As a social-anxiety-disordered nerd derping around the University of Georgia campus from 1980 to 1985, collecting more vinyl than credits, I was sure of very little—except that I wanted to get closer to the new music scene happening nearby (soon to be valorized as the “Liverpool of the South,” among many other superlatives). So it’s a testament to Rodger Lyle Brown’s Party Out of Bounds: The B-52’s, R.E.M., and the Kids Who Rocked Athens, Georgia, which chronicles almost exactly the above era, that it was a total revelation when first published in 1991. Admittedly, I’d been a naïve bystander, but it wasn’t just that. Brown got inside the party, got the walls to talk, and wrote down the truest lies.
But beyond that, Party Out of Bounds still resonates so strongly because of its fancifully visual sense of place and its uniquely appropriate portrayal of an arts scene; Brown’s report reads like a savvy, informed hallucination. He takes his “conjured history” back to the late 1700s and early 1800s when UGA is established as the country’s first land-grant university—on a patch of lush hills reaching up and out from the Oconee River, “got by musket and treaty” from local Cherokee and Creek tribes. Jump to the equally lawless world of the 1950s Greek system, where a group of fratboy goons christen an abstract horse sculpture commissioned by the university with a load of manure—so much for “mod’ren” art. But the book really kicks in during the posthippie southern blooze-rawk swale of the early- to mid-1970s when a remarkably unlikely “drag camp underground” evolves at house parties in the absence of any welcoming bars or venues for original music. (Remember: Athens is a small, conservative town in a conservative state during an increasingly conservative era. Until 2001, Georgia flew the Confederate stars-and-bars as its state flag, and until 2003, there were strict antisodomy laws, even for consenting adults in private.)
We meet the pageant of genius kooks who are the initial alchemists of Athens’ “Fuck Art, Let’s Dance” arty-as-fuck dance party, certainly including, but definitely not limited to, members of The B-52’s. When you really consider the kismet chain of connections necessary to get from there to here, it’s not hyperbole to say that if you yank out any one person, the whole spell might vanish.
There’s enigmatic influencer Jerry Ayers, who Brown crowns “the hippest and most beautiful” of the scene’s “older crowd.” A UGA prof’s kid who matriculated in Warhol’s early 1970s Factory under the nom de drag “Silva Thin” and wrote a column for Interview, Ayers provides a New York crash pad for Athens teens Ricky Wilson and Keith Strickland (future B-52’s guitarist and drummer, respectively). The fledgling glitter-punk kids study at the heels of iconic Warhol superstars Jackie Curtis and Holly Woodlawn, who encourage them to return home and develop their own artistic acts of “joyful vandalism.” Ayers also goes on to write lyrics for the B’s “52 Girls,” inspire Michael Stipe’s early androgynous scarecrow persona, and cowrite R.E.M.’s “Old Man Kensey” and “Wind Out,” while also leading the scene’s most divisive, experimental band Limbo District.
A scant further roll call: Kate Pierson, a New Jersey–born hippie playing folk music on a farm outside Athens in the mid-1970s who falls in with the glitter-drag kids, her free spirit (and hair) roaming in fabulous, chiffon-covered directions; Teresa Randolph, an Athens high school pal of Ricky and Keith’s who was the model for the Little Miss Sunbeam Bread girl, who hosts the B’s legendary second show at a 1920s-era lodge, plays in an early version of the local band The Tone Tones, and helps get the B’s booked at Max’s Kansas City; Bob Croker, a libertine art teacher who throws parties at his house for the students, where Pylon’s Michael Lachowski and Randy Bewley first meet and plot projects; William Orten “Ort” Carlton, a fulminating force of unnature who hires goofy UGA dropout Fred Schneider to clerk at his used record store (Ort’s Oldies) and takes the future B’s frontman on vinyl-hunting expeditions that spark an obsession with collecting R&B, soul, and girl-group 45s; Fred even starts painting on a Little Richard mustache.
The local response to the early boho stirrings in Athens is either total obliviousness or the usual “Hey, fag” slurs from cowardly cretins in passing cars or trucks. But it’s exactly such a clueless, dismissive environment that emboldens the scene. This small-town crew of gay men and women, twisted straights, and oddball hangers-on pursue their anarchic fun in a raucous vacuum. Brown’s approach in Party Out of Bounds is not to cast the milieu as oppositional or political (after all, it was basically as lily-white as any Kappa Alpha mixer). He suggests that it arises from a lack, not from a rebellion against anything in particular. What goes on, at least before the national media notices, is a quixotic lark.
Summertime 1978 and the living’s easy; the acid’s cheap and the rent ain’t high. As the B-52’s wow New York with their dynamic live shows and a deliriously ingenious first single on Danny Beard’s Atlanta-based DB Records (“Rock Lobster” b/w “52 Girls”), the cool kids start to envision what’s happening as a “scene.” They raid Potter’s House, a rehab center’s thrift store, assembling tacky, retro-chic outfits, and dance with freshly freaky fervor at parties that crop up in old, rented houses in odd locations. The B’s winkingly proclaim themselves the “World Greatest Party Band,” and the group is riding such a hopeful high that they reject a major-label offer from Sire Records (home to The Ramones and Talking Heads).
