Do Go Back To Athens
Every time I visit Athens, Georgia, I lament that it’s been too long since my last visit. There is something incredibly special about the place, something that extends beyond its fame as R.E.M.’s home town and permeates seemingly the entire populace. It’s a notion of civility, friendliness and hospitality, and even though these are attributes all supposedly applicable to the American South in general, they’re that much more sincere in Athens, that much more heartfelt, that much more egalitarian in their nature, and therefore that much more appreciated.
I was in Athens for barely 36 hours for the occasion of R.E.M. In Perspective: An Athens History hosted by the Athens Historical Society, a symposium of sorts that took place Sunday October 21 at the town’s Seney-Stovall Chapel. I had readily accepted the all-expenses paid invitation to be part of a panel – who wouldn’t? In fact, I was so grateful that I also accepted the invitation to be keynote speaker without thinking of the implications, namely that I would be getting up in a front of a room full of Athens natives and residents and musicians and politicians and somehow trying to tell them something they didn’t already know.
I don’t normally fret about public speaking, but this one had me absolutely shit-scared, and if it hadn’t done, I probably wouldn’t have pulled it off to the extent that I did. I asked if I could talk for ten minutes maximum; I ended up doing so for almost twenty-five. I offered my observations the only way that I could so, honestly: zooming in on Athens very very slowly, initially from the perspective of the London music scene upon Murmur’s release back in 1983, then on the American “college rock” scene of the mid-eighties, then honing in on Georgia, and finally talking about Athens itself from the view of both a tourist and a music journalist. People seemed to appreciate hearing about their town from such a global perspective, and it did strike me that R.E.M.’s presence in Athens in the early 1980s was so damn normal that many in the room had not really thought about the fact that both band and town were famous overseas. Certainly, no greater compliment could have been paid, given my fears, than having Michael Stipe’s mother introduce herself afterwards to tell me she’d actually learned something from my talk.
I too learned from the two panels, one on R.E.M.’s Musical and Artistic Roots in Athens, the other on R.E.M.’s Social, Civic, Political, Preservation and Economic Impact on Athens. (Hey, they like telling stories down south; you can’t expect to keep panel topics to just a few words!) The former included several people who had been witness to R.E.M.’s first show at the Oconee Street Church back in April 1980, including its host, the then birthday girl Kathleen O’Brien, Pylon drummer Curtis Crowe and Side Effects drummer Paul Butchart who, in 1989, ran for mayor of Athens on, and I quote, “a platform of environmental protection, recycling and bike paths.” The fact that he and another independent candidate amassed a third of the vote between them indicated the extent to which Athenians were frustrated with politics as usual and encouraged the townspeople to think deeply about the possibility of effecting long-term change.
On the second panel, we saw and heard the results of this thinking, most notably in the form of former Mayor Gwen O’Looney, who with R.E.M.’s support and encouragement, became Mayor of the newly Unified Government of Athens-Clarke County, heralding something of a new dawn for the town’s socially conscious populace. Although this second panel could have done with some shorter speeches and a little more interaction, it was fascinating not so much for just hearing the long list of R.E.M.’s contributions and achievements to the city of Athens, but for understanding what moderator Milton Leathers called their influence on the “tipping point.” That was a moment in the early 1990s when the generation of punk kids, those who had once partied their way through college on their way to forming rock’n’roll bands, matured enough to institute real change in the politics of their home town – a change that has led to vital historical preservation and a sensible attitude to everything from recycling to big box stores.
I made the point at the end of my keynote speech about how there had to be something in the Athens water supply that made people so damn decent, and how, given the extent of the current drought that had the Georgia Governor declared a State of Emergency while I was there, I hoped it would not dry up. Clearly, attitudes can be self-perpetuating, and a town that is known for being a musical and social hotbed has every incentive to stay that way. But as much as anything, I noted that the most important connection between R.E.M. and Athens was not that they formed there – bands form in every college town every day of the week – but that they stayed there. The income that R.E.M. brought to the city, both directly in terms of royalties and indirectly in terms of tourism, gave them a power base that enabled them to truly effect change on the place. As we learned from the second panel, they’ve contributed to more charities and foundations than you may have thought could exist, but they’ve also ensured that old buildings have stayed standing, and that new ones have been erected with respect to the environment around them. The Seney-Stovall Chapel itself is perhaps a prime example: the group were filmed there for the Athens Inside Out movie in the mid-80s, back when it was a crumbling shell. Now fully restored and redecorated as the home of the Athens Historical Society, it has just served as a studio for the group to finish recording their fourteenth studio album.
The picture is not perfect. Atlanta has infamously grown beyond all reason in recent years, making for arguably the egregious example of suburban sprawl in America, proven both by the traffic – and indeed, by the clamor for limited water during the current drought. Athens, for all the local Government’s good intentions, has similarly doubled in size in under thirty years to a population of over 100,000, and everywhere I turned, there were housing developments and condominiums going up. The formerly “decreptit” college town (in Curtis Crowe’s words) now boasts many expensive restaurants, students drive around in BMWs, and the significant black population does not appear to playing a significant role in the town’s day-to-day running: the only non-white face at the Seney-Stovall Chapel was that of Dexter Weaver, whose soul food restaurant was made famous when R.E.M. took his “Automatic For The People” promise as an album title. Dexter was surely the funniest person on either panel; it was a pleasure to meet him.
Indeed it was a pleasure to meet everyone in Athens over the course of that 36 hours. I have to give special thanks to the event’s organizer and my personal host, Blair Dorminey, who drove me to and from airports, took me out to dinner, and otherwise treated me way beyond my expectations. I was thrilled to finally meet Kathleen O’Brien Layson, whom I had talked to extensively on the phone while researching Remarks. I had a fine time out on Saturday night at Farm 255 restaurant with Blair and a bunch of people from the impending panels, including Maureen McLaughlin; without that meal as a precursor, and despite too much red wine (everyone drinks in Athens, and it’s pointless to try swimming against that tide; better to just run off the effects on a sunny Sunday morning!), I would not have had the confidence to stand up the next day and speak as I did. And I had an especially lovely time on Sunday evening at the event’s after-party at the Globe. I had been told that Esquire recently named the Globe the best bar in America and I initially scoffed at the very thought. Six hours later, having worked our way through a fantastic pub dinner, some lovely draft beer (including Belhaven and London Pride) and even a glass of Grüner Veltliner, I couldn’t think, offhand, of a better candidate for the title.
During those hours, I got to know Jeff Montgomery and his wife Shannah of AthensMusic.Net, Eric Zimmerman of remring.com, who had flown down from Chicago and has subsequently written up the panels in great detail, and made closer friendships with many of the people on the two panels. It was such a great time that I even took in stride the fact that I had to get up at 5:30am the next morning to make it to the airport – and though Blair did likewise to get me there, the traffic was so horrendous and, in particular, the airport was so damn congested, with lines for security weaving hundreds of yards around the baggage carousels on Monday morning rush hour, that I actually missed my flight and was stuck in the terminal, short on sleep and unable to think straight, for the next six hours! Still, it was raining buckets that morning, which meant that, just for a day, talk of the drought ceased. And at least whatever they’ve put in the Athens water supply looks like it is not about to dry up any time soon.