Rock and Roll Book Club: 'Cool Town: How Athens, Georgia Launched Alternative Music and Changed American Culture'

Grace Elizabeth Hale's 'Cool Town.'
Grace Elizabeth Hale's 'Cool Town.' (Jay Gabler/MPR)

Grace Elizabeth Hale's Cool Town (buy now) is one of those books with a subtitle that sounds like an oversell: How Athens, Georgia Launched Alternative Music and Changed American Culture. Hale has the receipts, though. In fact, she generated a lot of the receipts when she ran a venue called the Downstairs from 1987 to 1991, hosting artists like Vic Chesnutt and Widespread Panic and playing in her own band Cordy Lon.

Now a professor of American studies and history at the University of Virginia, Hale arrived in Athens in the mid-1980s to attend the University of Georgia, making her typical of artists on the scene: as she points out, very few notable musicians associated with Athens actually grew up there. They came for school, they came for the scene, and they...changed American culture?

Let's start with the music. Hale concisely describes the significance of what you might call "the Athens sound."

Athens musicians combined an arty, avant-garde approach that prized originality with its seeming opposite, a commitment to the pleasures of pop culture, rhythms that made you feel and move, and spectacle that made you stare. Reimagining the structures of rock music went hand in hand with having fun. Athens bands helped make this pop-art fusion an important part of the new overlapping music genres of college and alternative and indie rock. Because the Athens scene emerged so early in the transition between punk and indie, it also served as a model for kids trying to make their own music in other places not previously understood as having underground potential. If punk taught people that anyone could play, Athens taught them that this music making could happen anywhere, even in the South, even in small-town America.

The band that epitomized this approach was the B-52s, whose success sparked the whole movement described in Cool Town — which ends in 1991, the year Nevermind shifted the music world's attention to Seattle and represented the infusion of "alternative" music into the mainstream. While the B-52s helped define the Athens aesthetic, though, it would be R.E.M. who would carve out a growing space between pure DIY and major-label success, a world initially known as "college rock."

It tells you a lot about the Athens scene that when R.E.M. burst onto the scene, an immediate and explosive success at early '80s parties, they were derided as "the 'digestible-by-frat-boys' version of the Athens sound," in the words of musician Mike Green, who was at the group's first show, in a church-turned-crash-pad. In part that was because the band initially played a lot of covers, and in part it's because they were actually skilled musicians — in contrast to local darlings like Pylon, who considered themselves performance artists and couldn't play any instruments at all when they formed as a band.

On a deeper level, R.E.M. very much honored the Athens values — including a commitment to not just inclusiveness, but celebration, of LGBTQ art. (Though Michael Stipe didn't publicly come out until 1994, he never hid his sexual fluidity.) They also challenged the notion that music had to be "about" something. Following the absurdist party music of the B-52s ("There goes a narwhal!"), R.E.M. were famously impenetrable for much of their early, highly influential catalog. The vocalist wasn't the star, nor was the guitarist (Peter Buck didn't take solos); the star was the sound, the aesthetic.

Back to the B-52s. They bridged the art and music scenes of Athens and New York: a connection forged early on by Jeremy Ayers, who did grow up in Athens (his dad was a campus chaplain) and found his way north to become "Silva Thin" as a drag artist in Andy Warhol's Factory, then returned to Athens to serve as the scene's senior statesman. He mentored Athenians like Keith Strickland and siblings Ricky and Cindy Wilson, who would soon form the B-52s with Kate Pierson and Fred Schneider, cohering around an emerging bohemian scene (Pierson and her husband rented an entire farm for $15 a month) in the mid-1970s.

They were a slam dunk. With the women donning giant wigs — initially to make clear that their band was named after the hairstyle, not the bomber — and Schneider frenetically speak-singing, the B-52s would have made a splash anywhere, any time. They became part of the CBGB's scene with Talking Heads, Patti Smith, and Television, and helped launch the post-punk era...but after the intoxicating crunch of their early records, their '80s output felt increasingly polished and sterile. The success of 1989's Cosmic Thing turned them into household names, a poignant comeback after Ricky Wilson's 1985 death.

The B-52s weren't really on the scene by the time R.E.M. broke out, which is ironic given that their success helped to shape a narrative around there being an Athens scene. As Hale notes, press coverage of the B-52s strongly emphasized their Athens roots; journalists loved the idea of a self-contained musical community in the relatively isolated southern college town.

