Steve Earle – “I have an agenda, and I am unapologetic about that agenda”
It does no good pretending that the community which meets among these pages shares a political perspective. We don’t, and if this is one of the rare places in American culture where liberals and conservatives plow common ground, so much the better.
Still, some would prefer that politics not intrude here. They will probably wish to avoid Steve Earle’s new record, Jerusalem, for it is, in spots, as calculated a collection of agitpop as any album since Public Enemy’s It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back.
Earle’s politics, and particularly “John Walker’s Blues”, the song he wrote from the perspective of the so-called American Taliban, make Jerusalem easy to caricature, whether you agree or disagree with him. Placed alongside the last six records he has made, nearly one a year since he emerged from the dullness of drugs and the tedium of jail with 1995’s Train A Comin’, it tells a more durable story: Earle is still pushing himself, working his words hard, exploring new sounds, trying new things.
Songs worth arguing about — any art worth paying attention to — are the inevitable product of the passions of their authors. Steve Earle is nothing if not a passionate man. (Yes, he has five ex-wives to prove it, but that’s not the point.) He is serious, almost to obsession, about making art. He has written a volume of short stories; he is co-founder of the Broadax theater company, for whom he has written his first play; he acts a little. With E-Squared, recently closed as an active label, he tried his hand as an entrepreneur, a Marxist at play among capitalists.
Mostly, though, he’s one hell of a songwriter.
Like Billy Joe Shaver, Earle had an eighth-grade education and a good Christian raising. Everything else, he taught himself. Imagine Henry Miller as a jailhouse lawyer, with Townes Van Zandt for a mentor.
Despite the pre-release hysteria, “John Walker’s Blues” is not the focal point of Jerusalem. It is a relatively small, simple song; a change of pace. The furor was started by Aly Sujo, a writer for the New York Post, who had heard about the song during a visit to Nashville. He tracked down a copy of Jerusalem as soon as advances were available, then alerted a Nashville talk-show host (who had once been Earle’s attorney in an assault case), and the polemics began.
In the end, Sujo e-mailed, “I’d intended to get Earle’s ear and maybe get my demo over to his label. Instead, I’m off Artemis’ mailing list and probably on his shit list.”
Earle was in Italy when the furor began, and there he stayed until his vacation was over. We spoke at his home shortly after his return in mid-August.
I. WE DO HAVE THE FREEDOM TO PRINT OR BROADCAST ANYTHING WE WANT
STEVE EARLE: I think art’s inherently political, anyway. And I don’t go out of my way to make political art, the vast majority of the time. But, then September 11 happened. My first thought on September 11th was, and I’ll catch hell for this, but my first thought was, every bit of work that me and everybody I know has done against the death penalty for the last ten years is going down the drain right when we were finally getting somewhere.
I have an agenda, and I am unapologetic about that agenda. I totally understand the victim’s side of it, better than a lot of people do. I work with murder victims’ family members who are opposed to the death penalty.
One song on this record already existed. “The Truth” was recorded for the Free The West Memphis Three record. Hardly anyone heard that record. The first new song I wrote was “Ashes To Ashes”. And “Ashes To Ashes” is my 9-11 song. It’s coming from a completely different place than every other song that I’ve heard that deals with that. But, all the other areas are covered.
For me, the question that no one was asking, was: What have we done to make people hate us so much that they’ll fly two airplanes with people screaming and begging for their lives into the World Trade Center? Who is the House of Saud, and why [does] the media never suggest that most of the people in Saudi Arabia are just as opposed to the very existence of the [ruling] House of Saud as they are to us? They see the privileged among their own people aligning themselves with the United States and basically, economically occupying their homeland. It’s about money, and it’s about oil.
Within weeks after [9-11], the attorney general of the United States threatened a Senate committee, suggesting that any of them that tried to oppose anything that the administration did in this time of emergency, in this time of war, was unpatriotic. All my fucking alarms went off. I’ve seen it before. I’m 47 years old. I grew up with the Vietnam War on television. I’ve seen this before.
The FBI went after Abbie Hoffman and hundreds of other people, thousands of other people. And it wasn’t because they were being un-American, it was because they were fucking with something that a very few people were making a lot of money off of.