Pylon Shines a Light on Morning Munchies, Exercising Caution and Getting Put in a Box
The city of Athens has changed massively since the early 1980s – for better and worse. The University of Georgia’s national stature has risen, and it’s no longer a given for graduates to leave town in order to launch their careers – thanks in part to the extension of State Route 316 that makes the drive to metro Atlanta more manageable. Rents have also skyrocketed – for both businesses and residents.
Visit Michael Lachowski’s apartment, though, and one could be forgiven for overlooking that evolution. The Pylon bassist has lived in the same place since 1987, a stately Victorian only a block or so from campus I’d expect a wealthy alum to have renovated into a million-dollar mansion. Proceed to the gravel driveway and side entrance, however, and the feel quickly shifts to a college crash pad, with uneven floors and bikes parked in the dark first floor hallway. “The electrical and plumbing probably haven’t been updated since the Forties,” Lachowski shrugs with a hint of pride.
Michael and I sat in lawn chairs on his side yard for better than two hours – amassing more than our fair share of insect bites – recounting Pylon’s heyday and the newly minted 4-LP Pylon Box that impressively documents the era. Heck, I already own nearly all the music but the selling point for me is a 200-page 12” hardbound book (it’s a vinyl box, after all) brimming with photos, a generous essay, and remembrances from a wide array of A-List fans like Sleater-Kinney, Big Black and frequent tour mates Gang of Four. Frontwoman Vanessa Briscoe Hay joined us for most of the conversation.
Pylon is the pillar in Athens’ rock scene bridging the eras of the B-52’s and R.E.M. All three bands were renowned for proudly waving their hometown flags, but arguably Pylon played the most central role in establishing the local scene itself. The B’s – as they’re affectionately known to insiders – decamped fairly early for New York City, where they honed their act and played up the Georgia roots as part of their oddball charm. By contrast, the more austere and bass-driven Pylon had no grand aspirations – they were more interested in keeping the party going for a relatively close-knit group of locals.
All four members grew up in suburban Atlanta before heading to UGA for college (guitarist Randy Bewley, born in Florida, moved to Atlanta in his teens). Lachowski was a Catholic school kid from a working-class Stone Mountain family, drummer Curtis Crowe hailed from Marietta, and it’s probably a stretch to refer to the Dacula of 1973 that Briscoe Hay left as a suburb.
Fast forward a few years, and Michael picks up the origin story. “Curtis and his buddy rented this building (for an insanely cheap rate, I’m sure) right on College Ave, smack downtown. The upper floors were abandoned and totally disgusting.” (Anyone passing through town now will recognize the ground level as longtime diner The Grill.) “They lived on the top floor and had the idea to lease out art studio space on the second floor – it was enough to get them free rent, and maybe make a little money.”
Two of those artist tenants were students Bewley and Lachowski, who along with their visual work had cooked up a scheme to buy thrift shop instruments, teach themselves to play and start a band – in the heady punk spirit of the era, absent the safety pins. After hearing some raw early practices through the floorboards Crowe, who was nominally more schooled on drums thanks to some teenage shenanigans, headed downstairs and offered to join in.
On weekends Crowe and his buddies would occasionally clear out the space, bring in a keg of beer and throw after-hours house parties, mostly for their fellow art students and faculty. They began jokingly calling the dimly lit DIY space the 40 Watt Club. Crowe’s handyman skills served him well; post-Pylon he found a niche on film sets, earning credits as construction coordinator or notable films like Cool Runnings and We Are Marshall and the first season of the TV phenomenon Lost. In the middle of multiple projects as production emerges from COVID shutdowns, he was unavailable to join our conversation.
When the three boys determined they needed a vocalist Lachowski thought of Vanessa, who he had met in an independent study art class. They also both happened to work at a DuPont factory (as did Curtis) on the fringes of town.
Lachowski and I had already covered some of the history when Vanessa pulled into the gravel lot directly from work. Recently retired from her nursing job, she’s been picking up a few shifts further down the road on that Route 316 corridor toward Atlanta. With a “who needs context?” ease developed over a forty-year friendship she randomly mentions to Michael that she recently remembered the lyrics to an unrecorded early Pylon song, “Swerve.” “It just popped into my head, probably because I’ve been doing a lot of highway driving lately,” she speculates. “‘Auto accidents are the leading cause of cause of death of children and young adults under the age of 24.’ Those are some catchy lyrics!” she laughs. “‘‘If you swerrrrrrve…’”
“Those lyrics were probably lifted almost word for word from a DuPont safety pamphlet,” Lachowski translates. “The whole company was imbued with this safety agenda,” he says of their former employer, which was engaged in light manufacturing related to the regional textile industry. “Synthetic fibers – fabrics to make everything from lingerie to seat belts. Even at the time I remember thinking this was all about their bottom line. We were operating machinery – we couldn’t wear jewelry because it might get snagged, we had to wear steel toed shoes. There were a lot of rules like holding onto the handrail on stairs – if you didn’t you were in trouble.”
