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Steve Earle Chases Ghosts

The country rocker nearly died emulating his damaged, alcoholic hero, Townes Van Zandt. Now, on a new tribute album, Earle looks back

Steve EarleSteve Earle

Steve Earle performs on stage on day three of End Of The Road Festival 2009 at Larmer Tree Gardens in Dorset, United Kingdom, September 11th, 2009

Andy Sheppard/Redferns/Getty

Once upon a time, a self-deprecating answering-machine message did most of the talking for Steve Earle: “This is Steve. I’m probably out shooting heroin, chasing 13-year-old girls and beat­ing up cops. But I’m old and I tire easily, so leave a message and I’ll get back to you.”

He usually didn’t. Instead, he spent his hours in locked bathrooms plunging a needle into his arm and, later, passed out in crack houses in Nashville, all his guitars sold off for drugs, his reputation as an outlaw troubadour eating him alive. When he was finally hauled to jail for drug possession in 1994, he had his last $20 in his jeans.

If the Steve Earle of yore could see the Steve Earle of today, he’d scarcely believe his eyes. On a recent evening in Woodstock, New York, he’s padding around a two-story ranch house in a leafy subdivision originally built for IBM middle managers, showing off his heated pool. From the sleek modernist furniture and retro Fifties light fixtures to the flatscreen TV in the kitchen blaring Inside Edition (“Oprah’s puppy died,” reports Earle’s seventh wife, the singer Allison Moorer), it’s a vision of domestic bliss. (When I run into him at a nearby grocery store, Karle is buying a case of Diet Dr Pepper.)

Earle, being Earle, is slightly embar­rassed by the Ozzie and Harriet-like scene. It was Moorer’s idea to buy a coun­try house two hours from their apart­ment in Manhattan, he tells me. And he’s only holed up here to finish the novel he’s been laboring over for several years. “I’m pretty allergic to being in the city limits of any one municipality for more than 30 days,” he says. “I’m going fucking bugshit up here right now finishing this book. I want to go back to the city so bad.”

When he first broke out in the 1980s, Steve Earle seemed to live the same rootless life as the characters in his songs, a road war­rior with a “two-pack habit and a motel tan,” as he sang in “Guitar Town.” Now he’s enjoying what one friend calls his “Renais­sance man” period – writing plays and fic­tion, acting in TV and movies, refashion­ing himself as a Marxist alt-country bard a la Woody Guthrie and moving from Nash­ville to Greenwich Village to indulge a pas­sion for folk musicology and expensive gui­tars (he owns 120 of them). Much of this was made possible when Earle sold the rights to half of his back catalog for seven figures in 2007 and managed to catch up with years of alimony, child support and the monthly costs of keeping assorted family members solvent, not to mention $500,000 in unpaid taxes.

Now, on his 13th solo disc, Earle has decided to check in with a younger ver­sion of himself, making an album called Townes, featuring 15 songs written by Townes Van Zandt, the late Texas coun­try songwriter and cult legend who mentored Earle as a young man and shaped his rough-and-tumble life in music. Recorded mostly in Earle’s New York apartment last October, the record, he says, represents “the part of Townes that became me, that’s a part of me.”

Earle and Van Zandt met in the 1970s, and they remained friends until Van Zandt’s death in 1997, at age 52, by which time Earle had chosen self-preservation over Van Zandt’s dark path. If Earle once looked like a rangy Hells Angel, at age 54, happily married and 14 years sober, he resembles an avuncular poetry professor: balding, long hair, black-frame glasses studiously perched over his nose, abun­dant beard streaked with silver, a gener­ous belly. But as he mines the myths of his own past to make peace with the present, he is also coining to terms not just with the lega­cy of excess anil art he inherited from Townes Van Zandt but with the thornier legacy he’s passing on to his son, the 27-year-old singer-songwriter Justin Townes Harle.

In 1972, Steve Earle overheard a man talking about a birthday party being thrown for Texas country leg­end Jerry Jeff Walker in Austin, where Earle was living. He crashed the party and, around 2 a.m., in walked the tall, lanky form of Townes Van Zandt, wearing a white buck­skin jacket with fringe on the arms. “He started a craps game and lost every dime that he had, and that jacket,” recounts Earle.

By then, Van Zandt was already a leg­end to Earle, who had himself, at 16, dropped out of school in suburban San Antonio to become a songwriter, devel­oping a taste for heroin and traveling with circus carnies. From the beginning, Earle recognized that his hero had given up everything for his music. “I saw some­thing I didn’t count on,” remembers Earle, Hipping a large silver coin over and over on the table in his spacious den. “It was the beginning of me piecing together that Townes didn’t have any money and he wasn’t rich. And was doing this because he really wanted to do it.”

As Van Zandt once instructed, “You have to blow off your family. You have to blow off comfort. You have to blow off money. . . . You have to blow off your ego. You have to blow off everything except your guitar.”

