By Sarah Bennett
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The transformation of Steve Earle from cocaine-, heroin- andalcohol-addicted professional asshole to strident sociopolitical activist has been fascinating. The guy probably should have died around 1990, but—ever a rule-breaker—Earle decided that getting clean and living healthy were better options than fulfilling his then-destiny of becoming another croaked-too-soon talent turned into Lionized Musical Tragedy, with fans and critics lamenting the coulda-beens.
Earle's obit back then would have doubtlessly mentioned his six wives (one of whom was his coke dealer), the hit singles he penned for other people as a young Nashville songwriter in the '70s, how he emerged on his own in the mid-'80s with Guitar Town and was summarily cast as a co-leader of a back-to-roots movement in country music, how he spurned that tag and started making ornery rock & roll records, how the Music Industry then didn't know how to market him, how his record label dumped him, and how he was found overdosed in a seedy motel with a syringe jutting out of his arm.
That last part never happened, of course (the six wives thing, though? True!), so we don't have to bemoan all the great music Earle would have made if he had only lived, which would have turned his sonic legacy into sad cliché by now anyway. Instead, he got sober in a rehab program—the threat of jail time can sometimes do that—and since getting out in 1994, Earle's been on an aural tear, easily meeting and surpassing the expectations of his early days. He's cut excellent folkie and bluegrass records (he did a tour with the Del McCoury Band, which ended abruptly reportedly because the very-Christian McCoury could no longer handle Earle's expletive-peppered language). He's dipped into weird psychedelia on Transcendental Blues, and his love of Irish melodies (which first surfaced on "Johnny Come Lately," a track off 1988's Copperhead Road that was recorded with the Pogues) is still in evidence on a track or two on each album. He's still a country boy, but he also dips into guitar-splintering rock & roll when in the mood (he's covered Nirvana's "Breed" in concert a bunch of times).
On 2002's Jerusalem, though, Earle, who had cut Woody Guthrie-tinged message songs in the past, turned blatantly political with "John Walker's Blues," about the so-called American Taliban John Walker Lindh. Earle took much right-wing heat for appearing to sympathize with Lindh in the song, which he kind of does, but not before first addressing some of the cultural root causes that would have convinced a sponge like Lindh to think that dying in a Jihad was ever a great thing in the first place.
With last year's The Revolution Starts . . . Now, all the pretense is off, and Earle's gone and made a full-on manifesto, from the album's agitprop artwork to the anthemic, power-to-the-people title cut and all 10 tracks that follow. "Condi, Condi" is a cheeky lust song to Condoleezza Rice; "Home to Houston," though sounding like a red-state-friendly country song, is actually about a trucker hired to haul gasoline out of Iraq; "F the CC" is a freedom-of-speech creed; and "Rich Man's War" is about . . . well, you know.
Since the "John Walker's Blues" blow-up, Earle's been talking to the crowd more during his live shows, and with the Revolution album as a backdrop, we wonder what he'll have to say between tunes Saturday at the House of Blues. That may turn off some who'll inevitably feel compelled to do the "Just play some fuckin' music!" screech, but with a guy like Earle who's done a couple of lifetimes' worth of living, whatever he says is worth getting heard. After all, nobody loves freedom of speech quite like the nearly dead.
STEVE EARLE & THE DUKES WITH ALLISON MOORER AT THE HOUSE OF BLUES, 1530 S. DISNEYLAND DR., ANAHEIM, (714) 778-2583. SAT., 8 P.M. $25-$27.50. ALL AGES (16 AND UNDER MUST BE ACCOMPANIED BY AN ADULT).