Clip: Steve Earle escalates the political debate
Steve Earle escalates the political debate
August 22, 2004
BY JIM DEROGATIS Pop Music Critic
Steve Earle's resume has always read like a how-to manual for the ardent
revolutionary. The Virginia-born, Texas-reared singer and songwriter lives in
Nashville -- though he's contemplating a move to New York -- but he has long
considered Chicago a second home, and the city is home to one of his most dedicated
Earle established himself with the New Traditionalist country of "Guitar Town"
(1986); marked himself as one of the hottest up-and-comers of the early '90s with
the Bruce Springsteen populism and heartland rock of "Copperhead Road" (1988); then
threw it all away by getting himself addicted to heroin and serving time in prison.
Earle defied the odds by coming back strong after a four-year absence from the music
world; he re-established himself as a roots-rocker in 1995, then ticked off that
following by going bluegrass for a while. Later, he made a heck of a ruckus when he
returned to rock and wrote a sympathetic song about John Walker Lindh, the so-called
American Taliban, on his sixth album, the brilliant "Jerusalem" (2002).
In amongst all of that, the musician has dabbled as an actor, a playwright, a
novelist and a short-story writer; crusaded tirelessly against the death penalty;
gotten married -- and divorced -- six times, and lost 60 pounds on Atkins, the
high-protein, low-carbohydrate diet that medical professionals like to say is bunk,
but which Earle swears by, so long as you follow it religiously. ("The only place I
eat pizza is Chicago," he says.)
Given his contentious history, it's really saying something to claim that "The
Revolution Starts ... Now" is Earle's most controversial, combative and pugnacious
album ever. It is his most immediate. For the first time in his career, the
49-year-old performer entered the recording studio without a single song written for
the new album -- the tunes came together in front of the microphones and with the
Originally scheduled for a Sept. 16 release, the disc was moved up for distribution
Tuesday with the goal of arriving in stores as soon as possible before the November
presidential election, and while the situation in Iraq grows worse by the day.
I spoke with Earle in June, before anyone else had heard the new disc, and while he
was in the midst of a bluegrass tour. Here are the highlights of an, as always,
opinionated and wide-ranging conversation:
Q. Steve, you're in the middle of a stint with your bluegrass band right now -- you
just played the Telluride Festival with the Bluegrass Dukes -- but I imagine you're
itching to play the new songs from "The Revolution Starts ... Now," no?
A. Yeah, I am. I've played "Rich Man's War" a couple of times; I think the first
time I played it in front of an audience was in [Washington] D.C. at the Justice
Project benefit. I did it at Telluride the other day. It's pretty amazing -- the
reaction of that song is pretty consistent. I've played it like three times, and as
soon as you get to the chorus, the whole place explodes.
Q. It must sound quite a bit different when you play it with the bluegrass band.
A. It does. But we also do "Jerusalem" and "John Walker's Blues" as a bluegrass
band. The first time we did that was in San Francisco -- I can't get away without
doing "John Walker's Blues" in the Bay area. There's a bluegrass festival called Not
Strictly Bluegrass that's in Golden Gate Park, and it's free. This bluegrass band
has been kept together by that festival; we play it every year. In fact, we probably
won't start touring to support this record with the Dukes until the middle of
The record drops the 24th of August, which is three weeks earlier than we thought. I
was trying to get ready for Sept. 16, because I thought that would be the best that
I could do. But I knew pretty much what I wanted to say. I had teeth in these songs,
and a couple of unfinished songs, and one riff that I knew was going to be a
spoken-word piece. I knew what this album was going to be about, and I actually knew
what it was going to be called, but I didn't have a word written. By the end of it,
I was waking up in the morning with a blank piece of paper and writing a song and
going into the studio and recording it that night.
Q. The goal was to get it out before the presidential election?
A. Yeah -- it's the election more than anything else. As we were making it, the war
started developing this kind of ugly momentum, as wars do. We can sit around and
talk about it, but there's my side of it, and there's the other side of it. I've
always opposed this war, and I oppose any war.
