By Andrew Dansby
Giving Steve Earle carte blanche to pen a political album isn’t unlike lobbing batting practice to the Babe; it almost seems too easy. Earle’s sixth studio album, in as many years, is essentially like any of a number of Steve Earle albums: musically varied, with a rocker here and a ballad there; and lyrically immediate as this champion of the underdog rumbles with a social consciousness akin to Hannibal’s stampeding herd. But Jerusalem is a bit of a different plate from his previous work. Nearly void of the girl songs that bring out the heart and the blues, Jerusalem is one of his most concise lyrical statements in his career. While albums like I Feel Alright, El Corazon and Transcendental Blues were recorded with a pop savvy combination of glee and abandon in their lush diversity, Jerusalem is a hard album. It throws out hard questions and doesn’t expect soft answers in return. It’s a hard listen, a critique of governmental complacency. And as our government is us (Earle included), Jerusalem is a critique of ourselves: from the War on Drugs to prisons as big business to the shortcomings of our healthcare system to cheating on taxes. All this, and at 35 minutes long, Jerusalem — his shortest recording since Guitar Town — is wound as tight as a baseball.
The earliest buzz surrounding Jerusalem took orbit around Earle’s “John Walker’s Blues,” a first-person narrative that attempted to make some sense of the twentysomething “American Taliban.” With John Walker Lindh hastily ensconced through our criminal justice system and into prison, the remainder of the album’s resonance might find sets of ears free from the buzzy din that emanated from a media circus. For the album is greater than the sum of its parts with a few of his loveliest songs (“The Kind,” “I Remember You”) carefully placed into the mix with the more scathing likes of “Conspiracy Theory” and “Amerika V. 2.0.”
And if one thinks Earle released the record just to stir up controversy, he’s far to busy to enjoy it. His play, Karla (based on the life of executed Texas inmate Karla Faye Tucker) will debut in Nashville next month. He also began work on a novel, and has a collection of haiku he’s planning to publish, accompanied by illustrations by Tony Fitzpatrick, who created the covers for all of Earle’s albums since I Feel Alright.
From the office of his label’s New York City office, Earle talks about some of what triggered Jerusalem, as well as, as he sings, the kind of things he likes.
Amid the John Walker hoopla, people seem to have missed the title track on “Jerusalem,” which is pretty damn hopeful.
It’s on purpose, because that record was starting to bum me out. [Earle’s label head] Danny Goldberg suggested to me that I should make an overtly political record before Sept. 11. I was really knocked out that the guy that ran the label suggested that, because that’s never happened to me! [Laughs] Then, Sept. 11 did happen. But there’s a lot of political stuff on there that’s unrelated to that.
There are a couple of tracks that aren’t particularly political, “The Kind,” for instance.
Yeah, but it’s still about stuff that I care about and my way of thinking. The two that aren’t political at all, that would have fit onto Transcendental Blues, are “The Kind” and the Emmy duet [”I Remember You”], which was the last song that I wrote before Sept. 11. It was the end of the tour, last August, and I came to New York for eight days before I went home. I’m one of the few people who decompresses in New York; it made sense to me after being out on the road. But there’s still a thing that connects them to the rest of the record musically. I just made the record that I had in me, and it turned out to be pretty political this time, and that’s the only difference.
Political songs/albums are so frequently misinterpreted over the years. Do you worry that parts of Jerusalem might suffer the same fate as “This Land Is Your Land” and be misunderstood in 25 years?
Nah, I’m gonna be dead in 25 years. [Laughs] I can’t worry about that, I just don’t have time. I try to do a good enough job writing that people don’t misconstrue things. But you know what, I’ve been writing a long time and I’m still not better than Bruce Springsteen and it happened to him. Some people are going to hear what they want to hear, no matter what you write.
“John Walker’s Blues” is a story song, a style you’ve said comes easy to you. Was this the case?
Yeah, I wrote it pretty quickly. It still required a lot of research. I was up late at night writing it, for the first time in years, because I’ve kinda gotten to be a morning writer. But I was just determined to write a first-person song about John Walker Lindh. I had some research to do. I needed a chorus. I wrote the first verse. And I had the chord progression for the chorus and a vague melody, but I was trying to figure out what the chorus was gonna say. Then I remembered hearing that prayer, which is literally translated, “there is no God, but God.” It doesn’t say, “Allah.” Allah just means “the God.” So I got on islam.com, I swear to fucking God, and I was shocked at how ignorant I was about Islam.
Not a lot of Islamic history taught in our schools.
