Perfect Sound Forever


Tribute by Peter Stampfel, Part 3 continued

We didn't see each other for several years after that. Sam met Jessica Lange in 1982, and we saw O-Lan when she visited New York a few years after that. She said life with Sam had always been on the unstable side as far as relationships went.

Shortly after Sam met Jessica, The Right Stuff was released in movie theaters. Sam played the part of Chuck Yeager, the man who officially first broke the sound barrier in 1947. Yeager's calm, relaxed speaking manner and mild Southern drawl, (he's from West Virginia) even under the most harrowing flight conditions, have been copied by thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of pilots over the years. Yeager loved flying aircraft he had never flown before, and has probably flown a wider variety of aircraft than any man in history. Sam, on the other hand, wouldn't fly as the result of a scare he had during a very rocky flight in Mexico in the early ‘60's. At the time, he vowed never to fly again. He and O-Lan crossed the Atlantic by liner eight times. However Sam did fly on a few occasions, like when he agreed to let Yeager take him up in a military jet in 1982. Boy, am I jealous!

The next time I saw Sam was when he invited my wife Betsy and me to the Broadway opening of The Buried Child in 1985. Betsy couldn't come because she was taking care of her father, who was in intensive care. Sam had saved us two front row center tickets. After the show, Sam asked me to sit at his family table at Sardi's with Jessica, who was pregnant with their daughter Hannah, and his sisters Sandy and Roxanne.

Sam was in New York in 1988 working on his film, Far North, and he invited me to the studio where the Red Clay Ramblers were overdubbing music for it. There was a short scene in the film that showed a bald eagle in fight. "I stole that from a Post Office commercial," he said.

A few years later, Sam visited us at our offices at DAW Books. It was amusing to see him walk down the corridor at Penguin as behind him editors peered out of their offices to make sure it was really him. A snotty editor who always denigrated us because DAW is a "genre" house publishing only science fiction and fantasy, afterwards said, "Was that Sam Shepard? That couldn't be Sam Shepard. You couldn't know Sam Shepard!"

Sam and I went to the diner across the street for lunch. It was after three, and the place was nearly empty. "You look younger than me," he smiled. "How did that happen?" (I'm five years older)

We mainly talked about music.

The next time we met was in the early 2000's, when he agreed to be interviewed for the documentary on the Holy Modal Rounders, Bound To Lose. Paul Lovelace, one of the filmmakers and I, flew to Minneapolis to meet him.

I walked around the neighborhood next to the hotel where we were staying, and found a candy store. I was hoping to find some candy bars made by the local Pierson candy company. My mom was born and raised right across the Mississippi in Deer Park, Wisconsin. She used to say her (maiden) name was Lois Buck, and she was from Deer Park. Her favorite candy bar was Pierson's Nut Buddy. Her second favorite candy bar was Fat Emma. They still make Nut Buddies, but not Fat Emmas. I bought a bunch of Nut Buddies, and three or four other Pierson's. Great candy bars, sort of northern Goo-Goo Bars.

I asked the nice lady in the store for some directions, and she said "easy peasy!" I had never heard the expression before. This was in '01 or '02. I love the Midwest (I'm from Milwaukee).

Sam was living with Jessica and their two children, Hannah and Walker, in Stillwater, Minnesota, a little west of Minneapolis on the Mississippi River. Sam came to Minneapolis for the interview, which can be seen on the Rounder documentary, Bound To Lose. The biggest surprise for me was that Sam had completely forgotten that we had played on Laugh In in 1968. It was pretty easy to forget, as they only let us play for seventy seconds. Good thing, since that was some of my worst singing ever. But as I said before, the recording of that seventy seconds might be the only video or film that shows Sam drumming.

A little after this, I read that Sam, Jessica, and their kids, had moved to New York. I called him up and asked if he would like to come over and play some music. "Sure," he said. "Can I bring my son, Walker?" "Sure," I said.

Walker was seventeen, a half year younger than our oldest daughter Zoe. He played guitar, and had been playing banjo for just seven months. He could already do stuff I couldn't do. His voice had an uncanny resemblance to that of Roscoe Holcomb, a Kentucky banjoist, whose voice was the epitome of the style known as high lonesome. Bill Monroe is probably the most famous singer in that particular style.

