Lonnie Barber, janitor-driver for the New London School, watched as young children climbed aboard his bus, laughing and horseplaying. The elementary school students--released 10 minutes earlier than their junior high and high school classmates--were in particularly high spirits that springlike Thursday afternoon of March 18, 1937. The next day had been declared a holiday so students could attend the annual district scholastic and athletic competition in nearby Henderson. It was an otherwise unremarkable day, except that because the much-anticipated casting for the annual senior play had begun, only four of the 740 students had been absent, a record for the new school year.

The lanky, gray-haired Barber shifted the bus into low gear and began a slow climb up a dirt road on the outskirts of the East Texas oil-field community. It was 3:20 p.m.

As Barber reached the crest of a hill, a sudden force of air shook the bus. There was a growing, loud rumble, then the shattering echo of an explosion. Simultaneously, Barber and the children turned their attention to the source of the noise. Two dozen horror-stricken faces stared back toward their 4-year-old school building--which was no longer there. In a bizarre, catastrophic moment that was to find its way into the history of American tragedy, there was nothing left but black smoke mixing with a spiraling cloud of red clay dust and sprayed rubble where the E-shaped building had once stood.

Had Barber looked back a split second earlier, he would have seen the same grotesque scene eyewitnesses would later recall: a rumble as the ground shook, then the walls of the two-story brick building seeming to expand outward. The red tile roof was momentarily lifted into the air, then crashed back down. Natural gas, used to heat the school's 72 steam radiators, had been accumulating from an undetected leak in the building's sub-basement for days, apparently ignited when a teacher flipped the switch to start an electric sanding machine in the school workshop.

Barber hesitated only briefly, then squared himself in his driver's seat and pressed the gas pedal to the floorboard. He knew the parents of the children he was transporting would be worried about their safety. Thus, even as word of the worst tragedy involving schoolchildren in American history was being flashed around the world, Barber, his face twisted with agony, dutifully completed his hour-long route just as he'd done for years.

Only then did he hurriedly return to the school to find out if his own four children were among the survivors.

He was met by chaos. People were digging with bare, bleeding hands into the smoldering rubble in an effort to reach screaming victims trapped beneath the twisted steel beams and brick. The gruesome remains of dozens of young victims had already been removed and placed along the edge of the school yard. Those drawn to them, searching madly for their children, quickly realized that identification was going to be a difficult task. Almost immediately, speculation of the number of deaths began to climb: 400, 500, maybe more. A form of insanity swept through the town. First on the scene were parents who had escaped death themselves only because a PTA meeting they were attending had, at the last minute, been moved from the school auditorium to the gymnasium. Soon, truckloads of oil-field roughnecks, released from their jobs as soon as word of the catastrophe reached drilling sites throughout Rusk County, arrived with bulldozers, winch trucks and acetylene torches. Local Boy Scout troops were called into action. Texas Governor James Allred, upon learning of the disaster, immediately dispatched National Guard troops. Red Cross and Salvation Army workers poured into the isolated community from throughout East Texas. Radio stations in nearby Tyler and Kilgore discontinued regular programming and served as a communications network for the rescue operation.

From Dallas, 120 miles to the west, came 30 doctors, 100 nurses and 25 embalmers who, because of the magnitude of their task and the lack of facilities, were forced to perform their work on tables set up on the school grounds. Every available form of transportation--buses, automobiles, pickups--was enlisted as ambulances or hearses. Bodies were pulled from the wreckage and lined up along a fence with school principal Troy Duran assigned the task of identifying the dead before they were transported to makeshift morgues.

The thunderous blast claimed the lives of 280 students and 14 teachers. One of them was 11-year-old fifth-grader Arden Barber, the bus driver's youngest son. His three other children, including high school senior L.V. Barber, were among the nearly 100 who escaped with injuries.

"I was in the study hall, which was located in the far end of the building," L.V. Barber recalls, "and I wasn't injured, except for a few scratches. But my sister Pearl, who was sitting next to me, was hit by a part of the wall that fell and suffered a back injury. My younger brother Burton was in the shop where the explosion took place and somehow came out of it with only burns and a few cuts. As soon as I got out of the building I ran straight home to tell Mother what had happened. She'd already heard and was getting ready to go up to the school. My dad was there when we arrived, and he told us that Arden was dead but he hadn't been able to find his body. [page]

"My parents finally located him later that night, in a funeral home over in Overton."

It was a story L.V. Barber rarely told during his lifetime. "Even Dad never talked much about the explosion after Arden's funeral," he says. "I guess he, like everybody else, just decided to try and put it behind him. He retired the next year, then died in 1969. I can remember newspaper people coming around every now and then, asking him questions about that day, but he never had much to say."

In modern Texas history, only two disasters have claimed more lives: the Galveston hurricane of 1900, in which nearly 8,000 died, and the 1947 Texas City chemical-plant explosion that killed more than 600. For years, in fact, many of those who lived through the nightmare chose simply to lock away their memories, as if by doing so they could somehow move past that horrific day when an entire generation had died.

Texas newspapers have occasionally dispatched reporters to do "anniversary" stories on the event that once made headlines worldwide, briefly reviving the horror story and repeating the question of why such a wealthy school district flirted with the danger of piping free natural gas into the school. Until recently, however, the tale of enormous grief and guilt, courage and triumph has remained a well-kept East Texas secret. Only now, with word that a New York journalist has received a high six-figure advance to write a book on the subject, does it appear the remarkable story will be told to a national audience.

That night brought a cold driving rain. Ignoring the weather, rescue crews dutifully went about their work. Bill Rives, an Associated Press reporter at the time, estimated that 2,000 men dug and carried away more than 5 million pounds of rock, brick and steel, moving it 100 yards from the explosion site, in less than 24 hours. Before they would finish, Rives wrote, "the area where the blast had occurred looked as if it had been swept clean by brooms."

Dallas' Felix McKnight, 26 at the time and also working for AP, opened his first dispatch with a sentence that would become a journalism classic. "Today," he wrote, "a generation died."

Now 91, the former Dallas Times Herald executive editor is quick to list the New London story as the most memorable he covered during a 65-year journalism career in which he also wrote the lead story for the Herald on the Kennedy assassination.

"It was dusk by the time Rives and I arrived," he recalls, "and workers were already clearing away the rubble, searching for survivors. A long line had formed and they were passing along peach baskets filled with debris. We identified ourselves and were immediately told that helpers were needed far more than reporters." Thus McKnight and Rives joined the brigade of oil-field roughnecks and distraught fathers in helping clear the area.

"I finally broke away after an hour or so and ran over to this little oil-field shack where there was a telephone," McKnight recalls. "It was being guarded, and I was told it was for emergency use only. But, finally, they let me use it for two minutes and I was able to dictate a brief bulletin."

After learning that a skating rink in nearby Overton had been converted into a makeshift morgue, McKnight went there in an effort to get a more accurate body count. "The enormity of what I saw there has never left me," he says. "There were lines of small bodies laid out on the floor, each covered with a sheet. I don't remember seeing a one that was identifiable. They had all been so mangled and torn apart by the blast." He remembers parents identifying their lost children only by the remnants of clothing on the bodies.

A doctor gave McKnight a bucket of formaldehyde and a sponge, telling him to sprinkle it onto the sheets. "I'd do it for a while," he says, "then, when my eyes began to burn so badly I couldn't see, I'd have to go outside for a few minutes." [page]

Every building in the area--church basements, a drugstore, the gym, a garage--was converted into either a morgue or a field hospital. Every funeral parlor within a 50-mile radius was filled with victims. In Dallas, workers at a casket company were put on around-the-clock shifts to fill the sudden need. In Tyler, the grand opening of the new Mother Francis Hospital had been planned for the following Monday. The ceremony was quickly forgotten, and it opened as soon as word of the explosion reached the hospital administrator. The need for bandages and medication depleted the stock of every drugstore for miles. Traffic in and out of the community was bumper-to-bumper as the injured were being carried away and the curious were arriving.

Another Dallas-based newsman on hand was 22-year-old Walter Cronkite, a newly hired United Press International reporter. Cronkite, who would become a journalism icon covering major events worldwide, now says that nothing had prepared him for the scene he would find upon his arrival in New London.

"I got my first inclination of just how bad it was," the retired CBS Evening News anchorman says, "when I got to Tyler and saw all the cars lined up at the funeral home. It was dark by the time I got to New London. I'll never forget that scene.

"I can still see those floodlights they had set up and the big oil-field cranes that had been brought in to remove the rubble. Men were moving around like a colony of ants, climbing up and down the piles of debris, literally digging with their hands."

Cronkite says he was there for four days, filing stories on the explosion, its aftermath and, eventually, the around-the-clock funerals. "Grief was everywhere," he recalls. "Almost everyone you ran into had lost a member of his family. Yet they went about doing everything they could to help each other. The men were digging out the bodies and removing the rubble while the women were helping the injured and supplying coffee and meals for the workers."

For many parents the search lasted days. A mother located one of her dead sons on the school grounds and placed his body in the backseat of her car. Then she began driving from one funeral home to another, finally locating the remains of her other child two days later. Another went from body to body, clutching a small piece of fabric left from a new dress she'd sewn for her daughter. Only when she was able to match the swatch to the clothing on one of the dismembered bodies did she learn that her child was dead.

Soon, an unsettling barrage of stories spread, some true, some embellished, many wholly fabricated. For a time, a rumor circulated that one of the students, angered by the reprimands of a too-strict teacher, had stolen several sticks of dynamite from one of the nearby drilling sites and had blown up the school. One story that was true, however, involved a father who earlier in the day had found his children at a nearby fishing hole, playing hooky. He'd scolded them and personally delivered them to school just hours before the explosion killed them.

Another woman, finding her dead 16-year-old daughter, suffered a fatal heart attack. Two mothers engaged in a hysterical fight over a mutilated corpse, each insisting it was her son. A young girl, uninjured by the blast, had jumped to safety from a second-floor window but had suffered a deep cut to her inner thigh when she landed on a pile of rubble. Before her condition was noticed, she bled to death.

A student, bleeding and in shock, approached rescue workers, begging that they help his best friend. When asked where he was, the boy pointed upward toward highline wires that stretched between two still-standing poles. Lying across them, 30 feet in the air, was a body.

A young Boy Scout from a neighboring community wandered through the debris carrying a sack, his assignment to collect scattered shoes. Many of them still contained the feet of mutilated victims. A number of the bodies, in fact, were unrecognizable. One youngster was finally able to identify his dead brother only after reaching into his pocket and locating the string he used to spin his prize top.

Funerals were soon held at an assembly-line pace--as many as a dozen were conducted simultaneously. When all hearses in the area were in use, pickup trucks were used to transport caskets to the Pleasant Hill Cemetery. Pallbearers literally raced from one grave site to another, as did members of a local church choir who had volunteered to sing a hymn during each ceremony. Oil-field workers dug the graves.

As word of the tragedy spread, a sympathetic world shared in the grief that had visited the isolated community. First lady Eleanor Roosevelt wired her sympathies, as did German dictator Adolf Hitler. A Japanese elementary class sent a telegram, expressing its sorrow. Soon a memorial fund was established and donations arrived from around the world. A Girl Scout troop in Kansas sent 25 cents it had collected. A 5-year-old Galveston girl who had been saving her pennies to purchase a doll mailed them to New London, saying she would rather they be used to memorialize the dead children. Students at the Cherbourg School in France conducted a drive and collected $9.50. [page]

The funds helped pay for a permanent reminder of the tragedy that now stands across from the rebuilt school: a 34-foot-high, $20,000 cenotaph, carved from 120 tons of Texas granite. Engraved at its base is the name of each person who died in the blast.

Before 1937, the biggest news to visit the region was the discovery of one of the world's richest oil deposits beneath its sandy loam soil. An Oklahoma wildcatter named C.J. (Dad) Joiner, using unconventional search techniques such as fortunetellers and divining rods, hit it big in 1930, and the area went from the Depression-era doldrums to staggering riches almost overnight. New London residents, in fact, had proudly claimed theirs the richest school district in the United States. Where else, they would boast, could one find a 15-acre school campus with 10 pumping oil wells located on the grounds?

One of Joiner's promises to a civic-minded local resident named Daisy Bradford was that if she would allow him to drill on her land, the oil revenue he was certain would result could provide an improved school for the children of New London. In 1934, the new $1 million school was built. Teachers' salaries were increased. New books, band instruments and a piano were purchased. Soon, the Wildcats had the first football stadium in the state lighted for night games. The county's population grew from a pre-oil boom 32,000 to 65,000.

Why, then, given the school's unlimited wealth, had it risked students' lives to save $3,000 per year on heating fuel?

The school board, at the urging of Superintendent William Shaw, had voted to heat their million-dollar school by siphoning off free natural gas, then a worthless byproduct of petroleum extraction, from a nearby refinery. This although petroleum experts considered the odorless and highly volatile gas too dangerous for commercial use.

In the days before the disaster, numerous students complained of headaches and burning eyes. Still it apparently never occurred to school officials that a pipeline might be leaking, that 6,000 cubic feet of gas had slowly collected beneath the foundation.

Ten days after the explosion, school resumed in makeshift classrooms on the New London campus. The 287 returning students--a little more than half the previous academic population--assembled in the gymnasium as somber teachers quietly called roll. The names of many drew no response except for the occasional "He's dead," or "She's still in the hospital."

Slowly, the townspeople's grief turned to outrage. Embittered parents threatened civil suits against the school district and the refinery from which the deadly gas had been siphoned. The U.S. Bureau of Mines, now a part of the Department of Interior, launched an investigation, calling Superintendent Shaw before a court of inquiry. Despite the fact he had lost a son and a niece in the blast, talk abounded for a time that a lynch party would visit his home. Though ultimately exonerated of any wrongdoing, Shaw resigned. "Years after the explosion," a friend remembers, "it was all he could talk about. He never got over it."

In time, a single lawsuit--a "test" case--was brought to trial despite the opposition of many families who worked for the oil companies and were thus reluctant to challenge their employers. The litigation divided the community to a point where shouting matches and occasional fights broke out on the steps of the courthouse. Finally, after months of testimony--much of it from young students who had survived the blast--Judge R.T. Brown stunned a crowded courtroom by ruling that none of those named in the suit could be held directly responsible.

One good thing came from the event. The Texas Legislature quickly passed a law requiring that a foul-smelling substance called methyl mercaptain be added to natural gas. Soon, the regulation was being adopted worldwide. It is because of the New London school explosion that natural gas used now has an easily detectable odor.

Today, it is no longer called the New London School. Since 1995 it has been known as West Rusk Consolidated, and enrollment has grown to 861 students--almost as many students as New London has residents (987). [page]

Across the street from the school, where Charlie's Drug Store was once a favored hangout of the community's teen-agers, the London Museum and Tea Room offers visitors a moving reminder of the tragedy that struck just a few hundred yards from its front door. There are photographs and newspaper clippings, the telegrams and letters of condolence received and artifacts claimed from the wreckage. There's a copy of the edition of Life magazine that featured a lengthy photo story on the aftermath of the explosion, as well as the brief newsreel footage that showed in the nation's movie theaters the week after the disaster.

Overseen by Mollie Ward, a fourth-grader in 1937, the museum features one area that has been labeled "Ms. Wright's Classroom" and displays an antique blackboard salvaged after the explosion. There are remnants of papers written by her English students, along with dented lunch boxes and tattered spiral notebooks found and saved by those who searched the rubble.

"While I felt it was important to keep the memory of what occurred alive," Ward says, "I have to admit that I was concerned about the reaction some would have to the visual reminders of what was the worst day of many of their lives."

She need not have worried. Now, when survivors make their biannual pilgrimages to New London for reunions, Ward's museum is the first place they gather.

It's also a place, and a town, to which I'm drawn. For years, I've seldom made a trip into East Texas without detouring off Interstate 20 to visit New London. For reasons I can't fully explain, I'm drawn to its people, to the memorial, to the quiet drive into the dogwood- and tree-laden outskirts where the Pleasant Hill Cemetery sits atop a rise. I'm drawn to the headstones that bear the photographs of smiling children, their date of death all the same.

In that time, I've wondered why, in the grand scope of the nation's history, the New London explosion has been all but forgotten. Another disaster that occurred just two months later in Lakehurst, New Jersey--the flaming crash of the Hindenburg--eclipsed the nation's memory of New London, even though fewer lives were lost.

Only now, it appears, has the world beyond New London decided to take notice. Sara Mosle, a former New York teacher and journalist, was recently signed by Knopf to do a book on the event. "My grandfather worked in the oil fields near New London," she says, "and my mother was a first-grader at nearby Arp when the explosion occurred." An aunt, she says, was in the fourth grade. "I remember them talking about it when I was growing up, and the story has stayed with me. Yet it seemed to have dropped from the history books." Mosle's book, tentatively titled Boom, will be published in 2003.

I've come to know some of those who were there and survived that infamous day. As a journalist, I attended the first of their reunions in 1977. For some, I learned, it took nearly a lifetime before they could speak about it.

Claude Kerce, who now lives in DeSoto, was in the sixth grade, a student in Ms. Ann Wright's class memorialized at Mollie Ward's museum. "I remember one minute the teacher was talking, then all of a sudden there was nothing but dust everywhere," he says. "I ran toward the window and Miss Wright was standing by it. I pushed her out and then went out right behind her. We lived about two miles from the school and I ran every step of the way home. I never even looked back to see what had happened."

As Claude was making his way home, his father, a welder for Humble Oil Co., was driving past the school. Seeing the horrifying sight, he steered his pickup across the school yard, through the debris, and immediately went to work digging in the piles of rubble. It would be 30 hours before he reached home.

Claude's late brother G.W. remembered talking to his best friend, Billy Roberts, when the building exploded. A brick sailed past his head. He ran outside onto the football field, looking back at the mushroom of dust and smoke. Only later would he learn that just four of the 16 students in his 10th-grade geometry class survived. Billy Roberts was not among them. Until his death, G.W.--former minor-league baseball player, Exxon employee and past president of the local school board--carried a faded old school photo of Roberts in his billfold.

Decades later, Arthur Shaw, a 10th-grader in 1937, remained confused about the sequence of events. "I can remember sitting in geometry class, talking to a friend of mine about hitchhiking to Fort Worth the next day to see the fat stock show," he says. "And then I heard this rumbling noise. The next thing I can remember is being under a pile of boards and dirt, yelling for someone to help me. [page]

"I vaguely remember someone taking me to the basement of the Baptist church where the local dentist and a hairdresser sewed some stitches into my head. Then, I was in somebody's truck and finally at the emergency room of Mother Francis Hospital in Tyler.

