“Having no theatre, opera-house, hypodrome, race course, or any of the fashionable city amusements, our young men are sometimes put to their trumps for some sort of amusement,” noted an editorialist in the local Athens paper in 1860. The writer reported that the town was so lacking in diversions that a favorite pastime of the town’s restive youth was catching a country dog, tying a tin can to its “narrative,” and letting it go, the pain on its tender part and the noise of hollering driving it down Broad Street, the main dirt road in town, while the boys along the street shouted some antebellum equivalent of the twentieth-century incantatory football chant, “Go Dogs.” “The sport does not last long,” the writer concluded. “But we are assured it is ‘highly intellectual.’”
Nearly 120 years later, the scene didn’t look a whole lot better. To find diversion Michael Lachowski, who would in a short time become founder and bassist for Pylon, decided to start a gang. It was at a “24-hour party,” billed to last that long, that was being thrown by Bob Croker, who taught art at the university. The kids in his classes, Lachowski a leader among them, often gathered at Croker’s house out Cherokee Road, almost out to the country where the trailer parks begin. Any time was a good time and any reason a good reason for a party, and Croker threw his own on Michaelmas or the Feast of St. Crispin’s Day, where the kids all drank beer while Croker read hilariously in Middle English from The Canterbury Tales. The art students and fellow travelers were the first fertile crowd for the new-music movement, and like precocious students always they hung out with their professors.
They liked Jim Herbert, another art teacher who was a favorite from the sixties when his old in-town house hosted naked hippie parties at which he filmed the lounging teen nudes. But Herbert had settled down since the sixties, and by 1978 the watchword at his house was “Shhhhhh!” So the art students carried on at Croker’s, where, in the summer, they had dance parties. They put stereo speakers in the windows and ran through sprinklers in the yard, shooting each other with squirt guns until everyone was drunk and screaming and wet, dancing in the grass while they played the newly released 7" singles: The Pretenders, Devo, The Residents.
It was just something to do.
So it was, again, just for something to do, that, at Croker’s 24-hour party, short-haired and lanky Lachowski raised his plastic cup of warm Budweiser, hushed the room, and announced the formation of his gang. But he and his friends at the party weren’t hoods; they were kids all with polite sweet intentions, whose idea of fun was drinking beer and lying during hot afternoons in plastic wading pools. They wanted to start a gang, but they wanted it to be a good gang.
In that summer of 1978, downtown Athens was still just a slow, small-town shopping district spreading a few blocks either way from the intersection of College Avenue and Broad Street, the center of town, where stood the university arch (the formal entrance to the university campus) and the town’s obelisk monument to the dead Confederate soldiers. On that set of streets, more or less six lacing six, there were owner-operated dime stores and shoe repair shops, a J.C. Penney and a Davison’s, a couple of restaurants, and a storefront run by Koreans where they sold wigs of straightened hair to Negro women.
That was the art students’ turf: Many of them had studio spaces downtown. The university’s Visual Arts building was only a couple of blocks away. Downtown was where they hung out before, between, after, and often, during, their classes: at the Wuxtry or Chapter Three, the used-record stores that had opened up recently; or Helen’s or Tony’s restaurants, where you got a meat, three vegetables, and tea for $2.25, and you could count on the waitress to remember your name. She felt so familiar with the regular lunch crowd that she’d suck her teeth while she took your order and complain of her thyroid.
The new young art students flew kites in the side streets, the same ones where, a hundred years earlier, the kids of Athens had amused themselves by tying tin cans to the pink pegs of frightened dogs.
Downtown property was undervalued. Some of the storefronts were closed up. The windows of the empty buildings had become the town’s bulletin boards. They were layered with old handbills, fliers, posters begging for the safe recovery of a lost dog, roommates to share a house, an audience for some acoustic act at a frat-boy beer hall. Variously pasted, taped, and glued to the windows, the posters were soaked by the rain, hardened and baked in the sun, until the layers made a crisp shell as hard as the plywood bolted over the broken front doors. There was little motivation for the landlords to keep their buildings clean, so these art students decided that they would do it. They called themselves The Scrapes and declared it their mission to clean the old weathered posters off the windows of downtown buildings.
