Randy Bewley was Michael Lachowski’s best friend. They’d met in the dining hall on campus, but it was in Bob Croker’s art classes that they became friends. Lachowski had come to Athens fresh out of Catholic school in Atlanta in 1974 and begun to take art classes immediately. He lived in the dormitories and hated it. When he met Randy, also from Atlanta, they talked about roommates and houses and getting out of the dorms. In 1977 they moved in together to a clapboard hovel on Barber Street.
By 1978 they’d heard about the new music that was going around: They went to the parties at Croker’s house and were getting into the music thing. They didn’t know The B-52’s. They’d see them around, sure, but they were separate from the B’s early gay crowd. Randy and Michael were part of the next set. The two crews might mix once in a while at an open party, but not much. Lachowski even left the party out at Curtis Crowe’s on the highway when the B’s played because they just really didn’t wow him. He thought they took too long re-tuning between songs. They were a little too silly for his taste. A little too wacky. Too cluttered. He liked Kraftwerk. Man-machine music. Stuff like that.
Lachowski rented one of the studio spaces from Curtis and Bill and shared it with Vanessa Ellison. One day that fall he bought a bass at a yard sale and Bewley bought a guitar at a pawnshop. Excited, they went from house to house through Cobbham to tell their friends. “Hey, we’re gonna start a band.”
Nobody thought it was unusual that they attempted such a lark. They did it all. Bewley and Lachowski had the attitude that since they were already artists, they could take their canon of good taste and apply it to any form and do it successfully. They were already crossing disciplines by the time they bought their second-hand guitars: Randy, a painter, had entered a photography show with Polaroids that Lachowski helped him mount, and he won an honorable mention. Lachowski was a photography student, but when he entered a sculpture show with a piece done from black plastic, rubber hose, and lawn sprinklers, the juror, who was from up north, overlooked the other students’ more traditional work done in wood, plastic, clay, and marble, and awarded the $150 first prize to Lachowski. Everybody got pissed that a non-sculpture student won a sculpture show, and that delightfully controversial reaction convinced the two that they could really do just about anything they wanted. They were hot. They were cool. There wasn’t any competition.
Their successes convinced them that they did not need a lot of formal training to make art; the proper attitude and the right ideas were enough, and they could create work that was acknowledged at least as contemporary, even if it wasn’t really any good. Their ideas were more important than technique. As The B-52’s played and the new wave of bands and the revival of roots rock became the rallying point of the late-seventies student culture, Lachowski and Bewley figured they could do that music thing too. They subscribed to New York Rocker and they said, gosh, anybody can do this. They decided their goal was to go to New York and play once and get their picture in the Rocker. They could manage that. Sure. They set up a practice space in Lachowski’s downtown studio that fall-into-winter, and with Lachowski playing from a bass guitar instruction book they hooked their instruments to a couple of pignose amps and started droning in tentative experiment toward what would within six months be Athens’ premier resident dance party band: Pylon.
While they practiced, Curtis Crowe and Bill Tabor sat above them upstairs in their cavernous space monitoring the progress as the two guitars went on forever repeating three-note riffs.
“It was a cold-ass winter,” Curtis Crowe remembers, “and Bill and I were holed up in the back of this ten-thousand-square-foot building with only about a hundred and fifty square feet heatable, and we would sit and huddle all winter long. We were both in school but doing dismally. I made two D’s and an F that quarter and it was after that that Bill decided to quit school.
“Michael and Randy were rehearsing that winter and Bill and I would sit up around the heater all winter long smoking dope. Bill was taking this literature class, studying King Lear, but he’s too damn lazy to read the book so he went to the library and checked out tapes for the blind. So we’re sitting around this heater, huddling in this garret that’s nasty as hell, pigeons flying around, listening to King Lear on the tape player, and in the meantime the primal strains of the beginnings of Pylon were coming through the floors.
“Bill and I would sit there and have scholarly discussions on how they were coming along. And we were trying to figure out what they needed. Bill said, ‘These guys are really good, but all they play are hooks, nothing but hooks. A never-ending series of hooks. No bridges or chorus, just hooks.’ But I thought it was kind of good, and we decided that what they needed more than anything else was a drummer. And I was a drummer.”
