By LA Weekly
By Henry Rollins
By Weekly Photographers
By Shea Serrano
By Nate "Igor" Smith
By Dan Weiss
By Erica E. Phillips
By Kai Flanders
|Photo by Glen Rose|
"LATELY I FEEL LIKE THE LONELIEST MAN IN America," writes Steve Earle in the liner notes of his most recent album, Jerusalem(Artemis). He goes on to contrast recent events with the era of his youth — Vietnam, race riots, federal spying and prosecution of dissidents, the "America: Love It or Leave It" attitude. While the songs on the record confront our current reign of McFascism, Earle reassures us that "We're working with a net" known as the Constitution and that American radicals such as John Reed, Emma Goldman, Abbie Hoffman, Bobby Seale, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. were true patriots who fought for the principles laid out in that document "by insisting on asking the hardest questions in our darkest hours."
There are millions of Americans feeling as tied up and gagged as Bobby Seale was in a Chicago courtroom 33 years ago, and few who have access to mainstream media to speak for us. Thankfully, we have a 47-year-old recovering dope fiend and defiant country rocker who eloquently rages against the injustices of Enronomics, the death penalty and the erosion of free speech — as an activist, author, playwright and actor whose primary occupation is singer-songwriter. In this darkest of hours, Earle has the conviction and skill to turn a refusal to be fooled again into great popular music.
"Nobody should go hungry in the richest country in the world — period," said the self-professed "borderline Marxist" during a recent chat in Los Angeles. "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."
At the suggestion of Artemis Records chief and civil-liberties advocate Danny Goldberg, Earle, who'd written songs with political themes before, made an album almost entirely devoted to commenting on the depressing state of this country and the world. Transforming tragedy into seamless art, Jerusalem is transcendently uplifting. It also rocks hard, like the Rolling Stones when they mattered. String the descriptions together — left-wing, country singer from Texas, hard rock — and you begin to get the picture of the maverick Steve Earle.
MCA RECORDS RELEASED EARLE'S FIRST ALBUM, Guitar Town, in 1986. It went to No. 1 on the Billboard country chart, stayed there for 66 weeks and got nominated for two Grammys; Earle was named top country artist by Rolling Stone. The last honor was due in part because the album obliterated genres. It had the musical chops and hillbilly heart of country but the serrated edge and shitty attitude of punk, and a lot of those who dug it were rock fans. The iconoclast confounded an industry run on simplistic mediocrity: "I stillhave a problem of people knowing what bin to put my records in and where to look for them. It confused the computers to put me in more than one bin."
Despite Guitar Town's left-field success, the powers that be in Nashville did not want the manure stirred up. Earle recalls that he and MCA Nashville chief Jimmy Bowen "butted heads from jump street." They fought over material and production, forcing an irate Earle to secretly fly to L.A. to meet MCA honcho Irving Azoff "and enlist him on my behalf to get Jimmy Bowen off my ass." On his way out here, he ran into ex-Eagle Bernie Leadon, who warned him that "'Irving Azoff is the devil. Be very, very careful.' I was cocky and didn't believe him, but it turned out to be true." Azoff shifted Earle to the newly formed MCA-owned rock label Uni. Soon afterward, Azoff let Uni die, and Earle's future with it. Earle had just released Copperhead Road, his third album and a flat-out classic. "Copperhead sold — according to MCA's accounting — 460,000 records and change in its first year of release, and then it never sold another album until about two years ago," says Earle, laughing. "I was getting played on rock radio, I was getting videos played, all the pieces were in place." He released two more excellent albums on MCA proper, but at the same time got further into a habit he'd developed in his teens — heroin.
By 1991, Earle was strung out in Los Angeles, cut off from the music biz and the rest of the planet. "I was somewhere between Larchmont Village and Hoover and Alvarado all day. I didn't have a guitar. I didn't listen to music except for hip-hop, because unfortunately, the way you find drugs in strange cities is you go to the poorest neighborhood, and we live in a society where an inordinate number of poor people are people of color." His consequential appreciation of hip-hop was a rare positive at a negative point. "It's genuinely folk music. The best stuff is where a kid gets hold of sophisticated digital gear, throws the manual away and starts pushin' buttons. It's the same as finding a banjo and making up your own tuning for it. I dig it."
After making his way back to Music City, Earle got popped twice in '94, did brief jail time and sought rehab. "But I had to pay for it myself — there weren't dollars. Very few people got treatment. I think we're fighting the war on drugs the same way we fought Vietnam. It's about producing arrest statistics so politicians can appear like they're doing something."
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