Back in 1994, three teenagers were convicted for the murder of three boys in West Memphis, Arkansas. The three young men—Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley, and Jason Baldwin—were railroaded from start to finish, and the case against them was built on the idea that the children were killed as part of a satanic ritual conducted by the trio, who were also quiet kids who listened to heavy metal.
They became known as the West Memphis Three, and the quest to free them became a cause celebre that attracted the attention of stars like Johnny Depp, Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder, and former Black Flag and Rollins Band frontman Henry Rollins, who regularly hosted benefit shows and put out a curated an album of Black Flag covers to raise funds for the West Memphis Three’s appeals. The story has been well told in the documentary series Paradise Lost, as well as in the just-released documentary West of Memphis, which shifts its focus to the process that led to the Alford pleas that allowed the West Memphis Three to go free after 18 years.
With so many musicians invested in the West Memphis Three, it’s no surprise that the soundtrack to West of Memphis—which just hit store shelves yesterday—has a pretty tremendous lineup, including Vedder, Depp, Bob Dylan, Nick Cave, Natalie Maines, and Rollins. EW spoke with Rollins recently about the film, the soundtrack, and the ongoing saga of the West Memphis Three.
EW: Considering how long this process has been and the stakes involved, is it a little surreal to be talking about the West Memphis Three in terms of the subject of a film soundtrack?
Rollins: I never thought we’d be having this conversation—the soundtrack, the movie, all of that. There were a lot of dark months, even dark years. You burn so many emotional calories thinking about these guys in cages. Then the thing goes to the judge, the thing you’ve been working on for 15 months, and the judge just goes “Nah.” And you’re back at the bottom of the hill, covered in mud, with no tools. So you have to go back and get the tools again. This would be for three years at a time. The entire thing became abstract. The trippiest thing is now me hanging with Damien in New York at a packed theater with a bunch of people clapping. It borders on the surreal.
And even though they are no longer in jail, the story still isn’t over.
Right. The thing that a lot of people do forget is that three beautiful little boys were killed. There are parents who are still gutted that their babies are dead. What parent gets over it? So someone did that—not Damien, Jesse or Jason, but someone. And they need to answer for that. These people need any resolution that can be afforded, and the West Memphis Three need exoneration. They did not do anything, and not only do they deserve to get out of prison, but the rest of the world needs to go, “OK, they really did get the guy.”
One of the ideas the film drives home is that everybody carried on as though justice was impossible. Were you shocked when the Three were actually released?
It was shock at first, and then that gave way to happiness. I’m pessimistic. I don’t think that justice always gets the right person. These guys did damn near 20 years for something they didn’t do, so where was justice for them? It comes down to a state who wanted to sweep this under the carpet. They looked like they could have done it. They had Slayer records, so of course. The logic was, “They’re probably going to end up in the big house anyway. Look at their hair!” I took a grim, realistic look at it, but it didn’t diminish my caloric output.
What did you do when you found out?
I was here at the office, and I got a call from Lori, Damien’s great wife. She explained the plea to me, and that they were getting out in like 12 days. It was a lock, but I couldn’t tell anyone yet. Several days later I was at the Edinburgh Festival in Scotland and I’m on my way to soundcheck, and all of a sudden I get 50 e-mails in two minutes, and I said, “It must have happened!” I didn’t know how to process it. It was crazy. So after I went on stage I answered like 65 e-mails. And they were like, “Yeah man! You did it!” But we really did it. It was super grassroots: 20 bucks here, 50 bucks there, a benefit show here, there was a couple who made like a hundred bran muffins and sold them. Eddie Vedder threw in who knows how much. He’s the real deal—he puts his money where his mouth is. I sort of know the roundish figure of what he personally put in, but he did it anonymously. He’ll never tell, but it’s like the GDP of a small country. He’s just that guy.
Having spent some quality time with him and corresponded with him, what can you tell us about Damien Echols? Because for a guy who was wrongly put on death row for nearly two decades, he seems remarkably well adjusted.
