patti smith and sam shepard

[from Mapplethorpe: A Biography, by Patricia Morrisroe, 1995]

She met the playwright at the Village Gate, where he was playing drums with the Holy Modal Rounders, a cult band from Vermont. Shepard was only twenty-six, but he had already written twenty plays, including La Turista and The Unseen Hand, and he had won six Obie awards from The Village Voice. Physically, he was a blend of Mapplethorpe and Jim Carroll; he had narrow blue eyes, straight brown hair, a lean, rangy build, and, even then, a movie star's magnetism. In his early plays Shepard often dealt with the difficulties of achieving the right balance between independence and enslavement in relationships, and his characters usually wound up fleeing for their lives. In real life, while Shepard had been married to his wife, O-Lan Johnson, for only a year and had a six-month-old son, he became involved with Patti Smith. "Me and his wife still even liked each other," Smith explained. "I mean, it wasn't like committing adultery in the suburbs or something." In fact, Shepard and Smith regarded themselves as partners in crime, and often when they went to Max's [Kansas City] they would drink too much and start fights. "Everything you heard about us in those days is true," Smith admitted. "We'd have a lot of rum and get into trouble. We were hell-raisers."

Smith fell deeply in love with Shepard . . . she was so infatuated with the playwright that she even staged her own public rite d'amour by having an Italian gypsy named Vali give them both tattoos (hers was a lightning bolt [on her knee], his a hawk moon) while Sandy Daley made a film of it. . .

At each stage of her life Smith managed to align herself with a man whose interests reflected her own. Now that she was attempting to combine music and writing, Shepard was an ideal partner, for not only did he dream of being a rock and roll star himself, he also approached his plays almost as improvisational jazz; he was less interested in plot and characterization than in convulsive bursts of imagery.. He encouraged Smith to do lyrics for his play The Mad Dog Blues, while she urged him to write the prose poems that later appeared in Hawk Moon, which he dedicated to her. "Sam loved my writing more than anyone I ever knew," Smith explained. "He wasn't so supportive of some of the other things I was doing, like my singing and stuff, but he made me value myself as a writer."

Shepard was in the audience, along with Smith's other "favorite guys" -- Robert Mapplethorpe and Brice Marden -- when she made her public debut as a poet at St. Mark's Church on February 12, 1971. . . .

Smith had no time to savor her success, for the relationship with Shepard had reached new heights of hysteria. Sometimes they lived in his room at the Chelsea, other times they stayed at the loft [the one Patti shared with Mapplethorpe], but no matter where they were, their activities and conversations were marked by a theatrical frenzy that was too intense for real life. "I think Sam was terrible jealous of her talent," explained Ann Powell, Smith's friend from Scribner's. "I remember a terrible scene when he destroyed some of her drawings, and she was absolutely crushed about it." Fittingly, the most accurate picture of their relationship is Cowboy Mouth, a play they wrote together in two nights by shoving an old typewriter back and forth between them. Smith's character, Cavale, is a deranged woman who kidnaps Slim from his wife and baby and attempts to turn him into a "rock-n'-roll Jesus with a cowboy mouth." Slim accuses Cavale of ruining his life by continually tempting him with seductive dreams of stardom. "You're twisting me up," he screams. "You're tearing me inside out!" In between shouting matches, Slim and Cavale order food from the Lobster Man, who eventually sheds his shell to become the rock-n'-roll savior himself. The play ends as Cavale sits at the edge of the stage delivering another monologue, and the Lobster Man points a gun to his head and pulls the trigger.

When Cowboy Mouth opened at the American Place Theater on April 29, Smith and Shepard starred in the play. Only a month previously he had appeared in the same theater with his wife, O-Lan, in The Mad Dog Blues, in which she played a character based partly on Smith. But the merry-go-round of life imitating art was becoming too much for Shepard, and he left the show after a few performances to join the Holy Modal Rounders in Vermont. "It didn't work out because the thing was too emotionally packed," he told his biographer Don Shewey. "I suddenly realized I didn't want to exhibit myself like that, playing my life onstage. It was like being in an aquarium." Not long afterward, Shepard took his wife and son with him to London, where he gave up drugs and happily distanced himself from the chaotic life he had known in New York.

"Patti was devastated by Sam's departure," said Ann Powell. "It completely ripped her apart."

Copyright © Patricia Morrisroe 1995

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