"A friend of mine, Elbert Box, was also there--he later had to have a leg amputated--and we talked. At the time, we both thought it had been only our classroom that blew up. We had no idea the whole school exploded."

Shaw, who suffered a fractured vertebra, was also unaware of the extent to which the tragedy had touched his family. An older sister had been in the library and escaped serious injury when a wall behind her fell and killed a teacher and several students in an adjacent room. Among them was his younger sister Dorothy, a sixth-grader.

"My older sister later found Dorothy in a row of bodies outside the school," he says. Also lying among the dead was his 16-year-old cousin Sambo Shaw, son of the school superintendent.

Marie Beard was a second-grader waiting for her older sister to get out of class when the school exploded. Suffering a concussion, severe damage to one eye and a broken pelvic bone, she was dug from the debris and placed into a bread truck that was being used as an ambulance. "There were a lot of bodies in there," she remembers, "but a boy named Billy and I were the only ones who were still alive."

After the truck had reached the hospital, the driver noticed that the little girl, though still breathing, had been placed alongside a row of dead bodies. When he urgently called her condition to the attention of one of the doctors, he was told that she was so near death that it would be futile to waste time attempting to save her.

Marie's older sister, who also survived, and her parents would later tell her the remainder of the story once she emerged from a 10-day coma. "The bread-truck driver--I never learned his name--picked me up, put me back into his truck and drove me to a hotel in Overton that was also being used as an emergency hospital.

"In all these years," she says, "I never learned that driver's name. But I'll forever be grateful to him. He saved my life."

Today, Marie, 73, is married to her school days sweetheart, 75-year-old Ike Challis, who was also dug from the rubble.

Mrs. Walter Harris had traveled from nearby Overton to place flowers on the grave of her son James, a fifth-grade student in '37, when we met. Standing near the headstone, she spoke softly. "James was going to be competing in the county meet the next day," she said, "so I'd gone shopping to buy him a new shirt. Then I heard about what had happened at the school and went immediately to see about him and if I could help with the injured."

She had worn a pretty spring dress that day, she recalled, and by nightfall it was bloodstained and matted with grime. "I wasn't even aware of it," she says, "until another lady offered to take me over to her house and loan me some clean clothes."

It would be three days before she and her husband found their deceased son, his body stored in a car shed adjacent to a funeral home in nearby Henderson.

As she told her story she began walking away from James' grave site, then stopped and turned, silent for several seconds. "That day," she finally said, "I sent him off with 35 cents to buy his lunch. When the funeral home returned his personal belongings to us, the money was still in his pocket.

"Even now, all these years later, I still sometimes find myself wondering if he missed lunch, if he died hungry."

It was not until 40 years after the explosion that old schoolmates Pete Miller and Ray Motley returned for a reunion and met each other on the steps leading up to the rebuilt school. Even before they spoke, Motley embraced his friend. He had been knocked unconscious that day when debris began to fall, and it had been Miller who hoisted him onto his shoulders and carried him to safety.

Those who survived all have stories, some they are eager to tell, others they hold too private, too personal to be shared. Many, like Bill Thompson, spent years struggling with "survivor's guilt." He was in fifth-grade English class that afternoon, flirting with a classmate named Billie Sue Hall. To get nearer to her, Thompson persuaded another girl to switch seats with him just minutes before the explosion. [page]

The next thing he remembered was hearing the blast and being hurled into the air. When he fell back to the floor, he looked up to see the ceiling falling toward him.

Though hospitalized for cuts and bruises, he was well enough to be on hand for roll call when school reopened. "I can still remember hearing the teacher call the name of the girl I traded seats with," he says. "Then, a second later, I heard someone say that she had been killed. That's the day I first felt the guilt that I've carried for a long time.

"As the years have passed, I've gone past that memorial monument many times and seen her name. And I think to myself that it should be my name there, not hers."

Though the 77-year-old Thompson had often spoken of trading seats with his 12-year-old classmate that day, he was always careful never to mention her name. Until recently. "I finally called Ethel Dorsey's brother, Gordon, in Farmington, New Mexico," he says. "He listened to the story I'd been wanting to tell him for ages, then said something that made me feel better than I had in a long time. He told me, 'Don't you feel guilty about it.'"

What's it like to end up in prison as a teen-ager? Edwin Debrow Jr., Bill Everett and Brittany Pollard all committed violent crimes that found them on the wrong side of Texas' get-tough juvenile justice laws. They tell their stories here for the first time--how they got in trouble, how they've survived, what their futures hold--as the Dallas Observer concludes its series on juvenile justice in Texas. In the 1990s, when Texas experienced an unprecedented wave of violent crime, Governor George W. Bush and Texas legislators responded by overhauling the state's juvenile justice system. They prescribed much longer sentences for violent offenders, expanded the range of crimes that could land a youth in adult prison and worked hard to eliminate the perception that young thugs would be pampered in state schools and juvenile detention centers instead of doing hard time for hard crime. Debrow's 1991 crime got a lot of press; President George H. Bush singled out the 12-year-old convicted killer in a speech, calling his case "truly horrifying." The San Antonio native remains one of the youngest Texans ever convicted of murder. Everett, a methamphetamine addict living in rural Palo Pinto County, participated in a comically bungled bank robbery attempt when he was 17. His crime was obscure, but he's gone from deeply troubled kid to model inmate under the tutelage of a caring mentor in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice's Youthful Offender Program in Brazoria. Brittany Pollard's story, which will be told in next week's paper, is one of the strangest cases in the annals of Dallas County's juvenile courts. The three have two things in common: tough sentences that landed them in adult prison while they were still in their teens and grotesquely dysfunctional families. Through their own words and experiences, the youths provide an intimate perspective on what it's like to be a kid in the big house.

I knew I was headed in the wrong direction. I began to see early warning signs, as I was growing up. I grew up in San Antonio, Texas in one of San Antonio's poorest neighborhoods which was the Northeast Side. The environment that I was surrounded by seemed too dangerous and I began to get involved into that lifestyle. Back then I could never see my life the way it is now. I could never believe that I would end up in prison. My life took a dramatic turn on September 21, 1991 when I took the life of a cab driver by the name of Curtis Edwards, when I was a 12-year-old kid. I can't seem to understand why I became so violent. I knew one thing for sure, and that was that I had to accept reality as it was. I had just took the life of another man and I couldn't believe the things that were hidden and waiting ahead of me...

Set aside for a moment that, by the age of 12, Edwin Carl Debrow Jr. had witnessed two murders, carried handguns for so long that "the idea of it was very routine" and stayed in a succession of shabby homes where life included having the door busted down by cops as his big brother gulped down $200 worth of crack cocaine in the bathroom.

Forget that prison psychiatrists and social workers have affixed to him their profession's clumsy labels--anti-social personality disorder, bipolar disorder, impulse control disorder--and have dosed him with an array of mind-rearranging drugs, anything to strangle the "hate built up inside" him.

This isn't really about nature vs. nurture, the mesmerizing allure of the gangsta life or fuzzy sentimentalities about the loss of innocence.

Edwin Carl Debrow Jr. isn't having any of it. You toss him a lifeline, a likely excuse, a plausible way to shift some blame, and he throws it right back. "I knew right and wrong," he says, repeating the statement several times in an interview and in his own hand-scrawled words, which he has recorded on wrinkled theme paper in a 190-page manuscript. Even the title slaps down any urge to sympathize: At first, he called his story "Lost Boy." Now he has scratched out the words in black pen and written "12-year-old Killer" instead.

While a wind whips the Texas flag outside, Debrow is hunched in a plastic chair in an airless, yellow-lit prison office, hands shackled behind his back, a guard at each side. As an "administrative segregation" prisoner at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice's Clements Unit in Amarillo, Debrow experiences life outside his cell only one hour a day, and his meals are shoved at him through a slot in the door. Now 22 and 10 years into a 27-year sentence for murder, he has learned to hold his emotions tightly. He speaks in flat, staccato words, and the only thing that gives away any affect is a constantly jiggling left knee. [page]

He has never told his story before, he says, but now is the time. He clears up a few things right up front: He doesn't blame his mama, even though two of her three sons are convicted murderers and all are in prison; he doesn't blame his daddy. He understands the bit about taking responsibility for his crime. He believes his sentence is fair.

He will say matter-of-factly that every adult in the outside world has let him down, and in many ways he is right. He ends his manuscript with a retort to them, the "fakers and shakers" of the world.

But he draws no moral from his tale. Edwin Debrow Jr. knew right and wrong, and he chose one and not the other.

His story is no less tragic because of it.

I attended Dorie Miller Elementary in the 4th and 5th grades. My grades in school were good but my behavior always seemed to be the problem. I realized that I was aggressive at a very young age. I couldn't understand why I was so rebellious and why I defied authority. I was put into a Special Ed. Class because I was labeled emotionally disturbed. I totally disagreed with that label but as I got older I knew something was terribly wrong. My classroom was located in a small portable building outside. I was put into a desk like a little booth which I didn't like at all. I felt like I was being treated like an outkast or something so I started to rebell. I began to be assaultive and I was suspended from school on several occasions. I kept up my assaultive behavior and was finally kicked out of the San Antonio Independent School District and was told that I would have to attend an Achievement Center. I hated this school because a yellow bus had to pick me up and drop me back off at home. I thought the yellow bus was for retarded people and I didn't want to be a part of it.

Nothing is there. Edwin Debrow steers his brain toward childhood, straining for memories--the image of a new toy, the feel of a grandmother's thick hand. Nothing. "I do not see anything but blurred visions," he wrote in a letter earlier this month. "Most of the time it's just blank."

His first solid memories are of age 10, and it takes his cousin and childhood running buddy Morris Dwayne Debrow to locate the tracks of that earlier, forgotten life. Dwayne, as he's called, remembers a "hard life, a real hard life." He sees a one-room house on San Antonio's East Side, home of Seletha Ann Chase Debrow. Her husband, Edwin Debrow Sr., is gone; the tiny house is swarming with children, including young Edwin, whom everyone called Li'l Boo. Seletha Debrow would eventually rear seven children, mostly on her own. "There wasn't nobody there for 'em," Dwayne says. "Everybody in the family turned 'em down."

And not without reason. Edwin Debrow Sr. says he left his wife when he found out she was "an intravenous drug user," and, he says, she eventually would surround herself with drunks, druggies and "criminals." In the best of times, Dwayne says, Seletha barely held the edges of her life together. When she was on drugs, the edges would bust apart. Sometimes she was there for her children; sometimes she wasn't. Sometimes she worked; sometimes the children went hungry. When there was food, it was poor-folks' fare: cornbread, beans, lots and lots of beans. Every time Li'l Boo came over to Dwayne's house, he was hungry. Hungry. Dwayne's parents gave him good food and small glimpses of a stable home.

Seletha's environment was nothing like that. Though Seletha Debrow didn't show up for an interview she scheduled with the Dallas Observer, court records and the recollections of other family members fill in the picture. At times, she and the children lived in shelters, and Li'l Boo would tear around in the cheap white tennies the shelter kids wore. Dwayne didn't care that his cousin was dirt-poor, even lived at times in a house without water; he shared all his toys, and they roamed the streets of the East Side together, trolling for excitement. Sometimes it was wholesome stuff: Dwayne played along when Edwin climbed into dumpsters and excavated aluminum cans, which he'd sell. Dwayne didn't need the money, but for Edwin "that was something for the house--bread, meat." He'd also buy snacks for his brothers and sisters, and candy. Edwin loved candy.

At some point, Edwin moved to the East Terrace housing project. There were some good things about the projects. Every Sunday morning, the little kids herded onto what they called the "Joy Joy" bus and bounced along to church, where they were met with a hearty breakfast of biscuits and sausage. That down-home church had a simple take on keeping the kids out of trouble: lock them in at 10 a.m. and let them out after the sun goes down. [page]

Outside, temptation was all around him, in the form of a gang that ruled East Terrace called the Altadena Block Crips.

When Dwayne was 10 and Edwin was about 9, their lives took separate turns. One day Dwayne heard fussing and fighting outside his apartment, and he stepped out to look for his sister. He glanced around and heard gunshots--"I heard boom! boom! I stumbled back and I looked down, and blood was coming everywhere." He didn't realize right away that he'd been shot in the head, caught in the crossfire of a domestic fight. Dwayne spent several weeks in the hospital, and it "slowed me down a lot," pulled him off the streets. To this day, the bullet is still lodged behind his optic nerve, wrapped within muscle "like a fist." This was the heyday of crack cocaine--the crack apocalypse--'91, '92, '93, when cities such as Dallas and San Antonio recorded their most murders ever, many of them drug- and gang-related, and violent crime was at an all-time high. Dwayne's mother kept her son away from it. Her stern voice still rings in his ears, yanking him away from mayhem.

Edwin didn't hear that voice. At least not in any consistent way; his mother whupped his tail from time to time, he says, taught him to respect his elders, but with a household of eight to look after and problems of her own, including drug charges, the supervision was spread pretty thin.

Edwin would spend a few months with his father here and there, and his schoolteachers noticed cleaner clothes, a better attitude. Edwin's father says he's strict, and he made sure his kids followed the rules. "I work hard, I take care of my children," Debrow said angrily when told that some family members questioned his commitment to his oldest son. Early on, Edwin and his siblings also lived for a time with their grandmother Erma Debrow, while Seletha, she says, "was kind of running the streets." She remembers that time with regret, because she already sensed that the children's futures were dim.

Her intimations would turn out to be true. All of Seletha's boys are locked up in state or federal prison today. Erma Debrow doesn't consider that a coincidence. "Hello," she says. "Hello."

Her grandson Dwayne, though, points the finger at both parents. "No food. No house. In the rain," he says, summing up Edwin's childhood. "Always listening to his mama argue, knowing she's on drugs, and the dad is not there." Edwin's father is Dwayne's uncle, and he apologizes for the harsh words. "If anything, people kind of blamed the mother. But I always thought, well, where was his father? It's easy for him to say he works and leads a more regular life, but where was he? He was never there."

That left Edwin free, as he puts it, to "rip and run."

And here the memories start to grow thick.

I hung out on the streets of San Antonio day and night. I observed how crack cocaine was sold. I started slanging dope which I considered living life in the fast lane and making a fast and easy living. I didn't sell drugs that much and I was just a small time dealer trying to get some quick money. I knew it was wrong but as long as it brought money to my pocket I didn't care. I sold drugs to everybody and anybody who wanted them. I was new to the dope game and I learned that you could get cheated if you didn't watch what you were doing. I found that out real quick.

One day I was at Jolly Time selling dope and this black lady told me that she wanted to buy some. So I said all right but she wanted me to walk around the corner with her to her house. I was standing on her porch and she told me that she wanted to buy a $20 rock. I gave her a 20 and she told me that she would have to go get the money out of her house. I was waiting on the porch when I heard the fence rattling in the back yard. So I ran around the back just in time to see that dope fiend jumping the fence. At the time I had a chrome 32 with a pearl handle. The dope fiend was running fast so I pulled out my gun and shot one time at her back. The last thing I seen was her hit the fence and then I took off running. I learned from then on to never trust anybody. I was about 11 years old when this was going on. [page]

Gang activity was real popular in San Antonio especially on the eastside. Some of them fools I had known all my life and then they ended up dead behind some [gang] color shit. My oldest brother Dinky was in California for a while. When he got back he had a surprise for me. He was now a gang member of the Altadena Block Crips. He began to bang to the fullest and I admired my brother. He was my true role model. I wanted to be like him so bad I joined the same gang. I was all about representing and at the age of 10 I didn't know better. I started wearing blue bandanas and in a matter of time I knew how to chunk gang signs real good. I would hit 'em up all the time just to practice. To make sure that I would never forget what I was taught.

The eastside always stayed cronk. Robberies after robberies and killings after killings. My homies had no pity and they didn't value life either. We all had a mutual understanding. I wonder now if that was something that I wanted to be a part of. To kill another black man behind a color. That was sure genocide.

Society couldn't and wouldn't accept gang violence. They were cracking down on gang members but we still didn't care. In the back of our minds we were doing the right thing. It was justified by any means necessary. When I got older I tried to explain it to adults who didn't understand. To strongly believe in something had to be based on faith. Just like Muslims who believe in Prophet Muhammad, and Christians who believe in Jesus Christ. Just like all religions. What they believed was based entirely on faith. So why couldn't I believe in something. A man would die behind his beliefs and you could definitely put me into that category. I was dedicated to serve my hood to the utmost and with loyalty.

Gangs taught you different things. To be in a gang was like to put all other things aside and focus on your gang life. Gangs was like your second family and you were taught to put your hood first. Your set was to be out first before your own family. I learned that rule real quick. I loved my set to the fullest and I learned to set all other things to the side. That seemed cruel and disrespectful to my family. But to believe in something required your full undivided attention. It took time to understand the gang life. I didn't agree with everything but I was positive that it was something I wanted to do.

After a while my set got real big. ABC was the biggest Crip set in San Antonio. Now it was time to go to war. We often got into it with the Blood Stone Villains. It was either Do or Die and I was gonna represent to the fullest. It was all about putting in work and doing good deeds.

I recall one sunny afternoon when I was hanging on the cut at Jolly Time. All of a sudden I see this white van coming from across the street. At the time I didn't think nothing of it. The next thing I knew I seen the back doors come open and two Bloods jumped out with guns shooting. I ran for cover and laid in the grass. Two of my homies got shot in the back of the arm. Nobody was hurt seriously but their dues were due. It was time to get revenge and make them pay. I was a little kid but I did a grown mans job. I know now that I was playing with death. It didn't yet register in my mind that I could soon be dead. In fact I didn't even give a damn about life itself. To me it was all or nothing.

I rented this dope fiend's car for a $20 rock. Little did he know, I had no intentions of returning it. In fact I was gonna use it to commit a crime. I knew them slobs who shot my homeboys and I knew where they lived. Everybody knew that slob nigga name Li'l Joker. He would have to pay for his actions and if not him, then his family. [page]

Late one night about 11 p.m. or so we drove to Polaris Street. Things were kind of quiet around this time. His house still had a few lights on in it. I had a Tec 22 and a 38 special handgun. My other homie had a Tec 9mm. We turned off the lights and started driving up the street. As we got in front of the white house I stopped the car and opened fire. Me and my homie lit they shit up. After that we drove off real fast and went to the East Terrace where we usually kicked it at.

