Grace Elizabeth Hale, a historian at the University of Virginia, is the author of Making Whiteness: The Culture of Segregation in the South, 1890–1940 (1995) and A Nation of Outsiders: How the White Middle Class Fell in Love with Rebellion in Postwar America (2010). Hale herself grew up a member of the white middle class in the Atlanta suburbs and moved to Athens in 1982 to attend the University of Georgia. At UGA she rebelled by joining a band, failing to become a pharmacist, and staying in Athens after graduation. Hale was still in Athens during the late eighties, at the peak of the city’s musical celebrity (R.E.M.’s first song to reach the top spot on Billboard’s mainstream rock chart, “Stand,” came out in 1988), and so her third book, Cool Town: How Athens, Georgia, Launched Alternative Music and Changed American Culture, offers an insider’s perspective, but with the thorough research typical of her profession. The result is less a music or history book than a work of cultural anthropology in which Hale, rather than celebrate and catalog Athens music, contextualizes the music as the most visible product of a culture both experimental and insular, and of a community that nurtured its artists.
Cool Town starts in the 1970s, at the intersection of a vibrant art-school scene and a playful, ostentatious LGBQTA+ scene. The latter, with its drag parties, was unusual for a small Southern city. At its center Hale places a character named Jeremy Ayers, who had been a gender-bending “superstar” at Andy Warhol’s Factory in New York City, where Ayers mingled with the likes of trans icon Candy Darling, the muse who inspired the Velvet Underground song “Candy Says.” Back in Athens, Ayers shelved his glamorous superstar act for a style that the Village Voice called “boho as hobo,” in which he looked like “a copy of a copy, a contemporary version of a sixties folk-music fan’s fantasy of a Depression-era working-class man.” Hale adds, “Drag as gender play was still there, though, in the clothes but more powerfully in his affect. Cool and constrained, Ayers hung back at the edges. He whispered, and people had to lean in to hear. He made self-effacement sexy. Emotionally, he played ‘the girl.’ ” Ayers wasn’t a musician (though he did, like everyone else in Cool Town, perform in a band), so his influence wasn’t musical; rather, it was on what it meant to be cool. By virtue of his age and experience, he seems to have had a mystique, and younger people, including R.E.M. leadman Michael Stipe, tried to emulate the soft-spoken persona of the beautiful older man.
Jeremy Ayers was a central figure in the scene that generated the first commercially successful new music band to come out of Athens: the B-52’s. Setting the stage, Hale describes nineteen-year-old Keith Strickland, who worked at the Greyhound station and had no affiliation with UGA, showing up at a free concert on campus wearing a gold lamé jacket, stacked heels, and lipstick, with his hair “stiffened with hairspray, stuck up high in a trashed approximation of a down-rent beauty-shop style.” Ricky Wilson was Strickland’s friend from Athens High School, and as teens they were already hanging out with an older crowd that included college students, art professors, and Ayers. When the two friends road-tripped to New York City, they hung out with Ayers’s superstar cohort, who helped them find glamorous clothes at thrift stores so they could dress like Hollywood starlets. And when the boys returned to Athens, where they could buy secondhand clothes by the pound, dressing up and playing music became their way of life. Hale captures the subtlety of their act:
Like many of the Factory folks, they were not interested in creating a seamless illusion. They were not trying to “pass.” Instead, embracing the space where male and female visually met, the guys put on vintage dresses and makeup without shaving their faces or their legs. A few women sometimes joined in, wearing old over-sized suit jackets and dress shirts or their own versions of their male friends’ drag looks.
Among those female friends was Ricky Wilson’s sister, Cindy, still in high school, so the glittery clothes and beehive wigs that she and Kate Pierson would later adopt in the B-52’s can be thought of, like Ayers’s Depression-era attire, as copies of copies: they were doing their male friends doing drag. Along the same lines, the shades-and-a-sweatshirt pose that Keith Strickland and Ricky Wilson struck in early photos of the band can be thought of as two “freaks,” as they called themselves, doing “frat bros.” And their smug expressions, lurking in the background, can be seen as a way of trolling the mainstream culture of Athens and beyond.
