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"Music is one of the few areas in life where we can sort of express ourselves. We can actually scream or break something." — Bono

U2 Connections

Sam Shepard

by Angela Pancella

Sam Shepard

There's a big question to be asked about the purpose of a feature like "U2 Connections." Why should anyone care what books or movies U2 is reading and watching; what purpose does it serve to hunt out the possible inspirations behind a song lyric? Knowing Paul Celan is responsible for the phrase "a sort of homecoming" or that Charles Bukowski lurks behind "those days run away like horses over the hill": these details might be little better than trivia, and frankly obscure trivia at that, only appreciated by fellow obsessives.

Talking about Sam Shepard and U2 offers a chance to get at the "why" of gathering all this information of cross-influences and related works. First, a quick background on Shepard: he is a playwright and an actor. He has written more than 40 plays (including "Cowboy Mouth," co-written with Patti Smith, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Buried Child") and has appeared in many movies (he played Chuck Yeager in "The Right Stuff"). He was a drummer for the quirky Greenwich Village-based band The Holy Modal Rounders and he wrote a song with Bob Dylan, the epic "Brownsville Girl." He has also written books of poems, monologues, and more or less autobiographical reminiscences. He collaborated with Wim Wenders on the screenplay of Paris, Texas.

Paris, Texas opens without dialogue, just images of a lone man crossing a desert landscape and the sound of Ry Cooder's haunted steel guitar. This desert is the connection between Shepard and U2, and the question "why should we care what the connection is between Shepard and U2?" is answered by it.

Suppose you were to meet a traveler returning from a foreign country. He is telling you luminous stories about the place, stories that fire your imagination and your curiosity. Then you meet someone else who has spent time in that same country. Wouldn't it be illuminating to hear what he has to say about the same place?

That's the situation with Sam Shepard and U2. Shepard's stories and plays return to the American West again and again; he is clearly fascinated by the landscape. "There are areas like Wyoming, Texas, Montana, and places like that, where you feel this ancient thing about the land," he has said. "Ancient. That it's primordial. It has to do with the relationship with the land and the people -- between the human being and the ground." It is land that can't help but carry mythic connotations after decades of dime novels, country songs and cowboy movies; the myths draw people to the real thing. They drew an Irish band looking to use the desert as metaphor on their fifth studio album.

The Joshua Tree reflects U2's interest in creating moods with their music, akin to creating soundtracks for movies. The lyrics throughout reference deserts, rivers run dry, mountains and plains; the music conjures hootenannies, folk singers and their harmonicas. Possibly we've all been trained to hear it that way by the promotional photos -- the roughclad band standing grim with cactus all around -- but more likely the images just reinforce what is already there in the music: a vast wasteland like the one Travis crosses at the beginning of Paris, Texas. The story is told in Niall Stokes' Into the Heart that Bono told Wenders, when they first met, that Paris, Texas had the sort of landscape his band was trying to conjure on The Joshua Tree. Bono continues, "He told me that when he was driving across America and preparing for Paris, Texas, he was listening to Boy. He had just one cassette in the car and that was it."

The desert, for Shepard and for U2, is not just a physical location but a metaphor for one's interior landscape. Shepard's characters are often caught up in a search for what is authentic (one memorable image from one of his books: a Hollywood cowboy, "dressed in fringe with buckskin gloves, silk bandana, pale clown white make up," filming a scene under hot spotlights, finally screams, "Forgive me Utah! Forgive me!"). They are in motion, on the run, in relationships but not really connecting. So when Bono tells Bill Flanagan in U2 at the End of the World: "The monologue in Paris, Texas was a big influence on 'Running to Stand Still,'" it doesn't matter that the movie is set in the American Southwest and the song takes place in Ballymun in Dublin. The ghostly guitar at the beginning of the song echoes Ry Cooder's in the movie, and you can hear the same questing for a different life in the song and the monologue ("She told him she dreamed about escaping. That was all she dreamed about: escape. She saw herself at night running naked down a highway, running across fields, running down riverbeds, always running.").

So U2 and Sam Shepard have in common desert landscapes and characters who run away. They also have rock and roll, and lives largely lived in hotels. Shepard dated Patti Smith and lived with her in New York's Chelsea Hotel; their co-written play "Cowboy Mouth" has strains of autobiography, the Smith character urging the Shepard character to take on the role of pop-culture savior, "like a rock-and-roll Jesus with a cowboy mouth." His acting career has made him familiar with many a hotel room. Traveling and unfamiliar rooms make up much of the stories in a book called Motel Chronicles. In 1985 Faber and Faber published it together with another of his books, Hawk Moon, in a single volume in the UK and Ireland. In 1988 Bono was asked in a radio interview about the origin of one of the songs on Rattle and Hum: "I called it 'Hawkmoon 269' because...Well, it's a reference to a few people, like one of my favorite writers, Sam Shepard, but also...it's a motel room in my imagination somewhere."

In Hawk Moon Shepard utilizes the rhythms of rock and roll for his poetry, and it's quite possible rock and roll took Shepard's words back. It's hard not to think of U2, for reasons that should be obvious, when reading the piece called "Dream Band":

"Rattle. A plane flash. Baby whimper. The house moans. The droning plane. Birds play. My tattoo itching. Anne Waldman. New Jersey. Long Island. Michael's lungs. Black spot from the Midwest. Eddie Hicks. LouEllen. All their Babies. Miners in the cave shaft. Murray and his Cheyenne headband. His grey Mustang rusted out. Feet, hands. Lubricating sweat glands. The body's secret machine. Patti and the Chelsea. David making rhubarb wine. His new camera. Scott and Annie. Their black roof. Jeeps in four wheel drive. Sand and beach. Endless. Rattle. Wisdom teeth. Bleeding gum flap. Hydrogen peroxide. The Beach Boys. Duarte High. John and Scarlet. Kristy and the old man who gave her presents. The Sierra Madre mountains. The Arizona border. Dylan in shades. The ship. The missile. Rattle."

Side notes on some slightly obscure ways Sam Shepard's world and U2's intersect:

U2 used Zabriskie Point as a location for some of their Joshua Tree photo shoots with Anton Corbijn; "Zabriskie Point" is also the name of a movie by Michelangelo Antonioni, another European seeing mythic connotations in desert America. Sam Shepard wrote some of the dialogue for it. Add more strands to the web: Antonioni and Wim Wenders later worked together on a movie called Beyond the Clouds, which featured two songs by The Passengers.

Also, Wim Wenders tried to get Sam Shepard to star in a couple of his movies -- not only as Travis in Paris, Texas, which Shepard declined because he didn't want to play the character he'd written, but also as Sam Farber (eventually played by William Hurt) in a movie with a theme song by U2, Until the End of the World.

Thanks to Dan Eliot, Wim Wenders' official site, and this master's thesis for background information on this article.