'My country is sleepwalking'

Steve Earle has penned a sympathetic song for John Walker Lindh, the American Taliban member. What possessed him? John Harris finds out

As if to signal straight away that he is not your average blue-collar American troubadour, Steve Earle begins his morning at London's Grosvenor House hotel by enthusing about the writings of Karl Marx. He had his first crack at reading Capital - "those three big fuckin' books" - when he was growing up in Schertz, near San Antonio, Texas. "Marx talked in analogies, the way Texans do," he says, with the merest hint of a smirk. "I'm sort of comfortable with that."

Earle, whose appearance has long since settled into an imposing mixture of beard and bulk, has been releasing records for 16 years, each one firmly on the borderline between country and rock. He has also carved out a beguiling myth, founded in some part on his drug-fuelled self-immolation and the four-year hiatus it caused between 1991 and 1995. Since then, his politics have oozed into his interviews and on-stage pronouncements - along with the time he devotes to agitating against the death penalty - but their place in his music has tended to be a matter of allusion and implication. Today, however, sees the British release of the most explicitly political album of his career: Jerusalem, a collection of songs that meld together to form an unsettling kind of State of the Union address.

Inevitably, September 11 and its aftermath are a subtext throughout, bubbling to the surface spectacularly on a song entitled John Walker's Blues, which sympathetically takes the point of view of John Walker Lindh, the infamous lone American member of the Taliban. News of the song reached the more hysterical corners of the US media in July, whereupon - predictably enough - Earle was hurled to the lions. "Twisted ballad honours Tali-rat," was the headline in the New York Post, which roared that Earle had both "glorified" his subject and claimed he was "Jesus-like". Steve Gill, a Rush Limbaugh-style radio host, said that the song put Earle "in the same category as Jane Fonda, John Walker and all those people who hate America".

Earle wrote the song while on tour in Europe, in the company of his 20-year-old son, Justin. "That's my connection to John Walker Lindh," he says. "They're pretty much exactly the same age. And I became acutely aware that what happened to him could have happened to my son, and your son, and anybody's son. Nobody in my country wanted to admit that. It's one of the most American stories I've ever heard: he came to Islam by way of hip-hop, which I find fascinating. He was already looking outside his culture, like a lot of American kids are."

The song's opening verse makes the point plain. "I'm just an American boy, raised on MTV," Earle growls, in tones he says were modelled on Lindh's bewildered encounter with CNN. "And I've seen all those kids in the soda pop ads, and none of 'em looked like me/So I started lookin' around for a light out of the dim/And the first thing I heard that made sense was the word/Of Mohammed, peace be upon him." Earle's contention is that far from being some aberrant Beelzebub, Lindh embodies a kind of alienation that many Americans would do well to understand.

As things stand, unfortunately, that is hardly likely to happen. "Americans are very uncomfortable without a bogeyman," he says. "I grew up believing that if I ever met Nikita Khrushchev he would eat me, but we've been rudderless ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union. It became increasingly obvious to me that John Walker was being set up as a warning to any American that got out of line while this war against the new bogeyman was being pursued. I was trying to humanise him, because everybody else was trying to vilify him."

Perhaps the song's most remarkable aspects are its nods to Islamic scripture. Its chorus, sung in Arabic, is a recitation of Sura 47, Verse 19 of the Koran: "There is no God but God." Earle also underlines the place of Christ in Islamic teachings, in the lines that have landed him in the most trouble: "If I should die, I'll rise up to the sky/Just like Jesus, peace be upon him."

The words conjure up the image of Earle being chased out of his adopted home of Nashville like a deep-south Salman Rushdie. "I knew how fundamentalist Christians would take it," he shrugs. "But it's a truth: an inflammatory truth, perhaps, but that's effective sometimes."

The genesis of Jerusalem says much about the problems that have bedevilled left-leaning Americans over the past year. The album's creation began with Amerika V 6.0 (The Best We Can Do), a song written for a movie entitled John Q. Directed by Nick Cassavetes and starring Denzel Washington, it told the story of a man who, determined that his son should have the heart transplant he needs, finally resorts to holding a surgeon hostage to get around the inadequacies of private health care. Earle delivered a snarling treatise on the sidelining of the American ideal by blinkered greed. The song was duly grafted on to the film's closing credits - until the after-effects of September 11 began to emerge. "He [Cassavetes] finally admitted that the film's distributors had decided that it was too critical of the Bush administration," says Earle. "They couldn't include it in the film in this political climate. 'While we're at war' is what they said."

