The flood of controversy that preceded the release of Steve Earle’s Jerusalem album is easy to forget. I wrote this back on July 22:
- It’s no secret how I feel about Steve Earle, one of the first Cool Tunes features was a rave review of his illustrious career, and he just seems to be getting better with age. I like his latest collection of B-sides and outtakes, called Sidetracks, so much that when I was asked to name two albums to run out and buy RIGHT NOW, I named it and the new Chuck Prophet.
So I am concerned about all of the stink arising from his new song, “John Walker’s Blues.” A Reuters report says that it was
- Recorded in Nashville by the maverick Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter Steve Earle, “John Walker’s Blues” is a stately ballad punctuated by the sound of Arabic prayers, and makes reference to Lindh’s interest in music videos, boy bands, and religious fanaticism.
Over a layered backdrop of electric guitars recorded backward, the song serves as a kind of nightmarish funhouse-mirror version of Fess Parker’s classic “Ballad of Davy Crockett” of the 1950s:
- “We came to fight the jihad, our hearts were pure and strong.
We filled the air with our prayers and we prayed for our martyrdom.
Allah has some other plans, a secret not revealed.
Now they’re dragging me back with my head in the sack to the land of the infidel.
If I should die, I’ll rise up to the sky like Jesus.”
The song is featured on Earle’s forthcoming album “Jerusalem,” which touches on a number of political and social issues including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
It offers a rare sympathetic view of Lindh, the Californian dubbed the “American Taliban” after he was captured fighting alongside troops of Afghanistan’s fundamentalist Muslim rulers in November.
The Reuters piece is sober and restrained compared to one in the NY Post, “TWISTED BALLAD HONORS TALI-RAT.”
- American Taliban fighter John Walker Lindh is glorified and called Jesus-like in a country-rock song to be released soon by maverick singer-songwriter Steve Earle. The controversial ballad called “John Walker’s Blues” is backed by the chanting of Arabic prayers and praises Allah.
Earle’s lyrics describe the United States as “the land of the infidel.” Those fighting Osama bin Laden’s declared jihad against the United States and Jews are said to have hearts “pure and strong.”
The song says when Lindh dies, he will “rise up to the sky like Jesus.”
The Post report goes on to say:
- Music-industry heavyweights are already expressing outrage over the controversial song, and many predict it will be banned from the majority of radio playlists when it is released in late September.
“This puts [Earle] in the same category as Jane Fonda and John Walker and all those people who hate America,” said Nashville talk-show host Steve Gill.
Phil Valentine, another Nashville DJ, said Earle had lost his way in trying to rebuild his faltering career as an alternative country performer.
“He’s off the charts on this one,” Valentine said. “It’s politically insane.”
As if these people were going to play the new Steve Earle anyway. Earle’s audience is a combination of alt-country, Texas fans who have stayed with him on his eccentric ride, roots rockers, and adventuresome folkies. Mainstream Nashville pop country hasn’t had any use for Earle since he weighted about 150 lbs over 15 years ago. So these DJ’s are just town prefects assailing a long-gone prodigal anyway.
A song is a work of art, like a poem, or a novel, or a short story, and should be judged on its own merits. We can read all of the lyrics to the song in advance:
- “I’m just an American boy, raised on MTV,
And I’ve seen all the kids in the soda pop bands,
But none of them look like me.
So I started looking round, and I heard the word of God.
And the first thing I heard that made sense was the word of Allah,
Peace be upon him.”
and still have no clue as to what the song is really about until we hear it. We have to hear his tone of voice, his inflections, the way the music comments upon the lyrics – we have to hear the song as a song before we can begin to pass judgment. And even then, it is still just a song: a work of art independent of its creator.
“Born In the U.S.A.” was written as an ironic, anti-war song that Ronald Reagan reinterpreted into a patriotic anthem much to Bruce Sprinsteen’s surprise and chagrin. “This Land is Your Land, This Land Is My Land” was written by Woody Guthrie from a literal, socialist perspective. This meaning was also lost along the way.
I say 1) we can’t know Earle’s true intentions until we hear the song. 2) We will still only be able to judge the song as a song – it’s not Steve Earle’s op-ed piece on the Johnny Taliban affair, and 3) even if it is, so what? I trust Steve Earle as an artist, not as a political pundit.
All of that is true, but the furor seems a little silly now as “John Walker’s Blues” is almost a nonentity as a song: it’s curiously flat and unaffecting. Nothing about the slow acoustic number sticks in my mind even after repeated listenings.
In fact Jerusalem in general is dispassionate in a most un-Steve Earle-like manner. It’s as if the themes of Jerusalem – the spiritual and political state of the nation in the wake of 9/11 – are so enormous and frought with meaning that Earle is bowled over and flattened by them: his musical bread never rises, we are left with crackers.
Besides Earle’s desultory performance, the songs themselves are sadly tuneless and nondescript. Of the eleven songs on the album, only the bouncy, Farfisa organ-driven “What’s a Simple Man to Do?,” which would have done the Sir Douglas Quintet proud, really stands out.
I was right when I said that only the songs really matter: all of the pre-discussion was just hot air. Unfortunately, this time, so are the songs.