I definitely oppose wars that are fought where there's no immediate threat to us and
we just go out and start a war. I'm sorry, but that's what we did this time. We've
done it before -- it goes way back in our history, back at least to the
Mexican-American War. It is as American as apple pie. But I think we proved in the
'60s that the Constitution allows us to make America a hipper place than it was
intended to be if we work really hard at it, and we never go to sleep.
I think that's happened -- we've gone to sleep. I don't think it's about them.
There's always been a them. There will always be a them. I think it's about us. And
I think we went to sleep.
Q. So you feel it's your duty as an artist to speak out about politics?
A. I think it's my duty because I can and because I speak pretty readily in
political terms. I don't see much difference between the songs I write that people
call "political" and the other songs. I mean, "Copperhead Road" is pretty f---ing
political, but people don't think about it that way. But that was my post-Vietnam
song. Some songs are just more ... with this record, there's obviously more
Q. That's for sure. You know, some day you're gonna get yourself shot, Steve.
A. I know, but nobody's shot me yet. But what are they going to shoot me about?
Condoleezza Rice might shoot me [over the song "Condi, Condi"] -- that's a
possibility! The rest of the stuff I'm saying is stuff that I absolutely have a
right to say.
It's just like all the s--- about "John Walker's Blues." I was in Europe when all
the s--- broke loose. The label was trying to figure out how to capitalize on it,
naturally, because it's not like I get a ton of radio airplay. I was on vacation,
and they called me. You could tell they kind of wanted me to come back, since [the
story] was a leak, which is also as American as apple pie. But I just said, "No, if
people still want to talk to me when I get back, I'll talk to them." And they did.
It surprised [Artemis Records chief and ACLU activist] Danny [Goldberg] that people
still wanted to talk to me. I did Greta Van Susteren's show [on Fox], and I did "The
Today Show." And nobody laid a glove on me. Even on "Crossfire," nobody laid a glove
on me, because they couldn't.
There was no intelligent person who really entertained the idea for one second that
I didn't have a right to do that. A lot of people that make their living by stirring
things up -- bringing up the very worst in us -- made a big deal out of it. And the
people that reacted to it were the people you would expect to react to it.
Q. Well, it's one thing to try to tell John Walker's side of the story -- to write
about him as a screwed-up American kid -- but isn't it going a step further when you
start throwing the word "revolution" around?
A. I think you've got to listen to the song, though. I think that song [the new
album's title track] is really self-explanatory: It's about what a revolution is now
and what we can do about it.
Q. What does the word "revolution" mean to you?
A. A revolution to me means being vigilant more than anything else now, trying to
the best of your human ability -- which is not ever going to be perfect -- to do
what you say you're going to do, to be involved, not to just sit around and bitch
This is a democracy, but it's really, really hard work. It requires that you vote,
but voting isn't even enough. This election is the most important one that's
happened in my lifetime, and I'll be 50 by the time this tour gets going. But the
day after the election, no matter who's elected, is when the real work starts, and
especially if [Democratic candidate John] Kerry's elected. Kerry hasn't said he's
going to stop the war.
I just think we have a better chance with Bush out of office, because he's pretty
much proven that he doesn't really care what people think. He's something we've
never dealt with before. He's got a little ideology of his own that he made up, and
he's been making it up as he goes along. He's a lot more dangerous than people give
him credit for.
Q. You're someone who's not afraid of calling himself a liberal ...
A. I'm way to the left of being a liberal!
Q. OK, but you're lauding the Democrats at the same time that you seem to be saying
the whole party system should be overturned and we need a revolution in this
A. I know. The point is I just don't believe that violent revolution works. I think
it's proven not to work. For instance, Che Guevara very much believed in violent
revolutions, and Che Guevara is one of my heroes on one level.
But violence tends to feed on itself. Che became very, very caught up in it at the
end. He became mean. But it didn't matter what Che did in Latin America because of
us. In the end, it didn't matter because we were here, and we were too powerful, and
we simply weren't going to allow it to happen. There were huge amounts of money
invested in South America. Those are natural resources that we are sitting on, and
it's always been that way.
We've proven that we're willing to support any government no matter how fascist --
and they are fascist governments, nearly everyone we back up in South America --
rather than deal with a socialist government in our hemisphere.