The DuPont factory has since been sold but amazingly is still in operation, even after most textile work has been offshored. It’s easy to see where that safety aesthetic seeped into the lyrics of several songs on Pylon’s 1980 debut Gyrate (“Danger,” “Precaution,” “Driving School”).
“I remember right after I joined the band later that week Michael and I wound up on the same shift – which we usually didn’t – and he had this long list of band names – I wish I could see that again because they were really good,” Vanessa recalls. “It’s one of the funnest things you ever get to do, like naming your kid before it’s born. He had the idea it should be some kind of iconic symbol, that we wouldn’t even be known by a name,” a concept that pre-dates Prince’s squiggle by several years. Lachowski toyed with a diagonal stairstep-like design for awhile, but wisely the quartet settled on something more utilitarian, yet still industrial.
Ever the conceptualists, Lachowski and Bewley hatched the band with another heady premise – their goal was to play New York City, get written up in New York Rocker magazine, declare victory and call it a day. Amazingly, Pylon played New York before they ever graced an Atlanta stage (“We felt like we’d be more understood in New York,” Lachowski opines). Having the rapidly ascending B-52’s singing their praises didn’t hurt, of course, but an unknown band from Georgia without a single record to their name landing a slot opening for Gang of Four is remarkable nonetheless. And the story gets weirder from there.
“It was very meta, the way that went down,” according to Lachowski. “It seems unlikely that a band opening for the Gang of Four would even get a mention in a tiny press blurb, but Glenn O’Brien writes about half of it about us, probably because the B-52’s had perked his interest about Athens.” O’Brien was the music beat writer for Interview, the Andy Warhol-backed mag that was a Pretty Big Deal in the day. It was in that tiny eight sentence review that he said ‘’It sounds like they listen to dub for breakfast.’ We had to go look up what dub even meant. Then we turned it into a lyric.”
That lyric became the basis for “Dub,” which along with the classic, more approachable “Cool” became Pylon’s first release. It opens with Vanessa muttering “I don’t know what you’re talking about…” before spiraling into a wild rant repeatedly snarling, “We eat dub for breakfast!” “Then he reviewed the single, without any consultation with us he put two and two together, and he mentions ‘This came from something I said.’ It kind of sidestepped our initial goal.”
And of course they didn’t stop – there was still New York Rocker to conquer, after all. They even made it to the UK in 1980 after the release of brilliant debut album Gyrate, a tour that sadly coincided with John Lennon’s murder. “It cast a pall over the whole country, which was still in mourning. Plus we were from the country that runs around shooting people,” Lachowski recalls.
Another great single, “M-Train,” soon followed. That title struck me as bizarre until years later when I discovered the NY subway line of the same name connecting Manhattan and Brooklyn. Mystery solved? Wrong. “Michael and I had started drinking this really cheap malt liquor,” Vanessa laughs. “There was a TV commercial at the time, ‘get on the M-Train.’ We had a joke going that we were getting on the M-Train whenever we got another big can. One night Michael put his bass down to head to the fridge, Randy picked it up and started noodling on it. He just quickly fell into a groove and Curtis jumped in, and I started the lyrics pretty much the way they are – it was made up on the spot.”
Vanessa’s not above her own bout of fan geekery, either. “I got the opportunity to ask Patti Smith if she’d heard of the song,” strategically leaving her purse backstage at Smith’s 2015 Atlanta speaking event for her memoir that shares the title. “She said she hadn’t.” Vanessa saw the M train for the first time on a recent trip to Brooklyn – despite Pylon’s local connections, the band never spent extended periods in New York. “We’d be up there a week at a time, staying at the Hotel Iroquois, which was basically our base. The way the clubs were then, with everybody going out, in one week we were able to play four times in the area.” And there was little if any reason to venture into now-hip Brooklyn in 1980.
New York Rocker eventually came calling – and gave Pylon the cover – but perhaps coincidentally the fire was already fading. Solid follow-up Chomp was a more protracted, stop/start affair, recorded across multiple studios. Constant touring left little time to “hang out, write and rehearse.” And since Pylon was never meant to be a career, the foursome had never hired a manager. Ironically, it was their supposed “big break” that led to a moment of reckoning.
Their booking agent had landed a coup – a handful of shows opening for U2, with the prospect of supporting the entire tour. “But our working relationship wasn’t that he was supposed to commit us – we didn’t expect him to take the lead. One day he calls up all excited. But we didn’t have the strategic idea in mind that we had to suffer to expose ourselves on a national tour for an audience that didn’t care about us.”
Lachowski happened to be the one who took the booker’s call, and they got into a heated argument. “‘What is the rest of the band going to say?’ he asked me, and I told him I was pretty sure. He basically told me we weren’t serious enough about music. It was one of those extra things that made us feel frustrated.”
There are indications the decision to decline the offer was not unanimous, but Pylon was always a clear “all of us or none of us” proposition. Ever the nice guys (and gal), they agreed to play a couple opening dates to save face for the booker, then bowed out with a hometown farewell.
Bizarrely, the career arc of the British duo Everything but the Girl took a similar turn a few years later when the offer of a worldwide arena tour opening for U2 prompted similar soul searching. Who knew the big-hearted Bono and the boys were career killers? (Michael and Vanessa were not aware of this parallel.)
