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B-52's Athens, Ga.: All Rock, No Lobsters

By Steve Hendrix
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 29, 2003

It all began with a cocktail. Just one cocktail. One really enormous punch bowl of a cocktail.

And five straws.

"I think of it as the Night of the Flaming Volcano," says Cindy Wilson of the B-52's. She's the blond one, with the yearling eyes.

"We all pitched in for this giant rum drink at a Chinese restaurant," says Keith Strickland, the band's pretty-boy drummer and guitarist. "It had a Sterno can burning under it."

"It was all very ceremonial," says Wilson. "Then we went and played."

And played. And played. And played.

And they're playing still. Wilson, Strickland and three other young arty-party hangabouts -- Fred Schneider, Kate Pierson and the late Ricky Wilson, Cindy's brother -- left that restaurant for a rum-buzzed jam session at a friend's house. Sometime in the wee hours, a lean surf-guitar vibe began to coalesce around an irresistible dance groove and an outrageous lava-lamp sense of fun. By morning, a band had formed that would lay down the funk-pop dance beat of an era. The B-52's were born, and a small Southern college town -- Athens, Ga. -- soon emerged as the center of the expanding underground universe of alternative rock.

That was 1976. More than 25 years later, Athens has only grown as a place that celebrates and creates music of every kind, especially live music. On any given night, touring and local bands may be playing at an astonishing 40 clubs, theaters, bars, cafes and other venues in this town of more than 100,000 (including 30,000-plus University of Georgia students). From the capacious Georgia Theatre to broom-closet-size coffee houses, Athens is the Branson, Mo., of indie rock.

And it shows no sign of slowing. Decades after the debut of local-bands-made-good like the B-52's, R.E.M. and Widespread Panic, this year Rolling Stone magazine anointed Athens the "best college music town in the country." (Take that, Austin.)

"An incredible array of bands play here," says Pete McCommons, publisher of the Flagpole, the weekly chronicle of Athens's arts and music scene. "It's not just alternative music either. There's a pretty active jazz scene, there's country rock, bluegrass. It has given downtown Athens just an incredible liveliness."

But it's not just music and nightlife that make Athens such a beguiling little burg. America's hippest music scene happens to thrive in a town that also boasts a generous stock of Old South architecture, beautiful and walk-able campus quads, and all the art and cultural goodies spawned by a major university. You can find an excellent used-book store, first-rate fried chicken (and fancier food, too) and a vast selection of Birkenstocks. It's a town of old trees, long views and verbena airs.

"I just love the feel of it here," says Wilson. "It's built on hills and it gets the best light, the most beautiful sunsets."

On a recent spring morning, she and Strickland -- the only two Athens-born members of the band -- are rocking at the Foundry Park Inn, an upscale hotel and restaurant complex. Not rocking, but rocking, as in chairs, on the front porch of the hotel, looking out into a soft Georgia rain and talking about their home town.

"It isn't like other southern towns; it isn't now and it wasn't then," says Strickland, handsome in a white cotton shirt and jeans. He cuts a much different figure than the partying townie he was in the late '70s, roaming the streets in wild thrift-shop getups. "The university draws people here, and it's full of outrageous characters and all this creative energy. There were always eccentrics in Athens, but we took it out onto the streets."

Now, Strickland lives mainly in Woodstock, N.Y., and Key West, Fla., but he keeps an apartment here for trips home to visit his mother. Wilson lives in Atlanta but plays in Athens occasionally with her new group, the Cindy Wilson Band. (They still tour steadily with the B-52's, who are playing Thursday at Washington's 9:30 club and at Baltimore's Pier Six on July 5)

"There are so many great places," says Wilson. "I like to go to Tasty World [a nightclub] and, of course, the 40 Watt Club [one of the oldest and most famous of Athens's venues]." Without her signature beehive, she looks almost preppy in blond bangs and a ponytail, a green sweater over a floral print dress.

Braving the drizzle, the two of them -- still hooting and finishing each other's memories -- climb into Wilson's black Saab for a tour of the old places. A few blocks away, they point out Morton Theater, site of the band's first rehearsal space and of the Kress (long since out of business), where Wilson once worked as a waitress. "I had to get a job because it was my job to buy a microphone," she says.

This is the edge of downtown, the two-dozen square blocks at the northern edge of campus that has become the city's French Quarter. During the day, students and shoppers mix on sidewalks lined with boutiques and cafes. In the evening, the outdoor tables get crowded and the bar hoppers come out. It's more bohemian on the west side, Strickland says (at such bars as the 40 Watt and the Manhattan), more fraternity to the east (Flannigan's, the Firehouse) and laid-back conversational in between (the Globe, the Georgia Bar). But the quarter really comes alive around 11 p.m., when the bands crank up. The zip-light marquee of the Georgia Theatre casts a bright neon shadow across Clayton Street, and muffled indoor bass lines rock the district until 2 a.m.

Driving on, they pass the main entrance to the university, a black iron arch leading into the shady grove of giant magnolias and grand columned buildings known as Old Campus.

