Lone Star revolutionary
by Tim Cumming
[ people - october 04 ]
Country singer-songwriter Steve Earle has been nominated for eight Grammy awards since his first album Guitar Town came out in 1986. He's also attracted controversy for his campaign against the death penalty and - more recently - for his song 'John Walker's Blues', which tries to make sense of The American Taliban's conversion to fundamentalism.
What is the context for revolution - the US constitution, or direct action, protest, involvement, or a more fundamental overturning of existing order?
Right now the revolution is about not losing any more ground. We're going through a period - it's not the first but it's one of the worst in the constitution's history. We have to get back to square one. I trust the constitution but you have to be vigilant.
The other part of revolution right now is waking up to what the fuck happened. It's not about Them. There's always a Them. There's supposed to be a Them. It's part of the natural balance of things. I think we went to sleep. The very same people who stopped the Vietnam War stopped being involved. People have kids and other concerns, but you can't really afford to let your guard down. America has become a different country going in a completely different direction from when I was growing up. And I think we have to take responsibility for that.
What's happening in England is not that different. I always thought Blair and Clinton had a lot in common, and I hold them responsible. Without a Democratic president behaving more like a Republican, I don't think George W Bush would've been possible. It's a very, very scary world we're in right now; I grew up being taken to bomb shelters during the Cuban Missile crisis, and I find this much more frightening.
This country always needs something to be afraid of. What we've picked to be afraid of is definitely something to fear - something that comes from outside our culture that we're afraid of but don't understand. We're fighting a war against the wrong enemy sometimes, and if we find the enemy that's threatening us, we give it no understanding at all.
Meanwhile, we're cutting ourselves off from the rest of the world. After September 11 everyone was on our side, and we've scuppered that in an amazingly short period of time.
How has America changed since Jerusalem and the furore over John Walker's Blues?
I was touring Norway when the invasion happened. I played Shepherds Bush Empire nine days after Natalie Main (SIC) made that statement on stage, and nobody cared when I walked on with a T-shirt saying Fuck the War, because everyone knows I'm a pinko. When Natalie did it, it really threatened people, and the people it threatened have a whole lot of power, like the group who own Clear Channel.
I wanted to ask about censorship.
This censorship is funny. Even though there's no legal way, the problem is with privatising every fucking thing into this conglomerate with a huge amount of power so it can do what it wants. Some things should never be privatised for that reason: you can govern all you want, but if you're not governing anything, it doesn't make any difference.
Do you think you'll be a vilified figure again, as you were after John Walker's Blues?
Maybe, but the people who were pissed off over John Walker's Blues were people I was trying to piss off. No one intelligent questioned my right to say what I want. Most people understood what I wanted to say. And I think now the tide's turning, people are starting to wake up. It's going to be a close election, but Kerry is in there. Then after that the real work starts.
What do you see happening after the election?
We all know that saying something and doing it in politics are two different things, but the one thing he can do and that he really understands to be the imperative thing to do is to start repairing this country's relationships with the world. And if we can do that, then we're back in the game. He'll have to do it, because he's smart enough to realise we need that help to get us out of the mess we're in.
What do think will happen if Bush gets a second term?
I can't bring myself to even think about that. I can't do that till after the election. If it happens, I'll just deal with it calmly then. You'll see me then. I'm coming to Europe the day after the election. I'm touring in the States right up to election night.
What are the touring plans, and what kind country to expect to encounter when you're taking this album to the nation?
The vast majority of shows are in swing states. We're doing Nashville, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Michigan, which are all battleground states. We're probably going to play DC, Chicago and New York. It's really important for all my ex-wives that I play New York and Chicago, because about a third of my record sales are from there. The last two nights before the election we're playing New York. A night at the Webster Hall, and on election night we're at CBGBs.
So you'll be preaching to the unconverted?
Yeah. My audience don't all agree with me about everything. But at least they're okay with having this dialogue. I'm pretty proud of them for that, especially in this day and age.
Is fascism, albeit in a consumer-led, corporate form rather than a fascism of military imposition, a real possibility?
I think it's fairly obvious abroad and here at home that this administration is about giving absolutely free rein to the market, so that the market dictates everything. Well, capitalism is OK as an economic thing, but it makes a really fucking bad religion. As soon as the market is going to take care of people, it becomes an amazingly naive belief. Probably a more accurate way of describing it is not caring about anyone else as long as you're doing alright.
We're getting that here.
You have the virus. You tested positive, and it's contagious, and it's spreading in England in a big fucking way. You've got your own problems there to deal with. It's happening all over Europe. Ireland's changing so much. It's frighteningly fucking American what's happening in that country.
Certain institutions you take for granted are being chipped away at. Every time I've come to England people have been chipping away at the NHS - we have to wait all this time, blah blah blah - and you're going to end up with a rich bunch of doctors running everything in your healthcare system if you're not careful.
And it's important that people shouldn't be penalised because they're not entrepreneurial. You have the right to go to work and do a job of work and come home and play with the kids, and you shouldn't be penalised for not being entrepreneurial.
What other performers are in the same ballpark in terms of this election?
There's the Vote for Change concerts: Bruce Springsteen is doing them, REM, John Mellencamp, Bonnie Raitt, Ketmo - people who aren't really known for political music, but they're citizens, and they decided it was time to do something. They're registering voters and raising money for the last mile of the Kerry campaign. And I think it's great.
Do you think there'll be a bigger turnout than for the last election?
I think so. That's the biggest enemy. People's attitude out there a couple of years ago was their vote didn't really count, because the last election was stolen. It's that we have to overcome if we don't overcome anything else. A democracy always works if you participate in it.
