Steve Earle

Back in Fighting Form

Music Features Steve Earle
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It’s a metamorphosis so radical it would startle Kafka. When kingpin Steve Earle strolls into his S.F. hotel lobby for breakfast (in town to play the ACLU convention), he’s not the same Goliath fans have been seeing onstage for the past few years, a heavyset 240-pounder who—when he’d strum his mandolin—often resembled Godzilla toying with a schoolbus. No, he’s rail-thin again, as lean and coyote-mean as he looked on the cover of his landmark Guitar Town debut in 1986. And he’ll bring up the subject before you do—Yes, he beams proudly, he’s lost 60 pounds on the carb-conscious Atkins diet. “And it’s cost me a fortune in clothes,” he sighs. “Every time I lost a little weight, I gave away all the stuff that was too big for me—we’re talking thousands of dollars worth of jeans alone.”

And it’s a good thing Earle is back in fighting form. He’s coming out of his leftist corner swinging hard with his latest TKO, The Revolution Starts … Now on Artemis. Two years ago, conservatives sneered and liberals cheered as the Texas-drawled singer issued his quasi-political Jerusalem and its lightning-rod ballad “John Walker’s Blues,” which tried to see through the eyes of American Taliban soldier John Walker Lindh. And that was a puff-gloved feint compared to Earle’s new bare-knuckled brawler, easily the most controversial record of his career. Sure, there are standard twang-tuned charmers like “Comin’ Around,” his dutiful duet with Emmylou Harris. But most of Revolution reads like an ardent activist’s final thesis from poli-sci class. The opening title track (reprised at the end of the album) lands the first blow between Duane Eddy-ish guitar licks: “I opened up my eyes and I took a look around / I saw it written ’cross the skies—the revolution starts now.” There follows a veritable barrage of rabbit punches—the hillbilly-loped “Home To Houston” tells the tale of a U.S. truck driver in Iraq who pleads “If I ever get back home to Houston alive / Well, I won’t drive a truck anymore.” The spoken-word “Warrior” anthropomorphically deifies combat, as it gloats in man’s self-destruction. A reggae-rhythmed “Condi, Condi” invites a certain Bush cabinet member to loosen up and “come out tonight.” And the gently strummed “Rich Man’s War” studies the Iraq/Afghanistan campaigns from two rueful Americans’ perspectives, as well as a young Palestinian who buys into his people’s cause: “When he got the call, he wrapped himself in death and he praised Allah / While his family in their new Mercedes drove him to the door / He’s just another poor boy, off to fight a rich man’s war.”

Revolution’s cover art underscores this sonic uprising, with a Che Guevara-modeled lithograph of Earle that’s available for street-postering download at his website. The singer has amassed quite a list of accomplishments lately—cameos on cable-TV drama The Wire; a book of short stories, Doghouse Roses; an off-Broadway appearance in The Exonerated; the premiere of his own play, Karla, at the Nashville company he launched, the Broadaxe Theatre; and another Grammy nomination—his eighth—for Jerusalem. But Revolution stands as his most commanding performance.

On the surface, you can trace politics in Earle’s work back to his third effort, Copperhead Road, where a backwoods pot farmer complains that “the DEA’s got a chopper in the air” zeroing in on his harvest. But dig deeper, the composer suggests. “Listen to earlier songs like ‘Someday’ and ‘Good Old Boy (Gettin’ Tough)’—there was always politics in my music, and I never separated it. The times I live in are just more political now.” Hence, a much more politically-fired record.

“But I still think the album is pretty human,” allows Earle, 49. “Although this election is really important, and I knew I wanted the record out before the election. But what it ended up being about was the war, and about war in general. And for me, this election is ‘The war, stupid,’ because if nothing else, this war—in my belief—threatens to guarantee that there’s nothing left for our grandchildren. No federal resources, no world where Americans can travel without bodyguards. And it’s already getting there—that’s why Canadian kids put Canadian flags on their backpacks when they’re traveling abroad—so people won’t think they’re American.”

Earle doesn’t see the problem as strictly 9/11-related, either. He believes the Bush administration “had an agenda before that, but they were just sort of dangerous and inept. And then [9/11] fell into their laps, and we were so afraid, we fell for it. It’s fear—the answer is fear. You can manipulate people who are afraid, and it’s always been that way. That’s how Nazi Germany happened, how the German people drank the Adolf Hitler Kool-Aid. They’d been treated badly after World War I, and he knew how to make them afraid that they were gonna continue to be treated badly forever by the rest of the world, and that the problems were Jews and immigrants, and that they were an exception to the rule. And I mean, whenever people start talking about how ‘We’re Americans!’” Earle growls, “like we’re entitled to something just because of that, it’s scary, downright frightening. Like, ‘Yes, we are the master race!’ And people freak out when you start comparing what’s going on now to Nazi Germany, but the parallels are all there.”

You can almost hear the frustrated thudding of Limbaugh/O’Reilly fists on their right-wing desks, powerless to argue with—or stop—this steamrolling Earle juggernaut (underscored, of course, by artists like R.E.M., Springsteen and Dave Matthews hitting swing states on their own anti-Bush tour). Recently, the basic conservative defense has been ‘What do recording stars know about politics?’ But it’s a losing argument, as artist after intelligent artist rediscovers the long-dormant cathartic medium of the Protest Song. These dark days, channeling the optimistic Woody Guthrie is a purely patriotic move.

Adjusting his scholarly wire-frame spectacles, Earle says, “I’m not a Democrat, but I’m gonna vote for Kerry. …I’ve never belonged to any political party. I’m a lot closer to a Socialist than I am anything else, because I absolutely believe everything that Karl Marx said about economics. And I’m supposed to be able to believe that, and I’m supposed to be able to say that I believe that in a democracy. But we’re reaching a climate where it’s definitely becoming …um …unfashionable.”

Was there any Democratic hopeful Earle would’ve supported? The firebrand Dean, perhaps? He smiles, knowing this will sound pretty crazy. “My ideal candidate was Kucinich. Kucinich was the only candidate in the race that thought anything like I do. Although we’re completely the opposite in one department—he’s a vegan.” Earle pats his now-slim stomach and chuckles. “You know, I think I might’ve eaten a vegetarian once! I’m actually that carnivorous.”