It was a weird weekend anyway, which started with me getting attacked by a friend’s cat – like in a bad way, not a playful way – and led to not too much of anything else. I go out a lot (semi-safely in Covid times, with my bubble people), and I have a lot of friends, but I’ve never loved being single. After a crazy Friday night of drinking on the light rail, dancing with the train security guards, leaving the Grid and trying the great King Cong Brewery in Del Paso Heights – sorry, “Uptown,” does anyone really call it that? – and having an impromptu drunken dance party in my friend’s Ice Blocks apartment, an epic Friday night led to a Saturday and Sunday of not much of anything. Which is something I need to do from time to time. I guess.
But then came the news Sunday night. I was scrolling through Twitter and I saw this tweet by Lydia Loveless.
Shock. Utter bewilderment. Of course I immediately begin Googling. And it was true. Terribly, heart-breakingly, unequivocally true. One of my favorite singers, songwriters, musicians, performers, and personalities, was dead at 38.
I immediately screenshotted a news article and texted it to my friend Jeff, the person who came with me the two and only times I’d seen JTE live. I had been listening to and thinking about JTE that very day. Jeff said the same thing. He said, “I even had a thought earlier about him talking about his addiction, and wondering how he would take it if I messaged him to make sure he takes care of himself.” That’s Jeff. He cares about people.
Justin Townes Earle was the son of the legendary Steve Earle. I’m always surprised how few people I know seem to have heard of Steve Earle, considering he’s been releasing music since the 80’s and his top song on Spotify, “Copperhead Road” has 63 million listens. He’s also acted in many TV shows, most notably as Bubbles’ A.A. sponsor, Walon, on HBO’s The Wire, AKA The Greatest Show in the History of All Shows.
Steve Earle is an incredible musician, singer, and songwriter. He literally worshiped Townes Van Zandt, the country blues legend out of Texas who died in his early 50’s as a result of a crippling, lifelong addiction to drugs and alcohol. But as an artist, Townes was the single biggest influence on Steve Earle, and when Steve’s son Justin was born in 1982 – when Townes was still alive and well – he thought to honor his friend and mentor by naming his first-born child after him. Reportedly, Steve wanted to name Justin simply “Townes Earle,” but Justin’s mother wasn’t having it, seeing how Townes Van Zandt led Steve down paths that did not lead to family and domesticity. So they compromised on Justin, with Townes as a middle name. That’s the story, anyway.
I understand the elder Earle’s impulse. Although he was dead by the time I got a chance to name my first-born son after him, my late stepfather, Richard Edward Springer, was a complicated and important figure in my life. But when my girlfriend got pregnant in 1995, I was moved to give my son the middle name of Richard, with my son’s mother’s blessing, of course.
But famously, Steve Earle, battling his own disease of drug addiction and alcoholism, left the young family when Justin was two. Justin’s mother was the third of Steve’s eight, so far, wives. Father and son eventually reconnected, and have had a publicly embittered relationship since (from Justin’s perspective; I’ve never read an ill word about his son from Steve). Justin writes and sings about his father a lot. Seldom in a positive way. He even has an album called Absent Fathers. However, he also names his father as his biggest musical influence, and performed live with him often over the years. Fathers and sons are complicated.
When JTE began recording and releasing music, my understanding is he intended to be known simply by his given name, the one people knew: Justin Earle. But he was convinced to include his middle name as a connection not only to his father, but to the late legend Townes Van Zandt. Can’t hurt one’s career, right?
One of the very few reasons I keep a Facebook account is because back when people could still do things – writing now from the concertless pandemic wasteland of the summer of 2020 – Facebook was quite good at letting me know about which events and happenings I might be interested. One day I saw a simple ad that said “Justin Townes Earle, with Lydia Loveless. Harlow’s, June 14, 2018.” Both names immediately sounded familiar, but I couldn’t place them. It took me all of five seconds to come to the conclusion that anyone named Justin Townes Earle must be Steve Earle’s son, because any Steve Earle fan understands the musician’s fascination with Townes Van Zandt. I was intrigued. But Lydia Loveless only sounded familiar because it sounds like the much older musician, artist, and performer, Lydia Lunch. The two might share a “fuck you” ethos, but in my mind, that’s where the similarity ends.
