“Would you like some Cheez Whiz?”
A pretty teenaged boy grinned, cocked his hip, and held out the plastic tray covered with Ritz crackers and cans of aerosol cheese. It was Saturday night. A costume party. Bowie was cranked on the stereo and the boy was wearing his French maid outfit, the one he’d found at Potter’s House and had altered to fit. Potter’s House was the thrift store on Washington Street run by rehabilitating alcoholics where he shopped with his friends, all members of the confederacy of glitter kids out of whom would come The B-52’s. He had dug for days through the racks and the rag room at Potter’s to find the right dress for the party. So now, with his own cocktail set on the tray among the crackers, the pretty blond was doing a turn as Ruby the Upstairs Maid, sashaying coyly through the house, proffering his selection of tacky hors d’oeuvres to the dressed-up outrageous dancers, and not even waiting for their answers before choosing a cheese himself.
“Bacon and cheddar? Mmm! Good choice!” he said, as he squirted a loop of cheese onto a Ritz and watched it disappear into someone else’s painted mouth, leaving crumbs stuck to smeared lipstick. He moved on, mincing in high heels through the sweating crowd as Bowie’s “Aladdin Sane” rocked the house.
It was just another weekend in mid-seventies Athens. The mid-seventies: a netherworld between Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter: the downtime after Vietnam and Watergate, when the graduated and dropped-out student refugees from the sixties went back to the country and set up self-sufficient farms with a shotgun in the closet and a patch of pot in the nearby pine woods, listening to Pure Prairie League and the surefire narco-hit, the Grateful Dead.
While the nation rested, this group of kids in Athens refused to stop. They negated the slushy, post-Vietnam retreat with glitter rock. They felt in tune with the creeping resurgence of androgyny. They were the creeping insurgence.
The party started at dark. Everybody was there—all the young dudes:
Keith Strickland wore his purple dress and similarly colored yak wig and eyeliner. Keith’s best friend Ricky Wilson was there: Ricky, who, in his nurse’s uniform, was even cuter than Ruby was in his maid’s outfit. Fred Schneider was doing Ginger Grant from Gilligan’s Island. Fred was in a gown split up to here, his lips painted blue. And on and on the house was filled with an assortment of students and vagabond androgynes in wigs and pancake makeup. If they weren’t students, they were artists; if not artists, at least artistic, with their lives and bodies and the bodies of others being the objects of their studies and the material for their art.
The party rumbled to a hot pitch by midnight. By three A.M., only the diehards still stood. Feverish from dancing, drunk and antsy for something more to do in this boring southern town, they vvvppped Bowie off the stereo and charged out of the house to terrorize a 24-hour laundromat in the strip of businesses down the street from the party house at Five Points. They set off in single file, their cocktails in red-plastic, Georgia Bulldog to-go cups.
They ran and skipped and as they went, Fred—excuse me, Ginger—faked a swoon.
“Oh!” he groaned in a breathy nasal falsetto Ginger-mimic as he crumpled to the sidewalk in his sequin gown and platinum wig. “It must be the oxygen!”
Keith and Ricky picked him up, and on they went, running, shrieking, spilling their drinks. As they crossed the street, the few cars out that late slammed on brakes in short sharp squeals as Fred, crossing last and running with little short Ginger steps, went into his faint in the middle of the crosswalk, “Oh! It must be the oxygen!”—and frat boys in their daddies’ cars leaned from their windows and shouted, “Hey, faggots!”
But the gang all felt strength in numbers. They all felt tough. They shouted back at the frats: “Assholes!”
Keith and Ricky kept picking up Fred, pulling him skidding and giggling until they got to the laundromat. Once there, these guerilla marauders from the party set to their freak. They screamed just to hear their own voices echo from the cinderblock walls. They did calisthenics on top of the washing machines and spun each other in the empty dryers. They jumped and danced to their own chants and frightened the few who were studying while they did their late-night wash.
Finally they all got bored and went home when they ran out of mixers for their cocktails.
Fred Schneider always was a weird kid. He was seventeen in 1969 when he left his home in Monmouth County, New Jersey, to attend school at the University of Georgia. Like a lot of students, Fred never had any clear-cut plans for school and a career. He just wanted to get away from home. He picked the University of Georgia because he heard the Forestry School was supposed to be the best. He was interested in conservation (“Saving animals from extinction and that kind of stuff,” he would later explain). He also thought it would be easier to get good grades at a school in the South. He wasn’t overly studious, but he definitely didn’t want to go to Vietnam. When he got out of high school he considered his options—Vietnam or Georgia. He didn’t think for long before he told his parents:
“I’m going to school!”
