About a third of the way up steep-sloped Oconee Street from the Oconee River, toward the hilltop spread of downtown Athens, was an old church. The outside was a chipping, half-painted stucco, all the sacred fixtures long since removed. On each side of the church, the brief bit of yard was grown up with uncut, untended grass, vines, and young trees. In that thick brush was brick rubble and broken rock, whiskey bottles, plastic and paper carton stuff that the rain over a year had soaked and, soaking, wrapped around pieces of rock, splashed with dirt, and left to be covered by a season’s leaf litter.
Rising up out of that lot was the church.
Inside, the once-sacred space had been desanctified by a realtor’s makeover: Where the promise of the infinite and the everlasting once resided, there now was but an interior remodeled so thoroughly with Nu-built walls and wood-grain panels that the one-time Episcopalian temple was indistinguishable on the inside from any ranch-style suburban home. The stairs going up to the second floor were wall-to-walled with carpet. A whole new house had been inserted in the shell of the church. The only way to be part of the original church from the inside was to go through a boarded-up window or a passageway punched through the wall in a closet of a bedroom. That punched hole was the transit from the profane 4 BR w/bath & w-w cpt into the old sanctuary, where, in the cavernous, broken-floored space, there had once stood an altar and where, now, stood nothing. That summer of 1979, Dan Wall, who owned Wuxtry, the used record store, moved out of the church. He told an employee of his, Peter Buck, that if he wanted it he could have the lease. Peter said sure, why not, and he took the lease and moved into the church that fall with his brother, Ken, the girl he was seeing—Kathleen O’Brien, that sanpaku subbasement refugee—and Peter’s new friend he had met downtown that summer: this guy: this weird, quiet, curly-headed kid with acne scars who hung around the record store looking for 12" singles: Michael Stipe.
Peter Buck had come to Athens the year before, in 1978. Before coming to Athens Peter had lived in Atlanta and had gone to Emory University part-time. He worked at Doodah’s, a record store near the Emory campus. The Bucks had lived in Atlanta since the early seventies, when they’d moved there from California. By 1978, Peter was tired of Atlanta. He hated the town. Hated his bosses. The feeling was mutual.
Peter hated a lot of things. He was sullen and quick-tempered. He spent most of his time reading, hanging out in record stores, and going to see bands. He had seen The Fans, The Nasty Bucks, all the seminal Atlanta activity. Peter played a little guitar. He had sat around in some rec rooms jamming, but everyone he met, their version of rock and roll was to do a Grateful Dead version of a Chuck Berry song with a limp backbeat. They would do a noodly thing, clench their teeth, and look at the ceiling. Peter hated that shit.
One day he was at Atlanta’s Wuxtry, another used record store, flipping through albums and talking to Mark Methe, who ran the store with his Athens-based partner, Dan Wall. Peter complained that he didn’t have a job and hated living with his parents. “I’m thinking about moving to Athens, ’cause my brother lives there,” Peter mentioned. Mark Methe knew that Peter knew about records, so he pricked up his ears and said, “Well, a guy is quitting at the store in Athens in two days. You want a job?” And Peter said, “Great! Hell yeah! Why not?” He did one day of training—instructions on how not to buy used Deep Purple albums—and moved to Athens.
Peter moved to town and lived with his brother Ken in a house out on Lexington Highway next to Marion and Buck’s Bait Shop, where worms, lizards, and double-ought fish hooks were sold. At the record store Peter worked forty hours a week for three dollars an hour—not a whole lot, but his rent was only fifty dollars a month. With a job at the Wuxtry, Buck found himself by stroke of good fortune working in the middle of the nascent scene. Wuxtry was at least “semi-hip,” as Peter would say through the next many years. Before long he was friends with every guy in town who had ambitions to be guitar-cock in a band, and he was first-name and tattoo familiar with every girl who had a related ambition. There was constant talk of what was what and what everyone thought. Of what they were doing. Of how they were starting bands. These folks hung out at the record store looking for interesting new releases, digging up cool obscure stuff, finding new friends, listening to Peter tell them obscure rock trivia and stories about who and what he hated and who and what he loved, who and what he thought the greatest and where to get the best drugs.
It was through the record store, it would be said and said again through the coming many years, that Peter Buck met Michael Stipe. . . .
