In late summer, 1980, a clutch of archaeology students moved into a house on Meigs Street. On the front porch they discovered, nailed to a post, a little toy diorama in which a three-inch woman stood on a small stage under a plastic carnival tent. The little woman held her hands behind her head and she arched her back, presenting her tasseled breasts. At the bottom of the box was a crank: Turn the crank and the woman undulates as a wire inside turns. Repeated use had torn the woman’s weathered rubber belly. But despite the tear the woman went on grinding as the crank was turned and the rusty gear poked out with each revolution, like a gruesome intestinal parasite, slowly widening the slit. On the post above the novelty toy the house’s nickname was written in black Magic Marker: The Make Me Dance House.
The house was like many in the Cobbham and Normaltown student districts, all humbled by decay. The shiver-grip of winter and the expansive heat of summer alternately shrunk and swole clapboards till they popped nails and fell like sheets of old bark from pine beetle-bit dead trees, leaving the houses looking unrepaired, rough. The yards were bare dirt, tree-rooted, or weed-thick shoulder-high. The rooms were cheap.
Inside The Make Me Dance House, the windows rattled and the plaster in the walls was crumbling to its original horsehair and mud dust. In the bathroom the curling linoleum was slippery with mildew, the floorboards moist and slowly rotting around the old porcelain toilet and sink that had been rigged by some distant white-trash tenants. In deep summer flies found their fun in that slip and slime, and slugs crawled up on the cool sweating pipes. The walls of the kitchen were painted slut-red. Broken furniture and the body-greased pallets of hippies past junked the rooms.
While cleaning out the house the archaeology students, alert to what they excavated, discovered, hidden in a hole in a bedroom floor, down in the under-house cold-dirt crawl space, a chipped concrete statue of St. Francis of Assisi with multi-colored candle wax dripped on his head, his mouth chipped oval by chisel and pick. The statue was wrapped in a gargantuan brassiere stained with red mud and ink and was buried in a waterlogged heap of pornographic magazines. In the bedroom closet they found red-ink diaries written in code and Ken dolls dressed up in Barbie’s drag. Wondering what had gone on there, they looked for clues. They asked around.
Some held that The B-52’s had once lived there.
Turned out it was only Fred Schneider, although it was only rumor that connected him to the stuff they found.
It was just over one year since The B-52’s had signed their contract with Warner Bros., and already they were gone and barely remembered as having lived in town. Memory is short in a college town, and past tracks are quickly kicked up and clod over by the constant trek of new students coming to town, tramping through the streets looking for rooms to rent. All that was left of “the first Athens band” was rubbish and rumors. The B’s were gone, already legend. But in their place had come up a new set of bands, Pylon and The Method Actors, proving that there was something peculiar about Athens, some intangible quality that nobody could figure. And what those first bands promised, the second wave—R.E.M., Love Tractor, The Side Effects—confirmed: Athens might be just a little hick college town hosting a handful of kids feeding on each other’s energy, but it finally and certainly qualified as a scene. The 40 Watt Club was open, rent was cheap, and a student loan was enough to get you by, supplemented by a part-time job slicing weenies at a steak house salad bar, selling used records, or running photocopy machines. Or, like Ingrid Schorr, selling peeks at her pointy bra for twenty-five cents each.
Everyone was an artist and could do anything they wanted. They lived in a pretty little Dixie town where in first spring daffodils grew and, in summer, bachelor’s buttons; when the sun was out, tripping young girls with grass seed stuck to the dew on their calves picked armfuls of flowers and carried them house to house in old coffee cans, escorted along the cracked sidewalks by scarecrow poets who made love to men. When hot, they could drive five miles out and find a lake where rednecks never go, where it was cool and okay to hang your clothes on the branches of trees, swim naked at night and have sex al fresco, streaked with mud and sweat, leaving the tall grass soft and broken.
These kids, a collection of high school outcasts and precocious talents, felt pretty good about themselves. Athens was like a rock opera version of Lord of the Flies meets Gilligan’s Island, where the twenty-one-year-olds can’t believe they are no longer twelve. They’re all stranded on a deserted island, but their checks from home still come in the mail. Each day brought a new adventure: Gilligan got lost, the Skipper went crazy, headhunters from New York City came to town and everybody got scared, only to laugh in the end and pose for the cameras. Like the island in Golding’s novel about children gone savage, Athens had its hunters, too, but these chased pork of a different kind—and they hunted for it at bars and parties, cafes and the corner cookie store.
