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Steve Earle. (The Progressive Interview).

"Lately I feel like the loneliest man in America," writes Steve Earle in the liner notes of his most recent album, Jerusalem (Artemis). The Texas-native, Nashville-resident raised hackles last year with one song from that album, "John Walker's Blues." It tells the story of the so-called American Taliban, John Walker Lindh, from Lindh's perspective. "I'm just an American boy--raised on MTV / And I've seen all those kids in the soda pop ads / But none of 'em looked like me."

A student of dissent, Earle was prepared for the controversy. Like other radical patriots, he believes he has an obligation to insist on "asking the hardest questions in our darkest hours."

The forty-eight-year-old recovering dope fiend and maverick country rocker rages against the injustices of Enronomics, the death penalty, and the erosion of free speech. An activist, author, playwright, and actor whose primary occupation is singer-songwriter, Earle has the conviction and skill to turn a refusal to be fooled again into great popular music.

With more than a dozen best-selling albums since his groundbreaking Guitar Town in 1986, Earle has obliterated genres: He's a leftwing country singer and hard rocker with a serrated punk edge. A longtime junkie, he got popped twice in '94 in Nashville, did brief jail time, and sought treatment. Now clean and sober, he's released seven albums in seven years. He also wrote a collection of short stories called Doghouse Roses. And he co-founded the BroadAxe Theatre, a company in Nashville that recently produced Karla, a play he wrote about executed Texan Karla Faye Tucker. In his spare time, he played the part of a recovering addict on HBO's The Wire. He's an activist for the international campaign to ban land mines, and he's actively involved in the movement to end the death penalty.

On the suggestion of Artemis Records chief and civil liberties advocate Danny Goldberg, Earle decided to make an album almost entirely devoted to the depressing state of this country and the world. Jerusalem may be his finest album in what has been an extraordinary career. Taking on HMOs, the prison-industrial complex, Wall Street, conspiracy theories, drugs, and maquiladoras, he rose to the challenge of making an urgent album with unforgettable melodies and scrunchy guitars.

I interviewed Earle in Los Angeles on October 7 and by phone from Nashville on October 17. He has the down-to-earthiness of a Texan and a hipster's disdain for what the squares think of him.

Q: What are your feelings on the music business in Nashville?

Steve Earle: A lot of people try to set me up to badmouth Nashville, and I hate the way country radio sounds now. But I didn't like a lot of it in the '80s when I was making records, and I really haven't liked a lot of it in a long time. The music industry in Nashville is no more proportionately conservative than the music business in New York or L.A. All three are driven by the market, all three are corporate, and all three are trying to sell the most records they can. What's changed is Nashville is getting more manufactured acts that are video-friendly, and the songs are created to not offend anybody--that's happened in pop music, too, and it's been a real problem. I think the proportion of garbage to art is the same. There's a percentage of genuinely talented artists in the world. Some of them go to Nashville, some of them go to L.A., some of them go to New York.

In the last few years, everybody in the record industry has been talking about, "Yeah, we've got to get ready because all music's going to be downloaded." And I'm going, "Wait a minute, that's assuming that most people have computers. Most people don't have computers." Everything that's being thrown at us right now is completely and totally geared towards marketing to not even middle class people but upper middle class people, and it's kind of frightening. We've forgotten about a blue collar segment in America. Those people are completely and totally disenfranchised and completely and totally forgotten about. It's like, "Fuck off and go work at McDonald's." And that's kind of scary to me.

Q: Explain your song "John Walker's Blues."

Earle: If intelligent people hear the whole song, they realize that he could have been their kid which was the whole point of the song. All I was doing was trying to humanize him.

Q: Rightwing pundits were accusing you of being "the Jane Fonda of the war on terrorism" and worse. Radio host Steve Gill said your song "celebrates and glorifies a traitor to this country." Now that you have discussed it ad nauseum for months, how do you feel about it?

Earle: So I pissed off the New York Post and Steve Gill! So what? If I'm not pissing those people off, then I quit. I didn't think anybody else was going to write this song. I saw something different than most people. I saw an underfed twenty-year-old kid, and I've got a skinny twenty-year-old. John Walker Lindh deserves to be judged as a human being--not as a poster child for what we're afraid of at the moment. That scapegoating has always been dangerous. It killed Sacco and Vanzetti.

When you try as hard to kill yourself as I did with drugs and you don't die, you're around for a reason. And whenever I see something that I have an opportunity to do, I have to do it. I absolutely have to. It's a spiritual imperative. My spiritual system is the twelve-step program. It just requires that I believe that there's a God, and it ain't me, and that there aren't any accidents. I don't believe in accidents [laughs].

Q: On Jerusalem, you wisecrack, "Hey, let's wage a war on drugs!" Yet you've said that jail saved your life. That seems like a paradox.

Earle: It wasn't jail that saved me, it was treatment. But if I hadn't gotten locked up, I probably wouldn't have gotten treatment and I probably would've died. But I don't give any credit to the way we deal with people who commit drug crimes whether they're possession crimes or whether they're drug-related property crimes. I was locked up in a dormitory-type unit with fifty guys, and there wasn't a single person on my unit that was a threat to anybody but himself. It was a huge waste of money to lock us up. I got into treatment because I was willing to pay for it myself. There was a treatment unit in the jail, but very few people got to use it. I wouldn't have been eligible if I hadn't been willing to pay for it myself.

