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Steve Earle Practices Rock and Roll Leftism for Its Own Sweet Sake

Attack of the Chickenshits

book cover

Extry, extry: "Nashville Ex-Junkie Makes Nice to Traitor, Is Picked On by Nashville Talk Show Host!" That's what I call dog bites man. And also what I call great hype. I don't think Steve Earle wrote "John Walker's Blues" as a publicity stunt. I think he wrote it as a politically inclined guy with an idea for a song. But that doesn't mean he minds whatever attention he gets out of it. He's an artist, folks. Artists are supposed to get our attention.

There's been a fair amount of it, too. After all, as the executive editor of AlterNet learned by interviewing a shrink: "Meaningful art helps people process and digest experience and move toward catharsis." But is the song in question, how you say it, meaningful? To find out, an AP staffer in Nashville checked with a "popular-music scholar at Middle Tennessee State University," who obliged by comparing Earle's attempt to get inside John Walker Lindh to Woody Guthrie's "Pretty Boy Floyd," Bob Dylan's "Hurricane," and Johnny Cash's "Delia's Gone." Somebody might have mentioned that Guthrie and Dylan, at least, seem to like their subjects a lot more than Earle likes Lindh. But at least the scholar didn't say "John Walker's Blues" was as good as those other songs. So peace be upon him.

Fact is, we're deluged with meaningful art, the tide's been rising for months, and Earle's Jerusalem is neither the best nor the worst of the stuff that's made it to shore. Nor should anyone pretend that this tempest in a coffee cup is costing Earle play he didn't relinquish voluntarily years ago. Even on 1986's Guitar Town, back when he could pass for a Music Row comer competing with . . . Dwight Yoakam? (John Anderson?), he was uncommonly class-conscious (especially for the son of an air traffic controller), and by 1988's Copperhead Road his albums were breaking AOR rather than country. In 1994, much mayhem later, his heroin addiction completed his radicalization by landing him in jail, which is more than you can say for most heroin addictions. He emerged a thoroughgoing leftist with a specialty in capital punishment, and though he did most of his jail time in a rehab center, nobody writes better about prison "Over Yonder" on Transcendental Blues, "Ellis Unit One" on the USidetracks odds-and-sods, "The Truth" on Jerusalem itself. Earle identifies any unlucky asshole who makes the wrong choice in the wrong place at the wrong time. Poof, he's John Walker Lindh.

Scaremongers notwithstanding, Earle hardly glorifies Lindh, and he also doesn't compare him to Jesus--merely illustrates the poor sap's mania by having him compare himself to Jesus (who is, after all, one of Islam's prophets). In fact, the song is so measured and literary I find it hard to believe the brouhaha will reach Wal-Mart when the album is released September 24. But I do wish I knew something about Lindh that suggests he was ever far enough gone to claim Jesus--much less that he was driven to jihad by "soda pop bands" on MTV. Such problems often come up with Earle. He's gifted, but he plays it fast and loose. So I also wish I was sure he meant it when he says: "I'm nervous, not for myself, but I have taken some serious liberties with Walker, speaking as him, in his voice." Because while "John Walker's Blues" is salutary just for putting flesh on Lindh's humanity, it's more limited and self-interested than the free-speech claque wants to admit.

As is occasionally noted, there's another song out there that enters the mind of the Muslim Other, and it is indeed significant that the scaremongers never mention it. Although Bruce Springsteen isn't quite as staunch a leftist as Earle, the size of his following makes him a much bigger threat to the right. Nevertheless, The Rising is such an unequivocal act of patriotism that for the moment the chickenshits are leaving him alone--such an unequivocal act of patriotism that the surpassing gentleness of Springsteen's impersonation of a suicide bomber arouses no suspicion. Or maybe "Paradise" is just over their evil heads. It's a mysterious song, and although I'm no mysteriousness fan, it's a far stronger and deeper one than "John Walker's Blues." Where Earle lays out Walker's con-fusion, Springsteen gets inside his protagonist's spirituality, warmly and sympathetically--and then pulls the plug, with the paradise that's a holy goal in the beginning a vacant mirage by the end.