On his first day in Athens, Fred saw he was in for a trip. He was there for orientation, a day of hype about school tradition and class schedules. The orientation leaders were all true straights: ambitious sorority girls, geeky cardiganed guys. Fred was unimpressed. But when he went for lunch to the dining hall, Fred saw a longhaired, barrel-chested fellow standing up in the middle of the tables and munching Jell-O swill, a bohunk wearing faded denim bib overalls cut at the knee and hemmed as shorts.
Big-boned and bass-voiced, the guy was shouting:
“Sterzings Tri-Some Potato Chips made by the Sterzing Food Products Company of Burlington, Iowa, produce the finest chip in the country, from the miracle state of Iowa!” He hollered to everyone and no one in a mock whipsaw pinewoods accent: “‘En I’d know, I’ve sampooled ’em awl!”
It was Ort—William Orten Carlton. Ort was a local boy just out of his teens. Ort’s face already sported a full beard topped with black-framed geekoid glasses. His nose was red from rubbing. He wore blue sailor deck shoes tied with white laces. Usually, if he weren’t gripping some sheaf of scrap paper or bundle of street trash while he talked, one of his hands would go into the air to punctuate his hyperbole and recitation of trivia. The other hand would find its way to the top of his head, there to hover while his fingers curved like the tines of a weeding tool, the middle digit digging through his oiled hair for some itch on his scalp.
Fred Schneider was a goof himself, raised on too much bad TV, a writer of silly poetry. So when he saw Ort doing the redneck hillbilly cracker routine in the middle of the dining hall, he took to it. He stared. He thought to himself, “What on earth is this person doing?
“Whatever it is, I like it.”
Ort’s voice blew through the dining hall like it would blow through the next ten years of Athens history: like the smell of boiling collards, funky and native. Ort was a character: large, scary, a bit uncontrollable, but never dangerous. He talked loudly and hugged strangers freely. He was a master of trivia and useless minutiae. To the kids who’d come to school, away from home for the first time and primed anyway for easy fright, Ort was a maniac.
“Hullo, Fats!” Ort bellowed to a skinny student sitting, now trembling, at a dining hall table. Ort held a Styrofoam cup filled with the mixed crystals of instant coffee and white cane sugar. He ate it dry with a spoon and it stuck thick on the curled sucked hair in the corners of his mouth.
“Huh huh huh!” Ort donkey-laughed as he moved through the dining hall, an unofficial welcoming committee of one, inviting any kid who cared to join him in his bizarre freaked Athens underworld.
“Yes you, door-knob face! What are you looking at, milk-breath!”
Ort was a fixture in Athens. He was a native symbol, a standard. Like the Tree that Owns Itself and the double-barreled cannon, two Athens tourist attractions, Ort was something to be explained to strangers from out of state, new to town. When he was younger, Ort had spent his late nights twisting the knobs on his transistor radio, picking up distant stations, logging the call letters in a spiral notebook. Now as he pushed past his twenties, he stomped through Athens in his tennis shoes and overalls or brogans and Bermuda shorts, scratching his head, pulling posters off telephone poles, scaring freshmen with his public excess, wrapping girls in his thick pale arms and boasting to them of his record collection. By the early seventies Ort’s collection had topped twenty thousand items and he opened a record store downtown.
At the same time that Ort opened his record store, Fred was having trouble in the Forestry School. He hadn’t anticipated that the program would demand chemistry and calculus, for which he had no love and at which he had no skill. He thought the program would be simply a sort of formalized sensitivity training in nature worship: how to identify trees and restore fallen birds to their nests. He also hadn’t reckoned on being, as he says, the only hippie in forestry school, the only one in the school wearing bellbottoms.
Fred dropped out. Ort gave him a job. He made him clerk at Ort’s Oldies, his record store. It was Ort who turned Fred into a record nut. Every couple of weeks, Fred and Ort went on record-hunting expeditions to Atlanta. They ate donuts and drank black coffee on the sixty-mile ride to the city, and by the end of the day their blood-sugar levels roller-coastered and crashed. Their moods turned sour and they would scream at each other the whole way back.
Ort couldn’t stand being cooped up indoors for any time longer than it took to sample the few obscure blue-label singles he’d find at the roadside thrift stores he regularly scavenged on his trips between Georgia and Florida, where his family had property. So he left Fred in charge. At Ort’s Oldies, Fred penciled on a Little Richard mustache and played scratchy 45s on a wind-up pack-horse record player, while he and his friends hung out in the shop and hollered out the windows to their friends walking by in the street below.
