As my friend Ashley says, the reason you went to the University of Georgia (in the ’80s and ’90s) was to flunk out of the Art School and found R.E.M. How else explain the presence of all those pseudo-intellectual slackers at a Playboy Top Ten party school? Athens, Georgia, was at that time the hippest town on the planet. It had all the self-referential intensity and self-regard of its namesake in the fifth century B.C. if, say, for philosophy, architecture, and the flowering of democracy, you substituted hipness and college radio. Downtown was the omphalos of hipness. (There is a bookstore in Prague called The Globe. It is not named after the theater of Shakespeare, but after a bar in downtown Athens.) Radiating out, you would encounter the neo-classicism of North Campus, then the run-down Victorian gingerbread houses cut up into student apartments and the antebellum mansions cum frat-houses, then 1970s housing projects and cement dorms (sans air-conditioning), and somewhere in the infinite distance, South Campus, where Ag. majors bided their time before returning to various Georgia hamlets and family farms. (“Don’t Go Back to Rockville”!) Beyond the endless fields of the Ag. School lay Oconee, still a “Dry County” (see the B-52s’ song) all these decades after the repeal of Prohibition.
Fresh out of high school, I was a geek of the highest order from Atlanta, that shopping-strip carpet-bagger town to the west. I played violin in the school orchestra, had written, but not published, a fantasy novel that involved little people who rode battle rabbits, hung out with a group who spoke in Monty Python, and never attended a single high school dance. When on the bus to driver’s ed. a guy asked me what music I listened to, I knew I didn’t have the right answer. (“Mahler,” I confessed.)
I arrived in Athens, Georgia, in September of 1986, a virgin in every possible sense.
The cult of R.E.M. was in full swing, though there were the rumblings of discontent among the hip. The exegesis of their lyrics was rendered obsolete by Michael Stipe’s suddenly singing with enough enunciation to be understood. (Some years later my housemate Ellen had a cat with the moniker S’bigger; see “Losing My Religion.”) The band members were still seen about town, but it was part of hipness to affect not to notice them, even though part of hipness was also to know where Peter Buck’s house was. By the end of my tenure in Athens, full-fledged sorority girls were going to see their concerts. You could not be hip and go to a concert packed with sorority girls in their eveningwear of pressed white t-shirts and khaki shorts and enormous hair bows. Still, the cult—and cultivation—of hipness also had its endearing earnestness: late-night arguments in a fog of clove cigarettes over the superiority of Joy Division versus the Smiths, for instance. (Evidently Joy Division won out because their lead singer actually committed suicide instead of just moping in a minor key.) They were the sort of impassioned youthful debates that, in Persuasion, are over Byron versus Scott.
It turned out that the golden key to the wonderland garden of hipness was, in fact, my orchestra geekiness. There was some demand for people who could actually play an instrument. Downtown was always covered in neon fliers for those seeking their ideal bandmates—the listing of an ingenious amalgam of influences was paramount, often ending with the stern caveat, “No posers” [sic]. The first band I was in, in fact, involved a tortured soul and aspiring songwriter who had just purchased his first guitar. We practiced in the bassist’s double-wide trailer (he was a real grown-up, and more country than rock & roll) down the Atlanta highway past the Pepsi bottling plant and a place that specialized in barbequed goat. The first half-hour of practice involved Craig’s trying to tune his guitar, until the bassist couldn’t bear it anymore and grabbed it off him. We never played out or had a gig, but hauling my violin to “band practice” was a lot cooler than going to orchestra.
On Tuesday nights we went to see Widespread Panic at the Uptown Lounge—we enjoyed the music, but the real draw was the seventy-five-cent Rolling Rocks and a lenient carding policy. When perusing bands that were playing about town, at the 40 Watt or the Uptown Lounge, dorm-mates would circle the names of bands we had never heard of. Rumors ran wild, for it was known that R.E.M. sometimes did surprise gigs at local clubs under assumed names. Most of the time, though, if you went out to see an unknown band called Beast Penis, it would end up being Beast Penis.
There were close encounters with near-hipness. At my first apartment, my roommate Emily and I threw a party that featured a surprise appearance by “The Groove Trolls” (a band made of a singer and several bassists that had their moment in the spotlight with a song called, “The Beav’s on Drugs,” a pharmacopial take on “Leave It to Beaver”). And once when I got talked into noodling around on a keyboard for a half-hour before a friend’s gig at a hippyish (and hip) vegetarian joint called, with typical Athens ironic Southernness, “The Grit,” Michael Stipe was present and made some positive comment on a tune I had made up. Or so my friend told me, with bemusement.
Any real claim to hipness I may have had, though, however tenuous and ephemeral, comes through George (Burnley) Vest (the aforementioned friend). His true hipness was his absolute indifference to hipness and the appearance thereof. Hipsters painstakingly affected an unstudied look about their dress, but Vest was genuinely indifferent to sartorial matters, his perfectionism laser-focused entirely on music and the crafting of songs. I ended up playing a gig with Vest and the late, great Vic Chestnutt (at practice, Vic’s pet rabbit hopped and frolicked the length of the room, while Vic himself was confined to a wheelchair). At one point we (Vest and friends) even played at the Georgia Theater, the biggest venue in town. It was a charity concert with several local bands. It’s a cliché, but I ended up dating the drummer.
For our last gig, at the Downstairs (where I also held my first poetry reading), Vest decided to make a rockumentary (“Attack the Downstairs”), or mockumentary, maybe, of our band. Ashley did the jittery, hand-held filming, occasionally reaching beyond the frame to snag a potato chip. One of the more telling moments is the back-to-back interviews with the drummer and me, where it is clear to the camera, but unbeknownst to ourselves, that we are at cross purposes and on the verge of breaking up. Couples break up, bands break up—everything is always hurtling apart in this expanding universe of ours. Every few years, that much older and wiser and farther away from my zenith of hipness, I sit here in the distant future and take out the tape and watch it. What shiny, happy people we were! That is to say, not how hip, but how lovely, how impossibly young.
A. E. STALLINGS
A. E. Stallings has won some impressive honors, including Guggenheim and MacArthur fellowships. Her books include the poetry collections Archaic Smile (1999), Hapax (2006), and Olives (2012). She studied classics at the University of Georgia and at Oxford. After many years in Athens, Georgia, Stallings now lives in Athens, Greece.
Brandon Herring is Design Director for Radio Silence and a designer at Google, following the acquisition of his web-design boutique 17FEET. A native of Atlanta, Georgia, he lives with his family in Oakland. His work has been featured in numerous publications.