The story of the West Memphis Three
The soundtrack to the movie West of Memphis: Voices for Justice features the music of some of the most talented contemporary artists known for their social consciousness. The record includes new tracks by such luminaries as Patti Smith, Eddie Vedder, Natalie Maines, Marilyn Manson, and Lucinda Williams. The individual tracks are awesome by themselves, but, more significantly, they mean more together than they would alone. The songs reflect the arc of the story of the West Memphis Three and deepen one’s understanding of the depth the miscarriage of justice had on three real human beings.
The documentary West of Memphis tells the story of how three innocent teenagers were arrested and convicted for the grisly murders of three eight-year-old boys in the small town of Memphis, Arkansas. The accused spent 18 years in prison until their release (under Alford pleas) in 2011. The purchase of this album will in part directly benefit the three men.
However, it is a well-known truism that good causes do not always make for good music. This album is the exception. From the first words of Henry Rollins reading a letter he received from Damien Echols (one of the West Memphis Three) about being in a Supermax facility without sunlight and having his parole turned down recited over an instrumental by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, to the last track of Patti Smith singing her composition “Wing”, about someone who was physically trapped but whose mind and spirit soared the blue skies, at a Voices For Justice Benefit Concert in 2010, the record is packed with powerful and wondrous performances.
There are many standout performances. Natalie Maines takes on Pink Floyd’s “Mother” (from The Wall) and turns it into a heartfelt diatribe against a mean and controlling world. Maines was one of the early supporters of the West Memphis Three who won a court case against the father of one of the child victims who accused her of defamation. Lucinda Williams redoes her hard rockin’ “Joy” (which mentions the town of West Memphis) in a much grittier and darker fashion than the original from Car Wheels On a Gravel Road. She seriously wants her “Joy” back here, and implies that the people who took it are seriously evil sons of bitches.
On the lighter side of this dark tale are songs such as the all-star group Camp Freddy’s take on David Bowie’s “Jean Genie” that aurally glows with malevolent glee. Marilyn Manson, one of the many celebrities who campaigned against the West Memphis Three’s incarceration, turns Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain” into a sinister sounding rant with a spark of humor. Tracks like these two reveal the inner spark of creativity in bleak circumstances. The very fact that music can move a person, even if it is just the sound recollected in one’s head, when in bleak circumstances is a miracle worth celebrating. Imagine how three innocent men with life sentences persevered for 18 years in prison with little hope of ever being released. Echols has spoken of how important music was to his life and survival. Songs like these point to the aspect of human psychology.
Which leads to a discussion of the one previously recorded song, Bob Dylan’s “Ring Them Bells” from 1989’s Oh Mercy. This psalm-like call for shared communion, for faith in each other and in the world, fits the theme. The three men are free now. They suffered, but they found hope in unexpected quarters. Most of the other participants in this score, like Johnny Depp, Bill Carter, and Eddie Vedder, did more than just participate in the recordings but were part of the effort to free the West Memphis Three. To learn more about the case, check out the film. But if you are just looking for some good music with heavy overtones that make you think about the prison industrial complex and the mass incarceration policies in America today – not to mention the triumph of the individual – buy the record.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work as independent cultural critics and historians. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times. Thanks everyone.