The Freewheelin’ Steve Earle
What I really wanted to call this post, but it was too long to fit in the above space and kind of presumptive with a touch o’ the mean spirit, was this: “Why Steve Earle has become the person that has fulfilled our generation’s desire of what we had hoped for from Bob Dylan”. This thought came to me last night in Englewood New Jersey, sitting between my fifteen year old son and my forty-one year old nephew. They were the two youngest people in a sparse and not quite half-filled theater, where Steve Earle performed for what will be the fifth time this week within a twenty-five mile radius.
Beginning with playing in Brooklyn last week at the Woody Guthrie 100 year birthday celebration along with Pete Seeger and a cast of other fellow travelers, and ending tomorrow night in Poughkeepsie, it was the solo/acoustic Earle show that allows for him to comfortably stand naked before us, and we are rewarded by spending time with the man rather than the entertainer. As he often does in these settings, he chooses the songs that he wants to play and tells us why, picks the instruments he wants to use, speaks his mind about the issues and topics he wants to share with us, and gives us the opportunity to walk out of the theater knowing more about ourselves than when we walked in. His show is not about him, its about us.
I mention that I was with two people younger than myself for a reason. At sixty, I am of the average age of the people who go to see Steve Earle. Even though I know he is known and loved by many younger folks, it’s been my experience that they talk the talk but don’t show up for the gigs. Which at fifty bucks a pop, is a lot of money these days especially for a college student or someone like me…unemployed and digging into the retirement fund. Like many other people my age, the lyric “hope I die before I get old” becomes an investment strategy more than a lifestyle choice. As has been discussed many times in these pages, the geriatric audience has become the norm for artists like the fifty-seven year old Earle, a sixty-three year old Springsteen and the seventy-one year old Dylan. And I am reminded of a trip I made to Las Vegas in 1993 to see Frank Sinatra at the end of his career, and feeling like a child amongst my elders. The audience always grows old with the artist.
I was late in the game, relatively speaking, to discover the music of Steve Earle, but he has been my touchstone for almost fifteen years now. And although thankfully I never got quite as lost as he did, nor ended up within the walls of a prison, there but fore the grace of God go I. To think that his recovery and redemption is the big story here as is the often told tale, that is not really the truth. For it is the inspirationthat his recovery has given to many of us that is what makes him so important. He is a one man traveling medicine show who leads us not into temptation and delivers us from evil. We learn from his mistakes, we grow as he grows. He puts himself out there. Which leads me to the beginning of this essay.
As I sat last night and listened to Steve talking about ninety-three year old Pete Seeger showing up to last week’s Woody Guthrie celebration, and hearing him speak about the importance of trade unions and teachers, about the effect of Walmart on small towns and people, about how political change comes incrementally and why he’ll vote for four more years of this president, sharing that his two year old son John Henry has been diagnosed with autism, of how with deep regret in the early months of his own recovery that he had forced a teenaged Justin into his truck and took him to wilderness camp for out of control youth and of the opportunity this week to take a break from the road and drive home to Woodstock so he can sleep in his own bed…it was during these moments in the show that I came to this thought…
…Steve Earle has become what many of us wanted and had hoped of for Bob Dylan, but of which has been left unfulfilled. It was Dylan himself in words and action who led us to believe he was the torch carrier of the work and ethics preached (but not necessarily lived) by Woody Guthrie and the folk music tradition. It was Dylan who gave us the poetry, protest and the voice of our youth. And it is Dylan who seems to have grown sour on his own gifts, his song re-inventions held up as genius by many, but what also feels to me as being introverted, self-indulgent and self-loathing. He does not speak, he does not share. He lives in a shrouded mystery that feels to me as being contrived. He does not inspire me. He does not stand naked.
There will be a time someday in the future that the folk singers of our generation will pass on. Pete, Joan, Arlo, Bob and all the many others who have carried the messages and songs throughout the years. But at only fifty-seven, I am hopeful that Steve Earle will have some more time left on the meter. For I believe this world needs his music, his heart and his soul. And I sure need him.