Steve Earle Sings His Son’s Songs

“Don’t make me bury you,” the elder

spoke to the younger

over the phone,

knowing that his child

had inherited all his demons.

 

“I will support you

if you want to do rehab,”

he whispered,

that old Harry Chapin Song,

Cat’s in the Cradle,

about fathers and sons

circling in his head;

 

his son’s new one,

Harlem River Blues,

kicking it off the loop:

 

Lord, I’m goin’ uptown

to the Harlem River to drown 

Dirty water gonna cover me over  

And I’m not gonna make a sound …”

 

“I won’t,”  the son

promised his father.

A click and a dial tone

was the final statement.

 

That night

Justin Townes,

named after

Townes van Zandt,

the folk oracle

that was his dad’s mentor,

died alone

in a Nashville apartment.

A mixture of 

cocaine laced with fentanyl

was found in his blood.

He was just 38.

 

When a child dies

the father no longer a dad,

no longer

the parent of Justin Townes,

or just J.T.,

his first little boy,

adopts his own identity back,

rears it fondly in memory,

burying the child’s legacy

until the erosion of time

files him down

to his birth name,

just plain old Steve-

Stephen Fain Earle

from Fort Monroe, Virginia.

 

When Townes died

he did a tribute album.

When his old demons returned

he released a tribute album.

When grief surrounded him

and the whiskey bottled beckoned

Steve mined J.T.’s  catalog

for a ten song tribute session

that can be done with that rock sneer

they both shared. 

 

The only thing that mattered

was that it be released

on the day of what would

have been J.T.’s 39th birthday.

 

He would concentrate on

the songs whenever he wondered

why he stayed clean and J.T.  couldn’t.

Why did he survive and J. T. succumb?

 

Steve didn’t hate the fact

that J.T.’s songs

were better than his,

his guitar fingerpicking

was more mind blowing,

that musically J.T. could play

Mance Lipscomb blues

in a way Steve was never 

able to figure out,

not even that J.T.

had a way better voice.

 

He was always reminding J.T.

how proud he was of him,

how much he loved him.

 

No, Steve hated that it wasn’t

enough to save him,

that he was the stronger man.

that they both shared the same disease.

 

Steve sang, his craggy voice

the perfect underscore

for the dark themes

in J.T.’s ballads:

a drowning death

(Tell my mama I love her,

Tell my father I tried.

Give my money

to my baby to spend);

the phantom-limb ache

for a former lover

(Even though I know you’re gone

I don’t have to be alone now.

You’re here with me every night

When I turn out the lights.)

 

It was therapy not catharsis.

Steve always sang

because he needed to.

 

J.T. was the opposite—

dressing in retro style,

reveling in the notoriety

of his intimidating talent

that was always trying to

eclipse his more famous parent.

 

Steve wanted this to be a memorial

between father and son. 

No guest singers, especially

those fucking enablers

that helped kill him

with their nonintervention.

 

He never included J.T.’s songs

about absent fathers

and single mothers.

He knew only J.T.

could rightfully sing those.

 

Steve was expecting it to be

a horror show emotionally.

He felt sad, but not disappointed

when it was just business as usual.

 

When it came time to perform

John Henry Was a Steel Drivin’ Man

he deliberately emulated

J.T.’s fingerpicking.

 

He felt jealous that his son

was able to write

the John Henry song

he always failed at.

 

When it came time to record

the album’s last song,

Last Words,

the only song

written by Steve,

 and like the

more sentimental

Harry Chapin one,

a heartbreaking synopsis

of a father’s journey,

from cradling his newborn son

to speaking to him for the last time,

the pain returned and

their shared disease

pulled inside him.

 

By the time it was on tape

he knew it was the only

song he had written in his life

where every single word

in it was true. 

 

Last thing I said

was ‘I love you.’

Your last words to me

were ‘I love you too.’