Earle dutifully followed, becoming part of Van Zandt’s circle of drifters, drink­ers anil guitar-pickers around Houston, and later Nashville, where the two even­tually converged to seek their fortunes as professional songwriters. Over time, Earle became intimately familiar with Van Zandt’s bottomless-pit drinking and bizarre, even scary, antics. “I saw him eat a 50-dollar bill one night,” he says. “He literally put it in his mouth, chewed it up and swallowed it. He thought it was funny. But he didn’t have any money the next day either.”

From Van Zandt, Earle absorbed poetry, literature, fingerpicking styles and a sophisticated lyric sensibility, all while getting into legendary misadven­tures. Once, while visiting Van Zandt at his cabin in rural Tennessee in the late Seventies, Earle was bragging about his burgeoning gun collection when Van Zandt, exasperated with his young acolyte, loaded a single bullet into his .357-caliber Magnum, spun the revolver, pressed it against his temple and pulled the trigger. Earle was horrified — and angry. He “beat the hell out of” Van Zandt and left. “It was the only time I ever got physical with him,” he says. “It took me a long time not to be angry about it.”

As Earle honed his professional chops as a songsmith in Nashville, lie remained close to Van Zandt, but he also made a conscious decision to distance himself from Van Zandt’s circle of hangers-on. “I found myself being one of the people around him that was hurting him, and I withdrew from that by the early Eighties,” he says. “There were people who thought I was kind of a sellout because I usually had a publishing deal.”

Van Zandt continued to be an impor­tant part of Earle’s musical identity. When Earle’s son Justin was born in 1982, Earle gave him the middle name Townes as a tribute to his friend (to which Van Zandt replied, “Is that after anybody in my fam­ily? Ha, ha, ha”).

As Van Zandt slowly deteriorated, Earle went on to wider success, starting with his major-label debut, Guitar Town, in 1986, a record inspired in part by seeing Bruce Springsteen perform on the Born in the U.S.A. tour. In a career Earle calls “the most fucked-up thing you can possibly imagine,” he parlayed an initial success in country radio into a crossover fan base, playing the edges of rock and country formats before his career hit the skids in the early 1990s. As the money rolled in, Earle slid back into drugs hard­er than ever, injecting his growing fortune into his arm.

At the time, Earle feared he couldn’t write songs if he wasn’t high. Eventually, he stopped writing songs altogether and began disappearing for days into the crack houses of Nashville. Professionally, he became an unreliable ghost of his former self: In 1992, he began canceling shows for the first time because of drug sick­ness and lost a producing job for Virgin Records after showing up high to a com­pany dinner party and falling face-first into his plate.

According to legend, Van Zandt came by to check on Earle during the height of Earle’s heroin addiction, asking him if he was using clean needles. When Earle said he was, Van Zandt replied, “OK, listen to this song I just wrote.”

“And that was the first time I heard ‘Marie,'” says Earle. He covers the song on Townes.

On the face of it, the story suggests a remorseless dedication to living on the edge, but Earle has always considered the moment to be a loving one. “We were both dying,” he says, “and he knew he was dying, and he couldn’t figure out why it was taking so long, and I knew I was dying, and I couldn’t figure out why it was taking so long. And, you know, it was love.”

After a stint in prison for drug posses­sion and a stay in rehab, Earle returned with I Feel Alright in 1996 — by which time Van Zandt was on his last leg, his live shows a spectacle of pathetic drunke­ness. Around that time, Earle played the guitar part for Van Zandt’s rerecording of “If I Needed You.” “It was harder for him to fingerpick at the time,” recalls Earle. “He had a fair amount of nerve damage.”

After hip surgery, Van Zandt died of a heart attack at his home near Nashville, in 1997. Earle led his funeral ceremonies.

On Townes, Earle wanted to capture the Van Zandt he recalled from mem­ory, when his friend was at his peak in the 1970s, quasi-sober and playing with only his guitar on stages in Austin. “I started trying to remember it as much as possible and reconstruct that as much as possible,” says Earle. “There’s some sort of echo in me of how good he was. . . . It’s fundamentally part of who I am as a guitar player, so when I try to do it, it’s authentic.”

Earle recorded the album in his Green­wich Village apartment, working 11 hours a day for a week. With the “record” but­ton on, Earle maintained a rolling, Van Zandt-inspired meditation, relating impromptu stories and stray recollec­tions about his mentor. The recording engineer, Steve Christensen, told Earle he felt like he was “listening to something I shouldn’t be listening to,” because it seemed so personal. Which is when Earle says he “realized that’s what the criteria is, that’s how I don’t fuck this up.” (He hasn’t figured out yet what he’ll do with the recorded anecdotes.)

Afterward, in a Nashville studio, Earle added percussion and bass to some tracks and recorded a bluegrass version of Van Zandt’s “White Freightliner Blues.” On “Lungs,” one of Van Zandt’s most bitterly desolate songs, John King of the producing team the Dust Brothers lay­ered on vocal effects and electric gui­tar by Tom Morello. Earle’s wife, Moor-er, sings with Earle on two numbers, including the closer, “To Live Is to Fly” — the words that are engraved on Townes Van Zandt’s tombstone.

