Mike Mills: Our Town

In 1985, Mike Mills wrote this fun and insightful account on the Athens musical scene. The text has been reprinted several times since: the edition I copied it from is The Da Capo Book of Rock & Roll Writing, edited by Clinton Heylin. This hefty volume comprises more than 80 rock’n'roll writings by the likes of Pete Townshend, Lou Reed and Frank Zappa, as well as seminal texts by the rock journalists who defined an era, such as Al Aronowitz or Lester Bangs; so, Mike Mills is in a stellar company here!
When he embarked upon writing this essay, the cute 26-year-old Mike had long given up hope of becoming a Pulitzer prize winning author (if he ever nurtured such an ambition); nevertheless, he came up with an accurate and honest portrait of the mid-1980s Athens; as the editor of the collection has put it, “Mills imbued this insider account of Athens, Georgia as The Happening Place To Be with enough small-town sense to convey something of how it might have happened while no one was quite sure what was happening.” For me, the most interesting part of the text is the comparison of the state of affairs in 1985 to what Athens and its musical scene looked like in 1979/80, when the members of R.E.M. first moved to town.

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Our Town

By Mike Mills

When you mention “the Athens scene” to anyone who’s been here for four or five years, they get weird. When we started – when the Side Effects were starting and Pylon and the Method Actors were playing – it was just people playing for the fun of it at parties of makeshift clubs. It was not a scene at all, and now it kind of is. We were originally here as University of Georgia students – come and go. There’s always this big turnover of horseflesh.

Athens is a great town, a college town. There’s about 24,000 students. The entire population is about 60,000. It’s a small place. When summer school is over in August, and everyone’s on vacation, you can lie down in the middle of Broad Street. They might as well turn the traffic lights off because it is dead with a capital D.

Largely, it’s just the chemistry of a lot of kids together in one place. But that’s true for almost any college town; some more than others. We’ve got a big, powerful radio station – WUOG – one of the most powerful college stations I’ve ever heard anywhere – 10,000 watts. And they support local bands really well. They supported us when we needed it. College radio is the savior of rock & roll in America right now. If it were not for college radio, all the good bands that are doing well would have nowhere to go. There’s nowhere they could tour if there were no college radio stations to play their records and insure that they would have some kind of crowd when they came there.

There are some great bands here. Number one: The Kilkenny Cats. They used to be non-melodic, drone, gloom-and-doom stuff. But they’ve grown as a band and as musicians and added a lot more melody to what they’ve been doing. Now they are a kind of a dark band, but pop.

The second-best is the Squalls. The Squalls deserve to be famous. They’ve got an EP. I don’t mean to use “hippies” in a derogatory sense, but it’s a bunch of people that are a little older than me. They’re not students; they live here, have been here for a long time. They’re not trying to be trendy, famous or successful. They’re just playing because they’re having a good time and they’re a lot of fun to see. That’s the way it oughta be. In a perfect world, they’d get rich.

Dreams So Real – good band, name’s far too hard to say. Also worth mentioning are Banned 37, the Barbecue Killers – great name, even if the band was really sloppy – and Fashion Battery. Normally, I don’t care that much for fusion, but the Land Sharks do fusion with a really good kick. They add a lot of energy to it, instead of just technical proficiency.

There are only two clubs worth mentioning for live music: the 40 Watt and the Uptown Lounge. There are other clubs with different kinds of music, but nothing I’m really interested in.

The 40 Watt Club has had three different locations before its present one. The one that it’s in now used to be a fern bar. The Uptown Lounge is right across from the police station. It used to be a porno theatre and they’ve been working on it steadily since then, trying to rearrange it. I guess they’ve got all the stains off the floor. None of these places has been around more than a year.

Tyrone’s was the best club Athens has ever seen. Unfortunately it burned down a year and a half ago. It was a sad, sad day. Everybody was upset. The suspended heater broke off its moorings, fell on to the stage, and BANG – there everything went. It happened about four in the morning. It would have been better if people had been there because they would have been able to stop it. It was a total loss.

It was great because the people that ran it would let anybody play there, and get the door. You charge two dollars and you get all the money. I made $30 and I thought I was rich. They made their money off the bar – and they made a ton. The only thing that didn’t burn in the fire was my tab. They went sifting through the rubble and found it – $40.

Most kids here drink. They drink a lot of beer – pitchers of beer. As it gets warmer they hang out at the pool, or go downtown. Downtown is the main drag. There’s downtown, then there’s north campus, and the dorms, so it’s really accessible. You don’t need a car. Up on College Street: Ruthless Records. Good store. But the one that’s been here the longest, right up across the corner from Ruthless, is Wuxtry. It’s really small and all it has is used records.

