Book Review: “Widespread Panic in the Streets of Athens, Georgia” by Gordon Lamb

Widespread Panic in the Streets of Athens, Georgia by Gordon Lamb
(University of Georgia Press, 2018)

Reviewed by Foster Dickson

Though I had seen the band play live earlier in the ’90s, it was really their 1994 album Ain’t Life Grand that brought Widespread Panic fully into my consciousness. I was twenty years old and midway through college when “Can’t Get High” got some radio play on our local classic rock station, and I remember thinking, “I know who those guys are.”

So, Gordon Lamb’s recent book Widespread Panic in the Streets of Athens, Georgia was an appealing foray down Memory Lane. In it, Lamb, who writes for the Classic City’s  local independent paper Flagpole, parses the narrative of the April 1998 street concert dubbed Panic in the Streets, which was the release party for one of my favorite Panic albums, Light Fuse, Get Away. By that time, the band had transcended being regulars on the Southern touring circuit and had begun getting worldwide attention. What Lamb captures here, in just over a hundred pages, is more than the story of a one-day event in a relatively small college town in the South. While it does cover a niche subject, the book revives the pride that people like me felt about seeing a band we remember from local stages, even house parties, making it big. I wasn’t there for Panic in the Streets, but reading Lamb’s book, I recognized the vibes and the people.

Written in the style of long-form journalism, the book begins with a basic introduction titled “Listen, Pilgrims,” which lays down some truths about the author’s process, before getting to the meat in chapter one, “Going Back.” It was 1998, before Y2K, when cell phones and the internet were fledgling things, a time when Gen-Xers were in our late teens to early 30s, ripe to put our parents’ ways behind us and do our own thing. Lamb opens with a quick overview of Athens, Georgia in the late twentieth century, with a special eye focused on its counterculture and the music scene that had produced REM and other bands. Trying to pack a lot into a little space, the chapter quickly familiarizes the novice with what he might need to know for this tale to make sense, while taking moments toward the beginning and end of the chapter wax philosophic about human nature.

Chapters two and three, “This Part of Town” and “Barstools and Dreamers,” narrow our focus to the band, its history, and the roots of the event then-forthcoming. We have this local group who has achieved popularity in part because of its uniqueness and work ethic, and in part because of coming onto a scene ripe for creating such a success, while at the same time, we have a city administration also ripe for developing its local resources— rock bands included. Fans will begin to notice that chapters are mostly named for song titles, which was a good choice that couldn’t have been too hard to implement.

By chapter four, Lamb carries us into the early ’90s jam band scene, explaining the HORDE Tour and the unwritten rules of the tapers community, then brings us back to Athens in chapter five to delve into local politics. The author does an extraordinarily good job of weaving disparate threads into one fabric with storytelling that goes back and forth and here and there effectively. I give Lamb props: I never once got lost or bored. Not even in chapter six, where the discussions of city politics got a little droll. Necessary, sure, but still a little droll.

The bright side, though, is that in chapter seven, “Travelin’ Light is the Only Way to Fly,” fans begin arriving. Lamb’s scene-setting is once again extraordinary, as I recalled “Fukengruven” bumper stickers and chuckled at a rumor that people planned to dose the police horses. The tie-dyed arrivals piled into Athens, parked and set up camp anywhere they could, and went out into the streets. The narrative has explained the whole time that there was no telling what the crowd size would be, so of course, there’s a few clustery moments where people are stealing beer out of delivery trucks and the mayor ends up on a rooftop. “We’re all in one place to groove, spin, noodle, sing, shout and rock n’ roll,” one concert-goer is quoted as saying. And so they did, at a concert set up by a small army of volunteer roadies and guarded by a wary cadre of cops working overtime. 

Lamb closes out in chapter nine, “Raise the Roof,” complete with the set list, by reminding us that they were there, after all, to release Light Fuse, Get Away. He then has a quick final word in an epilogue titled, fittingly, “Ain’t Life Grand.” It’s good to look back, Lamb writes, and recall what has brought us to this point. And for many of us, that means thinking about the shows and the tunes that cemented friendships and forged memories.

