Steve Earle

: Rocker Steve Earle won’t compromise. –>

Steve Earle’s American revolution

By Karl Byrn

If George W. Bush is reelected this fall, the draft will come back. Don’t doubt it. When my daughter and her friends graduate from high school in 2006, some of her friends–young men I’ve known since they were in the first grade–will be arbitrarily sent to Iraq or wherever else Bush has sent troops by then. Many of these family friends will die or be maimed there, lost permanently, as Ice-T said during the first Gulf War, “over there to fight for that bullshit most of them don’t really have anything to do with.”

That’s a future I don’t want.

I also don’t want a future that’s missing women’s rights, workers’ rights, social security, healthcare access or public education. So I have no trouble settling for a lesser-of-two-evils vote in this presidential election. I have no trouble forgoing complexly radical independent candidates and voting for the nondescript Democratic offering of John Kerry, because there’s an absolute imperative to the popular sentiment of “anyone but Bush.”

But I do have trouble with not hearing what that alternative will become. That’s the beef I have with the current surge of anti-Bush activism in rock; from the indie punks on the Rock against Bush compilations to the mainstream artists on the Springsteen-led Vote for Change tour to rap impresario Russell Simmons’ Hip-Hop Summit, these musical statements of what we’re obviously against aren’t offering details about what we ought to strive for beyond electoral change.

Steve Earle’s latest disc, The Revolution Starts Now both contributes to and helps solve this problem. Earle is a well-established and committed rock activist, known not only as a hard-rocking roots-country rebel, but also as a fervent spokesman against capital punishment and a supporter of radical economic-rights groups such as the Kensington Welfare Rights Union. His 2002 disc Jerusalem drew the fury of right-wing über-patriots for its controversial track “John Walker’s Blues,” a song in which Earle imagined the remorse and resolution of the infamous “American Taliban” in a portrait both empathetic and nonpartisan.

The Revolution Starts Now is inherently political by being a Steve Earle record. In vintage Earle style, he evokes the restless dreams of the American Everyman with Guthrie-derived folk and hurls bricks at the Man’s windows with grunge-tough rock. Picking up where the post-9-11 dissatisfaction of Jerusalem left off, the new disc bares its anti-Dubya soul.

Naturally, there’s a shadow of the Iraq war. The rollicking “Home to Houston” casts Earle’s typical regular-guy drifter in a road song about driving out of Basra. On the ballad “Rich Man’s War,” the artist asks to rile the über-right again by daring to sympathize with poverty-class American and Arab soldiers in the same breath. The most amusing jab at the Bush administration is the calypso jaunt “Condi, Condi,” a lewd come-on obviously skewering the current regime’s condescending use of Condaleeza Rice as a token woman of color.

What, then, does Earle propose instead? Like the punks, Springsteen and other musicians, Earle doesn’t spell out ideas for a new future as clearly as the anti-Bush urgency demands. What he does instead is deliver the terrific rock records he’s always made–full of humanism, humor and the grit to fight authority. But it’s not on the record itself, bookended by two versions of the title track, that you’ll find what Earle is suggesting this time. It’s in his liner notes that he takes his election year step up to the podium.

“When the dust clears and the votes are all counted . . . it will be up to all of us–Democrats, Republicans, Greens and Independents alike–to hold whomever is left standing accountable for their actions on our behalf every single day that they are in power. The day after the election, regardless of the outcome, the war will go on, outsourcing of our jobs will continue and over a third of our citizens will have no health care coverage whatsoever.”

That’s a step toward issues beyond beating Bush. Earle wants to take control back from the political forces that make him write songs empathizing with soldiers and the poor. He knows this will have to be an ongoing people’s revolution beyond rocking the vote. When the dust clears from rock’s anti-Bush activism, Earle will still be there as an outspoken rebel for justice and peace. Don’t doubt it.

From the September 8-14, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

© Metro Publishing Inc.

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