I had the distinct honor of being asked to write an essay for the recent release of Steve Earle’s extraordinary post-1995 songbook, when he came roaring back from addiction and a brief incarceration to reassert himself as one of our most relevant songwriters. Yes, Steve is at this point a friend and colleague, having worked with us on “The Wire” and “Treme” both. But I’d’ve written what follows if I had only the music itself on which to rely. For those who have not yet savored Mr. Earle and his work, the new boxed set, “Steve Earle: The Warner Brothers Years,” which includes audio and video live performances from that period as well as three essential studio recordings, is a perfect entry point into what has become an extraordinary canon of American roots music.
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I am generally down on the idea of heroes. We have enough of them in American culture, certainly, yet we are always in the process of tearing some down to make room for still more. We exalt the hero, look to him for insight and wisdom, for art and genius and a template for our own lives if, by chance, they were a little less stunted and empty than circumstance requires. We are a country that still believes, despite all evidence to the contrary, that if we still elect the right guy, the problems can be solved. We still dream on the war hero, the guitar hero, the land-the-plane-flat-on-the-river-and-walk-everyone-out-on-the-wing hero of a moment’s greatness.
Sometimes our heroes disappoint. Sometimes they fall and rise again. And sometimes, to our astonished disappointment, they manage, over time, to reveal themselves to be plainly and passionately human. Which is the only lesson in heroism that actually might matter.
I first heard of Steve Earle in late 1988 when I walked into a record store in North Baltimore and “Copperhead Road” was playing. South Texas twang, roots music traditions, but with rock ‘n’ roll right there in the mix, too. I sorted through the bins listening with half an ear, absorbing the hooks and changes, thinking that some fresh songsmith was pitching his shovel where Joe Ely or John Mellencamp had already commenced to dig. Half-listening, I missed the narrative pivot in the title track, but the last verse of “Snake Oil” pulled me up. Libya? Grenada? What the….
The next track was an honest country anthem about gun culture. At the declaration that nothing but the devil’s right hand had touched the trigger, I was sold:
“Who’s that playing?”
“Steve Earle,” replied to store manager, “the guy that did ‘Guitar Town’.”
I bought both CDs. And after absorbing the music – particularly the angular politics on side one of “Copperhead Road,” I settled in and waited for Steve Earle to do whatever Steve Earle was going to do next. And waited. And after a follow-up album that showed a man struggling to grow his voice, and then a shambling live recording, I began to regard this Earle fellow as a promise unfulfilled.
Meanwhile, I was, in my own realm, learning some about life. In the same year I paid for those two CDs, I was following homicide detectives in Baltimore for a book about violence, loss and miscalculation in an American city. And as Steve Earle seemed to recede as a musical force, I was researching and writing a second book on a drug-saturated neighborhood in Baltimore. I followed people who were no longer connected to any part of the American experiment, hollowed wraiths for whom redemption was a 30-day rehab bed and maybe, maybe a chance to stumble back down the road to whatever problems and disappointments led them to addiction in the first place. Most are dead now, but the few who survived – they allowed me to be a bystander to an extraordinary human adventure. Having torn down their lives, they somehow summoned the strength to rebuild themselves as people, as family members, as friends, as citizens. And they did so one day at a time. It was a hero’s journey, and as I’ve said, I do not toss that term lightly. In fact, I’m prone to joking that having lived half a century, I only have three actual heroes left: Woody Guthrie, Curtis Mayfield and Ella Thompson, who ran the recreation center on Vincent Street in Franklin Square during my year of reporting there. And yeah, some days, I’m not even sure about Woody.
That second book, “The Corner,” was not only a rumination on the great American diaspora of addiction, it was, I hoped, an argument for the other America, the discarded and unheralded country inhabited by a working class no longer necessary to our collective future. This was Baltimore. The factories were closed, the port quiet. Only the corner was hiring.
At which point, I don’t know where exactly, I read something about Steve Earle, whose early recordings were wedged somewhere in my dusty stacks of CDs. Seems that he, too, had fallen into heroin, lost weight, lost focus and finally, lost his freedom. Arrested on drugs and weapons charges in the same year that I was reporting “The Corner” in West Baltimore, Earle had failed to appear in court and in 1994, was sentenced to a year in prison. He did sixty days, and then upon his release, entered an in-patient rehab program. I knew the story well enough. In that year on the streets of West Baltimore, it was my day-to-day.