They met and they made quite the couple, doing their Mick Jagger/Keith Richards thing: Peter had the perfect leer, Michael had the perfect pout.
Michael Stipe came to Athens in 1977, moving to the area from St. Louis, Mo., with his two sisters, Cyndi and Lynda, and his mom and retired military dad. Being the only boy, Michael was adored by his sisters and his parents. As a child he became accustomed to getting attention, and by the time he was a teen he knew that he was special, the main attraction.
At high school in St. Louis, Michael wore his hair in a ‘natural,’ almost an Afro. He walked in platform shoes, wore wide-collared shirts. Despite all that, he was very popular. He was in a band and worked the glitter Mott the Hoople style: Once he went to The Rocky Horror Picture Show in Frank N. Furter drag: bare-chested and complete with black stockings, garters, bikini underwear, and thick lipstick, a Blue Oyster Cult pin stuck to his overcoat.
Michael tried very hard. He was working his way through it. He wanted to perform, and yet . . . he also wanted to be an artist. He could be flamboyant and flashy, or withdrawn, sultry, poetic. He was, by his own frequent confession, a confused Midwestern boy. But one thing he was sure of: He wanted to be a star.
Once in Athens, Michael looked for anything that would allow him to get up on stage. He wanted to be in another band. Wanted it bad. He worked in the kitchen at Sambo’s, and between burger plates he hunched like an oil-lamp clerk over the back-page ads of the local paper, looking for the magic, future-fame-promising words: “Singer Wanted.” That was what he did: Michael sang.
He answered ads. Went once. Saw they played shit. Never went back.
Finally he found one he could work with. A guitar player named Derek Nunally had a band called Gangster. They practiced in the garage behind his parents’ house in Monroe, Ga., a few miles outside of Athens. Michael practiced with the band in the garage, which they nicknamed “The Gangster Hideaway.” When they performed, playing all covers from Tom Petty to Elvis, they wore zoot suits. Michael, who was just seventeen at the time, wore one and gave himself a stage name, Michael Valentine. When they played around Athens, his sisters were always there, his biggest fans.
“I did it for the money,” Stipe said a decade later, still ashamed. “They paid me well. But it’s deeply embarrassing. It was a step back, just a reaching out for anything. I wore some elephant bells I had from high school and they all thought I was serious.”
Gangster broke up after Michael had been with them for a year. That was all right by him. He was into new music:
“My folks had gotten a Publisher’s Clearinghouse thing, you know, pick ten magazines for a dollar? And they said ‘Pick anything you want,’ and so I got The Village Voice. It sounded better than Good Housekeeping, Boys’ Life or Sports Illustrated. It sounded different. So I got it and started reading about all this stuff going on at CBGB’s. And I read an article by a writer comparing the new music to black-and-white television. Grainy, as opposed to the real high-resolution color television. And it was, like, all these new bands were small black-and-white TV against color. And it really piqued my interest. At the time I bought records at the mall and the PX, and the PX carried Roxy Music. I would go into the mall and bug the guy for records and finally Patti Smith’s record came out and I bought it.
“I loved Patti Smith. When I was sixteen my girlfriend gave me a membership in the Patti Smith Fan Club and her mother ran it and she sent me long letters and snapshots and wished me a happy sixteenth birthday.”
When he first came to Athens and enrolled in the university as an art student, Michael lived outside of town. When he had time between and after classes he hung out at Wuxtry talking to Peter, or at Chapter Three, another record store downtown. Between that, working at Sambo’s, and playing in Gangster, his time was spent.
Once they moved into the church together, the social worlds of Peter and Michael expanded. It was the fall of 1979. A new school year was beginning. And it began with an invitation to a party. . . .
Four of the D Phi U girls—Sandi Phipps, Linda Hopper, Kathy Russo, and Sally Hamilton—had moved out of the sub-basement of Reed Hall when school let out that spring. When school started again in the fall they set up house off-campus in a four-bedroom rental east of town on Lexington Highway, out across from the Putt Putt miniature golf course, just down the highway a ways from the church where their friend Kathleen had just moved with Peter Buck and Michael Stipe. The girls were thrilled to be free from the dorm. They spent the first days of the new fall finding old friends from the year before, collecting the new season’s phone numbers. To help out the re-meeting, they threw a party.
