Steve Earle on jail, addiction, execution, and other lighthearted topics

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ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, AUG. 8, 1996

By Steve Newton

So I’m sitting there by my phone, sipping a coldie and patiently waiting for Steve Earle to call. His manager has set up the “phoner” himself and guaranteed me that Earle will call from Dallas after his Lollapalooza gig. I’m raring to find out how his set went, and how the renegade country-rocker got booked onto the mostly metal bill in the first place.

But the phone doesn’t ring, and after a while—three Old Styles, to be precise—I give up waiting, feeling depressed. I’ve interviewed the guy three times before, and not just over the phone. I’ve met him backstage, had my picture taken with him, and even taken that photo back to get it signed the next time he was in town. It’s framed and proudly displayed on my rock-room wall.

Heck, I thought we were buds!

I guess I’m a little naive. Approachable guy that he is, Steve Earle poses for a lot of snapshots, signs a lot of stuff—he probably doesn’t know me from a hole in the ground. But I’m still a tad relieved to hear from his apologetic manager the next day that Steve’s got nothing against me personally, and that he definitely would have called at the prearranged time if not for the fact that he left Lollapalooza in a huff after kids pelted the stage with whatever they could get their hands on, to the point of knocking over his drummer’s cymbal stand.

“They chucked a lotta shit,” explains Earle, finally tracked down at an L.A. hotel. “I mean, it was Dallas, and Dallas has never been a great town for me, anyway. Maybe I’m gettin’ old, I don’t know, but this band opened for the Replacements the first time we played New York around 10 years ago, and I’ve never run into that sort of trouble before. But, you know, when you get into that part of Texas, and it’s just a bunch of kids up there…

“I mean, we could have played a Lollapalooza show in another part of the country and that wouldn’t have happened,” he adds, pointing out that he was slated to play Lollapalooza in Vancouver before that date fell through. “But I’m not worried about it one way or the other. I’ve been locked up—a bunch of kids throwin’ plastic water bottles doesn’t really scare me very much.”

Seeing as we’re still buddies and all, I wasn’t going to push for details about Earle’s 1994 incarceration in a Tennessee jail for heroin possession. But since he’s the one who brought it up, it seems okay to ask how he feels about the media’s infatuation with his former addiction. (A USA Today cover story proclaimed him “Drug Free But Still Volatile”.)

“That’s one of the reasons I do as little [press] as I can get away with,” he says. “I mean, I’ve been clean for two years, and it does get very, very old for me. It’s like I didn’t talk about it when I was doing it, and talking about it in the press is not a real appropriate place to do it. Because, number one, the press isn’t always necessarily responsible when it comes to printing exactly what you say.”

Earle feels particularly burned by a feature story that appeared in Spin magazine, painting a typically sensationalistic portrait of an artist on the skids.

Spin didn’t even talk to me,” he says, “they talked to everybody else. They were gonna write that article even if I died. And the thing is, that piece was being written when I was still on the street, and still using, and by the time it was published I was clean. So a lot of what’s in that article isn’t even true, because he talked to the people that would talk to him, and most of the people that are really close to me refused to talk.”

As far as Earle’s actual jailhouse experience is concerned, he says that it changed his outlook as a singer-songwriter in as much as “it changes your outlook as a person.” He says that he wasn’t particularly concerned with music when he was locked up—he was concerned with getting out of jail. Besides, they wouldn’t let him have a guitar in the can. “Hell no,” he says with an audible sneer, “that’s just in the movies.”

Vancouverites aren’t likely to hear a snappy rendition of “Jailhouse Rock” when Steve Earle and the Dukes make their way to town for a show at the Rage on Friday (August 9), but they will get tunes from his critically acclaimed new CD, I Feel Alright. His biggest hit, “Copperhead Road”, should make the set list as well, especially since the 1988 album that sports that moonshine-running epic has sold nearly as many copies in Canada as it has in the U.S. (close to half a million). But having been out of the musical picture for a while, Earle is having to forgo the larger venues—such as the Orpheum Theatre and the Pacific Coliseum—that he’s headlined here in the past.

“I’ve always done real well in Canada,” he admits, “but I’ve been gone a long time, so I’m comin’ in and playing smaller venues this time than I have the last few tours. I have a feeling that the venues are gonna be too small in the long run, but, I mean, the concert business in and of itself is hurting. Hell, there’s only one major band [the Smashing Pumpkins] that had the balls to go out on the road by themselves—almost everybody else is out as part of a package.”

While Earle says that he’s particularly proud of his new album—and his acoustic Train A Comin’ disc of last year—he points to “Ellis Unit One”, a track from the Dead Man Walking soundtrack, as “the best writing I’ve ever done”.

“That song was inspired by a character in the film,” says Earle, who wrote the tune after viewing a rough cut of Tim Robbins’s death-row drama. “There’s a guard in it that pulls [Academy Award winner Susan Sarandon’s character] Sister Helen to the side. He’s sorta feelin’ a little weird about this gig, and he says, ‘Well I do the left leg, that’s what I do, I strap down the left leg.’ And that just sorta stuck with me.”

Earle’s determined stance against capital punishment is well-known. It was first brought to light in “Billy Austin”, a compelling ballad from his 1990 The Other Kind album, which tells of an American convict put to death in the electric chair. The strength of his convictions emerges when Earle hears that I’m somewhat of a fence-sitter where the issue is concerned: I agree in principle with his humanitarian ideals, but find them difficult to harbour while a Clifford Olsen still breathes.

“We have people like that down here, too,” he says of the convicted B.C. child-killer, “but that has nothing to do with the issue. The issue has nothing to do with the severity of the crime. That’s why I was so pleased with ‘Ellis Unit One’. When I wrote ‘Billy Austin’ I don’t think I did quite as good a job of avoiding the issue of severity of the crime.

“The point is whether the state has the right to take a human life, and the point is whether the retribution at that level makes any sense and accomplishes anything. In my opinion what it does is dehumanizes us, and makes us killers—makes the state killers—simply because the state’s not infallible. Innocent people are executed, and always will be as long as the death penalty exists. Yeah, lock somebody up forever, keep ’em off the street, keep ’em away from other people so they can’t hurt anybody else. But this cry for blood…

“There’s a lot of weird shit goin’ on out there,” he concludes, “and people are scared, but responding to that by everybody becoming pro–capital punishment—especially politicians, because they think it’ll get them elected—is basically part of the same madness that’s going on out on the streets. We shouldn’t be putting ourselves in the position of deciding who lives or dies, period.”

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