If these value judgments seem irrelevant, critical bean counting just when people are digesting experience and moving toward catharsis, please remember that good songs generally enhance understanding better than flawed ones. So I prefer not only "Paradise" but Toby Keith's "Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue (The Angry American)," with its truthful and jovially vindictive "Soon as we could see clearly/Through our big black eye/Man, we lit up your world/Like the Fourth of July," and Alan Jackson's "Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)," with its truthful and chillingly complacent "I watch CNN but I'm not sure I can tell you/The difference in Iraq and Iran." They're more eloquently written and more coherently conceived. As the profiteers who run this country plot their oil grab in Iraq, even we leftists who believe the U.S. was morally obliged to invade Afghanistan had better recognize that these are dangerous works. But that doesn't make them any less engaging or revealing, and denying their power won't make it go away.

While Jerusalem is as clearly a response to 9/11 as The Rising or the two country songs--and maybe more so than my cathartics of choice, Sleater-Kinney's One Beat and the Mekons' OOOH!--it only deals directly with the Al Qaeda attacks and their military aftermath in "John Walker's Blues" and the climactic title song. Yet it's the most topical record of the bunch, front-loaded with references to assorted tyrannies of class--HMOs, maquiladoras, immigration barriers, escapist media, the assassinations of JFK and MLK if they count, and of course the prison system. With Earle slurring his drawl more pointedly than usual and Will Rigby's drums front and center on the rock tracks and breaking out of the quieter ones, the material works up a pretty good head of consciousness, and because his arrangements travel so light, they generate more musical get-up-and-go than The Rising's weapons of mass reconciliation. A good thing, too, because the music helps patch over all the stitches Earle drops. Does the man really think the daring young president of the Cuban missile crisis would have finessed Vietnam? That we're all criminals inside? That caper movies, girlie pictures, and silly love songs distract us from our higher calling? Does he know the Constitution favored the propertied classes more in the good old days than it does now? And while we understand that Emma Goldman and Abbie Hoffman partake of the usual lefty virtue-by-association, what the hell is Aaron Burr doing among the patriots in his inspirational liner notes? Burr was the prototype of the profiteering politician. Is this some meta-ironic traitor joke?

If so, I wish Earle had expended his tiny store of subtlety someplace else. I wish "John Walker's Blues" was as complex as "Paradise," that the all-things-must-pass of Earle's "Ashes to Ashes" cast as cold an eye on banality as the Mekons' "Stonehead," that the only perfect things on the whole damn record weren't consecutive love-in-vain songs by a guy who'd been married six times as of his last bio. But you know the drill--it's a fool's errand to seek political wisdom from a pop musician (much less a folkie, since Earle is a little of both) unless that musician happens to be named Linton Kwesi Johnson. They're artists, folks.

But get this--for just that reason, their misconceptions and imprecisions don't always do them in. Certainly they don't here. No doubt Earle wants to convince America to end the death penalty and hate the rich, but on this album those specifics are means to a broader end: being a musical leftist, period. As is known to anyone who reads the press kit, the seeds of Jerusalem were planted by the president of Earle's label--and no, Sean Hannity or is that Tom Vanderbilt, not to make a quick buck, how dumb. Danny Goldberg is just a lifelong civil libertarian who likes to stir up trouble. I haven't asked him--which I could, we talk once in a while--but I bet I know what he was thinking.

What has been the chief domestic casualty of this war on terrorism that keeps changing its spots? The Bill of Rights as exemplified by political dissent, most believe. How to fight back? Exercise the right to dissent. That's the joy of this record, which, with a crucial push from drummer Rigby, gives off a sense of freedom and defiance that's rock and roll, not protest music. This artistic effect is made possible in part by all the play Earle has relinquished--by what might be construed as his ultimate political ineffectiveness. The Rising is dragged down, with a few magnificent exceptions, by the overburdened emotions and conceptual commonplaces of the great audience that inspired it. Jerusalem travels light and gets where it's going.

Its final destination is the best, too. Where all its other political songs are embittered, "Jerusalem" doesn't have the stomach for bitterness. It watches Israelis roll their "death machines" over "the ground where Jesus stood" and asserts without the slightest justification that this too shall pass--not in the all-things-must-pass sense, but in living time. On The Rising, that promise would sound like a big lie. Here Steve Earle is just expressing himself. Here a hymn to hope is what free speech is for.

Village Voice, Sept. 24, 2002