Baxter Street is one of Athens’ busiest strips. From east to west it runs through town from the low ground between two hills on the University of Georgia campus out to the edge of town, to just this side of the Middle Oconee River. From its origin in the great ravine where sprawls Sanford Stadium, the home turf of the Georgia Bulldogs and separator of the university’s north and south campuses, Baxter Street rises to the top of a hill, dips, then intersects with Milledge Avenue, the town’s main north-south street. Along that stretch of road stand the two high-rise dormitories: Russell Hall, home to a thousand boys, and Brumby Hall, home to a thousand girls. Near them, the more humble Mell-Lipscomb dorm complex, home to but a couple hundred of mixed sex. Conveniently situated in the middle of it all, halfway up Baxter Hill, is Bolton “Revoltin’” Hall, the university’s main dining facility.
It was cold on the afternoon of February 14, 1977, as Keith Bennett, a graphic design major from the middle-Georgia town of Macon, sat at one of the long Formica-topped tables inside Bolton Hall. He wasn’t eating—he had long since been put wise to that foolhardiness—rather, he was carrying out a more life-sustaining activity. He was making a list of the parties being held later that night. It was Valentine’s Day, and as friends and folk passed by he picked up the party news. He noted, in what detail he could manage, the addresses of the parties, or at least their general directions. He tried to find out who else was going. He noted the themes, if any, since themes—pink, pajama, hat—were becoming popular party motifs. Most importantly, he noted the rumored number of beer kegs to be tapped.
It was standard procedure. Word went around campus during the day of what was happening later. Party news was picked up wherever it could be found: in hallways between classes, in the smoking room at the library shouted from table to table and overheard above the din of idle sorority girls crunching ice, begging homework off their friends. And what you heard you sorted, sifted, and double checked to find the coolest kick you could.
At the time, Athens parties were basically of two types—big or little.
A dozen guys in flannel shirts and Yucca boots standing around on a back porch of a house drinking beer from twelve-ounce plastic cups, draining fast a keg of Schlitz and talking shit, listening to The Grateful Dead and old Rolling Stones, smoking joints and waiting in teeth-gritting rough-house futility for stray good-smelling girls to show up.
Massive front-yard frat parties; multi-kegged, much-liquored, many-girled, hardy-guyed. At these, mostly staged at the glorious century-old frat houses along Milledge Avenue, the music tended toward Lynyrd Skynyrd, Steely Dan, Dixie Dregs, and novelty singles like “The Streak” and “The Monster Mash,” repeatedly replayed and sung along to. Crowded, drunken, and usually open to anyone who happened by, the frat parties had an appeal just because of their enormity and the collective fevered insanity thereby engendered. At the same time, they were heartily despised by the sensible and the cool because of the type of company to be found there: Greeks. So, the flip side to the massive frat party was the massive independent multi-kegged much-liquored, many-girled, hardy-guyed non-frat party.
These were all parties, sure, and they were easy to find. They were everywhere: easy liquor, easy crowd, much narcotic noise. But you had to work to find a really good party—a party that had that spark, that magic. And on that Valentine’s Day afternoon, as the annual holiday of love promised rich party potential, Keith Bennett was working it.
By the time the sun was set, his list of parties filled a page.
That night, Bennett and his friends cruised the narrow, chilled streets of Athens searching for the fun with their third-hand directions. Schoolwork could wait. They followed the list and checked out the parties one by one. They drove by a few, counted the parked cars, looked in the dark yards for people they knew, checked the ratio of males to females, and guessed by the movements of the crowds whether there was still beer in the kegs. Nothing looked good. They grew discouraged. It was Valentine’s Day and they couldn’t find a decent party. They were getting pissed. It looked bad. All the other guys in the car were ready to give it up, ready to settle for killing a couple six-packs on somebody’s back porch.
“But wait,” Bennett said, “there’s one last party on the list.”
They drove to the corner of Milledge and Prince. Keith parked in the Dunkin’ Donuts parking lot. He and his friends walked across the street to the party. The front door was blocked off, so they followed the gravel driveway around the side of the small clapboard house. They went to the back door. Once inside the crowded house they stopped still and stood. They didn’t know what to do.
This wasn’t their crowd at all!
