High Times Greats: Steve Earle

On August 20, 2020, Steve Earle tragically lost his son, Justin Townes Earle. The album ‘J.T.’ is dedicated to him.
High Times Greats: Steve Earle
Steve Earle by Glen Rose

For the July/August, 2004 issue of High Times, the legendary Paul Krassner profiled the legendary Steve Earle—without ever technically interviewing him. On the occasion of Earle’s birthday on January 17, we’re republishing the story below.

“What part of recovery don’t you fucking understand?”

That’s the rhetorical question Steve Earle asked freelance journalist Mitch Myers, who was assigned by High Times to write a piece on him. Earle had been a junkie for nearly a quarter-century, half of his life. Booze, coke, heroin, methadone, methamphetamine, crack, cough syrup—you name it, he drank, smoked, snorted or mainlined it. In the process, he temporarily destroyed his career as a groundbreaking singer-songwriter, not to mention his function as a dedicated political activist.

Earle also ruined friendships and marriages alike. He was a fool for lust in the guise of love, and has been married six times (twice to the same woman). Hard drugs so severely affected his health that his life almost became six weddings and a funeral. So, although Myers went into great detail about the expanded direction of High Times, it’s understandable that Earle—who has even given up cigarettes and coffee—might not want to he associated with a magazine that has been identified with marijuana.

“But,” observes Myers, “he still sings ‘Copperhead Road,’ which is about, among other things, growing weed.”

Born on January 16,1955, at Fort Monroe Army Hospital in Virginia—the same year that both McDonald’s and Disneyland opened—Earle was a military brat, raised in Texas, first in El Paso and then in San Antonio. He saw Elvis Presley on TV when he was three years old and the Beatles when he was nine, got his first guitar when he was 12 and smoked his first joint when he was 13. He began performing solo at local coffeehouses and tripping on LSD when he was 14 and moved to Nashville when he was 19. He would become a musical hybrid, with one foot in country blues and the other in rock ’n’ roll, going on tour and playing the bar circuit, developing a cult following along the way on his extended and extremely bumpy journey to commercial success.

In a biography published in England, Hardcore Troubadour: The Life and Near Death of Steve Earle, Lauren St. John wrote: “Watching the tree-lined interstates of Tennessee give way to the wide-open spaces of Texas, Steve found himself humming songs from Born in the USA, the album that had recently catapulted Springsteen into the mainstream. Experiencing Springsteen live and listening to the album had had a profound effect on him. ‘I was intrigued by the fact that Springsteen opened the album with “Born in the USA,” that it was really a theme and an overture and he opened the show with it.’ Inspired, Steve wrote ‘Guitar Town’ on the drive home, specifically intending it to be the opening song of his album.” And, similar to Springsteen, it was the Guitar Town album which catapulted Earle into the mainstream in 1980.

Ironically, though, according to Bill Bennett, a respected rock promoter, “I used to argue with him, and at the end I’d say, ‘Why am I arguing with you, you’re a junkie.’ And he’d yell, ‘Well, I wrote “Guitar Town” on junk, so fuck you!”’

When I was assigned by High Times to write a piece on Steve Earle, I was not informed that, only a week before, he had refused to cooperate with exactly such a project. And so, on a crisp October afternoon in New York City, blissfully unaware of that turndown, I bought a little tape recorder and headed for the combination CMJ 2003 Music Marathon and Do It Yourself Convention at the Hilton Hotel, where Earle would appear onstage, not with his guitar, but as a speaker.

Chicago Sun-Times critic Jim DeRogatis, referring to the Atkins diet, was teasing him: “Everybody thinks you’re on drugs again since you lost weight.”

Earle responded, “No one that saw me when I was on drugs thinks I’m on drugs when they see me now.”

“Are you sick of people asking how can you eat all that red meat and be healthy?”

“No. I used to spend $300 a day on cocaine, not sweating meat.”

Just as, in 1962, Lenny Bruce, in his most audacious satirical critique, perceived reality from Holocaust orchestrator Adolf Eichmann’s point of view, so, 40 years later, did Steve Earle, in his most controversial song, “John Walker’s Blues,” on the Jerusalem CD, empathize with John Walker Lindh, the American Taliban captured in Afghanistan, wondering why Allah’s master plan had troops “dragging me back with my head in a sack to the land of the infidel,” and observing, “If my daddy could see me now, chains around my feet, he don’t understand that sometimes a man has got to fight for what he believes.” The chorus included eerie Arabic chanting.

Earle has maintained that it’s his “most poignant album, [and the] most proud moment of my career. I got a one-star review from the New York Post. I pissed off all the people I was trying to piss off, and everybody that I respect got it, so every bit of shit I got was like I expected to get from the quarters I expected to get it from.”