The Athens mythos was so firmly in place by the early '80s, in fact, that initially R.E.M. tried to bust the myth. Hale uncovers some quotes from early R.E.M. press that sound astonishing today, given how faithfully the band have remained true to their home base. "It's just a dumpy little town," said Peter Buck around the release of the band's 1982 EP Chronic Town. "We're not a party band from Athens," said Stipe, "we don't play new wave music, and musically, we don't have s--t to do with the B-52s or any other band from this town."

By the time they were making their 1983 debut album Murmur, though, R.E.M. were finding that the Athens association was working to the favor of their image and their art. The kudzu draped across the cover ensured that listeners would locate their atmospheric album in the south...and here's where we get to a key aspect of how Athens changed American culture.

At the time, Hale notes, northerners had a particular idea of the south: cotton fields and Deliverance. The success of Athens alt rock helped shape a new way to think of the south, a way that flavored the way we think today about cities like Austin, Texas; Oxford, Mississippi; and Nashville, Tennessee. In a positive sense, that helped break rancid stereotypes and pave the way for today's Americana genre...but it also tended to exclude black voices.

In the book's most fascinating section, Hale reminds readers that Lester Bangs decried "the white noise supremacists" as early as 1979. He was thinking more of the Ramones (who didn't shy away from ostensibly ironic Nazi references) than the B-52s, but he put his finger on a key aspect of punk that carried over to post-punk: on the cusp of gen X, rockers were rejecting the British Invasion ideal of emulating the black blues artists who invented rock and roll.

That's not postgame analysis: the bands talked about this at the time. Buck said it would feel like "stealing" if R.E.M. tried to copy black music as the Beatles and the Rolling Stones had. After all, unlike those British bands, Athens rockers (who were not universally white, Hale importantly notes) were living and working in the American south: as liberal-minded artists, they heard appropriation for what it was. Still, Hale points out, the result of bands like R.E.M. shying away from African-American music meant that the scene remained widely segregated, and the white world continued to know very little of the Athens's black population: about a third of the city at that time.

Of course, the Athens scene was and is about more than just R.E.M. and the B-52s. (Widespread Panic, probably the third best-known band from Athens, formed in 1986 and essentially belong to a later era.) Hale writes extensively about Chesnutt, the brilliant and troubled singer-songwriter who relied on a wheelchair after damaging his spinal cord in an accident while driving drunk. Chesnutt, who died in 2009, was revered in Athens and earned a cult following that continues to grow in part because of continued attention to Athens as a musical hub.

There were also Oh-OK, a band featuring Lynda Stipe (Michael's younger sister) and Matthew Sweet, who went to Athens for college and would later break out as a solo artist in the '90s. There were Love Tractor, who landed on MTV in the era when an Athens pedigree was a highly attractive calling card. While the Athens buzz may have been manufactured, Athens is a very real place, and Hale writes with real passion about her formative years there.

In Athens, Georgia, in the 1980s, if you were young and willing to live without much money, anything seemed possible. Magic sparkled like sweat on the skin of dancers at a party or a club. Promise winked underfoot like the bits of broken glass embedded in the downtown sidewalks. A new world seemed to be emerging out of our creativity, our music and art, and our politics, but also the way we understood ourselves and related to each other.

The Current's Cool Town giveaway

Use this form to enter The Current's Cool Town giveaway between 7:45 a.m. Central on Wednesday, March 11, 2020 and 11:59 p.m. Central on Tuesday, March 17, 2020.

One (1) winner will receive one (1) hardcover copy of the book Cool Town: How Athens, Georgia Launched Alternative Music and Changed American Culture. Three (3) back up names will be drawn.

Prize retail value: $27.00

Winners will be notified via e-mail on Wednesday, March 18, 2020. Winner must accept by 10 a.m. Central on Thursday, March 19, 2020.

This giveaway is subject to Minnesota Public Radio's 2020 Official Giveaway Rules.

You must be 13 or older to submit any information to American Public Media. The personally identifying information you provide will not be sold, shared, or used for purposes other than to communicate with you about American Public Media programs. See Minnesota Public Radio Terms of Use and Privacy policy.

Upcoming Rock and Roll Book Club picks

Tune in to The Current at 8:30 a.m. (Central) every Wednesday morning to hear Jay Gabler and Jill Riley talk about a new book. Also, find Jay's reviews online.

March 18: Loud Fast Words: The Soul Asylum Collected Lyrics by Dave Pirner (buy now)

March 25: The 33⅓ B-Sides: New Essays by 33⅓ Authors on Beloved and Underrated Albums edited by Ann Stockton and D. Gilson (buy now)

April 1: Perfect Tunes by Emily Gould (buy now)

April 8: The Ox: The Authorized Biography of the Who's John Entwistle by Paul Reese (buy now)

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