THE VEINS ON HENRY ROLLINS' THICK NECK POP AS HE PUFFS HIMSELF up onstage at Amoeba Music on Sunset like a black-T-shirt-clad god of war. Later, signing autographs and joking with some of the 1,700 fans who've crammed themselves between the CD racks for a free in-store performance by ex-Black Flag'ers Rollins, Chuck Dukowski and Keith Morris, he'll deflate himself into what may be his natural state: a variation on that manic social studies teacher you had in junior high who got you to read George Orwell for the first time. But for the moment at least, he rages through the lyrics of Black Flag's anti-authoritarian anthem "Rise Above," with most of the crowd chanting along: "We are tired of your abuse/Try to stop us, it's no use."
The song, with its strident, accusatory tone, is perfect for this evening's stated purpose, a 30-minute promotional set for the recently released benefit CD of the same name. On it are 24 Black Flag songs sung by Ice-T, Corey Taylor, Iggy Pop, Exene Cervenka, Ryan Adams, Lemmy, Dean Ween and more (including, of course, Dukowski, Rollins and Morris). Proceeds from the sale of the album go to the legal defense fund for a trio best known to the world as the West Memphis Three.
Convicted in 1994 of the bizarre murder of three 8-year-old boys in West Memphis, Arkansas, the young men Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley and Jason Baldwin are currently sitting out their 20s in Arkansas' medieval prison system, awaiting the results of their various appeals. Echols, who was seen at the time as the wannabe ringleader of a murderous Satanic cult, is on death row. Baldwin's serving life without parole and Misskelley got life plus 40 years.
All of which would be fine if they were indeed guilty. However, charges that they were the scapegoats of a late-20th-century Salem Witch Trial echo loudly to this day. Their case was the subject of not one, but two HBO documentaries, Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills and Paradise Lost 2: Revelations, which have spawned a nationwide movement demanding the release of the West Memphis Three. A Los Angeles-based Web site, www.wm3.org, serves as cyberspace ground zero for the effort, and numerous entertainment-industry folks have rallied round its digital banner, including Eddie Vedder, South Park co-creator Trey Parker, and the makers of Dawson's Creek, whose characters periodically sport "Free the West Memphis Three" shirts.
Rollins caught the WM3 bug a couple of years ago. His activism reached a frenzied pace this year, culminating in Rise Above, produced by Rollins with the blessing of Black Flag don-of-dons Greg Ginn. The CD has been ecstatically received by the punk community as "almost" a new Black Flag record. Hence the stage-diving, mosh-pit-crazed audience at Amoeba, a crowd so large store management barred the doors in order to keep the 200 persons outside from tempting the fire marshal's wrath.
"I've never done anything like this before," Rollins says before the show. "But when you see those documentaries, and you see these mulleted, trailer-park-dwelling, gap-toothed rednecks saying, 'I know he did it. I know he drank blood from the boy's penis.' You just wanna walk in and go, 'Gimme the keys. Okay, funboy, it's over with. We're going home now.' And they whine, 'But he's in jail!' And you're like, 'Oh, shut up! And gimme that badge, it's plastic anyway.' Like in that SNL skit where the guys come in to tear down the Star Trek set and Chevy Chase is still trying to put the Vulcan death grip on one of the movers, there's a big element of wanting to do that here."
Most of the tattooed and pierced punks at Amoeba seem only vaguely familiar with the cause Rollins is espousing. But perhaps that's part of the learning curve. Grove Pashley of the WM3 Web site hands out more than 300 fliers describing the case to concertgoers before he runs out of leaflets. And later Amoeba spokesperson Kara Lane says the store sold 125 copies of Rise Above that night alone. Images of the WM3 are on the album cover, and the liner notes point readers to the documentaries, the Web site, and an exhaustive new book by investigative journalist Mara Leveritt, Devil's Knot: The True Story of the West Memphis Three. But will Rollins' advocacy truly inspire activism and awareness amongst admirers?
"Definitely, I think so," says Sherri Durrell, a Black Flag enthusiast with a hennaed Louise Brooks bob and a large tattoo of St. Michael on her left forearm. "This sort of thing really brings people out, especially a lot of the kids who don't have HBO. I've heard about the case before, but I'll be paying more attention to it now."