“I worried more about my family early on, just because they worried about me, because their politics is part of the climate in this country. It’s a climate of fear, and it’s designed to shut us up and keep us from asking questions. And it’s absolutely nothing short of that. Taking it any less seriously than that is jerking off. That’s what it is, the new blacklist. It’s the new censorship, and it’s very, very serious business to me.

“I worried about offending John Walker Lindh’s parents, I worried about doing anything to endanger his case, and the closest I came to not doing it was taking that into consideration, and the reason I was sort of predisposed to think that way [is] I do a lot of work around Modesto, and I learned a long time ago that I’d never bring an end to the death penalty in this country if I was insensitive to the feelings of victims’ families.”

“I wrote this song mainly because I have a son exactly the same age as John Walker Lindh—I got a kid, he’s 21—and it’s scary when your kid gets to be old enough that they don’t stay where you put ’em, and the first thing that I related to was, ‘My God, he’s got parents and they must be sick,’ and so I was reasonably sure nobody else was gonna write this song. I never got any negative feedback, and I was in a position where I break-out would’ve, and I always sort of very hopefully took that as positive feedback. If I did hear anything from him, I probably wouldn’t tell you, but I haven’t. If I did, I’d probably lie. Because I think it was the right thing to do.

“The very first person killed in this country by an abysmal situation in the wake of 9/11 wasn’t even Muslim, he was a Sikh who was killed because rednecks thought he was a Muslim, and that was what made me aware of an awful lot of what Jerusalem was about. I always hope I learn something when I make any kind of art, and that’s the whole point of it to me, and what I learned was how ignorant I am of Islam, how ignorant we are of Islam, and I can’t think of anything more dangerous right now than being ignorant of Islam.”

Earle pointed out the contrast between “the age of Hillary Duff and Clay Aiken and the age of Bob Dylan and MC5 and performers associated with politics. There was a lot of pop music that was just pop music, and rock ’n’ roll that was just rock ’n’ roll. That’s totally okay, there’s not anything wrong about that. The whole body of my work—I didn’t marry everybody I wrote a song about—I just didn’t learn to write songs any other way. It’s just never occurred to me to exclude issues and what’s going on around me politically.”

“My main area of activism is the death penalty, but I’m turning down death penalty stuff right now, because to me the priority right now is stop the war, but I don’t think you can stop the war as long as Bush is president, so the priority with the election coming up is to get Bush out of office, then stop the war, and then everybody gets back to their own field of activism.”

“We’ve gotta elect somebody that can beat Bush. We are stuck with this two-party system. I do think a third-party run right now is unrealistic. The war unfortunately became the way that Bush could be beaten, and he wasn’t vulnerable until recently. I knew we were getting somewhere when I walked into a truckstop and saw all those farting Bush dolls. That wasn’t possible six months ago, but it’s a dilemma. It’s really important that you find out everything you can: You’re gonna have to make those decisions.”

During the questions-from-the-audience portion of Earle’s presentation, I approached the microphone in the aisle: “First, I just wanna mention that not only is there a George W. Bush action figure, there’s also an Ann Coulter doll—you pull the string and it spews venom.” Earle laughed and I continued. “Since you and I are both on the same label—Artemis Records, run by Danny Goldberg—and this is a Do-It-Yourself Convention, yet you’re on a label that released Who Let the Dogs Out—”

“Which allows him to put out records on me and you, which is okay, I’m okay with that, definitely,” [he said].

“I’m happy to be subsidized.”

“Absolutely,” he said, “that’s what it’s all about.”

“But I think it wouldn’t be the same if it wasn’t Danny Goldberg. As [radio personality] Don Imus said, ‘He’s not like the other thugs in the industry.’ So I’m just wondering about that, because he is essentially one of us and is sort of like a missing link—working with him has been for me the same feeling I would have if I was really doing it myself, and I was just wondering if it’s been the same for you.”

[Earle said:] “Without the pain in the ass. The way I came to Danny was, I had a label—an imprint, E-Squared, at Warner—I made a bluegrass record, and that pissed people off even worse than ‘John Walker’s Blues’ did, so I ended up leaving and I went to Artemis. I was still operating an imprint, and what I discovered was that in this climate, having a record label was sort of like going in a pickup truck: Everybody kept calling me to help them move, because everybody I knew was out of a record deal, and it got to be kind of anti-art. I did it for five years, and so I know—I mean, we ran one side of E-Squared as a freestanding independent record label, and it was distributed through Warner—we basically misappropriated what was supposed to be our operating budget for Warner and used it to make records. At the end of it, nobody arrested us, and so it turned out really good.”

“But recording for Artemis…The reason I support it as much as I do is, it is commerce, but it’s set up completely differently from every other record label that I know of that has anywhere close to its resources. And the vision was from the beginning that there would never, ever be a public stock offer, because as soon as you start doing that, then you’re beholden to your stockholders. And I think we may have learned by now it’s a really, really bad way—it just doesn’t give you enough time to develop any kind of art when you have to answer to a stockholder every three months.”

