Bruce Springsteen & Steve Earle
Which has turned anguish into art?
By Don Hazen

As the first anniversary of Sept. 11 approaches, the starkly contrasting reactions to two new albums-the latest by Bruce Springsteen, the other (forthcoming) 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. (Tickets for his upcoming Rupp Arena show go on sale Saturday.)

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, the forthcoming album Jerusalem from veteran singer-songwriter Earle has turned him overnight into what The Toronto Star calls, "America's most reviled popular musician." 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.

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 corruption; the moral authority of the Catholic Church has crumbled; and the cult of the CEO and faith in the stock market have been smashed.

The media hype around Springsteen has rendered him godlike, while the media storm around Earle has turned him into a pariah.

In Earle's case he clearly risks having his stories drowned out by 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."

David Corn, writing on the Nation's website 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."

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."

But Corn points out that "John Walker's Blues" "hardly glorifies Lindh...The tune is 'sympathetic' only in the sense it seeks to understand how Lindh viewed himself. It praises neither Lindh nor his choices."

Steve Earle is no stranger to controversy. He's known for outspoken stands against capital punishment [he contributed the haunting "Ellis Unit One" to the soundtrack for Dead Man Walking] and the U.S. government's refusal to ratify the treaty to ban the use of land mines. He's an admitted recovering drug addict who's done time.

Earle writes on his website that Jerusalem will be a political record because there seems no other proper response to the place we're at now. Earle calls the Patriot Act (which allows the government virtually unfettered access to invade privacy in the name of battling terrorism) "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.

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)."

Ironically, one track on Springsteen's 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.

Springsteen's 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."

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."

Springsteen is an important voice from a generation whose 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, it's Steve Earle 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 heroes 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.

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."

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 muchbut, just a suggestion.


Down from the Mountain

From a meeting of citizens to organize an arts and cultural group for Kentucky, the Kentucky Mountain Creative Coalition was born. Their goal is to gather artists, musicians, craftspeople, and others interested in furthering the arts in the region. Another aim of the group is to sponsor arts/ cultural events at the local level: plays, concerts, poetry readings, creative classes, writers' circles, and more. The KMCC is looking for people to join in furthering the arts in Kentucky. The next meeting will take place Thursday, August 15 from 6-8 p.m. in the conference room of the Powell County Extension Office, which is located at the corner of Maple and Breckenridge Streets. Open to the public. Info, Jonnie Southworth at 663-2832, or Rhonda L. M. Tipton via email at

And the bride wore white

For the first time ever in Lexington, the Making Memories Breast Cancer Foundation charity event will be held Saturday & Sunday August 17th & 18th at the Radisson Plaza Hotel 369 West Vine Street in Lexington. The Foundation has received as many as 10,000 donated wedding gowns from across the country for its "Brides Against Breast Cancer - Nationwide Tour of Gowns." Proceeds from the two-day event will benefit the organization's "Dream Fulfillment Fund," which grants wishes for women and men with metastatic breast cancer. Info,, or 503/307-5600.

Duck, duck, goose?

Buy a rubber duck and win a Ford truck. That's the simple premise behind the Duck Derby Saturday, August 17th at Lexington Green. Kentucky River Foothills and Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Bluegrass are hosting the event and will have other activities including a petting zoo and children's games. Kentucky River Foothills helps low-income individuals and families become self-sufficient, while Big Brothers Big Sisters provides mentoring programs. All proceeds will benefit both organizations. To "adopt" a duck for the race, call 394.2494 or 624.2046

The envelope, please

You may remember grumblings from elementary and middle school students about having to take a few standardized tests last spring, and now those results are in. The results of the 2002 Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills (CTBS) show Kentucky making steady progress in reading, language arts, and mathematics. The CTBS scores, along with the Kentucky Core Content Tests will help comprise a school's accountability index. Schools' accountability status will be announced in September. Individual district and school results are available at

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