Motel Chronicles by Sam Shepard

Motel Chronicles & Hawk Moon by Sam Shepard- With photographs by Johnny Dark

ISBN 0-571-13458-0

Motel Chronicles was published in 1982 by City Lights Books- that literary petri dish inoculated by the beatniks and colonised by insurgents. Hawk Moon was published in 1981 by Performing Arts Journal Publications. Both publishers are still going strong, a testament to their fine choice of writers. My copy melds both works into one paperback published by Faber and Faber in London in 1985.

Sam Shepard is a playwright/actor who wrote the best play of all time, True West. Motel Chronicles is a collection of autobiographical short stories, poetry and observations. The pieces are untitled but marked by a date and the location. Some of the stories formed the basis of the Wim Wenders’ film Paris Texas. It doesn’t matter if you haven’t seen the film because the writing is intimate and masterful.

My favorite passage is 4/79 Santa Fe, New Mexico: ‘My Dad has a picture of a Spanish senorita covered in whip cream pinned above the sink on his kitchen wall. My Dad actually does. He walked me over to it and we both stared at it for a while, “She’s supposed to be naked under there, but I’ll bet she’s wearing something,” he said.’

There are photographs in Motel Chronicles. Snapshots from Shepard’s life, they add to the already pulsating impression that you are reading his private notebook; as if polaroids are falling from the spine. Motel Chronicles reminds me of the book Patti Smith Complete 1975-2006, in the way that it is a time capsule of an artist’s life. At first I thought Johnny Dark may be a pseudonym for Robert Mapplethorpe but the photographer, Johnny Dark, is Shepard’s lifelong pen-pal and friend.

‘Boredom was on. For dinner they ate the porkypine and shot the shit and rattled through the licence plate collection, telling a different story for each state.’ Where Motel Chronicles is nostalgic and cinematic, Hawk Moon is raw and theatrical. Hawk Moon, a collection of monologues, short stories and poems, was born out of a love affair between Shepard and Patti Smith. The pair once co-wrote a play by shoving a typewriter back and forth between them. Hawk Moon demonstrates the importance for the writer of selecting the best muse. “After playing Wipe Out all day and night for three full days without stopping even to snort some coke or rest his calluses, Cobra Moonstar fell on top of his Les Paul Gibson and broke his nose. He didn’t care.”

Shepard is a realist. His work makes me think of Raymond Carver- that way of noting one small but absolutely crisp detail. The writing is clean like Steinbeck, pithy like McCullers and keenly observant like any writer worth their salt. Shepard makes the brutal honesty of what he is writing about palatable by using humour. The stories are perfect.


SARAH COLES is a former columnist for Spinach 7 magazine.

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