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West Memphis Three’s Damien Echols on the Music Gave Him ‘Life After Death’

Damien Echols / Photo by Peter Ash Lee/Art + Commerce

Freed from death row after 18 years, the face of the West Memphis Three has written a book, Life After Death. Here’s the soundtrack to his unusual life.

Name a song you’ve listened to in the past 24 hours.
“Tomorrow” by Ozzy [Osbourne], while I was on the treadmill. Every morning after I got out, I would watch Ozzy videos. The last album I’d heard was [1991’s] No More Tears, so everything after that is new to me. Also, I had never seen YouTube before, and I thought it was the greatest.

What did you listen to in prison?
I had a little AM/FM radio, but I couldn’t pick up much of anything with it because I was under three stories of concrete [in solitary confinement], so the reception was practically nonexistent. Every now and then, you could pick up a station for a night, and it was usually old-school country, like Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Conway Twitty, and that would just fuck me up inside. That’s what my parents listened to when I was growing up.

Eddie Vedder brought a lot of attention to your situation. Were you into Pearl Jam or grunge before you went in?
I had seen the videos for “Even Flow” and “Alive,” but Pearl Jam were just getting started. I was sitting on death row when the guy in the next cell told me, “Kurt Cobain just killed himself.” I felt stunned. In prison, when you wake up on Christmas morning, it’s no different than any other morning. It was the same when Kurt died. Nothing changes, and you can’t wrap your mind around it, like, how does something this big happen, and it’s just another day?

Of the many musicians who rallied to your cause, do you have a favorite song?
There were so many bands, like Alkaline Trio, I had never heard of. Or Patti Smith — maybe I had heard the name before. I guess my favorite is “Army Reserve” on Pearl Jam, because it’s my own writing. Eddie took poetry that I’d written and arranged it into this amazing song. It sounds egotistical, but I think it’s the second-best song on that album! “Come Back” is better. There’s so much to catch up on.

What were you listening to the first time you smoked pot?
Either a-ha’s “Take on Me” or Billy Idol’s “Cradle of Love.” I never smoked pot till I was in jail waiting to go to trial. There was a late-night show on TV called Night Flight where they played horrible ’80s videos, like “Let’s Dance.”

Who would you like to portray in a rock biopic?
Jack White. I heard the White Stripes in prison, and I think he’s an incredible artist in an industry where artistry seems to be dwindling rapidly.

What makes you say that?
Growing up, I was always a metal kid: Megadeth, Slayer, Iron Maiden, Anthrax. I sound like my grandfather, but the stuff that passes for metal on the radio these days — I was like, “This is some kid whining.” I can’t even tell the bands apart.

What about Metallica? What did you think of Lulu?
I haven’t listened to any of the new albums. I think the best thing they ever made was Master of Puppets. It’s one of those albums where every single song is an adrenaline rush.

Your interest in heavy metal contributed to your conviction. Did you ever regret your fandom and wish you had just been into pop music?
I never wished I hadn’t listened to Metallica; it makes you feel alive. It’s what I identified with at that age. I never blamed the music. I just blamed the close-minded people who would put you on death row for what kind of music you like.