I never heard if anybody got shot and I truly didn't care. It was like I had no conscience. I didn't value the human life. At the time I thought it was best for some people to be dead.

I never thought about the consequences of my actions. I knew that one day I would pay for my sinful ways. I just wanted to enjoy life while I had the chance. I was once told by another man "don't pity the fool." I couldn't understand what he was trying to say and I didn't care to ask. A man who wanted to seek knowledge might have questioned that. I wasn't trying to learn nothing. I really thought it was better for that old coon to stay in his league and let the minors handle their own business.

Dwayne Debrow steers his car toward the place they call Jolly Time. Really, it's nothing more than a ghetto street corner, with a gas station on one side and a skanky club on the other and winos and a few wizened crackheads shifting places around a dumpster. Jolly Time, Debrow explains, got its name because it's where you go to get happy. To buy drugs.

He points to a patch of gravel beneath a street sign tagged in black with "ETG"--East Terrace Gangstas--the spot where a scrawny, 4-foot-8 kid named Edwin Carl Debrow Jr. sold crack.

Jolly Time is in the heart of the East Side, a collection of decaying streets and small frame homes with roofs, walls and porches so warped and leaning that they look as though they're shuddering in a hurricane wind. Here and there, mostly on the grounds of old brick schools and public buildings, a grandiose palm tree rises from a patch of desiccated turf.

Dwayne insists he didn't know Edwin sold dope, at least not at the time. By then, their paths had diverged; Dwayne went to school while Edwin ran the streets. One trail led to high school, then college, where, against the doctor's orders, Dwayne played football. Today, the 22-year-old plays semi-pro ball and runs a recording studio. Edwin had no target, no goals, just the here and now. And by the sixth grade, the here and now no longer included school.

Around the time Dwayne found himself aimed at the future, his contacts with his candy-loving, dope-dealing cousin grew scarcer. The last time he saw Edwin, he'd come over to Dwayne's house to stash some Twix bars in the freezer. He'd just jumped a fence and stolen them from the back of a grocery store. "I put it in my freezer, he walked off, and that's the last time I seen him."

Edwin knows exactly what he was up to in those days. He was looking up to his big brother Herion Chase--known as Dinky, which he wasn't, in stature or boldness. Dinky, in fact, was brazen enough to run dope right from his mother's house. Edwin Debrow Sr. says Dinky showed his brother "a little gold and guns," and the boy liked what he saw. "Dinky was my role model," Edwin Debrow wrote in a letter. "I mean anytime you have brothers, you bond closely sometimes. And that's how it was with my brother and I. I just love my brother, and at that time I liked his lifestyle." More than once, the cops busted down the front door and ransacked the house. Life went on. "They tear it up, you fix it back up," Edwin recalls.

His mother couldn't seem to get her arms around the chaos. She'd lay a belt on Edwin, "but it didn't have no effect," he says. The older kids came and went as they pleased, flouting San Antonio's youth curfew, and at times Seletha ran drugs herself, Edwin admits today. "My mom got seven kids. My father wasn't there to help all the time, so she just couldn't keep a tight leash on it. Those were trying times."

He started carrying a gun at 8 or 9, started "Crippin'" like his brother soon afterward. By the time he was 12, he'd seen two murders close up. One time, a friend of his shot another man in the face. Edwin and his homies casually walked away. "I didn't run," he says. "We all left and went to Jack in the Box." Another time, he saw a man get killed in the parking lot of an East Side housing project. "I can honestly say, as far as the value of life, it was something that I didn't value," he says. The murders brought no reflection, no sorrow, no bad dreams. "It had no profound effect on me. Even though I knew it was wrong, I lived by the rules of the street." [page]

All of his friends, he says, were older boys or young men--including a good-for-nothing ex-con named Floyd Hardeman, a sometime friend and distant relative of Edwin's mother who'd recently been paroled after serving time on a murder conviction. Hardeman spent his days and nights getting high and scrounging dope money, and he evidently saw an easy mark in the tiny neighborhood tough. "When I was 12," Edwin says, "my life had no purpose. I had no direction. I couldn't say then where I wanted to go or what I was trying to achieve. I was just out there for that time, that instant. You know, where the goodies are."

Edwin knew he was seeing and experiencing more than a boy ever should, but nothing made him want to stop. The nerve endings were dying.

I got involved with guns and having a gun in my possession made me feel powerful. The feeling of power excited me and I wanted very much to be in control of all situations.

I began to jack people for their money and one time I had to shoot a man because he refused to give me his money. I knew that if a person refused to give up the money then I would have to do what was necessary to get it even if it resulted in me taking another human beings life.

I remember one night me and my homeboys were riding around just looking for someone to jack and we seen this white man. He had just bought some dope and he had a lot of money. I told my two homies that I was gonna jack him. We got out of the car that we were riding in and approached him. My homie said that he was gonna do it so I gave him the gun which was a Tec 22. The man reached in the back of his truck and picked up a crow bar. My homie began backing up. I got mad and grabbed the gun. The man started to walk up these steps that led to this house. I told him not to move anymore and if he did I was gonna shoot him. He took one more step so I shot him in the back and he fell and crawled into the house so I ran in there after him to finish him off because he had seen my face. When I got inside the doorway to the house I seen around 8 to 10 little black kids so I immediately took off running. I didn't know if he died or not. I never heard anything about that.

I was now leading a dangerous life and my life took an unexpected turn.

On the night of September 21, 1991 on the eastside of San Antonio I killed a cabdriver by the name of Curtis Edwards. I shot him in the back of the head with a 38 caliber handgun at close range.

On this particular night I had been drinking Thunderbird with grape cool-aid and also drinking night train and Mad Dog 20/20. I also smoked a few joints and I was feeling pretty good. I went to this man's house who was suppose to be my uncle. His name was Floyd. At the time I was carrying a 38 caliber handgun. While I was at his house he asked me did I want to rob a cab driver and I said yeah. He told this other man to go call the cab so he did. At first the cab didn't come so the man went to go call again. This time the cab came and me and my uncle got in. He got in the front passenger seat and I got directly in the back seat behind him (cab driver). My uncle told the cab driver to take us to Burleson Street. I had the gun in my pocket with my shirt untucked. As the cab driver started driving I pulled out the gun and demanded that he give me the money. He refused and instead started driving fast. I shot him in the back of the head while he was driving and the car wrecked into a house. My head was fractured. I ran from Burleson Street all the way to East Commerce and passed out under the train tracks. Just so happen at this time my homeboy's father was coming back from work and he seen me and took me to my mothers house. From there I went to the hospital. [page]

The day I was released from the hospital two police detectives told me that they wanted me for questioning. My stepfather asked them why and they said that I was wanted for questioning about a murder. They asked me questions and I told them that I didn't know what they were talking about.

From his front porch, Raymond Arevalos saw the figure of a child climb out of a wrecked taxicab. The child took a few steps, then "started to wobble."

"Oh my gosh, that person is hurt bad," Arevalos thought.

Just moments earlier, he'd heard a crash. It was around midnight, and Arevalos, a retired postal worker, was in his bedroom watching television with his wife. At first, he didn't think much of it. Noise was a part of life on the East Side: gunshots, smashing bottles, drunks and dope fiends wandering the street cussing at themselves. Only when a car horn got stuck did Arevalos bother to look outside.

The child took some more wobbly steps, then got down on his knee and said, "Please help me; help me, please."

By the time he moved to help the child, the boy rose and started walking down the street. Arevalos never spoke to him. While his wife called an ambulance, Arevalos and a neighbor looked inside the cab.

He remembers seeing a man "laying flat on his back, just like spread eagle," with blood all over him. Arevalos' wife soon joined them, and she climbed into the cab and checked his pulse. He was dead.

Within a few minutes, the police arrived. As they went about their work, Arthur and Jessie Mae Edwards drove. In the early-morning hours they had received a call from the cops; their son Curtis, a grade-school football coach, father of one and sometime cab driver, was involved in a car accident. They jumped out of bed and raced to the other end of the East Side.

Arthur Edwards arrived in time to identify the body of his son. Curtis Edwards was dead at 33 of a gunshot wound to the back of the head. When the car hit the house, he smashed into the windshield and ended up sprawled on his back.

In the coming days, Curtis Ray Edwards' many friends and relatives would remember him as a man who loved kids. Later, the chief prosecutor at Edwin Debrow Jr.'s trial would tell the San Antonio Express-News that if Edwards' killer "had gotten into his cab and said, 'Look, I need all your money,' Curtis would have given it to him and driven him somewhere."

But little about the slaying makes any sense, and while Edwards' parents were mourning their son--a classmate of Edwin's father--Edwin Debrow Jr. stayed close to his mother's side, even going to work with her during her night shift at the county hospital. She knew he was in trouble, and she was scared. While she worked her shift, Edwin rambled through the hospital corridors. Even at the age of 12 and in the deepest trouble he'd ever been in, Edwin's written recollections speak of bravado. He figured the cops would never get him, because they had no evidence.

He'd apparently forgotten that he left a few things behind that night: a steel six-shooter and a single black tennis shoe, wedged between the backseat and the car door.

Knowing that I would be soon tried for this crime had me kind of nervous. I didn't know what to think. I knew one thing for sure and that was that a jury of 12 people would determine my fate. I refused to let the Judge who presided over the 73rd District Court determine my fate. He was known for having no pity...

This is a time that I will never forget. This was a moment in my life that would tell if I could ever be a productive citizen in society.

The prosecutor tried very hard to prove their case. I learned that they didn't have no pity for a criminal and they truly believed that if you was in the courtroom that you was automatically guilty. They called me all kinds of names and I disagreed with that. I should of just jumped up and said I'm guilty because I knew that I would be found guilty. They made me look like a 12 year old monster or something. I couldn't understand how the government would allow 12 citizens of the United States to determine my fate. They would decide the outcome of my life and I didn't like the sound of that. [page]

My mother was seated right across from me and after they said I was sentenced to 27 years my mother broke down uncontrollably. She began to cry and the sight of that saddened me deeply. I never wanted to see my mother go through so much pain.

I wasn't scared to go to jail. I knew that I could stay down and that I could handle my own if it came down to it. What bothered me was that I would miss my family and my friends. The feeling of that was painful and inconvenient. Another thought troubled me also. Knowing that I would never get a chance to spend one day of my teenage life in the free world. That was the saddest part of it all.

Every night of the trial, Sandra Castro-Guerra came home sick. Her fellow jury members found out she was a registered nurse--a poised, educated woman of 34--and decided she was the perfect candidate for jury foreman. No one else wanted the job, not this time.

What caused the bouts of retching was the sight of that "tiny, tiny" boy in the courtroom, betraying not a trace of emotion. "Why is he not acting like a 12-year-old boy?" Castro-Guerra would ask herself. "He didn't show anything--just a blank stare. Like show me a sign of something; show me you're sorry."

Another image is fixed in the mind of the assistant prosecutor 10 years after the trial. Leticia Cortez, who'd just come off maternity leave, remembers Edwin Debrow Jr. casually swinging his legs as he sat at a table in the courtroom, flanked by his defense attorney and his mother. The jury would be looking at horrific autopsy photos, hearing the testimony of Curtis Edwards' father as he went to identify his son in the bloody taxi, and still, those skinny legs would swing, swing, swing.

Castro-Guerra would look in the young defendant's eyes, and she'd see the face of a 12-year-old boy. In her mind, there was a terrible disconnect. How could a little boy have done this? she thought. What kind of home did he come from? "He was such a child, such a baby in my eyes," Castro-Guerra remembers. "Can someone please help us have an understanding of how this happened--how such a young person can get caught in this situation?"

The nurse found it maddening that none of those questions was answered in the guilt or innocence phase of the trial, but during sentencing, after the damage had already been done. The thought of sending a child to prison for years weighed so heavily on her and the other jurors, she says, that their deliberations were marked by many tears.

The trial testimony itself, spanning four days in February 1992, showed how unlikely it is that Debrow would have been caught at all had he not bragged about committing some sort of crime to employees at the hospital where he was treated after sustaining serious head injuries in the wreck of Edwards' taxi. Debrow's boasting apparently led someone to tip off San Antonio police, who made the connection with Edwards' murder. Police searched Debrow's house and seized evidence: a dirty sweatshirt--later found to be stained with Edwards' blood--and a single Troop Club sneaker, size 8 1/2, the precise match of the one found in the back of the wrecked taxicab. Police arrested Debrow at his home a day after he got out of the hospital; his mother and grandmother became hysterical, Debrow wrote, as he was handcuffed and hauled away. When he stepped out of the squad car at the police station, he found himself surrounded by cameramen and reporters. Like a child, he hid his face.

Debrow says today that he never said any of those things in the hospital, that people are lying, but witness after witness stepped forth with similar recollections. One was Robert Duncan, a security officer at Southeast Baptist Hospital. He'd been called up one night to corral a kid who was running wild up and down the hospital corridors. When he got there, Debrow, who by then was sitting quietly in his room, told the officer he was bored. Duncan told him to get some rest.

The boy had a cocky reply, Duncan testified. "He said that he had already killed one person...and that he wasn't scared of me because I had a gun." [page]

Other hospital workers told how Debrow played a bizarre game with them, trying to get them to talk about a recent murder. Linda Garcia, a nursing supervisor, testified that Debrow smiled the entire time as they chatted: "Tell me, tell me, tell me about the murder this weekend," he begged.

The most damning testimony, however, came from a hospital chaplain named Charles Pollard who'd gone up to minister to what he thought to be a "very distraught patient." Pollard found the boy to be receptive and courteous. He talked about his dream of being a football player, how tough he was on the field. Pollard, who was near retirement, quietly listened. But the conversation took an ominous turn when Debrow suddenly announced that he would have to go to jail.

"Why?" Pollard asked. "He said, 'Well...I killed a man.' And he said, 'When you killed a man, you have to go to jail.'" Debrow asked Pollard if he'd been watching the news, if he'd heard about the taxi driver who got killed. "And he said, well, he was the one that shot the man. Then he told me several different stories about how it happened, but continued to come back to the fact that he pulled the trigger."

Those stories gave different versions of a certain "uncle"'s involvement in the crime, Pollard testified. Once, Debrow said his uncle--actually, distant relative and ex-con Floyd Hardeman--ordered him to shoot the man. Another time, the uncle told him to aim the gun at the cab driver's head and it simply went off.

(Today, Debrow says that he doesn't remember specific details about the crime, including who pulled the trigger, because of memory loss from his head injuries.)

Whatever the case, Pollard knew he had a lost and desperate child on his hands. "At first, he dealt with it from the platform of 'I'm tough,'" Pollard said in court. "And the only time that he...really showed any somberness...was when we got to talking about spiritual things. And he said, 'The only thing I'm afraid of in life is God. And I'm afraid of God. Because no one else can do anything to me, but God can.'"

Where others saw only callousness, Pollard saw "some tenderness, and some openness, and some sorrow."

The greater part of Pollard's testimony, however, was heard outside the presence of the jury as state District Judge Andy Mireles considered whether Debrow's words were spoken to a clergyman with the expectation of confidentiality. He decided that most of it should remain secret.

But the testimony about Debrow's supposed boasting didn't make much of an impression on Castro-Guerra anyway. The shoe--that was the clincher for her. "I don't think there was even any doubt that he was there" at the scene of the crime, she says. Debrow's court-appointed lawyer, Andy Logan, tried to shift some of the focus to the boy's much older accomplice--convicted murderer Hardeman. "We don't know what happened in that cab," he said in his closing statement, "but we know Floyd Hardeman." Holding to her understanding of the charge Judge Mireles had given her, however, which instructed the jury to find Debrow culpable if he promoted, assisted or encouraged the crime, Castro-Guerra and her fellow jurors deliberated only 75 minutes before answering "true" to the question of murder.

Throughout the trial, Judge Mireles' courtroom was packed with reporters and family members. And still, Edwin sat impassively beside his mother, even while lead prosecutor Gammon Guinn hammered away at him. "At 12 years old, he is cold," Guinn concluded. "...Maybe he had a problem. But should we cut off society's nose to spite our face and send him back out there? ...Do we let him do it again?"

Castro-Guerra had a hard time relating to this unnaturally cool child. "I expected this little boy to be crying and his mother to be consoling him," he says. "But there was no emotion."

What was left inside Debrow would only come out later, the boy would write, when he went back to his cell and cried and cried. Would open tears have made a difference? Should they? What's certain, Judge Mireles recalls, is that the jury took the greatest care in reaching its decision about the boy's future.

In the sentencing phase they finally heard scraps of information that helped them make some sense out of a monstrous act: Debrow's messy family life, his scant schooling, the utter lack of effective adult supervision. That testimony was balanced with that of teachers from the "achievement center" where he once attended school, who spoke fondly of a bright boy, a teacher's pet who responded well to structure and educational challenges and was quick to help the other kids and "make them feel good about themselves." [page]

It was just a flash in four days of grueling testimony from more than 20 witnesses, a tiny moment when a boy's potential stood weakly against his overwhelming past.

The jury sentenced Debrow to 27 years.

Castro-Guerra admits now that jury members didn't understand the full import of a relatively new law that allowed for "determinate" sentences of up to 40 years for juveniles convicted of murder. That meant that a boy such as Debrow could be sent to the Texas Youth Commission until he was 18, and, after a court hearing to assess his progress in rehabilitation, he could either be released on parole, retained at TYC till he was 21 or sent up to continue his sentence in adult prison. At the time, Debrow was the youngest person ever to be charged with murder in Bexar County.

Clinging to their own gentler notions of childhood, some of the jurors, such as 24-year-old Scott Moore, a grocery clerk, assumed Debrow didn't know right from wrong and simply needed a little enlightenment. Moore couldn't muster any "empathy for how he committed the crime like he did, cold-blooded." But he hoped Debrow would spend some time in TYC and learn his lesson.

Castro-Guerra had the same illusions. She didn't think for a minute that Debrow committed the crime by himself; jurors knew some facts about the role of Hardeman, who was later convicted of aggravated robbery in connection with Edwards' death and received a 30-year sentence. But she rationalized that Debrow would turn himself around in the youth commission's state schools and go home to a better life at 18.

