Sunday, November 30, 2014

Song of the Day: Steve Earle - I Feel Alright (1996)

When Steve Earle titled his 1996 album I Feel Alright, few musicians had earned more of a right to the term. After releasing  his first four albums between 1986-1990, Earle's heroin & cocaine addiction spiraled out of control, resulting in two arrests, 60 days of jail time, lots of treatment and rehab, and a long recording hiatus. He had also been divorced four or five times by this point--Wikipedia's chronology of Earle's seven marriages (and counting--ladies, he's currently available!) is a little too hazy for an exact number. 

When Earle finally emerged from this period with his fifth album, 1995's Train A Comin', he was a changed man, relatively over his bad habits, and reinvented as a sort of country-er Springsteen, one of the great Americana singer-songwriters of contemporary music. In the liner notes of his second "comeback" album, I Feel Alright, Earle writes that when he was locked up, he avoided doing time in solitary by promising a friend he would get out as soon as possible and make another album. Then, at the end of the story, Earle writes, "SO I MADE TWO," with the capitalizations all his. Nick Hornby wrote an interesting essay ten years ago about this small symbol of defiance, that the capitalization of that statement made all the difference to Earle. It wasn't merely that he made two albums upon getting out of jail, BUT THAT HE MADE TWO. After all, he felt alright. 

"I feel alright" is one of the most important things any of us can ever say to ourselves. It's a lesson I can never learn or emphasize to myself enough. Just this morning, I was lamenting everything I felt like I need to do--the need to constantly read, write, watch, listen--just constantly consume and process more media to better understand it all. And my wonderful girlfriend said to me, "guilt and shame are not good motivators." She's right. But you know what IS a great motivator? Feelin' alright. 

One of my favorite films of the year is Whiplash, which is currently in theaters, and the key idea of the movie is that one character believes "Good job" is the most harmful thing you can ever say to a talented person, because it stifles the hunger to be better. This isn't true with all people, and with me it certainly isn't. With some people, Michael Jordan, for example, it might be crucial. Jordan thrived on doubt, while some feel crippled by it. One thing I love about the movie is how it forces you to confront the idea of what drives us, what motivates us, and whether any of the ends might justify the means. 

I wonder what Steve Earle would say to the film. Did addiction, jail, and divorce bring out his best? If he could do it all over again, would he avoid drugs and trouble, potentially at the cost of his best and most vibrant music? As he says in the song, "I been to Hell and now I'm back again." Was that a necessary part of the journey? Did it take years of feelin' awful to finally feel alright? Can you have one without the other? 

The greatest TV show of all-time, The Wire, has something to say here. One of many things the show did so well is end each season with a montage, showing us what difference--if any--it all made. The Season 2 ending montage was set to Earle's "I Feel Alright," and it begs the question of whether we all just have to keep saying that, no matter the result of our actions. Progress is slow and non-existent more often than it's anything else, but we still have to believe that our efforts towards progress ultimately matter. 

When Steve Earle released I Feel Alright, he had no way of knowing if it would find an audience, or if people would respond to it, but that wasn't the point. The point was being able to write in those liner notes that HE MADE TWO. That's what made him feel alright, which is all any of us can do. 

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