How Athens, Georgia, Launched Alternative Music and Changed American Culture
By Grace Elizabeth Hale
There was a time when Athens, Ga., a sleepy Southern college town, was known mostly for the passionate sis-boom-bah of University of Georgia football fans who descended there on select Saturdays in the fall. But that was before the late 1970s and early 1980s, when a hundred post-punk flowers bloomed in American towns and cities far beyond downtown New York. Athens, improbably, proved to be an early bloomer, and soon found itself overrun with weird rock ’n’ roll bands. A few of those bands got huge.
In her new book, “Cool Town,” Grace Elizabeth Hale, a professor of history and American studies at the University of Virginia, describes how Athens found itself at Generation X’s artistic vanguard, birthing the glorious notes-on-camp party band the B-52’s, the jangly art-rock juggernaut R.E.M., and scores of other provocative and influential groups — along the way becoming “the model,” as Hale argues, “for the small, deeply local bohemias that together formed ’80s indie culture.”
It’s fair to ask why the world needs a book about an ’80s indie-rock hot spot at a moment when rock ’n’ roll, as a genre, seems to be in retrograde, and the pop universe blazes with San Juan polyrhythms, Seoul choreography and Atlanta Afro-futurism.
But with this meticulously reported microhistory, Hale, who once played in a band and ran an underground club in Athens, delivers more than a love song to the music. “Cool Town” also serves up a textured portrait of a generation caught between baby and tech booms, wriggling under the thumb of the mainstream — in the pre-internet days when “mainstream” was a discernible thing — and rummaging through thrift-store bins both literal and figurative in an effort to create something new.
I lived in Athens for a while in the 1990s, and spent a couple of years as editor of Flagpole, the city’s alternative weekly. Hale is dead-on in the details she relies on to evoke a scene that was in full swing in Athens when I arrived. She wisely emphasizes its L.G.B.T.Q.-friendly and female-empowering flavors: Gay people and women were driving creative forces in the biggest bands and some of the smallest, a reminder that Gen X indie culture was about more than wailing dudes from Seattle.
She is smart on the way Athens art and music were defined by the tension between the rejection and embrace of Southern culture, both aesthetically and politically. She has a keen eye for fashion too, recalling the influential thrift-store chic of Jeremy Ayers, an important scene catalyst: “Bits of lint and leaves seemed to spill out of his seams where a pegged pants-leg met a flapping brogan or a thin wrist poked out from a collage of sleeves.”
Hale also shows how cool Athens was not some miracle gourd that grew out of Southern soil, as it was sometimes portrayed in the music press, but an extension of both the university’s egalitarian, avant-garde art school and the New York art scene: Ayers, briefly a lover to R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe and a B-52’s collaborator, had once been a Warhol superstar named “Silva Thin.”
Hale, whose previous books include “Making Whiteness: The Culture of Segregation in the South, 1890-1940,” about the construction of racist white identity, is right to criticize the Athens scene for its failure to attract a sizable group of nonwhite participants, even as its politics were antiracist: “Scene participants attempted, in a way that was more attractive to whites than to people of color, to live in a world in which racial divisions did not matter.”
You could say they were trying, in their way, to be free. In doing so, they made a ton of good music, opened the minds of their peers to fresh ideas about sexuality, art and politics, and established Athens as a refuge for nonconforming kids of all stripes from the South and beyond. The B-52’s sang the good news in 1979: “If you’re in outer space / Don’t feel out of place / ’cause there are thousands of others like you.”