Steve Earle / Stacey Earle

Ted Swedenburg

20 March 2001: Dave's on Dickson - Fayetteville, Arkansas.

Steve Earle / Stacey Earle

Steve Earle / Stacey Earle

City: Fayetteville, Arkansas
Venue: Dave's on Dickson
Date: 2001-03-20

My hometown, Fayetteville, Arkansas, has been in a drought of sorts for the last couple years, at least as far as decent touring music acts. But we truly lucked out on March 20, when Steve Earle decided to make our town his last stop on what he told us was a seven-month tour, to support his last release, Transcendental Blues. The audience was large and adoring. We love Steve because he writes such great songs; because he is a quintessential survivor, has been to hell and back; because his music cannot be pigeonholed or easily labeled and he refuses to be constrained by musical categories; because he's a bohemian-outsider-hillbilly; and because his political stands are brave and uncompromising. And he's been coming to Fayetteville ever since the late '70s, when he first played at the Swinging Door along with Guy Clark. For all these reasons, the crowd included a much wider range of age groups than you normally see at rock events. And more women than usual. Lots of twenty-somethings, and lots of geezers like me. In fact, all the folks I saw Steve with are over 50, and we did not feel out of place at all. Steve's sister Stacey Earle, who's promoting her second album, Dancin' With Them That Brung Me, opened the show. Stacey performed solo, accompanying herself on acoustic guitar, and quickly won over a boisterous crowd that was dying for Steve to take the stage with her goofy mannerisms, peppiness, smart songs, and outstanding vocal phrasings. She reminds me a bit of Ricky Lee Jones. Particularly noteworthy was a song that she performed for the first time, about being lonely on tour in New York City, and her secret love affair with the Man in the Moon. Steve and his band stormed onstage soon after Stacey left, opening with the first three cuts off of Transcendental Blues -- the title cut, and then "Everybody Loves Me", where Earle & the Dukes sound like the Beatles, and then "Another Town". A great way to open, songs faithful to the album but with more distortion on the guitars, and played with great intensity. Steve has slimmed down some, put on a full beard, but the voice is still intense and raggedy and biting. The band proceeded to play for about two and a half hours, performing, in all, 35 songs. Lots of numbers from Transcendental Blues, but also tunes ranging from all over his career, including crowd pleasers like "Copperhead Road" and "I Ain't Ever Satisfied", all played with equal passion and intensity. What's truly amazing is how wide-ranging a set of sounds this little four-man band can produce. Not only have they mastered The Beatles (and the best Beatles, circa Revolver), as on so many of the songs from Transcendental Blues. They can also kick hard-rock ass with the best of them. They can blast out the bittersweet country ballads and the high lonesome bluegrass -- as on "Travel and Toil", from The Mountain (recorded with the Del McCoury Band), with Steve playing mandolin. When Steve straps on the harmonica, the group enters Dylanesque folk territory. And even Celtic -- "Galway Girl" from Transcendental Blues, with Dan the manager joining the group on pennywhistle. The whole band is outstanding, but at the apex is guitarist Eric Ambel, formerly of the Del-Lords and the Blackhearts, who is forever grinding out smart, spare riffs, fills, power-chords, and solos. Steve put his politics out there too, albeit in a low-key manner. The tone was set by the drumset, plastered with a reproduction of that recent cover of The Nation with George W. Bush as Mad Magazine's "What Me Worry?" Alfred E. Neumann. Two years ago when Steve and the Dukes played Fayetteville, they brought an anti-death penalty banner. No banner this time, but the focus was still on the death penalty. Steve did his haunting "Over Yonder (Jonathan's Song)", from Transcendental Blues, about his experience witnessing the state's execution of his friend Jonathan Noble in Huntsville, Texas. (You can also read about Steve's harrowing and incredibly moving account of this experience in an article he wrote for Tikkun [September 2000]). Introducing "Travel and Toil", Steve made a pitch for union membership, and added, "No matter who you vote for, George Bush is gonna fuck you." During the first encore set, Stacey came back to sing harmonies on "When I Fall" from Transcendental Blues. And then Steve and the Dukes showed us they could even do funk psychedelia. Adding Steve's younger brother as a second drummer, they stormed through the Chambers' Brothers "Time Has Come Today", in my opinion, one of the great anthems of the sixties. In the second encore set, Steve made a pitch against the War on Crime. The band ended their night, and the seven-month tour, with a fine cover of the Rolling Stones' "Sweet Virginia", with Steve on mandolin. Come back real soon, Steve, and let's magnetize this motherfucker again.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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