Playwright Sam Shepard was a key figure in Theatre Genesis, and was also the drummer in the Holy Modal Rounders—which is how he met Patti Smith, with whom he collaborated on the play Cowboy Mouth.
Robert Heide met playwright Edward Albee at Lenny’s Hideaway, and the two eventually became close. “Edward and I would take long walks,” he said. “We would say nothing. Later he told me that there were characters running around in his head that he was thinking about. We would drink at Lenny’s Hideaway ’til four in the morning, then maybe we’d go back to his place, like in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” Wandering around downtown late at night, the couple sometimes stopped by Bigelow Drugs on Sixth Avenue, between West Eighth and Ninth Streets, to have a black-and-white ice cream soda with seltzer. The streets were much quieter in Greenwich Village, compared to the bustle of today, and it felt as though everyone knew each other. “You would run into people that you knew,” Heide recalled. “I’d run into Sam Shepard at a coffee shop. You could have a hamburger and apple pie and coffee for ninety-five cents. You have to remember, everybody’s rent was low, like that song ‘Bleecker Street,’ by Simon and Garfunkel, that goes, ‘Thirty dollars pays your rent on Bleecker Street.’ Ha! Thirty dollars!” Even though they lived in a big city, it felt like a small town. This self-contained metropolis even had its own directory, Greenwich Village Blue Book, which was published from 1961 to 1968 and contained listings for stores, doctors, churches, theaters, and other establishments in the area.
From Chapter 1 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
Folk musician Peter Stampfel moved from the Midwest to New York in late 1959, just a few months before Dylan arrived in the city. They were each under the spell of 1952’s Anthology of American Folk Music, a six-album set that was compiled by Harry Smith, another downtown dweller. By collecting folk, blues, and country songs from 1927 to 1932, the Anthology provided much of the source material for the folk music revivalists. “For almost the first time,” Van Ronk recalled, “it gave us a sense of what traditional music in the United States was all about, from the source rather than from second-and third-hand interpreters. The Anthology has eighty-two cuts on it, and after a while we knew every word of every song.” Stampfel recalled that there were two main schools of folk at the time: the traditionalists, who valued “authenticity,” and the more polished performers who could be heard on the radio. “Each camp felt that the other was being apostate,” he said. “It was the people who had heard the Harry Smith anthology and the people who hadn’t heard the Harry Smith anthology, that was the dichotomy.” In 1961, Stampfel was living on MacDougal Street and playing more traditional roots music at local coffeehouses. Two years later, in 1963, he founded the Holy Modal Rounders with Steve Weber, then expanded the lineup to include drummer and playwright Sam Shepard during the second half of the 1960s.
From Chapter 4 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
In addition to DIY mimeo printing, the downtown’s social networks thrived with the help of community and underground papers like the Village Voice and the East Village Other. Michael Smith joined the Voice in the early 1960s as a theater critic, when the paper was still struggling on a week-to-week basis to keep the lights on. It was more volunteer work than anything else, but Smith’s passion for promoting underground theater kept him going. In New York, negative reviews had serious consequences for a show’s bottom line, so producers and theaters tended to gravitate toward critic-and crowd-pleasers. For example, Sam Shepard’s budding career as a playwright was nearly over before it began after mainstream papers panned his debut production. “I was ready to pack it in and go back to California,” he said. “Then Michael Smith from the Village Voice came up with this rave review, and people started coming to see it.” Jonas Mekas also exerted a major influence on underground film through both his Village Voice film column and Film Culture, the magazine he published with his brother Adolfas Mekas. Future filmmaker John Waters devoured Jonas Mekas’s writings from afar. “When I was in high school,” Waters said, “I would read Jonas Mekas’s ‘Movie Journal’ column every week in the Village Voice. That was a huge, huge influence to me. Mekas’s Film Culture magazine was my bible. He was my life saver. That’s how I knew about everything when I was living in Baltimore.”