A beat-up set of congas was set up in the living room. There was a reel-to-reel tape recorder plugged into the wall. Leaning against it was a four-string electric guitar. Barbie dolls hung from the ceiling and a guy was running around wearing a homemade T-shirt that said “The B-52’s.” Everybody was excited. Everybody was talking a little too fast and the music on the stereo was a little too loud.
This room looks like it’s set up for a performance, Keith thought, but nobody plays live music at parties in Athens.
Keith Bennett had been to his share of Athens parties, but this one felt different. It wasn’t a hippie party. It wasn’t a frat party. It wasn’t really small. It wasn’t really big. He wandered through the mixed crowd and stared at the weird band setup until he finally said out loud to himself:
“What is this? What is this stuff?”
Then the band came out.
“Holy shit!” Keith shouted to his friends, unheard in the din of screams. “Who are these people?”
On the campus of the University of Georgia in 1977 were fifteen thousand students with nothing but free time after class and spare change from their tuition checks. In a town so crowded with such kids, there was no reason to notice these who made up The B-52’s. You might happen to notice Keith and Ricky walking down Broad Street in platform stacks with curlers in their hair. You might see Fred if you stopped by looking for old records at Ort’s Oldies, or, now that he worked delivering meals for senior citizens, you might see him daily if you were over 65. If you went into the Whirly Q luncheonette at the Kress department store on Clayton Street downtown, you might order a fried-egg sandwich from Ricky’s teenage little sister Cindy. If you heard a rumbling Ford pickup truck pass by on Broad Street while you were crossing, and, if you looked up at it, you might see Kate standing in the back, her arms outstretched and draped in chiffon, but then she would be gone quick down the road as her husband, Brian, driving, grinning under a thick mustache, gunned the old Chief and sped out of town toward their farm, leaving a cloud-wisp of sparkling glitter that blew from Kate’s yard-long hair:
You might see them all, but you would never think they’d make a great rock-and-roll band.
That Valentine’s Day night, the people jammed into the little house across from the Taco Stand at the corner of Milledge and Prince went crazy when The B-52’s started playing. As Keith Bennett stared, mouth agape, at this newly ignited frenzy, he wasn’t the only one wondering what was going on: Nobody had seen anything like it before. Here was Athens’ drag camp underground going public.
The band had only just been named a few days earlier:
After the first jam in Owen Scott’s basement the previous October, the group had continued to practice, but without a name. At the time Keith Strickland, Ricky, Jerry Ayers, a high school friend Tommy Adams, and another friend, Robert Waldrop (who would later write songs for the band), were having strong dreams about female archetypes: Dark-haired women came as hip-shifting succubi down the fashion runway through their collective unconscious, inspiring their talk and informing their drag. During the day they sat around the Western Sizzlin’ drinking iced tea, talking about the feminine visitations in their sleep the night before; talking about what kind of costumes they’d rigged from Potter’s House party dresses for their nightly cruise to The Circus, the discotheque down at The Station.
A few nights after the band got the news that they were going to play at the Valentine’s party, Keith Strickland had his own special dream:
“There was this lounge group,” Keith says about the vision that tagged the band. “I had this dream of a lounge group and this woman with a big bouffant was playing the organ in this little club. It was just a vague little dream, and the group was called The B-52’s. So I suggested that, and everybody liked the sound of it, so we said, ‘That’s it!’”
They had a name.
“But then we thought, ‘Oh no, everybody’s going to think of bombers and destructive stuff like that.’ But since we had always been going out and dressing up, I knew that B-52 was slang for bouffant hairdo, and I said, ‘Well, maybe Kate and Cindy could wear bouffants or we could have a big banner with a woman with a bouffant put up behind us when we play.’ We really wanted to stress that it’s not the B-52 bomber. Although I did kind of like the connotations it had with the fifties. Sort of really Atomic Age.”
“Keith and I found the girls these fake sheepdog-fur pocketbooks and muffs downtown at the Diana Shop,” Fred says. “So we told Kate and Cindy and they went and bought them. They each got a set and wore the muffs on their heads and that was their look.”
