On the first day of May 1979, the dark thrub chant of a Congolese mass sounded from a reel-to-reel tape player in a room on the boys’ side of the Reed Hall dormitory basement. Inside, the small room was jammed with campus-issue bunk beds, a metal dresser, desks, and dirty laundry. The industrial carpeting was hidden beneath a layer of books and records, and the corners of the room were beginning to softly turn blue with mold in the spring heat. Harlan Hale, a sophomore history major, stood on a stained overstuffed chair and pulled a brittle-cured boa constrictor hide down from the steam pipe where it hung next to a belt of spent machine-gun ammo. Kathleen O’Brien, nineteen, smooth-skinned and full-lipped, stood in front of him, stripped to her bra.
“This’ll be great!” Kathleen chirped in anticipation.
Kathleen was a DJ at WUOG, did a morning show, and she danced with the WUOGerz, an odd-lot band made up of students who worked at the campus radio station. When the WUOGerz performed, they packed the stage with any volunteers willing to go-go dance strapped in a straightjacket, or wear a wig and cat’s-eye sunglasses, shake a tambourine or blow a discordant high school horn. The WUOGerz usually opened their set with a kazoo version of “Also Sprach Zarathustra” and then kicked into a set of New Wave covers and traditional rockers done punk-wise. The WUOGerz enjoyed minimal popularity, but despite their limits, and because of the efforts of their new drummer, they were scheduled to play a May Day concert with a popular new band called The Police, who were touring America on the strength of their hit “Roxanne.” To get a show costume ready, Kathleen asked Harlan if she could borrow his snakeskin.
Harlan said sure. So that afternoon she’d come to get fitted. As Kathleen stood there, Harlan tucked the stiff ends of the long, dry, brown-patterned skin inside the wrapped folds and fastened the whole thing with finger-sized bobby pins and thumb-sized paper clips. Kathleen spun and bounced on her bare feet to see if the wrap would hold.
“Perfect!” she squealed.
A month earlier, the WUOGerz had found themselves in need of a drummer. Kathleen said she knew somebody: this guy named Bill Berry. She and Sandi Phipps, a friend who lived near Kathleen in the subbasement on the girls’ side of the Reed Hall dormitory, had first noticed him one day when they picked up their mail at the little post office on the first floor of Reed. Bill, whippet-thin and with one thick, primeval eyebrow running across his forehead, lived on the fourth floor. Sandi thought, sure, he’s cute, but Kathleen thought he was a fox. After spotting him she put the word out, and through the gossip circuit of mutual friends she discovered he was from the middle-Georgia city of Macon: played in high school bands there: played drums. So when the WUOGerz found themselves in need of a drummer, she suggested they ask Bill Berry, that foxy dude.
Bill, who in a matter of months would become the drummer for R.E.M., had only been in Athens since that January. He wanted to get back into playing music so he was willing to try anything. When asked to drum, he agreed.
“Hell, yeah!” he said.
At the show, Kathleen wore the boa hide while she go-go danced. Bill borrowed a drum kit. During the show Bill couldn’t take his eyes off that girl with the tawny body wrapped in a snakeskin clipped riskily with bobby pins. Kathleen knew it, so she shook special hard, and from her shaking great things would soon develop.
Bill Berry had moved with his family from Minnesota to Macon when he was fourteen. Before he left Minnesota his friends there gave him a “pity party,” because they all knew for sure that Georgia was a horrible place to live.
One day in high school some friends of his were getting together to jam and they asked Bill to come over and play drums because the drummer who usually played with them couldn’t come. He got directions to the house, went over, and set up. They didn’t start right away because they were waiting for the bass player. Finally the bass player showed up: this skinny geek from high school that Bill had never really liked: Mike Mills.
“Him!” Mike said when he saw Bill.
“Him!” Bill said when he saw Mike.
After an exchange of icy stares and a riot of doubt they played, and the two soon became fast friends.
