Terraplane - Steve Earle CDFor the past 20 years, I’ve had the privilege of making the cover art for Steve Earle’s CD and album covers. The new one, Terraplane, is a blues record, and it is a knock-out. It is named for the old car that Nash used to make; one that  blues men referred to as, “The Money Ride.”

Published in: on October 18, 2014 at 5:20 pm  Comments (5)  
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The Map of Mercy

The Map of MercyMy pal, Steve Earle was in town last night.  He was signing his first novel amid some glowing reviews.  I’ll  Never Get Out of This World Alive tells the tale of Doc Ebersole, who may or may not have given Hank Williams the morphine that killed him (if morphine even killed him) if it wasn’t alcohol or heartbreak or, as they once said of an old friend of mine, massive failure of. . .everything.

Complicit or not, Hank’s ghost chooses to tag along with Doc, hectoring him, cajoling him from the beyond.  It is a marvelous novel about a deeply flawed man who, despite all is essentially good; or as good as a dope-fiend, defrocked, M.D. and abortionist can be.  Doc is not only noble in his own way, but necessary.  It is an unforgettable story.

The book is dedicated to Steve’s dad, Jack, whom I was fortunate enough to meet a few times.  Jack Dublin Earle was one of the air traffic controllers whom Reagan fired in 1980 in order to break their union.  PATCO wasn’t stiling for more money, but to build in tougher regulations about the conditions they worked in so that air traffic would be safer for you and me.  In the anti trade union furor of the early 80s, they were easy to demonize for the great communicator, and thus started the long dismantling of labor’s ability to bargain collectively for rights, benefits and an equitable salary.  The unions, some of them, had plenty of corruption of their own that just made this process easier.  But the big loser in the union-busting 80s was the American worker, whose progress was undone in very short order by Reagan and his ilk.  And after those years, Jack Earle’s life was never easy again.  The PATCO workers had been black-balled and branded as malcontents and for a great many of them, years of unemployment followed.  Reagan fucked them, but good.

We forget, often, who built America.  When we marvel at skyscrapers, bridges, homes and skylines, we forget the human toil that comprised the making of them.  The Irish digging the subways, the Native American workers walking the high-steel of great buildings, the myriad of Asian slave-labor who built the railroads, the Germans, Swedes and Italians who built homes, worked in bakeries and butcher shops, the Czechs and Polish who worked in the slaughterhouses and quartering shops.  And in our most shameful chapter, the 400 years of forced labor Africans endured before being allowed to be Americans.

Working people and working poor people were also good enough to fight our wars for us, in numbers so great that nearly half of the men who fought in the civil war could neither read or write.  Literacy, back then, was the provenance of the wealthy classes; not the great many of our citizens, farm and factory workers, who’d not had the luxury of an education.

We’ve benefitted from the sacrifices of those who came before us.  When I think of Steve Earle’s father and my own, guys who are held by the neck by the circumstance of their industries, it makes me sad.  I come from a long line of working people.  My great grandmother, Nana, was part of the first union for domestic workers just after the turn of the last century.  My dad, my mom, my uncles and grandparents. . .all working people.  My brothers and sisters, same way.  I was taught by my father that work dignifies us; provides us with a role.  And if we do it well, an identity.

When I revisit the hobo alphabet and battlefield sketches and native american ledger drawings, even without words, I sense a very different American history is being told.  This one by those who had nothing; those who wandered the roads and rails and battlefields. . .the people who live on the other side of the billboards.  It is a visual language; eloquent enough to let you know what is going on.  Slashes, stick-figures, diagrams and maps testify dramatically to a country taken by force; built by murder, conquest and the genocidal need to conquer.  Though the witnesses were illiterate, they still testified.  Ledger drawings by native Americans testify to the wholesale slaughter of their peoples and their own desperate slaughter of the buffalo in an attempt to remove the food source from the white man.  Gospel songs sing of the whip and the chain and the long, bitter, middle passage of a kidnapped culture.  These too, are a history, and now that I’ve paid more attention to these marks and markers, I see a different country.

It is the history that never gets told, as opposed to the lies we have all agreed upon.  It is Custer slaughtering Indians–man, woman and child.  It is a firing squad executing Joe Hill in Utah despite his innocence.  It is the shot-gunning of labor activists in Arizona, and it is Dr.King, staring that long quarter-mile across the bridge at Selma.  They, all of them, sacrificed for the America and life we now have.  Let us be better stewards of their great hopes for a better country.

This is an etching called. The Map of Mercy

Published in: on May 19, 2011 at 12:24 am  Comments (1)  

The Spider Music

The Spider MusicWhen my daughter Gaby was small, I used to read her my favorite children’s book, Charlotte’s Web. it was a gorgeous allegory about right and wrong by E. B. White.  It gently explained the mystery of the life-cycle without all of the punitive religious horse-shit.  Charlotte’s legacy were a hundred little parachutes with her babies tethered to the end of them with silken threads.  Charlotte is alive through her children and the kind lessons she bestowed upon her friends in the barn-yard.

