From movie theatres to music arenas, popular culture is proving a major battleground in the US presidential election. First there was Michael Moore's film Fahrenheit 9/11; now Bruce Springsteen, country music trio the Dixie Chicks and grunge band Pearl Jam have been touring the swing states and 'rockin' the vote'. The gigs are packed but there's a debate about just what effect they have: cynics suggest these artists are merely preaching to the converted.
The complaint misses the real drama of what's happening in the US, however. The polarisation provoked by Bush - social and cultural, as well as political - runs much deeper and is more volatile than the question of who you vote for. And it's unlikely to be accommodated within the existing two-party system.
Among the musicians who've been campaigning against Bush none is more acutely aware of these underlying questions than singer-songwriter Steve Earle, whose new album, Start the Revolution Now, goes way beyond Bush-bashing, politically and artistically.
Earle started speaking out against the war on terror when it was still a risky career move. In the aftermath of 9/11 he boldly challenged the prevailing national mood with the album Jerusalem, a masterpiece of politically engaged popular art to set beside Dylan's The Times They Are A-Changin' and the best of Bob Marley or The Clash.
In the apocalyptic 'Ashes to Ashes', Earle kicked off Jerusalem like an Old Testament prophet, reminding his fellow citizens that 'every tower ever built tumbles/ no matter how strong, no matter how tall'. In 'Amerika v 6.0' he looked at what passes for healthcare in the US 'we got accountants playin' God and countin' out the pills', observing, 'four score and a hundred and 50 years ago/ our forefathers made us equal as long as we can pay'.
But nothing disturbed the guardians of the US's self-image more than the song 'John Walker's Blues', in which Earle projected himself into the heart and mind of the young Californian Taleban captured in Afghanistan in November 2001. The US media demonised the confused young man as the embodiment of America's enemies, without and within. In response, Earle relived Walker's strange journey, finding dignity and humanity in his story:
'As death filled the air, we all offered up prayers
And prepared for our martyrdom
But Allah had some other plan, some secret not revealed
Now they're draggin' me back with my head in a sack
_To the land of the infidel... A shadu la ilaha illa Allah.'
Earle was lambasted as a psychopathic traitor, a self-hating American. Yet the irony was that the song, like Earle's work as a whole, was deeply rooted in US musical traditions. In addition to being the country's foremost practising political songwriter, Earle is among the most complete masters of what's sometimes called 'Americana': a catch-all term to describe the rich spectrum of North American folk, country, rock and blues: the musical legacy of generations of US working class experience.
Earle was raised in small-town Texas, but at the age of 14 left home (with his guitar) for Houston. Five years later, he turned up in Nashville. Following a string of casual jobs, stints as a back-up musician and some success writing for established performers, he hit the charts with the albums Guitar Town in 1986 and Copperhead Road in 1988. By then in his early 30s, he was hailed as the voice of a new wave of country music and a rival to Springsteen as a rock balladeer.
Commercial and critical success, however, was accompanied by personal crisis. Heroin addiction and a prison sentence led to a hiatus in his career in the early 1990s. But after a painful process of self-reconstruction, Earle returned in 1997 with a major album, El Corazon. Since then, he's made up for lost time, composing song after song, recording, performing, writing and agitating. He's been an active campaigner against the death penalty, supported welfare and union rights and anti-landmine initiatives, and most recently hit the streets to oppose war and support civil liberties.
Now pushing 50, Earle is at the peak of his powers, a patron saint for late bloomers. He's a distinctive stylist with a strong personality, who nonetheless moves easily from genre to genre, mood to mood. As a guitarist he deploys both crunching power chords and delicate, wistful finger-picking. He dips into folk, country, blues, bluegrass, punk, grunge and even reggae, psychedelia and world music. He's wry, righteous and raucous, but also tender and melancholy.
The sheer abundance of Earle's gift for song means he can lavish it on casual as well as considered projects. Start the Revolution was compiled in only a few days, and is presented unapologetically as an intervention in the election. It may not be as complete a work as Jerusalem, but it's full of riches, including the title track, a riff-heavy anthem with a razor-sharp rhythmic edge, hypnotic vocal and Beatles-like chorus that reminds us how the revolution starts 'in you own hometown, in your own backyard'.
The mordant 'Home to Houston' sounds like a typical country and western hard-driving trucker's tale, except that it's set in Basra:
'Early in the mornin' and I'm rollin' fast
Haulin' 9,000 gallons of high test gas
Sergeant on the radio hollerin' at me
Look out up ahead here comes an RPG [Rocker Propelled Grenade].'
Perhaps the most devastating song on the album is 'Rich man's war', comprised of three sharply etched vignettes. In the first, jobless Jimmy who 'joined the army 'cause he had no place to go' finds himself 'rollin' into Baghdad wonderin' how he got this far'. In the second, patriotic Bobby leaves behind a 'stack of overdue bills' and finds himself in Kandahar, 'chasin' ghosts in the thin dry air'. In the third, Ali, who 'grew up in Gaza throwing bottles and rocks' at Israeli tanks, is called on to martyr himself by 'a fat man in a new Mercedes'. Each vignette ends with the refrain, 'just another poor boy off to fight a rich man's war'.
'Rich man's war' works not just because it's predicated on a class analysis, but also because it makes the analysis concrete. Here, as elsewhere in his work, Earle draws deeply on country music traditions in which the individual is trapped or tormented by remote forces, and the drama of personal survival is played out against a bleak, unforgiving landscape. As Earle himself would insist, he's a faithful son of Hank Williams as well as Woody Guthrie. He locates the left-wing politics in the classic country music territory of loneliness, heartache and loss.
Other tracks on the new album include 'Condi, Condi' - a sexy, funky calypso disconcertingly addressed to US national security adviser Condoleezza Rice ('people say you're cold but I think you're hot'), and 'F the CC' - a foul-mouthed punk-rock blast at the mainstream media ('fuck the FBI, fuck the CIA, livin' in the motherfuckin' USA'). More affectingly, there's 'Comin' around', a duet with country icon Emmylou Harris evoking a fragile sense of personal renewal, and 'I thought you should know', a bittersweet erotic soul torch song that Otis Redding would have relished.
Earle's politics are not only to the left of most of the performers currently assailing Bush (he calls himself a socialist and describes Clinton as 'the only Republican I've ever voted for'; they're infused with an internationalism rare even among the US liberal intelligentsia. 'Frankly, I've never worn red, white and blue that well,' he merrily admits. Crucially, he's an internationalist with a Texan accent, working in an accessible idiom, as proud of his US roots as he is angry at his country's rulers.
In the past, undercurrents of dissent found expression in US popular culture long before they were recognised by political parties or mainstream media. Let's hope Earle's music proves to be the harbinger of a more informed and humane global consciousness. In the meantime, if you're looking for inspiration, solace and stimulation, pick up a Steve Earle CD without delay.
Mike Marqusee 1953–2015, wrote a regular column for Red Pepper, 'Contending for the Living', and authored a number of books on the politics of culture, on topics ranging from cricket to Bob Dylan.