DANNY BLAND IS ON FIRE. “This is going on all over the place—from West Memphis to Columbine,” the Seattle label owner and band manager says. “This rush to judgment based in fear and ignorance.” Bland’s at the forefront of a growing number of activists who believe provincial attitudes led to the 1993 conviction of Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley for the brutal murders of three young boys in the small community of West Memphis, Arkansas. Baldwin and Misskelley are serving life terms plus 40 years; Echols is sentenced to die by lethal injection.
Free the West Memphis Three (Aces and Eights)
Bland and others are convinced that the “West Memphis Three” were not convicted because of any clear evidence against them, but as a result of sloppy police investigation, substandard legal representation, and their community’s fear—as well as disapproval of the way the teenagers dressed, the books they read, and the music they listened to. “The phrase ‘modern day witch hunt’ is getting thrown around a lot, but it’s true,” says Bland. He and Aces and Eights label cofounder Scott Parker recently released the compilation Free the West Memphis Three: A Benefit for Truth and Justice to raise awareness of a case they feel should be championed within the music community.
The disc, sales of which benefit the three defendants, pulls together a powerful, genre-straddling collection of artists—from death penalty opponent Steve Earle and Rock for Choice founders L7 to smoky-throated luminaries such as Tom Waits, Mark Lanegan, and John Doe. Bland sees musical scapegoating at the heart of the case, and the CD’s liner notes, penned by fellow activist Burk Sauls, warn the consumer, sardonically, of this correlation: “This CD that you are holding has the potential to change your life. (The West Memphis Three) were teenagers who liked the kind of music that’s on this CD . . . that was enough for the judge and jury . . . does this sound like an exaggeration? It’s not. . . .”
THIS PROJECT IS NOT Bland’s first exercise in music-fueled philanthropy. In 1994, he put together a Willie Nelson tribute album, Twisted Willie, to benefit Farm Aid. Many of the same artists reenlisted for the new compilation. “Initially I went to what I call the ‘usual suspects,’ artists that I had worked with before,” he notes. But a recording session with the Supersuckers—whom Bland manages—and Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder collaborating on a cover of X’s “Poor Girl” was “kind of the genesis for the whole project,” he recalls. Vedder and Supersuckers frontman Eddie Spaghetti had both seen an HBO documentary about the case, Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills, and had been contemplating what they could do to raise awareness about the West Memphis Three.
This meeting of the minds led to exchanges among several other musicians who would eventually sign on. When the Supersuckers and Zeke—another of Bland’s bands—launched a tour with the Murder City Devils in tow, the Stooge-y ingenues saw the documentary and soon were in the studio banging out a Misfits cover to contribute. Bland called up L7’s Donita Sparks and suggested she watch Paradise Lost. Sparks found herself stunned by the bumbling court proceedings. “Our (initial) agreement to do it wasn’t based on innocence or guilt,” she says. “It was based on the trial being a total sham. It was one the worst examples I’ve ever seen of the justice system not working.” The case also drew the attention of one of the CD’s star attractions, Tom Waits. In a statement released via the project’s publicist, Waits says, “These boys didn’t get a fair trial. They got picked for wearing black clothes and having long hair . . . the worst thing in our criminal justice system to be is broke or different.”
BECAUSE OF the range of artists who make up the 15 tracks, the disc flows a bit erratically, but the unevenness does little to diminish the strength of most individual songs. Steve Earle’s beautiful opening track, “The Truth,” cuts straight to the issues involved and sets an eerie, appropriate tone. As the collection unfolds, other songs echo Earle’s mournful observations, most notably Lanegan’s sparse, gorgeous “Untitled Lullaby.” Some contributors opted to cover songs by the imprisoned teens’ favorite bands. Kelly Deal offers a snarling cover of Pantera’s “Fucking Hostile,” while Zeke takes a careening romp with Iron Maiden’s “Wrathchild.” This spirit also led to the biggest misstep: Nashville Pussy warbling predictably through a lukewarm “Highway to Hell.”
L7, meanwhile, uphold their affection for smarmy satire and loop backwards “messages” into their indictment of the Satanic-panicked townspeople. The Supersuckers include their collaboration with Vedder and an out-of-character love song dedicated to “Lori and Sara,” the wife and girlfriend of two of the West Memphis Three. A temporarily reunited Killing Joke ends the collection on a relevantly noisy note, jarring the listener with a voice-over describing how the US has executed more juvenile criminals than any other country in the world.
As the three boys await dates for their appeal trials, Bland hopes the CD will make an impact. “Raising money is good and all, but I want to make sure everyone knows about it,” he says. “This record can’t stop them from [executing Echols], but I want to put a spotlight on Arkansas. I want people to know they aren’t just going to sweep these guys under the rug.”
For more information about the case, go to www.wm3.org.