The church became party central: Day and night, sleazy drug dealers came and went, fueling the weekend marathons and spoiling everybody for the next week’s classes; friends and acquaintances stopped by to test their endurance against these maximal partiers. Kathleen, whose circle of friends was quite diverse, welcomed everyone.
Peter, the sullen one, when he slept at the church and not at the house of some newly met babe, most days slept late on his upstairs bedroom foam-pad pallet, surrounded by fly-nesting Budweiser cans, dog-eared paperback rock histories, and Raymond Chandler novels. He’d wake up late, knock a book of Nietzsche from his pillow, and walk downtown for a breakfast of goat barbeque at Strickland’s restaurant. The kitchen sink at the church was full of dirty dishes, the garbage can overflowed with fast-food packaging, and the refrigerator stank of unappetizing remainders of infrequent attempts at domestic feeding. The church was a place to party or crash, not really to live.
Michael Stipe was fast becoming an unwitting ringleader of art school kids with the new americanpunk attitude. He was working with fluorescent paint and Styrofoam, crayon shavings, wax paper, and Xeroxed photographs. Michael brought his new friends to the church after, say, a Friday afternoon color theory class and they played new records, popped open beers, and broke the tax tape on bottles of whiskey. Sandi Phipps, Linda Hopper, Mark Cline, all sorts of folk hung, sweated, danced, and drank at the church. When it got late and dark and they’d drunk enough, they cut ruination into each other’s hair and then headed into town, teeth clenched and vision-smeared, prepped to freak.
Up the Oconee Street sidewalk they stumbled and tripped, sometimes defying gravity, often becoming its victim. Peter, Michael, and the girls slow-crawled up the hill, brushing cut hair from their shoulders and singing, “When you’re a Jet you’re a Jet all the way,” waking neighbors, and setting dogs to barking, but none worrying because, “Hey, don’t worry, Peter’s got a knife. Hey Pete, show us yer knife!” On Quaalude legs they all make it to the theater for a movie. They can’t stay in their seats. They slide and fidget and fall to their knees. Then out again. First to the Majik Market for another six-pack and half pint, then back to the church. It’s not a home, just a shelter, a degraded limbo.
One day early in the fall quarter, Paul Lombard visited the church. Paul had lived in the basement of Reed Hall the year before, knew the girls from the subbasement, and that fall had moved with some friends into another house farther out Lexington Highway. Paul, who would play a wizard guitar and sing in a number of Athens bands to come, could be trouble sometimes, and he was trouble when he went that day to the church. One thing led to another and Paul called Peter a faggot. Peter got mad, punched a wall that should have been Paul, hurt his hand, but scared Paul into leaving, beer bottles whizzing past his head. After Paul left, someone at the church spray-painted “Paul is Dead” on the church’s front-door canopy. And Peter declared, “Fag? Fag? How can he call me a fag? I sleep with ten times as many women as he does!”
Peter was known to be bad, to carry a knife. Paul, when not trouble, was mild-mannered. So Paul’s roommate Harlan Hale, the same guy who loaned Kathleen O’Brien the snakeskin she wore for her performance with the WUOGerz when she first met Bill Berry, loaned Paul a knife. It was a commando-style dagger, ground to a good edge on both sides. Paul, ready for Peter, stuck the blade into the plywood floor by the side of his bed.
Peter never came. He forgot about the feud. And Paul forgot about the knife. One night, Paul got up to pee, and walking to the bathroom he hit that blade full stride, catching the razor edge right between his big toe and the next. His roommates called up to the punk girls’ house up the street and it took a bribe of a joint to get someone to give Paul a ride to the university infirmary. That trip from Lexington Highway to the infirmary would be made not just a few times during the coming year. But that was okay; they all loved the sight of blood.
On Halloween that year there was a party at the church. No band, just a costume party—one that was scheduled to catch the crowd after the local show. Earlier in the night, a new band had debuted at Tyrone’s, the only club in town booking the local original bands. The new band was made up of the remains of The Tone Tones, who had broken up earlier that summer. Vic Varney and David Gamble came together again after The Tone Tones dissolved, practiced once some songs Vic had written, and decided to try it again. They thought about adding more instruments, but with the memory of their experience with The Tone Tones still fresh in mind, they nixed the idea. The more people involved with a band, the more chance for interpersonal conflict. They kept the lineup at two and agreed on a name: The Method Actors.
