“40 Watt Club Entertains Wavers on a Shoestring” “‘The Baked Potato’ and ‘The Sardine’ are not new dances, but they do describe the heat and SRO crowds at Athens’ first, exclusively New Wave nightclub, The 40 Watt Club, located in what used to be the Crow’s Nest atop the downtown Sub and Steak Sandwich Shop. . . .”
Red & Black
June 3, 1980
Paul Scales was a party boy from Macon, and he blew a little harp, was working up a band of his own; everybody was doing it: the B’s, Pylon, and now R.E.M. Paul had been hanging around Athens for a few years and by 1980 was working at the Sub and Steak Sandwich Shop on the downtown corner of College and Broad, across the street from the university’s north campus, the greensward shaded by three-hundred-year-old oaks and waxy-leaved magnolias.
Upstairs above the sandwich shop was a space that until recently had been The Crow’s Nest, a lounge-variety bar with a small stage. During its final days The Crow’s Nest featured open-mike nights during which student bands played, desperate poets read. The B-52’s’ Kate Pierson had played folk songs up there. It had been closed for a year when Paul Scales saw it.
Scales was a friend of Curtis Crowe, Pylon’s drummer. One day Curtis came back into town from playing New York City with Pylon and Scales said, “Man, Curtis, I’ve found this great spot for a rehearsal studio for my band.”
They drank a few beers at the Sub and Steak and Scales took Curtis upstairs. They walked in. There was a bar, an old glass-front cooler, some tracked lights. Curtis thought to himself, “Okay, this is kind of nice.” Then he remembered the success of his parties at his loft across the street. He said, “Paul, why don’t we open up a nightclub? We can use the license from downstairs to sell beer and you can practice whenever the nightclub’s closed. It’ll give us a great place to hang out and drink beer.”
Paul Scales said, sure, why not, and they talked to Bob Yudi who ran the sandwich shop. Yudi said they could sublet the space for seven hundred a month.
Paul and Curtis told him to forget that noise; seven hundred was outrageous. They negotiated, Curtis once again scamming. In the end they rented the space for twenty-five a night on the nights the club would be open—Thursday, Friday, and Saturday.
The concept behind the new club was that every college town needed a hot, smoky dive, someplace a little dangerous, barely legal, an improvised netherspace where students could go when they felt the need to seek the shadows. Curtis and Paul figured anyone who spent all night trying to find parties where their friends are, which was what the cool kids did, would pay a buck to get into a club where there are local bands and dancing and you know everybody there, where it was a dollar at the door and twenty-five cents for a beer in a small plastic cup.
At the time none of the clubs in Athens booked the new experimental original music, all classed as the generic punk/New Wave. Hippie music and cowboy music were better for the drinking crowd. Those more traditional bands were still getting the big weekend nights. Even at Tyrone’s, which just that last summer had started booking some of the local bands, Pylon could only get Wednesday nights. New Wave didn’t yet bring in spending crowds. None of the punk/New Wavers drank at the bar. Nobody had any money. Instead they ordered water, danced, and drank under the tables from half pints hidden in brown paper bags.
Paul and Curtis got the place fixed up and they needed a name. First Scales said they should add an “e” to Crow and call it The Crowe’s Nest, after Curtis Crowe. Curtis nixed that quick. Then he suggested they call it the 40 Watt Club, after the notorious party space just across the street where Curtis and Bill Tabor lived, the birthplace of Pylon, the site of great parties. At first Curtis didn’t want to. He felt the 40 Watt Club was the name of the space whose time was done. But it was a good name and it did conjure up the low-budget image they were into. Curtis compromised. They named it The 40 Watt Club East.
They borrowed fifty dollars from Curtis’ bandmate Vanessa, built the stage, painted the walls. They floated checks for the first night’s beer and on May 20, 1980, Athens’ first homemade new music rock club opened, the club whose name would become synonymous with the Athens music scene. It opened with The Side Effects, the band that had started the same night as R.E.M. at Kathleen’s birthday party at the church a little more than a month earlier. A crowd packed the club. The Side Effects played what they called “bomp and stomp,” a just sort of intent fun-rock with Kit the cute one playing guitar and singing, Paul on drums, Jimmy on bass, both of them balding young and loving in their spare time the little girls.
At the end of the night Curtis and Paul saw that they’d made enough money to pay everybody what they owed, and even give some to the band.
They said, “Hey, this is easy!”
The punk/New Wave kids at last had their very own rock club. Soon R.E.M.’s Peter Buck and his girlfriend Ann Boyles, along with Ann’s roommate Lisa Saylen, were in charge of the bar, selling cans of Bud or cups of Pabst. Peter and Ann had a system for the bar service: “You take all the guys,” Peter told Ann. “And I’ll take all the girls.” On some nights, Linda Hopper and Michael Stipe filled in, following the same routine.
The 40 Watt East became the epicenter of the weekend nighttime downtown scene; the whole scene fit up there in the club, capacity about seventy-five. The kids went up there and got blasted outside themselves. They supped with the others on summer lightning and work-hate rage. For that few to many hours in the night they were transported from the college mill into a darkened club of their own, run by friends. During shows everyone danced pounding, and Curtis and Paul, every night during the three-night weekend run, went downstairs into the closed sandwich shop and wedged two-by-fours to brace the rafters and keep the floor from collapsing. The room had windows overlooking Broad Street and at night the kids from the club took over the streets below. They leaned from the windows and shouted at friends. They rolled down the long flight of stairs, wasted, working up bruises they would only discover the next day and wonder of their origin. One night that first summer someone brought a thermometer up there during an R.E.M. show and it topped a hundred and twenty-five degrees. That was normal. So between sets the kids milled around on the sidewalks along Broad Street and on North Campus, smoking joints under the trees and streetlights while the sweat steamed off their wet T-shirts and sticky clinging party dresses, and frat boys drove by six-to-their-Daddys’ cars and threw beer cans and called them all faggots. The streets belonged to the kids. And when it got real late, they were joined by weird East Georgia pillhead queens wearing dog collars and rouge, who came and sat on corner benches by the closed newsstand waiting for lovelorn friends. In addition, the town’s project-born transvestites in thrift-store plether miniskirts hooked cruising rednecks who had driven their trucks into the beeg ceetie looking for the weekend action.
Everybody loved it. Nobody cared who did what. Nothing else mattered to the folk at the Watt except winning the Go-Go Contest and, after last call, when the plugs are pulled, leaving the club and sharing your victory prize—a plastic gallon jug of flat keg beer—with your gang on the street as you stumble on home.