Pass the Alt



“In Athens, Georgia, in the 1980s, if you were young and willing to live without much money, anything seemed possible,” Grace Elizabeth Hale opens her new book Cool Town, about how the B-52s, R.E.M., Vic Chesnutt, and scads of lesser-known alternative-rock artists sprang out of one small southern college town four decades ago. My first impulse was to substitute the line Tolstoy might have written if Tolstoy had been really into rock bands: All local music scenes are the same, but every music scene is local in its own way. Young people coalesce around a few emerging performers or spaces or haircuts, then start becoming event-makers themselves. Combine over a few years with sex, drugs, and alarmingly intense friendships, and the work that results can vault beyond anyone’s individual gifts—Brian Eno called this collective super-creativity “scenius.” Then people become somewhat less young and less willing to live without money, rent goes up, venues shut down, relationships split, people go back to school, people get famous and others get resentful, sometimes people die, and the utopian bubble deflates. When the next one forms, the veterans say the new bands (or rappers, or DJs, etc.) aren’t as exciting anymore.

But Hale’s proposition is that before the late 1970s, this kind of activity was mainly confined to cultural capitals like Manhattan or San Francisco. If you were gay, weird, or otherwise unfit for your place of origin, that was where you migrated. “Athens kids,” she claims, “built the first important small-town American music scene and the key early site of what would become alternative or indie culture.” It became the template for what would unfold soon in Minneapolis, or Louisville, and even Seattle, making Cool Town a kind of unofficial prequel to Michael Azerrad’s Our Band Could Be Your Life. It’s easy to suspect Hale of bias: Now a professor at the University of Virginia, she was herself an undergrad at the University of Georgia in Athens in the 1980s, and soon a highly active member of the scene. She acknowledges that Austin could stake a claim to being first, and I might add the mid-1970s Akron/Cleveland nexus (Devo, Pere Ubu). But it’s hard to deny that the Athens Effect was of unusual proportions, suggesting not just that anybody could be a musician and artist, but that they could do it anywhere. It propagated a thrift-store, sexually fluid, avant-pop aesthetic that seemed more accessible than the extremes of punk or of successors such as goth. The fun of Cool Town is to hear where those elements came from, illuminated by Hale’s theories about why, and, most poignantly, what it means today.

It all starts with the B-52s. From the first, at a 1977 house-party debut that began with “Planet Claire” and included “Rock Lobster,” the group’s sci-fi version of southernness came fully formed, with all the region’s retro stereotypes reinvented as forms of drag. They quickly won over Manhattan’s rock demimonde and signed a record deal, and within a couple of years they had moved away. No one could blame them, Hale says—Athens didn’t have any clubs devoted to live rock music at the time. But their magnetism and swift success were bound to inspire imitation. Pylon started as more an art project than a band, carrying on the B-52s’ fourth-wall-breaking provocations in a darker, mock-militant form. Many fans still consider them the single greatest 1980s Athens group, but the members never warmed to the music business and mostly did other things with their lives. R.E.M., by contrast, was made up of aspiring rock stars whose ambitions became more esoteric under the influence of the scene. They emulated the canny way the B-52s had played upon their Georgia origins as an exotic publicity hook, but Michael Stipe, Peter Buck, et al. were also sincerely compelled by the paradoxes of southern heritage, as witness the album title Fables of the Reconstruction. After R.E.M. became the flagship of the new 1980s “college rock,” they maintained a supportive presence in Athens, and soon the place was crawling with bands that strove to meet those standards of vigor and originality, such as Love Tractor and the nearly forgotten Method Actors or Oh-OK. This vitality attracted other artists there, including the last of Hale’s main subjects, the singer-songwriter Vic Chesnutt, whose blisteringly honest and whip-crack-clever songs made him beloved locally and admired internationally, despite all the personal and health issues that followed a car accident that left him partially paralyzed in his late teens and finally led to his death in 2009.

Hale’s account clarifies that all this didn’t just sprout fortuitously like kudzu. It was cultivated like sweet corn. The friend group that became the B-52s had been invading public spaces for years already as self-declared “freaks” in gender-bent dress-up regalia, to weird out straights and hippies alike. Ricky Wilson, one of their chief instigators (who tragically would die of complications from AIDS in 1985 at thirty-two), was saying from the beginning, “Let’s make a scene.” Part of where he got that idea, Hale reveals, was from the Athens art world’s most elusively charismatic character, Jeremy Ayers, who, under the sobriquet Silva Thin, had been a Warhol “Superstar” in Manhattan in the early 1970s. Wilson and his best friend and later bandmate Keith Strickland had visited Ayers there when they were just out of high school—Hale notes that at one point Wilson’s younger sister Cindy (one of the B-52s’ distinctive voices) went to school herself wearing an outfit Ricky had gotten from Factory icon Jackie Curtis. Later, when Ayers returned to Athens, he restylized himself with a boho-hobo look that Stipe copied in the early days of R.E.M., and acted as a mentor and sometime cowriter with both bands.