Vic was still booking Pylon’s shows, so when it came time for The Method Actors to debut, they opened for Pylon at the Halloween show at Tyrone’s, playing a fast set of Vic’s mad scream and open-tuned guitar noise, backed with Gamble’s muscleman slam-drumming. At that show when Pylon went on, Lachowski hooked his bass to a TV set and managed to coordinate a vertical and horizontal black-and-white image while he played. The stage lightshows were constructed by Watt King, a highly respected local art school prodigy, and were made up of neon angles that buzzed the retina like the drone bass buzzed bone, yet still flicked sharp like Bewley’s guitar. Pylon played sixteen songs that night and encored with the theme from Batman.
After the show the handful of hip folk who had been to Tyrone’s left their cars parked where they were and walked down the hill from Foundry Street to the church. Others from across campus and town drove down and lined the side streets with their cars. Inside the church the jam of bodies was thick, and constant was their flow through the building: in the door, through the bedroom, on your knees, through the hole in the closet and into the back, into the sanctuary, where the keg was.
Jim Herbert, the art teacher, was there. He loved this new excitement. He came half-naked, his sharply carved torso painted gold, like an Oscar in blue jeans and full gray-black head of hair. Herbert stood around the church, proud with a plastic cup of beer, and talked to the young art school kids and asked the shapeliest and most daring-eyed of them if they would like to be filmed. There were nymphs, pirates, Flannery O’Connor’s “artificial niggers,” and a Jimmy Carter peanut head with big teeth stuck in a presidential grin. Jerry Ayers was there. Jerry, the early influence on Keith and Ricky of The B-52’s, came as a scarecrow: His costume marked a departure in style.
Jerry was quieting, now quitting the campy drag that had dressed The B-52’s for their success. He was turning away from the audacious glitter assault and was now falling silent, retreating to mystery, a coyote trickster, but still pretty. That night Jerry was costumed in a way that the kids weren’t used to costume: On him, the baggy rags with straw at his wrists looked normal. Sure enough he did have straw coming out of his torn shirt and slack pants; but it fit. Jerry’s costume wasn’t a sheet pulled over his head, wasn’t a mask held to his face with a rubber band: He was the costume, it became him. It was that total becoming that made Jerry’s bits great acting.
Michael Stipe saw Jerry Ayers that night. He watched him. He was intrigued.
Nobody knew it then, but it was one of the final seasons of real freedom, before the onset of AIDS. You have twenty thousand human bodies at the peak of their health and youth. You have the distribution among the two biological sexes and innumerable ones of other dimensions. It was a heavily sexual time. Rutting in the dirt. At parties. In the bathrooms. Making somebody before passing out and then loving whomever you wake up next to, found by groping from floor to couch. The worst thing to worry about was herpes, but that scare didn’t really hit too hard until the next year. But even with that negligible fear you can still just do it anyway. You meet somebody and you can just see it in their eyes and in fifteen minutes you are out in the car. But of course those were the radical times. In Athens at that time, all sense and safety was violated.
As the Halloween party went on late, went on crazy with all the kids having had their senses multiplied by some baggy-stashed and back-bedroom-bought alchemy, where dizziness was free thanks to cigarette smoke and beer, where the wank of love and lust gave the fine polished edge of true lunacy to the mass hysteria . . . there, then, Peter Buck and Michael Stipe wrestled together in the kitchen, knocked over the table of empty snack bowls, and sparked the crowd into an explosion that trashed the place.
By night’s end, day’s beginning, a tangle of folk ended up crowding the bathroom, eyes all MDA-aglitter and handing back and forth in delirium a giant makeup sampler kit of one hundred shades: Bellowing, shrieking, they hauled in people against their will, painted them with Maybelline and cut their hair for good measure. It was heavily physical, with laughing-strength fights and thuds as girls held on hard to door frames while friends pulled them loose, then all falling onto the tile floors with screams as crotches are grabbed and dresses fly up, everyone and all demon-laughing in love with strangers they’ve just found themselves lying atop. They lined each other’s eyes with the sampler kit makeup. They rouged each other’s cheeks. On one poor girl they painted fingernail polish onto her nipples.
That was when Michael Stipe met Carol Levy. He crawled from the bathroom with a handful of lip gloss and smeared it into her face.