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Talk About The Passion

By Jessica Marie Pace

When I first visited Athens, GA, I was a 17-year-old college hopeful who had not yet fully grasped that the University of Georgia, at least for me, was financially – and hopelessly so – out of reach. Though a delusional college scouting visit was the primary reason for the road trip, I had heard Athens was an “art town” and curious about what that might mean. So I drove down with my mother in the middle of a smothering July to see the artiness firsthand.
We ducked into the now-closed Schoolkids Records office, formerly on East Clayton, and it was there, in the form of one moptop record store guy, that the true nature of the Athens townsfolk was revealed to me.
“That record for sale?”  I asked, pointing to a spot on the wall out of my reach.
The nondescript twenty-something behind the counter did not look up from his book as he gave a languid, happy ‘yes’ in response. No more was said. Cripplingly shy and averse to opening my mouth again, I lingered near the counter for five minutes or longer until, at last, he spoke again.

“Did you want me to get it down for you?” he said.
The people who inhabit this historic met-rock-olis (I apologize for that word, but it had to be done) are exactly like this fellow. With ticks in their speech, a crookedly affable demeanor, and a sense of humor, the offbeats who walk this tiny, old college town live with the ghosts of a college rock scene birthed not so long ago and still thriving.
College rock. That term! I have this happy memory of an old Beavis & Butthead episode that featured the video for The Flaming Lips’ breakthrough hit, “She Don’t Use Jelly”, and Butthead remarked, “Uh oh. I think this is college music.” A sort of early version of  “alternative music,” college rock is a loosely defined genre stamp, and Athens, GA  produced one of the primary torchbearers of the genre – R.E.M.
Athens at nightAnd Athens loves that. At every turn, there’s some emblem, shrine or other nod to the local bands that made it big over the past 40 years: The B-52s in the ’70s, the faces of new wave, punk and college rock in the ’80s like Pylon, Flat Duo Jets and UGA dropouts R.E.M., the next wave in the form of bands like Neutral Milk Hotel and Drive-By Truckers and finally the newer faces of The Whigs and of Montreal – a living testament that says “art and music lives here.”
Though I never did go to college there, Athens did become one of my favorite places to visit. On my second visit, my traveling partner Laura and I pulled into town late one morning, and found ourselves winding through twists and turns of UGA’s monster campus, dotted with hollyhocks, foxgloves, creeping rosemary and all manner of pastel springtime glory. Leafy, green and dripping, the grounds are lush with massive trees, an inviting respite from the Southern heat on an August afternoon. 
At Athens heart is its easy to navigate downtown area surrounded by campus sprawl, compact and not much different than any other small college town. There are college bars, rock venues, bookshops, record stores and cafés. Lots of Arty stuff. Plus the schools beloved mascot, a Georgia Bulldog, every which way we turned.
Jackson Street BooksAthens’ oldest used bookstore, Jackson Street Books is located at 360 N. Jackson, a woody cubbyhole musty with the smell of ideas, and made cozier on this particular occasion by the rain falling outside. The store houses old classics and new releases, an impressive collection of old paperback series - think Dark Shadows  - and a variety of music and films. After finding a first printing of Hemingway’s For Whom The Bell Tolls, we left the peaceful haven for the kick-pow vibe of Bizarro Wuxtry on College Avenue, a geek menagerie bursting with gumball color.

Featuring everything from fancy Neil Gaiman Sandman hardbacks, to paper zines stapled to the walls of this comic shop, mostly twenty-something men frequent the place. Incidentally, and fortunately for us, it was Free Comic Book Day that day, which meant several racks of comics were up for grabs, but the one I couldn’t forget about was in a dark corner of the shop – a little paperback book called It’s A Good Life, If You Don’t Weaken by Canadian cartoonist Seth.
Wuxtry Records

