Among the Athenians: A Conversation with Grace Elizabeth Hale




IN THE 1980s, with the Christian right ascendant, a bohemia flourished in the town of Athens, Georgia, unlike anything seen before in the Deep South. At its center was a new kind of Southern rock, arty and unbluesy: first The B-52’s, and later R.E.M., but also Love Tractor, Pylon, The Method Actors, Oh-OK, The Bar-B-Q Killers, and many more groups remembered fondly in and around Clarke County. For a time, the New York music scene hailed this hayseed avant-garde, though only a fraction of its output was ever for export. Meanwhile, the Athens scene sustained and replenished itself, remaking its provincialism into something heroic. You had to be there, or you had to make your own Athens. 

Grace Elizabeth Hale spent the boom years in Athens as a student at the University of Georgia, a musician in a band, and the proprietor of a café that doubled as a gallery and music venue called the Downstairs. Now the Commonwealth Professor of American Studies and History at the University of Virginia, Hale returns to Athens in her new book, Cool Town: How Athens, Georgia, Launched Alternative Music and Changed American Culture. She shows that Athens was many things besides a decade-long party: it was a vital outpost of queer art and living, a stage for white Southern kids trying to fashion (often literally) a new way to be white Southern kids, a site where the post-punk encounter with rural folkways yielded sublime and awkward strains of cultural hybridity. Like others before it, the Athens scene was an experiment in utopia, easily condescended to and always worth a second look. 

Hale asks all the right questions about Athens (and about herself), inviting readers to consider what the escape of counterculture really means. Along the way, she recovers something of the bliss it was in that muggy, hungover dawn to be alive. “I remember feeling drunk on the luck part of life,” she writes, “the web of decisions and chance that put me in Athens at that moment.”

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ANDREW HOLTER: Was there a point when you realized that what happened in Athens deserved to be studied in a serious way?

GRACE ELIZABETH HALE: It’s hard to answer that question because I always thought Athens was important. When I lived there and participated in the scene, Athens felt like the center of the universe. When I moved away, Athens still seemed important. The B-52’s and R.E.M. and less well-known musicians, like the members of Pylon and Vic Chesnutt, were brilliant and influential. Yet even beyond the music, Athens had taught people everywhere that ambitious, creative young people did not have to move to New York or a handful of other big US cities. Athens made so many other indie culture scenes possible. As I completed my PhD and became a historian, it seemed to me that no one could really understand late-20th-century music and culture without knowing something about Athens.

The element of memoir in the book is so compelling and even poignant. What was it like to immerse yourself, as a scholar, in a place and time containing so much personal history?

I’ve never written anything this personal before, and it was humbling and difficult. In the course of doing the research I remembered, or heard other people talk about, or read local press coverage of things I had forgotten. That was mostly an unexpected pleasure. I worked very hard to convey what seemed to me the right tone: that while I knew many of these people and bands and places and had played in a band and opened a café/music club, I was not a central character. I also checked my memory against other people’s memories and other kinds of sources to try to make sure I got the history right.

I’ve lived in the world of elite academia for a long time now, and I think I must have repressed just how lacking in intellectual or cultural sophistication I was when I arrived in Athens to go to the University of Georgia! This may sound weird, but writing Cool Town made me feel a lot of gratitude for my younger self, who somehow had the courage to realize that the conventional life courses I knew about then would have made me miserable and to find something different.

One of the striking and, to me, surprising insights of this book is how important a public research university — the University of Georgia — was in incubating the Athens scene. Are there any lessons there for universities and for students today, do you think?

Give students open access to cultural resources like old books and bound periodicals and extensive and eccentric collections of music and film and other media forms. And don’t “manage” these collections — books or records that are seldom checked out now, for example, may be just the thing that sparks something important in the future.

Give students space outside of class time and course assignments — room to think and pursue interests and experiment and build. Give them physical space and mental space. Much of what occurred in Athens happened because people had space to meet and to create in dorm rooms or lounges, open studios, radio station offices, campus galleries, and performance spaces.

No one was really paying a lot of attention at Georgia in those days, in a lot of parts of the university. The fact that a student is living in the film projection booth of an art classroom? A lot of great stuff comes out of that openness.

You suggest that one way of thinking about the Athens scene is as a response to the problem of white Southern identity, as an attempt to create a new way of being white in the South. In what ways did that happen and not happen?