Fraternities are very much a part of what goes on here. They have huge parties. They’re maybe 15 or 20 per cent of the total student population. It’s usually the ones with money. There are not too many art students in the fraternities and sororities. They’re a real conservative, right-wing group of people. But fine, so what? That’s the way it is. They don’t completely ignore music, such as what’s playing at the 40 Watt. They come out and lots of times they enjoy it. That was what we did, when we first started. We were the first band among several that drew a cross-section of people. Pylon and the Method Actors would draw the creative left-wing people that cared. Then, when we started, we got everything from dormies and fraternity people to the arty types. We were accessible – without trying to be.

Every college in the country, University of Georgia included, is getting more and more conservative. It’s changed since I started going to school here – the way it has everywhere else. Most kids in college, all they care about is getting a degree and getting a good job. Who’s to say that they’re wrong? A lot of kids here are for Reagan. Not most of them, but as many here as in Topeka, or Houston, or Albuquerque, or New Brunswick, New Jersey.

If you compare youth culture now to the sixties, it’s certainly not the same. Bob Dylan changed people’s lives. People listened to Bob Dylan and wanted to go out and change the world. If you want to think about youth culture as one spearhead that’s gonna make a difference in the world, it’s not gonna happen. The sixties were a time of political activism. It went from innocence to cynicism really quickly. And now the situation is not so much apathy as realization and there’s not a lot you or anyone else personally can do.

Any rock star who thinks he’s gonna make a big difference is deluded. Look at the biggest: Prince, Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen. Are they gonna inspire anyone to do anything? No! They’re gonna inspire them to go out and buy a record – that’s it. Millions have, and millions will. Great. That’s what music is about; it’s entertainment. What do kids in Athens or anywhere want? They don’t want anything. Nobody’s that dissatisfied that they need an icon to lead them into the new age. It just isn’t that way anymore. Nobody’s gonna change the world, and everybody might as well realize that.

I guess my attitude is more of what a small-town mentality is about. If you grew up in New York or in LA, it would change your viewpoint on just about everything. There’s no time to sit back and think about things. Our music is closer to everyday life – things that happen to you during the week, things that are real. It’s great just to bring out an emotion, rather than a jingoism – better just to make someone feel nostalgic or wistful or excited or sad. You are the world and everybody is the world, but who needs to be told that? I don’t. I don’t want to hear about it. I know my place in the world, and most people do, and they don’t want to hear it from a bunch of over-inflated musicians.

It’s not isolated here – you can’t act like this is Antarctica. But that’s the way people think – that you’re down here in the pine forests “hangin’ niggers from trees”. The South is a weird place. If you go out in the woods you’re gonna end up with a lot of inbreeding and the kind of people that are behaving really strangely. But would you want to live in the suburbs of Boston, or Long Island, or the south side of Chicago? Take your pick. People are deadly anywhere you go. Human nature is a sorry thing. All you can do is try to improve it.

Some guy down the street and his 12-year-old son beat an 11-month-old dog to death yesterday. He said the dog was getting in his yard and chasing birds, and enticing his dog to chase birds. They beat the dog to death with a board with a nail through it. They pounded the fuckin’ dog in the head. The guy’s a nut, a psycho. He doesn’t belong in human society. But that could happen in Iowa, or in Wyoming.

Look at those two mountain men in Montana. The man and his son kidnapped that jogger for a wife. The father was afraid that his son, who was like seventeen, was getting tired of living all alone in the mountains. So the father said: “Wehull, we gawna getchoo a waafe boy.” And they went down to the National Park and kidnapped this woman jogger. It’s the truth! You get out in the woods anywhere – not just Georgia, not just the South – and there’s gonna be some weird people doing weird things.

Reverend Howard Finster lives in Summerville, Georgia, up near Rome, about three hours from here. We go up and see him all the time. He very seldom leaves Summerville, but lots of art students from here and the University of North Carolina, South Carolina and North Carolina State all come down and help him with whatever projects he’s doing.

He’s a tremendous guy. His idea is that he is a traveller in space and was put here to bring the word of God to people through folk art. That’s all he does. He sleeps about three hours a night and every waking hour he churns out his great folk art.

For years he was a travelling evangelist and finally he had a vision. He is “Howard Finster, Man of Visions”, that is his title. His vision said: “Don’t travel anymore. Sit here in Summerville and make your church and have people come to you.” He built a church by himself, three stories high with a big steeple, on his property. He buried all his tools in a cement walkway and said, “I give up my tools. I don’t need them any more because I’m dedicating my life to God.” He’s selling in New York for unbelievable amounts of money. He was on The Tonight Show and blew Johnny Carson away. It’s part of his religion – reaching people through art. He is making art to spread the word of God.