“We weren’t friends at first,” Mike Mills recalls, “because Bill ran with a rowdy crowd in high school and he didn’t like me because I was a nerd and I didn’t like him because he was an asshole, so it was a real shock on both our parts when we got together. But we gave it a try and have been best friends ever since.”
Their band was called Shadowfax, after the horse of Gandalf the wizard in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. But their name wasn’t as embarrassing as their repertoire of top forty cover songs and lame originals. Despite their handicap of a totally tactless approach, the band made three to four hundred dollars every other weekend.
These were the good years for Bill. He was making the money from the band, he had a part-time job at a junkyard, and he could fill up his Volkswagen for four bucks. He was rolling in money. Those were great times for Mike, too. He was playing music and studying hard and was even picked as a STAR student, one with a top SAT score. But by their senior year Bill and Mike had decided in good conscience that they could no longer play Doobie Brothers covers.
“About eleventh grade, I put down the drumsticks cuz the band Mike and I were playing with wasn’t fun,” Bill says. “We were doing boogie covers to make money. And that got old. You can do anything in the tenth and eleventh grade, but when you get a little older and you get that senior sensibility, you can’t just play anything anymore. You say, ‘Wait a minute, I can’t play that shit.’ So we all just bagged it. I didn’t start playing drums again until the WUOGerz.”
As the band was breaking up, Bill got the break that would eventually make him a seriously happy man: He got a job at Paragon, the booking agency for Capricorn Records, the label that grew fat from the 1970s popularity of Southern Rock acts like the Allman Brothers and Wet Willie.
It was a job he lucked into:
“Get this,” Bill says. “Our guitarist’s girlfriend’s brother had this job at Paragon, and a friend of his was trying out for the police force. So this guy who had the job went with his friend to take the tests to see if you’re capable of being a cop. I don’t know why he took the tests, too. Just to do it, I think. But anyway, he passed the test and for some reason he became a cop. It was just the weirdest thing. He had this great job at Paragon, but he couldn’t keep it since he was going to become a cop, so he said to me he said, ‘You want the job?’ And I said, ‘Fuck!’
“I couldn’t believe it. Anybody would take that job: picking up rock stars at the Atlanta airport. I met a lot of people that way and during the day had menial work to do, mailing and stuff. So I had forty hours during the day and then after work all this extra stuff like picking up rock stars was overtime. But I would have paid to do it. Here’s this eighteen-year-old kid who got double-time to go spend the night out with rock stars. Plus, I could snitch bottles of liquor out of the limousines. It was great!”
At Paragon, Bill met Ian Copeland. Copeland had come from England to work for Paragon and he’d brought with him his own stable of bands he wanted to break in America, like The Buzzcocks and The Police, which featured his brother Stewart. Through Copeland, Bill and Mike’s interest in playing music was revived.
“We’d both gotten disenchanted with music until Ian started playing The Damned and Chelsea and The Ramones. Without Ian, you wouldn’t have known about that stuff in Macon,” says Mike.
“Ian turned me on to Richard Hell, The Sex Pistols, all this shit,” Bill says. “He became an instant hero to me and I clung to him among the other agents. I lived next door practically, so when he worked late I would hang out in his office and listen while he was cutting deals over the phone. I was trying to learn what I could about the business.”
In the fall of 1978 Bill and Mike were living in an apartment together. Bill worked at Paragon. Mike worked at Sears. One night they were on their way to a Mexican restaurant and they stopped in a parking lot and Mike called his dad to tell him what they were doing. The phone call triggered something that would change both their lives. Mike got on the phone and, out of the blue, his dad, Frank, started yelling at Mike about how here he was a STAR student, highest SAT in the class, and he was working at Sears and for all intents and good guesses was being profligate with his birthright of a keen intelligence. Mike was dumbfounded.
Mike came back to the car and said, “I can’t believe it. My dad just jumped into my shit.”
Over dinner, Bill and Mike talked about leaving Macon. Talked about going to school or something, just get the hell out. By the time they’d finished slopping up the bean juice from their burritos, they decided to head to Athens, off to the University of Georgia.
