In 1975, Sam Shepard accompanied Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue through New England and subsequently published his impressions in Rolling Thunder Logbook. Lately, I’ve been fascinated by Dylan’s early Woodstock years when he hung out at the Café Espresso (now the Center for Photography at Woodstock) and slipped upstairs to what he called the “White Room” to type reams of beatnik poetry and many songs. Words were were erupting from him in his early twenties. Sam Shepard has been my favorite playwright since I discovered his plays in Manhattan in the early 1980s after I’d finished college in California. The most memorable were low budget East Village productions in keeping with the homeless, guerrilla, crazy-man spirit of his early works. He hearkened back to the desert West that I’d roamed through on college vacations. Here’s a Sam Shepard-like character in a poem of mine from Love in the City of Grudges:
Passions of the Desert
At the last garage after Needles, the sun-
leathered mechanic in overalls, so drunk
he had trouble connecting his lighter
to his cigarette, fumbled jumper cables.
The claw he clamped on our Civic battery
fountained sparks over his palsied hands.
Not wanting to watch an electrocution,
we carried our Frisbee around back to
a desert runway with a solitary Cessna,
wings tied-down, propeller blades bungee-
strapped. The boy who watched us toss said
summer highs hit 120, but winds were worse.
Once the plane got loose and flew into a cactus.
Two days late to campus from geo field trip,
we’d learned: go easy on the tequila worm
and morning check sneakers for tarantulas.
We hauled a trunk load of discoveries,
pieces of the planet we’d chipped off for ourselves.
The mechanic said the alternator was dead,
took three bucks, told us to spend the rest
on a Buick or a Chevy. He turned his lighter up
until the wind wrapped flame around his face,
igniting half his cigarette at once. The boy said
the old man hadn’t grown back eyebrows ever.
“Hotter than hell,” the mechanic grumbled,
“but I own it,” explaining why he’d stayed
years after I-40 ten miles north stole his traffic.
We wondered what we’d give eyebrows for,
what passion could be worth more than our face.
Reading Rolling Thunder Logbook has been a treat. One icon’s sharp-eyed view of another. Here’s Sam Shepard’s description of Bob Dylan’s hands. Allen Ginsberg was part of the traveling road show.
White, wrinkled, double-jointed little fingers. Long nails hovering over Allen’s harmonium like a tentacle animal. Weathered, milky leather hands that tell more than his face about music and where he’s been. Ancient, demonic, almost scary, nonhuman hands.