News & Politics

Bruce Springsteen and Steve Earle: Two Troubadours in Turbulent Times

Springsteen’s new album gets a hero’s welcome, while Earle’s latest is met with calls for a boycott. But we need both artists to help sort out the country’s post-9/11 trauma.
As the first anniversary of Sept. 11 approaches, the starkly contrasting reactions to two new albums -- one by Bruce Springsteen, the other by Steve Earle -- offer a dramatic example of unresolved national feelings that have simmered over the last tumultuous year.

While both albums address themes related to the terrorist attacks, the release of Springsteen's new album The Rising has been met with the worshipful praise and orchestrated hype associated with a major cultural event. The Boss kicked off the publicity campaign for The Rising with a Time Magazine cover that trumpeted: "How Bruce Springsteen reached out to 9/11 survivors and turned America's anguish into art" (Aug 5); an appearance on the Today Show, and two consecutive nights on David Letterman.

In contrast, Earle’s new album Jerusalem has turned him overnight into what the Toronto Star calls, "America's most reviled popular musician." Less well known than Springsteen, Earle is a veteran singer/songwriter with a loyal following and a well-developed social conscience. Yet the Star writes, "Suddenly Eminem looks about as dangerous as a prancing court jester ... Earle has stirred quite a little dust storm with 'John Walker's Blues,' a song about convicted American Taliban conscript John Walker Lindh."

Both albums have emerged at a bewildering historical moment, when the collective consciousness of the country reflects a dizzying mixture of confusion and anger. There is still no literal resolution of the terrorist attacks, with Osama bin Laden and Taliban leader Mullah Omar still at large; Afghanistan is in shambles and thousands of innocent civilians have been killed in the process; and now the Bush administration is revving up the war drums for action in Iraq.

It is no surprise that 9/11 knocked the country off its moorings, but since then things have only gotten worse for most Americans. The economy has tanked under the weight of corporate greed, corruption and hype. The moral authority of the Catholic Church has crumbled; the cult of the CEO and faith in the stock market have been smashed; and virtually every day sees the demise of another part of the conventional wisdom, including the illusion that millions could look forward to a comfortable retirement.

Interestingly, much of the myth-smashing is being done by a media system that invested enormous energy in creating the myths it is now gleefully demolishing. Fittingly, the media hype around Springsteen has rendered him godlike, while the media storm around Earle has turned him into a pariah.

San Francisco psychotherapist Margo Duxler observes that in difficult times people often turn to artists to help make sense of chaos and conflicting emotions and images. "Meaningful art helps people process and digest experience and move toward catharsis," she says. "Great musical storytelling can help people regain hope and take action on personal solutions."

Audacious Earle

This is such a time. However, in Earle's case he clearly risks having his stories drowned out by media hype and conservative attacks even before the album, due out in September, is released. For example, the Wall Street Journal reported, based upon printed lyrics, that "everyone from the New York Post to CNN was dumbstruck by the audacity" of "John Walker's Blues."

The song begins:
"I'm just an American boy raised on MTV/ and I've seen all those kids in the soda pop ads/ but none of 'em looked like me," and ends: "Now they're dragging me back/ with my head in a sack/ to the land of infidel."

According to the Toronto Star, a talk show host has called for a boycott of stores selling the forthcoming Jerusalem and of radio stations that play the song "John Walker's Blues."

David Corn, writing on the Nation's Web site adds: "During wartime -- and, officially, it's still wartime -- the super-patriots are ever more watchful for acts of cultural treason." And Earle is the "latest victim of the red-white-and-blue lynch mob."

The Web site of Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post headlined its dispatch, "Twisted Ballad Honors Tali-Rat" and claimed "American Taliban fighter John Walker Lindh is glorified and called Jesus-like in a country-rock song."

While Steve Gill, a conservative talk show host in Nashville declared, "This puts [Earle] in the same category as Jane Fonda and John Walker and all those people who hate America."

Wire services and the Washington Post have all covered the fuss, with Reuters commenting: "The song offers a rare sympathetic view of Lindh." The New York Post noted that the ballad is "backed by the chanting of Arabic prayers and praises Allah."