Curtis had learned to play the drums only the summer before when living out in his house on the highway after his roommate Charlie broke up with his girlfriend. It was a fairly serious breakup, and the other guys at the house indulged Charlie as he moped around for a few days. Breakups could be bad; let the guy drink, let him lay out of work, skip school. “He’s been through hell,” they said, “let him be.” But he didn’t get over it. And then he started playing dirges on his acoustic guitar, sulking in the living room, slowly strumming melancholy chords singing choke-voiced, “Oh, my baby left me. Oh, my baby’s gone.” Curtis and the other guys tried to be understanding, but it was driving them nuts.
At Christmastime 1977 Curtis went back to Marietta for the holidays. He ran into a friend who had some drums in his basement. Curtis bought them. For $125 he bought a bass, snare, and tom, layered with the lacquer and lumps of two dozen repaintings, now a glossy black, and he brought the drums back to the house, where his roommate Charlie was broken heart-unhealed and still stuck at half speed from his debilitating melancholia. Curtis knew something had to be done: He set up the drums and said to Charlie, “Okay buddy, here’s the new beat,” and he slam started bam blasting it out.
Curtis had never before really been a record buyer, but he started. His first purchase was The Sex Pistols. His current favorite was The Ramones. Then he started playing with some other buddies from Marietta in a band called Strictly American, but since they lived in different towns, the band stumbled, crippled also by headstrong individuals and no leader or unity or direction. But when Curtis heard Randy and Michael playing, they had a definite direction, simple driving drones, pleasant and addictive like the hum of a favorite machine you work with every day. There was definitely room there for a drummer with Curtis’ style. Curtis was short and stocky. He could drum like a machine himself. But not the smooth tum-tum-tum of a rhythm box, but the jackhammer pounding of a steam-powered sledge.
“Curtis came down and said he would play a beat,” Lachowski says about how Curtis came to join Pylon. “But he kept saying he was in another band and would only do it for fun. So Randy and I put up a poster for a drummer and Curtis saw the poster and said, ‘What are you doing? I’m your drummer.’ So after that he was committed.”
To the three of them, the band was just an art experiment, another extension of art school. They called themselves Diagonal and they practiced through the winter. After a couple of months they decided to look for a singer.
They asked Sam Seawright. Sam was the lanky painter and brother to poet John, a notable character around town. They didn’t ask Sam because he was a good singer—he wasn’t. They assumed that since Sam was a good artist, known for his hallucinatory landscapes, ipso facto he would make a good front man for their band. But Sam didn’t want to do it. Then they asked Neil MacArthur, another painting student. But when Neil tried out, he didn’t like the lyrics, and Michael, who had written most of them, didn’t like the way he was singing them. Another no-go.
A practical joke led to a temporary breakthrough:
“I had made an arrangement with Sean Bourne,” Lachowski remembers, “where I drilled a hole in the wall of his studio, which was next to mine, and he gave me the combination to his lock and I would play his records while I worked. So once when we were practicing, all of a sudden Sean puts on this record ‘How to train your parrot to talk,’ that just kept repeating ‘Hello, how are you. Hello, how are you,’ and we were going, ‘Oh God! That’s great, that’s great!’ We loved it. And so for a little while, since we were so into art concepts, we thought we would just use found vocal matter. So we had ‘Hello, How Are You?’ and ‘Weather Radio,’ where we would play over the Athens weather station, since I had a weather radio.”
They liked the songs, but they realized that using found vocal matter would quickly become a gimmicky, constraining artifice. They still needed a singer. Then in February they decided to ask Vanessa Ellison—big-eyed, bobbed hair—who shared his studio. They all knew each other from art classes and from DuPont Textiles, a factory on the edge of town where Michael and Vanessa and a handful of other art students worked on the weekends. Vanessa had met and married Jimmy Ellison the year before and was living in a house across the river. Michael and Randy sometimes went over to Jimmy and Vanessa’s house, played records, and danced in the kitchen. They knew she was a party girl.
“I used to go drinking with Randy and Michael, and Randy was kidding around asking me if I wanted to be in a band,” Vanessa told Boston Rock in 1980. “One day when I was working at Penney’s in the catalog department after Christmas, almost Valentine’s Day, he came in. I worked not at the desk but at the phones in the back, and this girl I worked with came back and said, ‘There’s this real cute boy out front, and he wants to talk to you.’ Like, nobody came in to work to talk to me. And I went out there, and he said, ‘You wanna come down and audition for my band tonight?’
