One day during the summer of 1981, Michael Stipe and Leslie Michel were walking along Prince Avenue on their way to Barber Street from downtown when they saw that the Ladies Auxiliary Food Bank was relocating. The food bank was housed in the bottom level of a two-story brick building behind the Coca-Cola bottling plant. The ladies were moving their stock of soup cans and rice to a cheaper vacancy next door. Michael and Leslie stopped to look.
“Wow! Cool!” Michael said as he pressed his nose and lips against the dirty storefront windows of the emptying space, squinting against the glare and rolling his cheek on the cool glass.
“This is neat!” Leslie said as she too looked in at the rough walls and bare cement floors.
They snuck in the side door marked “Service Entrance” and climbed the stairs to the second floor. They walked around the huge empty room and saw a shower and a bathroom. They found out from the ladies at the food bank that the rent was only two hundred dollars a month and it gave them an idea.
Leslie was happy living on Barber Street but, like everybody, she was always looking for a change. Something else to do. When she and Michael got back to the house at 169 they started talking about the space they had seen. First Michael suggested that he build a cardboard homestead on the second floor, a maze and refuge of found boxes, a bedroom labyrinth, a functional installation; Leslie could live downstairs. But they found out that despite the showers and bathroom the building wasn’t zoned residential, and Michael reluctantly gave up the idea of the cardboard homestead.
Then Leslie realized that Athens had been without a coffee club since the cops shut down Rick the Printer’s 11:11 the year before when R.E.M. played there. She thought it would be great to open her own club. She practically had one going in the kitchen of her apartment at 169 anyway. But here she could charge for coffee and cover some of the expenses.
She sat down the next day, drank some espresso, and thought of all the things she could do with a coffee club. She kept thinking, “Gotta do it! Gotta do it!” She could put on art shows. “Gotta do it!” She could have huge parties. “Gotta do it!” And she could have bands play. “It’s done!” She borrowed Linda Hopper’s tuition money and put down a deposit on the space. She used her own Sears credit card and charged gallons of Jungle Green bright paint. She decided on green because her medium had told her that the spirits loved green and she wanted the spirits to inhabit her club so everyone would be happy and do good and wonderful magic. She fixed the place up and called it The Night Gallery.
The next night, Oh-OK played at the opening party. Oh-OK had been started by Linda Hopper, Michael Stipe’s sister Lynda, and her boyfriend David Pierce. Michael had been taking seventeen-year-old Lynda to parties and had encouraged Linda Hopper to play with her in a band. Linda and Lynda had first rehearsed with Ingrid Schorr, for whom R.E.M.’s Mike Mills had written “Don’t Go Back to Rockville.” When the three personalities failed to mesh, Lynda Stipe recruited David. He had recently been turned down for a drumming slot with Love Tractor after they’d advertised to replace Bill Berry, who had decided to concentrate all his energies on R.E.M.
With Lynda Stipe on bass, David on drums, and Linda Hopper singing and playing the saw, they wrote some songs, and a week later they debuted their six-song repertoire while opening for Michael Stipe’s solo project called 1066 Gaggle O’ Sound, during which he played his Farfisa to the accompaniment of recorded noise.
When Oh-OK played they discovered they had a cute little sound that worked. They were quirky child-rock: Linda’s simple bass, Hopper’s shy vocals, Pierce’s tiny drum. In July, after they had only played a couple of local shows, Michael Lachowski invited Oh-OK to go to New York with Pylon. Oh-OK stayed at Linda Hopper’s parents’ house in Baltimore on the way up. Linda told them they were on their way to see some museums for school. She hadn’t told her parents yet that she was no longer taking classes but was in a band. They wouldn’t have been happy. Luckily, her parents didn’t say anything about the drums tied to the roof of the car.
In New York The B-52’s, who frequently attended the shows of visiting Athens bands, were in the middle of recording their third album Mesopotamia with David Byrne. The B’s brought Byrne to the show and when Linda and Lynda saw him in the crowd backstage, they flipped out, screaming and gasping, “Is it really him? Is it? It is!”
The ebullient mood of the members of Oh-OK was a marked contrast to that of The B-52’s. The thrill of seeing long-worshiped stars for the first time was an innocent joy they had lost three years earlier. By 1981 they were stars themselves. Unfortunately, they were stars that many felt had begun to lose luster, to dim, to fall.
The B-52’s were having a crisis.
“The writing between Wild Planet to Mesopotamia was a real difficult period,” Keith Strickland recalls. “The honeymoon was over. The fascination with being in a band, being successful—we’d already done it by that time. And at a level far beyond what we expected. We’d bought a house in Mahopac and were all living there together. And that created a strain on us, all living in one house together. In 1980 we’d done like nine months of touring and we were overwhelmed, overworked, just kind of worn out with the whole thing. We were ready for a rest. It had really become work and the fun and spontaneity of it was gone. Definitely gone.
“After Wild Planet, our second album, we felt pressure, that real pressure to come up with another album, and it was difficult for us to write for Mesopotamia. Individually we were fighting for our own space. In a way, we were tired of being The B-52’s. We really needed a vacation from it. So it was difficult for us to come up with Mesopotamia. There was pressure to come up with something different, yet the same, and that’s something you really can’t do.
“We really felt in exile. We weren’t in Athens. We really didn’t have any friends up there. We were really, like, on another planet. It was a weird period. We really needed a community at that time and we didn’t have one except ourselves. We were on our own. We were largely pressured by our manager [Gary Kurfurst] to do something different. He suggested working with David Byrne, although none of us were very comfortable with the idea.”
Their worries were justified. Mesopotamia came out. Got slagged. Disappeared.
In August 1981, the music scene in Athens got its first serious attention from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. It was ominous coverage; they’d finally been discovered by the mainstream press. In a huge spread, the writer surveys the town and reports its status, and wonders at the reason for it all:
“Well, how could all this come out of the home of Poss’ Barbecue, the Budwine soft drink and the Dawgs? [Vic] Varney credits the town’s relaxed, liberal atmosphere. ‘It’s the only place I’ve ever seen where everything in the culture is conducive to making everyone lift themselves up.’
“More important for musicians, [Michael] Lachowski says, is that ‘Athens is such a cheap place to live.’”
The reporter writes:
“It’s rare that where a band comes from takes on nearly as much importance as what it’s playing. Michael Lachowski, Pylon’s bassist, thinks the element of surprise is responsible for the worldwide attention Athens has received. . . .
“Hailing from Athens ‘definitely helps,’ say R.E.M. guitarist Pete Buck. . . . ‘You won’t get a second job some place just because you’re from Athens if you’re not good. But people will say, “They’re from Athens, let’s give them a chance.” There’s a lot less initial trouble getting jobs than for, say, Atlanta bands.’” In the next few years many Atlanta bands would take that to heart and relocate to Athens to take advantage of the geographical blessing.
The headline on a sidebar to the feature pegged another Athens characteristic: “No musical training is one way to sound fresh.” In that sidebar Vic Varney reveals the essence of Athens’ Golden Age, when he explains to the reporter: “When I left to go to Europe in April . . . nobody who’s in Oh-OK even had an instrument or knew how to play. They went with Pylon to New York and played at the Peppermint Lounge on their second gig ever. There’s this absolutely incredible naiveté here about the possibilities of life on Earth. I don’t know why we’re so arrogant or stupid to think we can do the things we do, but we do.”