I was an undergraduate taking a painting course in the Lamar Dodd School of Art at the University of Georgia in 1979 when I first recall noticing the skinny guy with curly hair who never seemed to be without his female companion (later, after he became famous, I learned she was his sister). I don’t believe I ever met him or spoke to him, as we were never in the same class, and he seemed painfully shy and standoffish. In fact, I probably would have forgotten about him completely except that a year or so later, after I had changed my major to landscape architecture, I found myself at Tyrone’s, an Athens bar that featured live music on some nights, often local bands or bands from my hometown of Atlanta, sixty miles to the west. I’d seen the band’s crudely wrought photocopied gig handbills posted on bulletin boards all campus, and knew that at least some of its members were UGA students. When they began playing, I noticed that the front man was the skinny quiet guy from the art school. He’d somehow transformed to a wild-dancing singer with a very big voice. I later learned that his name was Michael Stipe, and of course the band was R.E.M.
The late ‘70s was the era of rebellion and dispersal in rock music. Proto-punk bands such as the Velvet Underground and the Patti Smith Group had paved the way for the punk scene. By the ‘80s it felt like that scene had diversified considerably. It seemed as though punk had overthrown the old arena-rock mega-stars, but in reality there were just more choices. Many UGA kids were still into late ‘60s/early ‘70s “dinosaur” rock (what we would now call “classic” rock), and many other southern kids were especially fond of southern boogie bands and southern rock/blues bands (Georgia’s own Allman Brothers chief among them). But in Athens, there was a considerable interest among college students in new flavors of music, and Athens seemed to be growing its own peculiar variety. It was inspired by punk, but lacked punk’s vituperation and fuck-you attitude. It shared with punk spontaneity, high-energy and unpretentiousness (of the rock-god sort anyway). But unlike punk, it was happy music – music for a big party. Very danceable, often very melodic. Local bands would play originals and covers of all sorts of things from surf music to New Wave. The crowd was a mix – the arty types and the hippies and the Greeks and the non-sectarians (like me) all seemed to be a part of a larger scene that developed around several home-grown acts that would play frequently around town. Besides R.E.M., other bands I recall seeing at Tyrone’s (and later at the 40-watt Club, and at indoor or outdoor parties) included Love Tractor, Pylon, and, of course, the B-52s. The B-52s by then had already made it, and had moved to New York, but would come back for shows occasionally.
A good bit has been written about the Athens music scene and the “scenesters” of that era, with speculation about why that particular north Georgia town became such a hotbed of musical innovation and the birthplace for many bands that eventually became well-known beyond Athens. I remember that at the time, I didn’t imagine Athens was any different from any other town that contained a large university. But for some reason Athens achieved a sort of critical mass. What began as a party scene developed into something quite a bit more purposeful and self-conscious, as people were drawn to Athens (students and non-students alike) to become a part of the scene.
I still don’t know why this happened in Athens as opposed to some other college town. It wasn’t as if UGA was already a cultural mecca. In many ways, Athens is comparable to Iowa City and UGA is comparable to the University of Iowa, in terms of size, academic offerings, and even the emphasis on college sports (UGA won the BCS national championship in 1980). Maybe it’s a fluke; sometimes I wonder whether anyone would be talking about Athens and its music scene if not for the remarkable success of R.E.M. That band is one of those singularities in popular music – the product of a perfect alignment-of-the-planets moment, in which the exact right mixture of bandmates (all four were not just performers but also songwriters who somehow discovered a way to collaborate most prolifically: Stipe the singer/lyricist, Peter Buck the record-store “musicologist,” Mike Mills the trained musician, and Bill Berry the multi-instrumentalist) in exactly the right place (a fair-weather town, remote from direct big-city influences, with a population heavily skewed towards the college demographic) at exactly the right time (the birth of what would eventually become known as “alternative” rock). Once R.E.M. became established nationwide on “college radio” (they didn’t become global superstars until the end of the ‘80s), other bands were able to follow their lead.
Having become active in local music here in Ames over the past three years, I sometimes wonder about what it would take to enhance the local-music scene hereabouts. Short of producing our own prairie-grown R.E.M., what would have to change? In terms of prevailing culture, music has already diversified (here in the Internet age), so there’s really no monolithic musical genre to rebel against as happened with the punks. Nevertheless, could musicians hereabouts develop some new locally-grown “flavor” of music, as distinctive as the early alternative-rock/college radio was in the early ‘80s? Perhaps it’s more a matter of creating and sustaining the places for new music to grow. To this day I deeply lament the closing of the Boheme, which occurred at the end of 2007, because that was the place I first dared to play my home-crafted originals in front of people. If I were seeking to “come out” as a singer-songwriter now, where would I go?
In the immediate aftermath of the Boheme’s closing, the founders of the Ames Progressive began to work to create a venue that encourages local musicians and features outsiders who make a stop in Ames while touring. I think this is essential – that local music have a “home.” At the very least, then, what we need in Ames is a multiplicity of “homes,” of all types, that can accommodate different audiences (the all-ages crowd, the people who like to drink while they listen, people who like to dance, etc.). Of course many of these places exist already, but it seems so much happens under the radar. We often lack that critical mass of people (performers and audience) who are essential to the success of a live music event.
But regardless of venue, and regardless of whether Ames can ever become Athens-on-the-prairie, I think the lesson from Athens is that refreshingly original music is the key to establishing a larger musical community identity. Also, success begets success, even very small increments of success. Local performances can encourage others to join in the fun. And maybe “fun” itself is the key – thinking back to those days in Athens before our favorite bands had made it big, when it was all about the love of the music in the moment.