“Michael was just really cool,” remembers Vanessa, who herself met Lachowski and Bewley in one of Bob Croker’s painting classes. “I thought he was so cool. Everything he did was cool. The way he dressed, the music he listened to, his art. He was in school but everybody looked at him like he was on the level of, like, a real artist. He was about twenty and just had some really neat ideas. He and Randy were both really bright.”
When they asked her to audition for their band, Vanessa thought about it and figured that it might be fun. She wasn’t exactly a singer, however. She’d sung in chorus in high school—alto, baritone, and a fake soprano. Her singing voice was always a little low and throaty for a girl, and a contrast to her talking voice, which was sweetly lilting and strongly accented from her childhood in the rural Georgia countryside around the small town of Dacula.
Vanessa came to her first practice on Valentine’s Day and she brought the guys some candy. It was exactly one year since The B-52’s had debuted in public. When she showed up, Curtis couldn’t believe it. He hadn’t met Vanessa before and here she was, this tall and big-boned yet striking girl, like a Weimar chanteuse with a round face and a country-bred wild streak. She was terminally shy and had little sense of rhythm. No one ever would have thought of a big girl like that as a figurehead for a rock band.
Lachowski wrote the words for their songs with a certain idea of how they should fit into the structure of the music. Everything was to fit on the beat, right in its place, consistent with the linear uniformity of the sound they were developing. But when Vanessa sang, she stunned them all. Since she didn’t have any idea of how to sing, she came up with amazing weirdness. She cut words in half. Stretched single syllables for four lines. She didn’t know what to do, so to compensate she attacked the songs in a fury.
Michael and Randy were into it immediately. Curtis had his reservations, but thought, well, it’s going to be an interesting experiment.
Working at DuPont Textiles was an inspiration for Lachowski. Along with a handful of other art students Lachowski worked there on high-paying weekend shifts, and he was fascinated by the factory’s clean order. Lachowski loved it. It wasn’t mucky like the organic 1970s. It was ordered, unvarying, repetitious, like the music he and Randy and Curtis played.
After he graduated that summer of ’78, Lachowski’s parents told him they weren’t going to give him any more money unless he moved back to Atlanta. Not wanting to leave Athens just when things were getting fun, he took the job at DuPont; Vic Varney had told him what a groovy gig it was, where he could make enough on a weekend to live free the rest of the week. To express how he felt about employment at DuPont, Lachowski wrote a song: “Working Is No Problem.” Where some people felt that any kind of employment was a concession to The Man, Lachowski saw DuPont giving them more dollars per hour than any other job in Athens. If you have a bad attitude, the shift will drag. But if you put up with it for sixteen hours on the weekend, you can live easy five days out of seven.
“It was great once I got used to working on weekends, which to me were sacred,” Lachowski recalls. “At that time, being modern was really important. The seventies were so horrible, everything was bad. So we wanted to be the new arty, new thing, and the new music was perfect. We subscribed to the idea completely. I was fascinated with DuPont in a Kraftwerk way. If you didn’t fight working in a factory, you could look at it as a wonderland, with things painted neat colors. I was fascinated by industrial labeling, signage, and the safety image: safety glasses, safety shoes.”
It was at DuPont that the band found its name. Safety cones were everywhere, marking boundaries, alerting workers to beware, to keep away, to follow the rules of order that were crucial to working safely in an industrial environment. In graphic rapture, Lachowski found the essence of his developing aesthetic in the shape, color, and function of the object. So when the band needed a name, having rejected The Diagonal as too pretentious, Lachowski suggested Pylon.
Nobody objected. So that was it.
Not three weeks after their first practice with Vanessa, Pylon debuted in public, opening for Nicky Giannaris’ band The Tone Tones on March 9, 1979, at a party in the space above Chapter Three Records downtown on Broad Street. Nobody could believe that they had so many songs. The B’s only had six songs when they debuted. Pylon had a full dozen.
Pylon didn’t expect anybody to dance to them that first night. And nobody did.