Steve Earle – Love and death
Asked about Nashville vs. New York, Earle describes it in philosophic rather than geographic terms, saying that New York is where he’s always wanted to live, and where he might want to spend the rest of his life.
“Part of it was the last couple of elections, and being really heartbroken,” he says. “And it was realizing that, even though I am in better health than I’ve ever been, I might not be one of these days. What if I have a stroke? Or what if I have a heart attack? I don’t necessarily think that’s going to happen soon, but do I want to be in Tennessee if it does? I’ve been able to live here for 30 years because I travel a lot. But what if somebody clips my wings? Where do I want them clipped? New York City or Nashville, Tennessee? That’s a no-brainer for me.”
The cinematic “Down Here Below”, the second (and arguably strongest) track on Washington Square Serenade, charts Earle’s arrival in New York as an anthemic mash-up, jump-cutting from a penthouse view of the city through the bird’s-eye of Central Park celebrity hawk Pale Male down to a pavement ghost walk with the late, great New Yorker writer Joseph Mitchell.
“It’s sort of both talking-blues and hip-hop, by somebody who is old enough and listens enough to know that they’re the same thing,” says Earle. “It’s built around a beat that I programmed. I’d never written anything quite like that. It was literally written in Pro Tools. But most of this record was written the way I normally write — which is sitting on the edge of the bed with a guitar.”
The fact that Washington Square Serenade is more intimate and experimental in its scope is strictly purposeful, Earle says. And he’s good with that. It’s also noticeably less political than his two previous records, which is something he struggled with.
“I owed myself a more personal record,” he says. “I don’t have any regrets about two overtly political records in a row. And that kind of politics is personal for me. But that being said, somebody else can step up to the plate and let me do this, and then I’ll be back out there at some point — trust me. This is not an apolitical record. But the main business at hand was personal.”
There’s certainly nothing on Washington Square Serenade as controversial as Earle’s imaginings of the thoughts of American Taliban fighter John Walker Lindh that appeared on Jerusalem. But he does eagerly, if artfully, address current immigration policy on “City Of Immigrants”, a big-hearted celebration of the proposition that “all of us are immigrants,” recorded with the Brazilian band Forro. And on “Steve’s Hammer”, he pays tribute to the icon of the Great Folk Scare, Pete Seeger, while wishing, but not quite believing, there might be a day when being “political” won’t be necessary, when he “won’t sing no more angry songs.”
“I’m a real genuine radical, and I’m unapologetic about it, and I always have been,” Earle says. “People that didn’t figure that out, and thought that some big change came upon me when I wrote ‘John Walker’s Blues’, just weren’t paying attention. ‘Copperhead Road’ is a pretty political song and the character singing it is not me. I’d love to think that it’s working people in the middle of America who are buying my records. But that’s not true, and it’s never been true. It’s intellectuals in big cities who buy my records, and it always has been. And I’m completely and totally OK with that. By the same token, I do think that I communicate in terms that regular people can understand more readily than, say, Noam Chomsky.”
Besides finishing Washington Square Serenade this year, Earle has been busy with several other projects. He has a show on the Outlaw Country channel on Sirius satellite radio called “Hard Core Troubadour Radio” — something he sings about on the beat-heavy tune “Satellite Radio”. He’s back for another season as Waylon on the HBO police drama The Wire, and his cover of Tom Waits’ “Way Down In The Hole” will be featured as the series’ theme song this season.
And then there’s the novel Earle has been trying to finish for quite some time. “It’s about a defrocked doctor living in San Antonio, Texas, in 1963,” says Earle. “He’s a heroin addict and he supports his habit by performing abortions and patching up gunshot wounds in the middle of the night. Ten years earlier, he was traveling with Hank Williams when he died. And when he gets really fucked up, Hank’s ghost shows up.”
As most serious country music fans know, Hank Williams died on January, 1 1953, at age 29, in the back seat of his Cadillac, on the way to a show in Canton, Ohio. As most serious alt-country fans know, Earle’s friend and mentor, singer-songwriter Townes Van Zandt, died on January 1, 1997, at age 52, at his home in Nashville.
Earle, who was born on January 17, 1955, will be 53 next year. He says he has suddenly become keenly conscious of how good living is — and, oddly enough, how important it is to spend some time thinking about dying.
One of the prettiest songs on Washington Square Serenade is called “Days Aren’t Long Enough”. It was co-written with Moorer, and she gloriously harmonizes with her husband as they sing about their love, as two people who aren’t taking anything for granted.
“Even after I got clean,” Earle says, “I didn’t think I was going to live. I’m sort of surprised to still be here. Being fatalistic, I figured that after getting clean, I’d drop dead or a 747 would land in my living room or something stupid like that. But it didn’t happen, and I’m still here, and there comes a point when you figure that out. I obviously missed the boat on living fast and dying young and leaving a good-looking corpse. And so did Townes, for that matter. I’m acutely aware of that.
“But, personally, I think it’s good to put energy into figuring out what dying is all about, if that’s what you’re really doing. Because everybody’s got to do it. It’s probably a good idea to prepare yourself for it. Or not. You can make that choice too. But it’s probably less interesting to pretend that it’s not going to happen. It’s hard for a writer to pretend that it’s not going to happen and write anything with any weight to it.
“But you also have to get busy living. I never believed that being miserable or being fucked up was conducive to art. I never bought it. I think I write a lot better songs now than I did when I was fucked up. I still haven’t made a record that sold as well in the United States as Copperhead Road. But I think I’ve made better records than Copperhead Road. I know I’m a better singer than I was back then. And I know I’m a better writer for one reason: I lived.”
Bob Townsend lives in Atlanta, where he writes a lot for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. But he loves New York, and travels there often with his partner, Lisa, who grew up in Manhattan.