Roots rocker Steve Earle gets worked up over politics, money, addictions

[2 May 2008]

By Thor Christensen

The Dallas Morning News (MCT)

“I Ain’t Ever Satisfied” isn’t just the name of a Steve Earle song. For years, it was the story of his life.

Divorced six times and addicted to crack and heroin, he was the wild man that Nashville couldn’t tame and police couldn’t catch. Today, a sober and much more satisfied Steve Earle is on the phone from Greenwich Village, where he moved in 2005 when he married wife No. 7, country singer Allison Moorer. Even he’s surprised at how content he’s grown since he met her.

“I have somebody on my side, on a level I’ve never had before,” says the 53-year-old singer. “Artists can take up an awful lot of space, and living with another artist is good for me. Anything that dictates you allow someone else into your space has got to be healthy.”

Moorer, 35, inspired several love songs on “Washington Square Serenade,” which won Earle a Grammy in February for best contemporary folk-Americana album. Yet the CD also sounds like a mash note to his adopted hometown.

“New York’s addictive. I’ve always loved it here,” says Earle, who grew up in San Antonio. “I was in Nashville for 32 years, and it’s a great place. But Allison and I both had exes and debris in Tennessee. We wanted a fresh start.”

“Serenade” lacks the political flavor of his last two CDs, “Jerusalem” and “The Revolution Starts Now.” But it wouldn’t be a Steve Earle record with no topical tunes.

In “Steve’s Hammer (For Pete),” he imagines a day “when the air don’t choke ya and the ocean’s clean, and kids don’t die for gasoline.” He wrote the tune hoping more musicians will emulate the great Pete Seeger.

“Even after they blacklisted Pete, he could not be silenced,” Earle says. After 9/11, “very powerful people convinced artists into censoring ourselves. They don’t need a blacklist anymore. We’ll censor ourselves for a latte.”

The centerpiece of “Washington Square Serenade” is “City of Immigrants,” a song about the American Dream. “There are three or four languages spoken on my street every day, and I think that’s really important,” he says. “You can’t forget that great nations are always built by immigrants.”

Earle calls the U.S.-Mexican barrier “silly” and “especially ludicrous in Texas,” which used to be part of Mexico. “Politicians go on about people coming across the border and taking people’s jobs when the truth is a lot more jobs are being shipped wholesale overseas,” he says. “Whenever immigration is thrown out there as a political issue, be very suspicious: They threw it out as an issue in Germany in the `30s.”

But the topic that really gets Earle worked up is America’s “war on drugs.” He sings about addiction in the new “Oxycontin Blues,” and he played a recovering junkie in HBO’s “The Wire,” a role about which he says “no acting was required.”

A drug user since his teens, he spiraled into heroin and cocaine addiction in the `80s and `90s. In 1994, he was nabbed for heroin possession and sent to a Tennessee jail full of fellow drug abusers.

“That’s the problem: They let people kill people, but they arrest addicts who aren’t a threat to anybody except themselves, because it’s really easy to catch junkies.”

The solution, he says, is to treat addiction as a disease instead of a crime. “You can’t wage a military action against a disease,” he says. “Treatment is the only option that works. That’s what got me clean. Not sitting in a jail cell.”

His four months in jail also taught him the war on drugs is largely a war on poor people. “It’s a caste system,” he says. “As long as white middle-class kids aren’t addicted, then people in charge don’t give a (expletive). They just perceive drugs as something that happens in West Baltimore, and the war on drugs is just about stats and arrests.”

While Earle’s been sober since the mid-‘90s, he spent years trying to get a different monkey off his back: the Internal Revenue Service. His IRS debt grew so big he agreed to license a song for a commercial, something he said he’d never do. In 2005, “The Revolution Starts Now” was used in a TV ad for Chevy pickups, an event almost as bizarre as Creedence Clearwater Revival’s anti-war song “Fortunate Son” popping up in an ad for Wrangler Jeans.

After first rejecting Chevy’s offer, Earle finally caved in when a second, higher offer came in. “I said yes to a ridiculous amount of money, as long as they couldn’t change any of the lyrics,” he says. “I thought it was kind of cool, actually. I thought I was sneaking a subliminal message in.”

But as karma would have it, the deal backfired. Chevy inexplicably killed the ad days after it began airing, and since Earle hadn’t signed a contract, he only got a fraction of the money he’d been promised.

“It just goes to show you,” he says, “when you finally get ready to sell out, nobody’s buying.”

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