Justin Townes Earle: troubled days are behind him now

I come here with hopes and
Guess I came here with dreams
Now I’m all alone
I can’t even get to sleep

from the song “Rogers Park,” by Justin Townes Earle, onHarlem River Blues” (2010, Bloodshot Records)
Justin Townes Earle (The Neptune Theatre, Seattle, 1 October 2014)

When I heard the news that Justin Townes Earle had died, I was finishing cleaning up the kitchen after dinner. It was another ordinary evening in this, our anything-but-ordinary pandemic year. My wife, Lesley, was skimming the evening headlines and popup alerts on her iPad. She said, quietly, “I have some really sad news.” A long pause. That always means someone has died. She said, “Justin Townes Earle died.” I couldn’t understand what she said — how could that possibly be true? He was so young. Covid? An accident? Thirty-eight years old. I kept saying, “What? What?” — over and over. The news shut my brain down into that strange space that always happens when I hear someone I cared about is suddenly gone before, what I assume was properly, their time — the floaty space between feeling nothing (guilt) and knowing a wall was about to fall on me (shock). Two days later, the wall fell.

I discovered JTE in 2010 with his new record that year, like so many others did, “Harlem River Blues” (his third studio record on Bloodshot Records). I played it over and over back then. I put several of those songs on playlists so I could take them with me on the road. Ten years ago, it felt like a perfect record to me, like JTE was moving toward his place in the pantheon of American roots music, like his father did decades ago, Steve Earle.

It was the LP sleeve that first pulled me into its dark waters, before I heard any of the songs. JTE is standing by a wide, slow river, a bridge in the distance (a rail line?), blurred in soft afternoon light, reminding me of the times I crossed the Ohio River and some of its slow, muddy tributaries. He’s wearing a white dress shirt with a snap-tab collar, open, and a black tie loosely hanging from his neck. He’s soaking wet, weary, like he was just pulled from the river behind him (against his will?), a young woman by his side, clinging to him like his wet shirt. You can see some of his tattoos under the wet white fabric, a naked woman on his left forearm, sleeves rolled up. His eyes are dark, like the stories on the record. It doesn’t feel like a pose. I feels like a family snapshot about a troubled life and an uncertain future.

“Harlem River Blues,” the opening track, gets talked about a lot because he played it live on The David Letterman Show in January, 2011, when the record took off. It’s a powerful song. But the song that broke my heart then as it still does today, is the song “Rogers Park,” the next to the last track on the record. I must have played that song a hundred times, over and over. It has what I came to think of JTE’s ability to make a song feel like he’s making it up on the spot. Like when an actor comes along every generation and makes Hamlet feel like you’re hearing about obsession for the first time, even when you know all the lines. There are so many examples of this effect on JTE’s records. Most recently for me, his cover of Paul Simon’sGraceland,” a track about a failed marriage and the search for redemption. As JTE sings, it feels like an intimate personal truth, a confession all his own. JTE makes the song his own by altering the lyrics just a little, sharpens the focus, in a shaky, drained, unsure deportment (especially live).

American Aquarium (The Neptune Theatre, Seattle, 1 October 2014)

I only got to see JTE play live twice. The first time was in October 2014 at the Neptune Theater in Seattle. The mercurial American Aquarium opened the show with a blistering set, a band I thought had ended, like the title of their 2012 record: they burned, they flickered, and they had died. But somehow they came back to life, and remain active today. That evening had the feeling from my spot at the stage apron, two vital American artists were playing in front of me and my camera, artists I thought I’d never get to see.

JTE came out for his set with his small touring band. The atmosphere felt tense, gently combative. It was a full house, and everyone was a fan. Between songs on his set list, people shouted out titles of songs they hoped he might play. JTE was always a storyteller, on records and on stage. For several years he openly talked about his problems with family, his childhood, and his heroin addiction — his drug use beginning when he was just 12 years old. In every telling it’s a harrowing narrative. He took time to speak between songs that night.

At one point in the evening he spoke (sharply, after one request too many) about how he was working! That touring was his job and he was a professional when he was doing it (no argument there). The good-natured, shouty requests got on his nerves. He abruptly pointed out that the only person who could call out a song for him to play — and get him to play it — was his mother, and she wasn’t in the house that night. It was funny, but also spoke about the knife edge he walked doing his job while maintaining a distance from all of us who loved him and wanted to, in some way, possess him.

That’s the thing, junkies are so easy to love, and they break your heart every time (wisdom from a college friend of my wife, and an activist, Karen Rudolph, who knows the addiction space so well, and assisted with the vinyl reissue of John Trudell’sAKA Grafitti Man,” on Jackson Browne’s Inside Recordings label in 2017). This month I finished Beth Macy’s brilliant Dopesick (Back Bay Books, Little Brown, and Company, 2018), and it’s one long narrative of love and compassion and heartbreak. Macy’s book is groundbreaking in the depth of her search for the headwaters of addiction in America, and those who’ve profited from it, and still are.

