The Beatles, the Stones, Rock and Roll as Art, Defining the Musical ‘Genius’ and More: Q&A with Steve Earle

Jeff SlateCategories:Featured Articles

Rock Cellar Magazine

You might not guess it, but Steve Earle, the modern epitome of Outlaw Country, started out life inspired by English punk rock.

“That scene was huge to me,” he says, and looks up at the ceiling of his New York City apartment, drifting away for a moment. “My Aim is True? That was an important record for me. I had been inspired by Dylan, and was really focused on the acoustic guitar when I was first starting out, but then I saw Springsteen and got that Elvis Costello record, and I saw real songwriting by guys with electric guitars. It made a huge impression.”

With a long and winding career, including a string of stellar albums and songwriting credits, as well as a turn as an actor on the fabled HBO show The Wire, not to mention seven marriages and a brutal battle with heroin addiction, under his belt, you’d think that Earle might be slowing up a little at 62.

But when I meet the legendary songwriter, he’s rushing around, tending to his young son and preparing for a songwriting camp he hosts in Upstate New York, followed by a string of live dates with his band The Dukes stretching into this fall, in support of his great new album So You Wanna Be An Outlaw, as well as vinyl remasters of his albums The Mountain, Transcendental Blues, Sidetracks, Jerusalem, Just An American Boy and The Revolution Starts Now, in September, and El Corazón in November. He’s full of energy and in great spirits as we sit down for coffee.

Rock Cellar: So you’re rushing off to a songwriting camp. What’s the attraction to spending a week with fledgling songwriters, some of whom may be good but others maybe not so much? How did you get involved?

Steve Earle: In 2000 I was asked to teach a course (on songwriting at Chicago’s Old Town school) and I took two months in January and February in Chicago and rented a place on the North Side and taught three nights a week. Some weekends I’d go home to Tennessee and some I wouldn’t. The course was based on the Harry Smith Anthology and the idea was that it was a specialized course.

I kept it to 30 people because I was being idealistic about it. It was up to me — I could have made as much money as I wanted, because I basically just split the tuition with the school – but I wanted to keep it fun and manageable for everyone.

I’m imagining it like Rock and Roll Fantasy Camp, but I’m guessing it attracts a different sort of person?

Steve Earle: It’s similar, in that most of the campers are people that are never going to grow up to be songwriters. So they do come for the fantasy aspect of it. But we’ve also found a few really great young writers that have come because I teach a real course. You either get it or you don’t — and most people don’t get it.

We’ve even had a couple of people who wanted their money back over the years because I didn’t teach them mechanically how to write songs. You know, there’s a certain amount of that that you can teach, and that’s kind of all I can teach somebody. I’m mainly trying to make people understand that what we’re doing is post-Bob Dylan songwriting, which is writing as a craft that had been elevated to literature by the time I took it up and I practice it that way.

John Lennon talked in one of his last interviews about songwriting being either inspiration or perspiration. That if you asked him for a song for a movie about a banana he could do it because he was a craftsman. But he said he also always preferred when it came from inspiration.

Steve Earle: I think great songwriting comes from both, and I’m not taking anything away from…  You always have to remember that things we say in interviews aren’t completely true. Especially John. And there’s a lot of reasons for that. You know, with Lennon, it’s always important to remember, when you’re trying to get to the history of rock and roll, that the Rolling Stones were an art school band and the Beatles were the working class kids.

The Rolling Stones were Talking Heads for their day. I’m a big Stones fan but, that’s just the truth.

You can analyze it all you want to, and I do I do it all the time, but I think to do this as a craft and even to try to teach it you have to recognize that there were writers before Bob Dylan that wrote pop music. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t art. I came up in a period of time when pop music got to be art and got to be written about as art, when even academics considered it art and started treating it that way. It’s over now. I didn’t want to believe that at first, but now I believe that that period is over. It’ll probably come back again, but I probably won’t live to see it. But in the meantime, the difference between Bob Dylan and Cole Porter, well, Cole Porter was every bit as talented as Bob Dylan. I don’t use the term genius loosely – it’s one of the most overused words in the English language – but Cole Porter was a genius. I don’t think John Lennon was a genius, but I do think the Beatles collectively qualify.

I think Lennon would agree with you.

Steve Earle: Look, there’s two things for sure: Rock and roll becomes art at the moment that Bob Dylan wants to be John Lennon and John Lennon wants to be Bob Dylan. Dylan had the smaller, smarter audience that John wanted, and vice versa; Bob wanted to be a rock star. And they both kinda got their wish.

There was a lot of guilt in Lennon, I think, about being a pop star instead of an artist, because he did go to art school and he did aspire to be an artist, and he probably could have been a visual artist if he wanted to. In fact, I wrote a piece for a book of a bunch of pieces about John that Yoko curated, and I wrote a piece called “The greatest rock and roll love story ever.” I was never the guy who believed that Yoko Ono broke up the band.

Yoko Ono was everything that Lennon aspired to be: She was an artist at a very pure level, and a cutting-edge artist at that. That’s what he fell in love with, probably for the first time in his life, and it lasted for the rest of his life. I’m kind of jealous of that.

But the difference between Dylan and Cole Porter is that Cole Porter had real literary chops — he was born with them — but he was slumming; trying not to be a poet. I think even Irving Berlin knew what he was looking at was new, because that was when there were only two guys that wrote music and lyrics on Broadway at the time: Irving Berlin and Cole Porter. But Cole Porter was going in with an overloaded toolbox, and way more education and way more background than you necessarily needed to write pop music.