If you ask me what I call myself, I think that I was born here, my children are
growing up here -- I think I'm a non-nationalist patriot. I don't believe in
nationalism, period. I think as soon as you start thinking that you're entitled
because you belong to any one club, you're in trouble, and you're causing trouble.
You can love where you come from, and you can love the culture that you come from,
and I do. But am I committed to living in the United States for the rest of my life
no matter what? There is a point at which I will f---ing leave! I haven't reached it
yet. So far, I still believe that I can make a difference by staying, and there's no
way I'm leaving right now.
Q. How does a democratic revolution in people's thinking start in this country?
A. I think it happened in the '60s, and I think it happened, really, originally,
during the Depression. A form of socialism was embraced in this country because we
had to. It's not like Franklin Roosevelt was a f---ing revolutionary. He was
definitely a rich guy, but he had to deal with it. And as soon as that happened,
they -- the big scary they we're always referring to -- they knew they couldn't stop
it. They knew that there was no way.
So the first thing that happened was that they established term limits to make sure
it never f---ing happened again. I think it's ridiculous you can only be president
of the United States for eight years, as long as we don't rig elections, like what
happened in Florida. I think I would feel better if we did away with the Electoral
College. But there's a lot of stuff that'll never happen because this is America.
We don't need a campaign finance regulatory statute in any sort if we just gave away
the airtime, but we're not going to do that. The airwaves are public, and the FCC
does exist to be a custodian of the airwaves for the people of the United States,
but the FCC is not doing that right now.
Q. Your tune "F the CC" isn't going to get you any radio play.
A. No, but that's OK. It's not like I get a lot of radio play, anyway. There are
bigger things at stake. I find it really a little embarrassing on one hand, but it
also makes perfect sense to me, having grown up in this country, that I'm probably
going to find myself defending Howard Stern at some point in the near future. I
don't listen to Howard Stern, but you've got to give him credit. He woke up one day
and thought, "Oh, you know what? Maybe I shouldn't be a Republican," because it hit
home for him. It's just like I have to defend the Ku Klux Klan's right to march, as
long as they don't hurt anybody.
Q. To what extent are you preaching to the converted? There are 72 million members
of Generation Y -- kids in teens and early 20s -- how do you reach them?
A. I'm not sure that I can. I maybe come closer than some guys my age. The median
age of my audience has actually gotten a little younger on the last couple of
records for some reason, and that's happened at several points in my career, which
is why I still have a career. It's because I've never quite grown up, more than
On one of my trips to Philly, we were walking down the street, and I had just gone
into one of those shops on South Street and bought a pair of skate shoes. We were
walking back to the rehearsal space, and I told the guys, "See, man, stick with me
and you'll be shopping in skate shops when you're 48 years old, too!" So that's one
of the fringe benefits of doing what I do.
I think you're going to see a lot more [political involvement in Generation Y]. The
hip-hop summit, I think, is a case in point. I think hip-hop has the most potential
-- it's the biggest part of pop music right now, and it lends itself to and has a
tradition of being political. Hip-hop probably makes more sense than Rage Against
the Machine does, because I think there are a lot of kids who listened to Rage that
had no idea what they were singing about. I love Rage, but it was in real
theoretical political terms. It was Marxist rhetoric. I have no problem with Marxist
rhetoric, and I don't think it was muddle-headed. I just think it was straight out
of the book, and you do have to try to reach people.
One of the worst things that have happened to this country is that working people
don't understand why they need a union anymore. There's a basic socialist concept
right there. I'm unapologetic about that; unions are a socialist concept. Especially
in these days and times, if workers ever needed unions, Jesus Christ, they need them
Q. Tell me about the song "Condi, Condi."
A. [National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice] was in town, speaking at Vanderbilt
University, and the chancellor at Vanderbilt and his wife weren't even speaking to
each other because he had brought her in to speak, and I happened to run into them
at a party. I was very aware when [Rice] got to [Nashville], and I wrote it the
morning after she left.
I needed a song. I don't know, I just sort of imagined those Rastas at the back of
the beach, in the grill, that come up and give you a quarter pound of pot and say,
"Hold my dope, mon," and they come back the next day with the money. I just imagined
one of those guys saying, "Listen, mon, I'm lookin' for Condoleezza Rice."
