This tale of the late 1970s and early 1980s in Athens, Georgia, covers the advent of the music scene in the town, specifically as it relates to the New Wave period of Rock and Roll. Indeed, to this day, when I mention Athens, Georgia, to someone as a place where I live, many will recognize it as the home of two bands: the B-52's and R.E.M. (This is becoming less so as I get older, and the younger generation has no idea who said top 40 bands from the 1980s and 1990s are.) Even though many other bands have come out of the town now, outside of a few who follow indie bands or who happen to like a cult band, most folks outside of town seem not to have heard of said other bands, even ones that have hit the top 100.
But the B-52's and R.E.M. were a definitely unique force in their time. I grew up in California, and by the late 1980s, both bands had made their mark on the top 40, and I knew in each case the place where they had derived. I was not anything close to a connoisseur of counterculture music at that time, so that says something. And in the 1990s, during my grad school days, R.E.M. dominated MTV's playlist. As such, many memories are tangled up with the two bands. One that has particular fondness for me was at a wedding around 1990. A friend of mine from high school got married. The happy couple left, but the reception party, which involved a dance, continued. A local cover band played, and they were fantastic, and one of the songs they covered was "Roam," which was charting at that time. I remember the evening as a lovely hearken back to high school at a time when hearkening back to high school was important to me; I was on my own--my parents freshly having moved away for a job--going to college and working and not feeling as if I really fit in anywhere, the way I had in high school.
The book itself is a memory prod. I came to Athens in my thirties, a good couple of decades after the events recounted in this book. By that time, Athens already had a reputation for rock music. And I became a person who was sort of into the scene, who lived on its edges. I had many acquaintances among people who played in many of the current bands. I went to a few of the parties (though I usually avoided the afterparties, which happened after a bar closed and would stretch in to sunrise). I enjoyed my time in the scene and sort of miss it, though fewer and fewer people I'd see out were my age or even ten years below my age. (As a friend of mine says: The parties are still around--among those who are of the older set--but they are more private now and not as often.) At the same time, I never felt completely at home in it either. I am not a musician and had no desire to be one; I am very conservative religiously and morally, which meant that drugs and sex were not the part of the party culture that I mixed with, which in turn meant that I stayed away from some of the stuff going on.
So anyway, the book covers much of this as it was just getting started. Before these two bands--and the other bands who happened to be around at that time that did not find as large of a following, including Pylon, Love Tractor, and Oh-OK--Athens had been home, apparently, of mostly just country and blues bands, as one would expect of southern towns. One reads of the foundation of the music club, the 40 Watt. One reads of how R.E.M. and the B-52's came to be and of how the town became so hip that others began to come just to be part of the hipness (newspapers writing of it; Matthew Sweet, apparently, showing up for a few months to play until he himself hit it big and moved on, never intending to stay, just wanting the attention connected to Athens).
The stories of the parties--and there are a lot--get to be rather tedious by the middle of the book. And certainly, for me, R.E.M.'s founding was not as interesting, as it seemed more typical of many a band in town--this one just happened to become big stuff. But the early-going portions of the book are exciting. One can't help but feel the excitement as the B-52's become a thing. Formed, it seems, more or less as a lark, they were fun, fun, fun--and definitely the kind of band one would want at a party. Their odd style shook up the times, not just the town. But in a way, though they put Athens on the map for rock music, the predated that whole scene, so much so that they had to move to New York to find places (outside of private parties) to play.