Sam Shepard and Dylan’s Brownsville Girl

Sam Shepard, who died the other day, was best known for being one of America’s great playwrights, and not a half bad film actor. To be fair the only work of his I’m really familiar with (judging from his obituary, I have a hell of a lot of catching up to do) is his screenplay for the great Wim Wenders movie Paris, Texas – a beautifully understated short screen story about identity, separation, fathers and sons, and America. I first saw it back in the 80s late at night on Channel 4, not long after it came out, and as a young guitarist was mostly attracted by Ry Cooder’s evocative, sparse score. Anyway, when I saw he’d died, the only other thing I knew for sure about Sam Shepard was that he collaborated with Bob Dylan (another musical hero of mine) a couple of times. The first was on Dylan’s legendary Rolling Thunder Revue tour of 1975-76, for which he had a credit on the ensuing surreal movie Renaldo and Clara and about which he wrote The Rolling Thunder Logbook, which I used to have but stupidly gave away in one of my house moves. The second collaboration was when they wrote a fantastic song together, the 11-minute 1986 epic Brownsville Girl, and this – to finally get to the point – is what first came into my mind when I heard about Shepard’s passing. The song is up there with any of Dylan’s best – it’s a weird, fragmented short story, it’s funny, heartbreaking and full of imagery. It’s supposedly about a Gregory Peck western (but is a tad more meta than that – “I still remember the day you came to me on a painted desert … I can’t remember why I was in that film or which part I was supposed to play”), and listening to it is like watching a film, or more specifically like sitting up late one night when you’re alone and a movie you’ve never heard of comes on Channel 4 and you’re transported by it to places you hadn’t expected. (I don’t even know if that happens anymore incidentally, what with the general decline in quality of network TV and films, and the culture now of proactively subscribing to channels and shows rather than idly surfing and stumbling across things.) If you’ve never heard it, whatever you think of Dylan or westerns, have a listen below. His delivery and the arrangement – very 80s in style, with lots of reverb, big sax breaks and ethereal backing singers, who break character to make knowing interventions in the main lyric – are an essential part of what makes the song great, but if you really can’t stand Dylan’s voice or feel 11 minutes is too long then you can get a life and read another blog read the lyrics for a feel of the story. (Oddly, Dylan’s own site that I link to there doesn’t credit Shepard.) Or indeed you can read along to the lyrics while you listen to the song. Dylan half-speaks the words, so they are pretty clear, but when I first heard it in the late 80s there was no internet or published version of the lyrics, so I had to stop-start the tape of the song that a friend gave me and transcribe it as best I could; being British, I had no idea what a “swap meet” was so for years I thought it was “swamp meet”. By the way, if it turns out you love the song, I probably wouldn’t recommend buying the whole original album Knocked Out Loaded, as it was (in keeping with Dylan’s legendary inconsistency) not one of his best. But then maybe why not? It’s Dylan. Enjoy, and RIP Sam.