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.
* * *
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
- Share on Facebook
- Share on Twitter
David – It’s amazing to me how our paths continue to cross. We should get together. I am in the city regularly and would love to catch up with you sometime.
Thank you, Mr. Simon.
My Pogues fandom goes back many years. My late son was devoted to both the band and to The Wire. I wish he had lived to see this.
No one seems to note that plenty of Pogues music showed up well before McNulty’s wake.
I first heard Steve Earle in the movie Talladega Nights, believe it or not. I couldn’t get “Hardcore Troubadour” out of my head for days, so I bought “I Feel Alright.” Then I fell HARD for The Wire, and was thrilled to hear his song at the end of season two, as well as to see him in later seasons with Andre Royo. Then Treme came along…and “This City,” which is one of my all-time favorite songs. I had the chance to see Earle in Harrisburg, PA, and it was just him, with four guitars and a mandolin. For his encore, he talked about Treme and how much he loved working with you (and this was after you killed his character, too!), then proceeded to play “This City,” which may be my favorite of all of his songs. Thanks for a great feature on a great guy.
Good man, Steve.
“…I only have three actual heroes left: Woody Guthrie, Curtis Mayfield and Ella Thompson…”
Whatever happened to I.F. Stone?
And wherever did Curtis Mayfield come from?
I keep a little bench strength, just in case I read something by Izzy that doesn’t congeal for me. Or if I get tired of listening to Mayfield’s “Roots” album. Sometimes, I throw Fran Boyd into the trinity, if I don’t think anyone’s looking. And Joe Strummer once made the list after I a loud re-listen of the “Black Market Clash” EP on a road trip with a good car stereo.
It is nuanced.
Just wondering what you think of the pogues?
Did you know that Mr. Simon used their song “The Body of an American” on his television show “The Wire?”
Yeah, I do, great song. Great band. I’ve been watching some documentaries about the pogues, and it’s really sad what happened to Shane McGowan. Talk about Earles’ descent into addiciton, check out McGowans. I know Earle and the Pogues did a duo one time. That’s a great song as well.
That duo was “Johnny Come Lately,” from Earle’s third album “Copperhead Road.” And you’re right, it’s also a great song.
By the way Mr. Simon, I too am curious to know you’re full opinion on The Pogues.
Love them hard. Consider Macgowan to be among the great lyricists and storytellers of our time, and the band to be the perfect ensemble for a remarkable synthesis of Irish traditional and rock ‘n’ roll. Am working with them on a particular project, in fact.
“The Wire” not only featured “Body of an American,” but we also used “Transmetropolitan” and “Sally MacLennane” at other points.
Interesting piece about an interesting man. Also an interesting take on addiction from an “earth person” as some people in the rooms call it. I like the focus on the doubt and fear that enshrouds both active addiction and recovery, though I would caution against calling getting clean the “easy” part (but I get it was for for the sake of emphasis). Imbibing a psychoactive substance is the manifestation of whatever lexical choice you choose for a soul sickness/psychiatric disorder, etc.
As an avid fan of The Wire, I’m happy to know that the decision to include Walon was a deliberate choice to show the “multicultural” nature of addiction. I’m an ivy league educated middle class white male that never touched a dry good and didn’t start drinking in earnest until AFTER college, but alcoholism and alcohol (which is a drug) took my life into oblivion, as it does with all addicts. Recovery is about living a life of purpose without substances, whether you use the rooms to get there or not. Hopefully I stay engaged in the process “Until The Day I Die.”
[…] Simon wrote the liner notes essay for Steve Earle’s boxed set “The Warner Brothers Years,” giving some backstory to […]
Great post David. I’ve grown up in Nashville and been a fan of Earle’s ever since the first time I heard Copperhead Road too. I will admit I am a bit younger than you are, but the effect of that song and his return with possibly the greatest comeback trilogy ever recorded ( From Train A Comin’ to I Feel Alright to El Corazon) laid the seeds for my own musical foundations and ambitions in this city, to say the least. Also, on a side note the “Lewis St. ” he sings about in South Nashville Blues that you had changed to “Fayette St” is actually connected to LaFayette St. here in South Nashville. Still an economically ravaged part of this city all these years later.
