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Sam Shepard: Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, actor and ... avant-garde drummer?

Sam Shepard in 2014. (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
Sam Shepard in 2014. (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Sam Shepard, whose death at 73 was announced on Monday, will be remembered for his cross-discipline versatility. As a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, he penned classic off-Broadway plays including "True West," "Buried Child" and "Fool for Love."

An Oscar-nominated actor, he starred in films including "Days of Heaven," "The Right Stuff," "Crimes of the Heart" and "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford."

To fans of underground music, however, Shepard served a lesser-known role as the drummer for seminal New York avant-garde folk band the Holy Modal Rounders, with whom he performed on the crucial late 1960s albums "Indian War Whoop" and "The Moray Eels Eat the Holy Modal Rounders." 

The band is best known for its song "If You Want to Be a Bird," which plays during the classic scene in "Easy Rider" in which Dennis Hopper, Peter Fonda and Jack Nicholson roar down the highway on their motorcycles. That's Shepard playing drums as Rounders founders Peter Stampfel and Steve Weber whoop and yowl.

It was in his capacity as a percussionist, in fact, that he drew the attention of a young Patti Smith, who, in her 2010 memoir "Just Kids," recounted their first early '70s meeting at seminal music club the Village Gate.  

Escorted to the club by Todd Rundgren, who had just issued his album "Runt," Smith described the Holy Modal Rounders' set as "like being at an Arabian hoedown with a band of psychedelic hillbillies. I was fixed on the drummer, who seemed as if he was on the lam and had slid behind the drums while cops looked elsewhere." 

Smith, who at the time was freelancing for Crawdaddy magazine, introduced herself to this drummer, who said his name was Slim Shadow.

The two started hanging out, wrote Smith, describing his tales as being "even taller than mine. He had an infectious laugh and was rugged, smart, and intuitive. In my mind, he was the fellow with the cowboy mouth." 

Only later did she learn Slim's real identity when a friend pulled her aside after seeing them at a restaurant together. As recounted in "Just Kids," Smith wrote that her friend asked, "What are you doing with Sam Shepard?" 

"Sam Shepard?" I said. "Oh, no, this guy's name is Slim."

"Honey, don't you know who he is?"

"He's the drummer for the Holy Modal Rounders." 

No, corrected her friend, "He's the biggest playwright off-Broadway. He had a play at Lincoln Center. He won five Obies!"

Once she learned of his reputation and acclaim, Smith and Shepard continued to see each other -- despite his being married at the time -- and eventually collaborated on a play called "Cowboy Mouth." 

Smith described telling him of nervousness at writing for the stage, which she had never done. But Shepard urged her on, Smith wrote, telling her that "you can't make a mistake when you improvise."

Replied Smith: "What if I screw up the rhythm?"

"You can't," Shepard explained. "It's like drumming. If you miss a beat, you create another."

7:15 a.m. Updated to correct the title of Smith's memoir, "Just Kids," and to identify the Holy Modal Rounders' co-founders, Stampfel and Weber.

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