No, there really isn’t. I think I believed at one point that Islam was this sort of inherently violently evangelical belief system. And the truth of the matter is, like every other major belief system in the world — and I didn’t know that until this year — Muslims worship exactly same god that Christians do. It’s the God of Abraham. And the God of Abraham is the God of Abraham. And I discovered that every devout Muslim in the world, every time he says, “Jesus,” which they say “Esau,” says “peace be upon him,” just like Muhammad’s name, or any of their prophets. They recognize all the whole laundry list of Old Testament prophets. And Muhammad never said that he was the last prophet. But about 300 years after he died, Islam started to say that he was the last prophet and there would be no prophets between him and the end of the world. And that’s a parallel between Christianity and Judaism, I mean; after Christ died, a lot of words were put in his mouth and it’s still happening.
Anyway, the first violence against anyone in this country, after Sept. 11, was against Sikhs. That’s how ignorant we are about anything outside our culture. They weren’t even Muslims. But until that night I didn’t realize how ignorant I was. And how ignorant we are of Islam. And I think our government is encouraging that right now. Simply because they have an agenda of their own that they had before Sept. 11 and that’s to go into Iraq.
One of the most striking things about Lindh’s persecution was his age. He’s hardly the first kid to do something brash or stupid.
That’s my whole connection to it. I have a 20-year-old son. And yeah, the shit I did when I was twenty … I believed a lot of stuff in my heart when I was 20-years-old that I don’t believe now. Some of which was right and some of which was wrong. But holding somebody that accountable … If they had anything that they could have charged him with, they would’ve. This particular case they chose to bring him back and try him in our civil system, and it happened way too behind closed doors and way too quickly and way too quietly and I’m not comfortable with it. We talk a lot about democracy and about unity and those two seem to be at odds with each other right now, which is heartbreaking.
The initial knock was that you “glorify” him.
I do not support John Walker Lindh and what he did. But when you’re writing in the first person, you’re writing in the first person. And you assume that person’s politics, that person’s foibles, his mannerisms, his speech, and the better you get at it, the more you’re gonna be put in the position of saying something that is a little uncomfortable for you to say. I mean, I’ve written from the point of view of much more despicable characters than John Walker Lindh. “Billy Austin” is based more on Gary Gilmore than anyone else. The crime committed in the song is Gary Gilmore’s crime, leaving and going back in as an afterthought and putting a bullet in the back of somebody’s head.
And at the time he committed the crime, John Nobles [a Death Row prisoner Earle befriended] was every fucking one of our nightmares. He was an escalating, sexually-driven serial killer that happened to get caught the first time, or other people would have died. He would have done it again. He believed that. He changed a lot during the time he was locked up, but he didn’t want to be loose, he didn’t trust himself in the world. He wanted to live, but he didn’t want to be out here with us.
Witnessing Nobles’ execution seems to have changed you fundamentally. Did his death affect you spiritually? Do you have a working definition of God?
Jonathan turned out to be a real spiritual person the last few years of his life. It’s funny, the way he approached it was Catholicism. Now I’m not a Christian and I’m not a Jew and I’m not a Muslim. But, yes, I am a spiritual person. If I wasn’t I wouldn’t still be alive. Twelve step programs depend on spirituality to function.
But I don’t visit a lot of guys on Death Row anymore. I try not to make any new friends. I already lost one. Well, I lost seven. And Jonathan, I happened to witness that execution. And most of my guys have been guilty and most of ’em have been executed. With John, I watched him die and I don’t want to ever go through that again, so I protect myself much more than I used to. But I shifted that energy to working in another area that I think is more effective in the long run and that’s a political solution, actually changing the law. So if that means I have to put on a suit and go up to Capitol Hill, then I’ll put on a suit and go up to Capitol Hill. I even had to shake hands with Newt Gingrich once.
Legend has it that he was a big [Texas songwriter] Blaze Foley supporter. Apparently he called Blaze “my own personal Bob Dylan.”
You’re shitting me. You are kidding me. That’s really weird. The thing about Blaze, I knew Blaze very well, and I tell you, I was never a member of the Blaze Foley cult. I thought he was good, but I totally didn’t get that thing. Equating Blaze Foley with Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark and even Richard Thompson is really laughable. When it gets down to just writing.
Speaking of writing, have you heard any of the other Sept. 11-related music — Alan Jackson or Toby Keith’s songs?
