Meeting Sam Shepard at a Friend’s House on Eighth Avenue


First Person

© Universal City Studios, 1979.


The violin was psychedelic green, green as a shamrock, green as Kermit the Frog, a take-no-prisoners green. I bought it for thirty dollars at a yard sale in Providence.

“The violin’s free,” the owner told me, though he counted the money more than once: four fives and a ten. “I’m just charging you for the case and the bow.”

His girlfriend, his ex-girlfriend, had painted it with acrylic paint one night when she was high, and then she’d painted it again. It was green to stay. Even when it was in the case, he could see it glowing in the dark. He’d wrapped it in newspaper and kept it at the back of the closet along with ice-skates and the broken Crock-Pot. He was selling those, too.

I had no need for a violin, green or otherwise, but it seemed like a good investment. When I brought it back to the dormitory, my roommate grabbed it, tuned it and was playing along with a Taj Mahal record within the hour. A week later, I still hadn’t figured out how to hold the bow. 

When I finally moved to New York, I thought I should learn how to play, and I looked up Peter Stampfel in the phone book. Along with Steve Weber, Peter was the founder of the Holy Modal Rounders, a psychedelic folk group that had figured out a way to combine old-time country and jug-band music with the sound of a zoo that’s caught fire. Peter played violin, banjo, and guitar, and he sang and played with the energy and enthusiasm of a five-year old, if a five-year old were to sample crystal methedrine.

I turned up at his place on Eighth Avenue at the appointed time. His partner, Antonia, answered the door and looked at me for a minute. Her eyes might not have been focusing properly, so she had to hold one eye open with her thumb and forefinger while keeping the other firmly closed. She leaned forward, then stepped back.

“Do I know you?” she asked.

“No ma’am.”

She thought about this for a minute.

“Have I fucked you?” she asked. And then, before I could answer, “Do you want some Chinese food?”

I followed her into the house. I was still holding the violin.

Peter appeared in the doorway tucking in his shirt. He looked like he’d been awake for five or six days, and he looked infinitely pleased and amused by life. I knew that I wanted to grow up to be that awake.

Peter opened the violin case, closed the violin case and put it down in the living room. There was someone in there hunched down on the floor looking for something under the couch.

The someone was Sam Shepard. He used to play drums with the Holy Modal Rounders, but he didn’t anymore. He had long hair and a long face, and everything about him was lanky. He gave me a look, trying to figure out if I was worth sizing up. But then he smiled, and in that moment, I would’ve given him my last cigarette, lent him my dog or my car, no questions asked.

“We’re going for Chinese food,” Peter told him.

“You go ahead,” he nodded. He moved around the side of the couch and reached under. “I’m still looking.”

Peter and Antonia and I went around the corner to a small, badly lit Chinese restaurant. It was four in the afternoon, and there were no other customers. We ordered noodles, and Peter talked about Charlie Poole and the North Carolina Ramblers and about Ed Koch and about Archie comics.

“Do you have any records by Brenda Lee?” Peter asked me. I nodded. “You should listen to Brenda Lee. Her tone, it’s pure, her tone, it’s like a violin, you could learn to play just by listening to Brenda Lee sing. Not the Christmas crap. But everything else.”

Antonia stared at the noodles suspiciously and drank smokey China tea and hummed. The bill came to less than twelve dollars, and I paid it. They seemed slightly taken aback by this, but we were all happy, and outside the traffic lights were broken, and the sky was bright.

Upstairs, Sam Shepard was still rummaging around under the couch. He’d opened the window, and there was a cool breeze. Antonia went into another room, and Peter took out the violin and was trying to adjust the bridge. Sam Shepard sat back on his heels and shook his head.

“So,” I asked, “what’s under there?”

“Oh, man.” He pushed the hair out of his eyes and sighed. “If I knew, I wouldn’t have to keep looking.”


Brian Cullman is a writer and musician living in New York City.