Henry Rollins: Music, Freedom and the West Memphis Three
Photo by Heidi May
Last year, I moderated a panel at Riot Fest in Chicago with members of the Russian band/activist group Pussy Riot. It was pretty amazing. So when Mike Petryshyn, who runs Riot Fest, contacted me this year and asked me if I would like to do another panel, I immediately said yes.
A panel at a music festival, I think, should have a music component. But it need not be obvious to the point that no one on the panel or the audience leaves with nothing more than what they came in with.
I came up with the idea to ask Jason Baldwin and Damien Echols of the West Memphis Three, along with Damien's amazing wife, Lorri Davis, to be part of a discussion on music — what it means to them and what role it played in their case and in their lives, before, during and after their incarceration. To me, the power of music played a major role in their freedom. I wanted to bring them together with some musicians who have had experience in independent music, and get the conversation started.
Luckily, we were able to get Thurston Moore, known for Sonic Youth as well as his own relentless solo output, collaborations and his label Ecstatic Peace!, which has released some amazing records. He is an A-to-Z on music and one of the more articulate people I've ever met. I knew he would be able to bring great insight to the conversation.
We also were able to secure Steve Ignorant of the anarchist collective Crass. They were much more than a band. When I got their first album, The Feeding of the 5000, in 1979, it made most of my other punk-rock records seem like mere rock & roll by comparison. There was so much assaultive truth in the lyrics, it was almost too much. With the singer of Crass on that stage with all the others, I knew I had a perfect balance.
If our throughline was music, then all panelists could weigh in honestly and from their own unique perspective. Audience members could not only hear some interesting points of view but hopefully find a lot in common with everyone onstage — which for me is a big part of what can be achieved with a panel discussion.
One of the things used against Damien, Jason and Jessie Misskelley to make the West Memphis Three seem suspicious was the records found in their rooms. When going through Damien's room, detectives didn't take his Cure or U2 records into evidence, only the ones they thought were "satanic." Same with Jason. For them, music became much more than something they listened to.
The night before we hit the stage, I visited with Jason and his wife, Holly. He told me that eventually, after severe beatings that knocked out his teeth and fractured his skull, both the inmates and guards believed in his innocence. He was able to procure a Discman and, every once in a while, a CD. He would play the CD over and over and try to memorize it, so when the eventual cell sweep would uncover the contraband, putting him in solitary for 30 days, he would be able to play the songs in his head. When he got a CD of the benefit record I and others made for the WM3, he did time for it.
Amazingly, he seems to hold no anger. He's soft-spoken yet energetic, humble and humbling to be with.
Lorri Davis and I have a relationship like no other I have ever experienced. We have known each other for well more than a decade and have had many communications via phone, email and in person, but only a few that have not been grimly intense. Our topic was always the case: three men in prison, charged with murders they did not commit.
Damien is a deep well. In discussion, he is usually a man of few, well-chosen words. I knew he and Lorri together would be great.
As per usual, I prepared and over-prepared, took notes on my notes, etc.
We got out there on a perfect fall afternoon, 9-12-15, and it was all I had hoped it would be. All of them were incredible!
The one thing I didn't see coming was that Jason would be so funny. He recounted stories of his early musical explorations, listening to Poison, buying cassettes at Walmart, discovering Metallica, his mother's affection for Mötley Crüe records. Steve Ignorant's stories of shaking up the Thatcher administration, Thurston's discovery of jazz, Lorri's unlikely journey into activism, Damien's reserved, cool and insightful input — it was all perfect.
When these things find their own chemistry, they tend to end when they are supposed to. When they're done, you just know. We hit that point at a little over 79 minutes of our allotted 90, thanked the audience and took our leave.
When I got offstage, I found myself surrounded by members of the audience and lost track of the panelists. Almost an hour later, after everyone had gotten a photo, signature, etc., I got to Riot Fest's Rebel Stage for Iggy Pop and his new lineup. "Sister Midnight," "Nightclubbing" and, amazingly, "Mass Production" (!) all made it into the set.
From the I Can't Not Tell You This Dept.: I am sharing a hotel with Mötorhead. In the middle of writing this, I got a text from one of the crew to come down to their bus that was parked out front to say hello. Guitarist Phil, drummer Mikkey and one of my favorite people, Lemmy, were on board. Always great to see the guys and check in with the Lem.
More From the Mind of Henry Rollins:
The Major Labels Are Screwing Up Record Store Day
When You Claim Racism Is Over, You Get a Dylann Roof
Why I'm Not an Atheist
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