Eye-opening to say the least. I listened to Earle only sporadically a few years ago when I picked up an album out of curiosity at my local library. I had no idea that he currently has such a wide range of intellectual and personal engagements. Going back and listening to more of his stuff (and Clark’s and Van Zandt’s) with the context provided in your essay is even more interesting, especially for someone who approaches this stuff as a social and cultural outsider. It kind of makes me feel like a richer person, having acquired something outside of my own immediate experience. I think the types of experiences and perspectives that live in this type of music is fading in a world that’s becoming more homogenous in so many ways. So much wisdom exists within the lyrics, but soon no one will bother to look–at least that’s what my instinct tells me. It’s kind of like how people overlook Baltimore on their way to DC or something.
Parallel to that will be the overlooking of the heroism that you describe–the type that exists in the struggles of ordinary people who aren’t remembered in history books. There’s so much to be said about that kind of courage, the kind that it takes to rebuild one’s life after confronting one’s demons. I’ve only had very peripheral encounters with that type of bravery (mostly with distant family members), and yet I feel like it will (as always) continue to be marginalized among the cacophony and rhetoric of politicians, TV celebrities, and ideologues. Our “heroes” have become more and more artificial; more and more a repository of our own insecurities than a reflection of who we want to be.
I was introduced to Steve Earle’s music by my friend Elizabeth Cosin, a writer who loves his music and his storytelling, and quotes him all the time. She’s given me all the Steve Earle music that I own and I have become a fan by osmosis.
Last week a friend of mine decided to end his life after years of addition and disintegration and I have been pondering the hard fact of no future possibilities for him or with him. I have been listening to Steve Earle’s music and thinking about the points that you make – there is hope found in those stories because they are told by someone who knows hopelessness.
We don’t typically think of addicts as heroes but coming back from the void and disconnection of addiction and making the choice to live everyday sober and engaged is a heroic act.
I’m so glad Steve Earle stuck around to rock me through these sad days.
I am sorry for your friend and for the loss of your friendship.
I’m sorry for your loss, too, Susie and thrilled that the music has helped get you through this. That’s the great power of song, as both David and Mr. Earle know well. I can’t tell you, David, how great it was to see Steve Earle appear on my screen in “The Wire”. Had no idea you were a fellow traveler down those West Texas country roads until that day. Ft. Worth Blues is among the great masterpieces of American songwriting for sure. If you haven’t heard the Guy Clark version, check it out. I’ve had a chance to talk with Earle and Townes and later, Clark, too, who I asked about his cover of Ft Worth Blues — he said he sung it for Townes, which I bet Earle would love to know if he doesn’t already. I must add that while we’re talking about heroes, I might have to add your wife, Laura, for that amazing conversation she had at a ballpark with Earle. That alone puts her in a major league pantheon for me. Seriously. Wow.
Mr. Simon, as someone who taught a few years in a Baltimore public school, I do admire your writing greatly. I’ve also been a fan of Earle’s since he made “The Mountain”. I’ve been pleased that he’s been on the Wire and Treme casts. I’ve also been clean and sober for a few decades (one decade at a time).
It’s odd to read a description of recovery and working the Steps without any mention of a Higher Power. Maybe that’s the way Earle works it, if so, that fact might be interesting in itself.
For another view of addiction, recovery, and 12 step groups I highly recommend Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. It has some of the best description of the 12 step group dynamic that I’ve ever read. (Wallace’s posthumous biographers show that he had sponsors of his own, went to meetings all around the country, and took the slogans and the hokey writing rather seriously.)
Excellent piece. I’ve been a fan of Earle’s for years, and a fan of Van Zandt’s for decades. Can’t tell you how many times I saw him when he was so drunk he could neither stand nor remember the lyrics to his masterpieces.
I would quibble with one thing you write: the first thirty aren’t easy. My husband was a very serious addict who decided on his own to go to Hazelden to get clean and to learn the tools to stay clean. Some of the people in his unit couldn’t even last 30 days. One rich kid left in a blinding snowstorm, on foot, to get liquor. Fortunately, with a commitment to AA and sobriety, Bert has stayed clean.
Agree, as an addict, I wonder about Simon’s analysis of addiction. Addiction isn’t easily reduced to ‘fear’. I’m skeptical, to put it bluntly, and to be brutally honest, the 12 step program hasn’t worked. Sorry. It hasn’t. I’m sure every recovering addict has their own tale to tell regarding how they recovered.
The Fitzgerald quote about American lives first appeared in My Lost City and, when quoted in full, goes like this:
‘I ONCE THOUGHT that there were no second acts to American lives, but there was certainly to be a second act to New York’s boom days’
Fitzgerald scholars HATE IT when the line is misappropriated (as it always is). I am not a Fitzgerald scholar; I’m just a petty, petty man who can’t help himself.