Andy Logan knew there was fat chance of that. "My experience with TYC is that there would be no effort to rehabilitate him," he says today. "He desperately needed a hands-on, structured environment where there was some nurturing going on and some training."

Debrow's father puts it more bluntly: "How can you take a 12-year-old and throw him in with a pack of wolves and expect him to come out a sheep five years down the line?"

Without a doubt, somewhere inside Edwin Debrow Jr. was a boy who wanted to please, who responded to discipline and kindness. In TYC, he tells a story about a middle-aged teacher with whom he fell in love. Whenever the woman feels down, Debrow writes tenderly of rubbing her shoulders, consoling her, carrying out small favors in her classroom with exacting care. Sure enough, he had other motives, too, in a place where he says staff and inmates were constantly "getting they freak on" and young men behaved as though they were mainlining testosterone.

One could never say Edwin hadn't known love. A woman, in fact, was the center of his existence. "My mother is my life, she is my world, and my pride and my joy," Debrow recently wrote in a letter. "I really love her and I will never accept her departure from this world." They are moving words, attached to a woman so much maligned, so heavily burdened.

It was Seletha Debrow who recently urged a San Antonio legislator to transfer her son to somewhere within the same hemisphere, and Edwin was moved from a Texas Department of Criminal Justice prison in Amarillo to Beeville, south of his hometown, just a few weeks ago.

Debrow's love for his mother makes it impossible to write him off as an unfeeling "madman," a term he applies to himself at one point in his manuscript.

She writes him, occasionally sends money; whatever her role in his delinquency, he clearly values her affection over his father's firm discipline. "My mother was my caregiver," he writes. "The truth is that I have never really been able to understand my father."

Rejected by the world, Edwin and Seletha cling to each other.

It was the only noble thing Debrow knew most of the time he was in TYC, and later in prison.

He went to TYC's West Texas State School in March 1992 with an attitude. At 4-foot-8, 79 pounds, he had no other choice. "I sure in the hell had my mind made up about one thing," he wrote, "and that was that I was gonna stay down for mine and don't let nobody punk me."

I began having problems and was sent to lock-up about 9 times. I was 12 years old and was told that I was aggressive.

We attended group everyday except for on the weekends. Everybody had to go around and say this little speech that had to be memorized. I memorized it real quick and then I began to say it. We had to say as follows: My name is Edwin Debrow and I had a good day today, used my skills for the last 24 hours, group, any problems? If somebody had a problem with you they would speak up if not then the group would all say no at the same time. [page]

In state school it was like a day care center. If you did something wrong then another inmate could call your group and tell on you. The staff called it being responsible but I called it snitching. They viewed it one way and I perceived it another.

I started having fights and assaulting staff. I even started tearing up state property and breaking windows with rocks. I was 12 years old and was as mean as hell. Everybody called me Lil Boo. The name that I was given during my childhood.

During this time I met another inmate whose name was Carvae. He went by the nickname G-Vae. He was from Dallas and had a 30 year sentence for murder. He was also 12 years old. Me and Carvae hung around each other every day and he was my true homie. He was also a member of the Crips. He was down with the 357 Grave Yard Gangsta Crips. So we got along just fine. He was down with me and I was down with him. We were down with each other like 4 flat tires.

Me and Carvae became like celebrity type inmates. Everybody at West Texas knew us. We were known for fighting and assaulting staff and we gained our respect. Nobody wanted to fuck with us. Even though we were twelve years old we fought some of the oldest inmates there. We barred none and faded all. We was most known for our rebellious behavior. If we felt like we were being mistreated then we took actions into our own hands. I knew Carvae was a true homie.

I liked West Texas State School. It was jumping off every day of the week. We had riots after riots and when it did go down it lasted a long time. I was well respected and I knew everything that was gonna go down. When I first got there the Bloods were deep. They outnumbered us Crips. When I knew that I started to put it down. I made it known to everybody that I was representing Altadena Block Crips and it was fuck all bloods on my end.

TYC was good. We could have big radios which we called boom boxes. We could also listen to tapes that had cursing and gang related contents. I guess the 1st Amendment meant something.

Everyday after school me and Carvae would go up front to the dayroom and watch TV. We would talk about the free world. He told me about his crime and I told him about mine. We knew that we would be in TYC until our 18th birthday. We both knew that we could make it so we didn't give a damn. We figured that we could act a damn fool and still get a good recommendation from TYC. In my mind I didn't give a damn about going to prison. I truly didn't care. I knew that I wasn't gonna break under pressure so I wasn't worried.

On dorm 7 it was a lot of bloods. Three of them had some muscle on them and they lifted weights. Their size didn't mean shit to me because I wasn't gonna accept any ass whuppings. I was taught to fight until I won.

I worried about Carvae because he was young like me and because he was my loc. I never thought something would happen to him until one day it did. It shocked me and I was mad. I just couldn't believe what they said happened.

I was the first to find out. Our staff name Mr. Gross knew that me and Carvae were close so he called me in the office and told me. He said listen Edwin and try not to get too mad. I know you and Carvae are close so I'm telling you what happened first. He told me that Carvae had got assaulted last night. He said that Carvae went to the bath room and while he was in the stall them 3 Bloods ran in there and beat him. I didn't know what to think. The first thought that came to my mind was to kill them mutha-fuckers. I wanted revenge because of what they did to my homie and I sure in the hell was gonna get it any way possible...I decided to get 4 big Duracell batteries and put them in a sock. When the opportunity presented itself I would retaliate by getting me an innocent bystander who was a blood member. [page]

One Friday night I was in the dayroom and this blood fool was up there too. I knew then and there that he was gonna be my next victim. He could pay for what his homies did. I went to the bathroom and got the sock with the 4 duracell batteries ready. I put it in my robe and started to walk up the hallway. As I did that, the blood fool was coming down the hall. I had my hand in my robe and I asked that blood fool why his homies did that shit to my loc. And he said I don't know. Then I said you show right cuz. I pulled out that sock and batteries and went upside his damn head. He was trying to run but I grabbed him by his robe and kept hitting him. He fell on the floor and balled up. I continued to hit him until I seen blood. By this time the staff tackled me. He held me on the ground for about 2 minutes. He knew why I did it. He said "you did that because of what happened to Carvae" and I said yeah. Tears started coming down my face.

Debrow's journal of TYC days is a numbing litany of gang fights, attacks on staff, riots, busted windows and escape attempts as he is shifted around from school to school. But for each piss ball--wads of urine-soaked toilet paper--lobbed at a TYC staffer, someone was keeping count.

When Debrow was 17 1/2, he would be called to account for how he spent his TYC days. At that time, he would be interviewed by TYC's Special Services Committee, which was charged with examining his records, conducting a psychological evaluation, interviewing staff and forwarding a recommendation about Debrow's future to a Bexar County judge. If Debrow was a screw-up, he could expect the worst possible outcome: a recommendation that he be sent to adult prison to continue his sentence.

The decision was ultimately up to the judge, but TYC would send its representative to the court hearing to make a case. It was Debrow's job to explain himself, and there would be much to explain.

At TYC, all the kids attend school, participate in group and, as needed, take part in special programs such as "intensive resocialization." Teachers, shrinks and staffers are on hand to provide one-on-one care. "We've got to treat them," explains TYC court liaison Leonard Cucolo, who would testify at Debrow's court hearing. Cucolo wouldn't comment specifically on Debrow's case, but he explained the system's obligation to treat every kid, whether he's a sheep or a psychopath. "We're responsible for them until they're 17 1/2 under the old law. If a youth comes in at 12 and is a behavior problem, we can't go back to the court until that time."

Debrow, however, had a problem that the vast majority of his fellow charges didn't share--a determinate sentence that could extend into middle age if need be. He was surrounded by kids with sentences of just a few months, kids who could see a way out. He saw none. As his friend Carvae, who also had a determinate sentence, wrote in a letter, "At 12 years old, we were nothing but babies trying to be somebody. We've never had a car, house, wife, kids, nothing in our name but a murder case. To this day we deal with the fact that if we was to die in here we lived no life."

That feeling of hopelessness about the future, Debrow says, would eventually snuff out any impulse to work toward a positive change. At times, he would pick up jobs in TYC, work diligently for a few months, try to "get back on track and do something for myself," then things would go "downhill." It didn't help that he was in a succession of schools--West Texas, Brownwood State School and Giddings State School, where some of the hardest cases go--that were swimming with Crips and Bloods, a phenomenon of the times. "Back then, we had a lot of gang members come into TYC," Cucolo explains. "We don't select who comes in, so they're bringing in their problems."

The hopeful moments were so scarce, Debrow recalls them with touching exactitude. One of the highlights of his stay in Brownwood was a 1994 trip outside the compound to McDonald's, accompanied by a kindly administrator. He remembers precisely what he ate: two hamburgers, a large order of fries and a Coke.

Debrow summed up his attitude while recalling a failed escape from Brownwood. He had a lot of time to think while he spent the entire night hogtied in his room. "I had 27 years and I didn't give a damn," he writes. "I had nothing to lose." [page]

I learned one thing about TYC and that was that they were a firm believer in rehabilitation. They strongly believed that they could change the meanest inmates. They taught you politeness skills and things like that. They wanted you to have remorse for your crime. My caseworker Mr. Hill once asked me did I have remorse for what I did. I explained to him, how could I have remorse for something I planned. Even though I was 12 years old I knew right from wrong. So how could I possibly say I had remorse. My caseworker didn't agree with the way I viewed it. He had a different philosophy. He believed that every inmate could change and have remorse. I agreed with that also. I believed anybody could change and have remorse also. I just didn't understand how someone could have remorse for something they intentionally done. If you didn't have remorse you could best believe that TYC was gonna recommend you be transferred to prison.

I was always in trouble. TYC staff labeled me as incorrigible. All the groups that I went to. All the skills that I was taught. None of that would help me. I could change if I wanted to but I wasn't ready to change. I wanted to enjoy my life the way I wanted to. And acting a damn fool was a part of it.

For some odd reason I thought I was losing my mind. I continued to misbehave and I was always thinking about violence. I constantly had negative things on my mind. I wanted to stay in trouble. Being in trouble helped me pass my time.

Days seemed to be going by real slow. When you know you're leaving time seems to slow down for some reason. I tried to get myself under control because I knew it was coming. It was time to go to court in San Antonio, Texas. Something I longed for to come. I longed to go back to Bexar County Juvenile Detention Center to reunite with old friends. I was damn near 100 percent sure that I was going to be sent to prison no matter what. There was no hope for me at all. My records were bad and most of all I had been a murderer since the age of 12 years old. Society was tired of juvenile crime and the laws got real tough during my incarceration. Youngsters were committing crimes at a very young age and society didn't want to tolerate it so they were locking them up and basically throwing away the key for a while.

January 15th [1997] had finally arrived. I went to see the exit committee. It was a committee made up of about 12 TYC staff. They would ask you questions and you had to answer them honestly. After that they would decide what recommendation you would get. They would either vote for you to be transferred to the Texas Department of Corrections or to be recommitted back to the Texas Youth Commission. I knew I had a vote of 12-0 all in favor of my transfer to the Texas Department of Corrections. The thought of going to prison didn't bother me at all. I knew that wherever I went I would be the same Edwin Debrow Jr. I wouldn't change my ways for no one and I sure the hell was gonna stay down for mine. I would go into prison a man and come out man.

The husky young man with the broad shoulders and dimpled face keeps talking, while the guards shift uncomfortably beside him. By now, his knee is bouncing rapidly.

The drugs help a little, he says, but only so much. He's on trazodone, an anti-depressant sometimes used to curb aggressiveness, one of "numerous" psychiatric medications he's been prescribed over the years.

Debrow knows he is mentally ill. "I realized long ago that something was terribly wrong with my behavior," he wrote in a letter. "It has to do with the mood swings. A big part of the responsibility lies with me. I've been learning to control and channel my anger."

He's in a high-security prison unit today because he fashioned a shank from a piece of chain-link fence, hid it in his pants, then used it to stab a rival gang member some years ago. Debrow says the other guy tried to stab him first, that he did it in self-defense. Truth is, Debrow wrote in his manuscript, "I had so much hate built up inside me that I could take it out on the world." [page]

At 17 1/2, when Debrow journeyed to San Antonio for his day of reckoning with the Texas Youth Commission, the judge heard all about the hate. Leonard Cucolo, the TYC court liaison, testified that Debrow had been dispatched to lock-up 178 times, including a time when he threw a glass flower vase in the face of a teacher, fracturing her cheek and knocking her to the floor. He and his friend Carvae claim the teacher habitually made racial comments. "I had a few problems that I still couldn't get over," Debrow would write. "I constantly felt like fighting. I don't know why but it was that feeling I had."

There were zillions of other transgressions. Debrow became a serial destroyer of state property. When he "felt like being destructive," he'd kick his steel toilet until the screws loosened. Then he clobbered it till it became disconnected from the wall. When the staff moved him to another room, he did the same thing.

In a rare note of humor, Debrow writes that Cucolo "went on and on trying his best to make me look like a menace to society. He did a good job but I think I did even better when it was my turn..."

Debrow talked about how he was constantly mistreated by TYC staff, how a 12-year-old quickly learned to do whatever was necessary to survive. Debrow's father came to the hearing, pleading with the court to release his son into his custody. "No one wanted to hear it," his father says. Edwin Debrow Sr. still sounds angry. He finally realizes he is shouting into his cell phone. "My son was a victim, too," he says. "My son's heart was not that calculating, like he was pumping cold water instead of blood."

Even today, with his son's baggage of emotional disorders, the elder Debrow says he'd take him back "in a heartbeat."

He didn't get his chance at the January 1997 hearing. At TYC's recommendation, Debrow Jr. was punted to adult prison to continue his sentence. Andy Logan, who represented him at the hearing, wasn't shocked by the decision. Much more jarring, he said, was the boy's metamorphosis since he'd last seen him. "When he went in, he was a kid--a kid with problems who needed help. When I saw him at 18, he was transformed. He was so hardened it was unbelievable."

Are you surprised? Debrow's dark eyes seem to ask. His best buddy got assaulted. Another pal, a TYC kid known as Scrub, hanged himself in his room; he hadn't received a single visitor in the four years he was at Giddings State School. Debrow himself hasn't seen his mother, or any other relative, since 1996; Amarillo was just too far away. He sums up his prospects in one of his chapter titles: "Damn Fool."

Has he changed? Ain't no rehabilitation in prison, he says. Whatever you do you do on your own, and Debrow has applied himself diligently since his TYC days: reading; writing his life story, a project he started in 1998; writing letters to his little brother Thomas Debrow, urging him to forsake gang-banging; exhorting his cousin Dwayne to treat his girl right.

He has learned to value life, he says; he adds, almost plaintively, that he has decided to tell his story because he wants to make a difference in someone's life. He hopes to publish his manuscript, and, rather improbably, he wishes to be known someday as something besides "a 12-year-old killer." It isn't clear what's brought about the change. Time has gone on, Debrow has gained some years and distanced himself from gang activity, and there may be another reason, too. He recently discovered that his appeal of the murder conviction wasn't filed properly in 1992 and was dismissed for "want of jurisdiction." A small cause for hope.

It's a dim one, though, because even his defense lawyer admits the state's case against him was strong. He'll certainly spend some more years in this hellhole first. Then, somewhere in middle age, he will pocket his $50 endowment from the state of Texas, pull on a set of cheap civilian clothes and venture back into the world he hasn't seen since he was 12.

His mother will be waiting.

Dallas Observer editorial assistant Michelle Martinez contributed to this story.

Almost 7,000 people voted in this year's Dallas Observer Music Awards, and while I have absolutely no numbers to back it up, I'll go ahead and say I'm fairly certain it's the highest turnout for this election in quite some time. At least in the five years or so I've been involved, if you buy that as a definition of "quite some time." And you should.

Now, I don't know 7,000 people, nor do I possess the time and patience required to fill out that many ballots, or even a fraction of that number. Truth be told, my attention span is barely long enough to...finish...this...sentence.

What all this means: You picked the winners, not me. I bring it up because there's been some confusion about this. During the weeks preceding the award ceremony held April 16 at the Gypsy Team Room, rumors swirled through Deep Ellum that the polls were closed before they ever opened, that the Observer (more specifically, me) had picked the winners long ago. This was little more than an excuse to pat our friends on the back, a sham, bullshit, whatever. And, to be honest, all those whispers hit us like a kick in the crotch.

Sticks and stones may break bones but words will never hurt? A freaking lie. Here are a few words that prove that theory wholly inaccurate: the 1998 Topaz Awards. Not a Band-Aid big enough for that one, a reference made by a few to the infamous local-music backslap where Cresta's Jenny Esping took home three trophies, when she just so happened to sit on the board of directors of the North Texas Music Festival, which put the now-defunct Topaz Awards together.

Mistakes that occurred during the nomination process (for one, not enough people received ballots, or not enough of the right people, apparently) have been acknowledged and apologized for. That, friends, is where it ends; if you want to continue to paint us with that brush, just make sure you have a dropcloth handy. What I'm saying is this: To dwell on it any further is a punch in the gut to the bands and musicians you'll find on the next few pages, all of whom earned their inclusion, deserved their victory. Again, you picked the winners. Do I agree with all the choices? Maybe not, but that's irrelevant. This, after all, is the one time each year when the Observer cedes the reins to the fans, the readers, the voters. Right or wrong, we respect your choices. Actually, take that back: There is no wrong, really, just a different definition of right.

If nothing else, I hope the furor surrounding this year's DOMA will serve as a conversation starter, a call to arms, a reason to go out and prove the black hats wrong. Because the truth is, you can cast your vote every weekend by going to Deep Ellum (or Lower Greenville or Denton or Fort Worth) and dropping your six bucks on a local band or three. And it doesn't matter if we disagree. Anyone who gets onstage, locks himself in a recording studio, piles into a van, does whatever it takes for what some laughingly call a dream can consider himself a winner. No matter what. Turn the page to read about a few of them. --Zac Crain

Winner for: Best Act Overall; Best Album (2001); Best Song (2001); Rock/Pop; Songwriter(s) (Sean Halleck); Male Vocalist (Sean Halleck)

For a city with such an enormous ego, Dallas doesn't exactly have a whole lot to be proud of musically. We love to laugh behind Austin's back when it crows about being the Live Music Capital of the World, and we scoff at the manufactured charm of Sundance Square and the chicken-fried tripe our shit-kickin' neighbors to the west call music. But before we puff out our chests too much, let's take a good, hard look at the cursed history of our vaunted music scene. Aside from a few exceptions--say, Erykah Badu or the Dixie Chicks or Pantera, maybe--it's littered with flameouts (New Bohemians, The Toadies), one-hit-blunders (Deep Blue Something), almost-weres (Tripping Daisy, Old 97's) and never-dids (Funland, Tomorrowpeople). It's pretty sad when one of the greatest achievements by a Dallas musician is getting impregnated by Paul Simon.

