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.

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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.

R.E.M. at the Mall

by Peter Stavros

It was 1984, and I was a college freshman in Durham, North Carolina, living away from home for the first time. Early in the fall semester, I was still trying to find my place among students who seemed to have all gotten perfect SAT scores and spent the summer taking prep courses at Harvard or learning life lessons in Outward Bound. I, on the other hand, had gone to visit my grandparents in Clearwater Beach, where a stingray stung me on the foot and the lifeguard peed on it. After my mid-week chem lab, where I had poured some chemicals down the sink that apparently weren’t supposed to be poured down the sink, I needed a break. So I walked a few blocks from campus to Northgate Mall.

The mall was everything to me in the ’80s, especially growing up in a small Eastern Kentucky town with not a whole lot going on, where a rite of passage was to drive to the mall once you got your driver’s license – no easy feat since the closest mall was in West Virginia, a good forty minutes on the “four-lane.” The mall was my world. It was where I got my haircuts, shopped for clothes, bought books and posters and fake plastic dog poop, listened to music, played video games and ate the most delicious pizza at a real authentic New York pizzeria called Sbarro. I fell in love at the mall. And on this day, I met R.E.M.

As I wandered about the wide, brightly lit corridors, I noticed two card tables set out in front of the Record Bar, on either side of the entrance, with a group of guys seated at each table — shaggy hair and wrinkled shirts and distressed jeans, so they were definitely somebody. But there was no signage or anything that said who they were. I nodded politely when I passed by and entered the store. I was searching for a song I had been hearing on the college radio station WXDU, something about being sorry, maybe, because the lyrics weren’t entirely clear. When I conveyed this to the clerk, he handed me a 45 titled “So. Central Rain (I’m Sorry)” by this relatively new band R.E.M. (and you pronounced the letters individually and not like “rem”).

“You know they’re outside signing autographs,” he mentioned as he rang me up. “You oughtta have ’em sign this.”

I thanked him for that bit of intelligence and exited the store, and it occurred to me how that probably wasn’t such a bad idea. It would perhaps give me something to talk to my fellow freshmen about when I got to the dorm. The only problem, as I stood looking now at the backs of both of these groups, was that I had no idea which was R.E.M. I pondered this, seeing if I could discern any clue that might indicate who was who. I couldn’t retreat inside the Record Bar and ask the clerk, because then what kind of dork would I have been. I decided instead to leave it to chance. I approached the band seated at the card table to the right, and confidently requested, “Can you sign my record please?”

“We’re the dB’s,” the shaggy-haired guy replied, insouciant, and then motioned across with a flick of his hand, “That’s R.E.M., dude.”

In an inefficacious attempt to save face, I said, “Oh, damn, that’s right—what was I thinking . . . dude?” and tried to laugh it off as I grabbed the 45 and slinked over to the other table, hoping that no one else had witnessed my gaffe. Fortunately, the members of R.E.M. seemed even less interested in what was happening.

They were crammed behind this rickety card table, each staring off in a different direction. I warily held out the single, which depicted on its cover a silhouette of someone clutching a wooden model sailboat. They knew the drill, and each took turns signing it for me, passing the record on down the line. Bill Berry and Mike Mills just wrote their names, but Peter Buck wrote, “To Pete from Peter Buck.” And Michael Stipe, the last to sign, wrote, “To Pete from me” and added, “my boat dammit.” Then, as the enigmatic lead singer casually handed the 45 back to me, he did the coolest rock n’ roll thing I had ever witnessed (and to date it has remained as such): he blew his nose into the sleeve of his baggy flannel jacket!

Needless to say, I had much to discuss at the dining hall that evening. Everyone seemed quite impressed with my treasure, and I made some friends then who I still have today. The encounter also sparked my interest in music. I went on to become a DJ for WXDU, playing an array of musical groups and genres during the coveted 11:00 PM to 2:00 AM time slot (while honing my ability to tell bands apart). R.E.M. became my band, almost like I had discovered them. We forever had this bond. I saw them perform one year at the university auditorium and the next year at the civic center in Raleigh, then on to larger venues. Years later, I even scheduled a business trip so that I could see them headline the Bumbershoot music festival in Seattle.

That autographed 45 has survived numerous moves around the country, from one city and job (and life) to the next, and occupies a special spot on the bookshelf in my home office. I often gaze upon it as I sit at my computer, and reflect on that anxious freshman who was struggling to fit in, and who had a whole new world suddenly opened up to him by a chance meeting with R.E.M. at the mall.

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Peter J. Stavros is a writer in Louisville, Kentucky, and the author of Three in the Morning and You Don’t Smoke Anymore (Etchings Press, 2020).