Brilliant piece. You’ve managed to make concrete an abstract that, even in the hands of distinguished critics, often remains nebulous and ill-defined: the creative centre of a great talent.
I never knew the Fitzgerald quote was mitigated in that way. Thank you for that.
I like Steve Earle now more than I did before. He reminds me of someone I grew up with: brilliant, well read, knowledgeable on a wide variety of topics -from politics to law to literature. He always had three books going at the same time, read the newspaper cover to cover and had a very generous, loving spirit. And what a sense of humor! He also suffered from a terrible addiction. Those are hard contradictions to reconcile as a child. Academia taught me it was an overactive limbic system. Religion said it was because he was spiritually unfit. The Nine Inch Nails song HURT conceptualized it best to me:
I hurt myself today
To see if I still feel
I focus on the pain
The only thing that’s real
The needle tears a hole
The old familiar sting
Try to kill it all away
But I remember everything
What have I become?
My sweetest friend
Everyone I know
Goes away in the end
You could have it all
My empire of dirt
I will let you down
I will make you hurt
I wear this crown of shit
Upon my liar’s chair
Full of broken thoughts
I cannot repair
Beneath the stains of time
The feelings disappear
You are someone else
I am still right here
What have I become?
My sweetest friend
Everyone I know
Goes away in the end
You could have it all
My empire of dirt
I will let you down
I will make you hurt
If I could start again
A million miles away
I would keep myself
I would find a way
I bet Steve Earle likes the song, especially when Johnny Cash covered it.
Ah, Mr. Simon, someday another book? Lovely to read and I’ll second Katie, the baseball story was a highlight.
Dear Mr Simon,
Thanks for this beautiful tribute to Steve Earle. I was introduced to his music through The Wire and The Corner. .
I work with young people struggling with addiction in Ireland. Another world, in some ways, to that of Steve Earle and the one you showed in The Corner and The Wire. But when Steve Earle, as Walon, speaks about shame as he sits in the car with Kima preparing to go to see Bubbles. “Shame is some tricky shit…………” You know the lines I’m sure. In all my years I’ve never heard it described so poignantly and while I know Steve Earle didn’t write those words, he spoke them with an authenticity I still find incredibly moving.
Thanks for this and like others who have written here you’ve sold me on the CDs. I look forward to picking them up.
Sold! The box set I mean, I was fortunate enough to find him in 86 with Guitar Town’s release, sheer genius. And your writing and tribute , both lovely, thanks. And off the beaten path a bit, I just finished , and wonder if you have read Sarah Stillman’s piece “Taken” in The New Yorker about civil forfeiture centered in the east Texas town of Teneha ? An impressive, heart rending 12 page read, that for some reason prompted me to come here. All the while reading her piece , I was seeing a damn movie, someone needs to make a movie! And then here you were writing about Steve, and now the damn soundtrack is just bloody obvious. I know you’ve got other stuff going on but… Regards, Leslie p.s. What happened to I.F. Stone man?
Beautiful and poignant, and thank you. Fort Worth Blues is one of my favorites on El Corazon. Also, Harlan Howard wrote Streets of Baltimore, though I know the song only because of Gram Parson’s version.
And synchronistically, I just saw that Tompall Glaser, Harlan Howard’s co-writer on Streets of Baltimore, died this week. There’s an interesting obituary in the Times. And for those who don’t know this great song, here’s Gram’s version: http://youtu.be/8V4NoboSq6w.
Well said. Just as interesting and thought-provoking as your essay on the sleeve of The Wire soundtrack. Maybe more actually.
Although my father has been a fan of Steve Earle for years, I wouldn’t have known much about him or his music had it not been for Walon, who, by the way, is my second favorite character from the show. So underrated!
It’s great that such a backwoods county rocker, who could have easily been another Ted Nugent, could be such a thoughtful, ingenious, and intelligent man and musician.
Steve Earle is the man. Great post.
Renaissance man indeed. A few months ago, I saw Steve perform a brief set at a local record store. I admit that before the show I fantasized about what I might say to my hero if I had the chance — not just “I’m a huge fan,” but something that might engage his attention. Amazingly, after his incredible performance, I found myself standing next to him, alone and away from the rest of the crowd. I had read an interview in which Steve had expressed his admiration of the great Shakespearean actor, Mark Rylance, so I mentioned that I had seen him in London in “Jerusalem.” Steve immediately launched into his firmly held belief that you really haven’t seen Rylance until you’ve seen him do Shakespeare. We had a back and forth chat on the subject that lasted only minutes, but I won’t forget it.