There is, however, an unlikely savior in our midst: The Polyphonic Spree may be the ones wearing angelic robes, but with all due respect, Chomsky is the band fit to lead Dallas to the promised land. Not that you'd ever know by looking at them. When you encounter Chomsky live for the first time, several questions might pop up: "Does that guitar player have Tourette's syndrome?" "Why does the drummer have the facial expression of a corpse?" "Is it just me, or is the lead singer a little chunky?" And so on. But as soon as they start to play, all those questions are blown away; Chomsky is the rare blend of showmanship and musicianship, with songs and swagger to spare. Guitarist Glen Reynolds amazes with his tendon-stretching chords and just-because scissors kicks; drummer Matt Kellum and bassist James Driscoll's rhythm section elicits instant head-bobbing and toe-tapping; Don Cento lures a smile of recognition with his Costello keys; and front man Sean Halleck astounds with his range and clarity. The fivesome's energy immediately infects listeners, whether onstage or on records, sucking in even the most skeptical of the uninitiated. [page]

It's been a slow build for Chomsky. A Few Possible Selections for the Soundtrack of Your Life was released in 1999 with little fanfare, and subsequent gigs entertained more friends and fellow musicians than fans. But by the time the "00:15:00" single and full-length Onward Quirky Soldiers came out last year, the Chomsky Army had swelled to vast legions, loyal enough to consistently pack venues and stuff ballot boxes. The key to Chomsky's success is their broad, but not bland, appeal: They are cute enough for your girlfriend to like, but harmless enough for you to allow her to. They rock hard enough to engage the sweaty meathead, but not so hard that the meek intellectuals are scared away. They reference XTC and the Police enough to impress rock critics, yet they have enough in common with blink-182 to reach dumbed-down Edge listeners.

One listen to Onward Quirky Soldiers confirms Chomsky's bankabilty. The opening coos of "Straight Razor" explode into a syncopated new-wave melody that surprises with its earnestness. Ditto for the album's other uptempo numbers, "00:15:00," "Herod's Daughter" and "Laughing"--all cheeky and sincere at once. When they dial it down a notch or two--"Inside," "Light," "Destination"--the effect is hypnotic with subtle thrills and thick crawl-inside-your-head choruses. The big album closer, "Rollers," sums up Chomsky's acidic wit and charm as Halleck sings in his ode to tolerance, "I do one thing with rump rangers/I don't pay no mind what they do with their behinds." As much as Chomsky doesn't take itself too seriously, though, there's no Redd Kross wink-wink kitsch on Onward Quirky Soldiers. And it may be an homage to the '80s, but its sound is decidedly now; as comfortable in Skechers as it is in Vans. Whether or not the rest of the world ever gets Chomsky remains to be seen, but here's hoping. --Dave Lane

Tim DeLaughter
Winner for: Musician of the Year

Polyphonic Spree played South by Southwest last month--owned it, actually, as evidenced by the post-conference press clippings (which prove, among other things, rock journalists can't add). To wit: From the London Guardian, March 29: "Most people agree that the most likely future stars present are the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, a scuzzy rock band from New York, and the Polyphonic Spree, a remarkable 28-piece Dallas ensemble featuring a choir, a brass and string section, all clad in matching white robes." From the Chicago Sun-Times, March 18: "Led by gleefully goofy Tripping Daisy veteran Tim DeLaughter, the Polyphonic Spree was a Dallas ensemble that crossed Pet Sounds and Up With People for a genre that can only be called 'Wellbutrin-rock.' Fronting a 10-piece choir and a 13-piece band including theremin and French horn (and with everyone adorned in angelic white robes), DeLaughter sang uplifting odes about sunshine and smiles, leaving the most jaded hipsters grinning joyfully." And, last, from The New York Times, March 18, complete with color pic: Polyphonic Spree "offered a purposeful burst of optimism for an event where a dip in superstar sales, and the fear that Internet file-swapping will make recordings less profitable, could not subdue the pleasures of live music or the ambitions of do-it-yourself bands."

So, yeah. The Tim DeLaughter-fronted band--conceptual-pop army's more like it--is be-freakin'-loved, maybe more so out of town than in, but that's usually what happens to local musical vets. They're embraced by the out-of-towners who fall in love with their imported exotica, while we just take it for granted, like this big band's no big deal. What we write off as rote, as though such a thing were possible with this killing Spree, others perceive as a blessing, and correctly so; not since Lennon-McCartney tried to keep pace with Brian Wilson tried to keep pace with Phil Spector has there been so majestic and stirring a pop swell as last year's The Beginning Stages Of..., which makes you feel good by just holding the thing, never mind actually playing it.

That DeLaughter should form Polyphonic Spree from the trampled stems of Tripping Daisy--which had to deal with being misled and mishandled by its label, Island, and couldn't withstand the 1999 overdose death of guitarist Wes Berggren--was remarkable and maybe even appropriate. After all, when confronted with anger and tragedy one has two choices: to disappear into grief's long, heavy shadow or step out of its way in a defiant act of optimism. Those who know DeLaughter, now father and co-founder of Good Records, insist there was never any question; it's sunny-side up, even on a cloudy day. And so Polyphonic Spree spreads it gospel in print and in prayer (these songs will convert the pop-and-roll atheist), evincing tears of joy from critics and cynics alike who discovered there's nothing better than, well, feeling better. --Robert Wilonsky [page]

Fred Savage Fanclub
Winner for: Female Vocalist (Sara Radle); Best New Act

Sara Radle could beam with pride that Fred Savage Fanclub--which started as a one-woman solo side project spun off from the pop-punk trio Lucy Loves Schroeder--wins Best New Act here, beating out a bunch of all-male bands (and fellow one-woman band Chao, led by erstwhile Captain Audio innovator Regina Chellew). But it's not about being female, at least not to her. To Radle, these two awards should mean that she's getting the respect she's worked for with both Fred Savage Fanclub and Lucy Loves Schroeder. (Just two months ago she told the Observer, "I think that sometimes it is hard to be taken seriously just as a female in the music scene at least initially.")

Fred Savage Fanclub began as a recording-only project, resulting in the release of Jelly Beans with Belly Buttons on Denton's She's Gone Records in December 2000. But live, it has expanded to include (at times) [DARYL]'s Dave Wilson on guitar, Jason Garner of The Deathray Davies on drums and bass players Andrew Binovi of Lucy Loves Schroeder and Chris Radle (a member of SuperSport and her brother), along with an all-male chorus. Live shows, however, have been rare, with Radle spending most of her time playing guitar and singing (along with Binovi) in Lucy Loves Schroeder, which has been stepping further into the spotlight over the last few months. Lucy Loves Schroeder has been getting booked locally and regionally more frequently (including a spot opening for Jimmy Eat World) and recently had a song ("Dragon Lady") added to KDGE-FM's playlist. Radle hopes to get back into the studio with both of her bands, which means we'll probably be hearing her voice even more in the coming year. --Shannon Sutlief

Erykah Badu
Winner for: Funk/R&B

What a true blessing it is to call her one of our own, since she's everywhere now, her "throwback" organic soul music and fascinating voice heard all over the world: While driving through Italy at 3 a.m. a couple of months back, we were pleasantly surprised to hear a Rome radio DJ segue from Guns 'N Roses into Erykah's "Bag Lady" without giving it a second thought. Channeling the spirit of Billie Holiday and wisdom of Nina Simone before her, the analog gospel of Erika Wright is still spreading like wildfire.

Competition is unusually thick up in here. Over the past few years, a handful of distinctive female vocalists from North Texas have managed to sell literally millions of records. With LeAnn Rimes, Jessica Simpson, the Dixie Chicks, Lisa Loeb, Sara Hickman, Michelle Shocked and now (like Badu and Edie Brickell before her) fellow Arts Magnet alum Norah Jones, talented Dallas-connected women are out there representing with seemingly every style imaginable. And all without ever aesthetically stepping on each other's toes. Of course, there are also a number of gifted young women (Kim Pendleton, Spyche, Regina Chellew and violinist Gail Hess come to mind) whose secret we've forever managed to keep to ourselves. Punch yourself in the face if it makes you feel any better.

Besides the ongoing fixation with our homegirl Erykah, everyone's new favorite seems to be N'Dambi, and it ain't really hard to see why. She was a backup singer with Badu's live group, shares her Camp Wisdom backing band and producers on occasion and has every club DJ in town droppin' her vinyl joints during their sets. Still, this is Ms. B's house for now. All it took was one listen to Mama's Gun to know that "Ms. Jackson" was taking this to the next level; for N'Dambi to eclipse the same artist who originally opened the stage door for her, she's going to have to reach way deep into her bag of tricks. Erykah's captivating homecoming show at the Bronco Bowl Theatre last year showed a definite maturation in poise, presentation and stage presence, and Mama's Gun (a "sister" record to D'Angelo's Voodoo joint) may not have racked up the same kind of sales numbers that Baduizm had, but E more than made up for it by accentuating her live performances as a means to raise money and awareness for a number of issues that she happens to feel strongly about. Musicians get in this game for one of two reasons: to feed their plus-sized egos, or to hopefully make this world a better place in which to live. Erykah Badu is doing this for all the right reasons. --Jeff Liles [page]

Eleven Hundred Springs
Winner for: Country & Western

They've been called "Long-Haired, Tattooed Hippie Freaks" so often it became the title of one of their songs, and if you didn't know any better, you might scoff at this sort of scruff sifting through and riffing on decades of love-God-murder music. But doubting the intentions and reinventions of the five members of Eleven Hundred Springs (singer-guitarist Matt Hillyer, bassist Steve Berg, guitarist Chris Claridy, drummer Bruce Alford and Aaron Wynne on pedal steel and piano), booking them for trespassing in the honky-tonks, misses the point. While most of them are vets of local rock bands (Strap, Vibrolux, Sixty-Six, among others), the group has Lone Star chugging through its veins and "Johnny Paycheck...Willie, Waylon and the late and great Doug Sahm"--as Hillyer name-checks on "Long-Haired, Tattooed Hippie Freaks"--on its mind, walking the line that connects Nashville to Austin to Bakersfield to your heart. The other bands, it seems, were the real put-ons.

Hillyer, for one, has never sounded more at ease than he does fronting a C&W outfit, mourning the "Queen of Canton Street," banging and twanging his way through another "Sad and Lonesome Song." It's textbook stuff, all about love and liquor and the occasional lack thereof, and Hillyer plays his part well; he's the "King of Tears" who's "No Stranger to the Blues," just looking for "One More Chance." The band's four albums--1999's Welcome To... and Live at Adair's, 2000's No Stranger to the Blues and last year's mostly acoustic A Straighter Line--are tickets to the Country Music Hall of Fame, even including country songs about country songs ("Hey Jukebox," "Steel Guitar and Fiddle"). It's a hands-on history lesson, show-and-tell on the back porch.

Yet unlike BR5-49 and The Derailers and the other trad-country acts that look and sound like museum exhibits in their Nudie suits and aw-shucks grins, Eleven Hundred Springs doesn't let the music gather dust in a glass case in the corner; they scoot their boots across the dance hall and buy it a longneck at the bar, each tune locating the pulse Music Row has tried to focus-group to a standstill. The band doesn't remind its listeners of other songs as much as it helps them remember why they loved those songs in the first place, using country's tradition as the frame but rarely keeping the same photo in it. There's "A Few Words to Remember Me By" (from Welcome To...), a killer-cold and flat-out funny kiss-off ("You know, in my life of love, you weren't the first/But I think it's safe to say, you were definitely the worst"), and "Thunderbird Will Do Just Fine" (off A Straighter Line), the kidney-punching toast to empty bottles and full ashtrays ("Put some ice in a Dixie cup/Pass the whiskey over here/Take that joint and fire it up/And if there ain't no whiskey pass the beer"). Or, if you're feeling reflective, "A Straighter Line," which finds Hillyer back on the path of the righteous again ("I thought whiskey and cocaine would ease my sorrow/But it only took me closer to the grave/I was living for today and not tomorrow"). And that's just a few of the better ones; with Hillyer and Eleven Hundred Springs at the wheel, it's all a trip down Hank's lost highway on a Bloody Mary morning. --Z.C.

Pleasant Grove
Winner for: Folk/Acoustic

Don't quite get this one: Last time I saw the Grove live, puttin' on The Ritz during South by Southwest last month in Austin, it wasn't exactly strumming and humming like coffeehouse flunkies collecting spare change for the long bus ride home. (Far as I'm concerned, a folkie's usually someone too afraid to plug in, turn up and cut loose; didn't Dylan teach anyone anything?) The band's set--which left the crowd begging in vain for a SXSW no-no, the encore--was as inflammatory as any "rock" set. Just because they don't scream at you or make you feel small for being on that side of the stage doesn't diminish their intensity.

By the time the band got through dripping blood, sweat and fear out of "The Lovers, The Drunk, The Mother" (winner of best song title, an unofficial nod handed out over drinks after hours), even the club's walls were spent; the only thing that got us distracted was trying to figure out how Blues Traveler John Popper, in and out during the show, dropped a ton, literally. Other than that, all eyes, ears and souls were up there with Marcus Striplin, Bret Egner, Jeff Ryan, Tony Hormillosa and Joe Butcher, who make a simple sound that could complicate your life if you let it, by which I mean: They just tear your heart out. [page]

Not that Pleasant Grove doesn't deserve an award--because making music is such the competitive sport--and I'd give them every one we got, just don't get the wrong idea. Maybe it's that "country" thing that confuses voters, now that Joe Butcher's cradling and fondling that pedal steel like an after-last-call pickup; no wonder Lost Highway's looking to put the Grove on the two-lane blacktop to major-labeldom, and good luck with all that. Butcher once called the band's 2001 release Auscultation of the Heart "Willie Nelson meets Pink Floyd," and it's an apt description--blues-tinged, soul-touched country by way of ethereal art-rock, without any of the art damage; feel-bad music played by fellers who can't withstand the damage of an evil and wicked divorce, etc. Word is the next album rocks, which ought to clear up the confusion. But by then, maybe voters will have figured out what we've known for a few years: Pleasant Grove may be the best band in town, and that's our reward. --R.W.

the pAper chAse
Winner for: Avant-Garde/Experimental

It doesn't sound like a revolution when you break it down to its simplest elements: a four-piece band, guitar, bass, drums, a little piano, vocals. Doesn't sound all that different, that is, unless you've actually heard the pAper chAse's albums or seen leader John Congelton onstage, using his shoes as percussion or something like that. And thanks to its incorporation of samples, the pAper chAse (which includes drummer Aaron Dalton, bassist Bobby Weaver and keys/tape player Matt Armstrong) creates on the fly, making each show unlike any other--its own or anyone else's. Not quite as simple as you might expect.

There are moments within the records (2000's Young Bodies Heal Quickly, You Know on Beatville and last year's cntrl-alt-delete-u EP on Divot) where one might be able to point out similarities, a little Nine Inch Nails here, a smidgen of Fugazi there. But taken as a whole--as the pAper chAse's albums always should be--there is nothing else like it. Between Congelton's yelps, the guitar screeches, the fury of percussion and the tape loops, there is a beautiful cacophony no one but the band will ever fully understand, but anyone with an open ear can appreciate. Expect more of the same--and also, not at all--when the pAper chAse releases Hide the Kitchen Knives on Beatville and Divot domestically (and Southern UK abroad) this summer. --S.S.

Reverend Horton Heat
Winner for: Rockabilly/Roots

Back when these awards were first handed out, rule was you couldn't win in the same category more than five years running; after that, you were taken out of consideration, handed a cursory lifetime achievement nod, encased in Plexiglas and hauled off to the Hall of Fame, which answers the question, Whatever happened to Edie Brickell? So maybe this will be the last year Jim Heath, Jimbo Wallace and Scott Churilla take home this doorstop, though we doubt it; might as well just name it for the Rev and be done with it.

Which--no, seriously--is no knock against Heath and his bonzai bassist and drill-team drummer, but the fact remains theirs has become a style all their own: a self-contained subgenre of music as American as a Sergio Leone western or as Italian as a Dick Dale beach blanket of riffs. Hence, the spaghetti-western ambience and surf-rock strains that permeate Lucky 7, the band's latest and greatest since its sounds were full-custom and full-on. At long last, it's nice to embrace a band that's kept us at arm's length since it decided to dress up like lounge lizards and slow it down for the ladies, which may be why we never got it to begin with.

If the songs remain the same--from subject (loose women, fast cars, yo-Jimbo) to style (rockabilly by way of CBGB's, hillbilly by way of the Pacific Coast Highway)--for once that's a good thing. Nearly two decades since Heath was living upstairs at the Prophet Bar and goosing acoustic audiences with unplugged fury, he sounds reborn--baptized in gin again, without the hangover that's lingered ever since Liquor in the Front and Space Heater and all those other albums we never haul off the shelf when the mood strikes. (Sorry, fellas, but when you make a record as feverish and majestic as Full Custom Gospel Sounds, we're not gonna let you sneak under the bar you helped raise; you set a standard, and forgive the hell out of us for holding you to it.) So, apologies are in full effect after years of blaspheming the Rev; for this sermon, we're wide awake. --R.W.

