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the pioneer of Dylan Studies; writer, public speaker, critic; became a Doctor of Letters in 2015 (awarded by the University of York, UK)

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Thursday, September 22, 2011


News that REM have split up, after 31 years' existence, makes it seem a good moment to reproduce an article of mine about their hometown, Athens GA, written in 1999 (plus a fraction from 2001) while I was in Georgia researching the life of Blind Willie McTell. Here it is: 

When Shelley wrote “Another Athens shall arise”, he didn’t envisage it as the grunge capital of the South, a sort of Sun Belt Seattle.

This venerable town in rural East Georgia has been enjoying a renaissance based on sheer student numbers and white guitar-based rock bands. This began, or stopped being a local secret, because Athens was hometown to two renowned groups, R.E.M. and the B52s.

I headed there from Atlanta by bus, on Highway 78, a small road through deep woodland with brick bungalows, wooden houses, swathes of grassy farmland, glistening horses, the Full Gospel Holiness Church and ramshackle flea-markets.

I was almost the only person to alight at Athens, where the bus-station waiting-room, two blocks from downtown, is miraculously timeless. I told the manager, who had brought in my suitcase, how good it was to see the pre-war curvaceous wooden bench seating still there. He said yes, it’s been there since 1939 and not even a broken arm-rest. “Can you imagine what all that oak would cost today?”

He’d never heard of my expensive B&B, the, er, Athenaeum… but he found it in Yellow Pages and called me a cab. A mile from the centre, it’s in a leafy street of turn-of-the-century houses, some now frat houses for the university of 30,000 students. Wooden steps led up to a back porch. A pony-tailed young man showed me to an enormous ground-floor room. The room was chinoiserie bourgeoiserie.

It was an autumn afternoon, the air warm and foreign. I sat out on the back porch, near a huge grey cat and two huge ashtrays full of fag-ends - just to confirm that B&B is not like hotel life, I suppose.

I read through the Flagpole Guide to Athens, trying to find clues about real quality in the remorselessly positive write-ups of the restaurants and bars. Their quantity was not in doubt. Athens, population 95,000 - less than Telford - has 48 “American” eateries, plus another 30 doing “Downhome & BBQ”; 14 Asian restaurants; 19 Italians (discounting Pizza Hut, as you should); 10 Mexican; three vegetarian; 14 coffee-houses; and a further 25 miscellaneous food places from Latino to Cajun to German to Middle Eastern to a New Orleans oyster bar.

I had Rebeccas Wells’ deep south novel “Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood” on the table beside me. People started arriving for a meeting of a preservation society. A crumbling, rheumy-eyed woman in her fifties tottered up the steps in a mauve trouser-suit, spotted the book and asked what I thought of it.

“I have mixed feelings,” I answered. “I -”

“ - Well it’s a women’s book.”

Oh, right: so much for my critical skills.

I took a university bus into town. These are free and run every five minutes during the day. You can’t mistake them: they say THE BUS along their sides. I jumped off by the war memorial (the Civil War, of course: the only one that counts down here), where downtown meets the campus entrance. A notice says this was the earliest state university, and that when “the War for Southern Independence” began, most students joined up and the university closed for two years.

The campus was like the green pastures of Harvard with more luxuriant foliage, including black elephant-ear plants. People walked, cycled and roller-bladed past, often smiling hello. People are polite. It’s creditable that you can walk in unhindered off the street. At the vast main library, scented with old hardbacks, no-one searched my bag.

The autumn weather was hot: 84º [29º celsius] at 4.30pm. Students flowed across the zebra crossing between the campus and downtown, snacking on junk food. Occasionally one had purple hair or self-mutilation jewellery; most just looked pudgy and dead-eyed dull: overgrown American children, already weary from a lifetime’s ease and mass culture. (One girl was writing notes on the film “Pretty Woman” by from Cliff Notes.)

