When former Black Flag vocalist Henry Rollins talks about civic responsibility in America, it's hard not to be swayed. Especially when his subject is the 1993 West Memphis, Ark., murder trial that landed three teenage boys -- Jason Baldwin, Jessie Misskelley Jr. and Damien Echols -- in prison. Echols sits on death row.
Two HBO documentaries, titled Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills and Revelations, have drawn attention to the case, in which "the West Memphis Three" were accused of murdering three small boys. A preference for black clothes, Metallica and Stephen King helped make the teens their town's most "likely suspects." Tried and convicted with no witnesses and no concrete physical evidence against them, they have yet, many believe, to receive a fair trial.
After watching the documentaries, Rollins wanted to get involved. "The prosecution made no compelling evidence to convince me of their guilt, and the system that I pay my taxes to be a part of says that I'm innocent until proven guilty. When the prosecution holds up Stephen King books and Pink Floyd T-shirts saying, 'Ah-ha!' that's pretty weak."
Musicians including Tom Waits, Nashville Pussy and John Doe had already contributed to a benefit CD, called Free the West Memphis Three, the sales from which were donated to several WM3 funds. Rollins, brainstorming ways to raise money, wanted to make a record because, he says, "the one that had already been done on [WM3's] behalf had a lot of cool people on it, but it didn't stir anyone up."
Fulfilling his own civic duties, Rollins not only organized a 24-song Black Flag tribute CD, called Rise Above, but has also embarked on a U.S., European and Australian tour, proceeds from which will go the WM3's legal defense fund.
But make no mistake; the tour is set up to serve as a benefit, not a Black Flag reunion.
Rollins contacted Black Flag founder Greg Ginn, who agreed to donate the royalties from the songs to the WM3's defense fund. Shortly afterward, Rollins and former Circle Jerks/Black Flag vocalist Keith Morris, along with Rollins Band members Jim Wilson, Marcus Blake and Jason Mackenroth, played a few shows around Los Angeles, performing Black Flag songs, and raised $10,000.
Of the international tour, the group still staunchly maintains that it's not a reunion. "It's Greg Ginn's music, Greg and Chuck Dukowski," says Rollins. "I didn't have anything to do with these songs other than sing them on a record a long time ago."
When reached for comment, Ginn explained that he has no interest in a Black Flag reunion, but is reuniting members from the first four years of the group to play a one-time benefit show for a cat rescue group in Los Angeles. "I donated the royalties from those songs because it's a worthwhile cause," says Ginn. "The band was never about money, and at this late date [a reunion tour] would be about something that never appealed to me. I wanted to do it, but remove the greed factor from it. I'm very involved with cat rescue groups and a benefit show sounds perfect."
No details regarding Ginn's benefit have been released, but he's invited former vocalists including Dez Cadena, Keith Morris and Ron Reyes to play. Will Rollins participate? "It would be fine as long as he has a positive attitude about it," Ginn says.
In the meantime, Rollins Band is proceeding with its goal: raising $100,000 to be used to test DNA evidence that the West Memphis Three's defense team couldn't afford to pursue.
"There never has been a pursuit of truth in this case," says Rollins. "These kids were guilty the moment they walked into the courtroom, and that's not the way it's supposed to go for a murder -- for you, me or anybody. The good and the bad all get their fair day in court."