I read more about the forthcoming gig at my favorite Sacramento venue, and it said there was a 2016 documentary made about Lydia Loveless that was available on Prime Video. Lydia Loveless is even less a household name than Van Zandt or either of the Earles, but I watched it and I was hooked. This was an amazing songwriter and performer, so I began bingeing her and JTE’s albums on Spotify before the gig.
Lydia played solo, acoustically, and I was familiar enough with her songs by that point that I recognized most of them. She’s incredibly fierce as a performer, but the two times I’ve seen her to date have been very mellow and understated. She wore a cream-colored lacy dress, hair up, eyes closed throughout the show. Afterwards I saw her talking to someone by the merch table and I was able to awkwardly shake her hand and thank her for her performance. She was polite, but didn’t seem too thrilled to meet a fan. I don’t blame artists for this. Not a bit. (But I admit it’s really nice when they seem happy to meet you. Alas, not every performer can be Josh Ritter.)
How could I have known then that she would eventually become my bride?
I joke, of course. But truly, I didn’t know then that she would soon become one of my very favorite artists. Yes, even getting more play time than JTE. I feel like she single-handedly helped me get through my separation and divorce later in 2018. I have a huge series of pieces coming to this site soon where I rank, in order, my top 100 favorite albums of all time. Her Somewhere Else record from 2014 made it to #18. All time. She is just a stunningly honest and talented songwriter. As young as she is, I feel lucky to live in the same world as her; my plan is to see her live whenever she’s playing a gig within a hundred miles of me.
But Justin was the headliner that night. Jeff and I had already had quite a bit to drink by the time JTE came on stage. He was very tall, junkie-thin, with a head and face that seemed a little too big for his frame. The photos I had seen of him made him look like a nerdy, happy-go-lucky, kid who was just gosh darned glad to be traveling the land performing music. Like Josh Ritter (again). But at first sight of him you realized this was a dude with some demons. There was a ferocity inside him, and an orneriness – along with the raw talent – that was absolutely captivating. Jeff and I had an up close and personal view, right at the front of the stage at Harlow’s where we usually end up.
He led the set with the first two tracks from his brilliant Kids In The Street album, of which which he was touring in support. (Although artists at this level seem to tour all the time, new album or not. They just tour; it’s the only way to make even a little money anymore for the lower to mid-level performer. At least that’s my understanding.)
JTE’s performance was as brilliant as our behavior was embarrassing. Jeff has said that we heckled him. Like I said, we’d had a lot to drink, but I will tell you right now that I would NEVER heckle or give any performer a hard time. Even one I didn’t care for, but especially not one whose work I greatly admired, like JTE’s. It is true that I – and I’m far from alone in this; I’ve been to enough gigs – have at times expressed my admiration for the performer fairly exhuberantly. I never want to be obnoxious, and I hope I’m not, but damn it, I get excited. Here are some things I remember:
- Justin telling the crowd, and I forget to whom he was responding, I don’t remember this being said in respect to Jeff or me: “When my dad performs he gets all jokey. I get fighty.” Oh, we would find out.
- I had been thinking about “J.T.,” James Taylor (the original J.T., before Justin Timberlake was even born), who had just played a big concert at Golden 1 Center a few days prior in front of thousands of people. I love James Taylor, but I’ll take Justin Townes Earle over J.T. any day of the week, especially in a small club versus a basketball arena. In my drunken brain, their initials were almost the same. So I yelled out at one point between songs “You’re the real J.T.” This only made sense to me. No one else. Justin looked right at me and I can’t remember precisely what he said, but he was quite angry. “Don’t compare me to no Justin fucking Timberlake. What the fuck are you even talking about, guy?” It seems like he went on for about a minute. I just stood there shocked, feeling the hot shame of embarrassment swell up in my red face. There was no way for me to explain what I meant. But even if there was, it was still a stupid thing to say.
- Jeff repeatedly yelling out (this is what he does at gigs…yells things out repeatedly. I don’t do that!) “Fifteen to seventy-five! Fifteen to seventy-five!” He had some dumb reason for saying this, but I can’t remember what it was. JTE has an amazing song called 15-25 about the most troubling and amazing years in his, and almost anyone’s, life:
But I always have money don’t ask me how
Always had a place to stay, oh I bounced around
Fifteen to twenty-five
In the wind, strung out like a kite
So I really don’t know what Jeff meant by screaming, continuously, “Fifteen to seventy-five!” I don’t know if he was misremembering the song title, and he was simply requesting the song, or if he had some larger point to make. I should ask him.
