Q: Do you feel like your writing has gotten more politically pointed as time goes on? Or have you been writing these kinds of things all along?
Steve Earle: I made two really overtly political records. Jerusalem was my reaction to September 11, and The Revolution Starts Now was me just trying to get certain things I wanted said before the 2004 election cycle was over with. The record came out that September. A lot of us worked really hard to keep Bush from winning a second term. I left for Europe the day after the election. It was good to be out of the country [laughs]. Then I came back almost two months later and began the U.S. part of the tour, and we became sort of a recovery room for people who had gotten their asses kicked. I was OK with that. Politically, I’m pretty much a socialist. I cut my teeth on Marx and Emma Goldman. I’ve probably changed less politically than I have in any other respect. I’ve been an active addict and a recovering addict. And I’ve been married a bunch of times. The one area where I’ve changed radically politically is the Second Amendment. Just because of growing up in Texas, I didn’t see anything incongruous about having a bunch of guns and being basically a peacenik. I really sort of believed I had them for hunting and for recreation and maybe to protect myself and my family. It took a long time to come around to where I’m at now. I don’t have guns anymore. I’m pretty anti-gun, and it’s because of personal stuff in my life.
Q: Was there a particular event that pushed you toward your advocacy against the death penalty?
Earle: It was a lot of things. It was growing up in Texas. It was, believe it or not, seeing the film In Cold Blood and then backtracking and reading the book. Whatever Truman Capote’s intentions were in writing that book, it does create this horrific depiction of man’s inhumanity towards man: from the way that the people who committed the murders treated their victims right down to the way we nonchalantly tried to deal with it. Most execution protocols are about trying to lessen the damage to the psyche of the people that actually have to commit the murder. It’s an inherently toxic event for human beings to take another life. I’ve stood there while it was going on, and it’s numbing. It’s the biggest event in my life, having experienced that. It had a bigger impression on me than my children being born. I hate to say this but it’s true. It’s just a big deal when you stand that close to death, to violence. And it is violence. What I saw was violence. It was a lethal injection, but it was violent. And it was us being violent; it was me being violent. I still haven’t fully recovered from the one execution that I witnessed, and that was in 1998. And I really believe a country that didn’t have the death penalty would have never attacked Iraq in the first place. A country that didn’t execute its own citizens, that didn’t institutionalize retribution, would have never felt the need to attack another that just looks sort of like the people we thought had attacked us, which is what we did. We destroyed that place. And hundreds of thousands of people died. People are still dying. We’ve got to collectively live with that. Our children are going to be living with that—the cost of it, on every level.
Q: How do you decide what organizations you work with and work for? I think the most recent would be America Votes Labor.
Earle: That decision was made because I didn’t go to Madison. A lot was going on in my life. I thought about it. It was really hard for me to get there. I talked to Tom Morello on the phone. He went; I didn’t. I regret it to some extent. I wish I had been there. But I felt like I wanted to do something and I was asked: That particular organization got to me first at that time. We do this stuff out of guilt to some degree. It’s like, not guilt in a bad way, but it’s our conscience, you know. That’s part of what having a conscience is. That’s how not-for-profits raise money. It’s how it all works.
Q: What do the arts contribute to the economy?
Earle: You know what? The difference between human beings and animals is not an opposable thumb. It’s the fact that we create and consume art. Making art is an inherently political thing, especially in this country. You’re swimming upstream automatically as soon as you decide you’re going to do anything but shove ones and zeros around in the ether and profit from it. Creating and consuming art is not an elective. We treat these things in school as electives. They’re not fucking electives. They’re absolutely sustenance to human beings. We need them every bit as much as we need water or food. And probably more than we need a fucking army. Nick A. Zaino III is a freelance writer and musician working in Boston. He has covered arts and entertainment for The Boston Globe, The Boston Phoenix, Blurt, and several other publications.
This is an excerpt from the interview with Steve Earle in the October 2011 issue of The Progressive. To read the entire interview and the whole issue, simply subscribe.