Fred wasn’t working one day when he went onto campus to see a band playing on the plaza outside of Memorial Hall. That was the day he wore that loud and stupid Hawaiian shirt. That was the day he danced to the band. That was the day Keith Strickland dumped the sack of pillow stuffing all over him.
Brown-haired and beatific, Keith Strickland was pretty. One of the prettiest in town, with smooth cheeks and tranquil eyes. He was born in Athens but his parents then moved to Comer, a small town twenty miles north of Athens in poultry country. It wasn’t until Keith was in the ninth grade that his family moved back to Athens, where Mr. Strickland supervised the bus station, the cinderblock depot on Broad Street, just down the hill from the university’s north campus, where the Trailways and Greyhound lines came through. On Keith’s first day back to school at Athens High, the counselor brought him into chorus, his first class. That day was remembered for years to come as the day when the cutest boy in town came to school. Keith wore his favorite white bellbottoms. His hair hung over his ears, tantalizing. Keith walked in with his guidance counselor escort and all the kids in class, boys and girls, whispered, pointed, looked, gasped-and fell out of their chairs. “Oh God! Who is he?”
At Athens High, Keith met Ricky Wilson who was in the tenth grade, a year above Keith. Blond, shy, and soft-spoken, Ricky too had grown up in Athens. Sweet? Boy, was he sweet. And cute? Boy was he! Before long he and Keith became inseparable friends. They had eclectic interests outside school: art, music, esoterica, a belief in extraterrestrials and flying saucers. For his sixteenth birthday, Ricky gave Keith a book on the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (freshly famous from his association with the Beatles). They read the book together and practiced meditation. They reveled in the tripped-out absolute truths of the new pop guru.
During high school their musical collaboration began. Ricky learned to play guitar by watching an instructional program on public TV, picking out chords on a pawnshop Silvertone six-string. All through high school he listened endlessly to Joni Mitchell and began composing songs of his own. In the summers Ricky worked at the local landfill on the edge of town. He saved his money and bought a two-track tape recorder. He wrote his songs, and got his parents and little sister Cindy to sing along.
Together with Owen Scott, another Athens kid, Keith and Ricky played in a rock band called Black Narcissus. For a high school Battle of the Bands contest, Black Narcissus entered and shook the gymnasium with a cacophonous set of Jimi Hendrix covers.
This is the thing about a college town: The teen adventure isn’t something on TV or in the magazines; it’s right down the road in the rock-postered dorm rooms and the ramshackle rental houses. If you want to grow up fast and find the fashion edge, you can hang out with the college students and they’ll show you how. The kids see the students around them—older, fashionable, with their young adult freedoms—and they like it. They get to imagining themselves involved in this adventure. And if the kid is cute enough, or has the proper sensibility, the bigger kids are themselves eager to let them play: “Come on. Hey you, sweetie, come here a minute. What’s your name?”
Keith and Ricky liked hanging out with the older kids. And the older kids liked having them.
The hippest and the most beautiful of the older crowd was Jerry Ayers. He had a significant influence on Keith and Ricky.
Jerry had gone to high school in Athens. His father was a tenured professor of religion at the university. In the early seventies, Jerry left Athens and moved to New York City. There, Jerry was a beauty-boy. He took up with the jet set and fell in with Andy Warhol’s Factory crowd. Under his persona “Silva Thin,” he wrote a column for Interview. He modeled tuxedos for French Vogue, and they say he flew on John and Yoko’s wedding plane.
While Jerry was in New York, Keith and Ricky went for a visit. There they met the coterie of transvestites who did drag and who showed them how to do it right—queens like Jackie Curtis and Holly Woodlawn. Keith and Ricky came back to Athens, reeling with the possibilities. That’s when they started getting really creative. That was when they got the idea that even though they were living in a small Georgia town, remote from the centers of art and culture, world-class style was in their reach, just inside their mama’s closets.
After high school Keith worked for his father at the bus station, saved money, and then together he and Ricky went to Greece, backpacking and living on the beach. They came back to Athens and Ricky continued at the university while Keith went back to work. One summer, Ricky went to study in Germany for the summer and Keith went with him to hang out. Keith worked odd jobs, cleaning office buildings, washing dishes in the kitchen at a gray vacation resort on the dismal North Sea, while Ricky went to school.
After their return Ricky moved into a house with his little sister Cindy, who was working as a waitress at the cafeteria in a downtown department store.