Hydroponic Sound System
Winner for: Rap/Hip-Hop

The gospel according to Jeff Wade, a.k.a. Skinny Fresh: "It seems that hip-hop has lost its 'no rules' mentality," he says in the liner notes of his group Hydroponic Sound System's 2000 debut, Routine Insanity. Can't we all agree that if someone released a song outside of the 'verse-chorus then repeat twice' format the world would come to a grinding halt? I would like to thank the current crop of rappers for numbing our senses and lowering our expectations for something original. Who needs innovation when you're getting paid, biiiiiiatch!" [page]

Who needs innovation? Wade and his partner Ruben Ayala, as well as the stable of thoroughbreds they enlisted for Routine Insanity, among them rhymers Headkrack, Massive, Kwasar, MYK, Iphlomatix, Soule and Cold Cris, dancehall toaster Grand Supreem, DJ Furious, singer Pat Peterson, keys player Ted Cruz, guitarist Reed Easterwood and multi-instrumentalist Randy Lee. The result is a record that brings back hip-hop's lost lawlessness, beginning and ending with beats and rhymes but allowing for plenty of side trips and head trips to be made before Wade and Ayala pull the car back into the garage. Wade and Ayala break beats over Latin jazz and silky soul, battering-ram rhymes and barely there ambience, freestyle fellowships and Steely Dan slickness. And at some point, a flute enters the picture. For Wade and Ayala, it's not just a job; it's an adventure.

Makes sense that Hydro would produce a hip-hop record that is and isn't one. There's Wade, the 30-year-old former DJ from Richardson who grew up hanging out at hip-hop shows Tropical Exodus with the MCs and DJs who'd go on to form Mad Flava, Shabazz 3 and Skwod X, among others, before manning the ones and twos with Sons of Soul. And there's Ayala, the fortysomething engineer best known (if at all) for recording a pair of Stevies (Nicks and Ray Vaughan) until he lured Wade into the studio full time. It's an unlikely combo, but one that works, and word is, you can expect something new from the dynamic duo later this year. Knowing Wade and Ayala, it will sound nothing like Routine Insanity. That's what "no rules" means. --Z.C.

Sub Oslo
Winner for: Reggae

This aural petri dish has been festering for more than five years now, the seemingly random addition/subtraction of noodling melodic figures and fragmented abstract noise panning east-west over skeletal dub-style arrangements, introverted "songs" titled later for our benefit. Let's call it omni-directional mood music. Waves and layers of sound rise and fall accordingly, tones come and go as they please, washing over us as they see fit, all somehow connecting textural dots and dashes of quieter traditional instrumentation. I know: ewwww. Sounds way complicated and pretentious as shit on paper, but the end result is both warmly engaging and tastefully minimalist. Best of all, Sub Oslo's stuff is sexy as hell.

It's not very hard to decipher all the references and influences here: Mexico's Nortec Collective and Plastilina Mosh, geezer UK splotch-artists Tricky and Mark Stewart's Maffia, Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare, Tackhead/Gary Clail bartender Adrian Sherwood, among other knob-and-dial-twistin' Huxleyites. There's obviously something here for everyone, given you don't mind dispensing with the idea of having a lead vocalist bleating on about God knows what. What's really hard is trying to figure out where this unpredictable group of musicians may be headed next. Your guess is as good as mine.

On one hand, they could continue down the path they've already beaten, breaking dub elements down to their most spacious and textural in the typical nightclub setting, found sounds usually open to interpretation. Nice for a zootie on a head full o' hydro, but no way to make a real living in the music biz. Godawful Truth: no hooks or gimmicky chorus, hello day job. On the other hand, they could start doing remixes for rap artists, dance tracks, abstract film scores, incidental music for TV commercials and the occasional 5 a.m. gig playing in the "chill out" rooms at local rave gatherings. Sure, they'd feel like total prostitutes and would probably never be able to look at themselves in the mirror ever again, but at least they'd probably be able to afford to tour and interface with other musicians bearing a shared perspective. And so what if they have to travel halfway around the world to find an audience that doesn't totally take them for granted? Recording artists from North Texas have always had to do that. Just tell 'em Ornette said, "What's up?" --J.L.

Earl Harvin Trio
Winner for: Jazz

Strange that, had someone mislabeled this category, called it Avant-Garde/Experimental instead of Jazz, almost all the nominees could have remained; Wayne Delano, usually relegated to a backing track for the pasta special at Terilli's, is, no offense, the only standard-issue sore thumb standing out in this bunch. Flipside, Ghostcar and Quartet Out--all card carriers in the Dallas Creative Music Alliance--are tethered to the genre by little more than instrumentation and appreciation, and Earl Harvin Trio is a tease, inviting jazz back to its room only to fuck with it a little bit before kicking it out in a hurry. [page]

Was a time when that wasn't the case for the Trio: 1995's Trio/Quartet and 1997's Strange Happy were just this side of straight-ahead jazz and, in retrospect, served as little more than an elaborate setup for what was to come next. The group--drummer Harvin, bassist-guitarist Fred Hamilton and Dave Palmer on various keys--delivered the punch line on 1999's Live at the Gypsy Tea Room, a double-disc effort that made Trio/Quartet and Strange Happy come off like nursery rhymes in comparison, an hour-plus of jazz that was anything but, 63 minutes of controlled chaos that beat Radiohead to the spot a couple of years ahead of time and would make Ken Burns' head explode if he had the guts to take off his Louis Armstrong records and pay attention. Live at the Gypsy Tea Room was "jazz" at the end of the century or the end of the world; hard to tell which.

Last year's Unincorporated finds the group walking on a tightrope that's actually a lit fuse, banjo licks and electronic tics joining in the fun because no one ever told them they couldn't. The trio of improvisations scattered among the disc's 10 tracks don't stand out because it all feels made up on the spot, the sound of three musicians in a room looking at each other for the changes, not knowing what comes next or caring much. Drums skitter and splinter, scurrying underneath Wurlitzer whirls and Hindustani slide guitar (huh?) swirls until it's a beautiful mess that recalls David Holmes' soundtrack work, punk, country, blues, funk, rock, roll and--oh yeah--jazz. And at times, it's close enough to a Squarepusher record that, next year, maybe these fellas will take home the Industrial/Dance award instead. Or maybe we should just cut out all the bullshit and give them Best Act Overall. --Z.C.

Idol Records
Winner for: Record Label

After Idol Records' second sold-out showcase in a row at South by Southwest in March, we said the label "may not be the Sub Pop of the South, but it's closer than just about anything else, only lacking name recognition, not talent." At home, at least, Idol is finally receiving that identification. And by "finally" we mean that the label has been operating for quite some time, which probably comes as much of a shock to some as the admission that Chomsky has released more than two albums. (Really, it's true.) Seven years ago, Idol released a 10-inch split single with Funland and The Old 97's, with each band playing the former's "Garage Sale" and the latter's "Stoned," and owner Erv Karwelis spent the next several years releasing albums by old-school punk bands such as Billy Club and The Feisty Cadavers, followed by space-rock releases by Mazinga Phaser and The Falcon Project.

Then came Centro-matic's Navigational in 1999, the label's redheaded stepchild that Karwelis liked so much he decided to keep adopting. Since then, there have been two more original Centro-matic releases and reissues of a pair of discs originally released on Quality Park Records, a fellow nominee and the Denton label that Centro-matic has been splitting time with. Over the past few years, Idol has also recruited Clumsy, Chomsky, The Deathray Davies and Macavity, assembling a lineup that packs Austin clubs each March. (The latest addition, [DARYL], just released its self-titled debut for the label.) All this has transformed Idol from a sub-pop outlet to a label recognized all along Interstate 35 for putting out albums as packed with good songs as its showcases are with fans. --S.S.

Matt Pence
Winner for: Producer

Matt Pence's particular genius as a producer is his ability to disappear; you never notice he's there, never see the studio instead of the songs. He does more than just sit in the booth and hit record, sure, but you don't feel his hand guiding you along, leading listeners through his vision of the songs instead of whatever band he happens to be recording. Unlike some other producers, Pence doesn't have a readily identifiable sound, unless you count his habit for bringing out the best in the groups that head out to The Echo Lab, the studio he runs with fellow nominee Matt Barnhart in Argyle.

It's no coincidence, then, that his work with Centro-matic (who he also drums for), Pleasant Grove, The Deathray Davies and Legendary Crystal Chandelier--to name just a few--has resulted in some of the best local releases in the past few years. And his résumé is as varied as it is full, from blues (a forthcoming disc by 70-and-change picker CeDell Davis, backed by R.E.M.'s Peter Buck and The Minus 5's Scott McCaughey, among others) to roots-rock (early work with Slobberbone) to wide-screen pop (a new one coming from Lewis) to whatever else he has time for. You hope John Congleton will finally get some notice for his skills behind the boards, but you can't fault the voters for picking Pence again. --Z.C. [page]

The Havana Boys
Winner for: Latin/Tejano

Every year naysayers claim the perimeters of this category are too broad, that the nominees span too many types of music--jazz, soul, salsa, big band, even rock--to be grouped together. We dare them to find another category in which all the nominees fit the label given them. Tell Rockabilly/Roots nominees Slobberbone and Reverend Horton Heat they're basically the same. Explain how the dub-heavy Sub Oslo is exactly like fellow Reggae nominee One Love Uprising. If each band was given its own tailor-made label, there'd only be one nominee per category and everyone would be a winner--wait, forget we said anything. But the whining only diminishes the stature of the category they're trying to protect; slight the category and insult not just the winner, but the entire diverse pool of nominees.

For the second year, The Havana Boys, the seven-person, all-Cuban dance orchestra, take home this award, and it's hard to disregard a band that plays more times per week than most nominated musicians shower. The Boys (Jorge Antonelli, Armando Antonelli, Frankie Antonelli, Ernesto Velez, Maiquel Romero and Ivan Martinez, plus "The Lady of The Boys" Mariel Suarez) have four weekly gigs (Wednesdays at Sipango, Thursdays at Hard Rock Café, Fridays at the Cartegena Latin Salsa Club and Sundays at Carson's Palace's Club Havana) and slots at festivals nearly every weekend March through September, getting passers-by to work off those corny dogs and funnel cakes with a little salsa dancing. So they're almost omnipresent and omnipotent, knowing exactly what it takes to get people of all ages, sizes and races on their feet. In other words, The Havana Boys are as broad as this category. --S.S.

Slow Roosevelt
Winner for: Metal

Here's what I don't understand, and probably never will: Drowning Pool gets the record contract (with Creed conspirator Wind-Up Records), the hit single ("Bodies"), the platinum plaques, Jack Osbourne's seal of approval, all of it and then some, and Slow Roosevelt gets nothing, except another one of these. And let's not kid ourselves: That matches up about as well as Shaquille O'Neal backing down Mark Cuban in the paint. (Well, at least the awards look better than they used to.) It's no consolation, but here's something else Slow Roosevelt has that Drowning Pool doesn't: songs. ("Mouth Wide Shut," from last year's Weightless, could almost pass for a Toadies tune.) The band--singer Pete Thomas, guitarist Scott Minyard, drummer Aaron Lyons and bassist Mark Sodders--knows that melody and malady don't have to stay on opposite ends of the court; you just have to hit the right notes as hard as you can.

On Weightless, the group softens its blows (occasionally) without pulling punches, even turning it down every once in a while (the acoustic breather in "From Laughing Comes Crying," for instance). That said, there's plenty of precious metal in the mine; Slow Roosevelt is just as comfortable nicking a bit of Metallica ("Boys Lie Girls Steal," which is "Sad But True") and getting Thomas' back when he finds something to scream about ("Where's my medication?!" he howls on "Comfort From a Bomb," and you immediately start searching for his prescription). It's everything Drowning Pool and the rest of the nü-ckleheads fall short of: aggressive, assertive, abusive, abrasive, alive. When their fans grow up, maybe they'll be ready for Slow Roosevelt. --Z.C.

MC 900 Ft. Jesus
Winner for: Industrial/Dance

Didn't anybody ever tell Mark Griffin white industrial rap is obsolete? It had been so long since MC 900 Ft. Jesus reared his cockeyed head, it almost seemed like a practical joke when his name showed up again. When he announced a pair of comeback shows at Trees and Dan's Bar in Denton, there were probably a few snickers and bemused grins and a whole lot of head-scratching.

Then again, Griffin was a wildly popular local figure for quite a while, so, in certain circles, there was an electric anticipation surrounding MC 900 Ft. Jesus' first live appearance in seven years. Ah, yes, that's right, Griffin is a real musician, not just a white rapper. He's a classically trained trumpet player, ex-member of the Telefones and Lithium X-mas and member of lounge-jazz combos the Enablers and Young Millionaires. But, wait, isn't he also that cartoonish chrome-dome who was packed up in a box and thrown in a truck in the "If I Only Had a Brain" video? The eccentric misfit who released "Truth Is Out of Style" along with DJ Zero? [page]

Well, yes, but it's this bizarre mix of credibility and absurdity that defines MC 900 Ft. Jesus. It's doubtful seasoned pros like Earl Harvin and Dave Palmer, who joined Griffin for both his last album (1994's One Step Ahead of the Spider) and his recent pair of live outings, have spent much time playing karaoke machine for juvenile raps about fast-food drive-thrus. Then again, working with Griffin also means an opportunity to saturate the air with the sublime darkness that seeps from the heart of the pathological arsonist in "The City Sleeps." Or to conjure the dangerous, sexy funk haze of the crash-worship sketch "New Moon."

Griffin draws the lines, and his backing band of Harvin, Palmer, sax player Chris McGuire, bassist Dave Monsey and guitarist Phil Bush filled them expertly at the recent shows, Harvin's almost inhuman groove serving as a base for Palmer's delicate tonal shadings. It's true--this year's Industrial/Dance winner is a jazz band, at least in the live arena. A jazz-funk fusion, anyway, augmented by the trumpet-playing of Griffin, who claims Miles Davis and the Mahavishnu Orchestra as partial inspiration for 900 Ft. Jesus' shift from an electro-industrial act to a well-oiled live machine. Griffin claims to be mining more electronic terrain as he develops new material, but anyone who saw the 2001 resurrection of MC 900 Ft. Jesus witnessed a rare intersection of groove, atmosphere and inspired character sketch. --Michael Chamy

Winner for: Cover Band

Weener co-front man Glen Reynolds told me awhile back that he kinda hoped Weener wouldn't take home this award again, no offense. Give it to Hard Night's Day or someone else, he said. Maybe he was just frustrated, given that the last few Weener shows in the 214 haven't gone so well, attendance figures cliff-diving from the near-sell-out, scream-along shows when the group (Chomsky's Reynolds, singer-guitarist Jason Weisenburg, Baboon bassist Mark Hughes and Pinkston drummer Ben Burt) first started. Now that the real thing's back after a long hiatus (the self-titled, so-called "green album" last year, and Maladroit on the way in a month or so), apparently, the appeal of the carbon copy has waned somewhat. Fairweather friends, all of 'em. Fact is, the band's never been better; it has a firmer grasp of Weezer's catalog than Weezer does, plays more of it and--there, I said it--delivers the goods better than Rivers Cuomo and company. (Hey, if you wanna watch four guys nailed down in front of their microphones, looking as though they're in the middle of a colonoscopy, have at it.)

Lately, Weener has been playing more often (and to a much better reception) in Austin, where audiences are still in the passionate throes of the honeymoon that ended in Dallas shortly after Weezer came out of hiding. Still, as far as I'm concerned, the allure remains, especially if you want to hear live versions of anything off 1996's Pinkerton, the disc Cuomo has all but turned his back on, spitting and shitting on it anytime a microphone is near enough to catch his mumbles. Currently, Weener is in the process of learning the songs off Maladroit; Reynolds scored a copy of the unreleased album a few weeks ago from a friend at Weezer's label. So the band continues, for now, and like it or not, it takes home another one of these. If there's justice in this world, the next time Weezer comes to Dallas, Weener will open. A battle of the "band," if you will. Doubt that Cuomo has the stones for that, though. --Z.C.

Gypsy Tea Room
Winner for: Live Music Venue

Only one thing makes for a "best" live music venue: the, ahem, live music, if you didn't already know (and some of you didn't, apparently, which is probably why you weren't nominated, so shuddup already). Everything else is a moot point--save, perhaps, such trivial things as acoustics, sightlines and the generosity of bartenders kind enough to double a single of Maker's Mark. That's it--that's fucking it, end of story. I don't care how many autographed drum heads you got up on the wall, how many local comers you're booking (gee, nice of you to do so, but this is a voters'-choice award, not some kinda charity), how many ads you're taking out in the Observer, what kind of cold-meat platter you put out for the talent or how so-effin'-cool your front-door people are. If you're booking crap, you are crap on that given night. And, please, don't tell me taste is subjective: When the Gypsy's booking Norah Jones and Wilco and Antipop Consortium, in addition to such varied locals as Chomsky and Earl Harvin, that, my friends, is called stuffing the ballot box. No one else even stood a chance. [page]

There's a reason bands like playing the Gypsy Tea Room: It's as homey as your grandmother's on Christmas morning and as roomy as your pants before Thanksgiving dinner. Like a red-wine sauce left for just the right amount of time on the burner, it all boils down to good taste, and the Gypsy bookers have the best in town. You think otherwise? Fine enough, you're welcome to spend your cash where you want--owners and audience alike. (Maybe we just don't jibe with Jibe, but neither should you.) Just compare the GTR's list of recent and forthcoming shows with everyone else's--Spiritualized, Jon Spencer Blue Explosion, Neil Halstead, Mark Eitzel, Luna, Jim White...and Mr. Show's David Cross--and do you really have to wonder why this venerable venue keeps skipping home with this doorstop? Didn't think so. --R.W.

Winner for: Blues

Not that you'd notice, Dallas and blues music go way back, from its role in Robert Johnson's limited recorded legacy and Leadbelly and Blind Lemon Jefferson's street-corner serenades in Deep Ellum to Steve Miller's apprenticeship with Aaron "T-Bone" Walker and Stevie Ray Vaughan's start. Unless you count a dance club called Blind Lemon (and you really shouldn't) and the SRV acolytes that pop up now and again, trying to start their own Texas flood, not much of that history is evident. But there's more there if you look for it: The nominees in this category--Josh Alan Band, Pops Carter & the Funkmonsters, Big Al Dupree, Jim Suhler and Monkey Beat--along with Anson Funderburgh and the Rockets, the Smokin' Joe Kubek Band, Mike Morgan and the Crawl, Lucky Peterson and Brian "Hash Brown" Calway, extend the timeline until the past meets the present.

For the second year in a row, the Silvertones are kings of this particular mountain, winning over crowds with their mix of souped-up standards ("Sneakin' Round Town"), hang-ten hip-shakers ("I Don't Care") and hot-sauce instrumentals ("Cruisin'," the title cut from the group's debut). The band--drummer-vocalist Randy Ball, guitarists Leo De La Vega and Walter Delesandri and bassist Brian Wicker--doesn't really challenge or change anyone's idea of what blues music should sound like, but it might make you pay attention to it again. --Z.C.

