Dog Food for Justice

A Tribute to Art and a Tribute From the Heart

Bruce Springsteen's Nebraskais pretty unimposing for a monument. People embarrassed by the overstatement that made Springsteen a hero, and also the heroism that made him a hero, now often cite it as his best, but as an early dissenter from his overstatement who admires the honest trajectory of his career, I much prefer the mega-obvious Born in the U.S.A. What's more, I prefer it becauseit left itself open to misappropriation by disco maestro Arthur Baker, former president Ronald Reagan, and other carriers of cultural contagion. Still, after adjusting my volume knob to correct its dim mastering, I find that Nebraskaholds up. But I doubt the subculturally prestigious contributors to SubPop's Badlands: A Tribute to Bruce Springsteen'sNebraska had to try so hard. Cut on cassette in his living room? Sounds like a classic for sure, say Ani DiFranco, Ben Harper, Jay Farrar, Dar Williams. And whatever their own studio histories, now-marginalized postpunks Chrissie Hynde, Los Lobos, and Aimee Mann nod agreement.

When it was released in 1982, the pin-drop bitterness of Nebraskawas understood as an oblique response to the pall Reaganism had cast over the American everymen Springsteen celebrated so heroically. But for some reason—and I'm not being coy, since most of the participants are outspoken political progressives by rock standards and a substantial proportion of the proceeds is earmarked for Doctors Without Borders—that's not how the tribute is being marketed. Instead, the press release emphasizes how Springsteen was "looking for each song's irreducible core." So maybe political disillusion is now a working assumption of marginalized artists, with essence-of-song their preferred antidote. And maybe that explains the stillborn feel of this cut-by-cut re-creation, the original song sequence recorded on the same four tracks Springsteen was limited to, albeit with better tape and more help. Because the songs really are strong, it grows on you, as the original does. But it palls next to a much grimier project, Koch's Free the West Memphis 3.

No true-crime aficionado, I didn't know who the West Memphis 3 were a month ago. So when the notes ID'd them as teenagers convicted of a triple homicide because they'd copied down some song lyrics, I figured I at least owed these young men a listen and a little research. As you might imagine, there was more evidence than that, but nowhere near enough, and almost none of it physical. Although all were metal fans who loved Metallica, music didn't play as large a part in their 1994 railroading as the kind of hysteria rampant in day-care "sex abuse" cases. The most capable of the three, an intelligent and inquisitive 25-year-old named Damien Echols who's been on Arkansas's death row since he was 19, was branded a Satanist because he had some knowledge of Aleister Crowley and was briefly involved with the harmless, goddess-worshiping, white-witchcraft Wiccans. Sparked by two HBO documentaries by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, the obtusely entitled 1996 Paradise Lostand this year's Revelations: Paradise Lost Revisited, Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin, and Jessie Misskelley are now supported by a diligent nationwide defense committee, which maintains an extensive Web site at www.wm3.org. Free the West Memphis 3is one of its fundraising efforts.

Pardon my record review, but this is a weird and exciting little collection. As on Badlands, a few known quantities provide modest clout: Steve Earle prison protest, Tom Waits oppression lament, Eddie Vedder covering X's "Poor Girl." But most of the participants are low-rent and a few virtually unknown, which makes WM3 defender Burk Sauls's claim that the 3 "liked the kind of music that's on this CD" another distortion in the service of the higher good. The faves Baldwin names in Paradise Lostwere much slicker stuff: Megadeth, Slayer, U2, and of course Metallica, who are all over both films. What you get here is the kind of artists who do benefit comps—paying tribute to the grisly theatricality that keeps so many bogarted stoners and borderline goths crying into their underage beers as they negotiate the hell that is adolescence in suburbia.

Epitaph punkoids Zeke cover Iron Maiden, SubPop hard rockers the Murder City Devils cover the Misfits, ex-Breeder Kelley Deal covers Pantera, porn-punk shit-asses Nashville Pussy cover AC/DC ("Highway to Hell," a killer). There's a good original with the matter-of-factly says-it-all title "Wrong and Important" by Rocket From the Crypt and a good You Am I cover that makes romantic loss seem cosmic by the Supersuckers. And there are two superb occasional songs, L7's pop-metal dirge-chant "Boys in Black"—"Get the freaks get the dirty dirty freaks yeah/Snuff the creeps snuff the ugly ugly creeps yeah"—and a breakneck howl called "Indicted" by Tony Scalzo of Fastball (that's right, Tony Scalzo of Fastball). In sum, the record is dog food. But it's really great dog food. These three unjustly convicted outcasts may have identified with big shots like Megadeth on their black T-shirts, but in fact they were scuzzballs like Zeke. As young bands turn into old road warriors like L7 and Rocket From the Crypt, they meet many fellow scuzzballs along the way, and this piece of outreach puts that connection into musical practice.

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