And here comes fate again, doing one of her weirder dances--right then, one of my band mates was John Cohen, the only surviving original member of the New Lost City Ramblers. John was the first person to record Roscoe Holcomb, who was at the time completely unknown to the world at large. Walker had worked out a number of Roscoe Holcomb songs, which were perfect homages. John was deeply moved by this young guy singing the songs of the man he had recorded a half century earlier.

At the time, I was also playing with Eli Smith, who was a few years older than Walker. They bonded right away. Walker, became a full time member of our band, the Velocity Ramblers, for a while, but in 2008, Eli Smith and Walker left our band to form the Dustbusters, along with Craig Judelman, a fiddler.

John Cohen, who is five years older than I am, had lost a number of friends he had been playing with for years, and was feeling musically bereft. John and the Dustbusters became fast friends, and they went on to do a number of tours, which featured John showing his music- oriented films, and playing with the Dustbusters, as well as soloing.

Sam also sat in with the Velocity Ramblers a few times. Once Patti Smith was in the audience, and she joined us for the Stones song, "Factory Girl." She did a great job of singing, but also a spectacular job of playing with her chewing gum, pulling arm lengths strands from her mouth for laughs during the instrumental breaks.

Walker's sister, Hannah, played excellent classical style cello, but didn't know how to improvise. Walker and I played with her for a while, to help her loosen up. She soon did. Cello works very well with old-timey music, 19th century string bands often included a three-string cello.

Here is a song Sam wrote that he showed us:

"Hard Luck Gal"

She was pretty hammered and amazingly thin
I couldn't believe the clothes she fit in
But she was so plastered she couldn't begin to be social

I don't know what it is about a hard luck gal
Maybe it's the way they miss the dinner bell
But they do move me

She was pretty hammered, but I took it on faith
That her slinky hips might get us into this place
But she was so wrecked she fell on her face in the lobby
She was pretty hammered the whole rest of the night
In the emergency room she pitched a hell of a fight
But she looked so cool, even the doctors applauded
She was pretty loaded the whole rest of the week
Wherever we went they wouldn't give us a seat
But she was so plowed she didn't even have to eat

Around '05 or '06, Sam remarked that I saw his son, Walker, more often than he did. At the time, I was having several month's worth of tooth reconstruction, having implants put into my entire lower jaw. I found the exact same thing was happening with Sam. I wanted the dentist to replicate my snaggely bottom teeth, Sam wanted his to do the same for his snaggely top teeth. Both our dentists insisted on putting in "nice" teeth instead. Must be some kinda dumb dentist's esthetic.

Another thing that happened between us was an argument about audience participation. Sam said it was always a bad idea and wrong. I said "hey but sometimes." Years later, I realized that, according to Sam, Cab Calloway's audience participation in his ‘hi di hi di hi ho de ho de ho' routine was always a bad idea and wrong. I disagreed: what Calloway did was not wrong; what Calloway did was iconic.

One of those weird fate things happened again in '08. Sam and I were talking about going down to Jalopy in Red Hook, Brooklyn to play some music. When I mentioned this to Richie Shulberg, AKA Citizen Kafka, he said he wanted to play with us. Pat Conte, a great musician with vast knowledge of the world of music, was hanging out with Richie just then. He wanted to play with us too.

This was convenient on many levels. Sam was wondering when professional country musicians started wearing those fancy outfits with rhinestones and elaborate patterns that evolved from earlier Hollywood cowboy gear. Sam thought around 1940, I thought a little earlier. Then I thought, if anyone knows, it's Pat Conte. When I asked Pat, he said 1933 because the flashy Gibson Southern Jumbo guitar had just come out, and they wanted to be truly at one with it. So from then on, country performers went for flash. Up to that time the pictures of musicians in catalogs were basically a bunch of guys in suits. In 1933, that stopped on a dime.

Pat was exhibiting his paintings of early 20th century musicians at Jalopy, so the four of us playing there was a perfect fit. Richie and I were in front, Pat on mandolin and Sam on drums behind. We sounded pretty damn fine.

