The Drama You've Been Craving
Monday Dec. 4, 2000
Free The West Memphis 3
An eclectic group of artists gather around a cause and produce an album that matters.
By Michael Goldberg
Rock 'n' roll is a force of nature, wild and uncontrollable. Sometimes (Chuck Berry, U2) it makes literal sense, and sometimes (Little Richard, Radiohead) it doesn't.
Sometimes it's moral, sometimes amoral. You listen to Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues" (or NIN's "Closer") and you draw your own conclusions.
Most people think music is entertainment. Many don't pay close attention to the words. If you talk about rock and art in the same sentence, a lot of people look at you like you're crazy.
If rock stars are taken seriously, it's because of their celebrity and net worth, not because most people think they communicate anything of value.
Take Marilyn Manson. Outside his fanbase, few people from any generation take him seriously. The same holds true for Eminem. Does anyone really care what Godsmack think? Or Limp Bizkit? Or Creed?
Sometimes, rockers can be rallied around an issue, but that doesn't mean the crowds they gather actually give a damn. For three years running, the Tibetan Freedom Concert drew more than 50,000 fans per show, but most of them came for the star power, not the cause.
So should rockers give up on supporting the causes they care about? Of course not. I attended the first three years of the Tibetan Freedom Concert and found them incredible experiences. I don't think any of us those who attended, and all the artists who gave of their time and their art would wish those concerts away.
The West Memphis 3
Free the West Memphis 3 is a fairly new, very excellent benefit album.
When it comes to benefit albums, I am not a fan. Like the dreaded tribute album, they frequently provide lousy listening experiences, for good reason.
Benefit CDs often bring together artists who might otherwise not appear on the same album. They give artists a venue for recordings that, for various reasons, don't fit on their own albums.
Often the folks putting together a benefit album approach currently popular artists after all, the goal is to raise money for something, right? Tossing Britney and Korn and Eminem and U2 on an album will bring better sales than featuring Supersuckers, The John Doe Thing and Tom Waits.
No wonder some benefit albums are unlistenable. One or two tracks by artists you care about, and forget the rest.
Which is why Free the West Memphis 3 is such an anomaly. From Steve Earle's opener, the gonzo hillbilly blues "The Truth," through Killing Joke's dark, new-wavy "Our Last Goodbye," it holds together as a real album, rather than some random collection of tracks.
The West Memphis 3 Jason Baldwin, Damien Echols and Jessie Misskelley are three young men currently imprisoned for the murder of three second-graders in the woods of West Memphis, Tenn. Some believe they were falsely convicted. (You can find a fair amount of info about them at www.wm3.org.)
Supersuckers leader Eddie Spaghetti believes strongly enough in the men's innocence to have served as an executive producer of the album. I believe Spaghetti (along with co-executive producers Danny Bland and Scott Parker) is responsible for pulling together artists and songs into a coherent, potent musical experience.
As it turns out, Free the West Memphis 3 is also a powerful social statement. Somehow, against all odds, it manages to be an album you want even need to listen to, over and over again.
Rains On Me
Every song on this album is a winner. Ex-Clash singer Joe Strummer and the Long Beach Dub All-Stars, performing "The Harder They Come" yeah, it's as good as you'd hope it would be. And what about "Poor Girl" written by former X leaders John Doe and Exene Cervenka, produced by former X guitarist Billy Zoom, sung by Eddie Vedder and performed by the Supersuckers? Does it rock? You bet.
Ex-Breeder Kelley Deal delivers an up-yours version of Pantera's "Fucking Hostile" and L7 follow an on-point spoken-word intro by Jello Biafra with the sludge-metal "Boys in Black": "Boys in black/ Strung up by men in sheets."
You might do a double take when you hear the Supersuckers' "Heavy Heart," which sounds like some lost Elvis Costello track. And the ever-brilliant Mark Lanegan, ex-leader of Screaming Trees, sings the chillingly beautiful "Untitled Lullaby."
Also rocking hard on their respective tracks are Rocket From The Crypt, Zeke, the Murder City Devils, Tony Scalzo and Nashville Pussy.
And then there's Tom Waits, contributing "Rains on Me," a song he wrote with Chuck E. Weiss. A guitar or two, a couple of drums and a drunken chorus provide the minimal setting. Delivered in a voice weathered as an old trunk, Waits' words seem to sum up the lives of the West Memphis 3: "This is how the world will be/ Everywhere I go it rains on me."
In The Game
Marilyn Manson, Holy Wood (in the shadow of the valley of death) (Nothing/Interscope): From where I sit, Manson's Ziggy/glam turn, Mechanical Animals, was brilliant rock 'n' roll. Here Manson gets heavier and harder, once again making a statement that should drive the adults crazy. One song's titled "Disposable Teens," and another "President Dead." Some Manson lyrics are pure poetry, 1984-style: "This is for the people/ Getting high on violence, baby/ President Dead is clueless/ And he's caught in a headlight, police-state god..." Just in time for a Bush presidency?
Michael Goldberg is the president of insiderone.net. He founded Addicted To Noise in 1994.
© 2000 Michael Goldberg. All rights reserved.