Doctor Earle’s diagnosis

Doctor Earle’s diagnosis

Singer Steve Earle, no stranger to rehab himself, has a few prescriptions for an ailing America, ROBERT EVERETT-GREEN writes


1:59 PM EDT Wednesday, Jun. 4, 2003

‘In the 12-step program, getting sober requires admitting that you are insane,” said Steve Earle, “because addiction is a form of insanity. And the definition of insanity in the program is: doing the same things over and over again, and expecting different results.”

Earle dealt with his own insanity during a long rehab period in the early nineties, and may be better equipped than most to recognize the signs in others. There’s no shortage of opportunity — all he’s got to do is turn on CNN.

His diagnoses flow freely, both in his songs and his conversation. Earle’s United States is a bifurcated place, part sick and part healthy. The good part is represented by the Constitution, and by the occasional refusal by the people (during the Vietnam era, for instance) to continue with the folly of the moment. The bad is fuelled by neurotic fears that seek a solution to most problems in war, whether on domestic crime, drugs, or people in turbans.

Earle travels to Toronto this weekend to give Saturday’s keynote address at the North By Northeast music festival and conference, and to attend a screening of Just an American Boy, a new road documentary about his work by Amos Poe. Earle will likely use his speaking gig to muse on the doublespeak of our times, and the ambitions of those who want people like him to shut up.

“I’m really concerned about a new blacklisting,” he said, during a freewheeling conversation before a recent concert in Kitchener, Ont., “and I’m concerned about the way the media is participating in it.” He got a front-row view of the phenomenon last summer, when he was vilified in the mainstream American media for his song John Walker’s Blues, a first-person song about the young Californian who joined the Taliban before the Afghan war and was shipped home thereafter as a traitor.

The reaction was sharpened perhaps by the kind of roots-oriented music Earle does, and the kind of person he is. By rights, he ought to be a Texas redneck, but his songs have more in common with the down-home leftism of Woody Guthrie than with truck-stop notions of America Right or Wrong.

Earle’s superb recent album, Jerusalem, is full of songs fit to outrage those whose preferred window on reality is Fox News. It’s all about the debasement of the American dream, and the insanity of trying to throw up walls against the people you fear, without trying to understand why those people want to hurt you.

“If I hear one more person say the Islamic world hates America because they hate our freedom, I’m going to throw up,” he said. “They hate us because we support the House of Saud, and because we support Israel.” His solution is simple: shorten America’s list of client states by two.

“I’m not anti-Semitic, but I am anti-Zionist. Not in principle, but because as long as Israel has existed, an already unstable part of the world has become even more unstable. And I think we’ve given it plenty of time. Why do we expect the Palestinians who have lived there for a couple of thousand years to accept that they should be second-class citizens in their homeland?”

But what he sees on the horizon is more Israel, not less. He sees his own country taking on, in Iraq, the repressive role filled by Israel in the West Bank.

“We’re getting ready to become Israel. We’re going to occupy Iraq for a long time. The kids getting blown up at the checkpoints will be American kids. The only good that can come out of it is what happened in the Vietnam War, that enough people die … and people get tired of it and say, ‘no more.’ “

The invasion of Iraq was still just a dream at the Pentagon when the songs on Jerusalem were written. But the mentality that made the war possible is the same one that flares at the edges of Earle’s songs about Everyman’s adventures in prison (The Truth), the disinformation economy (Conspiracy Theory) and the Mexican maquiladoras where blue jeans are made for those who live in gated suburbs (What’s a Simple Man to Do?). The evil is not other people, these songs declare, it’s our own illusions. And the worst of these are the ones that make a high ideal party to a lie.

“I don’t think we’ve ever fought a war that was about toppling a repressive dictatorship, or about supporting a true, pure form of democracy,” Earle said. “I don’t think we have a clue about pure democracy, and I know for a fact we’re not opposed to repressive regimes, unless they want to nationalize their oil companies. It’s not even about Americans owning everything. They just can’t deal with that much oil — or that much gold, or whatever it is — not being on the table. They figure that once it’s on the table, it’s just a matter of time before they get it. But once you nationalize something and make it the property of the people of the country in which it’s found, you take it off the table, and they absolutely won’t stand for that.”

Earle dropped out of high school, and his conversation has the restless energy of an autodidact. He has the true American faith in the notion that anyone has the means and the duty to figure out the truth and to put his whole energy behind making it an actual part of life.

Earle’s activism goes beyond talking and singing. His opposition to the death penalty has taken him to execution houses and picket lines. It has also led him into forms of art that he otherwise might not have explored. Last year, his play Karla was produced in Los Angeles and Nashville, where he lives with his partner Sara Sharpe, who played the lead role of Karla Faye Tucker, a Texas drug addict who was involved in a grisly murder, and who became a devout Christian while in jail. Tucker was executed in 1998, the same year Earle witnessed the execution of another Texas convict, Jonathan Wayne Nobles. Earle memorialized Nobles in a song called Over Yonder (featured on the recent Transcendental Blues Live concert DVD, recorded at Toronto’s Convocation Hall), but he knew that Tucker’s story needed a fuller telling than a song could provide.

“Just like everything else in my life, it got totally out of control, and became a theatre company,” he said, referring to Nashville’s Broadaxe Theatre, which Sharpe runs. “At one point in the production process, I said I’m never going to do this again, because it’s really hard, and you can’t make any money at it. But I’m hooked on it. I had forgotten how much I loved theatre.” It was the only subject he passed during his last years in high school, and his theatre teacher was one of the few to see the talent waiting to be corralled in the unruly kid Earle was then.

Earle published a well-received book of short stories (Doghouse Roses) in 2001, has a novel on the go, and is working on another theatre project based on Pete Seeger’s experience of being blacklisted during the McCarthy era. It’s called Dangerous Songs, more of which we can surely expect from the gadfly that is Steve Earle.

Steve Earle speaks at North by Northeast on Saturday at 1 p.m. at Toronto’s Holiday Inn on King. Amos Poe’s documentary Steve Earle: Just an American Boy plays at the city’s Bloor Cinema on Saturday at 7 p.m.

(c) 2003 Bell Globemedia Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.