dylan’s 1986 album, “Knocked Out Loaded.”

This play appears to be based on a tape-recorded conversation that Shepard had with Dylan, but it might also be suspended somewhere among fiction, history and myth. Whatever the case, the idea that two of the most inscrutable people in pop culture would sit down and pick each other’s brains is catnip for any writer.

In the play, the first question that Sam asks Bob is whether he ever thinks about angels.

Not the first question I’d ask Dylan if I had the chance, but you gotta start somewhere.

Bob answers that he does believe in angels and confirms that he has had “direct experience” with angels, but he quickly tells Sam that he has to make a phone call.

Sam Shepard - Fifteen One-Act Plays

Most of the conversation is dominated by talk of their heroes: James Dean, Hank Williams and Woody Guthrie. (Kentuckians Bill Monroe and Jean Ritchie are mentioned, too.)

Bob and Sam talk about James, Hank and Woody, and how they died. Bob says Hank and James both told the truth. Sam notes that they both died in cars, “a Cadillac and a Porsche.”

This turns the conversation to Dylan’s 1966 motorcycle accident. The singer recalls lying in bed and looking out the window, listening to birds chirp outside. It’s a wistful end to a play about flesh-and-blood people who became icons to the rest of us, as considered by two characters who rejected the notion of being icons.

It’s also wistful for Bob and Sam because “their heroes are lost to history and unknowable,” Irish playwright Conor McPherson writes in the book’s forward. “And now that they are mythic, neither Sam nor Bob can locate precisely where their greatness lay. What was it that touched these men, they wonder? Were they angels?”

Another quote that stuck with me came from Bobby Miller, former general manager of Walmac Farm and now a consultant to Millennium Farms.

Miller said he and Shepard liked many of the same things, particularly quarter horses and Thoroughbreds. They rode trails together.

“He was a good horseman and a good rider,” Miller said.

Of all the epitaphs that might be written for Sam Shepard, he might have liked that best.

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