Guitar healing 

Finding beauty and meaning in the most tragic of places

Steve Earle, Jerusalem

Whoever said that April is the cruelest month might want to revise that statement after considering some of the horrors that have occurred in recent Septembers. Here we are, in September 2002, and we can’t avoid looking back on the tragedy of one year ago. This month also commemorates the 30th anniversary of the slaying of 11 Israeli athletes at the Olympic Games in Munich by a group of Palestinian terrorists.

Steve Earle wrote the songs for his latest album, Jeru-salem, as a direct response to the events of September 11, 2001 and the changes that have taken place in the world ever since. To listen to the lyrics of songs like “Ashes to Ashes,” “Conspiracy Theory,” “Amerika v. 6.0 (The Best We Can Do)” and “John Walker’s Blues,” it’s clear that Earle has embraced the role of social critic. Earle takes significant risks on Jerusalem, especially in trying to understand and interpret the motives of John Walker Lindh, who grew up in affluent Marin County, Calif., and fought on the side of Afghanistan’s oppressive Taliban regime. Earle explains his motivation in a statement included in the liner notes to Jerusalem:

“Lately I feel like the loneliest man in America,” Earle writes. “Frankly, I’ve never worn red, white, and blue that well. I grew up during the Vietnam War and whenever I see a flag decal I subconsciously superimpose the caption: AMERICA—LOVE IT OR LEAVE IT across the bottom stripe. Back then, as now, it was suggested by some that second-guessing our leaders in a time of crisis was unpatriotic if not down right treasonous.”

Is Earle afraid of being considered a traitor? Judge for yourself by these lyrics from “Amerika v. 6.0”:

“Four score and a hundred and fifty years ago our forefathers made us equal as long as we can pay/Yeah, maybe that wasn’t exactly what they was thinkin’ version six-point-o of the American way/But hey, we can just build a great wall around the country club to keep the riff-raff out until the slump is through/I realize that ain’t exactly democratic but it’s either them or us and it’s the best we can do.”

For all of his critique of the current version of the American way, Earle remains defiantly optimistic that we can envision and implement a better life for all of humanity. In the album’s final, title track, Earle considers the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a metaphor for all the world’s problems, and he manages to come to a hopeful conclusion:

“I woke up this mornin’ and none of the news was good/Death machines were rumblin’ ’cross the ground where Jesus stood/And the man on my TV told me that it had always been that way/And there was nothin’ anyone could do or say/And I almost listened to him/Yeah, I almost lost my mind/Then I regained my senses again/And looked into my heart to find/That I believe that one fine day all the children of Abraham/Will lay down their swords forever in Jerusalem.”

This sort of hopefulness in the face of overwhelming misery can be a powerful force in helping to resolve conflicts such as the Israeli-Palestinian impasse and averting the further infliction of misery upon civilian populations in Iraq. It is thanks to artists like Steve Earle that many of us can retain hope that the world’s people can learn to treat others with dignity and respect.

In case you were wondering, the music on Jerusalem is exceptional. Earle continues his capable progression into the territory of driving rock. The album contains only occasional hints of his country and bluegrass roots. Earle also continues his recent trend of including one stunning duet, this time sharing the microphone on “I Remember You” with Emmylou Harris.

This little tidbit of bittersweet beauty rounds out the album nicely. With its September release, Jerusalem goes a long way towards reclaiming this particular month from the forces of negativity and cruelty, and for that we have Steve Earle to thank.

Steve Forbert, More Young, Guitar Days

Steve Forbert’s More Young, Guitar Days is a retrospective glimpse into the career of a singer/songwriter/guitarist who has plied his trade in relative obscurity for the better part of three decades. Like those of Steve Earle, Forbert’s songs display an entertaining blend of social conscience, melodic sensibility, and a sense of humor.

Until recently, Forbert remained one of those musicians who I was quite sure I would like a great deal if I only got around to actually listening to his music. Another obligation kept me from attending his recent show in Missoula, but I was not at all surprised when I heard rave reviews from several friends.

So, I was excited to get my hands on More Young, Guitar Days and begin my exploration of Forbert’s musical career. The album is a follow-up to an earlier collection of Forbert’s work, Young, Guitar Days, and provides an excellent point of entry for those who know little or nothing about Forbert and his music. For those who already know and love Forbert’s work, this album will complement your collection nicely with alternate takes of familiar tunes.

More Young, Guitar Days includes songs recorded from 1975 to 1982. The gem of the album is the original version of “The Oil Song,” a clever ditty about a major oil spill off the East Coast in the mid-1970s. Forbert later added a few verses after a major Mexican oil well catastrophe. The song and the album are but more examples that out of tragedy can come both beauty and comedy.

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