I feel alright today. Well, my back is hurting and my hips are so stiff that I find it difficult to put my socks on. Oh yes, I’ve got toothache and I’ve got an emergency appointment for tomorrow. When I took Bruno out, I had to turn round and come back to the house to put a plaster on a blister on my heel. But I feel alright. Everything is relative, of course and yesterday I did a shift at Samaritans which helped put my own concerns into perspective.
I love Steve Earle’s music. He has the best rock’n’roll voice of all time. It’s sneering, sincere, powerful and emotional. I don’t think that I want to meet him because I’m not sure that we have a lot in common. I’ve only been married once but Steve Earle has been married seven times, twice to the same woman. I’ve taken some drugs – mainly alcohol and caffeine but I’ve never taken cocaine and heroin unlike Steve Earle who was released after sixty days into a one year prison sentence in 1994, which he was given after admitting possession and failure to attend court. I’ve never touched a gun, let alone owned one or even waved one around in the way that Steve Earle did. I can’t sing but Steve Earle can. No, I don’t think we’ve got much in common.
Steve Earle released four albums before his prison sentence and has released fourteen albums since. I have most of them and every one contains several brilliant, passionate songs. He has also released six live albums. I have seen him live a couple of times – once when supporting Green On Red in the Eighties and another time a few years ago in Brighton when he told a great story about the bouzouki that he was playing (it’s a sort of Greek lute). The story involved bringing the bouzouki through UK customs and trying to explain to the officials the difference between a bouzouki and a bazooka.
Steve Earle’s third wife was Carol Anne Hunter and they had a son Justin Townes Earle in 1982 who died on August 20th this year for reasons that are unclear although Nashville police are exploring whether or not he accidentally overdosed. Jason Isbell wrote a great song called “New South Wales” about his time touring Australia with Justin Townes Earle as support.
After Steve Earle’s release from prison in 1994, he made an album called “Train A’Comin'” (released in 1995) which was his first studio album for five years. Most of the songs on that album were written before his prison sentence and the instrumentation was mainly acoustic. “I Feel Alright” was recorded and released in 1996 and contains a lot of songs written since his “vacation in the ghetto” as he liked to call his time in prison. The sound of this album is more rock oriented although there is a pleasing variety of sound which, combined with Steve Earle’s fantastic voice and the fascinating lyrical content make for an endlessly fascinating album.
The title track is a statement – Steve Earle feels alright. He knows that many people “would lock me up and throw away the key” but he doesn’t mind “because I’ve been to hell and now I’m back again“. Here’s a spectacular version of the song he recorded at The Cold Creek Correctional Centre.
Steve Earle used “The Twelve Step Recovery Programme” to help him deal with his drug addiction which had built up over twenty five years. He spent some time at The Buffallo Valley Recovery centre near Nashville and while he was there, he wrote “Hard Core Troubadour”, the second song on this album. It’s a very hard hitting song, showing increasing self-realisation of the impact that his lifestyle has had on the many women he has had relationships with. “Girl, figure out what you’re gonna do when he moves on again and he leaves you alone and blue. But you knew he is just passing through now, didn’t you?“
In 1990, while in the depths of drug addiction and with his relationships in a mess, Steve Earle wrote three songs which appear on this album. An excellent book by Lauren St. John called “Hard Core Troubadour” tells the story of Steve Earle’s life up until 2003 and explains in horrifying detail the depths to which he had sunk before his arrest. According to Lauren St. John, in “‘Hurting Me Hurting You’, the narrator loathes himself for being “cruel and untrue” to the woman he loves, but knows himself well enough to admit he’ll do it time and time again. It’s a naked plea for understanding. Since understanding is much more than he deserves, his only hope is to lay his weakness on the line and convince her that every time he hurts her, he hurts himself.”
“The Unrepentant” is exactly that. It’s sung by a man who is in the darkest place, “totally untamed” lurching from one hellhole to another. It’s also incredibly exciting. As an example in confessional repentance it is exceptionally honest; by admitting what he has become, he is, hopefully, on the road to changing himself although it would take him another four years and a prison sentence to completely repent. “Now he’s standing at hell’s door with a bad attitude and a forty-four. The Devil said, ‘What’s up, man? Now what you come here for?’“.
“CCKMP” stands for Cocaine Cannot Kill My Pain and was also written in 1990. It’s similar to “The Unrepentant”, in that it gives the listener permission to hate him because nobody could despise him as much as he despises himself. I said that I feel alright, didn’t I? Everything is relative. “Girl, don’t come knocking on my door. Even that won’t work no more. ‘Cause heroin’s the only thing. The only gift the darkness brings.“
Finally, some lightness at the end of the album. “You’re Still Standing There” is a duet with the great Lucinda Williams and is a song of redemption. Despite everything that he’s done, everything that Steve Earle has been through, he can rely on one particular person who is still there. “Now I’ve been down a thousand trails I’ve never walked before and I found out that without fail, they lead me to your door.”
I feel exhausted having read about all the pain, horror, upset, disharmony and misery that Steve Earle’s drug addiction has caused. On the other hand, listening to his music is consistently uplifting. I feel alright.