He helped Michael [Stipe] with the album cover for Reckoning. Michael drew the outline for his two-headed snake, and gave it to Howard to fill in. And Howard did – in incredible detail. It was screwed up in the way it was printed. What Howard did was so much more detailed than finally came out.

Dave Pierce is the publisher of Tastyworld. He’s put out five issues in about nine months – it’s an iffy thing. If and when, usually when. Right now it’s 95 per cent local, but I think he has ambitions of eventually expanding it into a national thing. But it’s great – because there are a lot of bands here. And a lot of bands come through from out of town, playing at the 40 Watt, or the Uptown, or at Legion Field, which is the university-sponsored concert that they have outdoors. There’s something to talk about – especially if you come out every two months. There’s plenty to fill up the pages. If you come out every month, there might not be so much.

Athens is not the incredible, bizarre happening that people would peg it as. It’s just not as unique as people think, but it’s a great place. The fact that the B-52s left Athens and became famous, that a lot of media attention is focused here, makes it easier for people to get into bands and do things – because they know there are going to be people paying attention. When we started touring, we’d say, “We’re from Athens.” People would go: “Oh, Athens – the B-52′s, Pylon – great. We’ll book you.” But after we played there once or twice, Athens became totally irrelevant.

You’re out-of-the-way here. You can do things as a band without all the pressure. When we started out, we were terrible, just like every band that starts out. But we had a whole year just to play around the South and get better – and to learn to deal with adversity, playing at pizza parlors and biker bars and gay discos. We can play down here, we can go to Tennessee, North Carolina, Florida, South Carolina, Alabama, and improve the band – our songwriting, stage presence, everything – without ever hearing about it. But in New York or London, the minute you start playing – ZANG! There’s the local rock magazine reviewing your show and making all these judgments about you.

People come here thinking: “It’s a scene and I’m going to nurture my musical talent.” That’s a mistake. By this point, the other bands that were our contemporaries have broken up, and most of the bands in Athens now are of a different attitude. A lot of them are thinking, “We can be a band, and we can attract attention, and get out of Athens.” That never occurred to Pylon or the Side Effects or us. It was totally unselfconscious. The only important thing was playing around town, playing at parties, having fun.

The innocence is gone. I don’t want to be sentimental and maudlin about it – it’s not as though that was the golden age of Athens. But at the same time, there was just a different sort of attitude. That sort of thing, just by the nature of what it is, can’t last.

The booking policies of the clubs now are no more exclusive. Anybody can play at the 40 Watt, anybody can play at the Uptown. There’s competition for the weekends. The trouble is, during the week it’s gotten really slack and people don’t go out; everybody’s studying. Most of these kids here know they’re in school. People think it’s a scene, and there’s gonna be five hundred people in a club on a Wednesday night. It ain’t gonna happen.

Athens is a great place – I love it. You get a band together – great. You’ve got your chance. But that happens lots of places. If the Embarrassment from Lawrence, Kansas, had become a huge national hit, people would have gone, “God, there’s Get Smart and the Mortal Micronauts – LOOK AT ALL THOSE BANDS! What is it about Lawrence, Kansas, that produces these bands?” Look at Austin, Texas – Stevie Ray Vaughan, Willie Nelson. It could be anywhere.

People, especially if they’re far away, like to see this grouping coming out of an area: You’ve got the North Carolina group – Mitch Easter, the dBs, Chris Stamey, whatever else. You’ve got Athens – Oh OK, Lets Active, the Method Actors, R.E.M., Love Tractor, the Side Effects, the B-52s. It’s enticing, it’s romantic, it’s easy and it’s a lot of fun to think of a town: “Wow! What’s going on in this town that keeps churning out these great groups?” Three or four years ago, no one would have thought of this being a “scene.” It was just people having a good time, and people playing at parties and enjoying themselves.

People actually moved here thinking, “I’m going to get in on the Athens scene.” And they end up hating us and people that’ve been here five years because we’re not out every night supporting local bands. I’ll go ahead and say it: I think a lot of the local bands resent us. It’s a backlash because it’s like our fault that we made Athens a “scene.” And a lot of people here go: “Oh, there go those hot-shot rock stars.” Sorry! I just live here because I like it. I didn’t ask to be in this band, it just happened that way.

I go to New York all the time. I know exactly what the difference is. I want to keep living in Athens. I spend half my time somewhere else, which is what makes Athens so great. To me it’s a relief to come here. I have lots of friends, there’s a lot to do. I get out on the road for three months at a time and I’m wired to the max. I’m just nuts and I go home to Athens and go, “Aaahh”. You wind down – what a great place to come home to.

Taken from The Da Capo Book of Rock & Roll Writing (edited by Clinton Heylin), First Da Capo Press Edition, 2000, pp. 401-408

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