Dog Food for Justice

A Tribute to Art and a Tribute From the Heart

Partly because it's a mess, this collection feels more like alienated teenagers' reality than does a well-plotted piece of nuance mongering like River's Edge—or the HBO documentaries, in the second of which Echols always appears in saintly white. But the documentaries deserve credit for powering the record emotionally by homing in on the horrific specifics of the crime. The victims of the West Memphis homicide were eight-year-old boys, one of whom had his skinned penis cut off. The battered and lacerated bodies were found in a mosquito-filled woods, yet none bore insect bites and there was no blood at the site, which strongly suggests that the deaths took place elsewhere, a likelihood the jury's verdict ignored. And all this is just prologue, because as the second documentary and many Web sites are wont to point out, there's a plausible alternate suspect: the castrated boy's father, John Mark Byers, who strides through both films, especially the second, like the monster dad scuzzballs have been screaming at since Black Sabbath called themselves Earth. Six-foot-eight with an old-hippie hairdo, an American-flag shirt, a bass voice suitable for hymn singing, a brain tumor, drug arrests, and, as of 1996, a mysteriously deceased wife, Byers is a walking nightmare vowing vengeance. This is the kind of abusive archetype that could turn an alt-rocker into a Pantera fan for life.

I'd make John Mark Byers the villain of any horror you got if I had to trust my gut reaction, but of course, that's just how the jury put three black-clad freaks in prison for life. If lack of physical evidence so concerns the WM3's defenders, nobody seems to have any on Byers either, and Revelations: Paradise Lost Revisited does a strange dance around a voluntary lie detector test he passes, catching him in inconsistencies while suggesting but never establishing that the mood enhancers he favors could have compromised the results. Nevertheless, Byers looms over this particular cause at least as much as the there-but-for-fortune-goes-black-clad-thou argument with which Jello Biafra counterposes against the devastating capital punishment statistics that constitute the record's overtly educational segment: "Only five other countries are known to have executed juvenile offenders in the 1990s: Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Nigeria, and Yemen. The U.S. has executed more juvenile criminals than all of them combined and is the only one known to have put any of them to death since 1997."

To segue from this to Chrissie Hynde intoning the Charlie Starkweather song that begins Badlands is to remember why art isn't all it's cracked up to be. Like Dar Williams later on "Highway Patrolman"—and unlike Deana Carter usurping the male road-outlaw provenance of "State Trooper" right after that—Hynde defines "Nebraska" as aesthetic object by emoting without gender modifications a first-person lyric that only makes sense dramatically for a man. The effect is to undermine the song's great advantage over any protest music, however righteous: the internalized moral complexity (a complexity the Memphis 3 music comprehends better than the documentaries) in which Starkweather can be a murderous macho psycho and a troubled teen fun-seeker simultaneously. In the end, a few of these interpretations—by Ben Harper, Son Volt of all people, even Los Lobos revving up "Johnny 99" if you don't think too hard—survive their own aestheticization. But only Johnny Cash, who establishes his right to a whole Springsteen album with a bonus-cut "I'm on Fire" that smells of burning leaves, and Hank Williams III, who stomps "Atlantic City" into submission with his pointy-toed boots, join Carter in taking over any of these songs. One reason protest music is usually a bad idea is that reverence plays better from a pulpit than from a stage, not to mention a stereo or a set of headphones. And though Badlands proves that this axiom applies to aesthetic as well as political reverence, maybe its essence-of-song concept was a smart way to cut its inevitable losses.

The Supersuckers defend the scuzzballs.
photo: Grove Pashlez
The Supersuckers defend the scuzzballs.

On the other hand, maybe these two records are a sign that the proper subject of rock politics is teenagers. I hope not, but for the nonce I'll settle. One proper subject, anyway. Free the West Memphis 3.

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