Earle had to catch a train to New Jersey. Although this was the first time we’d met, we knew of each other’s work, and as he was leaving, we shook hands.

“It’s an honor,” he said.

“That’s mutual. Listen, I’m writing a piece about you. How can I contact you if I have any questions?”

He hurriedly gave me his e-mail address and departed. But, after learning about his adverse attitude toward High Times, I sent an e-mail asking him to reconsider, and I never heard back. I was disappointed, though I understood his silence. In fact, ironically enough, Earle’s adamantly sticking to his principles became the inextricable core element of this story. Besides, he had already publicly discussed the areas that interested me, so I’ve published those quotes here without violating any journalistic ethic.

And, what the hell—Eric Alterman wrote a whole biography of Bruce Springsteen without ever communicating with him. On the other hand, Dave Marsh, editor of Rock & Rap Confidential, wrote a book about Springsteen, and their friendship was enhanced in the process. Marsh told me that on one occasion, he was in Los Angeles interviewing Springsteen, and at the end of the session, each said he’d brought a record for the other. It turned out that both of them had brought Steve Earle’s Guitar Town. The cycle was now complete.

In the course of my research, I learned that Earle had once credited Dave Marsh with saving his life. I asked Marsh about this, and he replied:

“Do you know the story about Steve punching out an off-duty Dallas cop? This was backstage, I think it was New Year’s Eve, and I know that the cop, working as security at Steve’s show, had somehow manhandled Steve’s dad. This became an ‘assaulting a police officer’ felony. Steve refused to plea-bargain, which meant he was taking a big chance on going down for serious prison time.”

“I wound up writing about the case at some length in the Village Voice and got the prosecutor to make some admissions that were harmful to the state’s case. Anyway, the big problem in the case was that Steve really wasn’t going to plead guilty to anything whatsoever, because he just felt so strongly that he hadn’t done anything wrong. It took a lot of persuading by a lot of people that this was a very bad idea, but one way or another, the case was settled.”

“The oddest part of it is that I always was afraid that maybe it was wrong to keep him out of prison. The stubbornness and self-righteousness he displayed is part and parcel of addiction. Maybe, it’s occurred to me a few times since, he’d have been better off doing a bit, would have gotten cleaned up sooner.”

“This of course is near-terminally stupid, since drugs are way available in every prison in the country; it’s part of how the prisons are managed, just like rape is another part. In the somewhat gentler jail in which Steve began getting sober, he was incarcerated for a much shorter time and probably with slightly less dangerous company. Really, the reward for his survival is everybody’s—all those songs that we get to share.”

In November 2003, Earle was a guest on The O’Reilly Factor on the Fox News Channel (which has beer sponsors). He told conservative and cantankerous host Bill O’Reilly:

“I object to television news and radio news, and even print media to some extent, that makes decisions on what we hear and in what order we hear it, based on commerce rather than what might be the most important information that we need to make the decisions as citizens. I think the media directly affects the outcome of our elections. When it gets to the point where we have a media climate that participates in accusing people that speak out against these policies of being unpatriotic and un-American, I think that’s dangerous.”

One month later, at the Berkeley Community Theater, Wavy Gravy—countercultural clown, social activist and ex-Ben & Jerry’s ice-cream flavor—emceed a concert that he had organized as a benefit to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Seva Foundation (the name comes from the Sanskrit word meaning “divine work” or “service to God”), featuring performers Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Browne, Buffy Sainte-Marie, the Dead, Hamza el Din and Steve Earle.

The concert raised $250,000 for Seva, a non-profit organization that has been supporting projects and hospitals that have given back sight to more than two million blind persons through low-cost or free surgery in developing countries around the world, plus community self-development programs that have helped thousands of indigenous peoples to drink clean water, read, write and deliver healthier babies, as well as promoting diabetes prevention for Native Americans.

Inspired by the event, Earle said, “None of us are without hope—otherwise you wouldn’t be here tonight.” He was obviously speaking to himself as well as to the audience.

When introducing his song “Christmas in Washington (Come Back, Woody Guthrie),” he has always paid passionate tribute to his heroes—like Joan Baez, Abbie Hoffman, former Illinois governor George Ryan (for his courageous stance against capital punishment, not for his alleged tax fraud), Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy (for defying Attorney General John Ashcroft over the fascistic Patriot Act)—but this time Earle included Wavy Gravy and Seva’s executive director, Dr. Larry Brilliant. Later, in private, he told them that he wanted to visit Seva sites such as Chiapas, Nepal and Tibet.

“I’m in recovery,” he explained, “and part of recovery is that you gotta do service. This will be mv service.”

And that’s a part of recovery I absolutely fucking understand.

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