“I was back there in one of the bedrooms the band was using as a dressing room,” their friend Tommy Adams says. “They put on those platinum-blonde gorilla fur-like fake fur shag-carpet muff wigs that covered their entire heads and when they put them on it totally changed them. Then Kate said she had the shoulder bag that came with the muff but she couldn’t use it. So I took the purse and put the chain up inside it and stuck that on my head and they said come on out and dance. And when I dance, I’m absolutely possessed. I can ‘Dirty Dog’ myself to hell. So I just started dancing. I danced from the first song to the last and that became a regular thing.”
The year before, Fred had gone to a Halloween party as a hangover, with a broken cigarette hanging out of his mouth, wearing a T-shirt, a seersucker suit, and a painted-on pencil-line mustache. He figured that was a good look, so that night he recreated the outfit as he led the band with his chant-sing. Keith Strickland on congas wore a yak wig and Ricky Wilson wore a black-and-white striped shirt. Ricky also wore a straw hat with a shock of his blond hair falling into the four-strings he had strung on his six-string guitar. He didn’t look up the whole night while he and his made-up band played their irresistible rhythms.
The B-52’s only had six songs in their set. They played their originals: “Killer B’s,” “Strobe Light,” “Planet Claire,” “Rock Lobster.” Like they would do at all their early shows, the band started with Fred’s walkie-talkie bleeps on “Planet Claire” and with 90 percent of the music prerecorded and played over Ricky’s junkyard tape machine.
The crowd surged and danced. The Barbie dolls swung from the ceilings. The floor of the house bucked and buckled and threatened to collapse.
Keith Bennett was mightily impressed with the party he’d found and the people he met that night. Especially Cindy, the big-eyed, teenage saucy waif with the baby-doll accent. “She passed me a joint,” he recalled years later after he had made her his wife. “But she doesn’t remember.”
The Valentine’s party where The B-52’s debuted caused a sensation. The next day, a buzz started circulating among the crowd of hip kids in and around the University of Georgia’s art school.
Whoever missed the first show didn’t miss the second when Teresa Randolph, who knew Keith and Ricky from Athens High, threw an engagement party for some friends of hers. Teresa, who as a child won a pageant and became the model for the blond Little Miss Sunbeam Bread girl, lived in what was called “the old Jewish country club,” a lodge built in the twenties surrounded by a wall hedge of bamboo and pines in a quiet Athens neighborhood. It was two stories tall, with a sixty-foot party room and a fireplace man-high, big enough to walk into without bending. The second-floor windows opened onto the lodge’s flat porch roof, which itself wrapped around the building. While the band set up that night for their second time playing, girls wearing recovered red silk and white satin party dresses strapped on roller skates and sped through the second floor hall, rolling out the windows onto the porch roof and around and back again.
The lodge filled.
As it filled and the night’s darkness came on thicker, people at the party started talking louder. The invitational command for the party had been “Dress up!” so everybody was in some sort of wrap costume or who-am-I drag. Most everyone knew most everyone else and they all greeted each other in bundled bunches of hugs and hoots. They fell into piles on the floor, beer spilling. As new friends showed up, they all screamed in recognition.
That night was the first time Kate and Cindy wore their hair sprayed and laced up into bouffants of their own. The fake-fur muff wigs worn during the band’s first performance had been a brilliant idea, and the thrift-store detritus look became their trademark style. The band was set up in the sixty-foot living room on a big Oriental rug. When they played, it was pandemonium. People hung from the stairs and leaned in through the windows from outside. The girls on skates grabbed what strangers they chose for victim-initiates and hauled them into the bathrooms and under the running cold showers and then hauled them out again, now wet screaming skating through that darkly red-lit old Jewish country club, while those folk already very familiar or delectably newly met carried out in the shadowy corners of the lodge that classic Athenian agenda of innocent and magical illicit sex.
The only glitch for the band came during their new song “Devils in My Car,” which was inspired by a radio preacher the band had heard while cruising. During the song, someone in the crowd tripped the extension chord. Most of the music was pre-recorded, so the PA, the guitar, and the tape machine lost power, leaving only the congas and a gong. But nobody minded. They just screamed louder to overpower the silence.
Then all the lights went out, and everybody really loved that.
“Teresa was getting pretty wild,” Kate Pierson recalls of The B-52’s second public performance. “She was up on somebody’s shoulders and was screaming, ‘I can’t believe this is happening in Athens, Georgia!’”