There was something worth highlighting about a scene where it was not cool to be racist. That idea affected and shaped a lot of white kids who would have participated in the kind of casual racism of frat boys and of a lot of small-town and suburban kids. There was something powerful about it, just like there was something powerful about being part of a scene where it wasn’t cool to be homophobic. And that was important in spreading the idea that there could be a white Southernness that’s antiracist. Of course, activists obviously had been at this long before. But scene people created a hip version and spread it out in a broader way in indie culture. It’s also worth remembering that many scene participants lived through the integration of their schools.

Still, the problem in this new way of being white and Southern that comes out of the Athens scene is that it depends too much on a kind of romanticization of African Americans, and that’s not equality, either. It’s related in that sense to ’60s and ’70s folk revivalism and even older literary romanticism — all the ways in which those movements celebrate and fetishize “the other.”

The other thing I would say as a critique is that white kids in the scene didn’t understand anything about microaggressions, and that was a problem. So, my answer to the question hinges on the word “new.” I don’t think these Athens bohemians solved the nation’s white supremacy problem or that they managed to cleanse themselves of all racism. But I do think they created a better way of being a white Southerner, a way that reimagined a connection to the region as not about a tradition of white supremacy.

R.E.M. are essential to the story you tell in this book, of course, but you write about the band in a way that no one really has before. You demystify them with a lot of care. Did you want to interview the band members and they refused?

Back in the day, I knew Michael Stipe a bit, in a kind of friends-of-friends way, and I had met Pete Buck because a friend of mine dated and lived with his brother. I also saw Mike Mills and Bill Berry around town, at the Georgia Bar and the Uptown and the 40 Watt. So, after I had worked on this book for a few years interviewing other people and digging up recordings and other sources, I reached out to band members through Bertis Downs, R.E.M.’s longtime lawyer and manager, who had been my neighbor on Cobb Street when I lived in Athens.

I was disappointed, but not really surprised, when none of them wanted to talk to me. They have spoken a lot over the years about their own history and Athens. In some ways, not talking to them was freeing. I worked hard to dig up every article about the band, every review, and every printed or recorded or filmed interview.

I’m a cultural historian, so I wanted to explain, to the degree it was possible, where the band came from and why they made the music they did, and why it mattered to me (I was a huge fan) and so many other people. And of course, R.E.M. is central to any story about Athens.

I’m totally fascinated by Laura Carter, the singer of the Bar-B-Q Killers who steals the show in Athens, GA: Inside/Out. Carter comes across so vividly in your account — we get a real sense of how transgressive and inspirational she was — and yet she’s remained such an obscure figure. What explains that?

Well, she was famous in Athens and Atlanta during the heyday of the Bar-B-Q Killers, who packed local clubs during the years when people saw Athens, GA: Inside/Out on MTV and on glitchy VHS tapes. She certainly is a star in that movie. If the Bar-B-Q Killers had been more successful outside of Athens and Atlanta, that might have helped. But the Bar-B-Q Killers did not exactly fit, either in their sound or their performance style, within the then-heterosexual male-dominated genre of hardcore. And they broke up before the riot grrrls opened up space for a greater variety of musicians and sounds within the harder-edged end of indie rock.

Carter was also a woman unafraid to express her unconventional sexuality, her anger, and her opinions about other local bands and their music. This quality got her into trouble sometimes. She also struggled with drug abuse.

It’s kind of uncanny how, in Athens, GA: Inside/Out, she seems like someone from 2020 and everyone else seems like they’re from 1986.

To figure out how to live in a category that today would be called nonbinary, but in a time when there’s no category, there’s no public discussion of it — you’re not plugging into anything, you’re just having to figure it out — as hard as that is to do today, to do that in a place and time when you don’t have any of that apparatus is, to me, incredible and powerful.

You must have listened to so much music while researching this book. What discoveries or rediscoveries made the greatest impression? What’s the great Athens band whose work should be reissued?

Yes, that was the fun part of the research! The problem is that I can’t just pick one. I’ll offer four: The Squalls, the Bar-B-Q Killers, Mercyland, and 28 Days. If I had to narrow the list today, I would probably choose The Squalls, just because their music makes me really happy, and we need that emotion this year.

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Andrew Holter’s writing has appeared in The Brooklyn Rail, Eater, The Outline, The Paris Review Daily, The Quietus, and elsewhere. He lives in Chicago. 

 

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