Nearby, at 197 E. Clayton, the illustrious Wuxtry Records was abuzz with again, mostly young men lusting after records, in the place where Peter Buck met Michael Stipe 30 years ago. Wuxtry not only employed Buck, but a slew of other musical icons over the years including Danger Mouse and John Fernandes of The Olivia Tremor Control. I imagined their silhouettes moving among the visitors and stared at a patron rifling through the ‘Fs’ in the ’80s/’90s rock section, imagining he was Peter Buck. I think I creeped him out, though, because when he noticed my staring, hunched his shoulders deeper over the wooden crate, hiding his face.
In spite of the drizzle, College Street was busy with a group of people with acoustic instruments, who played beneath a “Stop All War” banner on a stage in the middle of the road. Nearby, an enclosure held two...llamas, apparently also opposed to war, with damp and matted coats. They were visible from the window as we sat in The Grill, a greasy spoon with black and white-checked tile on the floor, and cult-collectible types of memorabilia gracing the shelves between the booths, which served strong coffee and perfect, oily grilled cheese sandwiches and french fries that dripped grease, creating gooey spots on the table. We looked out the window, ate our food, and happily listened to the chatter of a group of girls discussing blowjobs in the booth behind us.
Llama llama

By the way, I am a fan and a self-proclaimed connoisseur of booth seating. I’ve also considered the diner aesthetic a great deal, and Laura and I have developed the habit of “collecting” diners everywhere we go. The reason for this is, in part, because of cooks in diners notorious lack of restraint when it comes to the use of butter and salt, but also because there is always – without fail – a character of interest in the booth behind you.
But what I come to see, time and time again, is St. Mary’s Episcopal Church located at 394 Oconee Street, an unassuming red chapel now backdropped by modern condominiums. It was built in 1869, and on April 5, 1980, R.E.M. as a still unnamed band, played their first gig there. Today, only the steeple remains, understated despite its vibrancy by green foliage springing from the brick. The spire nearly lost its head in 2011, when the city declared it must be restored, or be torn down.  But it survived, and remains to this day, one of the oldest totems to both Athens’ celebrated and uncelebrated artists.

Other Favorite Haunts of Athens: Past and Present

The Globe, 199 N. Lumpkin Stree.Fave watering hole for both collegiate and worldly types
Go Bar, 195 Prince Ave. Cheap drinks + variety of music
Georgia Bar, 159 W. Clayton Street. Where R.E.M. members were known to hang out and do the occasional press interview
Georgia Museum of Art
, 90 Carlton Street. A local haven for all manner of art and film
Georgia Museum of Natural History, 101 Cedar Street. Extensive collections of artifacts and specimens
Founders Memorial Garden, 325 S. Lumpkin Street. Beautiful garden on UGA’s north campus created in honor of America’s first garden club, founded in Athens in 1891
The 40 Watt Club, 285 W. Washington Street. Relocated multiple times, the 40 Watt began as a rehearsal space for Athens rock band Pylon. It was named at a 1979 Halloween party hosted by Pylon drummer Curtis Crowe and became a legendary venue at which local bands from Drive-By Truckers to The Whigs cut their teeth
Caledonia Lounge, 256 W Clayton St. One of the best venues in Athens aside from the 40 Watt, Caledonia is the place to see the budding and diverse local acts
Georgia Theatre, 215 N. Lumpkin Street. A popular theatre that’s housed many a legendary home show from Pylon, The B-52s and R.E.M. over the years, and it literally rose up from the ashes after suffering severe damage in a 2009 fire
Morton Theatre, 195 W. Washington Street. More than 100 years old, the Morton was one of the first American vaudeville theatres and has featured acts such as Blind Willie McTell, Bessie Smith, Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong
Ciné, 234 W. Hancock Avenue. This well-known and adored art house features film festivals, guest speakers and a wide variety of films
Supplementary lessons in rock history
Flagpole Magazine, 112 Foundry Street. The self-proclaimed “color bearer of Athens,” this entertainment-oriented  mag is the voice of local people, music, art, food, books and film
Dudley Park Trestle, off E. Broad Street. Known locally as the “Murmur Trestle,” this 130-year-old trestle’s spindly wooden legs graces the back cover of R.E.M.’s 1983 debut, Murmur
Weaver D’s, 1016 E. Broad Street. With the slogan “Automatic for the People,” which inspired the R.E.M. album of the same name, this is greasy southern comfort food at its finest
Add Drugstore, 1695 S. Lumpkin Street. An old-fashioned lunch counter and soda fountain with old-fashioned fare
Where to stay
UGA Hotel and Conference Center, 1197 S. Lumpkin Street. If you can swing it, you’ll be right in the thick of things on the UGA campus and a step away from downtown
Best Western Athens, 170 N. Milledge Avenue. Negotiable rates only a mile from downtown
For a more thorough guide on where to go in Athens, see the Flagpole Guide to Athens: / Issue 148 - September 2018
Turnpage Blk

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