From Chapter 5 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
Sam Shepard lived in the Lower East Side at the time with his roommate, Charlie Mingus Jr., a painter and the son of jazz legend Charles Mingus. Shepard was also a musician who often incorporated rock ’n’ roll in his plays and, in 1966, he joined the Holy Modal Rounders as their drummer (which is how he later met Patti Smith, with whom he cowrote the play Cowboy Mouth). Shepard and Mingus lived in a condemned cold-water apartment on Avenue C, past the Old Reliable. The two young men saw it as an urban frontier, and would act out “cowboys and Indians” games on the streets. These sorts of scenarios—along with tales of revolutionary street-fighting men and rough-and-tumble masculinity—made their way into several of Shepard’s early plays. Theatre Genesis’s bare-bones, no-nonsense space was an ideal setting for the butch plays that Shepard, Anthony Barsha, and their peers wrote. “Genesis was distinguished by being much more heterosexual than any of the other places,” said Robert Patrick. “Sam Shepherd, Murray Mednick—a lot of their plays had references to cowboy movies, and westerns, and things like that.” Their shows veered toward what one reviewer dubbed “Macho Americano,” and they thought of themselves as the “Hells Angels of the Off-Off-Broadway scene,” as Barsha put it. “Off-Off-Broadway started with the gays at Cino, so it was pretty much a gay scene,” he observed. “Ralph Cook and Leonard Melfi, Kevin O’Connor, Sam Shepard, myself, Murray Mednick, and Walter Hadler—we’re all straight guys. It was that kind of a scene. A lot of pot, and a lot of women, and a lot of messing around in that area, so Genesis definitely had that reputation, and rightly so.”
From Chapter 14 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
Theatre Genesis, also located in the East Village on Tenth Street and Second Avenue, was another hotbed of Off-Off-Broadway activity. Along with Café La MaMa, Judson Church, and Caffe Cino, it was one of the key venues of the downtown’s underground theater movement. And like Judson, it was housed in a church—St. Mark’s Church-in-the-Bowery, which in 1963 hired a radical young rector named Michael Allen, who was committed to supporting the artistic scenes flowering around him. Theatre Genesis was the brainchild of Ralph Cook, who was a head waiter at the Village Gate, a popular venue where jazz artists like Rahsaan Roland Kirk and Cannonball Adderley played. “Ralph approached Michael Allen, the rector at the church,” recalled Genesis playwright Anthony Barsha, “and that’s how they got set up there, in ’64. Michael Allen was a very open guy, and he was the opposite of Ralph. He was a sort of jolly fellow who could’ve played Santa Claus.” Cook brought along his Village Gate coworker Sam Shepard, whose first two one-acts—The Rock Garden and Cowboys—opened at Theatre Genesis on October 10, 1964.
The duo split up in the summer of 1965, but the next year the Holy Modal Rounders were offered a princely sum to reunite at a music festival. Neither man could pass up the money; Peter Stampfel was so broke he had put his fiddle in hock at a Second Avenue pawn shop, which he retrieved for the show. As he stood in the shop holding his instrument, Theatre Genesis playwright Sam Shepard walked up to him and asked, “Hey, do you play bass?” One thing led to another, and the playwright-drummer joined the Holy Modal Rounders, and ESP-Disk signed them to make a new record. Shepard played drums on 1967’s Indian War Whoop, but the record company didn’t include his photo on the album’s sleeve because he had cut his hair short (as a way of protesting “all that Summer of Love bullshit,” as Stampfel put it). The band signed with Elektra Records and went to Los Angeles in March 1968 to record The Moray Eels Eat the Holy Modal Rounders, which included their best-known number, “The Bird Song.” It ended up on the Easy Rider soundtrack after being edited by Dennis Hopper into a memorable scene with Jack Nicholson on the back of a chopper, flapping his wings. While out West, the Holy Modal Rounders opened for Pink Floyd at the Avalon Ballroom in San Francisco and appeared on the comedy variety TV show Laugh-In.
From Chapter 15 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
Theatre Genesis playwright and director Anthony Barsha first met Patti Smith when she and Sam Shepard performed Cowboy Mouth on the same bill as Back Bog Beast Bait, which starred James Hall and Shepard’s estranged wife. “It was pretty crazy,” said Hall. “He cast his own wife in a play that was followed by a one-act about his affair with Patti.” Barsha, who directed Back Bog Beast Bait, confirmed that it was a complete debacle—though he acknowledged that Cowboy Mouth itself was quite stunning. “Their chemistry was like Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor,” he said. “It was an excellent performance, Patti and Sam. It was a treat to see. It’s too bad it had to end abruptly.” Cowboy Mouth opened and closed at the American Place Theatre on West Forty-Sixth Street at the end of April 1971. “Patti and Sam’s thinly disguised characters’ relationship was destined to end,” Hall recalled, “just like what really happened between them. Then we found out that Sam had disappeared, and even Patti didn’t know where he went.” Shepard found the emotional strain too much—“like being in an aquarium,” he later said—so he fled to a Holy Modal Rounders college gig in Vermont. Like his character in Cowboy Mouth, Shepard returned to his family and responsibilities; meanwhile, Smith set off on new adventures.