By the time “The Corner” was published in 1997, many of the men and women I knew on Fayette Street were gone: Fat Curt and Bread, Rita and Hungry. And the young boys we had followed out of Ella’s rec center, they were either dead or lost in addiction. For the least unlucky, it would be years of street arrests and court hearings and rehab beds, and ultimately, only a handful would survive long enough to emerge from the nightmare.
Addiction is rooted in fear, and self-loathing and faithlessness. It is human doubt when doubt finally wins out. And here’s the rub: Getting clean is the easy part. Getting clean is thirty days, at most. It’s step one and it’s certain, fixed. It’s step two that is epic: Now that I’m not getting high, who the hell am I? And what am I here for? And, oh yeah, all those fears and doubts and hurts that drove me to addiction in the first place? They’re still here. I’m still who I was when I first learned how to lose myself in heroin, in cocaine, in alcohol or whatever else was available to obliterate any sense of myself. So what do I do with this life now?
All of this was on display on Fayette Street in 1993 and in the years after, so that when I next became aware of Steve Earle, it came in a context that made me wonder at who, exactly, this man actually was. Because by the time “The Corner” was slated to become a miniseries at HBO, Steve Earle had not only resurrected his career, he had done so in the most remarkable, creative and frenetic fashion possible.
Beginning with “Train A’ Comin’” and continuing with “I Feel Alright” and “El Corazon,” Earle had embraced the whole of American roots music and beyond, taking everything from country to bluegrass, Celtic music and rock ’n’ roll as his canvass. The musical breadth was astonishing enough, but the lyricism and the storytelling and, yes, the political acumen in evidence was sufficient to announce that one of America’s greatest songsmiths was now hard at work.
That is not overstatement or hyperbole. Nearly two decades after those songs began tumbling one after another from Earle after his fallow years of addiction, they still crackle: the blunt racial realities of “Taneytown,” the weary D.C. disconnect of “Christmas In Washington,” the survivor ethos of “I Feel Alright,” the dirty, lie-within-the-truth justice of “Billy And Bonnie.” Hell, even Earle’s earlier compositions, strained through his own hard-won sobriety, now carried a greater gravitas: “Tom Ames’ Prayer” is the aural equivalent of a Sergio Leone final act, but with Jean-Paul Sartre writing the screenplay. Leave it to a high-school dropout from South Texas to write the Great Existentialist Cowboy Ballad.
When “The Corner” was in sound editing, I looked around for an end-credits song about addiction, something that caught the exhausting spiral without romance and without apology. I kept coming back to “South Nashville Blues,” a track from “I Feel Alright” which, when I played it for the recovering addicts along Fayette Street – mostly black, none of them fans of country blues — would elicit nods of recognition and self-awareness.
“I took my pistol and a hundred dollar bill,” sang Earle. “I had everything I need to get me killed.”
That’s the shit right there, they’d say, pointing to the CD player. That’s the shit. And so, I wrote to Earle’s management, seeking permission to not only use the track for the end credits but to amend the title to “West Baltimore Blues” and to adjust a geographic reference to “Fayette Street” from the South Nashville equivalent. I was careful to describe “The Corner” and its purposes, to make my best-written argument for a symbiosis between my ghetto narrative and Earle’s own autobiography of addiction. And then I crossed my fingers.
After a brief wait, word came back from Earle’s people that we could proceed. I never spoke to Earle, but in that moment, I felt that I knew him a little bit. Or, at least, I knew that we knew some of the same things about a certain world.
And life rolled on. Earle’s passionate re-embrace of his talent, or moreso, his very purpose continued with an amazing collection of new-penned bluegrass standards on “The Mountain,” recorded with Del McCoury and his band. And then, further, with the release of “Transcendental Blues,” Earle had followed up five empty years of heroin and jail, detox and rehab with a second five-year period marked by five studio recordings — any one of which could stand as an artistic highpoint.
