Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Dog Food for Justice

Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska is 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 megaobvious Born in the U.S.A. What's more, I prefer it because it left itself open to misappropriation by disco maestro Arthur Baker, former president Ronald Reagan, and other carriers of cultural contagion. After adjusting my volume knob to correct for its dim mastering, I find that Nebraska holds up. But I doubt the subculturally prestigious contributors to Sub Pop's Badlands: A Tribute to Bruce Springteen's Nebraska 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 Nebraska was 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 recreation, 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-worshipping, white-witchcraft Wiccans. Sparked by two HBO documentaries by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, the obtusely entitled 1996 Paradise Lost and 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 Website at Free the West Memphis 3 is one of its fund-raising 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 Lost are 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, Sub/Pop 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 bigshots like Megadeth on their black T-shirts, but in fact they were scuzzballs like Zeke. As young bands turn into old road warriors the way L7 and Rocket From the Crypt have, they meet many fellow scuzzballs along the way. This piece of outreach puts that connection into musical practice.

Partly because it's a mess, Free the West Memphis 3 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 occurred elsewhere, a likelihood the jury's verdict ignored. And all this is just prologue, because as the second documentary and many Websites 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 treatable brain tumor, drug convictions, and, as of 1996, a mysteriously deceased wife, Byers is a walking nightmare vowing vengeance. He's 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, gut reaction was 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 Revisisted 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 that are all Jello Biafra can muster to match 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 or a stereo. And though Badlands proves that this axiom applies to aesthetic as well as political reverence, maybe the essence-of-song concept was a smart way to cut its inevitable losses.

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.

Village Voice, Nov. 14, 2000