The incongruity of Strickland and Ayers makes clear that the scene, for all of its iconoclasm, was dominated by people affiliated with UGA. Hale is careful to remind us that the vast majority of students and professors were middle- and upper-class whites, and that the young people like her who defied their parents’ expectations by remaining in town to play music were operating from a place of privilege: they saw themselves as having the option to rebel by squandering, or at least deferring, the earning-potential afforded them by a college degree. This puts them in stark contrast to Georgia’s first generation of rock-and-roll musicians, from Little Richard to Otis Redding, who used performance as a way to escape racialized poverty. Further problematizing the dynamic, early new music bands such as the B-52’s and Pylon “drew on sounds people thought of then as ‘black.’ ” This was true of white musicians all over the United States, however, and what differentiated Athens musicians like R.E.M. (and what would soon be called alternative music or “college rock”) is that their sound was singled out by rock critics for sounding “white.” Hale describes the young members of R.E.M. as being, like many white Southerners, uncomfortable discussing race, though they were among the first generation of Southern musicians to attend racially integrated schools. They recognized rock music as an appropriation by white musicians from black musicians, and they tried to distance themselves from that history as well as from an earlier Southern rock tradition with its brazen and unacknowledged appropriation. The singer-songwriter Vic Chesnutt, who grew up in rural Pike County, puts it most directly when he describes the white rock fans he grew up around: “The stoner crowd was rednecks, and I fucking hated them. They were dumbasses, and they were racists.” Young Chesnutt didn’t yet know where or what he wanted to be, only what he wanted to leave.
To Chesnutt, Athens represented an alternative, inverted world where the traits that had alienated him from his peers (reading poetry, disapproving of racism) now endeared him to them. Chesnutt, an English major at UGA, disseminated poems he wrote on fliers that he copied at a Kinko’s, where he was encouraged by the manager, Vanessa Briscoe Hay, who happened to be the lead singer of Pylon. Years later, Michael Stipe would help Chesnutt record his first album. Hale suggests that this sort of nurturing was typical of the scene, which was inclusive and embraced amateurism: musicians from Pylon guitarist Michael Lachowski to Hale herself had not played instruments before forming their bands. The scene also embraced the eccentricity of artists like Chesnutt, who flourished on small, supportive stages like that of the Grit (the original coffee shop by the railroad tracks, yet to become the famous vegetarian restaurant on Prince Avenue) and the Downstairs on Clayton Street, a restaurant and coffee shop with only a makeshift stage. Chesnutt, who used a wheelchair, had to be lowered and raised from the Downstairs by his friends.
On the subject of the Downstairs, Cool Town takes a surprising turn, as Hale must place herself at the center of events in the book. This is because she and then-boyfriend David Levitt opened, co-owned, and operated the Downstairs. Their decision to start a business was much more unusual among their peers than joining a band or changing majors, but Hale ascribes their willingness to take such a risk, as well as their ability to do what needed to be done on the fly, to the DIY ethos that undergirded their scene. By the time she and Levitt made their decision in 1987, Hale writes, DIY had evolved from “a method, a way of inventing our own art, music, and meaning, into a culture, a set of established models, formats, rituals, and meanings.” Hale left town in the early nineties (the events of the book mostly end there as well), but she attributes her success as a historian to the DIY culture that nurtured her. At the most basic level, she explains, “what I did in the scene—creating and running a business and playing in a local band—gave me the confidence to think that I could be a scholar.”
In Athens, Hale suggests, the meaning of indie “had less to do with the technicalities of business ownership and more to do with agency, with who held the power to make decisions about your sound, look, and style.” She describes a scene populated by musicians who struggle to reconcile “the role of ambition, a decidedly ‘mainstream’ desire, in an alternative culture committed to critiquing American society and its focus on getting ahead.” Hale posits that their solution to this contradiction was “a focus on making our own culture,” which required a mix of transgressive invention and a sort of back-to-the-land folk revival. We see in the Athens of Cool Town the beginnings of the indie culture we may recognize today, and yet the book stops short of convincing us that Athens truly changed American culture, as the title suggests. Artists and musicians still struggle to reconcile ambition and craft, and most still operate in the margins of even as nurturing a city as Athens. Most still struggle to make inroads beyond the arts in the city, let alone in the rest of America. And yet there’s much to admire in a group of people who strove, and continue to strive, to live according to their own values.
Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2020. 384 pp. $27.00.