Book Review: Cool Town

“Aye. Looked for It. And I found it. Miles Standish Proud. Congratulate me.” That unmistakable nasal whine. Those lyrics, unforgettable to me after thirty-odd years, now echoing out at me from a neighbor’s backyard speakers as I walked my dog late one evening past his socially suspect get-together. It took me past all right, rewinding like a tape the few of us who cared, who knew, could stop at just the right place in a beaten-up boom box to cue up a track on Life’s Rich Pageant, the old R.E.M. album. Old: one of the ones Michael Stipe, Peter Buck, Bill Berry and Mike Mills wrote before they hit it big with Green and Out of Time and “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” on the soundtrack to every godawful disaster movie. Lines from “Begin the Begin,” the opening track on that album, which I played over and over and over along with all of my R.E.M. albums in high school, almost furtively, then defiantly, against the late 1980s prep school hegemony of the Dead, the Eagles, and whatever other music could be sanitized by decades of acceptability, like prep clothing itself – deeply familiar weapons of exclusion.

At that time my listening choices felt tantamount to subversion. We listened so often we memorized lyrics like the secret readers in Fahrenheit 451, at least the lyrics to the songs Stipe enunciated. Famously elusive, mumbled and indirect, many of his songs were like codes, with meanings no more than roundabout guesses. All that and more came back hearing that snatch of song, and reading Grace Elizabeth Hale’s incredible Cool Town: How Athens, Georgia Launched Alternative Music and Changed American Culture. In it she not only clearly and thoroughly tells the fascinating story of the Athens scene around University of Georgia that gave rise to R.E.M. and so many other acts, she captures and conveys the liberation, joy and sweetness of youth.

Athens! A college friend from Chattanooga, Tennessee used to drive down there on weekends with her girlfriend to stalk the legendarily beautiful Stipe (the closest they got was letting him bum a cigarette). Hale brings together various elements at the tail of the 1970s that led to the first major breakout band from Athens, the B-52s, who began as a party band playing camp callbacks, a rock band incarnation of a John Waters film. When they debuted there were no studios or real rock clubs in town to play at. Everyone knew each other, helped each other along.

They knew each other because they were so few, creatives, rebels and slackers among the thousands attending the state’s public university. Borrowed vans helped them schlep the nineteen-hour drive up the Eastern Seaboard to CBGB and other clubs in New York City where they shot to national prominence. And in their wake Athens became a terroir, a place-name suggesting the cultivation of quirky talent. Of a crucial nexus of people who didn’t want to be pinned down by the epithets others had for them, in fact who wanted to create their own, perhaps labile, meaning.

A memory, 1990: waking up momentarily in the middle of the night parked at a rest stop somewhere in the Northeast during my own road trips up and down the East Coast to my auto-reversing Walkman inexorably droning through Fables of the Reconstruction, R.E.M.’s third album, over and over like a sinner damned to eternal reincarnation.

Even though their early success seems minor compared to their 1990s mainstreaming, R.E.M.’s takeoff in the early 1980s made Athens a destination for musicians and bands seeking credibility, or simply a haven: Matthew Sweet and Vic Chesnutt, among other household names, along with dozens of other acts who peppered college radio. And R.E.M. helped the playlist of college radio, with its funky, ersatz, underground connotations (a friend at what was once called the best college radio station in the country told me of refusing to buzz the singer of Violent Anal Death into the building at 5 AM because she thought his band name was a joke), become its own genre, college rock. That scrappy independence, forged in opposition to fratty accessibility, to the unexamined privileges of superficial enjoyment, gradually became a Leviathan of its own, an all-encompassing alternative rock genre that swallowed up the radio dial.

Hale wisely rejects the narrative cliché of origin, rise and fall. Athens evolved; multifarious venues (such as crunchy diners hosting bands and readings) bloomed like spring flowers on magnolia trees; existing barriers to entry such as presumptive whiteness made themselves felt; new barriers such as the disassembling of accessible public education arose. She also wisely rejects the cliché of a final redemption, choosing instead to suggest a hope that the conditions that brought together a community of originals and others can arise again in some other way or form, somewhere.

Community. Because we felt ourselves apart and when we found each other, tried our hardest to communicate it, so deeply and longingly, but like Stipe obliquely…

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