Alias Sam Shepard

[Words by Stephen Scobie / Photography by Bernard Plossu]

The conventional wisdom of Bob Dylan criticism is that he has never re-attained the peak of creative output and ability that he achieved in the mid-1960s. Everything he has done since John Wesley Harding has been held to exhibit a slow decline, and Dylan has been regarded as irrelevant to the culture of the 1970s and 1980s. Every now and then he is granted a ‘comeback’, with albums like Blood on the Tracks or Oh Mercy, but the tone of this judgment is usually one of mild condescension and surprise that the old man is still alive.

I agree that Dylan’s greatest single period of creative intensity lies in the mid-1960s, but, as should be clear even from the songs I have chosen to focus on in this book, I do not dismiss the later work. I would go as far as to say that even if we possessed only the work that Dylan has done since 1970, he would still rank as the greatest singer and songwriter of his age.

To be sure, the latest work is uneven. There are many weak songs and marginal albums—but whenever you are tempted to think that Dylan has lost it entirely, he comes up with a song or concert performance that triumphantly reasserts his mastery. Typical of this unevenness is the 1986 album Knocked Out Loaded. The songs come from a variety of recording sessions and styles, and the result is a curious mishmash, most of which is not worth a second listening. But in the middle of the album is a masterpiece, a song that must rank among the five or six best songs Dylan has ever written, a song that by itself redeems the somewhat bleak period between Infidels and Oh Mercy.

‘Brownsville Girl’ is credited to Bob Dylan and Sam Shepard, and not the least intriguing thing about it is trying to figure out just who wrote what. The long, rambling lines have a kind of colloquial poetry that recalls Shepard’s plays, but Dylan’s half-spoken, half-sung delivery makes them entirely his. Shepard recalls that he and Dylan ‘wrote [the song] together in the spring of 1985…. We spent two days writing the lyrics—Bob had previously composed the melody line, which was already down on tape’. Shepard’s memory may be at fault though, for Clinton Heylin claims that the earliest  version of the song—at this stage called ‘Danville Girl’ or ‘New Danville Girl’—was recorded in late November or early December of 1984. This version was intended for inclusion in Empire Burlesque, but Dylan decided against it. Reemerging as ‘Brownsville Girl’,  it was partially rerecorded in May, 1986, and issued in July of that year on Knocked Out Loaded. In the Rolling Stone interview, Shepard says that Dylan has ‘already gone through different phases with the song’. It even appears that Shepard did not realize that ‘Brownsville Girl’ had been released.

One previous attempt at a collaboration had not worked out. Shepard was hired as a writer for the Rolling Thunder tour, to provide dialogue for the film that Dylan was making on that self-consciously mythic journey. But Shepard soon found it absurd to think of creating a fixed script for such a wild, free-form improvisation as Renaldo and Clara was becoming. He left the tour, though he later produced one of the best written accounts of it in his Rolling Thunder Logbook.

Other affinities between Sam Shepard and Bob Dylan exist. Both came from the Mid-West and arrived in New York at age 19 (Dylan in 1961, Shepard in 1963). Both had assumed new names: Shepard’s was adapted from his given name, Samuel Shepard Rogers. Dylan’s productivity in the mid-60s (seven albums, scores of songs) was matched by Shepard’s (sixteen plays staged in six years). A large photograph of an iconic Bob Dylan is a major prop in Shepard’s Melodrama Play (1967), and Dylan is evoked in The Tooth of Crime (1972): ‘The big ones. Dylan, Jagger, Townsend. All them cats broke codes. Time can’t change that. Several of Shepard’s early New York productions were directed by Jacques Levy, who worked as stage director on the Rolling Thunder tour and co-wrote with Dylan most of the songs on Desire.

More recently, after the ‘Brownsville Girl’ collaboration, Shepard wrote a play about himself and Dylan. The title, ‘True Dylan’, is an ironic twist on Shepard’s own True West, and further questions the possible ‘truth’ of an assumed name. The subtitle—‘A one-act play, as it really happened one afternoon in California’—plays between the rival claims of journalism and fiction. Much material appears to be biographical, with Dylan reminiscing about James Dean and his motorcycle accident, but strange, surrealistic touches—mysterious music, an unseen car crash—give it, even in its most ‘accurate’ moments, the feel of a Sam Shepard creation.

However, the aspects of the Dylan/Shepard affinity with the most relevance for “Brownsville Girl’ are found in the film that constitutes the song’s continuing intertext. ‘ Well there was this movie I seen one time,’ the first verse begins, ‘About a man riding across the desert and it starred Gregory Peck’. Shepard recalls that ‘The film the song was about was a Gregory Peck western that Bob had once seen, but he couldn’t remember the title. We decided that the title didn’t matter’. ‘Danville Girl’ begins ‘I wish I could remember that movie just a little bit. Before making the revisions that led to ‘Brownsville Girl,’ it is likely that Dylan did remember the movie and may even have seen it again to refresh his memory. The film in question is The Gunfighter (1950), directed by Henry King. ‘Brownsville Girl’ adds details from the film, such as ‘riding across the desert,’ which were not present in ‘Danville Girl,’ and corrects its erroneous ‘Sheriff’ to ‘Marshall’.

