Three Chords and Some Hard Questions

By - Aug 1st, 2003 02:52 pm
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By Richard Walters

These are arguably the most difficult and frightening times within memory to be an American citizen. Not since the days of Kent State have we confronted so disturbing a landscape, in which our role as citizens is so much in question, or in which our moral compass seems to have been misplaced along with our cell phones. For the current crop of middle-agers, the political context of that time, thirty or forty years ago, was much simpler, much more comprehensible. There was one big issue (the war), one big bad guy (the government), and one big solution (love one another/give peace a chance/power to the people). It wasn’t so much a question of what should be done, as much as what shouldn’t: stop the war, and the rest would fall into place.

Today, though, the problem is that no clear dragon presents itself for beheading. Rather, we confront a wearying mass of issues with no apparent solution, until a single galvanizing event, the Trade Center tragedy, is offered to us as a focal point. With it we are given “them” to hate and blame it on, and our government embarks on its response abroad, with wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and domestically, with the PATRIOT Act, electronic surveillance on an unsurpassed scale, suspension of civil rights, and the death penalty at every turn. Questioning the government’s leadership has become unpatriotic in the eyes of many, and anything less than unqualified support for the wars has become nearly treasonous.

Where have all the voices gone?

Against this backdrop, the voices of protest and activism in popular music are largely silent. Unlike the days of the Great Folk Scare, and the politicization of rock in the 70s, today we hear virtually nothing of questions or doubts in the musical media. The amalgam of Clear Channel/Sony/Dreamworks and other media powerhouse corporations has provided a platform on today’s focus-group formula radio for such performers as Toby Keith and Darryl Worley, both embarrassingly right wing. The difference between the two, both mainstream country chart toppers, is merely stylistic — Worley’s maudlin, jingoistic sycophancy for anything in desert camouflage, and Keith’s redneck, bullying “we’ll plant a boot in your ass” aggression. As a friend recently observed, “The lines between Country Music Television, NASCAR and the WWF are getting pretty blurry, even when I haven’t been drinking.” He could have thrown Fox “News” and “reality television” into the mix as well.

So what do we have for voices, not even on the left, but simply other than the hard right?

Well, there’s Bruce Cockburn, doomed however unjustly to being typecast as incessantly beating the drum about the Third World. There’s Ani deFranco, with her (some would say) over-shared personal growth. And then there’s Steve Earle.

Enter Steve Earle.

For those who have been locked away in a monastery for the last few years, Steve Earle is quite possibly the finest songwriter at work in popular music today, and certainly the most controversial. In September of last year, he released his most recent album, entitled Jerusalem, and provoked a firestorm of outrage. Even prior to the album’s official release, Earle propelled controversy and anger all over Nashville with the mere mention of the song “John Walker’s Blues”. Written from the viewpoint of the so-called “American Taliban”, the song was seized upon as somehow glorifying Walker, and Earle was denounced roundly as a treasonous sympathizer.

To put Earle’s music and politics in perspective, a brief background is in order. Not yet quite fifty years old, he has been writing and performing since his teens. He was also a heroin addict at sixteen, and has been married six times, to five different women. Along the way he created the album Guitar Town in 1985, which propelled him to critical and commercial success, and then proceeded to destroy his career in a progression of business and personal struggles. After a self-described four-year “vacation in the ghetto” (with heroin and crack for company), jail, and rehab, he returned with the acoustic album Train a-Comin’.

He has been on a creative roll ever since. Earle is a voracious reader, self-educated, and deeply politically astute, freely bouncing from Marx to Voltaire in conversation. He is also no stranger to controversy, and indeed seems to invite it (this is, after all, the man who called country-glam diva Shania Twain “the highest-paid lapdancer in America”). In the aftermath of the Trade Center disaster, he undertook the Jerusalem album, telling his manager, “There’s times to write songs about girls, and there’s times when there’s just too much going on. This is going to be one of those ‘too much goin’ on’ records.
Earle speaks from within.

What Earle has had from the beginning, in addition to a keen sense of song craftsmanship, is the ability to adopt a point of view and to speak from within character. His songs speak from the plights and situations of ordinary people, rather than from about them. On “John Walker’s Blues”, he assumes Walker’s character, introducing himself as “just an American boy, raised on MTV”, who “looked at those kids in the soda pop ads, and none of them looked like me”. He then goes on to describe Walker’s attempt to find meaning, and how fundamentalist ideology got him to where he ended up, “with my head in a sack”. The point, missed in the furor and talk-show noise, was not to glorify Walker, but rather to ask the question, “How does a twenty-year old American kid end up like this?” In a conversation after a Milwaukee appearance last November, he also observed, “No one seems to want to ask why millions of people can hate us so much.”

Earle adopts a similar approach in “What’s a Simple Man to Do?”, in which a Mexican man writes a letter home from jail after being busted for selling drugs on a street corner subsequent to losing his job in the maquiladora. Elsewhere, he gets his arms around the current malaise in “Amerika 6.0 (The best we can do),” when he writes “I remember when we were both out on the boulevard, talkin’ revolution and singin’ the blues/ Nowadays letters to the editor and cheatin’ on our taxes is the best we can do.”

He has been a tireless campaigner for activist causes, lending his support to farmer’s rights, the land mine campaign, and most especially, the campaign to abolish the death penalty. His song “Ellis Unit One” was part of the soundtrack for the film “Dead Man Walking”, and again assumes the perspective of a guard at Texas’ notorious execution chamber to present the brutality of capital punishment. Perhaps most effective of all, the song “Over Yonder (Jonathan’s Song)” gives the resigned view of a death row inmate on the eve of execution. It was written for Jonathon Wayne Nobles, an inmate with whom Earle became friends through his work in the abolition movement, and who asked him to witness his execution at Ellis Unit One.

In an earlier interview, Earle described the horror of that experience, which he said still gives him nightmares, and offered this on the death penalty: “We are all responsible every time someone’s executed. There is no ‘them.’ That’s where my objection to the death penalty comes from. I object to the damage it does to my spirit if I kill somebody. And if my government kills somebody in what’s ostensibly a democracy, then I’m killing somebody, period… and I think that when we kill any human being, we perpetuate violence.”

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