Meanwhile, instructors at the UGA art school were imbuing their students with a post-1960s approach that stressed exploratory process above technical skill—and students made up roughly half the small city’s population. Hale argues that, as much as anything, “this is a story about how big, non-elite public universities in the postwar period created conditions that enabled many Americans to thrive in new ways.” As a college town, Athens was a crucible of critical thinking for many middle-class kids who wanted to push back against their parents’ Christian conservatism or New South materialism, but were disillusioned by how the previous decade’s counterculture had gone to seed. They sought a less ideological alternative that wasn’t about anticipating the revolution but building on the materials directly to hand—including your friends and your town. Athens hipsters proudly called themselves “townies” at the time to indicate that they weren’t just students passing through (even if that’s how they’d started out), but committed locals. This interest in localism and Americana in some ways echoed the resurgent nationalist spirit of Reaganism, but from the opposite political camp.

There were more practical factors, too. Athens was partially isolated geographically, but it wasn’t so far from Atlanta that people couldn’t drive there to check out bands or The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Real estate was so cheap that people could pay the rent on their homes and practice or gallery spaces on a part-time job at a diner. In the late 1970s, Athens didn’t even have any dedicated live-music clubs yet, but you could jury-rig a temporary stage in someone’s house, on campus, or in the corner of a coffee shop. The 40 Watt Club, which would eventually become the town’s most famous rock venue, was named for the bulb that lit the private loft it started in. Hale also points to the influence of the eccentric folk artists who lived in the countryside around Athens, often religious visionaries such as Howard Finster (his art would later grace the covers of both R.E.M.’s Reckoning and Talking Heads’ Little Creatures). There’s also the fact that by the 1970s and 1980s, liberal-arts college towns like Athens were slowly getting more tolerant of queer sexualities. It’s hard to say for sure whether the sexual fluidity that marked the Athens scene was a nonbinary perspective ahead of its time, as Hale argues, or a cover for not entirely coming out. (Stipe, for instance, has caught some flak over the years for being coy about his sexuality.) Probably a bit of each. Nonetheless, its openness must have felt especially heady for being smack in the middle of the Bible Belt.

Alongside these broader inquiries, Cool Town offers character portraits and anecdotes that track (occasionally in too much detail) the scene’s growth and changes—how it spun off into a local café and food culture, as well as an alternative press and activist groups. As an insider, Hale sometimes fails to anchor the reader enough; I found myself flipping back pages to figure out what year she was in, and wishing she’d included a basic map. She also winds down the story more or less with her own departure in 1991, without much about subsequent waves of Athens music culture, such as the arrival of the Elephant 6 collective (including the cult band Neutral Milk Hotel), the rise of the revisionist southern-rock band the Drive-By Truckers, or the small hip-hop scene that she mentions flourishing there today. In her introduction, she pushes back at claims that white indie scenes necessarily serve as advance agents of gentrification by saying that Athens has avoided the drastic upheavals that have beset Seattle, the Bay Area, or Brooklyn—but it would have helped to explore all that in more depth.

Her personal connection to the story does, however, help her convey the centrality of the participants’ ongoing conversation about the scene itself, including its rules and boundaries and meaning. As Hale writes, they “argued endlessly about how cultural resistance worked and how it also often failed. And the best answer we could come up with was cultural autonomy imagined as a local and egalitarian and everyday practice.”

As in nearly every alternative scene of the 1980s and 1990s, Athens’s version had blinders. These scenes were usually anti-racist in theory but lacked diversity in practice; purportedly feminist but mostly male-dominated. And their scorn for commercial aspirations, even just making a living from your work, was a luxury of youth and class far from available to everyone. Even in genre, the guitar-rock-centrism raised barriers. In Athens specifically, Hale says that many participants “forgot” or never learned that the whole scene had been birthed out of a queer drag sensibility. Still, I think all the labor and imagination that went into building a network of mini-cultures—back when indie still meant independent, as in creating noncorporate labels and media and other DIY infrastructure—is too easily shrugged off today. Yes, it didn’t “work,” because cultural escape tunnels are rickety by nature, and have to be rebuilt under ever-changing conditions. But Hale does us a favor by recapturing the experience. Something goes astray when people forget what it feels like to have those ideals and aims, to immerse themselves in that long conversation, and, as the B-52s put it, to dance that mess around.

Carl Wilson is the music critic for Slate and the author of Let’s Talk About Love: Why Other People Have Such Bad Taste(Bloomsbury, 2014).