By then, I was working on a new drama, “The Wire,” an exploration of the drug trade in Baltimore as a metaphor for a post-industrial nation-state too enamored of short-term profit and careerist gain to recognize its problems, much less solve any of them. And amid the middle episodes of that first season, it had become clear that we would need to cast a credible actor as a strong, recovering addict – a Narcotics Anonymous veteran who could become a mentor to another character, a long-suffering, yet entirely human creature named Bubbles, police informant and dope fiend.
We read a lot of actors, none of whom had ever been dope fiends, and none of whom understood the dynamics of the rooms – those church basements and rehab center cafeterias where those in recovery gather every day to tell as much truth about themselves as people ever dare. The actors were, well, actorly. They read the lines, and they emoted as actors do. And maybe it would have been fine to go with an actor, I don’t know. But it bothered me. I’d been in those rooms all along Fayette Street and elsewhere in Baltimore, and I’d heard enough of the real to know what we weren’t going to get. And, too, I wanted Bubbles’ sponsor to be a white guy, a South Baltimore shitkicker only one or two generations removed from the coal mines and railroad towns of Western Maryland and West Virginia. The west side of Baltimore, in which we staged our story, might be entirely black, but addiction in my city and elsewhere is multicultural; it was time to make that point in a fundamental way.
And so, naturally, it seemed to me, I thought of Steve Earle.
When I called him, he said sure, no problem — and he said it a little too quickly to make me comfortable. Referencing his anti-death penalty play that he was producing at the time in Nashville, Earle allowed that he had becoming interested in acting, among many other pursuits. Christ, I thought. I went looking for a non-actor and he wants to act.
But he showed up in Baltimore without pretense and he knew his lines, and most of all, he knew the rooms. I gave him the following note only: Don’t worry about the accent, but if it helps you to place this guy, South and Southwest Baltimore is filled with second- and third-generation West Virginians who came to Baltimore for the war work in the forties, leaving behind the railroad yards and coal fields. Their hillbilly highway ends in the same rowhouses as the African-Americans of West Baltimore – just a few blocks south. Then I mentioned Gram Parson’s “Streets of Baltimore” as a reference point.
“Good song,” said Earle.
After which, he became Walon, the recovering addict through which Bubbles, played by Andre Royo, manages to access his own latent conscience. I never worried about Steve Earle after that first episode of The Wire. He might not yet be ready to play Richard III or Charles Foster Kane, to be sure, but neither would he ever fail to access his own history, his own demons in his depiction of a recovering addict.
I learned something else about him on that, his first trip to Baltimore to work on “The Wire,” and it’s this: Steve Earle is a genuinely smart soul, an autodidact of astonishing scope and — albeit with all the mannerisms of an unrepentant redneck — a bit of a Renaissance man.
Knowing that he had extra days in Baltimore, for costume fittings and holds and possible schedule changes in shooting, I thought about him killing time in a hotel in one of the most heroin-saturated cities in the nation. So I pointedly picked him up at the airport and commenced a brief tour of Baltimore, suitable for occupying the extra time of a traveling musician.
First stop was the housing project in Cherry Hill and the very red-brick low-rise where once lived Hattie Carroll, who was famously caned by William Zantzinger, suffering a lonesome death at the Emerson Hotel and then immortality in the lyrics of a young Bob Dylan. I thought it would appeal to Earle, but when we pulled up in the housing project courtyard, the package was out and a young crew was slinging in earnest. They looked over at two white guys in a car and saw customers. Simon, you fucking idiot. Here you are, driving a recovering addict who is one of the most vibrant and productive voices in American song to a Cherry Hill drug corner.
“We’d get out, and walk over, but we might get jacked,” I lied.
And I drove away, resolving to show him less of Baltimore than planned. But in truth, I needn’t have worried. Because by the summer of 2002, Earle had truly surrendered to the process of recovery and he was far along the journey. Having torn himself down with heroin and pain, he had done the hard work of reusing every last brick to restore himself.
And, too, his interests were far wider than Baltimore’s musical trivia, it turned out. Earle is a lover of baseball – a Yankee fan, alas, but no one is without flaw – and so, as a second contingency, I also got tickets to see the Orioles play the Twins at Camden Yards. We sat in the third-baseline boxes, Steve to my left and my wife and fellow writer, Laura, at my right. And while the first couple innings were spent remarking on the American League East, the glory of the Camden warehouse and other appropriate topics, soon enough, Steve’s mind began to churn and the conversation turned to a variety of interests and arguments.