Still, as Brown notes, this is inevitably when Athens’ innocent isolation ends, as eager locals gawk at the B-52’s and say, “We, too, are of such stuff as they!” And in many cases, they are. After the B’s decamp to New York, Pylon emerges as the town’s next inexplicable phenomenon. With restless relentlessness, they refine a sound that’s chilly, spare, and wiry, with a man-machine groove jolted and mule-kicked by the dervish frenzy of singer Vanessa Ellison, whose phonetic howl threatens to rip every riff apart. Michael Lachowski, the band’s founder, bassist, and staunch artistic director (still the coolest man in Athens thirty-five years later) crafts the group’s functional-yet-wry aesthetic—inspired in part by the signage at the DuPont plant where he and a legion of scenesters work part-time—and has a greater impact on the art-naif “Athens sound” than anyone or anything, including the next inexplicable phenomenon-to-come: R.E.M.
This is where Party Out of Bounds loses its innocence, living up to the author’s damn-the-fact-checkers formulation of the book as “folklore, documented gossip.” But that doesn’t change the fact that, from my perspective as someone who was there, if not all the way there, it’s the most accurate account you’ll ever read of how Athens transformed from a pigskin-fixated queer ghetto to the home of the country’s most critically adored young rock band, plus a scene that was worth photographing for People Freaking Magazine!
Let’s get this out of the way: If you think R.E.M. were the prime movers in transforming Athens and creating this world, then Party Out of Bounds (and me) would like you to fall the fuck back and continue debating whether “West of the Fields” refers to Greek mythology or Elysian Avenue in New Orleans (love you guys!). Because they didn’t create this world. They benefited as much from the Athens art community as anyone—the R.E.M. that first seduced fans and earned defenders for life was as enigmatic and sensual and rhythm focused and danceable and coolly manic as others on the scene. These were the elements that Athens creative types prioritized. Peter Buck and Michael Stipe were restless rock guys—after moving to town in 1977 from St. Louis and enrolling as an art student, Stipe played in an Athens band called Gangster that wore zoot suits and covered Elvis and Tom Petty; Buck, who moved to Athens from Atlanta in 1978, was desperately looking for a way to be a guitar hero without knowing how to play the guitar especially well. In Athens, the twosome found a context and identity that was exhilarating and original.
But as a rock band first and art/party project second, they were initially hurt by some of the scene’s bitterest pills. And business-wise, they did have better instincts and better connections than others. (The fact that high-schooler Bill Berry worked at Macon, Georgia-based booking agency Paragon with Ian Copeland—Police drummer Steward Copeland’s brother and founder of I.R.S. Records, which signed R.E.M.—was one of several fortuitous breaks.) Plus, they were talented and worked harder than other bands, which Brown mentions repeatedly. Still, it was unfortunate that when R.E.M. got their biggest early platform, an interview with Rolling Stone, Stipe griped: “We are not a party band from Athens. . . . We don’t have shit to do with the B-52’s or any other band from this town. We just happen to live here.” And Buck added: “I don’t think any of the Athens bands would have been any different if they hadn’t come from Athens.”
The fact is that that the commercial evolution of the Athens scene—as in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and so many other 1970s and 1980s punk-indie locales—meant the diminishing of its fundamental gay and female origins and influence, which were ultimately reduced to pejoratives like “arty” or “fun” or “New Wave.” In the context of R.E.M., groups like Love Tractor and Oh-OK (featuring Michael Stipe’s sister Lynda) were often judged by trad rock-band standards and viewed as too precious or fey. As a dopey, awkward kid, I was caught up in such prejudice as well, and my boyish snarkiness as a writer for the college paper led some local musicians to smash me with “pies” made of Comet, molasses, and barbeque sauce outside the 40 Watt Club. Brown includes this incident in the book as a sign of the scene’s sword fighting and inability to take criticism. I think we were all just a little too high on our own supply.
What resonates more with me after all these years is a vignette from a mid-1970s Athens party attended by members of the B-52’s and friends—Keith wears a purple dress and purple yak wig; Ricky’s in a nurse’s uniform; and Fred’s all Ginger Grant from Gilligan’s Island in a slit sequined gown and wig. When the party winds up, they head outside, skip down the sidewalk, cocktails spilling from their oversized red Georgia Bulldog cups. In the middle of intersections, Fred feigns like he’s fainting, groaning dramatically, “Oh, it must be the oxygen,” as cars slam on brakes and drivers curse the “faggots,” and the crew picks Fred up and shouts, “Assholes!” back, and they all laugh and hoot as the scene repeats.
This may not seem so very rock ’n’ roll to some, but for the Athens scene, it’s like the Beatles in Hamburg. Thankfully, Party Out of Bounds captures it, and more.