They called it a Reggae Party.
Sandi and Kathy set up a grill on the back porch. Sally picked up the keg and borrowed Peter Tosh records. Linda rolled spleefs. They braced the speakers in the living room and moved the stereo into a back bedroom where the turntable could best be kept steady during the floor-bending dancing that they knew was soon coming. They tore chicken wire from a fence out back, looped it into lopsided go-go cages and tied them with bits of ribbon like the bits they tied into their tight-braided whitegirl dreadlocks. They painted their eyes and mouths with a punk bruise smear of purple and black. They slipped red T-shirts over the lamps in the rooms and dimmed the lights to a disco-whorehouse low . . .
It was their week back at school and none of them had slept in days.
They announced the party and word went around town: the D Phi U house . . . across from the Putt Putt . . . free beer.
In that past August Pylon had played New York City with The Gang of Four. In early September they played the Agora Ballroom in Atlanta with Talking Heads and The B-52’s. Pylon was getting great reviews. They were special. They were the heroes in town, becoming a scene. Mark Cline, who was friends with the girls from Reed Hall, had made friends with That Crowd the year before: The Tone Tones, Pylon, the art school kids: Them. That first weekend back at school, Mark told them all that he knew these girls who were having a party. “And they know how to party! Trust me.” And they headed out the highway to the house. The intown art school band crowd showed up at the D Phi U house and mixed with the party-girl freshkids and their assorted friends, the blue-jeaned hippies, and the satellite cluster of shirt-tucked boys who always hover round a house of babes. It was the first seriously great episode of crowd-mixing.
The D Phi U girls couldn’t believe the weirdo friends Mark Cline brought with him to the party, new rock hipsters in peg-legged black cords and polka-poly party dresses. The girls freaked, but they loved it. David Gamble, big-chested, broad-shouldered, shaved-headed, shirtless drummer with The Tone Tones, Athens’ second band, was the only one who really scared anybody. Gamble got hugely drunk that night and Mark Cline, the devil himself in dead-man silver white lipstick, scratched a swastika on the big one’s forehead with black mascara. Gamble sat through the party in the D Phi U girls’ big pink thrift-store chair drinking beer from a gallon jug. He would prove to be a total sweetheart, but with his shiny shaved head, no shirt, and the mascara swastika drip-spinning from sweat, Gamble looked like the closest thing to a real punk any of the new kids had ever seen.
Although it was called a Reggae Party and the girls did their hair in thematic dreds, they only played one side of a Peter Tosh album. After that, they kept on with the New Wave dance stuff: Talking Heads, Elvis Costello, Blondie. That pissed off the mud-booted dope growers, who hadn’t yet come to appreciate the return of three-chord rock.
The night came on and the swill of partiers filled the yard, the kitchen, the bedrooms. In the living room a multi-colored hammock was bolted from the front door frame to the wall. It supported five easily if they wrapped themselves tight and didn’t move around too much. That night the hammock stayed full, swung hard, stayed hung.
Bill Berry and Mike Mills showed up and they each kept falling in love repeatedly throughout the night with the hostesses, while newly met lovers took turns in the bathrooms, cheered on by Mark Cline’s coterie of nasty Catholic rudeboys who pounded on the bathroom door and took names and right then started some slanders that would go around Athens for years to come, tales of who did what to whom in the bathroom that early fall night.
The dancing crowd, hot, sweaty, drunk, filled the living room, dining room, bedrooms. Everyone took their turns dancing in the chicken-wire go-go cages, then took a break for a beer, stood in the crowded kitchen, leaned on the counters, stained shirts and dresses with the countertop spills.
Someone had bought a fluorescent plastic tube at the county fair and it got out in the crowd somehow. As a group the kids dancing in the living room passed it mouth-to-mouth: Girls and guys in turns took the five-inch stick in their teeth, passed it on, and paused with strangers over the exchange. When trading it, they lingered over a dance-floor kiss, eyes closed, hips thrusting, each deep-throating the lighted green-yellow carnival favor, one taking it from another after a slow wet slip, then looking for their choice to pass it next, deciding who to give the glow, with whom to meet lips, share spit, click teeth.
The next day, the girls who lived at the house woke to a scene of such stained devastation that they hauled the carpet and furniture into the front yard and set them afire.