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Was It Cooler Back Then?

A search for the memory of R.E.M. in Athens, Georgia.

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Mills, who lives up the street from the 40 Watt, said there is still a vital and close-knit music community to be found in Athens. And I know how much dwelling on the 1980s bothers longtime residents of the town, who rightly see in all the fascination or nostalgia an implicit criticism of Athens as it is now. For them, to glorify the house parties and cheap rent is to indulge in a sentimental fantasy, and some people will roll their eyes when you ask if they ever went to Tyrone’s. What is it you want to know, their glazed expression seems to ask, if things were cooler back then?

At the same time, it was becoming clear to me that things do disappear. We forget this can happen in the South, where the past tends to outstay its welcome, yet it’s a view that Mills was willing to sponsor. He told me the heyday, the most blissful part of being in Athens, was almost impossibly evanescent, lasting only about a year or two, and was effectively over by the time R.E.M.’s first record came out in 1983. What ended it? Knowledge, naturally: the forbidden fruit, the ancient enemy. People started moving there to take part in whatever it was that was happening, and the media took notice. “O Little Town of Rock ‘n’ Roll” ran a 1984 headline in the Washington Post, above an article comparing Athens to Beatles-era Liverpool and Grateful Dead–era San Francisco. There was a narrative now, a national focusing. Two years later, filming commenced on a documentary, Athens, Georgia: Inside/Out, that featured R.E.M., Pylon, Love Tractor, and others. It was as if a giant mirror had been set down in front of the town.

“They say about a certain kind of particle that the act of observing them makes them different,” Mills said. “Same thing with a scene. Once you start observing it and coming here to see it, then it’s very different. The scene’s probably over at that point.”

Here it was again, the sense of a vanishing, the same Stallings had noticed. Moreover, and somewhat uncomfortably, I was realizing how this band I have listened to and taken for granted my whole life was in fact a very delicate and contingent entity. “Back then we didn’t know what we were doing,” said Mills, who stressed how vital of an agent this lack of self-awareness was, how crucial to R.E.M.’s development. And what if it had been otherwise? A question, of course, nobody can answer, yet one that kept presenting itself to me as I drove around the streets of Athens, trying to reconstruct the town as it was. If Athens had already been “Athens” in 1980, would there still be an R.E.M.?