From MTV to the Taliban

Bruce Springsteen and Patti Smith are writing songs about terrorists and the Taliban. So why is country maverick Steve Earle getting all the heat?

Topics: Music,

Songwriters from Neil Young (“Let’s Roll”) to Paul McCartney (“Freedom”) have weighed in on the Sept. 11 terror attacks and their aftermath. Next week Bruce Springsteen will deliver a full album, “The Rising,” on the subject. Even Attorney General John Ashcroft addressed the topic in a tune he wrote, “Let the Eagle Soar.” Now roots-rock iconoclast and career rabble-rouser Steve Earle is set to have his say — and he’s already catching flak.

Earle’s album “Jerusalem” (E-Squared/Artemis) won’t reach stores until Sept. 24, but advance copies of the disc are already stirring up controversy. At issue is “John Walker’s Blues,” a song Earle wrote and sings from the perspective of John Walker Lindh, the 21-year-old California native who last week pled guilty in federal court to taking up arms with the Taliban.

The Earle brouhaha began with a New York Post article on Sunday. “Twisted ballad honors Tali-Rat,” the headline hollered. “Lindh is glorified and called Jesus-like,” declared Post scribe Aly Sujo. The piece quoted Steve Gill, a radio host in Earle’s adopted hometown of Nashville, as saying that Earle belongs “in the same category as Jane Fonda and John Walker and all those people who hate America.” Appearing Tuesday on CNN, Gill urged listeners to boycott the album.

Why all the fuss? “John Walker’s Blues” opens with four naked notes on guitar, then Earle’s lazy Texas drawl. “I’m just an American boy, raised on MTV,” he slurs, backed by a slow, even beat. Earle’s Lindh discovers Islam, and the first chorus swells over chiming electric guitar chords: “A shadu la ilaha illa Allah/There is no God but God,” Earle sings. It’s hard not to notice the similarity to Earle’s 1997 song “Taneytown,” a tale set to a similar minor-key melody and told through the eyes of a boy who killed in self-defense.

The song marches forward, past the couplet that Steve Gill deemed “particularly offensive to Christians”: “If I should die I’ll rise up to the sky,” Earle rasps, “just like Jesus, peace be upon him.”

But the verse that really gets Gill’s goat is the last one: “We came to fight the Jihad and our hearts were pure and strong/As death filled the air we all offered up prayers/And prepared for our martyrdom/But Allah had some other plan, some secret not revealed/Now they’re draggin’ me back with my head in a sack/To the land of the infidel.” The song closes with a thicket of distorted, processed guitar that fades into a 30-second snippet of a Quranic prayer.

Clearly Gill and the New York Post’s Sujo, who started the mess, wrenched Earle’s lyrics out of context. Earle doesn’t pontificate and never breaks character, much less glorify Lindh, as Sujo’s initial item claimed. (Interestingly, the July 22 Reuters wire service piece on the Earle issue was also written by Aly Sujo — though in a vastly calmer tone.)

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“John Walker’s Blues” fits right in on “Jerusalem” — an album that, top to bottom, is the most topical of the outspoken Earle’s checkered career. In the quasi talking-blues “Amerika v. 6.0 (The Best We Can Do),” Earle spits accusations at his baby-boom peers (“I remember when we was both out on the boulevard/Talking revolution, not singing the blues/Nowadays it’s letter to the editor/And cheating on our taxes is the best that we can do”). The groove-infused “Conspiracy Theory” rails at government surveillance, and, over a rolling beat and a rich bed of guitar and harmonica, the title cut closes the album with a dream of Middle East peace. (Somehow it’s not half as cloying as that description sounds.)

Earle released his first record, “Guitar Town,” in 1986, scored modest success with “Copperhead Road” in 1988, then descended into an increasingly desperate cocaine and heroin habit. That spiral stopped with Earle’s 1994 arrest and subsequent forced rehab. Since 1995 he’s enjoyed a creative renaissance: On top of touring with both rock and bluegrass bands, teaching a course on songwriting, publishing a book of short stories and writing a play, Earle has been recording songs at a prolific pace. “Jerusalem” will be his sixth studio album in the last seven years.

