Patti Smith pens the perfect eulogy


It is rare anymore that we find examples of literary perfection, but my pal, Mary Lucia, was absolutely correct yesterday when she called my attention to singer-poet Patti Smith’s eulogy in the New Yorker for actor and playwright Sam Shepard, who died last week of ALS. He was 73.

Consider, Mary noted, that she wrote it in the midst of her grief and the power of her words is magnified.

She met Shepard when he was drumming in the ’70s for a folk group, the Holy Modal Rounders. She didn’t know he was a playwright, Rolling Stone says.

If you have a friend with whom you can converse by saying nothing, the words will strike a chord. If you don’t, they’ll make you wonder where you went wrong.

Sam promised me that one day he’d show me the landscape of the Southwest, for though well-travelled, I’d not seen much of our own country. But Sam was dealt a whole other hand, stricken with a debilitating affliction. He eventually stopped picking up and leaving. From then on, I visited him, and we read and talked, but mostly we worked. Laboring over his last manuscript, he courageously summoned a reservoir of mental stamina, facing each challenge that fate apportioned him. His hand, with a crescent moon tattooed between his thumb and forefinger, rested on the table before him. The tattoo was a souvenir from our younger days, mine a lightning bolt on the left knee.

Going over a passage describing the Western landscape, he suddenly looked up and said, “I’m sorry I can’t take you there.” I just smiled, for somehow he had already done just that. Without a word, eyes closed, we tramped through the American desert that rolled out a carpet of many colors—saffron dust, then russet, even the color of green glass, golden greens, and then, suddenly, an almost inhuman blue. Blue sand, I said, filled with wonder. Blue everything, he said, and the songs we sang had a color of their own.

We had our routine: Awake. Prepare for the day. Have coffee, a little grub. Set to work, writing. Then a break, outside, to sit in the Adirondack chairs and look at the land. We didn’t have to talk then, and that is real friendship. Never uncomfortable with silence, which, in its welcome form, is yet an extension of conversation. We knew each other for such a long time. Our ways could not be defined or dismissed with a few words describing a careless youth. We were friends; good or bad, we were just ourselves. The passing of time did nothing but strengthen that. Challenges escalated, but we kept going and he finished his work on the manuscript. It was sitting on the table. Nothing was left unsaid. When I departed, Sam was reading Proust.

In a perfect world, we would all be able to write so beautifully. Alas, as ALS itself proves, it is not a perfect world.

  • Thanks for passing this along, Bob. I appreciate it.

  • Steve

    I read something Patti wrote about Dylan in Rolling Stone a few years ago, and immediately told my daughters to read it. She is an outstanding writer in addition to being an outstanding songwriter, performer, and (by all accounts) person. We are lucky to have her around.

    • Nato Coles

      Agreed. Always loved her music, but when I semi-randomly decided to read her book M Train (mainly because a friend of mine had mentioned that it has a brief part describing Fred “Sonic” Smith’s baseball prowess and fandom!) I found myself riveted by all of it, both the anecdotes and the elegant style. What a writer!

      • RBHolb

        I’ll second your comment. I had heard so much good buzz about Just Kids that I had to try it. It was wonderful. M Train is next.

        She did “Hard Rain” at Dylan’s Nobel ceremony. Her piece about that is also wonderful.

    • KTFoley

      True. I still have her book Just Kids on my shelf, mostly to do with her early life in NYC and her friendship with Andy Warhol.

  • KTFoley

    This beautiful piece of writing took a lifetime’s worth of beauty and grace in their friendship to compose.

  • Rob

    Never knew about Shepard’s stint with the Holy Modal Rounders. He’s even cooler than I thought, and nobody’s cooler than Patti Smith. Gotta go and dig out the Easy Riders soundtrack, and drop the needle on HMR’s “If You Want To Be A Bird.”