To those who haven’t met him, be apprised that Steve Earle is no taciturn rocker brooding in his fortress of alienated solitude. No way, no shot. He is, instead, someone who is devouring the whole of the known world, assessing it, arguing with it, writing songs about it, and then explaining more about what he means about everything that might matter, since you’re interested. His best conversations are gregarious explosions of anecdote and homily, memory and aspiration.
As the Orioles gave up an early lead, we talked about his new interest in Japanese bonsai, about the Biblical origins of Islam, about what can and can’t be conveyed about writing in a classroom. At one point, he brought up Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf, and my wife – the better-read and more literate half of the marriage – jumped into the fray. I have thus far avoided Beowulf. And Seamus Heaney, I am embarrassed to say, has eluded my intellectual reach as well. And so, as Steve Earle and Laura Lippman began a twenty-five minute discourse on Western literature and poetry – both of them citing chapters and verses, to be sure – I sat between them, sucking on a Natty Boh and watching the later innings in stoic, thoughtful silence.
When Steve began to discourse on Sylvia Plath, I finally interjected.
“They’ll probably pinch hit for Reboulet.”
Reboulet, not Rabelais. And yeah, I haven’t read that guy either.
All of which is one secret to why this man and his music matter. He can write a love song, and there are many fine ones in the Earle canon. He can write the road songs, and the sad songs, the tributes to fallen friends and lost lovers. He can do what needs doing in all the expected places, and he can do it well. I am with that young kid losing himself on “Telephone Road,” just as I shed the illusions of war with that worn soldier in “Ben McCulloch.” And I grieve for a mentor not my own in “Ft. Worth Blues.” These songs are beautiful, crafted work.
But more than that, Steve Earle brings his never-quit-learning, hard-won sense of the world into places that otherwise elude the American songbook. He’ll give you a long-haul trucker dodging RPGs on the road to Basra, or a Harlan County miner professing lifelong faith in the union that fought for his wages and safety, or — most notably, in terms of controversy – a young American drawn to the spiritual rigor of a different monotheistic path and then, for his curiosity and faith, caught between worlds. This is extraordinary business – fulfilling as it does that stark civic and political promise of those first songs from “Copperhead Road” that I happened upon so long ago. Addiction nearly devoured this man – which is all the more astonishing when you realize that addiction requires a personal oblivion, a shutting out of the greater world. And yet now, the whole of that world — its people, politics, and problems – has become the grist for the songs of Steve Earle.
At that ballgame in Baltimore, he told me one last story I’ll offer here, because it fits. Back in Texas as a teenager, when he was chasing down his hero, Townes Van Zandt, looking for lessons in life and songwriting, Townes would weary of the constant queries and look for ways to get rid of young Earle for a while. Once, Townes mentioned the book, “Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee” and, seeing the empty expression on Steve’s face, demanded that Earle read the whole book before coming back with any more bothering questions. He took the book down off the shelf, and then looking around, grabbed Tolstoy’s “War And Peace” as well.
“This one, too,” said Van Zandt. “Don’t come back ‘til you read ‘em both.”
And Earle did so. When he returned, ready to discuss both the tragedies of Native American history as well as the Napoleanic invasion and its effect on Russian society, one thing became clear: Van Zandt hadn’t read “War And Peace,” but had simply grabbed another fat volume off the shelf to keep the kid at bay.
But Earle did read them, and a lot else. And while Townes Van Zandt stands as a great American songsmith and remains, rightfully, a hero to Earle, it needs to be said that Van Zandt succumbed to the demons of his addiction. There were songs left unwritten by a great talent, and worlds therefore unexplored.
It’s in the very act of resurrection that Earle becomes a hero in my eyes, much in the way that the handful of folks who made it off Fayette Street – Fran and Blue and Eggie and others who worked the steps and the rooms to endure and rebuild – are heroes as well. Fitzgerald famously claimed there are no second acts in American lives. Sharp writer, good voice. But I’m calling him on this one, and citing Steve Earle – and his extraordinary post-1995 songbook – as certain and sufficient proof.
February 3, 2013