Before someone spilled Hi-C on it during a hot Iowa summer and my car window fixed sunlight into its silky black innards, warping Steve Earle’s voice into that of a sexually beleaguered chipmunk, that tape drove me through a lot. Rather, I drove, and it played. For years.
Guitar Town was one of those cassettes that my mother copied expressly for the purpose of a ROAD TRIP! She never went on the road trips, though—her back wasn’t up to the challenge. Her desire, I guessed, too, to eat nothing but bread and leave bright-eyed from Super 8s at 4:30 am was also probably lacking.
My father organized each summer’s road trip in all its unique permutations. The year Mr. Gianola pointed at me and said we’d start the name game with “this young man over here,” we drove from San Diego through the Mojave Desert and then, somehow, all the way up to Bishop, into Angel’s Camp and Copperopolis.
My dad refused to turn the air conditioning on, always one to exercise his neuroses under the guise of energy conservation. The facial stick-sunscreen I had rubbed all over my body melted on my arm closest to the window. I sat in the backseat, my deranged father-chauffeur in front, a ripped hunk of bread dangling from his mouth. The nights of that trip: he read me Mark Twain’s The Jumping Frog of Calaveras County and Jack London’s White Fang. The days: he broke more bread, I waded through baked potatoes buttered with a yellow liquid the waitress spooned from a utility belt-type contraption. I felt my dad swallow as we descended deeper and deeper into a cave advertised on the highway: Stalactites! Stalagmites! World’s biggest gopher!
And I think that was the trip when we started playing Guitar Town. It would have made sense—the warping heat, the need for a driving beat, the desperation involved in even going on a trip like this. We lived in a subdivision from the 1970s on the outskirts of an otherwise ritzy San Diego beach town. I rarely had friends over. My mother grew up in Colorado; my father had increasingly less patience for the thirteen-lane freeways of Southern California. And I was starting to lock myself to banisters and go on hunger strikes in response to my parents’ decisions to move: first to Laramie, Wyoming; then to Urbana, Illinois.
Here was a harder-edged voice than I was used to, yelping and sneering about having a “two-pack habit and a motel tan.” I barely knew what a two-pack habit might be, and I had no idea about a motel tan. But I wanted both. My father and I screamed the lyrics as we entered the dreaded hour five of a day’s drive—just about the time when you feel you should almost be there but know you’re only halfway, and with each passing hour, you become, in the parlance of my family, increasingly “rumpsprung.”
Steve’s guitar was rambunctiously cheery, bolstered by swift pickings on the mandolin. The instrumentation belied gloriously bitter lyrics. Singing them, singing them loudly, was being full, suddenly, of a rightful rage about a discovered outsider status. “Hillbilly Highway,” the album’s third track, was an epic: a young man leaving his country home for a job, years later, his son leaving for college, and then, finally, the grandson—Steve Earle—picking up his guitar and hitting the road. He’d had enough.
Those driving alongside us would have wondered. A girl, maybe, it was hard to tell, with that haircut, writhing behind her air guitar in the backseat, an impossibly tall man in the front ferociously tearing into a piece of baguette, one hand on the steering wheel, belting something out to the mostly open highway.
The whole album was fierce. Steve sang about welfare lines and truck driving. He smeared his Texas accent around a central theme of independence. What you did with that independence was up to you, he seemed to say. But leave wherever you are, and go get something good.
I don’t think we even got to the end of the album on these trips, because I only discovered its second-to-last song a few years ago: the soul-rending “Down the Road,” slower and gentler than most of the album’s other songs and full of ghostly reverb. It’s a rough-voiced distillation of this man’s extended note to his listeners, sung with abandon from the side of a mountain. “On the blue side of evening,” he keens, “when the darkness takes control/You start lookin’ for a reason/To take your lonesome down the road.” Lonesome what, I wondered. Lonesomeness?
I didn’t know it at the time, but Steve Earle was a serious heroin addict when he came out with Guitar Town. Actually, he started using heroin at age fourteen. I read an interview many years after these road trips in which he describes meeting his second wife in Nashville: “I was balancing on a wall above 17th Avenue and I had a whipped cream dispenser with nitrous oxide in it in one hand and a bottle of tequila with 16 hits of LSD dissolved in it in the other hand and a joint about this long in my mouth,” Earle said. “And she got out of a cab in front of the place and looked up and it was love at first sight.”
That I was infatuated with the guy’s voice and the hard propulsion of his music is not, in retrospect, surprising. He was fierce. I fiercely wanted to be fierce, and sometimes was. I pushed and pushed at my parents, trying so hard to get them to admit I was right: we should not have moved. The summer air in Urbana when we first stepped off the plane nauseated all of us, I could tell. It smelled like yogurt and settled wetly on everything. Alien-bodied cicadas, which my brother and I would later trap in plastic bags and poke with pine needles we had dipped in deadly nightshade, rubbed their wings day and night, emitting sounds of violently ripped cellophane. It felt gleeful. Their exoskeletons dotted the sidewalks.
Listening to Guitar Town in college got me through essays and intense moments of claustrophobia. It told me to get out, and since I couldn’t, I thought instead of driving through oppressive Western deserts, a fierce musical heat battling with the elemental one.
That tape was long-gone by the time I graduated, destroyed from the sun and glinting with ruby crystals: the concentrated remnants of the Great Hi-C Flood of 2008. I moved to San Francisco in August of 2010, knowing no one. This was where I wanted to be. I had gone to find something good. And there he was. Early October, across the street from the frigid Pacific-side apartment I was moving into that very weekend. Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, my first introduction to my neighborhood and to the youth of San Francisco, and, it turned out, to today’s Steve Earle.
Somehow, I hadn’t seen a recent picture of the man. I remembered him circa “Copperhead Road,” or, rather, saw the video for the song at one point and didn’t realize it was from 1988, the year I was born. The camera sticks to a man who seems to exude both determination and some brand of woundedness. He’s singing about moonshine and Vietnam. And he is incredibly attractive, a long head of hair prompted into volume by a gray bandanna. His eyes are black and, at one minute and forty-two seconds in, aggressively disconcerting for their straight stare into your own. As much as Keith Richards was an inspiration for Johnny Depp’s pirate, Steve Earle was. Look at that hair, the careful jewelry. Look at the video’s first thirty seconds: that ragged red bandanna tied off around his wrist so quickly by a flash of teeth—an early moment now too perfectly suggestive of Earle’s own fierce struggles.
I stood at the back of a very bedraggled crowd for his concert, rounding out the second day, I think, of Hardly Strictly. He’s heavier than he once was, the top of his head holds no hair, and his face is shrouded in an Orthodox-looking beard. Who I would come to identify as the usual San Francisco suspects were gyrating in bright rags close to the stage. There was no way he’d play anything from Guitar Town—the man, on top of beating a heroin addiction, has been really musically prolific since 1988 (he’s also acted in “The Wire” and “Treme”). But he did. It was “Hillbilly Highway.” I was to see him two more times—once, reading from his novel, again, at Hardly Strictly, riding unrecognized in a golf cart through the sweaty throng. But at that moment, all my belongings sat a block or two away in my car, passed by hordes of people pushing in and out of Golden Gate Park. Beyond them, an empty apartment, at the end, or maybe middle, of some long, hot road.