ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, NOV. 14, 2002
By Steve Newton
In the liner notes to Jerusalem, Steve Earle refers to the likes of activists Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and Abbie Hoffman as Americans who insisted on asking “the hardest questions in our darkest hours”. With the terrifying possibility of another Gulf War around the corner, the hours don’t get a lot darker than this, and the fiercely opinionated Earle has a few tough questions of his own for those in power who would use the 9/11 terrorist attacks to suit their own political purposes.
In the haunting “John Walker’s Blues”, he puts himself in the shoes of John Walker Lindh, the California youth caught fighting for the Taliban in Afghanistan and recently sentenced to life in prison by a U.S. court. Earle wrote the song at a time when the mainstream media in his country was clamouring for “the American Taliban” to be strung up for treason, but he depicts the 20-year-old Lindh in a sympathetic light, as someone who couldn’t relate to the American way and found something else to believe in.
“I’m just an American boy, raised on MTV,” he sings, “And I’ve seen all the kids in the soda pop ads/But none of ’em look like me/So I started lookin’ around for a light out of the dim/And the first thing I heard that made sense was the word of Mohammed, peace be upon him.”
“John Walker’s Blues” is by far the most fearless and timely song Earle has ever recorded, but there’s lots of other powerful stuff on Jerusalem, including the rocking opener, “Ashes to Ashes”, which takes a cynical look at man’s evolution and his potential for self-destruction.
And just when you figure he’s about to give up hope for the future of humankind, the singer-songwriter—who also handles guitar, bass, mandolin, banjo, harmonica, harmonium, Mini-Moog, and organ throughout Jerusalem—ends the disc with an uplifting title track, in which he states his belief in a peaceful end to the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Hands up everyone who wants Steve Earle to run for president.