But Corn points out that "John Walker's Blues" "hardly glorifies Lindh. Nor does Earle compare him to Jesus...The tune is 'sympathetic' only in the sense it seeks to understand how Lindh viewed himself. It praises neither Lindh nor his choices. It does not recommend that others emulate him."

Steve Earle is no stranger to controversy. He is known for outspoken stands against capital punishment and the U.S. government's refusal to ratify the treaty to ban the use of land mines. He is a former drug addict who has spent time in jail. Might the conservatives be seizing this ripe opportunity to crucify him for his accumulated sins?

Earle writes on his Web site that Jerusalem will be a political record because there seems no other proper response to the place we're at now. Chet Flippo, writing on Nashville Skyline, says that Earle is referring to the USA Patriot Act, which increases "government's unfettered ability in detecting, monitoring, and fighting domestic terror."

Earle calls the Patriot Act, "An incredibly dangerous piece of legislation. Freedoms, American freedoms -- everything that came out of the 1960s are disappearing ..."

Earle explains his feelings about Lindh: "I'm trying to make clear that wherever he got to, he didn't get there in a vacuum. I don't condone what he did, but still he's a 20-year-old kid." The singer notes that "fundamentalism, as practiced by the Taliban, is the enemy of real thought and religion too. But there are circumstances -- the culture here didn't impress him, so he went out looking for something to believe in."

But ultimately, the overreaction on the part of Earle's critics says more about the current American state of anxiety and anger than it does about the song's artistry -- particularly since most people haven’t even heard it. In fact, the song has a powerful Southern populist sound, reminiscent of The Bands' classic "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down," with Middle Eastern music and chanting interwoven to eerie effect.

While Jerusalem is not on shelves yet, the John Walker lyrics, according to Christian Science Monitor writer Kris Axtman, are digging at America's post-Sept. 11 sensitivities and causing renewed debate about what a songwriter's real role is. So far, most songs that have touched on the events of Sept. 11 have been patriotic anthems and sentimental remembrances, such as Paul McCartney's "Freedom" and Alan Jackson's "Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)." Neil Young made a major statement with "Let's Roll," a seemingly pro-retaliation effort, inspired by the events aboard United Flight 93. Some critics, conveniently forgetting that Young made a public point of endorsing Ronald Reagan during the '80s, pointed to "Let’s Roll" as evidence of a musician’s newly hatched conservatism.

According to Axtman, "Increasingly, new albums now hitting the record stores have songs that deal with Sept. 11. Some are devoted to the actual events and others are infused with a more thoughtful mood. In "It Hit Home," New York artist Suzanne Vega sings: "I am no great patriot/I never wear the flag/and I only sing the songs that I'm supposed to in a crowd/but if I travel to Chicago or just take the train downtown/I see the grace that's under pressure, that's what I report out loud."

Heavy metal star Andrew W.K. has a new song called "I Love NYC." The title track of band Papa Roach's new album, "lovehatetragedy" was inspired by the events of Sept. 11. But most of these new songs, says David Browne, music critic for Entertainment Weekly, "haven't been getting attention because they don't push the limits like Earle does."

Springsteening into Action

Ironically, one track on Springsteen's new album, The Rising, also takes the perspective of a terrorist. The song "Paradise" reflects the thoughts of a suicide bomber thinking about spending eternity in paradise with a lost loved one.

With The Rising, Springsteen has reemerged from the self-imposed obscurity of his New Jersey roots, and stepped forth with a powerful effort. His old group the E Street Band joins him on the album for the first time in 17 years. Named by Rolling Stone as the first five-star record of 2002, The Rising is already being heralded as a classic that will help Americans come to terms with the loss of 9/11.

According to Time, Springsteen was profoundly moved by the New York Times obituaries of victims of the World Trade Center. "He couldn't help noticing how many times Thunder Road or Born in the USA was played at a memorial service." Springsteen contacted several of the widows of 9/11 victims, and those conversations led to several of the songs on the album. In fact, 158 people from Monmouth County, Springsteen's home turf, died in the Towers -- the highest death toll of any county in New Jersey.