- OK, I asked him. And his response makes perfect sense. Just like my J.T. comment, he had a larger point that was lost on everyone else. My brother!
So I’m not the only one who had some dumb idea about something to say to JTE. Jeff did too. Two differences: Jeff kept yelling his dumb idea over and over, and JTE never took any notice. I only yelled my dumb idea once, and got berated.
- During “Harlem River Blues,” at the end of the song Justin stops playing the guitar and just sings the chorus. The studio version goes the same way. It seemed to me at the time for a perfect opportunity for the crowd to start clapping hands to the beat while the performer sings a cappella. I’ve been part of this kind of thing at many gigs. Sometimes starting hundreds of people in hand claps, sometimes just participating. It’s good times! But Justin looked down at me and gave me the “knock it off” motion with his hand: that left to right back to left with a flat palm that says “Hey, cut it!” I felt like a real asshole for the second time that night.
That was about it. I bought a t-shirt and his Kids In The Street CD. I later lost that shirt and a bunch of others in Austin, Texas the following January when I failed to check the middle drawer of the dresser as I was checking out of a hotel room. (Among others, I also lost a vintage David Bowie t-shirt that I had bought in 1990 when I saw him on his Sound + Vision tour.) The t-shirt debacle really sucked, because I had lost a fair amount of weight, and these were most of the shirts I had acquired in the past year that fit me.
I made a Spotify playlist of what I considered JTE’s “best of,” but you really can’t go wrong sitting down and playing any of his albums from start to finish. He doesn’t have any duds. The playlist starts with the song “Kids In The Street,” which strangely, setlist.fm shows him never having played live. Maybe he felt it a little too sappy and sentimental for his tastes, but it’s absolutely my favorite song of his among a discography of amazing tunes. I hit the first four songs pretty hard, as I think you should do on a Best Of. “Kids” leads to “Harlem River Blues,” his most played song according to setlist.fm. You’ll notice, no hand claps. Then “Mama’s Eyes,” a beautiful, haunting song, one of many that discusses his father; it uncharacteristically ends with a ray of hope. After that is his incredible cover of Paul Simon’s “Graceland.” Then it’s just a mix of slower and faster songs from the eight albums he produced in his lifetime. All his albums are stellar. I’m partial to, in no particular order, Harlem River Blues, Nothing’s Gonna Change The Way You Feel About Me Now, Kids In The Street, and The Saint Of Lost Causes. But I admit I play Midnight At The Movies quite a bit too. OK, five of his eight albums are my favorites.
It’s tough to compare artists to each other, and maybe one shouldn’t even attempt it. It’s so completely subjective. Nevertheless, I truly think Justin was the superior singer, songwriter, and performer to both of the men he’s named after. That’s not any knock on Steve Earle, whose music I adore, or Townes Van Zandt, whose music has never quite sunk in for me the way I feel it is supposed to. Music aside, as a father of young men, I’m absolutely heartbroken for Steve Earle, an artist to whom I’ve been listening for far longer than his son. I’ve known too many parents to lose their children, especially young men, and I just can’t fathom the depth of the pain. I’ve also seen such parents move forward, bravely, with their lives and thrive. But I don’t think that heartbreak can ever really go away. We expect to lose our parents and probably some number of our siblings and friends – although it never feels right. But our children. I just can’t.
Nashville police have said Justin likely died of a drug overdose. By his own admission, he’d overdosed several times and had been through more than a dozen stints in rehab by his 30’s. Word was he had been sober for a while until the last year or two. He’s said in interviews he only knows two ways to make money: touring and selling drugs. He has said he only ever wants to be touring. He’s no good sitting still. He was grateful to turn 30, because he never thought he’d survive his 20’s. He hoped to die on a tour bus as an old man, not at home on his couch. During Covid-19, when no one was able to tour, we shouldn’t speculate that he was selling drugs, but it doesn’t seem like a stretch to think that Covid-19 was a contributing factor in JTE’s death. A man born for the road, to hammer on his guitar 200 nights a year. A man prone to picking fights with anyone who crossed him. A man wavering between war and peace with his father. This man couldn’t shelter in place for six months. Couldn’t sit on his hands and keep socially distant. He went over the edge. And he took so many broken hearts with him.
Rest in peace, Justin Earle. You’re the real J.T.