Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Damien Echols and Eddie Vedder

I wanted to throw together some thoughts about seeing Eddie Vedder interview Damien Echols about his new book, "High Magick: A Guide to the Spiritual Practices That Saved My Life on Death Row." It felt like a bridge between my old and new worlds, because Eddie Vedder=Pearl Jam=Seattle, and Echols' arrest in West Memphis, AR, was the news story in Memphis when I was in high school, at the height of Satanic Panic. I won't go into the details of the case, but the summary is that Echols and two other kids were arrested for a horrific triple murder. Their guilt seemed dubious at the time, and time and evidence eventually bore that out, in my opinion and the opinion of many others, including wealthy celebrities like Vedder, who put money and 15 years of effort into getting these men freed. It seemed clear to me, as a misfit and metalhead, that these guys were arrested for wearing black and listening to Metallica. I highly recommend the Paradise Lost documentaries, available on Amazon Prime, or the book "Devil's Knot" by Mara Leveritt, to learn about this case.

Off the bat, the rapport and affection between Vedder and Echols was apparent. Echols commented on the long-term effects that a decade of solitary confinement had on his developing brain, including being forgetful mid-sentence. Vedder replied, "You're in Seattle, and I'm willing to bet almost everyone here smokes a lot of pot, so you're in good company." Vedder's home here is where Echols and co-defendant Jason Baldwin flew immediately after their release from prison, and Vedder shared some of the artifacts that Echols had given him.

I was immediately struck by how obviously intelligent and articulate Echols was, especially in light of the fact that he has only a ninth grade education. He shared about some of his experiences in prison, his eight-hour a day magick practice that kept him occupied and sane while in solitary, and his difficulties reintegrating back into society after his release from prison. I remember reading about this in his first book, but was reminded of how after 20 years without seeing evolving technology, he asked his wife if she was moving the scrolling screen on her smartphone with her mind.

One moment I appreciated as a metalhead was that Vedder said that in preparation for Echols' arrival after his release from prison, he started amassing music that he thought might appeal to Echols. He said he bought every Black Sabbath album and Metallica's black album (Vedder: "Is that what you fucking call that?"). Echols asked for a different artist, so Vedder's wife used Spotify. At this point, Vedder starts singing the tune of Warrant's "Heaven," but not with the correct lyrics. Echols said, "No, it wasn't Warrant, it was White Lion." I'm guessing the song was "When The Children Cry" (my least favorite WL song, but whatever), because Vedder said: "If I ever had any doubt about your innocence, it disappeared right then."

Vedder took questions from the audience, including "What advice would you offer a teenage goth/pagan/magic practitioner in the South today?" Echols suggested keeping your head down and focusing more on improving yourself than on what you post on Instagram. Probably solid advice for anybody, really.