Despite the hype and the fact that The Rising is an impressive piece of work, it is not being received with uniform reverence. Fiction writer David Means opines in the New York Observer that, "On the weaker songs you sense an urgency to speak to the audience in a hopeful manner. It feels painfully obvious that many of the songs were recorded in haste. They are devoid of the precise images ... gone is the echoey space of Nebraska, the raucous roar of Born in the USA and the austerity of the River."

Time magazine's Josh Tryangiel says: "The songs are rousing and redemptive and a little shallow." He adds, "What's missing on 'The Rising' is politics."

Michael Bader, a San Francisco psychotherapist and author, and a major Springsteen authority, agrees. "This isn't a political album like Nebraska, or Tom Joad, or even Born in the USA, which was a radical album that unfortunately was co-opted. Springsteen isn't trying to pretend that he is an outsider. In fact, his last couple of albums are to some extent about his privileged life. But he still is Bruce. His message is consistent, addressing the universal questions of grief, longing and community."

One oddly beautiful Springsteen song on The Rising that directly connects to the Middle East is "Worlds Apart." Springsteen sings:

"I taste the seed upon your lips/lay my tongue upon your scars./But when I look into your eyes, we stand worlds apart.

"We'll let blood build a bridge, over mountains draped in stars./I'll meet you on the ridge, between these worlds apart.

"We've got this moment now to live, then it is all just dust and dark./Let love give what it gives, let love give what it gives."

When you boil it down, Springsteen, as Means notes, is "heartfelt, sincere, and upbeat. He believes in the human spirit. But the task is large, and our bard of the working class has met his match in the empty tooth gap of the Manhattan skyline and the dead fireman enshrouded in the American flag. Even the Boss is slightly at a loss for words."

This writer for one is not interested in critiquing Springsteen or in deifying him, for that matter. As another son of New Jersey, I identify with him and owe him too much pleasure and respect. When I hear the line "the screen door slams," images and emotions pour in from the past. Springsteen is an important voice from a generation that needs to step forward to set the country on a better path. His songs have a way of confirming one's humanity by mixing rebellion and the desire for a better world, a combination that stitches together the crucial elements of maturity and responsibility without sacrificing character.

Yet, despite my love of the Boss, it's Steve Earle who gets my attention and who needs our support. "There are only a handful of artists like Steve every generation," notes political activist Danny Goldberg, CEO of Artemis Records and Earle's longtime producer. "He's a great writer, producer and singer, and he fearlessly follows his heart."

Tragically, we live in a black-and-white world, one that requires a precarious balance of heros and scapegoats. Our country seems not to have grown, but to have become more immature as a consequence of the tragedies and challenges of the past year. We are not, as Bruce would have us, rising to the occasion. Healing is hard to come by, especially with inadequate leadership and partisan political posturing.

The funny thing is that despite the attempt to cast Earle as the anti-Springsteen, the two singers complement each other and have much in common. Each tries to understand "the enemy." Each expresses and invites the listener to experience empathy for "the other." Bruce sings for the hard-working person victimized by a greedy and unfair society, while Earle sings for those truly lost or left out.

As Bader suggests, "Springsteen can create a redemption experience where concert-goers get a sense of exuberance and transcendence. It's transitory to be sure, but people come out of the concerts with a sense of community. Earle doesn't try to connect to his audience in the same way, although many of his followers are no less loyal."

Building a larger sense of connection is crucial. We need both these artists to help create a broader environment of empathy to help us be less afraid and more tolerant. When we feel strong, we protect people on the edges. When we are more fearful, the outsiders get abandoned or scapegoated -- as John Walker clearly has and Earle too, for that matter.

Can we imagine a world in which both Bruce Springsteen and Steve Earle are fully valued? Wouldn't it be nice if Springsteen invited Earle up for a couple of songs at one of the stops on his current tour? Maybe that’s asking too much -- but if you have a word with Bruce, do me a favor and make the suggestion.

Don Hazen is executive editor of AlterNet.