Q. It's almost a Jimmy Buffett song.
A. Oh, f--- you!
Q. I meant that in a good way: If you're going to write a song about Condoleezza
Rice, it seems like it has to have a calypso lilt.
A. I think the band did a really, really good job on it. It was weird, because I
usually cut a track, then do a vocal. But on that one, the lead guitar is me, and I
probably will be able to learn to sing it and play, but I can't yet. Reggae's sort
of tricky for white people to play. It was [drummer] Will [Rigby]'s maiden voyage,
and he did a great job.
Q. I've been a fan of Rigby's since the dB's, and he's an amazing player.
A. The dB's were an amazing band. He's funny, because the way he plays now is almost
completely different than the dB's. He's almost the opposite kind of drummer. He can
still do that [busy Keith Moon] stuff, but he used to be very edgy, in front of the
beat; basically, a better than average punk-rock drummer. Now he's sort of grown
into a world-class rock drummer, and he's really musical, and I love playing with
Q. The Dukes have always been fluid. Has the group changed recently?
A. No, the band finally solidified. [Guitarist] David Steele was sort of in and out
of the band -- what he'd do is he'd make a record with me, then bail on the tour.
So, Roscoe [Eric Ambel] still played on "Transcendental Blues."
This is the same band that was on "Jerusalem" [Rigby, Ambel and bassist Kelly
Looney], and I don't see it changing. I mean, Looney's been with me since '88. He
lives in Paris, and he's still playing with me. I'm kind of queer for bass players,
the way some people are queer for drummers. I just wouldn't know how to work without
I was a bass player at one time, for one thing. I'm really particular about what
that instrument does. I can work with different drummers -- Will doesn't play
anything like Brady Blade played or Custer or any of the other drummers I've had --
but I think he's my favorite drummer I've worked with. So it's solidified into a
thing now. It's a brutal little adult rock band, and I'm pretty proud of it.
Q. What inspired these songs ?
A. "The Revolution Starts ... Now" and "Rich Man's War" we were actually playing at
the end of our tour of Australia and New Zealand last April, on encores. "Rich Man's
War" I finished in Australia. "Warrior" was a riff that we'd been playing all
through the tour; it was just a soundcheck thing, and I thought, "I sort of like
this idea, and I've kind of always wanted to be Patti Smith."
I thought it would be a spoken-word piece, and I came up with the idea of war as a
character. Then I wrote "The Gringo's Tale"; once that idea came up, they were sort
of companion pieces. The end of the first week, I still didn't have lyrics for it,
but I was doing "The Exonerated" -- the play that was up for a year and a half; I
did it in New York in January and then it closed in March.
There was a guy named Bruce Kronenberg, an actor in New York who was in the play
with me, and he came down to Nashville and directed the production here. The first
week I started [making the disc], I was recording in the daytime and rehearsing "The
Exonerated" at night. It was nuts -- I'll never, ever get myself in that position
But I woke up one morning, and Bruce was staying at the house, and I turned on the
TV and [a production of Shakespeare's] "Henry V" was on. I thought, "That's what I
can do." I downloaded the prologue to "Henry V" -- you know, "Oh, for a muse of fire
..." -- and I divided it sort of arbitrarily into three unequal stanzas and gave it
to Bruce and had him read it, and we cut the track. Then I woke up the next day, and
I wrote 35 lines of perfect iambic pentameter and put the vocal on that night.
Q. Some guys get up and have breakfast; you get up and write 35 perfect lines of
iambic pentameter .
A. Well, it took six hours. It was really, really hard work. That night, we went in
and put my vocal on it, and I'm really proud of that. I love stuff like that. I love
stuff that makes you use muscles that you've never used before.
Q. It's quite a contrast between that track and something like "Condi, Condi."
A. Yeah, well, "Condi, Condi" is the result of ... I had way too many Shaggy and
Pata-Pata records about three years ago. I went through this major dancehall thing,
and that's really where that was coming from.
Q. Are you going to be disappointed if Rice doesn't respond?
A. I don't really care.
Q. Oh, come on: Wouldn't it be nice to frame a letter from the National Security
A. The only thing I've ever framed in my whole life like that was my one-star review
from the [ultra-conservative] New York Post. Just because -- goddamn! It's always
been one of those things where I just grab the sports page out of the Post, and the
rest of it goes right into the birdcage.
