Bringing you a normal book review–I know, it’s been a while!–is Kelvin, who’s got lovely things to say about Cool Town: How Athens, Georgia Launched Alternative Music and Changed American Culture, by Grace Elizabeth Hale!
Back in the early 90’s, while visiting the state of Georgia and a girl I had some interest in, I requested as my birthday present that she accompany me (i.e., drive both of us) to Athens, a town I knew to have a reputation as the epitome of college-town cool. Not just my favorite band R.E.M. but The B52’s and Pylon and countless others known and unknown called it home.
As we walked around the streets, I searched for visible, tangible, signs of the ‘scene’ I had read about and hoped to be a part of, even if for just a few hours. Perhaps we could catch Peter Buck in a record store searching through the cut out bins. Maybe we’d spot Kate Pierson coming out of a second hand store. A few hours later, after neither of those things had happened, I told my friend that in a town known for it’s music scene, it was virtually a requirement that we attend a show, and I bought tickets to see Widespread Panic at The Georgia Theatre. “Are they any good?” she asked. “They’re great!” I replied, despite having no more idea than she who they were. (My bad–they would soon attain massive popularity). On our late-night drive back, I had to admit I hadn’t quite found in our visit what I had hoped to.
All that was a long time ago now. In 2009, a fire gutted the Georgia Theatre; it would be rebuilt, but never the same. And though years later I would unexpectedly meet Peter Buck in Boulder, Colorado, R.E.M., along with a lot of those other bands, no longer exists.
Happily, though, Grace Elizabeth Hale’s new book, Cool Town: How Athens, Georgia Launched Alternative Music and Changed American Culture, offers another chance to immerse myself in that scene in a way I could not back in 1991.
In this thoroughly and impressively researched book, Hale tells through interviews and archival material the stories of the musicians and bands and artists that did so much to make Athens the specific, peculiar and culturally resonant place it became. Along the way, she advocates for the philosophy–that anyone could and should endeavor to make art—that underpins it all. People formed bands not just because it was a fun thing to do, but because they wanted to live creative lives. The impulse, often as not, extended beyond making music to expressions of gender and sexual preference. The goal, as one musician sums it up in the book, was “to not have others tell us what we could or could not do.”
Hale doesn’t completely disregard the less rosy side of this utopian tale. While money and popularity were never the point, inevitably they came along for some. The business side of creating music, not part of the initial philosophy, could prove tricky at best and destructive at worst, both professionally and personally. A few dealt with this fact by continuing to shun the trappings of success as antithetical to the enterprise. One act’s stated objective was to play a single show in New York City and, should the opportunity ever come to fruition, break up immediately afterward.
As the title implies, Hale is after more than simply documenting a unique popular culture moment, and she manages to transform that moment into something that feels like actual and significant cultural history, even if the involved time span is surprisingly short for the amount of ground covered. Having never returned myself since that day, I’m left wondering what Athens has been like since, whether the spirit and enthusiasm Hale documents so well still exists or, like many of those bands, has faded away into memory. Regardless, Cool Town pays it a fascinating and proper remembrance and respect.
You can purchase Cool Town online here!