“People ask how I felt the first time Pylon broke up. I remember feeling quite happy,” Vanessa says. “We probably exceeded our expectations, we started families not too long after that. A couple years after Hannah was born I found out how difficult doing both at once was.”
In the late ’80s Pylon returned to the ring, heartened by the enduring popularity of their catalog and the added attention of nods like R.E.M. covering their Chomp-era standout “Crazy.” This time around they even hired a manager, and put out the decent 1990 album Chain, produced by Scott Litt from the R.E.M. camp.
Pylon v2.0 lasted nearly three years, nearly matching Pylon v1.0’s duration. Per Vanessa a fourth record was in the planning stages that she was convinced would be better yet, but this time it was Bewley who pulled the plug. “It was a bit more of a business decision. Randy had two kids, I had one, he had put his life on hold, and I think he had a kind of internal timeline to see if we could be successful by a certain point.”
Chain is oddly absent from the otherwise completist Pylon Box, an omission that doesn’t seem to bother the band. “The Pylon story is fine if it’s just the first period,” Vanessa opines. “It was kind of a closed book.” Besides, that’s when all the cool photos are from (there may also be some murky rights issues…)
In its place Pylon Box includes one album of non-LP tracks (remember – the amazing “Cool”/“Dub” was a standalone single, although it was added to later Gyrate reissues), alternate takes, etc. More notably, it unearths the “Razz Tape,” a session that predates Pylon’s official output. “It’s from after we got rid of ‘Swerve,’ but still has ‘Modern Day Fashion Woman,’” says Michael, the latter being an early era set staple included in two versions here.
For a band comprised of artists and archivists (Lachowski works these days at the Georgia Museum of Art) I assumed the opportunity to create a book was a primary impetus for Pylon Box, but according to Michael it was more of an afterthought. “We kind of had to be talked into it, but once we did we went all in. It gave us a reason to go through all of our ephemera.” Vanessa adds, “New West said ‘We’ve never seen anyone who kept everything.’ Believe me, this wasn’t everything. We don’t even know what Randy had – he was the true archivist. It’s actually curated down.”
On first glance the alt-country leaning New West label, despite maintaining a presence in Athens as well as Nashville, seems an unusual outlet for a band like Pylon, whose earlier reissues Gyrate Plus and Chomp More were handled by LCD Soundsystem’s DFA Records. But the band was impressed with New West’s attention to detail on its reissues for fellow Athens standard bearers The Glands, as well as its commitment to enlisting local production and talent. The vinyl is being pressed by local mainstays Kindercore, for instance.
The Pylon v3.0 of the mid/late 2000s sounded mighty fine as well, although this edition didn’t attempt any new material. The band’s last Atlanta appearance was a memorable one, opening for Deerhunter – whose Bradford Cox is another fawning later-generation acolyte – on Halloween night 2008. They did a couple more west coast shows at the tail end of that year – the only time other than the UK sojourn that Pylon flew to play. Randy and Vanessa were also scratching their itches to create new music through their Supercluster project. In February 2009 the rest of Supercluster were waiting for Bewley when he suffered a heart attack driving to practice – he died a few days later. The Chomp More reissue was released soon after, which may explain its subdued profile – the remaining Pylon members didn’t have the heart to promote it.
Vanessa has proven to be the one most compelled to keep the flame burning. A few years back she convened the Pylon Reenactment Society, a five-piece featuring other Athenians with notable musical resumes. The project began as a set of Pylon covers (including one from Chain) but gradually integrated new material to the point where shows are now typically evenly balanced between the two. The Society has one single featuring two original songs to its name and had begun started scouting out studios to record an album just before COVID hit. Along the way they’ve played the Primavera Sound festival in Barcelona and been flown to more gigs than Pylon ever was.
It’s probably no coincidence that of Athens’ Big 3, Pylon is the band whose members all remained in town for the long haul. Lachowski attributes this decision in part to their shared touring experiences. “Most of the time when you come to a college town you figure you have to leave to get a job. Instead of moving away, we went on tour and got a chance to see a huge part of the US – we got our experience that way. Athens didn’t have everything, but every time we’d start driving back it kept feeling more and more like home.”
The band’s 1981 New York Rocker cover photo earns full-page placement in the Pylon Box book (Athens contemporaries Method Actors also get a nod on the cover). Based on Lachowski and Bewley’s initial plotline this could have been the end of the story. I doubt many expected its afterlife to continue to resonate 39 years later.
Lachowski remains enamored with the concept. “About two years ago I started thinking about doing something in music again, inspired by the way I was feeling about Pylon’s first single. I figure it’d be okay to record two songs, put them out, and let that be it.” He eventually enlisted a friend to help move the plot forward, but between COVID and the tendency for “band practices” to devolve into hangout sessions, progress has been slow. “There’s a website and Instagram with about 7 followers, but there’s nothing to show or say yet” (although I did get a branded koozie out of the deal). Visit scuppernong.band and you could be number 8 – and come 2059 lay claim to being one of the true early adopters.
Photo by Terry Allen.