Like, Gerry Goffin? Pop music. But he was a world class fucking wordsmith. It’s mind-blowing. There’s only a couple of writers like that if you look hard. Paul Simon’s unique, and I teach his shit a lot, because that motherfucker can write. He’s like a craftsman on another level. I mean, everything is alliterated way past the fucking decimal point. He obviously works and works and works at it, because he learned it in the Brill Building. But he also genuinely had one foot in Greenwich Village too, because of the age he was, and he understood it and he listened to all those records and he learned to play guitar like that.

So Cole Porter was slumming in a way that Dylan and Lennon were not?

Steve Earle: Yeah, he had the chops. But Bob was doing what he did on purpose. Look, this is really important: John Sebastian told me when I said this out loud, “I’m so glad that you know this,” because John was there, that there were other people besides Bob Dylan – these bookworms — that got the idea that they could write their own songs. It happened almost simultaneously.

But when Bob did it, it seemed as though he was first and that everyone followed him. It may have been the other way around; nobody really knows, because it all happened so fast. Tom Paxton? He’s the real deal. When I get a chance to sit with Tom Paxton, I do it. But the thing is, Bob did it on purpose. Bob knew what he was doing. He knew he was Bob Dylan. And he did when he was 20. And he knew he was just better than everyone else. Nobody knows why he is a genius.

Here’s what genius really means, if you look it up in a dictionary: A genius is someone who does something at a level that elevates it to a level that it’s never existed on before. So Jimi Hendrix was a genius. Dylan. Thelonious Monk. And Brian Wilson’s closer on his own than any of the Beatles are individually, but I still don’t think Brian was a genius. I think he was elevating rock music by using ideas that could have been applied to classical music. So he had an almost genius grasp of harmony — and I’m not talking about the singing — I’m talking about harmony in terms of musical theory. He was inventing chords! So he was a visionary, certainly. For that matter, so was Phil Spector, but he wasn’t a genius.

I have to wonder, you’ve lived a lot of life. Lennon, after he’d developed his craft, was always kind of reporting as a writer. And Dylan does, too. He definitely looks at the world from a different point of view, so he’s reporting on it in a different way, but it’s so unique, what all three of you do. What is it that you can tell any of the aspiring songwriters in your classes to try to capture that? What can you teach them to draw on?

Steve Earle: It’s really simple, but it doesn’t mean you can do it if I just tell you. But it’s simple. “Give it up.” Empathy is number one. I wrote a song called “Little Rock and Roller” on my first record and Johnny Cash came up to me at a fundraiser and said, “I really love that song.”

And even though I’m talking about going around playing music, not driving a truck, I was at a truck stop and a truck driver walked up to me and said, “I really love that song.” That’s when the light went on for me: Great songs mean the same thing to Johnny Cash as they do to a truck driver.

The point is not that I’m running around on a bus that costs more than your house. The point is that I miss my kids. That’s the experience that we have in common. I really don’t think that Andy Kaufman was a genius — I think he lost his way – but I do think he was a really funny guy that forgot that it does matter whether the audience thought what he was doing was funny. It only becomes comedy when somebody else laughs. If it’s just you and your sidekick that laughs, then you’re lost. Andy had decided he was smarter than everybody else. Well, you might be smarter than everybody else but it doesn’t make any fucking difference.

There are some great songwriters that aren’t as smart as I am, and there’s some that are way smarter than I am that don’t write songs anywhere near as well as I do. Because you have to be able to give it up. It’s empathy. What you put out counts. You have to have a “why.” And you have to understand that you’ve got to find out a way to make people feel what you’re feeling, not just hear what you’re saying. There are certain things that do that, and the more of yourself that you’re willing to put on the paper — on the keyboard, on the canvas — it doesn’t make any difference what you’re making. So the people who come to my classes… all I can do is tell them. Dabbling people are always going to dabble. The people who really try don’t get there sometimes, but if they really put themselves out there I believe they can.

But for any songwriter, that can seem an insurmountable hill to climb.

Steve Earle: Nashville has been notorious for rewarding mediocrity, when it comes to people trying to manufacture songs. But there have been people who decided, “Okay, I’m going to hunker down and co-write and do whatever I do to write enough songs that I have the law of averages on my side and I’ll have hits.” But I also tell people there’s a cost for doing this at the highest level that you can do it. I’m 62 years old and I spend the vast majority of my life alone, and a lot of it is because I do this at the highest level I can do it. Now it’s not really a conscious choice; I was lucky, I was talented, I had great teachers and I was sort of set on a path that I believe I could decide that I was going to do it. I don’t ever remember making the decision.

This will sound weird, but I read “Lust for Life” when I was 14 or 15 years old, and it wasn’t that self-destructiveness that attracted me to it. I realize that this was a book about somebody that saw things differently than other people did, and the reason that he did was partially because he was a little damaged. I started thinking about that, but I also understood that he was a genius. He did something that had never been done before. It wasn’t about a method, it wasn’t about “look at this.”

You know, I’m painting pictures that are based on a soft focus and not really looking at the world because that’s what impressionism was: Trying to make it more emotional. And it works. Everything was coming from here (pounds heart) right onto the fucking canvas. That’s the difference between perspiration and inspiration. Very rarely is anything more than a chorus or a first verse or maybe even just a title. Anything more than inspiration — the rest — is perspiration.

And if you learn to manage that energy, well,  I think the difference between a good song and a great song is that it comes from somebody that honors the inspiration part of it and learns how to bring everything to bear to the process of finishing the song.

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