Set on a pedestal in the middle of Broad Street in downtown Athens, the old memorial to the local Confederate dead was usually left undisturbed except by passing tourists who once in a while snapped their own take-home postcards of the obelisk, and the occasional lover or homeless desperado who used the centrally located monument as a trysting place or preaching pulpit. But on a day in December 1982 the Confederate memorial, a solemn and still tribute to the noble dead soldiers of a dead lost cause became the focal point of yet another buzz about the whiptail doings of the local scene.
From out of the hollow rooms and littered chambers where they napped and practiced, fed and dreamed, sexed and lied, the members of Athens’ steadily growing music community crawled, coordinated by café rumor, and rendezvoused at the Confederate memorial. They came carrying playtoys, guitars, horns, and hats. They came wearing scarves, jackets, sunglasses, and blue jeans; baggy pants, tennis shoes, boots and Chinese slippers: they came: members of Pylon, The Squalls, Limbo District, Kilkenny Cats, Art in the Dark, Little Tigers, Love Tractor, Oh-OK—they came when they heard what was going on. They came fast. And when they got there to that island in the middle of main street, they saw that it was true. What they had heard was true. And when they saw, the word went out louder still, to all who hadn’t yet heard.
This time it wasn’t a party, wasn’t a new band, wasn’t some who-did-who scandal. This time it was something more ominous, more foreboding than ever before reported.
“There’s a photographer in town! At the Confederate memorial!” the word went.
Photographers had been visiting Athens for nearly three years since the first appearance of The B-52’s—intrepid Yankee scouts visiting these alien southern lands, shooting the curiosities they’d heard rumors of, reporting on the queer dietary habits and liquor preferences of a generation of willful insomniacs. So a photographer from out of town was nothing new.
“But he’s from a major national magazine!”
No big deal. Bigger than New York Rocker?
“But the magazine! You’ll never guess!”
So who was it?
Sure enough, a photographer from People magazine had found his way to Athens, assigned to get a picture of the scene for an upcoming issue on the resurgence of American rock. His idea was simple, graphic, and ultimately frightening. He put out the call and had all the local musicians from the new music bands gather in the middle of Broad Street, posed around the Confederate memorial. And by the afternoon, when the sun was at the photographer’s back, the kids had gathered: forty folk representing twelve bands: flashbulb freaks, publicity junkies. And that wasn’t all of them, just the ones who’d heard and dropped everything and run to cluster in the main street median and grab for glory. Forty was a large number, but that wasn’t even all there was. Others were unavailable, but they were snubbing the furor. And R.E.M., the best of all, was out of town.
The full-page photograph appeared in the January 17, 1983, issue of People. It signaled the start of that significant year: the year that would see the end of the beginning: the year that closed the Golden Age of Athens.
“The white truck glides through the streets of Athens. Inside, the crew from Channel Five is doing a report on The Scene. People magazine has already come and gone. Seemingly, by all media definition, Athens is the place to be this year.” So reported a writer for Muzik, Atlanta’s new music magazine, which itself had sent a contingent of writers to Athens to file stories from “smack downtown in the middle of What’s Happening.”
The writers from Atlanta visited the 40 Watt, hung out in the studios of some new bands, watched the students on the street, the hard-charged dancing in the clubs, and reluctantly concluded that despite their Atlanta loyalties, they had to admit that the Athens music community had offered a “renewed vitality” to rock and roll.
Of course, to balance the hype, acerbic Atlanta music critic David T. Lindsay countered the begrudged accolades with his jaundiced assessment of America’s hippest college town:
“The facade is elegant nineteenth-century brownstone,” Lindsay wrote. “Inside, the crumbling walls stink of rot, refuse and art rock. Syphilitics, lymphatic dead beats, idiots and rat-bitten children compete for the rock spotlight . . . It’s a place to dump the human garbage, a very private world of nepotism in a universe whose dimensions are the size and thickness and length of old guitar straps; where girls frequently soak the sidewalks in anticipation of Stipe. These people are caught in the quicksand of Athens, a depopulated alleyway of cheap diners and crummy bars. . . . The ‘Athens Sound’ is still merely misunderstood doublespeak for No Talent.”