Movies references occur repeatedly in the works of Dylan and Shepard. ‘I keep praying,’ Shepard wrote, ‘for a double bill/of/BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK/and/VERA CRUZ’ (Motel Chronicles p.86)—two films that must have shown in 1954 at the Lybba Theater in Hibbing, Minnesota, owned by Bobby Zimmerman’s great grandfather and his brother, and named for Bobby’s great grandmother. Sam Shepard has become a highly successful movie actor, in Days of Heaven, The Right Stuff, Country and his own Fool for Love. His screen image (sometimes treated straight, sometimes ironically) is very much that of the cowboy: the kind of part, say, Gregory Peck played. Shepard is even the same physical type as Peck: long, lean and hard. When the protagonist of ‘Danville Girl’ says that all he remembers of The Gunfighter is Gregory Peck and that ‘everything he did in it reminded me of me’, one might hear Sam Shepard talking. But one might hear equally Bob Dylan. During a 1971 visit to Israel, a reporter asked Dylan how he had spent his thirtieth birthday. He replied, ‘We went to see a Gregory Peck movie—I’m quite a fan of his’.

The Gunfighter begins with a shot of ‘a man riding across the desert.’ He is Jimmy Ringo (Gregory Peck), a notorious gunfighter pursued by his fame. In every town is a brash young kid eager to make a name for himself as the man who shot Jimmy Ringo; in the first sequence we see such a challenge and its fatal result. Followed by the dead kid’s brothers, Ringo moves on to the next town, where he meets an old friend, now the town Marshall, and where he hopes to reunite with Peggy, the local schoolteacher, his old sweetheart and the mother of his child. Threatened by the avenging brothers and by this town’s dumb kid, Hunt Bromley, Ringo delays his getaway until he can talk to his son and to Peggy, from whom he exacts a vague promise to see him next year. The Marshall disposes of the brothers, but as Ringo is riding out of town he is shot in the back by Hunt Bromley. In the climatic scene, which is described graphically and accurately by Dylan and Shepard, the townspeople begin to lynch the killer but are prevented by the dying gunfighter himself, who says:

‘Turn him loose, let him go, let him say he outdrew me fair and square
I want him to feel what it’s like to every moment face his death

The memory of the film persists throughout the song. By the end of the second stanza, Dylan remembers the movie less as one that he has seen than as one that he has taken part in: ‘I can’t remember why I was in it or what part I was supposed to play’. In the third stanza, the protagonist is

standing in line in the rain to see a movie starring Gregory Peck…
He’s got a new one out now, I don’t even know what it’s about
But I’ll see him in anything, so I’ll stand in line.

The last verse, like the second and third, returns to The Gunfighter in its closing lines, and offers a briefer plot summary:

All I remember about it was it starred Gregory Peck,
He wore a gun and he was shot in the back
Seems like a long time ago, long before the stars were torn down

The final phrase has obvious apocalyptic overtones, but it also may refer to the decline of the Hollywood ‘star system.’ The Gunfighter was the product of the Hollywood studios (20th Century Fox in this case) in the 1950s, when stars like Gregory Peck were assigned to scripts as automatically as their fans concluded, ‘He’s got a new one out now, I don’t even know what it’s about/But I’ll see him in anything, so I’ll stand in line’. In the new and very different Hollywood, Sam Shepard writes a screenplay for the German director Wim Wenders (Paris, Texas) or appears as an actor in a production of his play Fool for Love, directed by Robert Altman. One kind of star has indeed been torn down, but others have been erected in its place; the fans’ worship is just as intense if no longer unquestioning.

The question of fame, of stars and their audiences, is dealt with by Shepard in The Tooth of Crime. Its futuristic setting fuses the roles of pop star and gunfighter: the central character, Hoss, worries about his position on the charts and about the young ‘Gypsies’ who, likeHunt Bromley, are out to get him’. ‘Look at me now,’ he says. ‘Impotent…. Stuck in my image. Stuck in a mansion. Waiting. Waiting for a kid who’s probably just like me. Just like I was then. A young blood. And I gotta off him. I gotta roll him or he’ll roll me’. That could be Jimmy Ringo talking.

The potentially lethal nature of the rock star’s audience is also a prominent topic in Rolling Thunder Logbook. Shepard relates in vivid details Roger McGuinn’s ‘profound fear of being assassinated on stage … imagining the hands of the gunman as they polish the barrel with a chamois skin and then the black barrel of the rifle sweeping the width of the stage trying to find the correct angle’. Later Shepard writes: ‘Strange fear comes over me that the audience might actually devour Dylan and the band. It seems that close. I’m afraid for them’. And in a short section simply entitled ‘Fans’, he writes:’Fans are more dangerous than a man with a weapon because they’re after something invisible. Some imagined “something”. At least with a gun you know what you’re facing’. In the Rolling Stone interview, Shepard is asked, ‘How do you avoid the so-called powers of relentless and overintrusive fans?’ He answers, ‘Carry a gun! [laughs.]’ The laughter is surely uneasy.

•••

Now it is time to return to ‘Brownsville Girl’ and the question of what actually happens at the narrative level Sam Shepard offers the following account:

It has to do with a guy standing on line and waiting to see an old Gregory Peck movie that he can’t quite remember—only pieces of it, and then this whole memory thing happens, unfolding before his very eyes. He starts speaking internally to a woman he’s been hanging out with, recalling their meetings and reliving the whole journey they’d gone on—and then it returns to the guy, who’s still standing on line in the rain.

This is a plot summary of the song considerably more coherent than any that can with any confidence be drawn from the text. ‘Brownsville Girl’ never develops a single, coherent narrative: rather it presents the fragments of several possible narratives, sometimes evoked and discarded within a line, whose relationship to each other remains unspecified. Dylan, Shepard continues, is a lot of fun to work with, because he’s so off the wall sometimes. We’d come up with a line, and I’d think that we were heading down one trail over here, and then suddenly he’d just throw in this other line, and we’d wind up following it off in some different direction’.

Excerpt from Alias Bob Dylan: Revisited (Red Deer College Press, 1991)