Published Jan 01, 2006No one has ever accused Steve Earle of not speaking his mind. But if many American right-wing pundits already had him in their sights for his staunch anti-capital punishment position, they have had a field day tearing apart his new album, Jerusalem, which contains several outspoken views on America's post-September 11 cultural climate.
"It's exactly the people I thought would be critical of it, and that doesn't bother me all that much," Earle says. "All the mainstream press has been much more balanced. The only thing that was a surprise was that I had to deal with a lot of it before the record came out. Evidently I've got more leaks than the fucking Bush administration."
The furore initially focused on the song "John Walker's Blues," which found its way onto the net over the summer. It's a piece written from the perspective of John Walker Lindh, the California teen who became a student of Islam and was discovered in Afghanistan among a group of captured Taliban fighters. He was charged with waging war against his own country, a notion that is disturbingly offset by the song's coda, a snippet of an Arabic voice singing a verse of the Qur'an.
Trying to understand the motives of condemned individuals has always been a hallmark of Earle's work, but attempting to get inside the head of Lindh has resulted in Earle defending himself more than anything else. "My whole deal is, I'm just as scared as anybody else. I don't condone what John Walker did simply because I don't condone anybody taking up arms against anybody for any fucking thing. But I also know and the government knows that [Lindh] had fuck-all to do with September 11. The whole thing was just scapegoating, and scapegoating is not okay."
The album has also touched a nerve among critics who feel naturally compelled to compare it with the more overtly patriotic statements by Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young. "I don't get that," Earle says. "I don't think that Bruce's record is the same thing at all. I think it's a really good record and I think it's a human reaction to 9/11. And it also has a song on there that has a verse that's told from the viewpoint of a Palestinian suicide bomber. But Bruce doesn't live in Nashville and didn't have a right-wing talk radio guy get a copy of his record two months before it came out. My record is much more overtly political because quite frankly I think I'm statistically more in danger of having my civil liberties damaged by September 11 than I am actually being attacked by terrorists."
Although after the first four songs, Jerusalem becomes a much more familiar Steve Earle country-rock album, it concludes with the title track, a personal plea for world leaders to remain rational in finding solutions in the Middle East. "That song is optimistic because I had to be optimistic about something by that point," he says. "But it's also about how much I learned, because these songs required a lot of research. And what I learned is that how we deal with Jerusalem as a world community is probably going to determine our future."