I am still kind of a pussy about spiders, but I don’t immediately kill them like I used to.  Now I sweep them out of whatever place I am inhabiting, but I don’t stomp on the poor fuckers like I used to.  Spiders are among the most useful of creatures; eating flies, mosquitoes, nits, centipedes and other harmful bugs.  Still, they give me the willies; especially the big fuckers–they still spook me.

In Japan, of course, spiders are looked on with favor, as useful makers of silk-like thread and as nature’s artists. Much Japanese art references the glistening geometry of spider-webs.  It appeals to the Japanese sense of elegant order.  All through the wood-cuts and etchings of Hiroshige and Hokusai there are hints of spiders and their webs as benevolent elements.  In haiku, Issa, Buson and Basho all write of spiders and the rigorous mathematical poetry of their webs.

My friend, Steve Earle, told me a couple of years ago that after reading a lot of haiku that he didn’t want to kill things anymore.  He used to hunt deer and fish for trout for eating.  Now he is content to merely humiliate the cutthroat trout he catches and lets them go.  After visiting Japan and reading a lot of Japanese poetry, the reverence for life is something I share.  I don’t want to kill anything either.  In New Orleans recently I let a cockroach saunter by me without stomping his ass.  He was a big motherfucker and he walked by with no urgency.  It was if he were daring me, like, “Hey….Want some of this?”   In New Orleans, they want to pretend cockroaches are something else, so they call them pretty names like “palmetto bugs” or the banal “waterbug.”  Bullshit.  They are cockroaches. Granted, they are the size of a Buick and they fly, but they are still fucking ROACHES.

And I still have no desire to kill them anymore.

And this is something.

Published in: on October 13, 2009 at 9:42 pm  Leave a Comment  
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The King of August

He rode over Connecticut
In a glass coach.
Once, a fear pierced him,
In that he mistook
The shadow of his equipage
For blackbirds. —Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird, Wallace Stevens

August Blackbird

Twenty-five years ago, when I was a bartender, a man named Mr. Fowler used to come in everyday and drink draft beer and quietly watch the ball game in the afternoon.  He would doodle on napkins making symbols from the hobo alphabet.  He had ridden the rails in the ’30’s and ’40’s and he was the one who introduced me to the hobo alphabet. He had some amazing stories about what he had seen in those years during The Depression.   One of the more resonant stories was one about him and his fellow travelers being run out of town and forced to sleep in the meadow in the August heat.  He remembered the music of the field birds being the only thing he could enjoy and he and the other jobless men,  filthy and hungry, sitting for what seemed like hours in the field, listening to songbirds until they felt like they, themselves, could take flight.  It was an amazing story, backed up by Mr. Fowler’s uncanny ability to imitate bird calls.  He could identify birds by sound and mimic them, even well into his seventies.  I think riding trains was maybe the only way people who had nothing could take flight.

My friend, Steve Earle, and I have talked about red-winged blackbirds before.  Many years ago, I was making etchings of birds and I’d done a red-wing and just for the hell of it, I sent him one, and he called me a little while later and told me that the red-winged blackbird was the first thing he had ever killed.  When we are kids, at some point we realize the horrible power we have over other living things.  Steve won’t even kill bugs anymore.  When he goes fishing,  he is content to merely humiliate the trout.  He throws them back now.  I think we reach a certain state of grace when we tire of extinguishing life, no matter how seemingly insignificant. I used to kill spiders and now I just chase the fuckers out of the house with a newspaper.

Published in: on July 1, 2009 at 6:10 pm  Comments (1)  
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The Gray Angel

The Gray AngelHey–

My dear friend Steve Earle’s new record Townes was released today.  It is a gorgeous recording of Townes Van Zandt‘s songs done by Steve.  It is also a meditation on their friendship and the mortality of both men, and it is also very much a Steve Earle record.

There have been other “tribute” records, but they pale in comparison.  They were certainly worthwhile efforts,  but at best, they were watery approximations of who Townes was and what he did.  Steve’s record is the raw ether of the real thing and it resonates like no other.  I heard this record in its first incarnation in November and it was like an icicle had touched my spine.  It was almost impossible for me to discern where Townes ends and Steve begins.  It is a melding of kindred spirits as deep and murky and radiant as the ocean.

I started thinking about Townes  after i heard the record again the other day; how naturally he fits in to this narrative of hobos and scarecrows.  I didn’t know him at all,  but hearing Steve’s accounts of funny stories and anecdotes and hearing those lovely, plaintive and searching American songs, a picture emerges; one sad and lonely and more beautiful for being both things in an odd way.

For me, Townes is one of those scarecrow figures in American music. . .one of those fence posts or mile markers.  He set the bar way high and few have ever matched it.  This record is by one of those who did.  Buy this CD.  If you don’t like, it I’ll reimburse you and give it to someone with some taste.

There is a great picture of Townes and Steve in the CD package and Townes is tall, lanky and gaunt as a scarecrow.   He looks like a cowboy; a gray angel of American songwriting.

This one is for him.

Published in: on May 13, 2009 at 1:15 am  Leave a Comment  
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