All the while Earle has increasingly become identified as a lefty gadfly, campaigning for an international ban on land mines and for other causes. He’s best known, however, for his activism against the death penalty. This spring he contributed a cover of the folk standard “Tom Dooley” to the Pine Valley Cosmonauts’ anti-capital punishment fundraiser disc “The Executioner’s Last Songs” (Bloodshot); in the past, Earle has written several songs on the subject, including “Ellis Unit One,” which adopts the perspective of a prison guard, and “Over Yonder (Jonathan’s Song),” which Earle wrote in the voice of Jonathan Nobles, a double murderer Earle befriended and whom the state of Texas executed in 1998.

It should surprise no one that Steve Earle might show sympathy for a popular pariah like John Walker Lindh. Earle is a loud, proud heir to the protest-folk tradition of Woody Guthrie, the Okie icon who penned songs about shady souls like Pretty Boy Floyd, and Bob Dylan, who famously venerated Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, the boxer wrongfully convicted of murder. (Hard as it is to imagine, the walking cultural institution that is Dylan was once thought a radical for decrying war, racism and injustice of every stripe.)

Viewed in the context of Earle’s career, the “Walker’s Blues” blow-up is just another skirmish in a long-running war. The Nashville country music establishment has variously viewed him as a rowdy renegade, a worthless junkie and a loudmouth pinko, while Earle avows an equally dim view of the country mainstream.

It’s reductive and wrong to say that country music is an inherently conservative form, or that its songs simply parrot right-wing platitudes. But contemporary country’s response to the terror attacks has ranged from sentimental dreck (Alan Jackson’s “Where Were You [When the World Stopped Turning]“) to aggressive jingoism. Genre veterans have fared no better — champion chump Charlie Daniels offered the vapid revenge fantasy “This Ain’t No Rag, It’s a Flag,” while Dolly Parton played things numbingly close to the vest with several songs about God and country.

Earle might well get less guff if he were a rapper. While hip-hop heavyweights have been circumspect, sentiments far more flammable than those expressed in “John Walker’s Blues” bristle in the underground. Mr. Lif’s “Home of the Brave” opens with a sampled clip of John Kennedy (“Whenever we stand against the flow of opinion on strongly contested issues,” the disembodied JFK says, “a man does what he must, in spite of personal consequences”), then Lif launches into a rebuke of government rhetoric that “demonizes Afghanis/So Americans cheer while we kill their innocent families.” Elsewhere, indie emcee Sage Francis pokes at the roots of terror: “The melting pot seems to be calling the kettle black when it boils over,” Francis says in “Makeshift Patriots.” The song’s middle break skewers President Bush’s speech to the ground zero cleanup crew: “Until I find more eloquent scripture to quote,” a mock-Bush intones, “remember: Our god is bigger, stronger, smarter and much wealthier, so wave those flags with pride — especially the white part!”

Earle is hardly the only songwriter to contradict the kind of blind patriotism celebrated in Toby Keith’s “Courtesy of the Red, White & Blue [The Angry American]“). After all, even Bruce Springsteen’s much-anticipated disc reportedly includes a song, “Paradise,” about a Palestinian suicide bomber. And punk priestess Patti Smith has written a song called “Walker,” and has dedicated another tune, “Boy Cries Wolf,” to Walker Lindh at some recent gigs. “He was seduced by an ideology and deserves our compassion and understanding,” she told the Guardian in an April interview.

Yet the negative attention has been Earle’s alone. He hasn’t added to the dialogue; reportedly vacationing in Europe, Earle has been unavailable for comment. He does, however, expound at some length in the press materials that accompanied advance copies of the new disc. “This is a political record,” Earle says there, “because there seems to be no other proper response to the place we’re at now.”

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