Milius, McCarthy, and Me, or the Dawning Red in the West

by Russell Worth Parker

Born in the wake of the Great Daylight Fireball, the only child of a divorce finalized in 1972, well before he understood parents sometimes live together, the boy was small and lonely and precocious and living upon six hundred acres of farm and forest. There were no neighbor kids proximate; no pick-up football games. There was just the boy and the woods around Athens, Georgia and the Daisy BB gun he carried, bestocked in plastic and slick bored. A boy’s heart calls for the cold steel a man’s hands will someday find. It was then as it had ever been or ever would be.  

There would be war, and the boy would find himself within its province, of that he was certain. Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian was yet three years hence and the boy had barely attained a decade on earth, yet knew with the certainty of the Judge that “it makes no difference what men think of war . . . War endures. As well ask men what they think of stone. War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him. The ultimate trade awaiting its ultimate practitioner. That is the way it was and will be. That way and not some other way.”

The boy found his friends in books, yellow of page and soft of cover. Pulp novels written under unlikely pen names, military histories awash in tiny print, or “there I was” biographies— they were all soldiers in the service of a destiny written before the boy or any of the authors came mewling unto this plane. Every page a blood-besotted exaltation of the kind of man the boy wanted to be, already desperate to join the dance, to take on the hyper-masculine qualities of a fictional assassin or the grim resolve of a Marine on Guadalcanal. On television, Vietnamese tanks ground into Cambodia. Soviet commandos took the centers of government in Afghanistan. A Marine raised his hand before the Congress, resplendent in green and swathed in ribbons. A Japanese rifle the boy’s Marine grandfather brought home from an island awash in blood hung on the wall as his father’s Marine uniform hung neatly bagged in a closet across town, both silently calling him to their measure. 

The boy rode his bicycle to the local tobacconist, where he could stand quietly, back against a rack, reading Soldier of Fortune magazine, whence he learned he was better dead than red. He stepped aside, solemn as a judge, to let grown men pass on their way to the glossy paper harlots sold from the back, pitying them their weakness, for he knew honor and glory awaited him. He imagined himself amongst guerillas, fighting the Bear. Even before he had a man’s carriage, he knew men either govern, are governed, or rebel. He needed but one desperate fight won, face smoke blackened and hands blood rimed, or lost in some glorious immolation burning his shadow upon the wall for decades. But in the 1980s, playground predations notwithstanding, there was but one monolith of which to avail himself. Opportunities to dance with the Bear were few and far between for a bookish middle-class boy in the Athens, Georgia suburbs. 

Then came a day dawned red. Cuban, Nicaraguan, and Soviet paratroopers drifted down to light upon Colorado’s front range. The strategic value of Calumet, Colorado was of only passing question to the boy or John Milius or presumptively, McCarthy, for the answer to the blood question lay in whether a group of teenagers, Wolverines as they fashioned themselves, would see their occupiers swallowed by a leviathan of their own design. But honest men and Milius knew they must always answer to the Judge, must determine whether Wolverines might become but McCarthy’s “legion of horribles” in the pursuit of their own deliverance, “clad in costumes attic or biblical or wardrobed out of a fevered dream with the skins of animals and silk finery and pieces of uniform still tracked with the blood of prior owners.”

Omaha, Kansas City, even Washington, DC lay as rubble irradiated, though the boy only found out after Cuban MIG-21s struck down Lieutenant Colonel Andy Tanner’s F-15, an Eagle torn asunder by fire and fragment. He found his South occupied once again, this time by Godless Communists who were stopped only when they discovered themselves to be but false dancers on the banks of the Mississippi, broken upon the face of the Rockies. Thereon, half a million scarecrows prayed for succor other than rats and sawdust and of a moment, one another. Pyres lit the sky as offerings to a God made manifest in the hopes of a billion screaming Chinamen rendered six hundred million.

The two toughest kids on the block will fight. The boy had fashioned himself thus, all indications contrary, and saw himself as he wanted to be seen in Jed and Matt Eckert, set to puzzle danger from an early age and unafraid to. A Wolverine he felt he was and would be, able to withstand those things that beset a boy, smaller and slower afoot than his peers. Their time in the hills was but time to become stronger, as was his amongst the trees and barns of the farm. Their victories over the Bear, over Colonel Bella, over the collaborators, were his yet to come against those things that vexed him. As the Eckerts sought vengeance in the name of their father, him clinging unto a wire fence shouting, “Avenge me! Avenge me!” so would the boy find a mission, a way to set right those depredations that beset him, real and imagined, making him strong in his mind if he were still only corporeally picayune. 

Came a day after the Red Dawn. The boy himself dancing among burning rain drops in Iraq and Afghanistan, finding the truth to be neither all nor none of Milius or McCarthy. Again came the Judge, a terrible enormity hairless and pale, saying, “Only that man who has offered up himself entire to the blood of war, who has been to the floor of the pit and seen the horror in the round and learned at last that it speaks to his inmost heart, only that man can dance.” The boy danced. It could only be that way and not some other way.

Book Review: “Cool Town” by Grace Elizabeth Hale

Cool Town: How Athens, Georgia Launched Alternative Music and Changed American Culture
by Grace Elizabeth Hale

(University of North Carolina Press, First Edition 2020)

Reviewed by Jim Hodgson

This should be something we do: gather people interested in art, give them time to create it, and enjoy the result. So it was with Athens, Georgia, in the ’80s as described in Grace Elizabeth Hale’s Cool Town. The results are undeniable.

If you were a kid then, you probably remember the cigarette smoke, the K-Mart knock-off version of parachute pants with broken zippers, the aggressively uninteresting Chrysler economy cars. Maybe you remember fundamentalist Christians howling about morality, then sobbing about their own deeply flawed lives. Tylenol could murder you. Halloween candy was full of pins and razorblades. The president was a famous guy, but not a politician. What must it have been like to put those things together into music that somehow made sense?

As long as we’re asking, what about now? Who can put American culture over their shoulder and drag it into the future with Christian fundamentalists, Republicans, and other so-called “conservatives” doing everything they can to hold it back?

Cool Town is a thorough and beloved answer to these questions. It explores the place, the players, and the music in impressive depth. The answer to the latter question being, of course, “young people.” All they need is a little time and maybe a few people off their backs while they’re at it.

Speaking objectively about the hardback book, it’s a detailed work of art. It has gorgeous paper, carefully-chosen – and even better, listed – typefaces, detailed epigraphs from the songs it describes. There’s even a Spotify playlist. Fans of R.E.M. and the B-52’s will find plenty of material to enjoy, but Pylon, Love Tractor, and others as well.

The book’s author, Grace Elizabeth Hale, co-founded the Downstairs, a café and music club open during the ’80s. It’s hard to imagine an author better qualified or a book more up to the task. Cool Town has done its job admirably. But we still have work to do. Why don’t we gather people interested in making art? Why don’t we give them time to create? We know we enjoy the result. Cool Town is proof.

——

Jim Hodgson is a filmmaker and published author. He has written bestselling books, is a produced playwright, is an Ironman finisher and an ultramarathon finisher, and has climbed two of the world’s tallest mountains: Kilimanjaro and Aconcagua.

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.