From Chapter 25 of The Downtown Pop Underground — order online, or from a local independent bookstore
Patti Smith had been interested in doing public poetry readings, though she was wary of many of the poets’ staid, practiced delivery. In the early 1970s, Beat poet Gregory Corso started taking her to readings hosted by the Poetry Project at St. Mark’s Church, a collective based at the same church where Theatre Genesis was located. It was home to A-listers like Allen Ginsberg, Robert Creeley, and Ted Berrigan, but Corso was less than reverent. He heckled certain poets during their listless performances, yelling, “Shit! Shit! No blood! Get a transfusion!” Sitting at Corso’s side, Smith made a mental note not to be boring if she ever had a chance to read her poems in public. On February 10, 1971, Gerard Malanga was scheduled to do a reading at the Poetry Project and he agreed to let Smith open for him. Her collaborations with Shepard taught her to infuse her words with rhythm, and she sought out other ideas about how to disrupt the traditional poetry reading format. For the St. Mark’s event, Sam Shepard suggested that Smith add music—which reminded her that Lenny Kaye played guitar. “She wanted to shake it up, poetry-wise, and she did,” said Kaye, who recalled that it was primarily a solo poetry reading, with occasional guitar accompaniment. “I started it with her,” he said. “We did ‘Mack the Knife,’ because it was Bertolt Brecht’s birthday, and then I came back for the last three musical pieces.” Setting chords to her melodic chanting, Kaye recalled that she was easy to follow because of her strong sense of rhythmic movement. “I hesitate to call them ‘songs,’ but in a sense they were the essence of what we would pursue.”
By this point, Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe had moved out of the Chelsea and were living across the street on Twenty-Third Street in an apartment that gave them more space to pursue their art (he was focusing more on photography, and Smith continued to create visual art and write poetry). She was happy to return to the Chelsea after Sam Shepard began living at the hotel, where they spent hours in his room reading, talking, or just sitting in silence. During this time, Smith wrote two sets of lyrics for songs that Shepard used in his play Mad Dog Blues, and they also began to collaborate on a one-act, Cowboy Mouth. One evening Shepard brought his typewriter to the bed and said, “Let’s write a play.” He proceeded to type, beginning with a description of Smith’s room across the street: “Seedy wallpaper with pictures of cowboys peeling off the wall,” described the stage notes. “Photographs of Hank Williams and Jimmie Rodgers. Stuffed dolls, crucifixes. License plates from Southern states nailed to the wall. Travel poster of Panama. A funky set of drums to one side of the stage. An electric guitar and amplifier on the other side. Rum, beer, white lightning, Sears catalogue.” Shepard introduced his own character, Slim Shadow—“a cat who looks like a coyote, dressed in scruffy red”—and he then gave her the typewriter and said, “You’re on, Patti Lee.” Smith called her character Cavale. “The characters were ourselves,” she recalled, “and we encoded our love, imagination, and indiscretions in Cowboy Mouth.”
Patti Smith began pivoting from Off-Off-Broadway to poetry and rock ’n’ roll around the time she befriended playwright and drummer Sam Shepard. They first met after a Holy Modal Rounders show downstairs at the Village Gate, where Shepard had previously worked as a busboy. Smith was planning to write about the Rounders for the rock magazine Crawdaddy, but as Shepard’s bandmate Peter Stampfel said, “As soon as she saw Sam she forgot about the article. They took up with each other right off the bat.” “It was like being at an Arabian hoedown with a band of psychedelic hillbillies,” Smith recalled, describing seeing the Holy Modal Rounders in action. “I fixed on the drummer, who seemed as if he was on the lam and had slid behind the drums while the cops looked elsewhere.” Near the end of the set Smith was struck by Shepard’s song “Blind Rage,” which he sang; Stampfel described it as a “power-punkish number,” with lines such as “I’m gonna get my gun / Shoot ’em and run.” Smith told biographer Victor Bockris that Shepard’s “whole life moves on rhythms. He’s a drummer. I mean, everything about Sam is so beautiful and has to do with rhythm. That’s why Sam and I so successfully collaborated.”