For me, “junkie” isn’t a condemnation, it’s almost a manifestation of potential, even genius, slipping off the rails, slipping away from love and family and hope and control. Macy’s portrait of the lethal, human wildfire of addiction still burning is also a portrait of just how much hard work it takes to maintain an addiction. I have no idea how many times JTE went off his rails, how many times he went through rehab. I’ve read as many as 10 times in a couple of places, but that story has yet to be written (and it will be). And it will break our hearts all over again.

Everyone who has loved a junkie, up-close or from afar, knows that a junkie’s life is measured in promises. From the time their addiction bites hard into their youthful dreams and promise, from the uncountable highs to the uncountable times they hit rock bottom, from detox to detox, rehab program to rehab program, the only peace they ever find — if they find it — is a fragile truce through whatever maintenance routine they can construct from the surviving pieces of their lives and tattered finances. In 2014, who knows where JTE was in his search for stability. He did speak warmly about his marriage. Outwardly, he seemed together and mesmerizing and wide open to that next great record to come. That was then.

Justin Townes Earle (The Neptune Theatre, Seattle, 1 October 2014)

The second and final time I saw JTE was at The Crocodile in Seattle on 17 June 2018. I had just completed two exhausting years of cancer treatment in Seattle and wasn’t up to the demands of officially “covering” a live bar show. I didn’t take my camera, which I deeply regret now given how everything has changed in the blink of a news cycle. At the time, however, I had a VIP pass, which was set up for a small group of people, I remember counting about 12, to meet with JTE a couple of hours before his show (Lydia Loveless was opening for him — another unique evening of hero worship for me). He sat on the edge of the stage, talked easily, encouraged people to ask him questions (we were all holding back, I don’t know why), and he played a small set of songs just for us. I think for me, because of my edgy memories from 2014, I can admit now I was terrified of speaking to him in case I asked a totally stupid question, or worse, a boring question everyone asks him in every interview. Others in our group were less shy. I’m grateful now.

A couple of my fellow VIPers possessed impressive knowledge of American roots music and the scene JTE came up in. Someone eventually asked him about his playing style (which I’ve always thought of as “pick-slap style,” picking while hitting the body of the guitar), and how closely it connected with the playing style of Malcolm Holcombe. JTE lit up at the connection and talked about Holcombe, and how much he loved his work, his performing style. He said he definitely counted Holcombe among those who influenced his style. At the time, I didn’t know who Holcombe was.

After the VIP session, after pictures were taken and after JTE signed posters for everyone, we were free to wander out of the Croc until the show started later that evening. The VIP pass meant we could come back into the venue any time, so I could get to the front of the stage, my usual place. The Crocodile is a unique, all-ages live-music venue that would be a jewel in any city in the country. I wandered up the block to Singles Going Steady, a renowned punk record shop in Seattle’s Belltown to decompress. I bought a stack of Sun Ra records and talked with the shop guy. When I walked back to the Crocodile, JTE was standing outside his tour bus in front of the bar entrance, having a cigarette, lost in thought, alone. I was across Blanchard Street, facing him in profile. It felt like I should leave him be in his thoughts, so I did.

Justin Townes Earle (The Neptune Theatre, Seattle, 1 October 2014)

The Crocodile show was easier than in 2014, relaxed, even as JTE seemed tired from the road. At this great distance of just a few days from his death, the sense that somehow, for some mysterious reason not yet reported, the value of what we’ve lost is only now settling in. The shock. Thoughts of how, as a fan, as someone who met the man briefly, somehow I failed him. It’s a familiar feeling for anyone who’s lost a friend or a family member, or even just someone we really admire, when they’re taken away too soon, especially if it was drug related. You start thinking you can love someone enough to keep them alive, even as a fan, that they’ll feel your love and fight to stay here — for you, for me — even if you don’t know them at all. But they died, so you failed. It’s magical thinking, of course, not just for a loved one, but especially for a recording artist who accidentally, through their songs, spoke for your heart as much as they did for theirs. If heroin is involved in the journey, it’s just lose-lose.

But JTE left us treasure, his nine studio albums and the many compilations he contributed songs to. Is it enough? Hell no. Will it stop the loop of questions in my mind about what went wrong a few days ago? Hell no. This is the price of love. It can make us all one, and it can rip us apart so bad all we have left is regrets, memories, and a vast emptiness. Late last night I listened to “Rogers Park” one more time, and I cried. Some terrestrial angels are bearers of tremendous comfort — bless every one of them.

And when they leave, however much time we got with them, it’s not enough. There aren’t enough details in all our sketchy memories to fill us back up again. JTE is gone. His troubled days are behind him now. He’s free. Ours will go on because they must.

photo credits
(where not otherwise credited)

“Exit sign” / by Kev Seto on Unsplash
“Movie theatre” (footer) / by O.C Ritz on Shutterstock