a dead crow on her belly

[from "Off Off and Away," by Robb Baker, After Dark, September 1974]

Unit 453 in Westbeth's Exchange for the Arts presented the month's most interesting offering, a double-bill of John Stoltenberg's Love, Godfrey/ Love, George and a revival of the Sam Shepard-Patti Smith collaboration, Cowboy Mouth (which the two writers had performed themselves at American Place Theatre in 1971). I found Stoltenberg's play unsettlingly negative in its portrayal of a gay male interracial relationship, but maybe such honest realism is exactly what we need more of in gay theater. Cowboy Mouth has more of Smith than Shepard in it, and that's fascinating, because as a poet-and-actress turned rock singer, Smith strikes me as destined to be one of the giant talents of the next few years. My reactions to Cowboy Mouth were clouded by an interview I'd done with Patti a few weeks before, so that it was difficult to judge this performance, directed by Richard Vos and featuring Paulita Sedgewick and Mark Metcalf in Patti and Sam's original roles. The following, thus, is more reaction than review:

Gerard de Nerval. French poet, mystic, madman. Had a pet lobster that he took for walks, guiding it along through the park of the Palais Royal on a pale blue ribbon. Preferred lobsters, he said, because they don't bark and besides they know the secrets of the deep. Hanged himself on January 25, 1855, with what he claimed was the Queen of Sheba's garter, and they found his pet raven flying around his head, crying the only words Nerval had taught it: "J'ai soif" (I'm thirsty).

"Tell me about Nerval," says Slim to Cavale in Cowboy Mouth. Cavale, who's a bit mad (and pretty thirsty) herself (like Nerval she has a black bird as a pet, but hers is a crow -- and dead), starts to tell the story, but Slim doesn't want to hear about the suicide: the subject of struggling creators who kill themselves is a bit more than he can deal with under the present circumstances.

Patti:  We writ a play together called "Cowboy Mouth." We writ it together on the same typewriter, you know, like a battle. We were having' this affair. He was a married man, and it was a real heavy passionate kind of thing. We writ this play and took it right on the stage.

Cavale wants Slim to be a rock 'n' roll star. He's left his wife and child for her. They survive, barely, on that dream, on Cavale's stories, on fantasy.

Patti:  I love being a language person, but I'll tell you one thing. If I was a boy, I'd play guitar, lead guitar. But my hands are real small, you know, and I'm a girl. But if I was a boy, I'd play guitar and I'd be on the floor. I would only want to be the greatest guitar player in the world. But being a girl, I've got to use what I got. So I think of myself as a seducer as well as an entertainer.

Cavale speaks of the dead crow: "Raymond sleeps on my belly, 'cause my belly is today." She says Slim is lost in yesterday, but her own head (no matter where her belly is) is tomorrow. Never-never Land: "People want a saint with a cowboy mouth. Somebody they can look up to. In the old days, they had Jesus and them guys. His words don't shake through us anymore. We created rock 'n' roll in our image -- it's our child -- a new savior, rockin' toward Bethlehem to be born. God was selfish. He kept himself hidden. You gotta be a performer."

Patti:  I started makin' my move when all the rock stars died. Jimi and Janis and Jim Morrison. It just blew my mind, because I'm so hero-oriented. I just felt total loss. And then I realized it was time for me. I refused to be shattered, and I just started workin: I thought, I been layin' back, bein' entertained, bein' trained and bein' inspired by other people. And now it's my turn. And it just gets stronger and stronger every performance.

Cavale played the ugly duckling in the school play. At the end she went behind a curtain and a cute little blonde girl came out as the swan. "I never got to be the fucking swan. I paid all those dues and I never got to be the fucking swan."

Patti:  When I was a little girl, I was, like, very gawky and homely. Real nervous and sickly and all that. But I was always happy. Real sort of brooding, but happy. Always optimistic, because I had this vision that I was going to do something. I always knew that I was more than what I seemed. Kids would make fun of me because I was skinny and all that shit, but I would just laugh, I made jokes. I was like the class clown. I ! didn't care, because I knew that time, you know, would do right by me.

Slim tells Cavale her grammar stinks and she talks funny. They order out for lobster, and the delivery boy is a real lobster-man who turns into a glitter-rock, black-leather superstar. Cavale begins to tell him about Nerval as Slim backs out the door.

Patti:  So we did this play at American Place Theater. "Cowboy Mouth." That was my title, I took it from Bob Dylan's "Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands. " It was just a play between us. We had lots of alchemy, because we had written the play, we were sayin' our own lines. Lots of light comin' out of that stage. We were only trying to talk about two people that were destined -- two big dreamers who came together but were destined to come to a sad end.. It was the true story of Sam and I. We knew we couldn't stay together. He was going to go back to his wife and children, and I was gonna go on my way.

Cavale says she was born on the same day Nerval hanged himself and that her name, Cavale, is French for escape.

Copyright © Robb Baker 1974

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