A biography of the world-famous playwright and actor Sam Shepard, whose work was matched by his equally dramatic life, including collaborations with the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan as well as tumultuous relationships with Patti Smith, Joni Mitchell, and Jessica Lange.
Sam Shepard was a complicated man. Capturing his persona and making a clear narrative out of his mercurial life are not easy tasks ... What Robert Greenfield’s new biography, True West, achieves in its finest pages is placing the artist in his time. Greenfield recounts the ebb and flow of Shepard’s growth as a playwright, and chronicles how the fame and adulation from his life as a movie actor both propelled and thwarted his gifts as a writer. The book is especially successful at bringing the reader into the world that Shepard inhabited as he developed into one of the greatest American dramatists of the late 20th century ... The biography dives deepest into this time period, and I hope it will inspire others (as it inspired me) to reread his early plays. They are magnificent in their originality, playfulness and sheer rock-and-roll sensibility ... In his long life there is much to gossip about, and the biography avoids most of the sordid details that might have preoccupied a less serious biographer. Thankfully, Greenfield focuses on the life of Shepard the artist ... It’s a curious experience to read a biography of someone you knew written by someone who did not know them. I opened this book eager to find out how a more objective observer would view and summarize such an elusive man’s life ... But the man remains essentially inscrutable, as if we are cross-examining him from the distance of a drone — we learn where and when he went, but we have no idea why. And that is probably the way Sam Shepard would have liked it.
Judge a party not by who’s there, the old credo goes, but by who isn’t. The missing voices include those of O-Lan Jones, Shepard’s first wife; his longtime partner, Jessica Lange; his lovers Patti Smith and Brooke Adams and Joni Mitchell ... Greenfield’s book is faithful to Shepard’s life, while it skips like a stone along the surface. Shepard spent much time laying down cover, and tending to his own mythology ... Greenfield is a prolific journeyman biographer who has written the lives of Jerry Garcia, Bill Graham, Timothy Leary and Burt Bacharach, among others. His Shepard book lacks a certain density, and a critical sensibility, but it’s well organized and cleanly written. It neatly covers the bases ... Shepard’s is a hard life to screw up, and Greenfield doesn’t. His writing about the playwright’s final years is detailed and moving.
To organize Shepard’s sprawling creative life and to connect the art to his own tormented emotional struggle for authenticity, a biographer needs to impose some kind of overriding narrative vision on the work and on the psychology of the man. Robert Greenfield’s True West: Sam Shepard’s Life, Work, and Times doesn’t have the candlepower to do the job ... Greenfield won’t risk interpretation of Shepard’s plays or his psychology. As a result, his over 400-page account reads like a kind of travel itinerary, naming the high spots but giving no real sense of detail ... Greenfield’s book looks directly at Shepard and misses him by a mile.