Steve Earle’s Blues by Lauren St. John

Hardcore Troubadour, Lauren St. John's new biography of singer-songwriter Steve Earle, derives both advantages and disadvantages from timing.

In the U.S., the HarperCollins imprint Fourth Estate will publish the volume-here reviewed from that imprint's British edition-in February (on whose second Saturday, coincidentally, Earle will play the Pageant).

Timing favors it because St. John's subject, who's never shied from social and political controversy, raised a major furor on his 2002 release, Jerusalem, which No Depression recently called "as calculated a collection of agitprop as any album since Public Enemy's It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back" (and which Jim Dunn praised in last October's issue of Playback St. Louis). The furor specifically focused on "John Walker's Blues," a song from the viewpoint of "American Taliban" John Walker Lindh. At the risk of echoing an ancient ad campaign, inquiring minds will thus want to know more about Earle.

Conversely, timing foils the bio because such inquiring minds may read it more closely than they might have otherwise, thereby marking that a more judicious edit would have benefited the book a great deal. More specifically, typos litter Hardcore Troubadour, as do grammatical gaffs. Moreover, marring it here and there are clumsy foreshadowing and digressions so poorly integrated they seem non sequiturs.

A few choice examples warrant mention. Early in the text, the name of a Texas restaurant where Earle was playing changes spelling within the space of three pages, and at one point late in the bio, singer Terri Clark transforms, from one paragraph to the next, into painter and songwriter Susanna Clark. Elsewhere, regarding a party celebrating the release of Pink & Black, Earle's four-song EP from 1983, St. John notes, "Ron and Kelly and Steve's little brother Patrick was there"-to which anyone fond of subject-verb agreement will growl, "Was they really?" One final example toward the end of Hardcore Troubadour features both a dangling modifier and an unthinkably peripatetic penal institution: "Constitutionally incapable of spending more than thirty days in the same municipality, jail grew increasingly claustrophobic."

That said, the bio, which totals 300-plus pages, perforce makes fascinating reading because its subject fascinates. After sketching some family background, St. John relates that Stephen Fain Earle was born Saturday, January 17, 1955, at a U.S. Army hospital in Fort Monroe, Virginia, where his father was stationed as a company clerk. Foreshadowing much of Earle's life to come, it was a breech birth. To anyone at all familiar with him, the following early passage in Hardcore Troubadour should also seem emblematic:

It was in Palestine [Texas] that Steve first walked-or at least, that his parents first saw him walk. He was sixteen months old. He never crawled or tottered or took a few tentative steps. He simply stood up and strolled the full length of the house.

St. John recounts Earle's youthful promise-especially in the areas of history and politics, he "absorbed books with a sponge-like ease"-and his musical bent-he was playing San Antonio coffeehouses at the age of 14-as well as his teenage introduction to drugs. Regarding that last, an uncle only five years his senior both gave Earle his first guitar, in 1967, and acquainted him with heroin, as he told St. John:

"I couldn't inject myself-Nick [his uncle] had to do it for me. I didn't throw up, which most people do. I should have known I was in trouble right then. It kind of really agreed with me."

From that period of his life, St. John also chronicles Earle's first meetings with his two main songwriting mentors, Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark, the former of whom Earle initially encountered at a party at 3 a.m.:

"He had on this gorgeous white buckskin jacket with beadwork on it that [singer-songwriter] Jerry Jeff [Walker] had given him for his birthday two weeks earlier…. And Townes started a crap game on the floor in the kitchen and lost every dime he had and that jacket within forty-five minutes of arriving and then left an hour after that. I thought: ‘My hero!'"

Of Van Zandt-the namesake of his first son, Justin Townes Earle, born in 1982-Earle mordantly told his biographer, "He really had a gift for sabotaging himself."

St. John likewise sketches Earle's first encounter with Clark, at a Nashville watering hole called Bishop's Pub: "Guy also warmed to Steve himself-his quick intelligence and fizzing energy-although on the whole he preferred him when he drank because ‘he didn't talk so much.'" Clark secured Earle a songwriting job at an RCA division, and for a time, that helped to normalize a singularly nomadic and ragtag existence. (At one point, Earle washed dishes at a Mexican restaurant that featured boxing matches. "It didn't last very long," he told his biographer. "I mean, people don't want to eat next to the spit bucket.")

Almost necessarily, St. John covers her subject's recording career from Pink & Black to the present, detailing the trials and triumphs surrounding such works as 1986's breakthrough Guitar Town (which was recorded in two weeks and mixed in the same time frame), Exit O (1987), Copperhead Road (1988), The Hard Way (1990), and Shut Up and Die Like an Aviator (1991).

Necessarily for today's scandal-loving audiences, moreover, she details Earle's many marriages-over time, he's wed five women, one of them twice. The picture that develops of his connubial entanglements, it almost goes without saying, scarcely flatters him. "He frightened me and he knew it," one of Earle's ex-wives told his biographer. "He just knew it instinctively and adapted to it and became whatever I wanted. And I know that makes him sound like a predator-so be it." Hilariously, two-thirds of the way through the bio, St. John relates:

When the news circulated that Steve was embarking on yet another divorce, the proverbial [sic] hit the fan. Steve's parents were distressed that he was abandoning the mother of his baby, his lawyer was in a state because he had barely completed the paperwork on the last divorce, and his business manager quit.

If Earle's marital misadventures border on black comedy, though, the narrative of his escalating drug addiction approaches tragedy. On that topic, in fact, Hardcore Troubadour makes harrowing reading. St. John notes:

At one stage in 1988, his answering machine informed callers: "This is Steve. I'm probably out shooting heroin, chasing thirteen-year-old girls and beatin' up cops. But I'm old and I tire easily so leave a message and I'll get back to you."

The dark humor of that passage fast evaporates, however. "Every damn spoon in the house was black," Earle's sister Stacey, who for a time served as his factotum, told St. John regarding his heroin use, and a subsequent passage reads like something from David Lynch on a particularly depraved day:

Shortly thereafter Steve could be observed standing on a street corner in South Nashville in a blood-splattered paper robe, his head a grisly mess of seeping stitches, holding out a $10 bill to buy rock.

Moreover, the nadir of Earle's addiction was yet to come. "I thought about putting a pillow on his face," Stacey confessed. "I wanted for him to stop hurting." In the mid-'90s, that addiction eventually led to his (brief) incarceration for possession of heroin-as well as to rehabilitation and rejuvenation. Since rehab, as St. John narrates, Earle has seemingly exorcised his personal demons and turned his energies once more to music, with such releases as Train a Comin' (1995), I Feel Alright (1996), El Corazon (1997), The Mountain (1999), Transcendental Blues (2000)…and, of course, Jerusalem (one of this past year's most significant discs for more than one reason).

"He who fights against monsters should see to it that he does not become a monster in the process," the German philosopher Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche once wrote. "And when you stare persistently into an abyss, the abyss also stares into you." Its textual shortcomings notwithstanding, Hardcore Troubadour paints a riveting portrait of an artist who, for good or for ill, has made it his practice to stare into that abyss-and who has survived to tell the tale.

About Jim Dunn 126 Articles
Jim Dunn grew up in NY in the 70s and 80s. Even though that time in music really shapes his appreciation it does not define it. Music, like his beloved history is a long intermingled path that grows, builds and steals from its past. He lives in Colorado with his lovely wife and a wild bunch of animals.

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