Any reason was sufficient but no reason was necessary for the folks in Athens to up and go to New York City, and during one of her many impetuous trips north Teresa Randolph, the one-time Little Miss Sunbeam and high school friend of Keith and Ricky, met Curtis Knapp. Knapp was in his early twenties, living in Manhattan, trying to become an illustrator. He hung out in the underground Manhattan scene and had been there during the early seventies when the poets like Jim Carroll and Patti Smith twisted their literary aspirations to fit rock and roll. Knapp was doing a little photography, some graphics, and had just finished painting a mural at Max’s Kansas City, a venerable hip Manhattan club, when he met Teresa one weekend when The Fans played there.
Knapp saw The Fans and heard Kevin Dunn sing Brian Eno’s “Baby’s on Fire.” He loved it. He met Teresa that same night. Double punch—The Fans and Teresa, bam bam—too cool. He thought, “They’re from Georgia?” He decided to go south. He followed Teresa to Athens. He figured he’d spend a quiet summer there. Good place to get some painting done.
Once in town, he met the members of The B-52’s. He saw them play at Teresa’s party and after the show he flipped out. He freaked. He told the band that they had to go to New York. “They’ll love you up there!” he told them. But the B’s never thought they could be a part of the New York City club scene: “Not us! Oh, come on! Curtis, you don’t mean it.”
But Knapp insisted.
“Really! You’ll kill ’em. They’ll love you!”
The band figured, “Okay, sure. Why not?”
One week in late summer, 1977, The Fans went again to New York to play at CBGB’s. Before they left, Mike Green visited some friends in Athens, and he saw Keith and Ricky on the street. He told them now was a good time to come on up to New York City and get themselves a gig! Keith and Ricky talked with the rest of the band and decided to go. They drove north, eighteen hours from Athens, to see if they could get a show. A friend of theirs had shot some videotape of the band for a school project, so Ricky made some stills from that and sent them on ahead as an improvised press kit. They brought along a demo tape.
From the beginning, they never had much hope.
In New York City they played the tape for the soundman at CBGB’s. At that time CBGB’s was the coolest club for new music. “Strobe Light” was the first song on the tape. The soundman listened to it and said, “I’m sorry, but I don’t really see it. You just don’t quite have that umm, umm . . .” and he went on about production technique, which baffled the band. None of The B-52’s were technicians. They’d recorded the demo on the recorder Ricky bought working that summer at the dump. They thought it sounded fine.
“You’re just not ready for See-Bee’s,” the soundman sniffed. He played them a tape of The Shirts. “This is more like it.”
Curtis Knapp was with The B-52’s when they were in New York. He had come along to get some of his things out of storage because he had decided to extend his stay in Athens. Curtis liked Teresa. But he’d also found out there were many more girls in town just like her. Partybabes. Wildkids. So, with permanent red clay stains on his knees, he figured to stay in Georgia for a while. Get to know some of the folk. Get some painting done.
Knapp told the B’s that since he had painted a mural at Max’s Kansas City he could get someone there to listen to the tape. The B’s left CBGB’s and took the tape to Max’s. They played it for the management. Max’s was noncommittal, but at least the band wasn’t refused outright.
They saw The Fans play. An okay show.
They drove back to Georgia.
Every day after that, Knapp went to the bus station where Keith and Ricky worked and used the pay phone to call New York, bugging Max’s to get The B-52’s a date. He sat around with Keith and Ricky in the back of the bus station, hunched between the metal racks stacked with the taped and twine-tied packages, the roped-together suitcases. Outside, airbrakes hissed on mammoth, fried-chicken puke-smelling Greyhound coaches. When the buses pulled into the little station, feet shuffled slowly on the linoleum floors as the passengers got in line. Ricky sold tickets. Keith loaded luggage. When at last the hard, wooden-church-pew bus station benches emptied and the buses rolled out, Curtis, Keith, and Ricky went back to gossiping about friends and talking about their band, Curtis working the pay phone.
Finally, after a week, The B-52’s got a date in New York City: a Monday: the second week in December: showcase night at Max’s Kansas City.
At the time that The B-52’s got their first New York City gig, they had only played two public parties. To warm up for the show at Max’s, Curtis Knapp set up another one, their third.