Back in Athens after Europe, Keith and Ricky were writing songs. Owen Scott, who played with the two in Black Narcissus, was in another band with a preacher’s son named Connor Tribble. The band, the Zambo Flirts, was popular locally. They played at the cafés and cowboy bars around town and, by all accounts, Tribble should have been famous. He was good-looking, charismatic, an energetic front man. He was a hero to the high school kids. But Tribble’s problem was that he couldn’t decide whether to shake it or stand still; couldn’t decide on which side to flip his scarf. One day the drummer for the Flirts got busted for pot and they asked Keith to fill in. Although he preferred to play guitar, Keith agreed to play the drums.
After meeting on the plaza at Memorial Hall, Keith and Fred started hanging out together. Fred lived on Barrow Street, a short road down a dip between Barber and Pulaski Streets, in a run-down clapboard house under a water tower. It was a trash house. When a pot got dirty, Fred threw it out the window into his back yard. His bathroom floor fell in.
During those days, Keith and Fred would get together, smoke pot, and turn on the tape recorder. Fred recited poetry while Keith made noises, played his guitar, tapping the strings with hammers, slapping them with sticks. They called the project Bridge Mix. They had about ten songs. One was about a dog dyed dark green. A dog named Quiche Lorraine.
The dominant culture of the middle seventies held little attraction for Keith, Ricky, Fred, Jerry, and the handful of their wild-kid friends keening in the small-town piedmont-pine wilderness. They hung out around town, bored with it, fed up. To kill time and thrill themselves, they tried on thrift-store styles and album-cover attitudes as they pushed into their twenties. Even though it was a nice little town, their town, a playground, they wanted to shake it up a little bit. The way they did it was to dress up in drag and goof off in the streets.
At that time in Athens there was a small crowd of kids—the advanced, the intellectual front line—who were the transition from the hippies to punk/New Wave: they took Alice Cooper as inspiration and the New York Dolls as fashion advisors. All the boys, straight or gay, had at least one dress in their closets; all the girls had their Charlie Chaplin look. For those few years in the seventies, doing a flip-side drag was the way to express your independence. It was an art thing.
Most people ignored it when the pre-B-52’s gang went around town in drag. The girls were obviously girls, no matter the suit jackets and baggy pants. But sometimes the frat boys, gullible by nature, didn’t know the characters they scoped out and leered at were actually men. Fred had his mustache and ugly lips, and his drag was always intentionally dreadful and ghoulish. But Keith and Ricky were beautiful. At the Varsity, a local fast-food grease pit, they would be handed their mustard dogs and asked, “Anything else, ma’am?”
Like Fred, Kate Pierson had grown up in New Jersey. She met her future ex-husband, Brian Cokayne, a Britisher (Manchester) while traveling in Europe, and together they roamed hippie-free. They never had any real reason to come to Georgia; Kate guessed she’d read too much Carson McCullers and Flannery O’Connor, gotten smitten too strong with the country dream. Whatever the reasons, they came south and settled on a farm they rented from the backlisted ads in the daily paper for fifteen dollars a month. In 1973, the year Kate and her husband came to Athens, the surrounding counties were solidly settled with the old families who had pastured cattle there for generations. But in the given-up old farmhouses and reclaimed tenant shacks old hippies were scattered, their ponytails and madras midis snarled and tangled by wild rose vines, their heads filled with plans for building tipis and images of longhaired earth mamas panting through natural childbirth. In those years (last Nixon, first Ford) the woods slowly greened with cannabis, a new cash bounty planted seasonally by country-boy outlaws who had faded into the fields to grow pot after the U.S. withdrew from Vietnam.
Kate and Brian liked their neighborhood. Up and down the Jefferson River Road their neighbors kept kitchen gardens. At their own farm they kept goats and chickens and grew crops of luscious tomatoes. On full-moon nights they often had their friends out for supper. They hauled tables into the pasture and set them with candelabra. Their faces glowed with the light flickering from the antique stands. They drank homemade blackberry wine and danced in the field, while the cattle lowed and nodded their heads in time with the African pygmy folk music playing from the tape recorder.
After Kate fell in with the boho glitter crowd, they all killed days sitting for hours at the Western Sizzlin’ drinking endless refills of iced tea. After an afternoon session of The Deadbeat Club (variously called The Oyster Club, Movie Club, Skate Club, Waitress Club) they drank beer, spent hours at Keith and Ricky’s where they wiped makeup onto their faces, combed out their wigs, slipped into thrift-store dresses, and cruised the streets in someone’s big car, looking for parties to crash.
