Nepali Times Asian Paints
Here And There
Not just an American boy


With the American economy under severe strain from the implosion of corporate morals, with mysterious diseases like the frightening West Nile virus creeping ever closer to centres of power, with the Israeli-Palestinian equation getting more dangerous by the day, with the war in Afghanistan going nowhere and the perpetrators of 11 September no closer to justice than ever, you'd think the establishment in America has plenty to worry about.

It does, but there's always time for a sideshow centred on popular culture. The latest comes courtesy a rebellious country and folk singer called Steve Earle and a song about John Walker Lindh, the American boy found fighting with the Taleban. Now Earle has courted controversy all his life, not least with his virulent opposition to capital punishment and his untiring-and so far futile-campaign to sign his country up to the international treaty banning land mines. Not a popular figure with the fat cats in Washington. But with the song "John Walker's Blues", Earle has apparently gone too far. The in-house newspaper of the American right wing, TheWall Street Journal, declares itself "dumbstruck at the audacity" of Earle. Another rightist paper, The Washington Times, devotes an editorial to condemning the song. A talk radio rabble-rouser, Steve Gill, says Earle obviously "hates America". Others echo similar sentiments in a confusing babble of vitriol.

Of course, Earle has his defenders. His long time fans, of whom I am one, admire his ability to provoke and take up unpopular causes. Free speech advocates defend the right of artists to produce art for any reason at all, short of dire obscenity or damage to a community. By no one's definition does "John Walker's Blues" fall into these categories. In the end, it all comes to down to America's obsession with the mirror of its culture and the constant struggle for the soul of the individual in today's globalised world.

Indeed, John Walker's Blues begins with the line "I'm just an American boy raised on MTV". Substitute "South Asian" for the nationality and you get a locally relevant concept. Earle's sin, I believe, is that he gazes deep into the maw of the beast of modern consumerism, globalisation, and materialism, and sees only emptiness. This is what annoys his detractors more than a mildly provocative tale of an American Taleban. And in the case of John Walker Lindh of California, a young man reacted to that vision by choosing the antithesis of the popular mainstream. He grew his beard, praised the Lord and became a jihadi. Never mind all the objections to the Taleban so capably espoused over the past year, no one could call them consumers, materialists, moderns.

In his song, Earle doesn't approve of this. He tries to understand it, and probably doesn't approve once the exercise in understanding is over. In publicity material connected to the release of "John Walker's Blues", Earle describes religious fundamentalism as "the enemy of thought, of religion even". This is a view that takes in more than the Taleban, and challenges mainstream certainties with a realistic relativism that infuriates and troubles those who think that their politics or faith holds all the answers. But the endless search of the artist for meaning and context goes on, whatever the fury of the beast provoked.

It's a lesson that might do us some good here in Nepal. Perhaps Steve Earle could write us a song about the Maoists and what they think they're fighting for, not from the point of view of Comrade Prachanda or Baburam Bhattarai, but from that of the simple men and women, boys and girls, on the battlefield. I wonder if anyone here is daring enough to attempt it....

Here are the words to John Walker's Blues, by Steve Earle.

I'm just an American boy raised on MTV
And I've seen all those kids in the soda pop ads
But none of 'em looked like me
So I started lookin' around for a light out of the dim
And the first thing I heard that made sense was the word
Of Mohammed, peace be upon him
A shadu la ilaha illa Allah
There is no God but God
If my daddy could see me now-chains around my feet
He don't understand that sometimes a man
Has to fight for what he believes
And I believe God is great all praise due to him
And if I should die I'll rise up to the sky
Just like Jesus, peace be upon him
We came to fight the Jihad and our hearts were pure and strong
As death filled the air we all offered up prayers
And prepared for our martyrdom
But Allah had some other plan some secret not revealed
Now they're draggin' me back with my head in a sack
To the land of the infidel

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)