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"John Walker's Blues" and America with a K

Steve Earle's new album about our corrupt, imperialist nation is worse than anticipated.

12:00 AM, Sep 27, 2002 • By DAVID SKINNER
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THE NOTABLE singer-songwriter Steve Earle became notorious last month when news broke that he'd written a blues ballad about John Walker Lindh--the recently convicted American Taliban fighter from Marin County, California. This week Earle's new album hits stores, and "Jerusalem" contains much else besides "John Walker's Blues" to irritate the discerning American listener. As political statement, the album is stunning for its juvenile and morally obtuse reading of the current moment. But as music (may the political gods forgive me), it is pretty good. It's not the best album Earle's made, but it's much better than, say, Bruce Springsteen's politically correct September 11 album, "The Rising."

This isn't the first time Earle has written political music, and he doesn't bother to hide his feelings. "Frankly, I've never worn red, white, and blue that well," he says in a three-paragraph message on the first page of the liner notes. His ambivalence about this country dates back to Vietnam: "We sent 55,000 of our sons to die far from home in the belief that if we didn't arrest what we perceived as an 'evil empire' abroad that the last domino would ultimately fall at our own doorstep."

Obviously the war would not have been more palatable to Earle had these soldiers died in a country closer to home, but it should also be noted that Earle is mixing eras. Yes, the domino theory justified fighting in Vietnam, but the term "evil empire" didn't come about until many years after the war.

Next sayeth the Earle: "When no enemy presented itself at the gate we began to turn on ourselves, subjecting our own citizens to clandestine scrutiny by law enforcement agencies and persecution in our courts of law."

I'd like to tell you which period of widespread divisiveness and repression the good musician has in mind, but I haven't a clue. Maybe he's talking about McCarthyism, but that predates Vietnam. Or he could be talking about the Carter administration, but somehow I think not. Now I'm generally not one to harp on the political and historical literacy of rock'n'rollers, except that Earle makes it hard to look the other way. "In spite of our worst intentions and ignorance of our own history" he writes, "our Constitution has, thus far, proven resilient enough to withstand anything we throw at it including ourselves."

Now when Steve Earle talks about our ignorance of history, the appropriate response is: Speak for yourself.

The joke of this political brief is saved for the end. The Constitution, says Earle, "was framed by men whose names we are taught to remember by rote: Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Patrick Henry, Aaron Burr . . . the list is long and distinguished and we call these men patriots. In times like these, it is also important to remember the names of John Reed, Emma Goldman, Abbie Hoffman, Bobby Seale, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King . . . those who defended those same principles by insisting on asking the hardest questions in our darkest hours."

One is tempted to mail Earle a long bibliography and seek clarification ten years down the road, but for now a shorter rebuke will have to do:

(1) Aaron Burr's contribution to history was shooting and killing Alexander Hamilton, whose own contributions to political history were fundamental to the course of democracy.

(2) John Reed, the famous American Communist, celebrated the Russian revolution in his "Ten Days that Shook the World." So beloved was he of the murderous Lenin that Reed was buried beside the Kremlin wall with a bunch of other Bolshevik heroes.

(3) Emma Goldman's name appearing on any list of "patriots" is a laugh riot. The anarchist Goldman, whose diverse political activities included supporting the assassination of enemies of the working class, described patriotism as a childish, egotistic, arrogant superstition. "The awful waste [of money and life] that patriotism necessitates ought to be sufficient to cure the man of even average intelligence from the disease." She later recanted her belief that the ends justified the means and even wrote early criticism of Lenin's revolution. But I do not think Earle likes her for contradicting John Reed and other Soviet apologists.

(4) Abbie Hoffman? What "hardest questions" did the leader of the Yippies ask? Why don't we have a f***-in at the 1968 Democratic National Convention? Why don't we kill some cops?

(5) Bobby Seale? Seale, like Hoffman a member of the "Chicago Eight," was for a time head of the Black Panthers, those murderous, shakedown artists who more than any other organization in America helped make thuggery chic on the American Left.