Pylon … The B-52s … Love Tractor …Widespread Panic … R.E.M.
These are just a few of the famous and/or infamous bands that got their start in the sleepy, little college town of Athens, Georgia. While other nearby cities were busy opening 7-Elevens or repaving their main street, Athens was busy being at the zenith of the New Wave music movement.
For me, music started around 1979 … and it abruptly ended in late 1986. Anything before/after that time frame is just white noise to me. (Sorry, music aficionados.) So when I got a chance to visit Athens and take a long overdue music tour, I jumped at the opportunity. The town is rife with music history – and not just the ghosts of yesteryear.
Turns out most of those bands still have ties to their alma mater. Whilst on the tour, our stalwart guide, Paul, would pepper in occasional topical nuggets of information. We walked by a non-descript yellowish building in downtown Athens. Turns out R.E.M owns said lair and will occasionally hunker down to record music or simply commiserate there. Posters for The B-52s Kate Pierson’s upcoming solo concert at the Georgia Theatre were plastered as far as the eye could see. And all the local record stores, thrift shops and music halls all paid homage to the myriad of bands that helped pioneer a genre of music.
Paul kept the fun facts coming fast and furious throughout the day:
The Love Shack may have burned down, but the wooden trestles from the cover of R.E.M.’s Murmur album remain … and they have become one of the go-to landmarks on the tour. For a while, the trestles were in danger of being torn down. Fortunately, R.E.M. fans from all over the world came together to write the mayor of Athens and remind him of their cultural significance. They’re a bit more worn (and partially obscured by overgrown trees), but they’re still standing – a testament to R.E.M.’s voracious fan base.
Shocker! The B-52s only played six concerts in Athens before signing with Warner Bros. and moving to NYC … and, yes, that includes their inaugural 1977 Valentine’s Day barnburner of a house party. (Paul showed me a pic of Kate and Cindy from that night wearing those legendary purses on their heads. The Diana Shop on Clayton Street where they purchased said purses is no longer around.)
You’ll also find The B’s beloved Ricky Wilson’s grave there – tucked way, way, WAY in the very back of the town’s ye olde cemetery. I got a little verklempt when we arrived, but when I noticed his gravestone was an oh-so apropos pyramid, it put a smile on my face. Fans had left little trinkets, pins and mementos on the grave. I was bummed I hadn’t brought anything to give to Ricky as a token of my esteem — like a computer or hot tamales. Fortunately, I always carry a malachite crystal in my pocket as a sort of good luck charm when I travel. (To be honest, I never leave home without it.) I left it there for Ricky to use in his celestial (cosmic?) travels.
While the music tour spotlights the highlights (uh, and occasional lowlights) of Athens’ most mainstream bands, there’s also an element of history behind all of it. Athens – for instance – was never an artsy-fartsy Mecca until the town shelled out to pay a well-known music teacher to move to the city back in the 1800’s. His influence is still being felt today. In fact, the Athens’ music scene resonated through the South well BEFORE the titular New Wave era. In the infancy of their illustrious careers, artists like James Brown, Jackie Wilson and others would play house parties at local fraternities. I’m still trying to wrap my brain around seeing Martha & the Vandellas at, say, an SAE kegger.
Above the local Starbucks in town, you’ll find a sort of nook for students to study and drink their frosty Frappucinos. Before it became a coffeehouse, the upstairs was called 40 Watt Club East where bands like Pylon would bring the house down … almost literally. After one bawdy performance, folks on the first floor noticed the windows bowing in and out when the crowd started furiously dancing. Floor to ceiling wooden beams were brought in for subsequent performances to stop any potential collapse. Seems safe enough, right?
If you want a chance to channel your inner Michael Stipe or Cindy Wilson, this is the tour for you. Want to see where Widespread Panic almost created widespread panic when an impromptu outdoor concert nearly obliterated the downtown square? Again – go see Paul Butchart at the Athens Welcome Center. He doesn’t just drop names. He remains tight with the bands – even being a former roadie for some their tours.
I’m still riding the (new) wave of nostalgia from visiting all these haunts. Energy courses through all these buildings. It’s palpable and it’s electric. I feel just as giddy as the first time I met The B-52s. The only thing I didn’t spy on the tour? A faded sign at the side of the road that said “15 miles to the Love Shack”.
Tin roof rusted, indeed.