For Steve Earle, one encounter with police changed his 'voice forever'
Like so many, national arts reporter Geoff Edgers has been grounded by the novel coronavirus. So he decided to launch an Instagram Live show from his barn in Concord, Massachusetts.
Every Tuesday and Friday afternoon, Edgers hosts "Stuck With Geoff." So far, he has interviewed longtime journalist Dan Rather, comedian Tiffany Haddish, musician David Byrne, actress Marlo Thomas and beatbox inventor Doug E. Fresh, among others.
Recently, Edgers chatted with singer Steve Earle, who released his latest album, "Ghosts of West Virginia," in May. Here are a few excerpts from their conversation.
Q: I was driving and turned on the radio, and it was the Harvard University radio station. They had a protest blues show on and played Bob Dylan's "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll." And I thought, he has a new record coming out. How powerful would it be for Dylan to suddenly just re-emerge with a musical statement that's right on the button? A real protest song.
A: Well, I think he's doing that. The songs on this new record are there. But he had to make a decision not to get himself pigeonholed as strictly a topical songwriter at a point in his career. And because he had other things he wanted to do, and he wasn't going to be able to do it if he got painted into that corner. Now there are ideas that you can get across because Bob Dylan cleared the way for us to do it.
Q: I don't know if it's because I'm an old man or because there's no regular radio anymore or whatever, but it feels like it's hard to make an impact, like Country Joe on the stage at Woodstock or Bob Dylan putting out "Masters of War."
A: Well, that's probably true. But at the same time, it's been done and it's been done over and over again. Not everybody should write topical songs. It's a hard thing to do. Making "Ghosts of West Virginia," my politics didn't change, but I think that we're in trouble because people in New York think they don't have anything in common with people in West Virginia. The fact of the matter is, they do. We have more in common with other human beings than we think. We say people vote their pocketbooks. That's not what they do. They vote their hearts. They're both taking care of their children, their families. The world's relatively small. Not everybody gets to sit around in a coffee house and talk about politics. Most people don't have that luxury. It's not theory for them. It's just their lives and they live it.
Q: There's a new effort by director Ava DuVernay -- reminding us of the police officers who have hurt or killed people and whose names have been forgotten. She told me she was watching the George Floyd video and thinking, "Why is this upsetting me so much? Because I've seen so many police videos like this. I've seen so much brutality." And she realized it's because we never get a chance to watch the person who's doing the actual act, just staring right in your eyes during it.
A: It's tough for me to watch all of the films. This one was even harder. I do know what it feels like to be choked unconscious by a police officer. It happened to me in Dallas in 1987. Only arrest on my record where I wasn't guilty. Basically, I was trying to get a friend of mine into a car, worked for me for as a guitar tech that I'd grown up with. He could not drink. And it was New Year's. We needed to move our party to the hotel. My son was 6. He was standing there. My parents were standing there. My fiancee, who later became my wife, was standing there. A cop saw me trying to get Chip into the car, mistook what he was seeing and came up behind me. Didn't say a word, didn't identify himself. He came up from behind, standing on a high curb with a nightstick around my neck and lifted me up and choked me unconscious. It changed my voice forever because my vocal cords hemorrhaged, and it almost killed me.
And I very nearly went to prison. They charged me with the only felony I've ever been charged with -- assaulting a police officer. Eventually, a new guy took over the case after about a year and a lot of money that I spent. And I pled guilty to disorderly conduct. I double-checked this with my mother yesterday, and at the time, I said, "I can't breathe." That's what you say. You try to tell this person that you can't breathe and they don't care. They're trying to render you unconscious with a chokehold. They're trained to do that. It's about cutting off the oxygen supply to the brain and you become unconscious and no longer fight.
Q: Do you feel a level of hopelessness now, or are you hopeful things will change?
A: I'm an optimist. But do I believe things will change? I don't think it's a foregone conclusion. This feels different, but things have felt different before. But the point is this: This is an opportunity. And it's as good an opportunity as we've had for changing this that we've ever had. And we can't let it slip by. That's why, you know, these folks are getting out in the street. Black folks are more likely to die of coronavirus than white people are. That's a fact. And they're probably more likely to die of violence at the hands of a police officer than they are from the coronavirus. So I think you make the decision that this moment, this moment that's happening now, it's not going to come back. And they got out in the street.