Clip: From Rock to Rubble in Athens?
- From Rock to Rubble in Athens?
By PAUL FAIN
As the birthing ground of R.E.M., the B-52's, Widespread Panic, and many
other bands, Athens, Ga., makes a strong case for being the capital of
college rock. (Sorry, Austin.)
The music scene has long paid dividends to the city and to the University
of Georgia. Ethiel Garlington, director of the Athens Welcome Center, says
that live rock helps "draw students to the university" and that about 10
percent of the tourists who visit Athens come for the music.
"I think it makes Athens a place that young people want to be," says Hannah
Smith, a spokeswoman for the Athens Convention and Visitors Bureau. "That's
But several of the town's key rock landmarks have been neglected and are
falling apart, or worse. The cabin thought to have inspired the B-52's
raucous 1989 dance hit "Love Shack" burned down last fall. And the
Victorian-era church in which R.E.M. performed its first gig, 25 years ago,
succumbed to a condominium development in 1990. Only the steeple was saved,
and the condos were dubbed the Steeplechase Condominiums.
"Things get knocked down and nothing's protected," says Bob Sleppy,
executive director of Nuçi's Space, a nonprofit support group for musicians
in Athens. "It's kind of sad."
Many historic spots on the long list of Athens rock attractions survive,
however. Mr. Sleppy, who decided to attend the University of Georgia in
part because of the music scene, says thousands of tourists come each year
to pay homage to the steeple and to the "Murmur Trestle," a railroad
trestle dating to the 1880s that was depicted on the back cover of R.E.M.'s
first full-length album, Murmur. R.E.M.'s fans, who rank among the most
loyal in rock, have rallied to protect the two sites and are stirring up
interest in protecting Athens music history.
In 2000 the Athens-Clarke County government bought the trestle for $25,000,
saving it from demolition, and now one plan would make the structure part
of a bike trail. But with the project's finances still in question and with
a huge parking lot for tailgating Georgia Bulldog fans sitting in the
trestle's shadow, Athens's music buffs fret over how, and whether, the
trestle will be preserved.
Jeff S. Montgomery, who is co-owner of athensmusic.net and is involved with
the Athens Music History Project, says the trestle, steeple, and other key
landmarks are in "imminent danger," but that there is no organized effort
to preserve them.
The university has not played a formal role in saving or celebrating the
local rock triumphs. But university building projects have yet to raze any
iconic rock venues (though university offices occupy a space that was the
largest music club in Athens during the mid-1980s), and Mr. Montgomery says
he doesn't hear gripes about the university. In fact, he says, efforts by
students and faculty members to preserve Athens rock history "behind the
scenes" have been "more than adequate."
For example, two graduate students at the university's School of
Environmental Design recently conducted a review of the structural
integrity of the famous steeple. Mark Reinberger, an associate professor in
the School of Environmental Design, worked with the students on the
project. Although he says the steeple is in "pretty good shape," preparing
the report was a challenge. Mr. Reinberger says he and the students had to
clear three feet of "solid pigeon dung" from the belfry. "We had to shovel
our way through," he says.
It's not just the work of Mr. Reinberger and others that has won good will
for the university among Athens music aficionados, who know that college
rock wouldn't exist in the town without the university. In fact, many
rockers among Athens's greatest homegrown acts, including R.E.M.'s
frontman, Michael Stipe, and Fred Schneider of the B-52's, are alumni.
Bertis E. Downs IV, the longtime manager and general counsel for R.E.M. and
an adjunct professor at the University of Georgia School of Law, says the
band has been active in preservation projects around Athens but has thus
far resisted calls to get involved in saving the trestle. Although the
trestle and steeple are "historic artifacts," he says, the band is hesitant
to build monuments to itself. Besides, he says, Athens's musical
achievements are in no danger of being forgotten.
"As long as the CD still exists," Mr. Downs says, "that's the heritage that
Section: Short Subjects
Volume 52, Issue 5, Page A6