War On War

Steve Earle wonders what's so funny 'bout peace, love and understanding

Steve Earle is a political role model to some now, but that wasn't always the case. Sure, he looked like he was doing something, appearing at rallies with guitar in hand, but he didn't really care. Back then, this was Earle's version of Getting Involved: "I rolled up in the limo, got out and sang a song, got back in the limo and left." Well, he did get out of the car, at least. There was that. And that happened all the time. Earle was just another guy who confused the best he could do with all he could be doing. He was trying to beat the devil, but he wasn't really playing for the angels.

That was a decade or so ago. Before he went to the joint, before he stopped shooting dope. Before his vision improved. You see things with a different set of eyes after you've been looking at the world from the inside of a cage, get a new perspective when you take your foot out of the grave and kick the dirt off your boot. This was also long before Danny Goldberg, who runs the label Earle now records for, Artemis, urged him to put his politics on tape, and before 9/11 made him warm up to the idea. Before he wrote and recorded September's Jerusalem, the kind of album Noam Chomsky would cut if he'd grown up with guitars instead of textbooks.

So the man on the phone now, his voice as high and Texan as the flag in front of the Capitol building in Austin, bears little resemblance to the one you might have seen onstage at a benefit back then, itching to get back to the limousine. He talks about his work to abolish capital punishment, explains why the war on drugs is every bit as futile as the war in Vietnam was and the war in Iraq will be, questions the government. Questions everything, really. Earle is, after all, the same songwriter who has a track on his latest disc titled "Conspiracy Theory."

Steve Earle still feels all right asking the questions no one wants to answer.
Michael Wilson
Steve Earle still feels all right asking the questions no one wants to answer.
Portrait of the activist as a young musician: Steve Earle, on his way to Guitar Town.
Melody Gimple
Portrait of the activist as a young musician: Steve Earle, on his way to Guitar Town.

But it's not just talk. Earle doesn't only perform at the rallies now; he organizes some of them. He's testified before Congress and appeared on more political talk shows than most senators. He puts his money where his mouth is, and he puts his mouth wherever there is something that doesn't sit right with him.

If you want a short list, pick up a copy of Jerusalem. There, Earle declares war on war (mourning Vietnam's "50,000 sons who never grew to fathers" in "Conspiracy Theory") and takes on HMOs (snarling at "the accountants playin' God and countin' out the pills" in "Amerika v.6.0 (The Best We Can Do)," while rolling the Stones). He sticks up for illegal aliens ("What's a Simple Man to Do?") and inmates ("The Truth," which is that "what scares you is the me in you") and, infamously, tries to get a read on John Walker Lindh, the so-called American Taliban ("John Walker's Blues"). He even attacks America's now-shaky sense of superiority: "It's always best to keep in mind/That every tower ever built tumbles...And someday even man's best-laid plans/Will lie twisted and covered in rust," he sings on Jerusalem's ghostly, album-opening "Ashes to Ashes." Which means: The U.S. of A. is not fundamentally entitled to be the strongest country in the world. And also: It might not be forever. Not exactly the kind of sentiment you'd find on, say, Toby Keith's Unleashed.

"What Toby Keith did is pandering, and if you want to make money off of a situation like this, it's obviously the way to go," Earle says, on the phone from his management's office in Nashville. "He sells a lot more records than I do. But I don't--you know, Toby Keith has the same constitutional right to make an ass of himself as anybody else does. And in that I support him."

While "songwriters" like Keith probably wouldn't support Earle's right to do the same (more likely: Earle would "get a boot in the ass" from the self-proclaimed "Angry American"), there are others out there who do (see: Sleater-Kinney's One Beat), and more are joining up every day. Earle believes he'll have plenty of company soon enough. He's not necessarily happy about that, either. Because that will mean things are getting worse.

"Unfortunately, you're not gonna see a lot of stuff until you start seeing body bags coming back from Iraq," he says. "I hate to say that, but I think it's probably true. It's what happened during the Vietnam War."

That's when Earle came of age, as a songwriter and as a man. Other than a talent show when he was in the seventh grade, his first gig in front of a large audience was in front of the Alamo, at a rally put together by Vietnam veterans who were against the war. His activism, it seems, isn't a case of his turning over a new leaf, but rather, it's more about throwing the old one on an already smoldering brush fire.

That said, he did lose his way for a time. Earle didn't find his way back until "Ellis Unit One," the song he wrote for the soundtrack album to Tim Robbins' 1996 film, Dead Man Walking. "Ellis Unit One" told the beat-down tale of a prison guard working death row, haunted by years of helping the state "put 'em down." It was bookend to "Billy Austin" (from 1990's The Hard Way), which found Earle taking the same long walk toward execution, this time with shackles around his wrists and ankles. "Billy Austin" got invited to anti-death penalty benefits, but "Ellis Unit One" showed him what to do when he got there.

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