Since they made their decision to go to school so late in the year, they waited until winter quarter to enter. Mike had, more or less, decided upon journalism as his major. Bill, though, had a more definite plan. His idea was to get a law degree or an MBA and go into managing sports figures, or artists in the music business. At Paragon, Bill had met John Huie, a college rep for the company, and Huie told Bill that when he got to Athens he should look up an old friend of his from his undergraduate days at Davison College: a law student named Bertis Downs, who was working on the university’s concert committee. Bill said he’d do it.
So in January 1979 the two best friends from Macon moved to Athens. Mike moved into Myers Hall. Bill moved into Reed. In Reed Hall, Bill discovered a whole new world.
In hindsight it all seems like too much to be a coincidence, and it indeed came to be remarked on frequently in the later years, after the establishment of the Athens rock-and-roll empire, and pointed to as evidence that the coming together of the scene then, in those last few years of the seventies, was something greater than simple happenstance and was instead inspired by some palpable mad magic: During the school year 1978–1979, not only did Curtis Crowe move into the loft space on College Avenue that inspired the 40 Watt Club and lease a studio to Michael Lachowski, thereby midwifing Pylon, “The greatest Athens dance band,” but, that same school year that R.E.M.’s drummer-to-be Bill Berry moved onto the fourth floor of Reed, a crucial vanguard of the music scene moved to Athens and, with bed-springs, blotter acid, and black eye makeup, cobbled according to instructions of their own instinctive devising a crucible of decadence in the subbasement of the university’s Reed Hall dormitory.
Reed Hall stands as part of a dorm complex that’s nestled halfway down the sloping geography that runs from the Old Campus, at the top of the town’s hill-set, to the deep between-hill trough where sits Sanford Stadium. Reed is four stories and a basement, divided down the middle by two sets of fireproof doors: half for boys, half for girls. But Reed was built on a hill. That means that on one side of the building, there on the slope side of the crest, there was below the basement level space enough to squeeze in a partial hall. For years, that space below the basement had been left as access to the furnace. But the growing enrollment at the university led the campus housing authority to room it off and outfit the rooms with bunk beds and metal dressers. Assigned two to a room in the set of ten, the subbasement was home to twenty young women. Being so few, the campus housing authority did not assign a hall monitor to live on the floor and so the girls were left to be the responsibility of the devout Catholic “resident assistant” up on the basement level. For all practical purposes, they were unsupervised living down there in the subbasement. “Surely we can trust them to behave,” some decision-maker must have said. “They’re only girls, after all.”
Reed was the dorm closest to Sanford Stadium. During football season Sanford Stadium became sacred ground, the place where tens of thousands gathered and for the weekend changed the face of Athens from a sleepy student town to a place of festival and rampage. On home game days in the fall, those fans faithful to the Georgia Bulldog football team caravanned into Athens, driving Winnebagos, Lincoln Towncars, or pickups, all with horns that played a variation on Dixie. Since Reed Hall lay in the middle of the shortest route between downtown parking and the football stadium, on those chaotic fall Saturdays the unlucky residents of Reed with ground-floor room assignments were forced to suffer those Bulldog fans, as they, the game-goers, trudged laughing across campus with bellies full of beer and the grease of fried chicken still on their fingers from their ritual pregame tailgate picnics. Alumni from across Georgia, used-car salesmen and their wives in red-and-black stretch pants shuffled by the windows of the dorm rooms on crêpe-soled sensible shoes. Neat and necktied frat boys passed, talking politely of intramural politics or the latest softball scandal, while on each arm they escorted cute girls for dates who had flasks of Coca-Cola and bourbon hidden in their purses next to their diaphragm cases. (During a game, it was not unusual for the stillness of the Reed Hall parking lot to be broken by the convulsive, drunken stumbling of one of those same coy, sweet, wide-mouthed southern sorority girls, led from the stadium stands by her begrudging boyfriend and allowed to wretch discretely in the hedge of applejack and redtip that surrounded the dorm.) To and from the stadium pimpled redneck boys in baseball caps roughhoused and wrestled their way past the dorm room windows in sweaty heaps of five and six, barking back and forth in solidarity with the team “Woof! Woof! Woof!” and irritating to no end the girls in the subbasement who hated football.
