U Rock, U Roll
Sunday, November 27, 2005
Pink Floyd told us that we don't need no education.
I don't want no argument with rock-and-roll royalty, but perhaps the band failed to considered higher education. I say this because -- to borrow one of Jack Black's lines from the movie "School of Rock" -- colleges quite clearly "service society by rocking."
Think of it this way: Without colleges, we would have no college towns. And without college towns, we'd be out a lot of great music. No Athens, Ga.? No R.E.M. Get rid of Charlottesville? Get rid of the birthplace of the Dave Matthews Band. Axe Chapel Hill, N.C.? Lose the launching pad for the piano tunes of Ben Folds.
These college towns are laboratories, creative enclaves where music bubbles, swirls and mutates into more infectious strains. They are the primordial ooze in which some of the best American music evolves -- or, if you prefer, is created.
I'm no music clerk, but I knew all this in a book-learning kind of way. But to really understand the workings of college music towns, I needed more than that.
I needed a field trip.
Days would include driving, browsing record stores, hanging out in coffee shops and strolling leafy, attractive campuses. Nights would be spent partying like a rock star -- or, at least, with one.
My planned stops -- Charlottesville, Chapel Hill and Athens -- are three of the Southeast's classic college music towns. In addition to bad parking, each has a vibrant music scene and a good record store or two. They also support a variety of small and mid-size venues: That means you can chat with musicians after sets, not just squint through binoculars or stare at the Jumbotron.
So in mid-September, I was excited to leave my home in Atlanta for my first stop. The moment reminded me of another great rock-and-roll movie: It was 550 miles to Charlottesville. I had a full tank of gas, half a box of Wheat Thins, it was daylight and I forgot my sunglasses.
Eight hours later, my Blues Brother impression still sucked. But I had arrived at the home of the University of Virginia, whose elegant Rotunda and stately "academical village" were designed by Thomas Jefferson himself.
A stroll around the U-Va. grounds was tempting, but my first stop was the downtown mall, a pedestrian corridor paved in bricks and lined with restaurants. I passed the afternoon and early evening in the area, snacking on cantaloupe gelato in the shade of willow oaks, surfing the Internet at the Twisted Branch Tea Bazaar, and eating oysters and egg rolls at Bang!, an Asian-accented tapas restaurant a couple blocks off the mall.