One day, Knapp went visiting some guys he had met: Curtis Crowe, who later became the drummer for Pylon, and his friend Bill Tabor. They lived out on the Atlanta Highway in a small house off the road, behind a gas station, down a long driveway, the yard filled with pecan trees. Knapp was out there and he thought the house was great. He loved the yard. He said, “Man, there’s this great band, The B-52’s, and you gotta get ’em to play out here.” Curtis Crowe and Bill Tabor had never heard of them. But they agreed anyway. Sounded like fun. They said, “A live band? A party? Sure. Why not?”
They bought a couple kegs. They moved the furniture out of the living room and into the yard and set up the drums on a big dining room table Curtis Crowe had made from scrap lumber. That party was the first time The B-52’s played with a real drum kit.
Danny Beard saw The B-52’s for the first time at that party. Danny had gone to school in Athens and graduated in 1974, moving back to Atlanta. In 1976, copping Ort’s Oldies as an example, he and his partner Harry Demille started a used-record store in Atlanta called Wax ’n’ Facts. Danny hung out with The Fans, and he had helped them distribute their single earlier that summer. He heard about The B-52’s, heard they were going to play, so that night he drove into Athens.
“They only had six songs,” Danny Beard recalls. “The room where they played was smaller than a den and it was jammed. People were looking around the corner from the next room and staring in the windows. This was one week before their first show in New York. I got excited about it and sort of invited myself to go up with them. I asked them if they had somebody to do sound or to help carry equipment. They didn’t have anybody so I did it.”
The next week, the band packed up in Cindy and Ricky’s parents’ station wagon, which the band nicknamed Croton, and went to Max’s. On stage there, a curtain hung between them and a jaded New York audience, only seventeen of whom had paid the three-dollar cover to see three bands play. The curtain came open and there were the B’s: satin and wigs and toys and cute, and they started playing. They started with “Planet Claire,” Fred doing the beeps on his walkie-talkie. The punks in the crowd just stood there amazed. What the hell is this?!
“Everybody was posing and sulking,” Kate recalls of their first New York audience. “But our friends who came up with us broke loose on the dance floor and people just started dancing and all of a sudden there was a dance craze! From then on, everywhere we went, a friend of ours would get out there and start dancing and then everybody else would start. It was contagious.”
Coming out of a scene of drag queens, reformed hippies, and practicing alcoholics in a small Georgia town, The B-52’s were the antithesis of the hard raucous sound then dominant in the New York club scene. Where punk was political, the B’s were absurd. Where punk was serious, rude, macho, and violent, the B’s were polite, non-threatening, feminine. The punks wore black; the B’s wore thrift. Fred was a dapper Dan and the girls were decked out in cocktail gowns and towering coifs. When a too-cool New York crowd stood around in the clubs, posing, leaning against the walls, The B-52’s showed them it was all right to look silly; it was all right to dance. The punks mouthed about being bored and mad at it all. But The B-52’s said it was okay to be bored. All you have to do is find your mother’s makeup kit and slippers with polyester pompoms, hawk a little spit to rejuvenate a dead eyebrow pencil, and your troubles are over.
The B’s would steal fire from New York City, the Olympus of American culture, and bring it back to Athens, where they put the torch to the southern boogie and blues, drove it out of the clubs, and, back underground, triggered the next hip thing. The B-52’s showed that if, as the punks said, there was no future, at least there was plenty of past to plunder.
Members of The Cramps were there that night. As the B’s walked through the sparse crowd on their way out, lead singer Lux Interior stopped one of them and said:
“I have a new favorite band.”
As they loaded out that night with seventeen dollars for their troubles ($51 total, split three ways) they were elated. They’d played New York! As they got ready to head back to Athens, Danny Beard, as an afterthought, said, “Did anybody ask if they’d like ya’ll to come back?” They all looked at each other. “Nope!”
Danny ran back inside and asked if they could get another date. The woman he asked opened her eyes wide and said, “Of course!”
When they got back to Athens after playing Max’s, Cindy was excited because she’d finally got to see the Empire State Building. She was nineteen and had never been outside of Georgia except for one brief couple of months in high school when she ran away to Florida. Keith Bennett, that Macon boy who’d fallen for Cindy at the Valentine’s party earlier that year and who was now her boyfriend, picked her up after the band got back.
Breathless, thrilled, sparking, all Cindy could say was, “We played New York! We played New York!”