Q. You told me last year that you got quite a bit of hate mail after "John Walker's
Blues." Did anything really shake you up, and are you ready for the reaction to this
album? These are very emotionally charged times when you're talking about politics.
A. I don't remember anything that really scared me. It was weird -- the people who
were reacting were most of the people who you would expect to, and I sold the number
of records that I always sell.
I'm preaching to the choir to a certain extent, but I think I did reach some people.
I have had people walk up to me and tell me, "I changed my mind about the death
penalty because of your music." I've lost count of how many people now. So don't try
to tell me that music doesn't make a difference. I think music helped stop the
Vietnam War; I really truly believe that with all my heart.
I write songs about politics for the same reason that I write songs about girls. I
do it because I'm really involved, and it is emotional for me. It's not just
rhetoric. It's how I feel. And if you do it that way, it's really good art.
If you don't, and you don't know how to do it, it's really easy to write
non-credible love songs if you don't ever fall in love, if you try to make it up.
It's a hard thing to make up. I don't write love songs when I'm not in love. I write
some songs about f---ing, but I don't write any love songs. And I don't write songs
about politics unless I have something to say.
"I definitely oppose wars that are fought where there's no immediate threat to us,
and we just go out and start a war. I'm sorry, but that's what we did this time."
A political fusillade, just in time
"THE REVOLUTION STARTS ... NOW"
These are dangerous times for rockers who speak their minds about politics --
witness the backlash against Linda Ronstadt for her relatively innocuous comments in
Las Vegas; some fans are saying they'd like their musical heroes to just shut up and
play their guitars. But politics have always been an inextricable part of Steve
Earle's music -- they've simply come to the forefront as the issues of the day have
become more urgent. Whether you agree with his opinions, you have to grant that the
long-running roots-rocker not only has the courage of his convictions, but he voices
them with a musical passion that more than matches the power and poetry of his
Earle's last album, "Jerusalem" (2002), seemed hard to top: Emotional songs such as
"John Walker's Blues" and the title track had a deeper impact than almost anything
else released after and inspired by the events of 9/11, including most of the songs
on "The Rising" by Bruce Springsteen. But "The Revolution Starts ... Now" is an even
stronger effort. The political assaults, including the anti-imperialist anthems "The
Gringo's Tale" and "Rich Man's War" (which could have been written by Woody
Guthrie); the title track, which is effectively reprised at the end of the disc, and
the veteran's lament "Home to Houston," are even more barbed and thought-provoking,
and, with the exception of the stilted and pretentious spoken-word piece "Warrior,"
they rock with a melodic gusto that makes their messages all the more potent.
Though the political tracks will no doubt garner most of the attention and cause all
of the controversy, Earle has never been more honest, heartfelt or moving in his
relationship songs, which balance the album and underscore the tired adage that "all
politics are personal." "Comin' Around" is a breathtakingly beautiful duet with the
great Emmylou Harris; "I Thought You Should Know" is an intense musing on romance
from the position of a someone who really knows the score ("If you're thinking of
breaking my heart/You might as well pick up your little black dress and go," he
croaks with a mix of desire and repulsion), and "The Seeker" is an introspective but
rambunctious consideration of aging.
Perhaps the disc's more endearing factor is that Earle doesn't take it all so
seriously that he's forgotten how to laugh. "Condi, Condi" and "F the CC" provide
lighthearted and infectious moments of gleeful, goofy fun, as the artist expresses
unbridled lust for the National Security Adviser over a lilting reggae groove
("Sweet and dandy, pretty as can be/You be the flower, I'll be the bumble bee/Oh she
loves me, oh she loves me not/People say you're cold, but I say you're hot") and
minces no (verboten) words while taking dead aim at the FCC. Sure, these are easy
targets, but Earle scores with winning humor.
Condoleezza Rice, hardcore conservatives and old-school Earle fans who resent being
asked to think for themselves may find all of the above insulting and abhorrent. But
for my money, "The Revolution Starts ... Now" stands with the very best work of his
career, and it's one of the strongest and most timely discs I've heard this election