What makes a scene? How does it happen? More specifically, how did the sleepy Southern college town of Athens, GA become a powerful and influential beacon for indie culture and music?
It’s all here in Cool Town: How Athens, Georgia, Launched Alternative Music and Changed American Culture, the excellent new book by Grace Elizabeth Hale. Hale is now a professor of American Studies at the University of Virginia, but she was there for much of the heyday of the Athens scene. She knows the region, people, bands, and artists and has written a well-researched and thorough book about the scene in Athens.
It all begins with New York and Warhol’s Factory, with a regular on the scene, Jerry Ayers, having been part of that scene and returning to Athens to be a Zeilig like figure, mentoring and taking in young artists, and contributing to the songs by both The B-52’s and R.E.M. When the B-52’s form, basically on a lark and kind of a drag show/dance party for their friends, things happen quickly. Ayers and others have New York connections, and before you know it The B-52’s are playing at Max’s Kansas City.
Athens is a place that has a tradition of DIY going back to the true 1960’s hippies, growing their own food and weed and being self-sufficient. Kate Pierson of The B-52’s came from this tradition. Athens downtown had cheap rents, cheap food, and an Art School at the University Of Georgia that often let the students do what they wanted.
Add to this the Atlanta connection of record store owner Danny Beard (who founded DB Recs, releasing records from bands such as The B-52’s (tinyurl.com/zub52s), Love Tractor, and Pylon (tinyurl.com/zubcrazy)) and things start to happen. The B-52’s hit it big, fast, and are beloved in New York City. Next up is Pylon, a true art-funk, post punk collective formed by bassist Michael Lachowski as an art project. They start up rough but being ‘from Athens,’ they are given a choice of picking who they open for in New York (quickly settling on Gang Of Four). Pylon grows and develops and their unique post-punk sound brings locals and critics to view them as the ‘best’ band in Athens.
Hale is an academic and the book is a bit weighty, it’s not meant to be a band tell-all, it’s more of a methodical explanation of how and why the scene unfolded as it did. She is very well versed in the underlying gender dynamics in the scene, the class differences, and especially the racism that is always, always beneath everything.
There is a great description of some of the forward thinking programs going on at the UGA Arts program, students and teachers given plenty of freedom (or lack of oversight). Then it’s time to talk about R.E.M.
Hale bursts many bubbles in the myth of R.E.M., a band whose Michael Stipe and Pete Buck weren’t even from the south, and is careful to roll out their story. They were musicians that wanted to play, and maybe make a career out of being a band. They rehearsed and toured incessantly, a new model for Athens bands, and they weren't a big deal on their first trips to New York. I had seen R.E.M. numerous times before their Hib-Tone single was released, and everyone knew they were going places. They were just too unique and too good.
The success of R.E.M. (tinyurl.com/radiofreezub) brings outsiders to Athens, like The Flat Duo Jets and Dreams So Real. These bands are not held as ‘authentic’ by the scene and don’t last in Athens long. There is a period, after Pylon’s first breakup, where Love Tractor and The Squalls are among the better bands, along with the new, more confrontational BBQ Killers.
Hale gives a great description of the folk and ‘outsider’ art tradition in and around Athens, featuring artists like Howard Finster. Michael Stipe, in particular, fell hard for this type of art and it was part of R.E.M. 's iconography (Finster painted the cover of Reckoning). In their own way, R.E.M. pushed against their so-called ‘Southerness’ while also embracing it.
Hale was an Athens resident when she and her husband and some friends opened The Downstairs, a restaurant and club that appears to have booked many of the same bands that Adrienne and I did at Studio B in Greenville. She tells of the new crop of bands, some harder edged like Porn Orchard and David Barbe’s Mercyland (tinyurl.com/zubmercyland), and she reveals the story of the tragic Athens figure Vic Chestnut.
I’ve really only scratched the surface of what’s in this book. Having been on the periphery of the Athens scene during these years I found it a fascinating and essential read. Grace Elizabeth Hale is to be commended for the rigor and enthusiasm she brought to the subject. This is a book easily on the scale of Gina Arnold’s Route 666 (about the growth of Nirvana and their effect on youth culture) or Michael Azerrads’ Our Band Could be Your Life (a chronicle of thirteen seminal American indie bands in the 1980’s). It’s that good, and will get you thinking about the accident of time, place, talent, and pure luck colliding to make something new.
Dance this mess around!