I’ve heard ’em. And I don’t have a problem with Alan’s tune. That Iraq/Iran line is unfortunate. But he’s honest and it’s from the heart. I’ll tell you what Toby Keith’s song is all about. In 1982, I had a three-piece rockabilly band and I was opening for Hank Williams Jr. at Billy Bobs. And I was fucking losing it and I was afraid I was gonna get killed. So we played this really trendy place in Dallas the night before and we were at Billy Bob’s the next night in Ft. Worth and I said, “Well we played Dallas last night … it sure is good to be back in Texas.” And they went, YEAHHHHHH! And I played “Bad Moon Rising” and I had ’em for the rest of the set. And that’s what Toby Keith is doing. He has a right to say anything he wants to, but what’s not OK to me, is that it translated into a No. 1 record simply because we’re in a really, really ugly mood in this country. That’s a really ugly song. A big bunch of us went out and bought it and identified with it and that’s just sad.
Do you think you were in a place, personally or creatively, where you could have made this record 15 years ago?
15 years ago, no. There was always a political component to my records. In fact, it was “Good Ol’ Boy (Getting Tough),” a guy at the time with the Boston Phoenix, wrote the one bad review of Guitar Town, ’cause the reviews were pretty glowing for that record. I wasn’t prepared for it, but he saw a problem with the “funny talking man from Iran” line — and I was assuming a character back then. I was doing the exact same thing I was doing in “John Walker’s Blues,” and because of the way he thought politically, he took it to be xenophobic. It never occurred to him that the person singing the song wasn’t me. And I didn’t do it particularly gracefully. I kinda wince when I hear it now. But I know what I was trying to do. But I wasn’t near as good a writer as I am now, and I think I could do it more skillfully now.
Your last album (Transcendental Blues) seemed to have a consistent pop focus, but lyrically it was a little more abstract and not as pointed.
’Cause the last record was mostly chick songs, which was totally relevant for that time in my life, but a lot has happened since then. It was an archaic pop record, and I’m really proud of that record. But this record feels sort of immediate to me. I did have the benefit of the band coming off a year and a half of touring and we were away from each other enough to where we weren’t sick of each other anymore. And it’s a great little four-piece rock band and that’s what most of the record is. I think “Conspiracy Theory” is about the only exception.
Your band has settled into a nice, rumbling Crazy Horse-type sound.
That’s the deal. We’re really loud. Two guitars and bass and drums. And I like that. It’s the only way I know how to make records. I’ve done stuff through tracking and drum loops and stuff, and that’s what “Conspiracy Theory” was, that’s a loop that I put together in my bedroom. To me, it’s cool to do that for one track, but I miss playing with a band. And, we’re kind of retarded, and what we know how to do is get some guys that know how to play and stick some microphones in front of them and turn the fucking tape recorder on. It’s right out there. That’s what I know how to do. [Laughs]
You had talked about wanting to take a break after Transcendental, but really you only got an extra six months more than your usual pace. Did the writing come fast?
I didn’t really want to make another one anytime soon. I was perfectly comfortable with not having another one, because this is like the seventh album in seven and a half years. But I like spending time at home now. But when I write a record, I wanna go out and perform it, because I was taught that songs aren’t finished until you’ve played them for people. Guy Clark said that, and I still take that pretty seriously.
Though neither Townes nor Guy ever released an album as topical as Jerusalem, you can still see the influence: Guy in the story song, Townes in “The Truth” and even some Doug Sahm in “What’s a Simple Man to Do.” Did you still feel the company of the influences on this one?
They influence everything I do. I learned “Dead Flowers” from Townes Van Zandt. I had heard “Dead Flowers,” but it never occurred to me to go out and sing it until I’d heard Townes do it. When I’m playing an acoustic guitar, it’s real obvious how those two guys influenced by playing and my approach to songwriting and performing. When I put on an electric guitar, it’s still there, it’s just not as obvious, because the instrument sounds different. But those guys made a huge imprint there, and I’ll never escape it, and I don’t really want to.
So, amid all the work, do you have any hobbies?
You know, it’s hard to decompress when you have teenagers in the house. But there are things I do for myself, and I don’t do them enough. I fish. I do bonzai. And I have a really entertaining little Australian cattle dog named Bo that I hang out with.
Bonzai? Where’d that come from?
Yeah, I guess it came out of writing haiku. Being interested in Japanese poetry.
Do you take in any sports? Tennessee and Texas are such football hotbeds.
I’ll go to any kind of baseball game. I’ll go to minor league games. I’m going to see the Yankees play this week. I get done [with interviews] just in time to jump on a train. That’s the best, man, getting on the train and heading up to the Bronx for a game.