And when they scored, the hunters returned triumphantly grease-stained to the place that served them that season as haven and council ring: the rambling and majestic house at 169 Barber Street. . . .
At one time, the view from that house at 169 Barber was a vista of homes and yards and quietude, but by 1980 the view included a convenience store, a car wash, and the grocery store loading dock. But it was still a glorious home. Barber Street was much grander than Meigs, and the house at 169 was the grandest of all.
Barber Street itself was just a short strip of road. At one end a Majik Market and a grocery store. At the other end the street changed its name, plunged downhill, and went on north out of Athens through black neighborhoods to where the white trash lived, where the yards were packed dirt and flowers, and chickens pecked along the cinder-block foundations of the old clapboard company homes. But in that two hundred yards of Barber Street proper, between the stoplight at the corner and the crest of the hill, in what was once a nice neighborhood, the renegade New Wavers set up and rigged their Left Bank community. In the rented high-ceilinged rooms just a ten-minute walk from the campus, folk in new rock bands were living out their art.
One sixty-nine became the center of the scene after Linda Hopper and Leslie Michel moved in. Linda, who had lived in the subbasement of Reed Hall and the D Phi U house on the highway, had been living during the summer in a house on Meigs, which she loathed. The Salvation Army shelter for slack-eyed and hair-faced drifters was only a half block away. One day she was walking the streets depressed, and as she turned down Barber she saw a friend from high school sitting at the top of a set of steps that climbed the bluff from the street to the sprawling porch at 169. Her friend, Larry Marcus, who would play keyboards in The Little Tigers with Paul Lombard, another popular Athens band, lived at the house. Larry told Linda that the hippies downstairs were moving out.
They looked inside the vacant apartment and Linda saw that the paint might be peeling, but at least the walls weren’t crumbling and the hardwood floors were fitted and braced. There were wooden mantles over the old coal fireplaces and huge sliding doors that opened between rooms where the ceilings were thirteen feet high and voices echoed even when they weren’t empty.
She got a number from Larry and went across the street to the public pay phone bolted to the outside wall of the Majik Market. Her hands trembling with anticipation, she called the landlord and got the house.
Linda moved into the house along with Leslie Michel, the horticulture major slash party babe who had led the raid on Chapel Hill earlier in the summer when R.E.M. played their first out-of-state gig. Leslie was the kind of invaluable party mistress all scenes need, the kind who would hustle a hat and take up collections for a beer resupply run when parties got too crowded and the kegs drained too quickly. Linda and Leslie invited Mark Phredd Rizzo to join them at 169. Mark Phredd was a big boy, a gay Catholic kid with a mother fixation, who would later become well known in Manhattan’s club scene for his Mr. Hapi Phace act at the Pyramid Club.
Mark Phredd and the girls moved in and set up in the open rooms. The walls and mantles, the porch and windows, were of the pure and stately honorable quality that welcomed and gave grace to any display of reliquary. Sheers dug from the rag room of Potter’s House hung draped like webs from tacks in the window frames. The beds were layered with blankets unmatched in design, luxurious in their variety and clean warmth of natural fibers. The mantle garniture was an ever-varying set of iconographic detritus: plastic Christs, candles, broken mirrors, snap-shot Polaroids and Barbie dolls, broken records and animal bones.
As the girls occupied 169, the R.E.M. boys—Peter, Michael, and Mike—moved out of their summer sublet, leaving it wrecked and scarred. They followed the movement of the scene to Barber Street. Peter and his girlfriend Ann moved into a house near 169. Mike and his girlfriend Lauren moved in next door. Michael stashed his clothes at his parents’ house in the country and took to crashing on the floor with Linda at 169 itself until he moved into an apartment there with Mike Huff, where the two of them subsisted that winter on potato quiches. Bill and Kathleen stayed where they were on the edge of town, but soon began spending most of their time on Barber Street with the rest of the crowd.