The Adventure Club
Winner for: Radio Program That Plays Local Music

There's enough music being made in Dallas right now (and some of it doesn't rhyme with Pompsky) to fill a dozen multi-hour radio shows per week, let alone the five nominated, only two of which (Live and Local on KYNG-FM and The Local Show on KEGL-FM) actually dedicate all their minutes to local bands. The other three (Tom Urquhart and Chris Bellomy's The Good Show on KTCU-FM, Russell Lyday's The Show That Fell to Earth on KNTU-FM and statue-winner Josh Venable's The Adventure Club on KDGE-FM) are run by guys who see local music on equal footing with all their other aural fixations, placing Centro-matic, Legendary Crystal Chandelier and Pleasant Grove alongside Oasis, Elvis Costello and XTC on their playlists. And pitting a block of Eniac against a marathon of Billy Bragg (as Venable did recently) is a greater compliment than a two-hour journey through the likes of Pushmonkey and Edgewater (which sounds more like a hostage situation to us).

Venable's been a local-music advocate away from the microphone as well, getting local bands added to The Edge's regular playlists and setting up an every-Thursday concert series, Edge Sessions at Club Clearview, which books established acts such as Slobberbone and The Deathray Davies, but also gives slots to bands like The Mona Jane and My Spacecoaster. In the end, however, this category is about the radio. And you, the voters, have shown you'll listen to The Bluetones and Ash just to hear an in-studio recording of Will Johnson playing acoustic. Even if it's the other way around, you're still getting a weekly dose of local music. And that's the point. --S.S.

Since airing two hours of absolutely nothing wouldn't do much for Fox's ratings or ad revenue on this first night of Hanukkah, the net's done the next best, by which I mean the next worst, thing: given us The Brady Bunch in the White House, a sorta sequel to 1996's A Very Brady Sequel, itself a sorta movie. Perhaps Gary Cole and Shelley Long needed the cash, as they're the only feature-film cast members to make their return; the kids, among them Christine "Mrs. Ben Stiller" Taylor, long ago wised up and moved out of the home Mike Brady built. Which leaves a cast of half-assed clones to muddle their way through this groaningly laughless made-for-TV movie written by Lloyd Schwartz (son of Brady creator Sherwood, who, though not dead, might consider crawling into a grave so he could start rolling over in it). Lloyd apparently grew up without watching a single episode of his pop's TV show or seeing the first two movies based on the series; that, or he's such a complete nitwit he couldn't tell what the show played for sincerity the movies played for irony, which at least made them tolerable and, occasionally, affable.

This clunker, in which Mike ends up running the country (don't ask, and I won't tell) with Carol as his worst lady, completely misses the joke running through the first two films; it scantly addresses the issue of how an oblivious family of the 1970s copes with life in mean ol' 2002. Or maybe it does, since I could only stomach 30 minutes before feeling as though there had to be some better way to waste my time. I started to wonder how long it has been since Sam the Butcher slipped Alice some meat. I started to wonder what it might have sounded like when Susan Olsen, the original Cindy, had "thex." I tried to remember if Johnny Bravo was Greg's pseudonym as singer or porn star. This became tiresome after a while, so, like Ann B. Davis, I became a born-again Christian and crucified the advance video Fox sent, in hopes it would get resurrected as a blank tape.

Poor William Randolph Hearst. The snapping dogs of Hollywood just won't leave the guy alone. It's been barely 60 years since a little epic called Citizen Kane portrayed the great newspaper tycoon as a ruthless dictator who degenerated into an emotional basket case, and already there's more bad publicity in the works. In his first theatrical feature in eight years, a savage piece of entertainment called The Cat's Meow, director Peter Bogdanovich speculates that Hearst was also a murderer--or at least a manslaughterer. Not only that, he was worthless in the bedroom.

This may not be great moviemaking--for an Orson Welles rookie card, a collector might have to part with a dozen Bogdanoviches--but it's vastly enjoyable in a lowdown, scandal-mongering way. It's also rife with real-life ironies, especially if you're a hidebound movie buff. Just for a start, consider the celebrated cast of characters Bogdanovich and playwright Steven Peros put aboard Hearst's 220-foot yacht in November 1924. There's good old W.R. himself, of course, in the craggy, ill-tempered person of Edward Herrmann, and his blond "protégé," Marion Davies (Kirsten Dunst). The guest list also includes the silent-movie pioneer Thomas Ince (Cary Elwes), the great comedian Charles Chaplin (Eddie Izzard), actress Margaret Livingston (Claudia Harrison), the sharp-tongued novelist Elinor Glyn (Joanna Lumley) and a screechy, barely literate young gossip columnist by the name of Louella Parsons (Jennifer Tilly).

In the course of their meandering voyage down the Pacific Coast toward San Diego, these principals and a supplement of hangers-on eat lavishly, drink bootleg liquor, do the Charleston and partake in the occasional orgy. Early on, mean old Willie Hearst stands on deck and shoots an unlucky seagull out of the sky with his automatic pistol. This is what they call in the lit biz a foreboding: Our yachtsman is just getting started in the gunplay department.

As any student of Hollywood scandal lore can tell you, what actually happened next aboard the Hearstian ship of fools remains a matter of conjecture even now. What we do know is that Thomas Ince wound up dead and that a questionable coroner's report attributed his demise to "heart failure as a result of acute indigestion." Like three generations of celebrity gossips, Bogdanovich and writer Peros have other ideas. In their scheme of things, maid Marion was conducting an affair with Chaplin, an inveterate swordsman. Hearst found out about the lovers, took a jealous potshot at the back of a figure he thought was Chaplin and gravely wounded Ince instead. Predictably, the newspaper baron used threats and bribes to quiet his suspicious shipmates forever. Louella Parsons made out best: For her silence, it says here, she exacted a lifetime contract with the Hearst chain and became the most powerful scribbler in Hollywood.

It doesn't matter much at this point whether Meow's bloody speculations are dead-on or a crock. Thomas Ince may have produced the silent classic Civilization and helped launch an industry, but hardly anyone today knows or cares who he was. As for Hearst, who died in 1951, the realities of his life (whatever they were) are still so dwarfed by the dark fictions of Kane that not even renewed accusations of murder are likely to alter his Wellesian image in the popular imagination. Besides, anybody who's ever bought popcorn knows by now that "Rosebud" wasn't just Kane's sled, but Hearst's pet name for Marion Davies' private parts.

The real attractions of The Cat's Meow, then, lie in its scathing portrayals of vintage Hollywood decadents at play. These are not especially original, but Bogdanovich dispenses them with relish, and his talented cast clearly has a ball playing their corrupted forebears. We glimpse paranoid Willie Hearst spying on his guests through a peephole, then donning an actual fool's cap, complete with dangling bells. Oily Ince schemes to prop up his flagging career by dipping into the Hearst empire, and we scarcely grieve his passing. Self-serving Davies markets herself to the most powerful bidder; Chaplin indulges his unbound id even as his 16-year-old mistress remains at home, pregnant and bereft. In this company, Tilly's crude, grabby Louella Parsons seems almost innocent.

She's not innocent, of course. No one is. The movie's conscience is supposed to be Lumley's sharply drawn Elinor Glyn, yet another smart, witty novelist who's wandered into the Hollywood circus tent and found the show revolting. "Hollywood--a land just off the coast of the planet Earth," Glyn proclaims. The place is "an evil wizard" where greed and self-importance overwhelm decency and principle. Well, yes. And if Bogdanovich, who is a learned film historian and an elegant writer as well as a director, identifies with Glyn and shares her bemusement, he likely has his reasons--along with some regrets. After all, his own filmmaking prospects collapsed following the murder of his paramour Dorothy Stratten, a former Playboy bunny, and the disastrous lawsuit he brought against Universal Studios over music rights to his 1985 film Mask. In the past two decades, Bogdanovich has directed only four features. So if the ex-wunderkind who gave us The Last Picture Show and Paper Moon now imagines himself a latter-day Thomas Ince, figuratively shot in the back of the head by sheer ignorant power, we can go down that road with him. At least part of the way.

As for Bogdanovich's boyhood inspiration and early career mentor, Orson Welles, the tragic story of how the "evil wizard" reduced that boy wonder's career to a shambles in the years after Citizen Kane is one that Bogdanovich can relate in minute detail. The irony of Bogdanovich taking his own shot at William Randolph Hearst in 2002 is almost too rich to digest. Little wonder that this entertaining but ineffably sad rehash of the old Hollywood excesses and the ancient corruptions of power ends with the ancient pop tune "After You've Gone" warbling away on the track. It sounds less like vengeance than sorrow.

Those possessing a vampire's keen senses may see through the Goth grunge of The Queen of the Damned to a deeper ideological conflict lurking beneath. On one side there's novelist Anne Rice, sweepingly sensuous and profoundly humorless, who welcomed the cannibalization of her second and third bloodsucker books to create this distant cinematic sequel to Interview With the Vampire. Opposing, we have Mort Drucker and Dick DeBartolo of Mad magazine fame, not technically on the payroll here but epitomizing the spot-on caricatures and punch lines inadvertently summoned by this movie's brooding melodrama. For every gasp there's always a potential giggle, but since the movie arrives and succeeds as entertaining B-movie fare, we may as well appreciate all its howls, beastly or unintentional.

It was a unique surprise in 1994 when director Neil Jordan successfully transformed Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise into, respectively, naïve Louis and ravenous Lestat, Interview's primary vampires and gossamer-veiled gay icons. Now the surprises are manifold, including perilous narrative abridgment (Rice's spellbinding The Vampire Lestat is reduced to brief flashbacks within her cheesier third installment), the deletion of Louis and the ambitious but inadequate Stuart Townsend replacing Cruise as Lestat. (Townsend's not the sexpot About Adam suggests, but he seems to have something the fat girls appreciate.) In only its sophomore outing, here's yet another studio horror franchise mucking up its storyline with glitches casual fans could correct in their sleep. But taken as a stylish and energetic one-shot, The Queen of the Damned cannot be said to suck.

We catch up with Lestat in roughly present-day New Orleans, where the flamboyant, immortal fiend is awakened from the sleep of the bored by the noisy music of radical new "gods" who play and sing quite loudly when bits of metal are shoved through their tender areas. "I would become one of them," he coos, immediately killing a Rastafarian and prompting us to wonder if becoming "one of them" means signing up with the Klan. Fortunately (sort of) he instead joins forces with a band that resembles No Doubt beset by PMS, and, announcing his vampirism to the world, he becomes a global superstar. This doesn't sit well with other vampires, who'd rather not be hunted to extinction by mortals enlightened by the blabbermouth Lestat. Trouble brews.

Considering the short span they're allotted to retool Rice's rambling prose, screenwriters Scott Abbott and Michael Petroni squeeze in a lot of detail. With the help of his valet, Roger (Tiriel Mora), Lestat munches slutty groupies in England, a practice that summons intentional laughter later in L.A. as he prepares for his confrontational desert concert. En route, we meet Jesse (Marguerite Moreau of, heaven help us, the Mighty Ducks trilogy), a studious member of Rice's covert supernatural surveillance group, the Talamasca. Using Lestat's lyrics to track him through a Eurotrash vampire coven in London, Jesse reveals a vested interest in vampires, which is reasonable since she was raised by a family of them, including the benign matriarch Maharet (Lena Olin). Her Talamascan cohort David (Paul McGann) tries to caution her in her quest, but he also opens up the tale of the vampire Marius (Vincent Perez, cheese incarnate), spilling moonlight on both Lestat's vampiric origin (the aforementioned flashbacks) and some of his destiny.

At the core of these matters we have the vampire monarch, Akasha (the late Aaliyah, way too cute to be evil). As Rice's legend has it, Akasha and her man Enkil (Peter Olsen) are the eldest of vampires, harking back to ancient Egypt, and must be kept safe to prevent their bloodline from dying out. This would be fine for all eternity, except that Enkil has lost his appetite--impotence, vampire-style--while Akasha has gotten all hot and bothered by Lestat and his crazy jams. As Akasha reanimates herself (and disintegrates others), the big, dumb, loud concert looms for all concerned. Hint to rock fans: Vampire assassins don't mosh. Hint to vampire assassins: Forget Lestat; kill the band!

As with any adaptation of a beloved book, director Michael Rymer (Perfume) can't please everyone, so he wings it, cloaking clinkers in sleek design. His native Melbourne stands in for Southern California, the U.K. and the Mediterranean, just as Townsend and Aaliyah stand in for serious actors. It's all of a piece--low art with high hopes. The vampire vehicle Blade succeeded by compensating for its lousy direction with the charisma of Wesley Snipes, and Queen's unique chemistry of sound helming and silly performances also works. It's just unfortunate that these adaptations didn't come out in the '80s, when they would have seemed revolutionary.

We competed in gymnastics as a child. We had medals, trophies, the works. But did we practice hour after hour, spraining our ankles and jamming our thumbs instead of playing Cabbage Patch and My Little Pony in order to learn about victory and defeat, experience the payoff of practice and routine and develop self-confidence and the ethics of teamwork? Nah, we just really wanted the Mary Lou Retton brand red, white and blue Olympics leotard with the matching warm-up pants and jacket. So it's probably no surprise we traded in team sports for helping Billy Blanks beat up imaginary opponents in our living room during Tae Bo tapes.

Our only regret--besides missing out on tons of toys we could now be hawking on eBay--is that, when the Women's Museum announced the opening of Game Face: What Does a Female Athlete Look Like?, we had no idea what Title IX was. Perhaps the most important marker on the timeline of women in sports, Title IX prohibited gender discrimination in any school that received federal funding. Having been born after it was enacted, we took it for granted that we could play, too. We bet we're not alone. Out of the one in three girls who participate in sports these days, we wonder how many know either.

Showing the evolution of women in sports from before and after Title IX is one aspect of Game Face, a collection of photographs and facts based on the book of the same title by Jane Gottesman and Geoffrey Biddle. It goes from women wearing woolen swimsuits with skirts to swim in Olympic competitions to Brandi Chastain ripping off her jersey when the U.S. women's soccer team won the World Cup. Along with token celebrities (Martina Navratilova, Picabo Street, Jackie Joyner-Kersee), Game Face also shows girls playing pickup games in their neighborhoods and competing in school sports, sometimes the lone girl on the football field in shoulder pads instead of on the sidelines with pompoms. But, most important, it shows that sports are essential to women's lives no matter the motivation.

Hart's War, like most mediocre films, is little more than a movie about the movies. Set in a POW camp during the final months of World War II, it owes much of its existence to far superior films, chief among them La Grande Illusion, Stalag 17 and The Great Escape; the enormous shadow those three films cast hovers over the entirety of Hart's War, like the blanket of gray clouds and muddy snow that envelop the campgrounds. Gregory Hoblit's picture sifts through their ripe remnants to salvage their meatiest and weightiest elements: the social-class commentary of Jean Renoir's 1937 La Grande Illusion, the POW-camp camaraderie of Billy Wilder's 1953 Stalag 17, the jailbreak thrills of John Sturges' The Great Escape a decade later.

Everything about it feels borrowed and haggard, and it lurches along like a Frankenstein monster. Hart's War plays like its inmates look--exhausted, fetid--and it drags on and on, as endless as war itself. But it's not content just to exist as POW-camp drama; it's also a courtroom thriller, a John Grisham adaptation set behind enemy lines. Based on John Katzenbach's 2000 novel, it reminds one of A Soldier's Story or A Few Good Men, short a few good men behind the camera.

It doesn't offend as much as it bores; Hart's War is a noble failure about noble failures. Like all war films, it wants to extol the virtue of the hero, accidental or otherwise, only it bandies about words such as "honor" and "dignity" and "sacrifice" without much emotion or resonance; they're uttered like words on a page, like catchphrases without implication. That's because within the confines of this barbed-wire world, everything right seems to be done for the wrong reasons, and it's impossible to root for even the most honorable soldier--at least till the end, by which time we're so uninterested it's impossible to muster any concern at all.

Commanding the troops in confinement is Colonel William McNamara (Bruce Willis), a fourth-generation West Point graduate who itches to get back to the battle; he's no William Holden content to ride out the war by bartering for booze with the German guards. Willis plays McNamara as he does all his "serious" roles--with the silent scowl, his face twisted into a knot that suggests only discomfort, not authority. He's the antithesis of his German counterpart, Colonel Werner Visser (Marcel Iures), a soldier educated in the States, where he picked up his love for "Negro jazz." Visser is perhaps the most enlightened man in the camp; he chides the white American soldiers for their racism, who insist they respect all men, regardless of race or rank, only to treat two black officers as less than human.

For a little while, at least, McNamara has no use for Lieutenant Tom Hart (Colin Farrell), a coddled, Yale-educated senator's son captured while driving an officer to the frontlines. (In the book, Hart was the only survivor of a downed plane; screenwriters Billy Ray, Terry George and an uncredited Jeb Stuart give him a soft desk job, perhaps to underscore his status of privilege). McNamara suspects Hart is weak and untrustworthy--a spoiled brat who, the colonel believes, gave up the location of Allied fuel depots to keep from being tortured.

McNamara banishes Hart to the enlisted men's barracks, where he's tolerated by the soldiers, chief among them violent racist Sergeant Vic Bedford (Cole Hauser, in the Holden role as chief barterer) and Sergeant Carl Webb (Rory Cochrane, Hauser's Dazed and Confused castmate). When McNamara bunks two black pilots--Lieutenant Lincoln Scott (Terrence Howard) and Lieutenant Lamar Archer (Vicellous Shannon)--with Hart and his men, he does so solely to toy with Hart, who's forced to protect the Tuskegee Airmen against the racist soldiers now under his command, such as it is.

Before long, two soldiers are killed: Archer is gunned down by German guards after a weapon that's not his is found in his bed; Bedford is found strangled, perhaps by Scott in retaliation for the framing of his friend and comrade. McNamara insists on a court martial, to which Visser agrees with smirky bemusement: "Like in your American movies! That should be fun." It's the most prescient line in a film bogged down by its heavy-handed proselytizing.

