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Pick of the Month November 2002

Artist: Steve Earle
Label: Artemis Records 
Length: 11 tracks

In all the hellraising that Steve Earle has done down his recent years he has never quite raised hell like this. His six marriages, his cocaine habit, his jail sentence seems like bland mundane small town consequences compared to being accused as a traitor of America. And that is how a section of the American media have responded to his latest album Jerusalem calling for a boycott of any radio station that plays or any record store that stocks it. Earle has been quick to defend himself as being “urgently American” in what he sees as crisis days for his country. In his by now familiar foreword on the CD booklet he calls himself “the loneliest man in America”, hauntingly predicts his vilification as he points out that during the Vietnam War “it was suggested by some that second guessing our leaders in a time of crisis was unpatriotic.”

And one wonders about Jeremiah, Isaiah, Amos and the other Old Testament Prophets. Would they have been accused of betraying their people at a time when sympathy was needed? Would they have ever felt like the loneliest men in the land? Would they have been accused of being unpatriotic for second guessing the King or Queen? Would they have held to the belief that rather than being traitors they were “urgently Jewish?”

FW De Klerk the former President of South Africa, despised by many of his own people as a traitor, but ultimately one of the greatest leaders of the twentieth century, sacrificing his place in power for a justice that his family members were involved in laying down, has spoken about the first two lessons in peacemaking as being to examine yourself right down to the bone and then when you have done that the second is to make sure you have not deluded yourself into thinking that you have! These seem universal truths to any society that is seeking to live right. Indeed what the prophets were, were men and women seeking to examine their people to the very bone in order to put right the obvious and oftentimes oblivious wrongs at the heart of their nation.

Steve Earle might just be a prophet. For sure he cuts to the marrow. "Jerusalem" is the other side of the coin from, "The Rising," Bruce Springsteen’s response to September 11th and a different currency entirely from Toby Keith’s “my country right or wrong” war mongering on his frighteningly successful "Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue (The Angry American)." Where Springsteen, on the whole, pastors his nation through the mourning and loss of the outrageous attack against them to bring some healing, hope and a way forward, Earle has taken to prophesying at the things below the surface of his country that caused the world’s suspicion, derision and hatred.

The fuss is over what many are calling the center piece of the album, "John Walker’s Blues." Tt more the center of the controversy than the musical pivot or political spine of the treatise. Those have been provoked to almost wish Earle on the Death Row that he has been vocally campaigned against in recent years, believe this to be a vindication of the American John Walker Linde who turned his back on the American Dream he was born into in order to join the Taliban. It is nothing of the kind of course, more simply an attempt to provoke some insight into the sins of America that could have caused him to seek salvation in such a violent anti American train of Islam. Of course there is nothing simple about that but questions that need to be asked of a nation that seems to see herself as some righteous, infallible paragon of virtue that is judge and jury of all that is right and civilized in the world today. Delusions of spiritual grandeur in the midst of such a division between rich and poor and lack of care for the magnetized and desire for all things hedonistic and materialist was exactly the kind of thing that the prophets were raised up to rage against.

And Earle rages. Of the six albums that he has released since getting out of jail in the mid 90s, this is the one that rocks the most, echoing back with heavy guitar riffs to his late 80’s albums Copperhead Road and The Hard Way. The first words are spoken with an ominous apocalyptic growl of a whisper ­ “ashes to ashes” ­ before Earle warns that “nobody lives forever” and rips open the sensitive wounds of America with “every tower ever built tumbles” in a song that reminds us of the temporary nature of our place in the grand scheme of history. But it is bloody and gory and raging against man’s inhumanity to man and exposes how even more horrific it is when it is fired by “God on our side” arrogance.

From a rebuke of foreign policy we move to "Amerika v.6.0 (The Best That We Can Do)", an attack on home policies that leaves the rich more equal than others and democracy being about keeping the poor outside the gates of the country club, “I realize that ain’t exactly democracy/But it’s either them or us/and it’s the best that we can do.” It was written for the movie John Q where a man takes an emergency ward hostage to try and get his son the medical care that in a democracy can only be given to those who have the right insurance package. It was removed from the film because in the light of September 11th it was seen to be too insensitive in its criticism of George W. Maybe that in itself tripped a switch in Earle to be even less compromising than ever before.

This seems to be the actual center piece of the record. It was the first song written and it is the song that mentions the Constitution that Earle surmises to be the only hope left in an America and in that foreword he demands “Fierce vigilance against the erosion of its proven principles.” The lyrics of "Amerika v 6.0" could be straight from Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of Amos or Isaiah. It rants against a nation where there has come too big a chasm between the rich and the poor and the sarcasm of the shrug of “the best that we can do” needs a response and quickly if the whole thing is not going to fall apart.

The question then comes to mind, why is it Steve Earle whose lyrics seem best related to the Old Testament prophets as opposed to a modern Church that goes on and on about the prophetic? Maybe never before in history has so much emphasis been put on prophetic words. The faithful in the growing charismatic movement go forward in weekly ritual to have supposedly gifted men give the direct line from heaven and yet the music coming out of such places is usually little short of sentimental self indulgent clichés about how God blesses us rather than the strong words that prophets were really made of. Ezekiel was not selling copious amounts of his Holy Spirit inspired poetry for people to be able to sanctify their car journeys to work with some nice little devotional thought. It is hard to see a contemporary Christian music label allowing one of their acts to release such an album as this, if indeed they had artists capable of such insight. As God looks across the political and social landscapes of America and let us face it--why in the entire western world does he have to use singers who sit outside the Church to shake things up the way the prophets did.

Interestingly as the prophets always sought for that pinprick of light and hope, a distance along the tunnel they were in, so Earle concludes the album with belief in the Biblical conclusion to it all. The title track is set in the city where “death machines were rumbling ‘cross the ground where Jesus stood” and Earle admits to having “strayed and never looked back” at Church though he cannot remember learning hate in Sunday School and claims to “find some comfort now and then” from there. So at this very volatile and fragile time in history he does just that:

And there’ll be no barricades then
There’ll be no wire or walls
And we can wash all this blood from our hands
And all this hatred from our souls
I believe that on that day all the children of Abraham
Will lay down their swords forever in Jerusalem.
Jerusalem is very powerful stuff; a word for the time; a sound that needs not to be boycotted but to be listened to and pondered. There are many Biblical figures that Steve Earle could be likened to but Judas is not one of them.

Steve Stockman 10/12/2002

Steve Stockman is the Presbyterian Chaplain at Queens University, Belfast, Ireland, where he lives in community with 88 students. He has just finished a book on U2 - Walk On; The Spiritual Journey of U2, is the poetic half of Stevenson and Samuel who have just released their debut album Gracenotes and he has a weekly radio show on BBC Radio Ulster. He has his own web page - Rhythms of Redemption at He also tries to spend some time with his wife Janice and daughters Caitlin and Jasmine.
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