It’s easy in the later stages of life to look back at memorable events, performances, and personalities encountered on our journey and lament the loss of those who still seem very much alive because of the way they and their art affected us.
Last week M and I spent an evening with Sam Shepard at the Seattle Rep and he was very much alive during a performance of True West, his rollicking roller coaster ride of a play where the audience is pulled into the action as two very different brothers trash each other and their mother’s home on the stage in front of them.
My first memory of Sam Shepard is Shepard the actor and his portrayal of Chuck Yeager in The Right Stuff (1983). I only knew him as a playwright then, but he nailed Yeager and soon after that he was everywhere. Over the years I watched him play a series of laconic film heroes and saw several of his 44 plays, including Fool for Love, True West and the Pulitzer-winning Buried Child.
I always admired Sam Shepard the movie-star hero and even more the creative director, screenwriter and award-winning playwright who was sharing a life with the equally private and talented Jessica Lange on a small ranch somewhere between Mill Valley and the ocean in Marin County.
Shepard died, as he lived, very privately at his Kentucky home on August 1, 2017. The cause of death was complications from ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), a diagnosis he kept from all but his closest friends and family, but in a passage from The One Inside, a novel written before his condition was known, his character explains his condition,
“Something in his body refuses to get up. The appendages don’t seem connected to the motor — whatever that is — driving this thing. They won’t take direction — won’t be dictated to — the arms, legs, feet, hands. Nothing moves. Nothing even wants to. The brain isn’t sending signals.”
My good friend, Hugh, was diagnosed with ALS in 2018. He might describe his own condition exactly that way. When M and I visited him recently, he told her that every morning he’s a little weaker but looks forward to every day. Shepard continued to work daily despite his illness, and, with Patti Smith’s help, published Spy of the First Person posthumously.
Getting old is cruel enough without the humiliation of a neurological breakdown. So far, M and I are doing OK. Parts are wearing out but not entirely giving up. Last year the Social Security Life Expectancy Calculator estimated that I had 8 years and 7 months left. Today it told me I have 7 years and 6 months. Time flies but I’m still right on schedule. We all like to imagine ourselves unbound by the laws of nature, but, as we approach the end, normal starts to look like a good deal.
When I started working for Pan Am I was hungry to see and do everything, and on every layover I looked for something special to see or do. In the late 60s I had a trip to Amsterdam and Jacqueline Du Pre, the prodigiously talented young cellist, was performing that night with the Concertgebouw Orchestra. I don’t remember what she played but I was swept away and fell hard for her and her cello.
Then sadly, by 1973 as fast as it had begun, her career was over and in 1987 at the age of 42 she was dead, a victim of MS (multiple sclerosis). I don’t have her recording of the Elgar Cello Concerto, but I think of her whenever I listen to the Yo Yo Ma version. She made it famous and Iike to think I’m listening to her when I hear it.
Both Shepard and Du Pre will live on in the artistic record they left behind. We’ll be able to see the Shepard plays and movies and listen to the Du Pre recordings, but this morning I heard that Cathy Marston is bringing Du Pre back to life in The Cellist, a new mainstage commission for London’s Royal Ballet.
In Marston’s imaginative retelling of the Du Pre story, she is played by a ballerina while a male dancer performs the role of her cello. The audience is transfixed as the two lean into each other as the music merges with their movements.
It’s hard to imagine a more fitting tribute to the talent of an artist than the creation of new work based on his or her legacy. We can see a Shepard revival or hear a Du Pre recording but there is something special about a new work. Kudos to Cathy Marston and the Royal Ballet. I have my fingers crossed that Pacific Northwest Ballet will bring her celebration of Ms. Du Pre to Seattle.
There is something particularly poignant about vital, energetic artists like Sam Shepard and Jacqueline Du Pre being brought down by nasty debilitating diseases. My heart goes out to my relatives and friends who are dealing with MS and ALS, all of whom maintain positive attitudes and gratitude for the lives they’ve lived and are living.
Memory is tricky… We tend to remember the highlights. I remember seeing the strings of Issac Stern’s bow flying wildly during the final movement of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto, and hearing Janis Joplin’s Southern Comfort laced voice with Big Brother and the Holding Company at a bar in Huntington Beach. I love movies, but there is nothing like a live performance – music and/or theater. Great art and artists live beyond their work, and we remember them through it. Today, I’m grateful for my time with Sam Shepard and Jacqueline Du Pre in the past but look forward to my next encounter with greatness in a live setting. I feel lucky to be alive and able to experience the legacy of iconic artists – living and dead.