The many lives of Steve Earle
August 14, 2009
ASPEN – In 1995, Steve Earle declared, “Townes Van Zandt is the best songwriter in the whole world, and I’ll stand on Bob Dylan’s coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that.” Which reveals quite a bit about Steve Earle: One, he has a way with colorful, imaginative imagery. Two, he’s not afraid to express a contrarian opinion – in fact, he seems to revel in it. Three, he thinks very highly of Townes Van Zandt, the late Texas singer-songwriter who served as a key mentor to Earle.
More recently, Earle displayed another quality that seems essential to his character – putting his music where his mouth is. In May, he released “Townes,” an album of songs written by Van Zandt. An album of someone else’s songs is, in a way, an unusual project for Earle, who seems never to run out of things to say or ways to express them. But Earle owes a big debt to Van Zandt, a Fort Worth native who found more trouble – alcoholism, manic depression – than widespread acclaim, before dying on New Year’s Day, 1997, at the age of 52.
Earle – whose youngest son, also a musician, is named Justin Townes Earle – says that he learned from Van Zandt “that it was possible to make art, even if there was no way of knowing if you would ever make a living off it. That that was a noble thing to do.”
As a songwriter, Earle might rank slightly below Dylan and Van Zandt. (In 2006, a Paste magazine survey of music journalists placed Earle at number 34 on a list of the best living songwriters. Dylan topped the poll, but Van Zandt was deceased at the time and thus ineligible, eliminating the potential for another memorable quote from Earle.) But Earle sees himself not simply as a songwriter, but as an artist. His creativity has overflowed into acting – he had a recurring role as a recovered drug addict in the HBO series “The Wire” – and fiction – he is finishing a novel, “I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive,” and has published a play and a collection of short stories.
“The fact that I’m a songwriter is almost a superficial part of the discussion,” said Earle from a tour stop in Kent, Ohio – “as in ‘four dead in Ohio,'” he added, referring to both the 1970 Kent State incident in which National Guardsmen shot and killed four students, and Neil Young’s song about a sorry page in American history. “I’m about making art. It’s what I was put here to do, and it’s what [Van Zandt] was put here to do.”
In terms of pure songwriting, it was another Texan, Guy Clark, who served as a hands-on mentor. “It was Clark who gave me more of the nuts and bolts, who said, This part goes here; here’s how you do this,” said Earle. “Townes was the one who gave me ‘Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee'” – Dee Brown’s landmark 1970 book about the decimation of the Native Americans by the U.S. government – “and told me to go and read it.”
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“Townes” is something of a solemn tribute, especially by Earle’s standards. Earle recorded the basic tracks solo – “in order to preserve the spirit of Van Zandt’s original solo performances to the best of his recollection,” according to press materials that accompany the CD – before adding backing music. But he also put his stamp on the project; “Lungs,” for instance, a song of severe desperation, features guitar from Tom Morello of the hard rock group Rage Against the Machine, and production by John King of the Dust Brothers, the team that put au courant touches on music by Beck and the Beastie Boys. On several songs, drummer Greg Morrow and percussionist Steve Christensen lay down a hip-hop-influenced beat behind the otherwise acoustic sounds.
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Earle parted ways with his hero in other ways besides adding modern flourishes to Van Zandt’s songs. For starters, at 54 he has now lived longer than Van Zandt did -a feat that was by no means a given. “Hardcore Troubadour,” Lauren St. John’s 2003 book that is one of several biographies of Earle, recounts the years in the early ’90s, when Earle seemed well on the road to out-abusing Van Zandt. Earle’s drug of choice was hard drugs – heroin, then crack – while Van Zandt stuck mostly to alcohol, but the result was roughly the same: a ravaged body, career implosions, homelessness, friends, family and business associates tested to their limits and then some. On that downhill slide, Earle looked at Van Zandt not as a model, but as something of a warning sign.
“I distanced myself from Townes,” he said. “I justified it sometimes by saying, ‘I’m not as fucked up as he is.’
“For some reason I can’t explain, I survived it.”
The Earle that came out the other end of addiction – come September, he will have been clean 15 years – is an impressive combination of elements. He is arguably at a sustained artistic peak; his last two albums of original material – “Washington Square Serenade,” from 2007, and “The Revolution Starts Now,” from 2004 – both took Grammy Awards for Best Contemporary Folk Album. The fact that he is not as big a thing as when he came to attention in Nashville with his 1986 debut “Guitar Town” is more a testament to the shrinking of the pop music world than any diminishing of Earle’s talent. He can be as rebellious and opinionated as ever; of the music industry, he says “Corporate record labels can only be so evil because they’re in a business where nobody dies. There are bigger stakes in an oil company. Still, it’s a bad way to fund art.”