For initiation, skinny, red-faced, and boyish Lachowski picked up a fist-sized magnolia bud from Croker’s yard and tried to scrape an arm with it, but it left no mark. He tossed it aside and picked up a pine-cone. Lachowski didn’t notice the wood-hard and needle-sharp spurs on the green cone, and so when he repeated the scrape, he gouged deep and bloody tracks along the pale underarm of the gang’s first initiate, who let out a yelp.
It was a bit more than Lachowski had intended, but with the first person bloodied, the rest, all drunk and insensate, resolved to have themselves similarly scraped in all fairness to the unfortunate victim, who was hustled off to the bathroom to have his wounds slathered with Mercurochrome. Lachowski was the last to be initiated. When he got scraped, he shouted, “Ouch! That hurt!”
“Hell yeah!” The rest shouted back in innocent vicious delirium. “Isn’t it great?”
The gang then spent a whole day cleaning off the windows of a building on the corner downtown. They left one little square where they wrote, “This service provided by The Scrapes.” Despite the Mercurochrome that had been applied after the ritual bloodletting, the arms of The Scrapes got infected. The scars were visible for years to come. That one downtown corner was the only thing The Scrapes ever cleaned. It was too much work. They didn’t start any more gangs after that.
They settled for rock bands.
By fall of 1978 The B-52’s were reaping rave reviews from the new music press in New York. “Another genius single of the month is The B-52’s ‘Rock Lobster/52 Girls,’” Glenn O’Brien wrote in Interview. “According to my calculations, The B-52’s are the fastest-rising group in America today. This is not because they are from the South and unheard of, but because of a remarkable talent, which this self-produced single proves handily. . . . They are the most important rhythm band since, uh, Talking Heads.”
The B-52’s brought their clips of praise back to Athens, where a small crowd of kids who orbited loosely around the art school was turning on to the proximity of fame. The buzz and scene steamed during the summer as The B-52’s single began to sell, and as the schools year started that fall, everyone with artistic tendencies put on a smarter face.
Athens was typical of many small American college towns, but the success of The B-52’s bestowed a bewildering new sense of value to living there. Washing into town were the kids who saw in punk/New Wave their own revolutionary trend. These are the kids who came up in the early seventies, with nothing of their own and grownups telling them the sixties are over, finished. The general consensus was that the kids had screwed up their one chance, blown it. But punk/New Wave gave the kids of the late seventies the feeling that here, with the rip and rend of punk, was another opportunity. Here was their chance. As punk reached Georgia, it drove through, and in Atlanta found black-leather adherents for its end-of-the-world angst. In Athens, however, punk was moderated by the rural air, its raucous sound softened by the plentiful trees and still streets. Then the B-52’s came along, took punk on a picnic, and showed the local art kids how they could be rebellious yet still have fun. A crop was ready, and when the audience of eager students saw The B-52’s getting rich and famous, they said, “We, too, are of such stuff as they!”
With the coming of this awareness, the isolation of the bisexual bohemian glitter days was over. The Athens music scene had begun.
Each change of seasons brings changes in a college town. The University of Georgia was on the quarter system, so for three months at a stretch, nearly twenty thousand students between seventeen and twenty-three (the number grows slowly larger each year) occupied the town like a youthful army. As the quarters rolled over from fall to winter to spring to summer to begin again anew in fall, the students were culled. Some stayed. Some left. Failures are excused. The visionary and disillusioned look to the horizon and head off down a highway far away from this backwater, with their own secretly held great expectations in their sophomore dropout hearts and a Jack Kerouac book tucked in the elastic of their slip-on and easy-off shorts.
Leases expire and roommates are shuffled. Houses and homes are emptied and filled again with different flesh as the kids continually move, looking for cheaper rent, higher ceilings, a more graceful space, a warmer niche. They move to be closer to someone or farther away from another. Away from the ruins of a love affair or the smell of a possum lost dead and rotting in a wall.
Or they moved for no reason at all.
That fall of 1978, Curtis Crowe and Bill Tabor moved out of their small clapboard house in the country. They didn’t have to, but they chose to. They had lived there for a couple years with two others, four childhood friends from Marietta, a small town on the edge of fast-growing metro Atlanta. Their house was out on the Atlanta Highway in a grove of pecan trees. When the July and August heat beat them from the house, they sat around in the yard, shot skeet, drank beer, smoked dope. They loved that place. It was a men’s club. They had had some great parties out there. And by that fall of 1978 the house had even suddenly acquired historical value: It was where The B-52’s played their warm-up party before their first performance on showcase night at Max’s Kansas City the year before, the night they played on the dining room table and that big girl Angel Dean sang a cappella blues in the yard among the cars between sets.
Predictably, the school year ended and the lives of students everywhere experienced yet another of the periodic shudders. A roommate at the house graduated and left. The vacancy presented Curtis and Bill with the task of finding a new roommate. But they knew that no matter who they replaced their friend with, it wouldn’t be the same. They all felt that the tradition of the house should end gracefully and not be dragged out by a sad effort to recapture the gone past with a new roommate.
They decided to move.
But they wanted to keep the lease.
Neither Curtis nor Bill really liked to work. They were always scamming for cash and they knew the house was good real estate. Together they reasoned they could move out and turn a profit by subletting the house room by room at a marked-up rate. They sat up one night with a case of beer and composed what they hoped would be the perfect ad for the house. They felt advantaged because Bill was an advertising major and Curtis had an innate sensitivity for the mechanics of a con. Their friends said they were crazy; nobody would pay what they were asking. But Curtis and Bill felt they had described the small but promising country house in such enticing language that they would have no problem finding tenants.
They told their scoffing friends, “Just wait.”
The ad ran and the phone started ringing.
The response was so unexpected that Curtis and Bill ended up scamming themselves into a corner, the house rented before they were able to find a new home for themselves. They planned for a while to put a plank floor in a shed out back, but the thought of Georgia’s wet cold winter dissuaded them, since no number of sheets of stapled plastic could seal the uninsulated walls and windows. They shivered to think.
Something would turn up, they were sure. But meanwhile one day that fall they were walking around downtown and they were bumming pretty badly. School was starting soon and they had to be out of the house. They strolled the sidewalk, rounded the corner where the silver-haired white man and his young black employee in tux shirt and tight black pants stood in front of their shoe store and beckoned women inside. Curtis and Bill turned onto College Avenue and were almost to Barnett’s, the downtown newsstand, when they saw one of the storefront spaces thrown open. By nature curious, they peeked in. They saw a young man hustling bent and greasy, rigging the ovens and coolers for a sandwich shop he planned to open. Curtis and Bill were attracted by the excitement of such a work in progress.
Looking into the cavernous, empty first-floor space of a three-story building, and remembering that they were effectively homeless, Curtis and Bill flashed on an idea. Wandering in, they asked the guy about the upstairs.
“It’s a wreck,” he said. “Here are the keys. Take a look at it.”
They took the keys and headed for the stairs.
“You guys entrepreneurs?” he called after them.
Curtis and Bill looked at each other, smirked, and then looked back at the sweating man, smiled, and said, “Yeah. That’s it. That’s exactly what we are. Uh, we’re entrepreneurs.”
On the second floor they saw that the guy was right. It was a wreck. Dust an inch thick on the floor and pigeon skeletons stuck with feathers. It was filthy, had tall ceilings, and was divided into small rooms by rough partitions. It hadn’t been occupied in fifteen years. Trash was scattered and slung through holes in the walls.
The third floor was even better: the dust and silt even thicker and the pigeon skeletons more parched and ancient. Fourteen-foot ceilings, a giant empty loft space seventy-five feet long. Three tall arched windows at the end of the room overlooking the main block of College Avenue.
Bill and Curtis wanted it bad.
Turned out, the old man who owned the building was the uncle of a guy who did football predictions on the radio, so they easily tracked him down and after his first offer of seven hundred dollars, they jigged him down to two hundred a month. Another scheme was already taking form in their minds. They signed the lease and set about finding art students to rent the spaces on the second floor. It didn’t take long to fill them. On paper they figured if the art students paid their rent on time, which would be highly uncharacteristic of art students, they stood to make ten or twenty bucks a month on the space. And counting sixty bucks from the house in the country, they had a place to live and grocery money. They would become the Leisure Club, taking no jobs and living like kings in their reclaimed loft.
“Are ya’ll gonna live here?” their friends asked, raising their eyebrows and scratching their noses when they saw the space. “Have you been breathing the air up here?” art professor Jim Herbert asked, appalled when he went up and saw the swirling final resting dust from decayed diseased pigeons and rats. He mouthed a twenty-dollar word from the Merck Manual, which he read for fun, and told Curtis and Bill they were as good as dead.
They persevered and didn’t die. They spent that fall quarter hanging out, cleaning the place and rigging it with utilities, and securing it against the weather that would come in winter. They jacklegged everything. They jacklegged the plumbing: rigged a lavatory on the third floor with a stolen toilet. They jacklegged wiring: ended up relying mainly on an extension cord running downstairs. None of it was really dangerous, just not the way it should have been. It met code, if you squinted. By the time they’d finished, their friends were asking, “Do you need a roommate?”
They had no idea that they were pioneering a new space in Athens in more than just the physical sense. They were settling the dark side of downtown. Doing so, they gave birth to the first premier party space for the nascent Athens music scene.
One night they gave it a name:
They were sitting around, disgusted and dirty. A stand-up lamp, two chairs, and a little table between them. The extension cord ran downstairs. A single bulb dangled overhead. After a long exhausted silence, Bill looked up and said, “This place is just about a goddam forty-watt club.”
Curtis loved it so much he fell down laughing. “40 Watt Club” became their own private nickname for the place. By the time they got the place cleaned up, it was Halloween. They figured they would have a party.
A week before the party Curtis and Bill tore out pictures from Interview and Cosmopolitan and photocopied them. In the talk bubbles they wrote, “I know where I’m going to be on Halloween, The 40 Watt Club.” There were no directions, no nothing. They put them up all over town and word got around.
They bought a keg. Bought a couple cases of liquor. They persuaded some girlfriends of theirs to wear lingerie and mix drinks all night. As a party favor some friends rolled joints of bad Mexican pot and stuck them in balloons and hung them around the room.
To help recoup some costs, Curtis had a friend handle the job of asking for contributions, as people climbed the stairs from the street below up to the party. He told his friend to make a sign asking for donations, because they weren’t allowed to charge admission since they had no business license. When Curtis checked back later, he saw a sign posted above a desk: “Admission 2$, Geeks 3$” Curtis told him they weren’t supposed to charge but the guy said, “Hey, don’t worry. Watch!” When some people walked up, he said to them, “You, two dollars. You, you’re a geek, three dollars.” Curtis watched, amazed. They paid it. He began to get an idea.
The room was packed. Everyone wore elaborate costumes, drinking drinks and liberating the joints from the balloons. That was the first night Curtis met Randy Bewley, another art student. Randy had bought this inflatable spaceman suit and carried a hair dryer and a hundred-foot extension cord to keep it inflated. He had a tube running from his mouth down his arm and out his finger and he went around sticking his finger in peoples’ drinks, sucking them dry.
That night, Randy Bewley won the costume contest.