When the writers find longtime veterans to quote, they discover that the consensus among Athenians themselves is that the “true” scene happened two or three years earlier, when The B-52’s were first rocketing out of town, when the 40 Watt was located in Curtis Crowe’s loft, when Pylon was playing parties, when Michael Stipe still wore tennis shoes and T-shirts, when Peter Buck could only play chords. “The vast majority of people don’t know that they are in the center of attention,” one character said. “Those that do know would rather the rest of the world not find out.”
That was a futile wish. The horses had bolted. The stable doors would not shut.
Three months after the publication of the full-page, all-star, wow-sensation People magazine photograph of the Athens, Gee-A, glory-hounds, R.E.M. released their first full-length LP: Murmur. April 12, 1983, the release date, clipped the back end of the period that began with the People photo in January: three months during which the Athens scene was allowed to slowly/quickly adapt itself to the fact that it was no longer a cult sensation, and was now a full-fledged, mainstream, national object of fascinated obsession. The legacy of The B-52’s had primed the lust for attention, and the January People photograph had tickled the town and thrown the scene into a tizzy—but it was the April release of Murmur that delivered to the scene the pro-wrassling equivalent of a piledriver, stunning it cold.
That moment in the history of the Athens scene was unprecedented. Other albums had come out of Athens before: The B-52’s first three albums, Pylon’s Gyrate, The Method Actors’ Little Figures: and they were all highly praised, all recognized as significant contributions to the collective rock memory.
None equaled the impact of Murmur.
On Murmur R.E.M. capitalized on the mystique of the South and the sense of place and environment that it is known for, despite the fact that none of the band’s members was “native” to the region. As a band, they took the standard clichés of pop rock and twisted them, convolved them through naive manipulation and quirky taste into something murky, complex, thick. Peter and Michael at first tried to find something “Flannery O’Connor-like” for the cover. They each wanted something twisted, crazy-rooted, mystical. The photo of a kudzu field on which they finally agreed perfectly represented their sound and image: tangled, blurred at the edges. And kudzu itself became R.E.M.’s ideal icon: It was everything they were: overwhelming, unstoppable, creeping, and ultimately dominating.
The music press had not been that excited in years. R.E.M. were the redeemers of American rock at a time when British synth bands dominated. They had gone beyond the easy quirk of New Wave, yet remained within the original punk paradigm, adapting it to the American context: Four boys in thrift-store clothes and, at the time, shockingly shaggy hair, with no synthesizers, no guitar solos, and no hairspray—playing simple yet layered melodic pop music. Scrap was their natural environment, and R.E.M. affected a counter-commercial fashioning of a style derived from the cultural junk pile, hence their affinity with Georgia folk artist Howard Finster, the lunatic visionary junk-collecting preacher whose work was a collection of fragmented images with the power of an old man invested in it. R.E.M. was a bit of Huck Finn in Reagan’s corporate neocon new-yup America. But they weren’t ideologues, which was a pleasant break from the social commentary that was the theme of much folk-punk at the time.
“We were evidence that you could get by never reading a newspaper,” Peter says.
The apolitical attitude of the kids at the time wasn’t unanimous in town. There was a small group that published a magazine, Line of Sight, dedicated to the overthrow of Reaganism. There was another group that each year held a Human Rights Festival commemorating the deaths at Kent State. And there was Ed Tant, a local activist whose columns in the local paper the Athens Observer consistently attacked social ills. Tant, a sixties radical, felt let down when the new generation spent all its time in the clubs and not on the barricades. At bars and parties Tant offered this insightful comment about the music scene to anyone who would listen: “The kids these days say they started a band. Well, I say we stopped a war! They can’t tell you who wrote The Grapes of Wrath, but they can tell you who’s the drummer for R.E.M.!”