"I love Old Campus," says Strickland. "I sat and took mushrooms once and got so overwhelmed by those trees I ended up going into the library to read about trees." He and Wilson erupt in laughter. "Psychedelics definitely had a lot to do with the B-52's."

Just down the street is the old site of St. Mary's Episcopal Church, the practice space where Michael Stipe, Bill Berry, Pete Buck and Mike Mills got their chops together as R.E.M. Then, winding around campus, Wilson pulls down a small lane across from the football stadium. This is Oconee Hills Cemetery, a handsome tree-filled graveyard near the Oconee River. "Let's go see Ricky," she says.

It's not just family that visits the grave of Ricky Wilson, who died of complications due to AIDS in 1985. It's something of a rite for Athens's many music pilgrims. "People leave little things," says his sister in a soft voice, looking at the small drawings, pennies and various trinkets of tribute surrounding the simple knee-high pyramid gravestone.

On the way to lunch, Wilson drives out of the way to pass a disheveled two-story green house on Milledge Avenue, a street otherwise lined with big southern mansions and a few sorority houses. "That's where we played our first party," Wilson says. "It was Valentine's Day. People were dancing so hard the floor was like a trampoline."

Lunch is at the Grit, a venerable vegetarian hangout with heavy home-cookin' influences (the turnips and corn pudding are both exceptional). The 1800s storefront owned by Stipe (one of several buildings the R.E.M. boys have bought and restored) is famous as a musicians' and filmmakers' hangout. "Good cornbread," Wilson says with respect. She's known in the band as a fine southern cook herself.

Athens has always been a good vittles town (including a truly sublime meat-and-three called Down Home Cooking and Weaver D's, a southern diner made famous when R.E.M. adopted the house catchphrase, "Automatic for the People," as an album title). But lately its reputation for more upscale restaurants is growing, too. The versatile and wine-rich Five & Ten, for example, is credited with singlehandedly stopping the weekend flight of foodies to Atlanta.

And of course there's Allen's, the timeless burger dive in the Normaltown neighborhood made famous by the B-52's song "Deadbeat Club." It is without irony or pretense that Wilson, after finishing her sweet tea, looks up and says brightly, "Let's go to Allen's for a beer!"

Ten minutes later they are sitting around a sticky table on split vinyl seats, under walls crowded with Georgia Bulldog posters. There's a Braves game on TV. The two band mates -- whose "Love Shack" and "Rock Lobster" have been jumpstarting wedding receptions and bar mitzvahs for decades now -- toast each other with bottles of Miller Lite. There's no 25-cent beer special anymore, but everything else is basically how they left it.

"That's one thing I like about Athens," says Wilson. "It's always amazing how much it stays the same."

Details: Athens, Ga.

GETTING THERE: Athens is in northern Georgia, about 70 miles east of Atlanta. US Airways flies to Athens, usually via Charlotte, with fares from $275 round trip. Fares to Atlanta, about a 90-minute drive (I-85 to Route 316, to Epps Bridge Parkway to Route 78 or 10), are about $235 round trip on Delta, AirTran and United.

WHERE TO STAY : The Foundry Park Inn and Spa (295 E. Dougherty St., 866-928-4367, www.foundryparkinn.com) is a pleasing combination of motor court motel, brewpub and upscale inn within strolling (or staggering) distance from downtown. Rooms start at $94. For other options, contact the Athens tourism office (see below).

WHAT TO DO: To get a handle on the nearly endless live entertainment ops, pick up a copy of the Flagpole, the free weekly newspaper widely available around town, and online at www.flagpole.com. It also publishes an annual guide to all things Athens and collaborated with the visitors bureau to produce a 28-point walking tour of the town's musical history. Pick up the free brochure at the welcome center (280 E. Dougherty St., 706-353-1820).

For the musically inclined or not, downtown Athens is the place to be. The shops along Clayton and surrounding streets range from boutique leather goods to vintage clothing. Nearby is the University of Georgia's main campus. There are some hidden garden paths behind the English building, as well as the excellent Georgia Museum of Art (706-542-4662, www.uga.edu/gamuseum; suggested donation $2), housed in its new digs at 90 Carleton St.

WHERE TO EAT: The Grit (199 Prince Ave.) is a classic college-town vegetarian cafe with a Southern accent. For genuine Southern comfort food, the modest Down Home Cooking (840 N. Broad St.) is the real thing, as is the famous Weaver D's Fine Food (1016 E. Broad St.). Higher on the cuisine chain is Five & Ten (1653 S. Lumpkin St.), which has made a splash with a nationally ranked chef; most entrees in the teens.

Cindy Wilson's favorite spot is the Last Resort (184 W. Clayton St.), a former music club serving upscale American cuisine in the low-teens range. Apr├Ęs-clubbing, there's no beating the retro-diner excellence of the Grill (171 College Ave.), open 24 hours.

INFO: Athens Convention & Visitors Bureau, 800-653-0603, www.visitathensga.com.

-- Steve Hendrix

© 2003 The Washington Post Company