The only thing that works is treatment, and it doesn't always work. And prohibition on drugs does the same thing as prohibition on alcohol did. I don't take any drugs. My own personal experience: Marijuana leads to heroin. That's what happened to me [laughs]. Scares the fuck out of me if my kid smokes pot. Scares the living shit out of me. But when you try to legislate it, you step off the deep end immediately. You want to solve the drug problem in the inner cities in the United States? Give poor people a roof over their heads and enough to eat and an equal shot at an education. The drug problem will go away. I really and truly believe that. When you're working the demand side, you don't do it by locking the junkies up. You do it by creating a social environment where people don't have to be on drugs every day just to deal with their despair.

Q: Is there a connection between your sobriety and your anti-death-penalty activism?

Earle: Well, I was opposed to the death penalty before I got sober, and I wrote "Billy Austin" long before I got sober. "Billy Austin" is really what brought the movement to me. My opposition to the death penalty probably goes back to reading In Cold Blood for the first time as a kid. That book does a really good job when it gets down to the execution--showing how it dehumanizes everyone involved in the process. You know that scene where he's heard that people soil themselves when they're hanged, and he's concerned about that. And so he wants them to take the harness off him so he can go to the bathroom one more time. And he's told initially that there's no time, and then the minister intervenes, and then they very quickly unbuckle him and let him go to the bathroom, and they buckle him back up, and then they hang him.

I've always had this sort of sense about what was wrong with it and the way it made me feel. When I got clean I stayed away from it for a while until it found me again, and that was Dead Man Walking [for which Earle wrote "Ellis Unit One"]. And I guess I looked at it differently. Dead Man Walking led to meeting people that worked with Murder Vic tims' Families for Reconciliation and Journey of Hope from Violence to Healing--which were mindblowers. These are people whose family members have been murdered and still they oppose the death penalty. And that was very consistent with recovery--that idea of reconciliation and forgiveness. At the Dead Man concert in L.A., I met these people from Murder Victims' Families and from Journey of Hope. The people from the Journey invited me to come to Texas, and I went expecting to stay a couple days and play a few songs. I ended up staying for the whole two weeks.

Q: Two weeks? What did you do?

Earle: I was traveling around Texas in vans, and I was sleeping in churches and putting on rallies that sixty people would show up for. Or I'd be picking people up at the airport, which is how I met Sara [Sharpe], my girlfriend, because she came down with the Tennessee coalition to travel with the Journey the last week. It was real-life on-the-ground activism. I was washing dishes and doing whatever had to be done, and it was a life-changing thing.

Q: You witnessed the execution of Jonathan Nobles. How did you get to know him?

Earle: The correspondence started years ago. There were several guys that wrote me, and then I wrote them back. And then I didn't hear from Jon for about three or four years until shortly after getting involved with Journey. He said he had an execution date and asked if I would witness.

I'd never met him face-to-face. I thought about it, and I talked to a lot of people. And I decided that there was a reason for me to do it, and that's why it found me and I did it. I don't recommend it to anybody. But Jon didn't have much in the way of family.

Q: What was it like?

Earle: It was very surreal. I was really surprised at the empathy that I had for the people that participated in the execution. It was real obvious to me that they were being harmed, too. And it reinforced my idea that my main objection to the death penalty isn't about trying to save anybody on death row. It's about, "If this is a democracy and the government kills somebody, then I'm killing somebody." I object to the damage that it does to my spirit. It's really, really simple.

Q: You've called yourself a "warmed over Marxist." What do you mean by that?

Earle: I believe everything Karl Marx said about economics. I think the biggest mistake he made is he forgot that you'll never make a revolution with the people by ignoring poor people's spirituality because it's all we got. But yeah, I believe nobody should go hungry in the richest country in the world. Period. It pisses me off. I don't believe the United States has the purest form of democracy in the world, and I hate that we teach our children that. I think it limits us.

Q: It's a lie?

Earle: It's a total lie. There are social democracies in Europe that are much more democratic than we are--several of them.

Q: One of my favorite Steve Earle songs is "I Ain't Ever Satisfied." Since getting sober are you more satisfied?

Earle: No. I'm just not as hard on myself. I'm happier. I think I see things clearer. I remember standing right next to a rabbi whose name I can't remember, who supports the death penalty but was willing to work for a moratorium in Illinois. I'm willing to do that now. When purism becomes, "No, you have to think the way I do," the process stops. And I'm all about the process. I demand, because the Constitution says I may demand, that I am allowed to be a radical and to participate in the process as a radical. I'm not a liberal; I'm a radical.

Q: In "Ashes to Ashes" you sing, "Every tower ever built tumbles / No matter how strong no matter how tall / Someday even great walls will crumble." Is the United States going to collapse under its own empire-sized weight?

Earle: The British Empire did. The Roman Empire did. And that's OK. That entropy is OK. Every empire thinks it is going to last forever. And being shortsighted is what's wrong with this country right now. We're going to drill for oil until there's no more oil. The reason there aren't alternative sources of energy right now is because there's still oil. It's like, "Yes I know that it's really, really bad for the planet. Yes, I know that it makes us dependent on oil from other sources because we've pretty much used our reserves up within our borders. But we're gonna keep drilling for oil because there's money to be made." We've become so shortsighted that we just can't stop. And our grandchildren are going to pay a horrible price for that. I don't think it will be our great-grandchildren at the rate we're going.

Michael Simmons is an activist, musician, and journalist. He's written more than 100 articles on medical marijuana and is currently writing books on both the Yippies and the MC 5/White Panthers.
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Author:Simmons, Michael
Publication:The Progressive
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 1, 2003
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