Hart's assigned to defend Scott, but finds himself a pawn of both commanding officers: He's loyal to McNamara, an American soldier, but has more in common with Visser, also a Yalie with refined tastes. But Hoblit is no Renoir (or Sturges), and his attempt at class commentary is clumsy and jumbled. Worse, the film degenerates into a benign whodunit bereft of suspense; even the film's trailer has little interest in hiding its true intention. Ultimately, Hart's War can't decide what it is: treatise on racism, escape (and escapist) thriller or murder mystery. So, it sits there, waiting for something to happen, a prisoner of its good, if ham-fisted, intentions. And we sit there with it, waiting and waiting. And waiting.

Of course, we should only talk about the music. Of course, we should. Home is, by far, the best album the Dixie Chicks have recorded, more than worthy of a few hundred listens and, at the very least, a separate discussion. But they want it this way: The group didn't spend the better part of last year fighting Sony Music, didn't risk their name and career, just to have people stop talking about it when it was over. So let's get it out of the way first. Because it doesn't tell you how the Dixie Chicks went from the stadium stomp of Fly and Wide Open Spaces to the back-porch beauty of Home. It doesn't tell you much about the music at all.

The story goes from "once upon a time" to "they lived happily ever after" with little more than dot-dot-dot in between, a year (to the day) that began with a lawsuit and ended with the release of a new album. The rest of the tale exists only in legal motions and press releases, photo ops and sound bites.

Here they are, three Norma Raes holding a "strike" sign above the Nashville assembly line, accusing their record company of "systematic thievery" and "fraudulent accounting gimmicks." There they are, enlisting in Don Henley's army, performing at a Los Angeles concert benefiting the Recording Artists' Coalition (RAC) on the eve of the Grammys. Here they are again, lobbying legislators in Sacramento to examine recording contracts and scrutinize major-label CPAs, three businesswomen who look as though they belong more in SUVs than sin wagons.

These are merely fleeting glimpses, courtroom sketches of plaintiffs instead of portraits of players, fleshed out only slightly by the two new tunes they unveiled during a pair of TV appearances. Nothing more than homework for business reporters. During that year, despite their 22 million albums sold and shelves full of shiny trophies and chicken-feet tattoos marking every milestone, the Dixie Chicks were in danger of becoming a cause instead of a band, a trio of Curt Floods, more talented (and stable) Courtney Loves. They had gone so far behind the music, it was hard to tell where it was anymore. No one was sure if they would find their way back.

Back home in Austin, however, away from the courts and coalitions, music was all that mattered. Not only were the Dixie Chicks still a band, they were becoming a much better one. "You know," singer Natalie Maines says, "we always said that we wouldn't let the lawsuit get in the way of us making music."

They never did; it only looked that way. The Dixie Chicks filed suit against Sony Music on August 27, 2001. They said Sony cheated them to the tune of $4 million, by underreporting sales numbers and overcharging for company services. Put it this way: Sony had made around $175 million off the group, yet none of its members had earned even a million. Sony's thumb was on the scale, and the Chicks intended to cut it off. That would be their public persona for the next several months, as they joined their brothers and sisters in arms in the RAC, and met with EMI Group and Bertelsmann Music Group, shopping for a new contract. (They eventually settled with Sony a few months ago; terms were undisclosed, but industry sources have estimated the Chicks' take: a $20 million signing bonus and a new 20 percent royalty rate, as well as their Sony imprint, Open Wide Records.)

Privately, a month after the suit was filed, Maines and her bandmates, sisters Emily Robison and Martie Maguire, were in a studio in Austin, working up new material for their next record. They were falling in love with the simple sound of three voices backed by banjo and fiddle, maybe a little Dobro or mandolin. During the time off, Robison and Maguire had dived back into their bluegrass record collections, and they were all listening to the sparer sounds of singers such as Alison Krauss and Patty Griffin (who has two songs, "Top of the World" and "Truth No. 2" on Home). Everything was pushing them toward Home; they didn't notice until they were already there. "We didn't know that it was our album," Maines says.

"Once we started playing it for our management and people whose opinions we really value, they were like, 'Y'all would be crazy not to have this be the third album,'" Robison says.

The Chicks hadn't planned on getting around to that just yet; they'd entered the studio intending only to cut a set of demos, work out a blueprint for another record. They were, after all, in the middle of a well-deserved break, after four years of recording and road trips that culminated in a grueling, 92-date tour promoting 1999's Fly. But they only made it halfway through their self-imposed exile. [page]

"They started writing some songs and kinda getting antsy to get back in the studio and lay the songs down," says Lloyd Maines, who produced Natalie (with his wife, Tina) and just about every worthwhile country act in Texas. "They didn't really want to do a third record that sounded like the first two. They like the first two; don't get me wrong. I mean, they were great records. But they just wanted to do something different. So they called me and asked if I would come over to a rehearsal. They had been writing and they wanted me to bring an acoustic guitar over and go through some stuff with them. They sort of came up with the idea there to cut it in Austin and do it all acoustic-driven: no drums, no electric guitars, using acoustic upright bass...They just wanted to do songs that they enjoyed doing, and do 'em based around acoustic instruments."

"I think they were just sort of waiting on me, when I felt ready after I had Slade, to get back to work again," Natalie Maines says.

Hearing his cue, 18-month-old Jackson Slade Pasdar (the namesake of Home's show-off instrumental, "Lil' Jack Slade") begins chattering away in the background. It makes sense that he's here, too, because everything that happened in the past year has at least a little bit to do with him and Charles Augustus, the son Robison is expecting three weeks after the Chicks' October 19 gig at the Cotton Bowl. ("It'll be a show to see, for sure," Maines says. She laughs, like a kid with an armful of balloons. "I don't know that anybody has ever been onstage that pregnant...She has one of the largest bellies I've ever seen. I cannot believe that there is only one baby in there. But she's working it out, and she's a trooper.") The Dixie Chicks walked away because Maines was pregnant; they came back, in part, because Robison was.

"There were little victories, and really not a lot of huge victories," Maguire says, referring to the months-long dispute that cost the group more than $1 million in legal fees. "But after a year-and-a-half battle, we kind of felt like we're just three individuals, with a baby and a baby on the way. We can't put our lives and our careers on the line. We want to make music, and we won't become jaded by the business aspect of what we do." She adds, "I think there's a lot of things that need to be changed in the business."

Even though their battle with Sony more or less ended in a draw, they haven't shied away from that stance. It's even there on Home, if you choose to read between the lines, find the hate in the middle of its love songs. For instance, "Truth No. 2": "You don't like the sound of the truth/Coming from my mouth/You say that I lack the proof." Or "Tortured, Tangled Hearts," which they co-wrote with Nashville great Marty Stuart: "Such pretty words and golden rings/It was a broken dream right from the start." There's one much more obvious example. You have to open up the jewel case to see it, but still, it's hard to miss. There it is, on the back of the booklet accompanying the disc, in black block letters, filling the entire frame: WE ARE CHANGING THE WAY WE DO BUSINESS.

It is, perhaps, one last reminder of the year before Home was released. Or maybe that sign on the back of the CD booklet is just a warning to listeners, letting them know in advance that Home doesn't follow the familiar path of the group's previous two efforts, 1998's Wide Open Spaces and 1999's Fly. Still commercial, in its own way, but not like the albums that moved more than 22 million copies on the strength of such radio hits as "There's Your Trouble" and "Ready to Run." Home is somewhat of a return to Robison and Maguire's Deep Ellum street corner beginnings, minus the cowgirl fringe and novelty twinge. And it's a chance for Maines to show her deepening love for the bluegrass music Robison and Maguire introduced her to when she joined the band before Wide Open Spaces. But while there's plenty of picking on Home, there's not much grinning. (Save, of course, for "White Trash Wedding," which mows through the bluegrass with its "I shouldn't be wearing white/And you can't afford no ring" punch line.)

Actually, that message on the back is both. Or neither.

"We did that photo shoot a year and a half before the album," Maines says. "The photographer had taken a shot of that sign in a store window. We'd never even seen that picture until [art director] Kevin Reagan sent us the artwork." She laughs. "We've never heard a comment about that from the label." She laughs some more. "I was a little surprised they didn't care about that. And you know, they've given us freedom to do what we want to do, as far as that goes. You know, they know that we are going to continue to be a part of the RAC and be political in that way, and they don't try to stop us." [page]

Not like they have much choice. Home is the Dixie Chicks' most critically successful album yet, and judging from its first month of sales figures, its final tally should rank right alongside Fly and Wide Open Spaces. It debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, not to mention Billboard's country chart, with the highest first-week sales--just shy of 780, 000--of any female group in the SoundScan era, which began in May 1991. In comparison, Fly debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 as well (the first country album to do so), but it sold less than half (341,138) as many copies.

That said, Home is less about making a political statement than a musical one. And it doesn't have anything to do with the state of country music, even if some people got that idea from the first single, Darrell Scott's "Long Time Gone," with its "Now they sound tired but they don't sound Haggard/They got money but they don't have Cash" dig. It doesn't have anything to do with the music business, though many may have expected 12 tracks of protest poetry. More than anything, it's a pencil mark against the doorjamb showing how much they've grown. That was who we were then, it says; this is who we are now.

"I definitely think our song choices have matured a little bit," Maguire says. "We're not singing about male-bashing. We're singing about love, more mature concepts. I'm really glad we went in this direction. That's what we needed to keep ourselves inspired. I wouldn't have been in the mind-set to do another Fly."

Yet if you listen closely enough, and you'll have to, the trio that recorded Home is the same one present on Wide Open Spaces and Fly. "It sounds like us," Robison says of Home. "It's not like we've added something that changes the essence of who we are." She's right: Robison and Maguire could always play with the best of them, and Maines' voice usually muscled its way to the surface, no matter how many tracks producers Blake Chancey and Paul Worley (who recorded Fly and Wide Open Spaces) stacked on top of it. But they always had to work too hard to be heard. It was like Chancey and Worley were given the keys to a brand-new Corvette, then decided to lock it up in the garage. With Natalie's father at the board, Maines, Maguire and Robison were allowed to take it for a spin.

"It was nice to be back in the studio where you know your part wasn't necessarily going to be buried amongst drums and keyboards and all that sort of stuff," Robison admits. "Knowing it was gonna be fairly raw."

At times, Home is almost painfully raw. When Maines' voice drops to a whisper in "Travelin' Soldier" (written by Robison's brother-in-law, Bruce), your eyes well up; after Maguire's violin solo on "Top of the World," the tear rolls down your cheek. With nothing else battling for top billing, Maines' voice is as powerful as fire and as delicate as smoke, and Robison and Maguire serve as comely complements (especially on the tissue-tempting "I Believe in Love"), joining her for three-part harmony instead of two-part backup. And they play the strings off their instruments, too, just as they did when they were stuck in shiny Halloween costumes and thanking heavens for Dale Evans. It's the album they should have made as soon as Sony signed them, and paradoxically, one they couldn't make until now.

"I think that the first two definitely helped them get to a level where they can pretty much do what they want to," Lloyd Maines says. "I think that they had to have the commercial appeal established and the radio play and all that established before they ventured off on something as different as this."

Sony had no idea just how different that would be. "They heard nothing," Natalie says with a laugh. And when they did? "Well, they loved it. I think that's what moved along the contracts. They knew that the music was ready and they had something to sell. It sort of lit the fire to negotiate and work out a deal. I think they were relieved, because it was out that we were making a bluegrass record, and it's not really what it turned out to be. I think it was a lot more commercial"--she laughs again--"than they thought." [page]

The numbers back that up: Six weeks after its release, Home remained near the top of the charts, coming in at No. 5, and will likely stay there for the rest of the year.

"That's what you hope for," Maines says. "I mean, we felt strongly about this record, but it was all still kind of scary, because we didn't know how everyone else would feel about it. We knew, at that point, that the critics were liking it, because a lot of reviews and things had come out. But, um, we just had no idea how it would go over with the fans."

"Our true fans won't go anywhere," Maguire adds. "Hopefully they will be open-minded towards how we are growing as musicians and as women."

Maybe Sony will, too. Maines says she never had a problem with "the machine at Sony," the marketing and promotion departments that pushed Fly and Wide Open Spaces in front of so many eyes and ears; the Chicks' beef was with the payroll people. But she admits to mixed feelings about the settlement. They're happy with their new contract, but did they do enough for the industry? Did holstering their guns mean some other artist will be taken down in the line of duty?

"We wouldn't have settled, but..." She trails off, trying to find the right words. "You know, I think we set out to sort of make a difference in the entire music industry. And at first I didn't think we had done that. And now, Martie just went to these hearings in Sacramento, and we've been to them before, and she's just saying that the vibe in the courtroom is that things are going to change. You know, I don't know how much we had to do with that. Hopefully, with our ongoing support on the RAC and for artists' rights, we can have a hand in at least supporting some changes in our industry. But you know, in our contract, we'd hoped to have, 'You can never put this in anybody's contract ever again.'" She laughs at the foolish, if admirable, goal. "It was higher hopes. We can't, you know; we're three individuals who're taking on not only Sony Music, but the way that the entire record industry is run. So we couldn't do all of that."

Who would have guessed that 31 years after M*A*S*H, the film that made Robert Altman's reputation, he still would be turning out movies as good as his latest release, Gosford Park? Full of the director's usual energy, powered by the sense of controlled chaos that marks all of his ensemble films, Gosford Park also finds the quintessentially American director completely at home in the alien milieu of England in 1932. Ironically, his last sally into a European setting, 1994's fashion-world satire Prêt-à-Porter, was one of the low points of his filmography.

In form, Gosford Park lies in the tradition of innumerable old movies (including many adapted from Agatha Christie) in which a group of people, all with their own agendas, is thrown together in an isolated country house; a murder occurs, and a savvy detective must figure out who, out of the several guests with strong motives, actually committed the crime. As usual, Altman is less concerned with crafting a perfect example of the genre as he is with examining the genre itself. Neil Simon already did the ultimate parody of this stuff in the 1976 Murder by Death (in which Maggie Smith, one of the stars of Gosford Park, also appears); Altman's approach is not so much a satire as a reimagining of the genre's conventions, with the class elements emphasized.

Like M*A*S*H, Nashville, Short Cuts and numerous other Altman projects, Gosford Park drops the viewer into a complex, frantic situation with no clear-cut protagonist to cling to. The closest the film comes to a central character is Mary Maceachran (Kelly Macdonald), a demure young maid accompanying her aged employer, the snobbish Lady Trentham (Smith), for a weekend party at the summer house of crusty Sir William McCordle (Michael Gambon), whose coldhearted wife, Sylvia (Kristin Scott Thomas), is Lady Trentham's niece.

Also in attendance are Sylvia's two sisters (Geraldine Somerville and Natasha Wightman) and their husbands (Charles Dance and Tom Hollander). In addition, there is the McCordle daughter (Camilla Rutherford); Ivor Novello (Jeremy Northam), the real-life British songwriter and matinee idol whose persona Altman and screenwriter Julian Fellowes have borrowed for the film; and his guest, a Hollywood producer (Bob Balaban, who also actually co-produced Gosford Park) doing background research for the upcoming Charlie Chan in London.

If this seems intimidatingly complicated, be assured that you haven't heard the half of it. There are four more guests, whose relationship to the others continues to baffle me (after two viewings of the movie). Indeed, two of them seem so tangential to everything in the film that one can only wonder if they are remnants of a subplot that was excised in the final cut. And we haven't even gotten to the servants yet, who are the real heart of the story.

What the servants in this world lack in money and power, they compensate for with ritual and knowledge. That is, while they know everything that's going on in both their realm and the "upstairs" world of their wealthy and/or titled employers, the latter know very little about what goes on "downstairs." Altman is careful to show us how the downstairs people are omnipresent, even as they strive to self-effacingly blend in with the woodwork. On one hand, it is their pleasure and validation to serve; on the other, they are completely aware of their bosses' utter helplessness without them.

Mary, new to service, functions much of the time as our surrogate, as the house staff--butler (Alan Bates), housekeeper (Helen Mirren), cook (Eileen Atkins, co-creator of Upstairs Downstairs, to which the film clearly owes a debt), footmen (Richard E. Grant and Jeremy Swift) and head housemaid (Emily Watson)--explain to her the insane rules mandated by tradition. They inform her that visiting servants will be addressed only by the names of their employers, effectively stripping them of any other identity; likewise, each will have his or her seat at dinner determined by the employer's rank.

This may sound like P.G. Wodehouse-land: Jeeves, who took the notion of valet's duty into the realm of genius, would have been at home here. But, aside from Jeeves, Wodehouse was less concerned with the community of servants; nor would he have ever ventured anywhere near Gosford Park's concern with sexual matters, particularly the "class miscegenation" between the upstairs and downstairs folk.

If there is a problem with Gosford Park, it's that Altman seems so enthralled with the interplay of the characters that he's reluctant to put much energy into the mystery itself. The murder doesn't occur until somewhere past the midway point. And the "brilliant" inspector (Stephen Fry) is so totally imbecilic, so broadly portrayed, he seems to have wandered in from a different film altogether, quite possibly Murder by Death. Still, there is a payoff on the murder, one inextricably integrated with all the class interactions the movie has set up so carefully.

As is always his style in his ensemble films, Altman has his cameramen prowl around a set in which numerous events are unfolding simultaneously; he often seems to concentrate on the most trivial (if absorbing) activities, while the important stuff is going on in the background or solely on the soundtrack. It's a canny technique, particularly for a mystery: We never know whether the highlighting of certain things is important or not. When the camera adopts such an "indiscriminate" eye, clues can be dropped in without being obvious.

Altman's technique also allows his huge cast to act up a storm, in the best sense. Gosford Park has roughly half the best actors in England in it; in addition to those mentioned above, it also features Derek Jacobi, James Wilby and Clive Owen. (And American heartthrob Ryan Phillippe is in there, too, and perfect for his role.) Much of the beauty of what the actors provide is not apparent on a single viewing; second time around, armed with foreknowledge of who these people are and what is going to transpire, one can perceive and understand numerous little expressions and reactions whose meanings weren't apparent the first time.

It's astonishing that Altman has endured this long, through all his career ups and downs. He is 76, and I can't think of another American director who still has turned out first-rate work at that age. (Hitchcock was 72 when he made Frenzy; Cukor, 65 for My Fair Lady; Wilder, 72 for Fedora, which was only first-rate for part of its length.) If Altman's last effort, 2000's shot-in-Dallas Dr. T and the Women, was one of his most critically reviled films, Gosford Park should do much to salvage his reputation.

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