Cool Town

Cool Town: How Athens, Georgia, Launched Alternative Music and Changed American Culture
By Grace Elizabeth Hale
[University of North Carolina Press]

Damn, I am old. So why does it blow my mind that 40+ years have transpired since Athens became the nexus of the Southern avant-garde, the wellspring of Georgia post-punk and the cool place to be? And why is it that the music and culture that came from Athens in that era, well, why does it still seem, uh, new? Time is brutal like that. And the Mach I Athens music scene really was a hell of a lot cooler than anything that’s happening now, musically. There, I said it.

I was a teenager when the presence of Athens as a mecca for all things (new) wavy, weird and wonderful began to loom most saliently – thanks, at first, to the wonderful B-52s. I’m not from Georgia, but most of my extended family lives down here. So I was here a lot, I was a new waver (and then a punk, and then a, ugh, “hardcore man,” but that’s another story), I listened to “Pure Mania” on WRAS, and I had (and still have) a cool cousin who hipped me to all the new stuff going down in Athens (and Atlanta) in real time. All of this is to say that while I was not a part of the Athens scene, I was privy to it. I had the records when they were first released, I saw most of the first wave Athens bands in various venues around the South, I actually even went there in the ’80s a couple three times, and I felt (and still feel) the slightest sense of membership/nostalgia for a scene I only knew of by proxy.

Sure, there have already been books (most notably Party Out of Bounds), movies (Athens, GA: Inside/Out) and documentaries aplenty about the development of the Athens scene, most of which chronicle the time spanning the inception of the B-52s through the mid ’80s when R.E.M. rode the college rock train all the way to mainstream success. And, well, sure – that’s probably the most interesting era of Athens music thus far. But there was a second (or was it third or fourth?) wave of Athens bands that pushed the scene into the ’90s, most of which are all but forgotten. Thankfully, Athens expatriate Grace Elizabeth Hale has seen fit to regale us with another Athens music tome, Cool Town: How Athens, Georgia, Launched Alternative Music and Changed American Culture, and this one’s a little different: It’s a bit more in-depth, it continues into the mid ’90s, and it teeters just a wee bit on the brink of a scholarly/theoretical thing, too. Two of the three aforementioned differentiating factors make the book well worth reading. And that third factor, well, I’ll get to that too.

For expediency’s sake, I will spare you my synopsis of Hale’s Athens music history. Hell, Stomp and Stammer readers are gourmands of rock ’n’ roll, mostly Georgians and certainly Southerners, which is to say that you know all this stuff already, right? Let’s just say that Cool Town offers a more expansive view of the factors that aligned just so in late ’70s Athens which made it possible for a bunch of queer-friendly post-wave bands to draw the national spotlight and eventually, more or less fomented America’s indie rock, um, “revolution.” But don’t get me wrong. The beast that “college/indie” rock became and continues to be is not the fault of the aboriginal Athens bands. Most of them were great. And they certainly were different.

Sure, Cool Town has a lot of information, some of which is new or new-to-me, about our beloved B-52s and R.E.M., two acts who were much more ambitious/careerist than they portrayed themselves as being. (And, by the way, I’m not saying that their being ambitious is a bad thing. I’m not buying into the notion of “selling out” by any means. Capitalism’s [mostly] OK, and, baby, I’m one too – more or less.) And sure, there are significant histories of Pylon (in my view, the best Athens band ever) and Vic Chesnutt, artists of consequence who never became household names in Anytown, USA. And the proverbial icing on the cake is that Hale also grants necessary attention to the subsequent, louder, messier, punkier acts that emerged in the late ’80s, such as the Bar-B-Q Killers and (especially) the truly stellar and for the most part criminally overlooked Mercyland.

As we well know, there was (and remains) a significant intersectionality between the Athens and Atlanta scenes. And Hale has done an excellent job historicizing this overlap. So, while Cool Town is ostensibly about Athens, it’s also about ATL. And, for me, this is what make’s Hale’s account most interesting, because, hey, I’ve lived in Atlanta long enough now (13 years) to claim resident status, and because, well, while I was not a part of the ATL scene “back in the day,” I was at least privy to it in real time.

Before reading Cool Town, I never knew that there was an event called the Atlanta Punk Festival in 1978. And I was truly heartwarmed that Hale acknowledges how midnight reenactments of The Rocky Horror Picture Show (Plaza Theater reprazent!) functioned as a meeting place for underage wannabe wavers in the early ’80s. And it’s especially validating to see a photo of short-lived (but truly great) Atlanta venue, the White Dot in the book. And isn’t it great that Hale at least namedrops ATL proto-punk/wave band, The Fans? All of this is to say that Hale’s painstakingly, lovingly researched book covers all, or at least most of the bases of late ’70s/’80s/early ’90s Georgia rock, Athens and Atlanta – even the more obscure ones.

Still, there is the slightest glitch. Throughout the book, Hale, an academic (and, baby, I’m one too), insists on steering the reader on frequent detours into a somewhat grating, quasi-theoretical cul-de-sac about rural bohemia and how Athens provided a welcoming milieu for the “bohemian diaspora” that coalesced there. Sorry, but when I want to read about diaspora, I’ll read Frantz Fanon.

Yeah, I guess the diaspora bit makes sense. But, honestly, I wanted a “rock book” about Athens (and kinda/sorta Atlanta too) here, not a watered-down critical/cultural studies for the masses thing.

Again, I’ll begrudgingly concede that the bohemian diaspora thing does make sense. Athens really is a cool place. And cool people did (and still do) flock to Athens from far-flung locales, spurring heretofore unimagined conditions of artistic possibility. Yeah, Hall captures that real cool time when anything was possible for Georgia rock. So this book’s a keeper. In my view, it’s the most comprehensive history of Athens rock available as yet.

As Hall writes, The Athens, Georgia, scene was one of the earliest, most important, and most lasting sources of this bohemian diaspora. If young people could create their own alternative culture there, they could make one anywhere. Yeah, I get it.