Earle says he wasn’t prepared for how “extremely emotional” recording Van Zandt’s songs would be, part of a “frag­mented” mourning process over his men­tor’s death. Moorer says the album has a “vulnerability” to it “that I haven’t heard in a while.” But when he’s asked to describe the feelings he experienced, Earle is elusive. While he’s at ease repeat­ing old stories, he struggles to explain the emotional center of this new record, digressing into abstract monologues about the nature of death. “Dying is part of liv­ing, and I wish he was still here, but I’m not . . . I’m not arrogant enough to think it has anything to do with me one way or another,” he says, plucking on an expen­sive ukulele that’s part of his massive gui­tar collection. Earle, it seems, still doesn’t fully understand what connects him to these songs.

Earle concedes he saw Van Zandt as a romantic liero in his youth. But trying to live out the songs took its toll, and it affected not just Earle but also his son Jus­tin, whom Earle abandoned when Justin was two years old, following a divorce from his third wife. While Earle was sliding into drug addic­tion — marrying four more times in a span of 12 years and producing another son, Ian, by wife number four, and a daughter from a one-night stand — the son named for Van Zandt nursed a deep anger at his father. “I grew up with my mom, and my mom hated Townes and hated my dad,” says Justin, recalling Van Zandt as a “scary” figure to him as a child. “He was wild and goofy, and he always smelled funny, which I found out later was Southern Comfort.” Van Zandt, Justin adds, “was one of the first people I saw that was out-of-this-world fucked up, and people thought he was great for it.”

By 12, Justin was taking heroin and earn­ing himself a reputation for juvenile delin­quency. It was then that his father, fresh out of rehab, finally showed up to take cus­tody of him, in 1995. While they lived to­gether, Justin stole Earle’s pistol from his nightstand, prompting Earle to throw Jus­tin into the trunk of a car and drive him to a wilderness camp for behaviorally chal­lenged teens. “It was like trying to wrestle a live deer into your trunk,” recalls Earle. “I took him there anil dropped him off. Wrote ’em a check and dropped him oil.”

Today, Justin lives in the East Village, a few blocks away from his dad. Thin and cov­ered with tattoos, he looks like a younger, skinnier version of his father. He followed Earle into music, putting out an alt-country album called Mid­night at the Movies in March. But he’s as much influenced by Kurt Cobain as by Van Zandt, coming to traditional music through Nirvana’s 1993 ver­sion of the Lead Belly classic “In the Pines.”

Their relationship remains a work in progress. “Justin called me freaking out the other day because his van broke down,” says Earle. “It’s a piece-of-shit van I told him not to buy, and I said, ‘I told you so.’ He hung up on me.” Though Earle says his son is “very caught up in his shit right now,” Justin has a cleareyed view of the impact Van Zandt had on their lives. “My dad is a grown man who lived the myth that Townes put across to him,” he says. “He damn near destroyed his life and a lot of people around him’s lives. And if he didn’t destroy them, he wounded them really bad.”

In one of Justin’s own songs, “Mama’s Eyes,” he confesses that he “went down the same road as my old man,” but “I still see wrong from right/’Cause I’ve got my mama’s eyes.” His father, says Justin, “is going to have to suffer my truth. It’s my truth, and it’s mine to say, and it’s how I interpret it, and he’s just going to have to live with that.” (Justin’s eyes, inciden­tally, are striking for how much they look like Steve Earle’s.)

When I ask Earle about his son, he admits, “He’s mad at me . . . and he has reason to be. But on the other hand, I’m fully aware there’s noth­ing I can do about it. I can’t fix it.” While talking about his son, Earle slaps the silver coin down on the table. When I ask to see it, he shows me: a 14-year-anniversary coin from Narcotics Anonymous.

At this point, Steve Earle’s big, messy life has become its own self-sustaining and well- documented mythology. The older, wiser Earle seems reluc­tant to suffer needlessly, con­tent to enjoy the pleasures of 19th-century Martin guitars and first-edition volumes of The Lord of the Rings (a per­sonal obsession — he even lis­tens to Rings on audiobook while working out on the elliptical machine).

He seems more energized by a play he’s written about Pete Seeger than he does by writing new music, but he says he’s consid­ering ideas for a concept album based on the secret codes and signs used by hobos during the Great Depression. But Steve Earle isn’t going to live like a hobo himself. The standard of self-abnegation Van Zandt created — forgoing family and home and ego for the song — was a younger man’s game.

“I hate to say it — this will hurt people’s feelings — now I don’t have to do that,” says Earle. “I think there’s a certain amount of muscle memory involved. I think I’m good enough that . . . I don’t think you have to be uncom­fortable. You don’t have to be starving, you don’t have to be destitute.”

But it was a hard-won reali­zation. Perhaps the most tell­ing moment on Townes is when Earle and his son trade lines in a fast-paced, full-throated version of Van Zandt’s “Mr. Mudd and Mr. Gold.” Earle first played the song in front of Van Zandt in 1972 after Van Zandt heckled Earle from the audience. More than 30 years later, Van Zandt is dead, but his lyrics echo on, the story of a mythic high-stakes card game now charged with the tension of a father and son, both of them haunted by the ghost of a man who gave up everything for a song. 

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