Behind me, on a shelf, is a stack of vinyl and beside me is a very nice turntable that enables me to rip from the vinyl to mp3. I have done some of this today, not the obvious stuff but the stuff that is unlikely to ever be re-released via i tunes. There’s the Birthday Party’s live set It’s Still Living and the Laughing Clowns’ Mr Uddich Schmuddich Goes To Town, Do Re Mi’s Domestic Harmony, amongst others. I won’t actually listen to these I’m a bit embarrassed to say, at least not more than once or twice. They are for having been listened to, having made the effort, not for kicking back.
There are some lovely discs on the shelf though, discs I bought more than twenty years ago. Mars Needs Guitars, Aretha in Paris, Tonight’s the Night, and Greetings from Ashbury Park NJ: many hours, headphones on and sleeve in hand, were happily wasted in company such as these. One of the records I pulled out this evening is a twenty four year old vinyl copy of Steve Earle’s Copperhead Road. It remains a great album giving life to outlaw chatter and marginal beings. I played it to death as a teen, in the car and at home and on my guitar, until even my Dad (then into a deep Don Burrows phase) came to admire it and to admire Steve Earle.
I bought it in a small Grace Bros in western New South Wales. When I left small town western New South Wales I also left Steve Earle. I can’t say I thought about Steve Earle very much at all for a decade afterward. My Dad thought about him a lot and bought everything he could find with Steve Earle’s name on it. He played those records to me, especially I Feel Alright, but I didn’t buy in, I turned away and figured country music was behind me. I wasn’t to blame, not really; Garth Brooks was humungous at the time.
Sometime in the late nineties my Dad gave Dr Sternlove a copy of El Corazon and, I don’t know, I must just have been ready. Dr Sternlove played it a fair bit and I caught the Steve bug again. I played that album so, so much, I played for twelve solid months and then I only stopped to move on to Transcendental Blues. Those El Corazon tunes are burned into me nowadays: Ft. Worth Blues, I Sill Carry You Around, Telephone Road, If You Fall, Poison Lovers. They were the songs I played as I learned to be loved, and learned to be a parent.
The big El Corazon song was Christmastime in Washington. It catered to my taste in iconoclasty as well as my lefty leanings. I sang Christmastime in Washington to all my kids and I still put it on every faves tape or list I make. I can’t help it. That songs’ calling to hope, honesty and the persistence of the struggle grabbed me, and holds me like almost no other. Not many write lines like “So come back, Emma Goldman/Rise up, old Joe Hill/The barricades are goin’ up/They cannot break our will” anymore.
The song that I really love on El Corazon is Taneytown. The song is the kind of nuanced and poised bit of narrative craft that Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan were once feted for, before it became old hat. It tells an ever so modest little story of a “coloured boy” who takes a trip into Taneytown and finds no good outcome: he kills a young man and another coloured boy is lynched for the crime, such as it was. Graced by Emmy Lou Harris singing a harmony line and some lovely turns of phrase (“somebody down the holler heard”) I find myself stopping to listen to it, every time actually, whenever the ipod shares it.
Most of all I love the line: “I ran down Division Street.” This references the dividing line that operated in so many colonial and racially charged environments between where white people may go and black people may not. I had noted during my years in small town western New South Wales any number of Division streets and Boundary roads but never quite cottoned on to what they meant. My friend Victoria Ward made sure I found out. Sitting in Dr Sternlove’s garden under the shadow of the mountain she told me, Steve warbling on in the background, about all the towns and all the lines that made sure that geographies of privilege kept the riffraff out of the nice parts of town. The fact that there were so few conversations with Victoria after that has meant the song is an aide memoire for me of her, I recall her each and every time. It’s another reason why I stop and listen. And love.
I have dug deep into Steve-lore since El Corazon and have seen him in concert a few times, and these days there’s no one I’d rather see than Steve (especially with the Dukes). He looks pretty ordinary, a bit like a madder, balder Meatloaf but sometimes a little thinner. My Dad kept listening to Steve too, for a good long time, and loving every bit. I can’t say why Steve got his claws into my Dad, the piratical romanticism I guess, maybe the intense sense that craft is the priority, he always liked that.
For me Steve Earle is really thinking about the world and when he thinks about the world he thinks about justice: everything Steve Earle writes or sings is a hymn to justice. Sometimes a battle hymn, sometimes a dirge but he’s always asking a question of justice. That’s my question too.