Richie broke into "Pack Up Your Troubles In An Old Kit Bag And Smile, Smile, Smile." I knew a lot of words to it, so I sang them, then hollered, "One more time!" and we came to a slick stop. "I was wondering how we were gonna get out of that one," Sam said afterwards.

I thought, "we should really record this." Richie was delighted that I broke into the words. He loved to break into random songs in the middle of other pieces of music, but he said this was the first time someone actually knew the words. An encouraging omen indeed. But in a year, Richie was dead. I wish I would have gotten off my ass and made it happen. One's later years are the worst time to put things off.

Just as we were doing our amazing set, there was an eclipse of the moon, which we naturally missed. In 2010, Sam wrote a play called Ages Of The Moon, which climaxed with an eclipse of the moon. But unlike the fine and happy time we were having during the real eclipse, the characters in the two-man play, Ames and Byron, who were collectively based on Sam, were full of disappointment and regret. Definitely not having a fine and happy time. As Sam has said about his plays, "I don't do hope."

The play takes place on a porch in a mid-19th century house, which is based on Sam's home in Kentucky. Throughout the play, Ames and Byron are constantly drinking bourbon and water, specifically Woodford Reserve. It was featured at the bar during Sam's memorial last September in Kentucky. My wife, Betsy, said it was the best bourbon she ever tasted.

In the play, there is a fan on the ceiling of the porch that keeps running sporadically, not turning on, changing its speed, generally behaving as annoyingly as a fan can manage to. In the latter part of the play, Ames goes into the house, comes back with a shotgun, and blasts it off the ceiling.

Betsy and I were talking to the contractor who renovated Sam's home, which dated to the 1840s, and was reputed to be the home of the parents of outlaw Jesse James. He said the large, irregular stones that formed the walkway all came from the bottom of a local creek. He and Sam had fetched them together. They were some big damn stones. The eastern face of the house originally had a porch in front, the inspiration for the porch in the play. The contractor said it had an annoying and problematic fan over it, which Sam had indeed blasted to pieces with a shotgun.

In early 2015, The Downhill Strugglers, which had been re-christened from the Dustbusters after Craig Judelman had been replaced by Jackson Lynch, and I were both attending a music festival in Knoxville. I asked Walker how his dad was, and he said he was not doing well. At the time, they thought it was an adverse reaction to a heart medication. He asked me not to tell anyone. I just told Betsy. But I could tell it was really serious.

I heard that a while after this, he was in California, being taken care of by his two sisters and other members of his family. Betsy suggested I should visit him, but I had a feeling he would not be up for that.

The last time we spoke was on my birthday last October, when he called from California to wish me a happy birthday. He hadn't called me in years. I knew he was saying goodbye. Remembering Betsy's suggestion, I asked him if I could visit. He said they were all about to move back to his home in Kentucky, which was a subtle ‘no.' I felt he didn't want anyone outside his immediate family to see him in the condition he was in. ALS is a brutal business- it even hurts to breathe. He was going home to die.

Hannah and Walker invited Betsy and me to Sam's memorial. His farm was a lot bigger than we had imagined. We parked in a lower meadow and golf carts brought us up to the house and grounds. It was truly beautiful: green and lush and rolling. To my shock, I found that of all the people there, I was his oldest friend. The only people who had known Sam longer were his own sisters.

Sam added a first floor room to the house because he knew the time would come when would no longer be able to climb the stairs to his bedroom. It was surrounded by glass, and had a fireplace across from the bed. The room faced east so Sam could see the rising sun. The bedroom connected to Sam's older addition: his writing room with an arch top entry made of old stones. When his contractor suggested that ceiling trim was traditional in Kentucky, Sam said "Fuck Kentucky!"

Why in hell didn't I ever say, "Hey Sam, let's write some songs together?"

I dreamed about Sam the other night. Like everyone else, I've ever dreamed about, he looked a lot younger than he was the last time I saw him. We were in his living room, and he said, "I'm going upstairs now." In the dream, for the first time ever, I dreamed that I fell asleep, waking a few hours later, still in the dream, still in Sam's living room.

He never came back down.

In case you missed it, see part 1 of the final Sam Shepard tribute

Also see part 1 of the Sam Shepard tribute and Part 2

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