They would go to Allen’s, a dark and dusty bar in the Normaltown section of Athens. Allen’s was an institution, visited by bikers, servicemen from the nearby Navy Supply School, and frat boys. It had burlap on the walls, tacked with brittle and curling travel posters advertising vacations in Europe and Las Vegas. The wooden booths were rubbed and polished black by years of denim- and motor oil-covered backsides squirming in the seats. In a back room: pinball and shuffleboard. In the bathroom: an inoperative rubber dispenser, the illustrated females long since defaced by inked-in mustaches and disembodied genitalia seeking entry, the metal a montage of scrawls made by generations of pissing men and boys, frustrated and beer-drunk and reduced to clawing the enamel with pocket knives. In the booths out front, the heroes of our story would sit and drink twenty-fìve-cent beers, the men at the bar staring at the boys in wigs.
The whole point was to go where they weren’t invited. They crashed parties where everyone stood around, guarded and tight-assed. Kate kicked the chairs aside and they all danced on the couches. They got into funny positions in the living room. They straddled leg and hustle-humped stray thighs. As quickly as they arrived, they left. They piled back in whoever’s big sled they’d hijacked for the night and careened across town to The Circus, a local disco, where they hit the floor dizzy with tequila and the readiness to challenge. At The Circus they got bottles thrown at them when the boys tried to dance with other boys.
When they weren’t crashing parties they stayed home and made their own fun. Once, Fred went over to Keith and Ricky’s on Pulaski Street and spontaneously staged a drag-show mimic of Martha and the Vandellas, one of his favorite groups. Only in Fred’s version, it was Marva and the Marvelettes. Fred put on a nappy wig and did Marva. Keith and Ricky wrapped their heads in mammy cloths and were the Lettes. They did all the hits.
In 1975, a student entrepreneur and would-be culture maven leased out a space at The Station, an old railroad depot on the edge of town in which some businesses were located. He wanted to make it an art house, but it didn’t last long. He showed one movie, Performance, star-ring Mick Jagger. But in its month-short life the place hosted the first tentative approach toward what would become the Athens, Ga., music scene. The guy scheduled a poetry reading one night. He knew Fred, knew he goofed around with poetry, noise, music, and he asked him if he wanted to do something as an opening act for the scheduled poem-readers. Fred said sure.
Fred, Keith, Ricky, and some other friends wrote a few songs, gave them names like “Bush Hog” and “Dead Mink,” rehearsed them, and at the show they played them all in an endless jam for hours. They crowded the stage area with any friend who wanted to scream, yell, and rock. They called it Nightsoil. There were three saxophones, a guitar, violin, shaking tin things, go-go dancers, a slide show of Canadian tourist attractions. Fred wore a shiny dress and had his lips painted blue. The audience just stared.
It was a lark, but everyone said the group should keep it up, work through the chaos, find the melody. But nothing happened.
By 1976 Fred wanted to leave Athens. He was entering his mid-twenties and still didn’t know what he was going to do with his life. He knew something was going to turn up. He just didn’t know what. But he did know one thing: He was sick of Athens. He left his set of odd jobs—busboy, waiter, dishwasher—and moved to Atlanta. While he lived there, he came back often to visit his friends. On one visit, something happened which would change his life:
He and some friends got drunk at a Chinese restaurant.
After dinner and repeating rounds of flaming rum punch Kava Bowls, they went back to Owen Scott’s house. Scott had been in high school bands with Ricky and Keith and in the Zambo Flirts but now was in graduate school. Down in the basement were some instruments. They were all a little drunk and into fun, so they hung out in the basement. They started playing with the instruments. It turned out that whoever was there that night ended up in their new band. Except Owen. He stayed upstairs writing letters while they went to the basement and jammed on an idea for a song they called “Killer B’s.” After that night, Fred went back to Atlanta. But before he left, they all agreed: Let’s keep doing it.
They had all felt the desire to be in a band and had made many false starts before. Kate sang folk songs, Ricky made his tapes, Fred and Keith did Bridge Mix. Only Cindy didn’t have any noteworthy experience, but Ricky and the rest were convinced she should sing with them. She had been planning to go to Paris with Keith and Ricky, where they would sing in the subways, but then this new project started to work and they set aside their plans for busking across Europe. They all had material, and whenever Fred came in from Atlanta they pieced together stuff and jammed. Unlike past efforts like the chaotic Nightsoil, their new project clicked. It looked so promising that soon after Christmas that year Fred moved back to Athens.
In February of 1977, some friends of theirs were going to have a Valentine’s Day party. Fred asked them if their new little outfit could play. The party hosts said sure, hell yeah. The band rehearsed a few more times. A couple of days before the show, Keith came up with the name in a dream: