In Athens, Georgia, a Victorian mansion built in 1889 stands on a dead-end street in the historic neighborhood of Cobbham. It’s huge, ornate, the best on the block. Today it’s the home of Peter Buck, guitarist for R.E.M. In the late 1970s, however, the house was haven to a half-dozen of Athens’ transient art students. Paint-stained and black-coated mystics who read too much Jean Genet rigged their studio-shelters in the sprawling rooms. They blanketed the floors with salvaged rags and braced their much-abused mattresses with overdue library books. The glass in the windows was cracked and broken. The boards on the porch were rotten and split. The crumbling walls were spray painted “Jimi Hendrix is God,” and a lost little girl nobody knew slept during the day in an attic alcove and was only seen at night, smoking filterless cigarettes outside on the widow’s walk.
But that’s all changed. Peter owns the house now. It’s been immaculately restored: new sheetrock, new plaster, light bulbs in all the fixtures. At night, every room is lit, and the glimmer from the windows illuminates the new paint job. The irony of the house’s new condition is not lost on the former tenants. Those still around, they remember what the place used to look like. They remember the Athens before anybody was famous. These days, they often walk down to the close of that dead-end street to recollect party stories and show new friends where they once lived. They stand at the edge of the yard, look at the door of etched glass sparkling from the light within, and mumble in wistful admiring disbelief.
Nobody ever thought, back then, that Peter Buck, a typical rock-and-roll, floor-sleeping bad boy, would end up in his thirties collecting folk art and Memphis plastic, filling fast the rooms of that Victorian mansion with handmade musical instruments and books shipped by caravan from bazaars, airport bookstores, and hotel lobbies around the world. Nobody thought his band would be so successful. “They just play rock and roll!” But here he is a decade later, the one-time sneering knifehandler, now faced with the quandary of what to do with his fortune, wondering if he should invest in rental properties.
Back when Peter’s house was still a wreck and not yet his, Michael Stipe, singer in the band, walked the streets of Athens with his hair streaked blond-red-orange and got regularly drenched with beer thrown by frat boys shouting “fag” from passing cars. Now, just as Peter owns a Cobbham mansion, Michael is no longer a pariah, a henna-headed playtime poorboy. He’s a culture star. The little brothers and sisters of his tormentors buy R.E.M. CDs and albums, turning them into platinum and gold. They pay twenty bucks a pop to see him sing his hits and shadow-box in stretch tights. In the transit from then to now, Michael Stipe has gone from iconoclast to icon. Weird wandering seekers come to Athens from across the country, moist-eyed, seeking his benefaction. Runaway girls and enraptured gentle-boy poets crowd the streets and stake out his house with video cameras secreted in their rucksacks. Michael’s love of folk art has caused the Georgia countryside to be picked clean of hand-lettered “Boil’d P-nut” signs by well-meaning imitators in baggy pants and muddy Chinese slippers.
By anyone’s reckoning, he’s made it.
In 1988, eight years after debuting in the back of an old desanctified Athens church, R.E.M. was put on the cover of Rolling Stone and declared by that industry standard to be America’s Best Rock-and-Roll Band. That year they were freed from their contract with I.R.S. Records after putting out Document, their fifth album and the first to sell a million. They soon signed with Warner Bros., and after the release of Green, Rolling Stone again gave them the cover, this time calling them America’s hippest band. They’d done it; they’d reached the toppermost of the poppermost. And through it all they’d stayed in Athens, that little southern town that saw their birth.
As a result, Athens ain’t what she used to be.
It’s not easy to accommodate international celebrity in a small town, especially one like Athens where the middle-class college kids who crowd its streets have been teethed on the ideology fame. And the members of R.E.M.—Mike Mills, Bill Berry, Michael Stipe, Pete Buck—are international celebrities. The students are aware of it, but they try and keep cool. At clubs and bars, sightings of any member of R.E.M. are reported through crowds by a subtle communal alarm, the same instinct that choreographs the fits and starts of a school of fish.
It’s nothing more than an overheard murmuring of a name (“Mike Mills!” “Bill Berry!”) and the quick snap of a head turning toward the door. With that, the room becomes aware, electrified. The cooler kids don’t show their unease. They almost swagger, confident that they will get a nod or a pat on the shoulder, being tapped out for membership in an honorary society of those who have touched the human face of God. Tourist kids, those young ones from other college campuses across the country who’ve come to Athens like Moslems for a weekend in Mecca, are especially alert and nervous. “They’re here. They’re in this room with me!” For so long, the members of R.E.M. have been nothing but idols of paper and vinyl to them, two-dimensional culture heroes made of script and soundtrack. But now, here they are. They appear in the flesh.
While the visiting Iowa-boys and Jersey-girls wait for one of the guys to walk by, these eager teenage acolytes, certified hip by their fake IDs and Marlboro Lights, grip long-neck beer bottles a little tighter, roll moist napkins into tight spirals around their fingers, and flick sideways glances. When they finally see one of the guys, all is well. They can breathe again. And around the edge of whatever crowded barroom, the jaded ones who’ve been around for a while, who’ve watched history happen, sit snide and sly, smirk at the panic, the fawning, and mutter into their drinks: “It’s R.E.M.’s world. Isn’t it nice they let us live here?”
It wasn’t always that way. Used to be everyone thought Athens was in Greece. But then in the late seventies came The B-52’s, that “tacky little dance band from Georgia.” The B-52’s ignited the Athens music scene by jamming their dance rock in a southern boogie town. They put the place on the map. But then they left. They moved to New York. And in their wake came up a generation of original bands that have made rock-and-roll history: Pylon, The Method Actors, Love Tractor, R.E.M.
And in Athens, that history of Georgia’s original agrarian punk has settled into a folklore that is repeated regularly by the one-time kids when on Sunday mornings they sit around kitchen tables cluttered with coffee cups and loose tobacco. There, in the tree-shaded wood-frame houses, these old scenemaker folk recapitulate the creation myth, remembering what they can of those years full of forgotten weekends when beer was lifeblood, acid was candy, and three days so easily became smeared into one.
They retell what they’ve seen, repeat what they’ve heard. Somebody tells about when The B-52’s were still in town, innocently strutting their glam-rock drag in the middle of the street. Someone else recalls the time Quaaludes were bountiful and the neighborhood sidewalks turned into Mobius strips. Another pantomimes the night Michael Stipe fell off the stage at the nightclub Tyrone’s and barely crawled back up. Finally everybody hoots about the time a local character called Brother Dave did too much uncooked MDA and spent a whole party thrashing in the front yard of the punk girls’ house out on the highway across from the Putt Putt miniature golf course, bleeding from the ears while his buddy Brother Mike stood over him with a pony keg of Pabst Blue Ribbon tucked under his arm, pouring free beer for the girls.
Those left in town, adults now, talk about how it’s not like the old days. They can’t party like they used to. And besides, even if they could, it just isn’t the same anymore.