Today we welcome a guest post from Grace Elizabeth Hale, author of Cool Town: How Athens, Georgia, Launched Alternative Music and Changed American Culture, out now from the UNC Press Ferris & Ferris Books imprint.
In the summer of 1978, the B-52’s conquered the New York underground. A year later, the band’s self-titled debut album burst onto the Billboard charts, capturing the imagination of fans and music critics worldwide. The fact that the group had formed in the sleepy southern college town of Athens, Georgia, only increased the fascination. Soon, more Athens bands followed the B-52’s into the vanguard of the new American music that would come to be known as “alternative,” including R.E.M., who catapulted over the course of the 1980s to the top of the musical mainstream. In Athens in the eighties, if you were young and willing to live without much money, anything seemed possible. Cool Town reveals the passion, vitality, and enduring significance of a bohemian scene that became a model for others to follow. Grace Elizabeth Hale experienced the Athens scene as a student, small-business owner, and band member. Blending personal recollection with a historian’s eye, she reconstructs the networks of bands, artists, and friends that drew on the things at hand to make a new art of the possible, transforming American culture along the way. In a story full of music and brimming with hope, Hale shows how an unlikely cast of characters in an unlikely place made a surprising and beautiful new world.
In this post, Hale commemorates the 40th anniversary of the Athens, Georgia, band R.E.M.’s first live performance, and shares an annotated playlist of their music.
Cool Town is now available in print and ebook editions. Watch the promotional trailer for the book here.
40 Years after R.E.M.’s Debut, a Band Not Afraid of Beauty May Be Just What We Need
Athens locals simply called it “the church.” Sometime in the seventies, someone had constructed a two-story plywood shell of an apartment within the former St. Mary’s Episcopal Church on Oconee Street, like a stage set for a slacker sitcom. Inside the box, the one-time hippie squat offered impossible-to-heat rooms and a functional bathroom and kitchen. Outside the box, reached through a hole in the back of a bedroom closet, some of the old space of worship still existed—open, dusty, damp, and beckoning. You had to be young and broke to even think about renting it. As Peter Buck told Rolling Stone, the place had “been romanticized beyond belief. It was a rotten, dumpy little shit hole where college kids, only college kids, could be convinced to live.”
But it was a great place to party. On April 5, 1980, hippies and art students and members of other new music bands in what was becoming America’s first alternative scene crawled through the back of that closet and into the soaring space of what had been the sanctuary. On the raised platform that had formerly held the altar, three bands played. The last, too new then to have a name, was R.E.M. Mike Mills, Bill Berry, Michael Stipe, and Buck alternated between rough covers, including the Sex Pistols’ “God Save the Queen,” and ragged originals like “A Different Girl.” People got smashed and high and paired off, but not before calling the band back for a sloppy, multiple-song encore that included an audience singalong to a rendition of Patti Smith’s cover of “Gloria.” Miraculously—maybe the space was still sacred—no one fell through the rotten floorboards.
I wasn’t there, but the tales of that night were already the stuff of legend when I arrived in town two years later to attend the University of Georgia. Looking back now, many of my favorite R.E.M. songs from their first dozen years are like this story of their origins: mythic and gorgeous and expansive. In these tracks, Stipe’s unwillingness to nail down the sources of the emotions he expresses creates a kind of imaginative space that is the opposite of social distancing and quarantine. And what Stipe does with words, all four members do with sound. Mills’s bass melodies, Berry’s building rhythms, Buck’s ringing guitar phrases, and Mills and Stipe’s harmonies produce a sonic wash that can widen our horizons and free us from crowded homes and hemmed-in lives.
A band not afraid to risk beauty and even love may be just what we need right now. This is what art can do, remind us of the world that can be rather than the world that is.
An R.E.M. Playlist for the way the world is now
- “Perfect Circle” (Murmur)
Don’t let the lyric about the dress fool you. In Athens, where drag was common, that dress says nothing about the gender or even the sexuality of the wearer. All we know is that the song features a couple. I picture them spooning on a futon on a wood floor, but you may place them elsewhere. This song, with all its circles—the gorgeous piano part, the round rhythms, the image of friends leaving and returning—transforms the close contact we’ve all been missing into sonic form.
- Camera (Reckoning)
Michael Stipe has said this song is about Carol Levy, a dear friend and fellow art student and photographer who died in car crash. Its folky dirge alternately swells and then goes quiet. The beat feels held back, the emotions restrained. In a line like a sigh, Stipe sings, “will you be remembered? will she be remembered?” “Alone in a crowd” is worse than quarantine.
- So. Central Rain (Reckoning)
Bill Berry’s beats and Mike Mills’s bass will make you do it. Don’t even try to resist. There are rivers here, and there are oceans. Everything is flowing. Everything is changing. You know you’re sorry, so don’t sit on your regrets. Let the pounding beauty of that finale be your inspiration. Someone is waiting.
- Driver 8 (Fables of the Reconstruction)
This song’s rhythm gets you down, down the road, along with its images of railroads, power lines, treehouses, and those “sky blue bells ringing.” Listen as Stipe holds those long “e” sounds in the chorus, and feel the wind on your face.
- “Begin the Begin” (Life’s Rich Pageant)
A little bit of funk, grungy bass and guitar, and brilliant drums, words you can understand but not quite parse—all come together to push you farther on down that road. Try to be still while listening to this one. You can’t. But Stipe is not going to explain anything to you. He can’t think clearly. He can’t reason. He can’t rhyme. It’s a sensation you will recognize. Let’s begin again.
- Crazy (Dead Letter Office)
This is R.E.M.’s cover of a song by another Athens band, Pylon. While Pylon’s original pounds out the wild insanity of new love, R.E.M.’s version floats and hums in layers of longing. Both will take you there, to the beautiful expansiveness of falling in love. Shelter in place.
- Country Feedback (Out of Time)
I know. Everyone has their own list. And that’s a good thing. The world needs many kinds of delight and joy and love right now. But for me, no other song puts beauty in sonic form quite like this one. “I need this.”
Grace Elizabeth Hale is the Commonwealth Professor of American Studies and History at the University of Virginia. Her previous books include A Nation of Outsiders: How the White Middle Class Fell in Love with Rebellion in Postwar America and Making Whiteness: The Culture of Segregation in the South, 1890–1940.