Mostly Catholics and Episcopalians from Atlanta, the girls assigned down there proved a volatile mix. Something sparked, and just a week after classes started that fall, the “subwastement” became one of the centers of the storm system that makes up a college campus when staffed in full complement with hordes of teenagers in full estrus and rut.
The girls moved into the subbasement in the fall, set up their stereos, and began the weaving of introductions and meetings that would lead them out from their dormitory cells up the hill into the town itself, like a lost tribe finding itself saved and rescued, pulled out of normal collegiate desolation by hand-to-hand party meetings, up and out and into the heart of a coming scene in a great chain of begettings that created a community out of a rough-shaken set of strangers, friends and friends of friends.
This is how it happened:
Linda Hopper, who would later become the singer for a critically acclaimed Athens band called Oh-OK, lived in Athens in 1977, but she didn’t count that year because she hadn’t known anybody and had absolutely the worst time possible. The summer before the new school year started in September 1978 Linda talked her high school friend Sandi Phipps into transferring from Kennesaw College in Atlanta to the University of Georgia in Athens. Linda told Sandi to ask for Reed Hall because that’s what she was asking for. So Sandi did it. But that fall Linda decided to wait until winter quarter to start back, and eighteen-year-old Sandi, who would set up R.E.M.’s first corporate office and later be voted a Top 10 rock photographer by the readers of Creem magazine, was assigned to Reed Hall, the subbasement, and she moved in that fall not knowing a soul.
While Sandi was blond with green, almond-angled eyes and matching slashing cheekbones, Kathy Russo was sultry dark Italian. They each moved with a bounce on their small feet and still fit their Girl Scout uniforms. Kathy was assigned the room next to Sandi’s in the subbasement and they met when Kathy saw Sandi in the hallway.
There, in Kathy’s room, Sandi met Carol Levy, a self-styled “misplaced Joan of Arc” with her black hair cut in an aggressive Patti Smith shag. Carol would play in the band Boat Of, shoot R.E.M.’s first publicity photos, and inspire Michael Stipe to greatness. When Sandi walked into the room, Carol, who lived up on the fourth floor of Reed, grinned a vicious leer and, already speaking perfect punk, greeted Sandi with a studied attitude.
“Who the fuck are you?”
The girls in the subbasement were explosive, waiting for ignition. Kathleen O’Brien, who would later make the crucial introductions that would lead to the formation of R.E.M., grew pot on her bottom bunk after her roommate dropped out; her botany teacher gave her the seeds for an experiment in phototropism. Sandi and Kathy were taking the highly touted course in the history department on Maoism, and while they struggled in the hallway with their research papers, Carol Levy, who feared a recurrence of the Holocaust in the rising conservative trend then coming up in America (Reagan would be elected in two years) set a backdrop by scrawling in Magic Marker in the stairwell a misquoted line from the Rolling Stones, “Now is the Time for Violent Revolution.”
The girls knocked out ceiling panels just to see the dust fly. They broke windows to hear the glass shatter. To offend any hapless and genteel innocent who came by, they posted a sign on their bathroom door: “Where Women Pee and Bathe.” Mark Cline, who would form the band Love Tractor, lived on the fourth floor of Reed, and when he came down to the subbasement, he and the girls pasted pornography on the walls and sat smoking cigarettes, carving genitalia into Barbie dolls. The girls were impressed with Mark because he knew how to play “Rock Lobster” on the guitar and they thought that was just so cool. They played The B-52’s single twenty times in a night.
Also that year, as The B-52’s set a trend for lunacy in Athens, a student inspired by The Unknown Comic, a semi-cult figure of the late seventies from Chuck Barris’ original Gong Show, put a bag over his head and ran for president of the student government at UGA. It was a sign of the times: a symptom of the craziness. He called himself The Unknown Candidate. He won. In January 1979, Esquire magazine included him in their annual Dubious Achievement Awards.