Could you talk about the recording of the album.
I had two songs I really wanted heard before the election - Rich Man's War and The Revolution Starts Now, and I was just forced into a situation where if I wanted to Get it out before the election I had a deadline to meet.
I literally was waking up with a blank piece of paper and going home 13 or 14 hours later with a finished track. I've never made a record that way before and I don't think I want to do it again, if I can help it. But I'm really proud of it, there's a sort of immediacy to the whole thing. There's a vibe to it, that kind of urgency throughout the record.
It reminds me of John Lennon's Instant Karma, and bringing it like as fast as a newspaper.
Right. All this stuff is topical, and there is a danger in writing topical stuff, because it can become outdated. But I think there's stuff that'll transcend the period it was written in.
Songs like Rich Man's War or Home to Houston are short stories in song form, and it's amazing they're written in a day.
Home to Houston was written very quickly, in like three or four hours.
Since Doghouse Roses, and the plays, have they influenced your song-writing?
Absolutely. I never would have written Warrior without my involvement in the theatre. That came about this way. The template is the prologue to Henry V. I woke up one morning and the Branagh version of Henry V was on the television, and I had that riff lying around, we'd been playing it on sound checks, so I got an actor friend who was staying with me to come in and I downloaded the Henry V prologue from the internet and had him read it, and then I got the track. And I went back, and using that as a template, meaning the same number of lines, and they're all iambic pentameters, I wrote Warrior. I never would've done that. This is one of those things where this is my day job, this is what I do all the time, and I'm much more likely to get lazy about this then when I'm writing prose or writing for a play. I did this the way I made the Bluegrass record. I was using muscles I had never used before.
It's a great, a chilling song. Is the voice of it the voice of the eternal warrior figure?
Absolutely. I think the people that are getting disrespected the most in the whole process, who get forgotten about are the soldiers. This is an anti-war record from the perspective of people on the front lines. Whether they're truck drivers or soldiers. And that's what most of the songs ended up being about. When I wrote Warrior, somebody said oh, it's like Jim Morrison, and I said fuck Jim Morrison, I'm trying to be Patti Smith. [laughter] I'm really proud of it, y'know.
There's one bit of the guitar that has an echo of The End in it.
Yeah, it's in there, no doubt about it. It actually sounded more like the end when I first started playing it. The riff the song is hung on is important, it's heavy. And what I was playing in between the verses was a bit too much like The End so I modified it.
There's two personal, kind of love songs on the album.
Well, I think you should know they're more about sex than love. Not normal for me, but in this particular case - I think it's because I'm single, but it's more about sex. Coming Around was written for a film called Unfinished Life, coming out in the US at Christmas. And it's Robert Redford, Morgan Freeman and Jennifer Lopez. I was asked to write a song for the closing credits and I wrote it as a duet for Emmylou Harris, and the people speaking in the song are the people from the film, and they're based on the characters from the film, but there's a lot of me in them too. I'm going through a period in my life where you know my life's changed more in a year and a half probably more than it ever has.
Personally, or in other ways too?
I've just kind of given up for the time being on cohabiting with people. My girlfriend bailed out, and I decided, you know what? - I need to give this a rest for awhile. So I'm living by myself, and I'm kind of digging it. I wouldn't live with me. I'm gone all the time. 200 shows a year, and I do other stuff. So I'm gone a lot.
Are you approaching road-warrior status like Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson?
I have for a long time. I am absolutely allergic to being within the city limits of one municipality for longer than 30 days. And I always have been.
Is it a nomadic drive in you?
I like to travel and see other folks and see what they're doing. I wish more Americans could travel anywhere near as much as I do, because, you know, Europeans cross international borders in order to stay employed. We don't have to do that here. Most people live out their whole lives in the country, and it makes us insular and it makes us narrow.
Is that nomadic drive something that drew you to being a musician?
I think I do what I do because it's what I was put here to do. If you believe in that kind of stuff. I base that on having gone through a period in my life when I was not taking particularly good care of the gift I was given; really bad stuff happened, and as soon as I stopped and started taking care of it again, bad stuff stopped happening to me. [laughter] So I don't believe in accidents.
What were your early song-writing influences?
Originally The Beatles, because they were the first people I realised wrote their own songs. And then because I didn't have an electric guitar I started on people like Bob Dylan and Tim Buckley and Tim Hardin, people who didn't play electric guitar. My dad wouldn't let me have one, because there were five kids. It would've been a fucking racket.
I've heard you talk about Townes Van Zandt. What was his influence?
I was lucky. I met Townes when I was 17, and believe me, Townes was pretty much at the height of his powers, and it's pretty impressive thing if you're 17 and want to be a songwriter.
Did you pick up on his way of writing at all?
I write more like Guy Clark than like Townes. I kind of write nearer that most of the time, but I'm much prouder of the stuff in Townes' direction. I would like for Townes to have heard Warrior. Because Townes thought in iambic pentameter. He was a very poetic songwriter. I don't think songwriters are poets. Poetry is a much more hardcore discipline. I base this on the experience of writing poetry myself. But I think he was dealing in poetics all the time, and Guy is more of a story songwriter who writes prose that happens to rhyme. And I really come from that school most of the time.
Do you want to get back to writing about women and whisky and cars?
Absolutely. That's why we gotta win this election so that I can write chick songs again.
I'm wondering if you'll publish any of those poems of yours.
Yeah, probably. I've got about 14 or 15 free verse things and a whole shit load of haiku. But right now, I'm writing a novel, and I'd probably publish that first, some time in 2006. I want to finish it next year, because I've got this record and I'm gonna have to tour.