The rebel’s stance isn’t just for small-town reporters or his own living room; it remains at the forefront of his music. “The Revolution Starts Now” features songs like “Condi, Condi,” a sexual come-on to Condoleezza Rice, and “F the CC,” a non-sexual taunt of the Federal Communications Commission that nevertheless features the repeated mentioning of a sexual act. Christmastime in Washington,” one of his most beloved songs and the opening track on 1997’s “El Corazon” puts down entrenched politicians by mentioning them in the same breath as such bold figures as Woody Guthrie, Malcolm X and Emma Goldman. The 2002 album “Jerusalem” featured “John Walker’s Blues,” whose lyrics strived to understand the American-turned-Taliban fighter, and whose music ended with a swirl of Central Asian sounds. The song drew controversy, an outcome which Earle seems to have invited.
“I wrote a song about John Walker Lindh because no one else was going to,” said Earle. “And writing an anti-war song when we’re two years into the Iraq War” – he could be referring to most of the songs on “The Revolution Starts Now” – “those things are just second nature to me. I was raised as an artist and as a person that, that is what you do. I was five years younger than all the people I hung around with growing up, with the Vietnam War going on. The idea that you shouldn’t do that is relatively recent, something that Dick Cheney made up.”
Earle’s in-your-face stance doesn’t translate, at least these days, into an all-encompassing contempt. On the phone, he was funny and unguarded; the interview had a wind-him-up-and-let-him-go quality as he moved from his childhood in San Antonio (“I was a hippie, but I grew up in a town with five Air Force bases and a fort, so I was a motorcycle hippie”) to his fondness for Colorado (“that Coors and Naropa could exist in the same state – I love that friction and tension”) to the reason he moved to New York City five years ago (“to fuck with the Republicans at the National Convention”).
The first thing Earle mentioned on the phone is that he had just come from the gym (!!); the second, that he had missed an earlier interview, through no fault of his own but that of his publicist. “He’s gonna have to learn that if I’m getting up early, he’s got to get up early,” he said. When I asked him about the energy it takes as a 53-year-old – and, as of two weeks ago, a first-time grandpa – to stay uncompromised, he seemed eager to distance himself from the burden of artistic purity.
“I tried to sell out, and nobody’s buying,” said Earle. He then launched into the story of the tax debt, since paid off, that he owed the U.S. government. He had started thinking about his wife, singer-songwriter Allison Moorer: “One day I’m gonna die and leave her with a bunch of debt,” he said. “I thought it was a shitty thing to do that.”
So when Chevrolet came knocking, asking for the rights to “The Revolution Starts Now,” Earle threw out “a ridiculous figure, literally millions of dollars,” that could cover the money he owed. The ad debuted on Major League Baseball’s Allstar Game, but after some influential backlash, it was pulled.
In his home life, Earle has definitely found a measure of peace. After years in Nashville, where he rubbed roughly against the country music industry, he moved to New York’s Greenwich Village, a neighborhood he fondly celebrated in “Washington Square Serenade.” (The album’s first track, “Tennessee Blues,” ends with the line, “Goodbye guitar town,” a kiss-off to both Nashville and the Steve Earle who went there looking for music stardom.)
“I’ve developed that New Yorker’s paranoia about losing my apartment,” he said of his rented digs just off Bleecker Street. “That whole concept of maybe having to leave that apartment really bums me out. I have more neighbors I know than I knew in Tennessee. I know 30 people on my block.”
The contentment extends to his marriage. After six wives, Earle seems to have achieved marital bliss with Moorer. The two have been married for four years, and get on well enough that Moorer opens for Earle when he appears Sunday, Aug. 16 at Belly Up for a solo acoustic show.
The mellowing of Steve Earle doesn’t necessarily extend to the content of his art. The forthcoming novel, “I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive” – which shares a title with a Hank Williams song – is set in San Antonio in 1963, and concerns a doctor who supports his heroin habit by performing abortions. In “Leaves of Grass,” a film directed by Tim Blake Nelson, due out later this year, and starring Edward Norton in a story about a small-time pot dealer trying to take down a drug lord, Earle plays the bad guy, who shoots Norton’s character with a cross-bow.
In his music, Earle has employed a less deadly weapon, but one that can send a similarly ominous message. Last year, appearing at Belly Up, Earle was backed for part of his set by a turntablist, an oddity in the folk realm, and in Earle’s ensemble, an instrument of mass confrontation.
“I think an aversion to turntables is racism,” he said. “People who are into roots music, turntables freak them out. Most of my audience has a lot of respect for me. But I don’t want them to get too comfortable. Because I don’t like to get too comfortable.”