During the student government elections of 1979, the year after The Unknown Candidate was elected, a student ran for president on the Abolitionist ticket. He claimed student government was a charade, a resume-packing romp for overachievers. He promised to abolish student government if elected.
And elected he was. And he kept his promise. And the University of Georgia was without student government for nearly ten years after that. Following the election of 1979 and the abolition of student government, the successful candidate shifted the energies of his political machine to an even more important campaign, one that everybody could support: to get beer sold on campus.
In January 1979, at the beginning of winter quarter, Linda Hopper came back to Athens and took her room assignment in the subbasement. Once there, she saw that something had happened in the year she had been away; everything had changed. She came back still wearing concert T-shirts and blue jeans, her long hair still straight and mousy brown, and her musical taste still faithful to the high school canon of Todd Rundgren and Led Zeppelin. What she saw when she returned was Sandi and Carol and Kathy and Kathleen O’Brien dancing around the dorm rooms in black-and-white saddle oxfords or their old cheerleader boots, their shiny hair now colored and tied in high ponytails. The rooms pounded with the new stuff of Elvis Costello and Patti Smith, segued in with childhood favorites like the Monkees, the Archies, the Beatles, and James Brown. And the girls were dancing! Most middle-class white kids don’t dance while growing up—maybe mimic some formal prom clutching—but not this kind of ecstatic thrash where the guys humped girls’ legs and the girls lifted up their dresses on Mark Cline’s command.
Mark Cline’s friend Glenn Chitlik, who would become Love Tractor’s manager, became the first “off-campus connection” for the girls in the subbasement who had formed their own sorority and called themselves the D Phi U’s and even had their own jerseys, pairing little sister to big brother with Chitlik and Cline and some others who called themselves the Psi Chi O’s. The D Phi U girls found a safe haven away from the university in the Psi Chi O’s apartment off campus.
“We had a lot of acid parties,” Chitlik remembers. “And we made movies. People came over and we had ‘World Premier’ parties where we showed these bad Super-8 movies that we made. At the World Premier parties we would drink a lot of beer and then hit this click and everyone would take their clothes off. But it wasn’t an orgy. It never became an orgy. Maybe people snuck off, but it was just straightforward clean fun. Here we’re all young and we’re all beautiful, and everybody looked great and we would get naked.
“The first time it happened, everybody was drunk or tripping and we just decided to get naked. We went into the bedroom and got in a circle and one by one we jumped in the middle and got felt up. The art teacher Jim Herbert was there and shouting, ‘This is great! This is just like the sixties!’”
Everyone was cooperative and congenial during the naked parties and only a few times did weirdo guys stay around with their clothes on just trying to see naked girls. When the unwanted hung around, the crowd staged elaborate routines to get rid of them, the host yawning publicly, “Yawn! Boy, it’s time for everybody to go. Thanks a lot for coming!” And they all left, and with them the undesirables. But then the cool people drove around the block and came back and they all stripped and carried on with the party.
It was through Mark Cline and Glenn Chitlik that the restless girls in the subbasement made their first foray off the campus and into the party music scene then starting up good in town. That spring they heard through the party rumor circuit that there was a band gonna play at a loft downtown late at night: a band called Pylon: and it was gonna be pretty cool.
When the businesses in downtown Athens closed at night, the only people on the streets were drifters and hookers in bondage gear. The empty streets of a closed-up town were of little interest to most students at Georgia, who preferred well-lighted places like T.K. Harty’s or the B & L Warehouse. A homemade rock show up the narrow stairs of a downtown building filled with fanciful artists in eccentric dress was not the average Georgia student’s idea of a good time. But the crowd of kids in Reed Hall that season—Bill Berry, Mark Cline, Carol Levy, the girls in the subbasement, and a clutch of others—weren’t your average University of Georgia students.
They were the scenemakers.