As I transcribed the war memorial’s phantasmagoric prose (“True to the Soil that gave them Birth… to their Ancestors of High Renown… These Heroes - Ours in the Unity of Blood… Reached the Consummation of Earthly Glory… Holiest Office of Human Fidelity Possible to Brave Men… They won their Title to an Immortality of Love and Reverence”) the traffic flowed past, and, living out race clichés, most cars driven by black Athenians pounded out medically dangerous levels of bass and numbing rap lyrics - lyrics exactly as opaque and overblown as the memorial inscription.

Downtown is not one main street, as in Georgia’s smaller towns, but a criss-cross of tree-lined streets, jumbling nineteenth-century to 1960s buildings. As darkness fell they looked like leafy provincial English high streets - except that all the shops that weren’t clothes stores seemed to be bar-cafés, open until 2 or 3am. The mix of students, profs, business types and young townies within was almost all white. In a doorway a black busker played weird runs on an electric guitar you could hear way down the street.

You hear guitars everywhere. There are 300 local groups. Every time a listing is published, half have already disbanded and 150 new bands or new permutations of old ones have replaced them. Most are white guitar-rock. There’s the all-black Common People’s Band but it plays early Tamla-Motown to indifferent frat audiences; most black musicians are DJs or in mixed bands, or play blues or hip-hop outside the middle-class white loop that is The Scene. “De facto segregation influences the music scene as much as any other segment of Athens,” says local journalist Aisha Leuwenhoek.

She says The Scene is allegedly split between frats-and-hippies and townies (“post-punk, gay, pierced, tattooed, commie, country and western, subversive…”) but that the facts don’t fit this theory - thus Vic Chesnutt, charismatic townie genius songwriter now getting a little international recognition, has recorded with local hippy heroes Widespread Panic. Meanwhile, though your waiter may be a muzo who was once big in Belgium, locals who say the Athens renaissance is over are probably just being snobbish.

The crucial thing about Athenian guitar bands is that they’re fiercely anti-Atlanta. Everyone in Athens hates or affects to hate Atlanta: its size, its commuting, its swarms of “beggars and weirdos”, its feverish struggle to Make It. Athens musicians are all duck-tape, grunge and avant garde. Atlanta bands are all cordless mikes and mainstream ambition.

The pressing question is felt to be, though: how long before Athens is absorbed into Atlanta’s commuter-belt? Under ten years, most people fear. The two cities are 70 miles apart.

On apparent borrowed time, then, youthful downtown Athens remains unique: a youthful mix of scuzzy dives with pool tables and black-painted floorboards; fast-food caffs with polystyrene plates and waxed paper drink buckets littering their outside tables and the streets; and polished dark-wood watering holes for obnoxious businessmen and politicians in immaculate clothes pressed for them by the maids and southern-belle women they despise.

In Hollister's, which was dark, empty and congenial, I was alone apart from the short young man playing one of the games machines, who turned out to be the barman. He bore an unfortunate facial resemblance to George W. Bush but was very pleasant, gave me my second Bud Lite free and was helpful with general information about the area. He kept playing Lynyrd Skynyrd on the sound system and was keen on the music of the 1960s and 70s, including the Allman Brothers, and on electric blues. Yet he had never heard of Blind Willie McTell and had no sense that any such important figure from the past came from or belonged to this region.

In the oyster bar at lunchtime next day, surrounded by the politicians and businessmen, I listened perforce to these Tennessee Williams bullies and their ringing phones. (“They just weren’t Athenian type people…”; “He was doin’ the American Dream thing: he got a brand new wife…”) The place exuded pampered plenty but the waitress was comically inept. Maybe she’s a great guitarist.

© Michael Gray 2011



Anonymous Kieran said...

Never really liked REM. Didn't dislike them either. That was probably the problem. They're a little same-ish, apart from the few catchy hits I liked.

I also didn't like the way Michael Stipe would harmonise with himself on a record. It's such a recording device! You're singing with yourself? Odd.

11:46 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Bob liked the Athens record stores on his visit to the town some years ago, I 'disremember' the exact year. The story told is he mooched around one store and collected a large pile of records (not cd's) which he placed on the counter. Without any means to pay he asked the guy to put them by and he'd have someone come and collect and pay for them later. And so it came to pass...hope all is well. Greetings from GA. Duncan

7:04 pm  

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