I worry and wonder about Damien, Jesse, and Jason. Damien is a true intellectual. He is a truly cerebral person. He really does live in his head, and he really did find a way to intellectually escape prison. Buddhism also helped, he used that for escape. He found a way to not let it get to him. He’d have breakdowns. On the soundtrack, you hear me read a letter from him, and he’s losing it. He talks about it in his book: he would get his sanity, lose it for a while, then get it back. It became this fluid thing, like sobriety, like he was off the wagon for a while. But he always sucked it up and got back on the horse. I think Damien retained his sanity and realized that life is for the living, and now he really enjoys New York and good coffee and is married to one of the most amazing women I’ve ever met. She’s really something. In a way, he’s very lucky that all of this awfulness has led him to this woman. I saw her more than he did, which is crazy. She’s the one who really scared the state of Arkansas, not Johnny Depp. She’s like the Terminator. She was never going to stop. And a lot of these conversations center around Damien, but the other two deserve the business class upgrade too. Jason Baldwin is a righteous dude, and he did not want the Alford plea, because in his mind that was like copping to it. But he said he’d go along with it, because his friend Damien was facing the needle. Jason really wants to be an attorney, and what a good guy you’d want on your side. He’d defend you with Wagnerian fury. And from what I understand, until he’s cleared, he can’t be an attorney. He can’t join the bar. That’s another reason why the state of Arkansas needs to find who actually did this.
Why do you think so many musicians gravitated to this story?
I think a lot of people saw themselves in those three guys. I see myself in Damien—a guy who is not a people person. I’m not the guy on the roof of the water tower picking off students, but I’m not going to the party. I’d rather have a rock and roll record and a book and a caffeinated liquid at home alone, thank you very much. I’m not a party guy. But I’m not a danger to you. I’m not harmful, just introspective. You can probably think I’m weird, but it’s not harmful weird. Like Damien. It’d be easy to talk about him and say, “Well, look at that.” He’s bookish, really cerebral. A little odd, but not dangerous. I’m sure a lot of people of my ilk, your punk rock independent types, your metal types, they looked at these guys and thought, “That could have been me.”
It’s an idea that never seems to go away. Even now, in the wake of a string of horrible acts of gun violence, we’re still somehow having the conversation about whether or not heavy metal and violent video games turn kids into killers. Where do you stand on that?
I think that’s wrong. I go a festival with 80,000 metalheads called Wacken. It’s a huge festival in Germany. They bring me in to do spoken word in front of a bunch of Viking-like men, and metal people are some of the friendliest, most intellectual, help-you-out-of-a-ditch types. You want to meet a bunch of really friendly people? Go to a Slayer concert. There’ll be some real psychos there, but most of those people will take care of each other. I think the people who blame heavy metal are half-informed. I’m not interested in censorship. I like the First Amendment very much. I do think that we, Americans, are not treating each other as well as we should. With all of this, Sandy Hook, exacerbates a condition that has been going on for a long time. We need to have the conversation that doesn’t devolve into, “Well, all you liberals hate guns, all you conservatives are all like Ted Nugent,” because neither is true. You can’t say “All you are like,” because nobody is always anything. We’re dynamic creatures. With a case like the West Memphis Three, what is obvious is that justice wasn’t done, and there were people who put those guys away who knew better. You can’t sweep anything under the rug—not in a country that goes to the rest of the world and claims to be an exceptional example. America needs a dose of humility and it needs a time out, and it really needs to look at itself. In all of this freedom, there’s an unenviable gut. There’s a lot of fat in the moral fiber. I’m not saying you need to go to church, but you need to look at more than just guns, more than just mental health, more than just rap music and Call of Duty. It all needs to be looked at and it needs to be looked beyond. The West Memphis Three bring all of that to the fore. This is where you really wish Abraham Lincoln was around—someone who could say, “Everyone stop shouting, let’s sit down and make this thing work.”
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