Athens in the 1980s

Athens, Georgia in the 1980s was known for being a hotbed of alternative music. The B-52s hailed from Athens. REM was from Athens. A host of other, lesser-known but well respected bands came from Athens. You could go to your choice of clubs around town, the best-known being the 40 Watt, and hear up and coming bands (and some not so up and coming — those were the ones who got to perform on Monday nights) any time you wanted. Someone eventually made a movie about the incredible Athens music scene, “Athens, GA, Inside/Out” which, unfortunately, doesn’t appear to be available for streaming anywhere, or I’d tell you to go watch it.

And there was, a student at the University of Georgia, having arrived in town just when the big push came to up the drinking age to 21. The US government mandated that states raise the drinking age; if they didn’t, the Feds would withhold federal highway funding. Grumbling, states complied. In Georgia, they raised the drinking age from 18 to 19 in 1984, then from 19 to 20 in 1985, then from 20 to 21 in 1986, one increment each year for three years, so those people who could already drink could keep on doing so but those who were just shy of being old enough … well, we got the shaft.

I know, I know, it was for our own good, but it really sucked as far as my social life was concerned. Most of my acquaintances at that time were a year or two older and could go to clubs where alcohol was served, or to the Georgia Theater (the “Carafe and Draft” at that time), but I couldn’t — even though two years earlier (were I the same age then) I’d have been able to. Some clubs let under-aged students in with a wristband or stamp on their hand, but others didn’t let you in at all. And in any event, being the kid drinking Coke when everyone you were with was pounding down one beer after another was really, really lame.

(But on the other hand, I was a whiny little loser that I doubt anyone much enjoyed being with, so if the “sorry, you’re underage, you can’t come in” thing hadn’t been a valid excuse, people would just have come up with another. Can’t blame ’em, really.)

But the long and the short of it was that there I was, in the absolute goddamn epicenter of college rock in the 1980s, and for the most part, I experienced it the same way anyone in any college town would’ve, via the radio.

UGA had a great campus radio station, WUOG (“The Last One Left”, due to its position on the FM dial) and if you kept your radio tuned there, you’d eventually hear everyone who was anyone in the alternative rock scene: REM, Pylon, Love Tractor, Berlin, the Smiths, Bauhaus, XTC, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Joy Division, Echo and the Bunnymen, the Beat Farmers, the Dead Kennedys, the Butthole Surfers, the Circle Jerks, the Violent Femmes, the Cure, Depeche Mode, Shriekback, and countless others. WUOG is where I first heard “People Who Died” by the Jim Carroll Band. It’s where I first heard “Elvis is Everywhere” by Mojo Nixon and Skid Roper.

Carole, for her part, missed out on all this musical wonderment by virtue of a) being three years younger than me, and b) going to college in Cambridge, Massachusetts, at Harvard. I assume there were alt rock stations in that part of the world, but evidently she didn’t listen to ’em. (She says “I was busy majoring in boys”.)

I put an “80s Alternative Rock” playlist on today during lunch and all these memories came spilling back. Each song that came on was an old friend to me but completely new to Carole. As we sat there eating, I wound up having to look up the lyrics to Berlin songs (“The Metro”, “Sex (I’m A)”, etcetera) for her, so she could follow along… and a bit later found myself explaining that saying “‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’ (by Joy Division) is one of the best known alternative rock songs ever” isn’t oxymoron. As is my wont, I wound up going into much more detail than she really wanted or needed. So, finally, rather than attempt the impossible — catching my wife up on years of alternative rock history in the space of a meal — I simply had done with it and played her “Take The Skinheads Bowling” by Camper van Beethoven. (She loved it.)

That’ll have to do for now. 🙂