A clunker of countrified controversy
Unwieldy jargon like “HMO” and soap-opera-esque phrases like “Meanwhile, back at the hospital” don’t really hit you in the gut like, say, a good Bruce Springsteen rant or a weepy Neil Young ballad.
The massacre of students at Kent State University in 1970 was a marvelous topic for a gut-wrenching protest song – that your health insurance plan doesn’t cover vision isn’t.
Lousy and unwieldy, unfortunately, pretty much sum up bluegrass-rocker Steve Earle’s disappointing new album “Jerusalem.” This album’s even more of a let down because Earle has been one of pop music’s true overachievers during the past decade.
But Earle – a dogged singer-songwriter in the Kris Kristofferson style who has soared to his own high lonesome with a rugged mix of hard-rock and bluegrass – did manage to wrench some controversy out of an otherwise lackluster and trite record.
It comes in the song “John Walker’s Blues.” Yes, that John Walker Lindh –the hapless, and seemingly conflicted, young Californian captured fighting with the Taliban in Afghanistan shortly after Sept. 11.
The country, still reeling from the Sept. 11 attacks and scared of future terrorism, had the best reason to be furious. America had –and still has –the best of reasons to go after and pummel those responsible.
But because we hadn’t captured any of the real dangerous evil-doers, like Osama, Mullah Omar, the Anthrax fiend or thousands of other more threatening thugs, the Bush Administration demonized Lindh. They tried to convince the public that this the badly lost boy from cozy Marin County, California, was the criminal of the century. They played the arrest of this misguided loner as a significant blow to those in the world who are out to destroy democracy.
Meanwhile, federal law enforcement was on a witch hunt – rounding up hundreds of young, Arab men and using the thinnest evidence to take away their freedom. And perhaps the American public couldn’t see this travesty; perhaps, we were too busy scowling at Lindh; perhaps we were blinded when all the American flags we put on our porches were waving in our faces.
And not many in the droning TV news media –who these days seem more like they’re running for election than reporting what’s important – stuck up for Lindh. They at least could have informed us he was most definitely not in Osama’s inner planning circle and his capture was not going to foil any future attacks.
Some letter writers to the Vail Daily have suggested Earle be “tarred and feathered” for writing this song. It doesn’t seem very Democratic to torture an artist for expressing himself. And Earle by no means tries turn Lindh into a hero – or even an anti-hero. Nor does Earle suggest what Lindh did was right, but paints him as a hapless Candide figure doomed to follow his instinct into calamity.
“I’m just an American boy –raised on MTV, And I’ve seen all those kids in the soda pop ads, but none of ’em looked like me,” Earle growls.
Earle certainly empathizes with an abstract young man who was searching for something to connect to, found it and then totally blew it. Most of us, when we were young and aimless, got our noses pierced or stole a bag of Doritos from the convenience store or went on unauthorized road-trips.
Fortunately, we didn’t volunteer to go to work for the most hated regime, save perhaps the Nazis, in American history.
“If my daddy could see me now –chains around my feet, He don’t understand that sometimes a man, Has to fight for what he believes,” Earle sings.
While the real-life Lindh seemed to have steeped himself in Muslim doctrine, he apparently hadn’t read the country’s better newspapers, who had long been reporting the oppression of the Taliban, their support of Al-Qaeda and the assassination shortly beofre Sept. 11 of the charismatic leader of the Northern Alliance.
But perhaps he shouldn’t be faulted for that –most Americans didn’t know what the word “Taliban” meant or who Mullah Omar was until two 747s crashed into the World Trade Center.
Ultimately, Earle’s song is just a good old reminder not to believe everything we read zipping past on that sensational CNN news-ticker. He reminds us the story is not as black-and-white, open-and-shut as the government’s media machine would like it to be.
With a similar tone, Earle aims his scorn at an American society more and more obsessed with crime and punishment –and less interested in the deviant motives and mental illnesses that sometimes propel the worst criminals.
Again, Earle is not advocating breaking the law. Repeat, he is not saying crime is OK. We all sympathized with the murderer Morgan Freeman played in “Shawshank Redemption” and Earle is staking out a lonely empathy for the drug dealers, enemy combatants and other bunglers who could manage to get by legitimately in the land of the free.
In a song about a prisoner languishing in jail, he sings, “Truth is it doesn’t matter what you do, “Til you gaze in the mirror with an eye that’s true, And admit that what scares you is the me in you.”
All of us have the capacity to break the law, Earle seems to say, but maybe the grave mistakes some of us make –say, letting down a family member or not volunteering for the community cleanup –aren’t illegal in the eyes of the law.
But while his broiling messages have relevance, the album comes off angry, preachy and strident. More simply, while the ideas the songs are trying to convey are provocative, the tunes just aren’t very good.
On his best album, “Transcendental Blues,” Earle sang simple lyrics over a groovy barrage of finger-picking and heavy guitars. Earle also threw in a few rock-solid country heartbreakers for late-night drives home.
And Earle’s written good political songs before. In “Christmas in Washington,” from his worthwhile “El Corazon” album, he sings about an honesty and idealism that’s missing in the Capitol these days. He invites democratic visionaries like Woody Guthrie and Martin Luther King to come back and get the pandering government back on track.
And Earle can be forgiven for putting out a dud. Rock giants like Bob Dylan, Neil Young, the Rolling Stones and Joni Mitchell have released some genuinely awful albums. Check out Young’s “Life” or Dylan’s “Slow Train Coming;” listen to anything Mitchell has released since the late 70s; and the Stones haven’t put out anything worth it’s weight in plastic since “Some Girls” came out nearly three decades ago.
And anger also has a hallowed place in rock music. There’s Young “Ohio,” the masterful protest song about Kent State said to have caused the musicians recording it –Crosby, Still and Nash –to burst into tears in the recording studio. There’s Dylan’s “Masters of War,” the vicious, timeless indictment of greed, self-serving war-mongering and the industrial-military complex.
But for some reason, the anger doesn’t fit Earle. His fury sputters and strangles itself and makes for a bland, cliche album you just wish you hadn’t bought, even though it does force you to have a good, skeptical think about things.
Matt Zalaznick can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 606, or via e-mail at email@example.com.