Great post. I guess this would be as good of a topic as any to ask you what you think of Holder’s announcement earlier this week that the justice department is making it easier to eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for drug-related offenses. It seems the momentum is finally shifting away from the past several decades War on Drugs.
It’s a start.
Gonna post something more detailed when I slide back out of summer vacation with family.
Steve Earle is a songwriting freak of nature. He has managed to harness something within himself that generates a peculiarly powerful American brand of storytelling. CCKMP gives me the shivers. His body of work is unusually coherent, forcefully genuine, and unquestionably legitimate. His music is the antidote to the shallow ersatz of the New Narcissism that defines contemporary, popular American music. He acquiesces to nothing but his own honesty.
I saw him perform at La Zona Rosa in Austin, TX in 2007… at one point, about mid-set, he embarked on something of a political ramble. I remember clearly these words from Mr. Earle: “If you work for somebody else, you need to be in a damn union.”
This upset a prototypical Texan (I am one, so I know one when I see one) in front of me, who began saying loudly to anyone around him who would listen that “I didn’t buy this ticket to hear this kind of liberal bulls*it.” Back then, Austin was no haven for partisans of the George W. camp (it’s considerably more en vogue now to be an outspoken Republican here, as new money pours into the town and the ubiquitous cranes populating the skyline theoretically raise the standard of living for all at the same time they construct high-rises for the few), and the man’s voluminous anger upset a bookish woman not far from him. She turned around, put her finger in his face, and said with no shortage of her own venom, “If that bothers you take your ass back to Houston or Dallas!”
Steve Earle. He’ll never stop observing and questioning. Keep it up, hoss.
Also, not mentioned in the liner notes, but Earle’s tribute album to Townes is a must-have if you’re into Townes’ music. His versions of ‘Lungs,’ ‘Rake’ and ‘Colorado Girl’ are solid gold.
Union, union, union.
Been a union man my whole life. And John L. Lewis was never more right when he said that the future of labor was the future of America. And therein lies our present economic tragedy.
I’m a union man
Just like my daddy and all my kin
I took a union stand
No matter what the company said
I got me two good hands
And as long as I’m able I won’t give in
‘Cause I’m a Harlan man
Never catch me whinin’ ’cause I ain’t that kind
Very well-written piece. I need to explore more of Earle’s work. I’ve liked the songs I’ve heard so far.
Beautifully written as always, Mr. Simon. I love the story of the baseball game.
Addiction is rooted in human doubt when doubt finally wins out . . .
Thanks for such a high quality piece of writing about a (yes!) a compelling man.
America still has some literary heroes. Cormac McCarthy is one who, like Mr Earle, is full of street and other forms of wisdom. Both seem to be strugglers who live to create as opposed to pursuing cash and fatal fame.
When I first saw Mr Earle (on The Wire but especially Treme) I thought now here’s a struggling guy who lives for lyrics and making music.
I related to him having been into H for around 5 years and then managed to stop about a year before I saw him in TW. So yeah . . . a man like Mr Earle’s heartwarming. To know he got the better of his addiction and then made his greatest work – that’s an inspiration.
His characters too make me laugh. Their body language, their voice and their philosophy. Walon getting shot’s probably the most gutting of the many deaths in anything I’ve seen from Mr Simon. He was by far my fave character.
Imagine having a beer with Mr Earle! I’d love to know his fave poets and writers – wonder if he reads Hart Crane and Emily Dickinson and James Joyce. Surely he does – with his interest in Seamus Heaney I mean.
(The recent baseball essay is up there with Pafko at the Wall – to my English no-baseball sensibility anyway.)
Really great piece of writing. Steve Earle, Townes Van Zandt, Jerry Jeff Walker…unbelieveable talents.
I started out working in a tiny little shit hole office on the border of GA and Alabama and I used to listen to them daily. Steve Earle in particular. Any crime scene out in those hills and trailer parks, seemed like Steve Earle had been there and lived it. Thanks for the great background info in this post, as well as introducing us to his acting chops on The Wire.
Compelling. If I wasn’t already familiar with Mr. Earle (though not so much as you and thanks for the information I didn’t know) you would have made me go out and buy three or four CDs to find out.