Many music-minded viewers of the MLB All-Star Game earlier this month were shocked, astonished and disillusioned at the newest truck commercial Chevrolet unveiled. I know I was when I saw it a week or so later -- there were the standard shots of Chevy trucks sending up billowing clouds of dust as they thrummed down rutted dirt roads, crashing and splashing through rocky streams, and burly, flannel-shirted rednecks tossing bales of hay around -- but what was that music playing in the background? It was infinitely familiar yet, given its surroundings, completely out-of-place and exotic, like running into your spinster aunt at your local dive bar.
And then the standard truck imagery faded to black, and the Chevy logo and new slogan appeared simultaneously, accompanied by the gravelly voice of none other than Steve Earle: "The Revolution Starts Now!"
"I was STUNNED to see the Chevy commercial," thundered one poster at Steveearlefans.com. "What a sell out!" "I thought Steve Earle would be the last to allow one of his songs to be used for a commercial," chimed in another. " 'The Revolution Starts Now' no longer holds the same 'power' as it once did." A third said that Earle had become overly consumed with his politics and his new young girlfriend (alt-country heartthrob Allison Moorer) and had lost track of his art. In closing, he wrote that he would never visit the fan site again.
The same Steve Earle who has been known to boast that he is to the left of Chairman Mao. The same Steve Earle who dared to write a sympathetic song about John Walker Lindh. The same Steve Earle who likens his music and politically charged radical lyrics to a weapon, whose hero Woody Guthrie scrawled "This machine kills fascists" on his guitar.
Over the course of his career, former Houstonian Earle busted out of several creative ghettos -- first country music, then one of the nastiest drug addictions anyone ever survived, and then music in general. He has recently become a full-fledged pundit of the left, called on by sages at Mother Jones to tell us what it's all about. Al Franken and Michael Moore have championed him to all who'd listen. (And even with as much of a firestorm as this has created among his fans on the left, wait until his detractors on the right pick up on the identity of Chevy's new pitchman. Rest assured that Chevy's PR department will have its work cut out for it soon enough.)
Now this man is a common shill, another Toby "I'm a Ford Truck Man" Keith? And of all his songs, why did it have to be "The Revolution Starts Now," a call to arms against Dubya and his war for oil, in an ad for gas-guzzling Chevy trucks? What ever happened to that Bob Seger "Like a Rock" tune we've been hearing over and over again during every major sporting event aired on TV since, what, 1990?
Last question answered first, only with more questions. Could it be that "Like a Rock" sounds a little too close to "Like Iraq"? Does Chevy want people making a subconscious connection between their beleaguered company and that equally benighted site of "liberation"?
And as for Earle, it must be remembered that this is a man with no fewer than six ex-wives and close to an equal number of ex-managers, some of whom he still owes money. (Full disclosure: My father is one of the latter, and he once sued Earle for more than $40,000 and won.) Earle also supports his retired parents and several of his children, including an illegitimate one that surfaced after he beat his drug addiction, not to mention other kin and even friends. (More disclosure, though this one kind of balances the first one: Earle once gave my stepfather -- his old San Antonio running buddy and later guitar tech Chip Phillips -- and now-deceased mom the down payment for a house in Nashville.) In his 2003 biography, Earle told author Lauren St. John that, all told, his overhead was then $35,000 a month.
Kinda reminds me of a quote from bluesman R.L. Burnside, a musician with similar family obligations, if on a smaller scale: "Man," he once told a reporter, "I got to put 12 biscuits on the table 'fore I get to eat even one."
Chevy ad deals buy a lot of biscuits, people. What's more, Chevy is an American company that provides a lot of increasingly rare, blue-collar living-wage jobs. Sure, it will rob one of Earle's songs of some of its pure radical power. Get over it. He'll write more, and as it happens, Earle was wrong. Dubya won. The revolution didn't start then, anyway.
Don't look now, but we've reached the halfway point of summertime, and you high school students aren't finished with summer reading lists. Luckily, many rock 'n' roll bands have drawn inspiration from American novelists, taking their names -- and sometimes literary cues -- from our greatest writers. So, in the spirit of CliffsNotes, Wack offers CritNotes, a rockin' alternative to summer reading.
Reading assignment: Catch-22 by Joseph Heller (1961)
Synopsis: Bomber crews contemplate war and madness during World War II
CritNotes suggests: New Jersey ska survivors Catch 22, who avoided potential lawsuits by dropping the hyphen
Sample literary passage: " 'Do you know how long a year takes when it's going away?' Dunbar repeated to Clevinger. 'This long.' He snapped his fingers. 'A second ago you were stepping into college with your lungs full of fresh air. Today you're an old man.' "
As translated by the band: "I still remember when we were young and fragile then / No one gave a shit about us because times were tougher then / Feeling so good, cruising the 'hood / Straight into the real world rich kids never understood" (from "Keasbey Nights")
Reading assignment: As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner (1930)
Synopsis: A family's ordeal with its matriarch's death, as told by each of the family members
CritNotes suggests: San Diego metal-hardcore Christian band (and apparent Faulkner junkies) As I Lay Dying
Sample literary passage: "When they told me she was dying, all that night I wrestled with Satan, and I emerged victorious. I woke to the enormity of my sin; I saw the true light at last, and I fell on my knees and confessed to God and asked His guidance and received it."
As translated by the band: "Through this pain I refine / Tearing me from within / Screaming to be released but held fast by your love" (from "Torn Within")
Reading assignment: Nine Stories by J.D. Salinger (1948)
Synopsis: Just like it says: nine short stories dealing with suicide, imaginary friends and disfigured loners
CritNotes suggests: Mid-'90s nerd-chic heartthrob Lisa Loeb and her backing band, Nine Stories
Sample literary passage: "He cocked the piece. Then he went over and sat on the unoccupied twin bed, looked at the girl, aimed the pistol, and fired a bullet through his right temple."
As translated by the band: "So what is this weather, and what is this darkness / And why do I feel so alone? / When will it snow, it's been raining for hours / Why do I feel so alone?" (from "Alone")
Reading assignment: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (1960)
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Synopsis: A brother and sister discover injustice and their own burgeoning maturity in a small Southern town
CritNotes suggests: Liverpool pop-rockers the Boo Radleys, named after Mockingbird's mysterious recluse
Sample literary passage: "Jem gave a reasonable description of Boo: Boo was about six-and-a-half feet tall, judging from his tracks There was a long jagged scar that ran along his face; what teeth he had were yellow and rotten; his eyes popped, and he drooled most of the time."
As translated by the band: "I complain about my looks / I feel bad 'bout my hair / Jesus that's so sad I admit it now / Why should anyone care?" (from "Melodies for the Deaf") -- Christian Schaeffer