And the crowd was big, and getting bigger. Upstairs at 169, guitarist Paul Lombard and Larry Marcus were writing songs for The Little Tigers. Pylon Park, which was only a half-dozen houses down Barber Street from 169, was already serving as a primary party site. Members of Pylon, Love Tractor, and The Side Effects lived there, and all around them, on nearby alleys, came and nested the ever-fluxing cast of itinerant students and artists, scenemakers all.
At 169, they lived in their playground. Nineteen-eighty to 1981 was a hot time, and with Michael Stipe’s oncoming fame, they all couldn’t help but laugh as the girls and Mark Phredd pulled up his shirt and drew on his flat belly. Linda, Leslie, Mark Phredd, Michael, and Carol Levy, whom Michael had met the year before at the church when he smeared lip gloss into her face, spent many gin-soaked afternoons reading out loud from Celebrity Skin, junk-store pornography Michael had found, or the Penthouse “Forum,” all of them bemoaning the plight of the flaccid penis.
Bored with that, someone would shout, “Let’s play the game!” and, shrieking, they grabbed someone to serve as a victim and tied them up, tickling them until they passed out . . . then they tied up someone else. Or Mark Phredd would shout “Sexercise!” and they’d put on records to dance, Mark Phredd choreographing the scene with his call and response: “Who are we?” “We’re the Mark Phredd Dancers!” “What do we do?” “We dance!” “And how do we do it?” “Hard!” And Mark Phredd would go, clap clap, “Come on, Mommies! Sexercise!” And Michael Stipe couldn’t help but laugh.
When they left the house to go shopping they often did their routine they called “The Loud Family,” after a public television series. As the Loud Family Leslie Michel was Elvira, Linda was Sheila, Mark Phredd was Audy, and Michael Stipe was Shep. In stores they shouted from aisle to aisle, “Hey Shep! Where’s da Hershey’s Syrup! I need my Hershey’s Syrup!” And through the streets the New York/New Jersey accents of the Loud Family echoed, irritating to no end almost everybody who heard the routine.
But it was the partying that was the season’s essence: Leslie Michel would finish washing dishes and then call The Party Line, Michael Lachowski’s answering machine, which he had turned over as a public service to be the clearinghouse for party information. Leslie would record the message “Scotch party at 169!” and in ten minutes the sidewalks were alive with people coming over with flasks in hand and dance shoes on their feet—all rockers with a mission and an unquenchable thirst. Parties in all those houses along Barber Street that season just happened. A gang would spark up and everyone would all drink as much as they could and dope up and after an all-night freak of witty conversation they would fall silent, the last bottle dry, the last baggy licked, and it would be six A.M. and they would be sitting around in a circle, smoking filterless cigarettes and blinking the sun from their eyes. One time, Leslie got so dogsick at a party that she was in bed for a week and Michael Stipe kept coming in and holding a mirror to her mouth to make sure she was still breathing.
Eventually, even Jefferson Holt migrated from North Carolina to Athens. He came in October 1980 to run a record store for a friend, but after the store closed he stuck around. In spring 1981 the twenty-seven-year-old moved into 169 across the foyer from Linda and Leslie, taking over Michael Stipe’s apartment, Michael’s bedroom becoming the band’s practice room after they quit their Jackson Street studio. Once in town to stay, Jefferson immediately plunged into the frenetic, hallucinatory party scene that came to be associated with Barber Street, the most prestigious address of the Golden Age of the Athens music scene. So notable had the registry of that street become that one night in early fall two of the town’s finest party babes wrote its status in cement:
Maureen McLaughlin, the B’s ex-manager, and Vanessa Briscoe, Pylon’s singer, one night were walking down Barber Street, heading to a daiquiri party at 169. Pylon’s first album, Gyrate, had come out in October to rave reviews, and they were planning to go to England before Christmas. Maureen and Vanessa saw where the city had just patched a square in the sidewalk and the cement was still wet. Balancing their cocktails, they fell to their knees and, squealing with the thrill of vandalism, scratched with their fingers in the wet cement the names of the street’s best-known residents: Pylon, R.E.M., The Side Effects, Love Tractor, The Swindles. Spilling rum on their work, they christened Barber with the nickname that would stick for years in the cement as well as in local legend:
The Street of Stars.