Widespread Panic in the Streets of Athens, Georgia is thorough, well-developed, and easy-reading little book. Part of the University of Georgia Press’s Music of the American South series, it retails for $15.99 in paperback. 

Remy Zero’s “Villa Elaine” (1998)

by Charles Reed

The opening lines, from the second track “Prophecy” begin, “Consider this a sign. This is a train in the night. And now it’s time for you to go. You know you’ve had a healthy life, boy.” What a start. The velocity in that lyric is incredible. I was hooked.

My best friend Rich and I discovered Remy Zero, the Birmingham, Alabama-based alternative rock band, when their second studio album Villa Elaine, named after a Hollywood apartment building in which they were living, was released in 1998. Influenced by David Bowie and Brian Eno, Remy Zero are from the South, but they are not a Southern band. The lead singer Cinjun Tate was once quoted as saying, “There’s no real music scene [in Birmingham], unless you’re playing Lynyrd Skynyrd covers . . . We came together because we were all freaks, really.”

Double hooked. Whom among us didn’t feel that way at some point in our lives? Our youthful exuberance and discovery for all things give us something to wake up for, something that can be beautifully summarized through music, and Remy Zero woke me up.

As we both began learning more about Remy Zero, we found their intriguing biography. I scoured internet archives website, Wayback Machine, to find a portion of this original biography:

Remy Zero was born Remy Boligee in Chelsea, Alabama about 1950. At around 16 he left home for Birmingham and found a job unloading trains outside the city. By 1969 he was living in a shack in a railroad worker’s shantytown and had begun writing the first of hundreds of highly idiosyncratic songs.

The band and record company made numerous attempts to locate Remy Zero and his relatives but have so far been unsuccessful. It is hoped by using his name, Zero will come to hear of the band and perhaps establish contact.

According to the biography, Remy’s tapes were given to 12-year-old Shelby Tate (Cinjun’s brother) by one of Remy’s friends. The tapes contained nearly 30 hours of music, conversation, ramblings, and train yard sounds. Those recordings formed the basis for the Remy Zero sound.

I imagined the scenes of Remy recording his thoughts, feet dangling from the side of a boxcar, and Shelby first listening to the tapes and being inspired. I know the story is probably fiction. In a 2019 interview with Seattle-based radio station KEXP, Cinjun said, “Shelby ‘invented’ the band.” Regardless, what a great story it is. That is what made albums and bands from my youth interesting— they were truly creative arts with more than just hooks and earworms. These albums were a complete work of art from the liner notes, song titles, and accompanying stories. Back when albums were still meant to be listened-to from beginning to end.

Some songs from Villa Elaine made it into movie or TV soundtracks. That was always a sore spot with Rich and me in that we felt Remy Zero was ours, and not for a thirty-second TV show introduction. However, I’ve grown to appreciate some of those decisions, such as the inclusion of the song “Fair” in the soundtrack for the 2004 movie Garden State.

Villa Elaine was released in the era before digital music was the standard, and when we diligently hunted for hidden tracks, it did include one hidden instrumental. The track was not anything spectacular, but it felt like I accomplished something special by finding it. Knowing those nuances, such as which albums contained hidden tracks, or where a song was recorded, and with what instrument, really helped us connect with the band, and it gave them music credibility.

I will always cherish this album and band, which broke up shortly after their third album Golden Hum in 2002. We may not know the true Southern influence the band members drew upon when making their music. But for me, one thing is sure— their music and style awakened in me a love of weird and emotional music. I began consuming their back catalog, as well as listening to their influences.

To me, the ending of the song “Fair” is a great example of the dark and stormy space Remy Zero often created in their music, a space in which I wanted to exist:

“When I was sure you’d follow through
My world was turned to blue (so thin)
When you’d hide, your songs would die
So, I’d hide yours with mine
And all my words were bound to fail
I know you won’t fail”

——

Charles Reed was born in Florida and lived there most of his life, and after marrying a girl from Alabama, he calls Montgomery home. He works in the computer software industry and recently decided to start writing things down.

*You can also read his review of the book “Family Matters” here on level:deepsouth.