Encouraged by his record company, Artemis (whose boss, Danny Goldberg, is an activist for the American Civil Liberties Union), Earle decided to use the song as the mission statement for an entire album. Jerusalem thus grapples with such topics as the fate of illegal immigrants from Mexico, the never-ending fall-out from Vietnam, life at the blunt end of the American penal system and the Israeli-Palestian conflict. All of it is underpinned by the idea that since September 11, the US has been politically sleepwalking.

The album's other abiding contention is reflected in a portentous, biblically phrased song entitled Ashes to Ashes, written in the wake of that most pivotal of days, which may represent an even more courageous conceit than John Walker's Blues. Its third verse contains the line "Every tower ever built tumbles", using the World Trade Centre as a brutal metaphor for the idea that, as with all empires, America's hegemony will eventually collapse.

"Nobody remains the most powerful country in the world forever," says Earle, "and the United States is making a huge mistake by carrying itself as if it's going to be. Every country in western Europe has been the most powerful country in the world for at least 30 seconds, and there's a strength in living through an empire and realising that there's life after it. But we're not there yet, and our grandchildren are going to pay for it."

Inevitably, in the context of other musicians' responses to September 11, Jerusalem is an incongruous record. Back in Nashville, country radio is still hammering out Toby Keith's Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American), the chunk of boot-cut belligerence that managed to reach the top of the American singles chart. Its lyric is hardly poetic, but it sets out its stall effectively enough: Keith salutes the flag, the Statue of Liberty shakes her fist, and America's foes are gleefully informed that, soon enough, "it's gonna feel like the whole wide world is raining down on you". He and Earle probably live and work within a 20-minute drive of one another, yet they seem to be occupying completely different worlds.

"That record embarrasses me," says Earle, "but I don't even think there's really a political component in it. It's like playing in Fort Worth and saying, 'We played Dallas last night, and it's sure good to be back in Texas.' It's pandering to an audience. But doing that in this atmosphere is dangerous. I have a fear that someone with dark skin and clothing different to what people wear in Tennessee might get hurt because of that song. It scares me. And it's really poorly written, apart from anything else."

On a slightly more rarefied plane, there is Bruce Springsteen's The Rising, the album that responds to last year's attacks with songs that manage to combine mourning with a gritty kind of optimism ("This too shall pass," goes its overture, Lonesome Day). "I think that album is Bruce doing what Bruce does really well," says Earle, in a rather uncharacteristic attack of rock luvviness. "He's empathising with the vast majority of the American people. Bruce isn't really a political writer - the record's very inclusive, which is totally okay."

You weren't disappointed that, in among the balm, he might have occasionally adopted a more challenging voice?

"Well, his approach is absolutely necessary, too. We've got to heal. I am inflaming the situation, but then again, I'm much more prone to reacting politically and speaking in political terms."

The sleeve notes for Jerusalem were written in July. They betray Earle's talent for prose writing; he is author of a recent collection of short stories, Doghouse Roses. The notes convey his sense that September 11 left him at 90 degrees to most of his countrymen. "Lately," he writes, "I feel like the loneliest man in America." In the ensuing months, he says, his sense of isolation was diminished - but now, with the looming prospect of war in Iraq, he can't shake off a creeping feeling of frustration. At its core is the idea, surely familiar to any politicised musician, that his limited reach means he can never make as large an impact as his beliefs demand.

"I'm only going to be effective with my audience," he says. "The Vietnam war only ended when 55,000 kids had been killed. We still weren't particularly concerned with the two million Vietnamese who died, but at that point we said, 'Enough.' I just hope that those people that grew up in my generation remember that and start making their voices heard. All I can do is tell people how I feel. My only responsibility is not to not say something."

· Jerusalem is released on Sony today.


John Harris

The GuardianTramp

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