Politics was far from R.E.M.’s agenda. They had rejected ideology so heartily that they even refused to be committed to lyrics of any sort. The words, the name, the look—it can mean what you want it to mean, they said.
The kids loved it. It was perfect. The B’s were literal, but absurdist. Pylon was obtuse, but in a known style—a cynical, late-seventies, proto-post-modern Talking Heads–ish ironic distancing. Everybody else at least said something. Michael Stipe didn’t say anything. His voice was “just another instrument,” and the lyrics were strings of melodic syllables, snippets and catch phrases of intriguing composition. They were obscure, yet suggested some meaningful context from which they came. To the generation of a new decade, fatalistic in the face of Reaganism and desirous of the spectacle of meaning rather than the truth of it, R.E.M.’s obscurantism, Michael’s pseudo-aphasia, was perfect.
R.E.M.’s songs gave listeners plenty of room to insert themselves as reader. Stipe was saying something, they knew, but what? It sounded like words, but what words? And people inserted their own; they heard what they wanted to hear: “Take your fortune” became “Take up boxing”; “We could gather throw a fit” became “We could gather throw up beer.” And, more often than not, a singalong with Murmur sounded uncannily like an experience of Pentecostal glossolalia.
The “chiming, ringing, jangling” guitar of Peter Buck; the melodic bass of Mike Mills; the steady beat of Bill Berry; and the mellifluous poetic howl of Michael Stipe were definitely special. No doubt about that: Murmur made all the “Best of” lists for 1983 and R.E.M. was voted best new artist in the Rolling Stone Critics’ Poll.
There was a tragic counterpoint to R.E.M.’s brilliant achievement. In an unnerving coincidence, on the night of Murmur’s release a carload of kids from Athens drove to Atlanta to see a showing of Smithereens, Susan Seidelman’s first film featuring Richard Hell, leader of the early punk band the Voidoids. Hell claimed to be the first person to wear a torn T-shirt as punk style. Hell was a hero, and “Blank Generation” was an anthem. So when he was scheduled to appear at the screening, many attended. But on the way back the car of kids was struck from behind by a speeding car and knocked into the median, where it flipped and rolled and came to rest. Killed in the crash were Carol Levy, Michael Stipe’s beloved antagonist, and Larry Marcus, keyboardist with the popular Athens band Little Tigers.
The next morning the news went around town as it always went around, but this news stunned the kids into a spring of silence and sadness. Carol Levy had been a catalyst to the scene, as inspiration, and when she was buried in Atlanta, her graveside circled with weeping mourners, something crucial to the community was buried with her, an honest, aggressive, hopeful voice. Her friends spent the summer trying to recover from the shock, furiously picking armfuls of purple-and-white bachelor’s buttons, attempting to ease her passing with fresh color, and forget their own pain and loss by burying their memories in flowers picked from the roadsides and vacant lots around town. But it didn’t work. The spell of innocence that had fired the first furious scene was fading, ending: And the end came swiftly:
In December Pylon, Athens’ foremost party dance band, abandoned their fruitless wait for a major recording deal and broke up. Later that month, on a cold drizzly night, a pretty young woman who worked in the same building downtown where R.E.M. had recently located their new corporate headquarters, was murdered behind the Academic Building on campus, just one hundred feet from her office. She became the first person murdered on the U. of G. campus in the twentieth century. Only days later, Jimmy Ellison, formerly the bass player for The Side Effects and ex-husband of Pylon’s singer Vanessa, was diagnosed with a brain tumor that would kill him within a year.
For the first time in recorded history the temperature in Athens dropped to zero degrees on Christmas day. Water pipes froze and burst, and the kids left in town over the holidays huddled bundled around the open doors of ovens and the flickering blue flames of hissing gas heaters. As the year ended, a cold wind blew through America’s premier college town, and Murmur climbed to number fifty-four in 1983’s Top 100 albums.