He was your typical rock 'n' roll runaway, a blue T-shirt on his back and the keys to Daddy's '79 Oldsmobile in his hand.

"This is the wildest thing I've ever done," said David Rhoden, 17, moonbeams dancing off his braces.

With music blaring from his tape deck, he just up and bolted earlier that day, tossing a paperback ("Crime and Punishment"), a toothbrush and a harmonica into a bag and roaring out of Chattanooga, 200 miles away.

He split for one reason: Love Tractor was playing here.

That's a rock band, not a gang of plowboy mud wrestlers. It is one of almost 40 new wave bands that have sprouted from the kudzu and red clay of Athens in the five years since the B-52s donned beehive hairdos, cranked up their amplifiers and became the first home-grown group to Make It Big.

"It was Liverpool in '63, San Francisco in '65, Detroit and Motown in '67, New York in the '70s, but it's Athens, Georgia, now," declares Dan Matthews, managing editor of Tasty World, a local rock magazine that has sprung up to chronicle the scene.

And, oh, what a scene it is. Home town of the University of Georgia Bulldogs, mecca for beer-bellied, Hairy Dawg devotees in red underwear, reputed site of the first streaker and the place once picked as Playboy's No. 1 college party town, Athens is inspiring almost everyone to pick up a guitar and get down.

Consider the case of Dayna Kim Olsen, 24. She was a waitress at the Waffle House when some guy tapped her on the shoulder at a party last year. He was amused by the pigeon on her arm. He teased her. They began shadow boxing. "You're pretty spunky," he said. "I like your style. Wanna be in a band?"

"Why not?"

So she became lead singer for Club GAGA, a band that just played its first New York gig at CBGB's, where such luminaries as Patti Smith, Talking Heads and the Ramones blasted off.

"I couldn't sing," says Olsen. "So I learned how."

More established, the four ex-University of Georgia students who constitute R.E.M. (for Rapid Eye Movement) wander Broad Street between smash tours and hot record sales, fueling rock ambitions and drawing all manner of pilgrims to this sleepy college town of 70,000 some call Liverpool South. Their first album, "Murmur," was hailed as best new album of the year by Rolling Stone, and a second, "Reckoning," hit the quarter million sales mark in August, halfway to gold album status. No wonder heads snap when they drop in at smoky clubs to catch the latest groups and urge bands like Love Tractor to go forth and do likewise.

"They were great!" grinned Rhoden after Love Tractor shut down the 40 Watt Club, originally named for its lone lightbulb. "I missed the Beatles growing up. But this was much better than listening to Paul McCartney on the radio. Athens music is my favorite."

Athens is a cultural outback where hungry, regional musicians are daring new styles of upbeat rock 'n' roll outside the New York-L.A. cultural axis. Minneapolis can boast Prince. And Athens has R.E.M. and lesser lights like Pylon, Oh-Ok, Buzz of Delight, Go Van Go, Dreams So Real, Wheel of Cheese, Rack of Spam, Art in the Dark, Kilkenny Cats, Banned 37 (named for its place on the list of bands) and others that form, split and reincarnate like ambitious amoebas.

"So many bands are coming out of Athens all the time now. It's an indication that something is happening there," says Carl Grasso, vice president of IRS Records, the California-based label that signed R.E.M.

At least four local clubs are kept busy showcasing eager talent, inspired as much by the English sound of the Byrds as the sound of the South. There are no punks, however, or safety-pinned ears or purple hair. So-called freaks wear straight clothing, sallying forth in hand-me-down chic, purchased at the Salvation Army thrift shop. No image is the image.

Better not get too weird. It's still the Bible Belt. Magnolias, antebellum mansions and tradition crowd the landscape. A downtown billboard warns one and all that "Jesus Is Alive and Coming Again," beside an ad for a chiropractor touting earthly relief from whiplash, back pain and headaches.

But virtually any tape dispatched from Athens, Ga., gets a listen, say record company executives. "It's a big help if you can say you come from Athens," agrees one aspiring musician. "It will get you in the door."

And students like Matthew Sweet, 19, are enrolling at the University of Georgia because there is boogie to be made.

"When I told my parents I was going to Georgia, they thought I was crazy," says Sweet, a bespectacled guitar player from Lincoln, Neb. He's the youngest of three children. His father is a corporate lawyer; his mother works as a chef.

A fan of the B-52s in high school, he slipped R.E.M.'s lead singer, Michael Stipe, a tape his band cut in his bedroom. He got an encouraging word and decided to go to the University of Georgia.

Last fall, he met drummer David Pierce, who founded the rock magazine Tasty World, borrowed $1,200 from his parents and cut a demo tape. Danny Beard, 30, an Atlanta record producer who first cut the B-52s' hit single, "Rock Lobster," liked it and made a record. What happens next, nobody knows.

Some rivals bristle that Sweet made all the right contacts and moved up too fast.

"I calculated it," he says. "I'm trying to find a way to comfortably make my music, make records and survive, not fight my way to the top and be a star."

One man courted by rising rockers is a painter and filmmaker, wiry and lean, with over-the-collar gray hair and a yen for their music. Jim Herbert, a tenured art professor, reigns as the unofficial Pope of Broad Street, an arbiter of music and taste.

His blessings are sought, his opinions taken to heart by those half his age. One of the rare locals over 30 to be trusted, he's the oldest man on the dance floor at 46.

"This is much more fun than hanging out . . . at the University," he says, partying at the 40 Watt Club. "We've got a little Left Bank thing going here."

Via the stage, a number of bands, B-52s included, have tiptoed through the art department, and Herbert's back yard. He labels the kids "all rather conservative compared to the hippie days. They consider themselves artists. The music doesn't have an adolescent rebellion in it at all. The question they ask is, 'Is it a good band? Is it good music?' There is a value system operating that's no different from the New York art world."

For years, cover bands playing Top 40s hits were the rage. Then came the B-52s. Before moving on to "Saturday Night Live" and beyond, the "B's," as they are called, played friends' parties, dressed wacko and made such a scene at local discos that patrons fled.

Other bands soon sprang up, cranking out music in garages, basements and back yards, staying on after graduation or dropping out to rent $70-a-month rooms in comfortable, rambling frame houses on shady Barber Street, the music ghetto. R.E.M. first played together in an abandoned church for a friend's birthday party in 1980.

There is great allure to this rebel oasis where the living is easy and friends supportive. "You've got the intellectual movement of a city with small-town quiet," says drummer Curtis Crowe, 28. "And it's cheap. You can afford to be a goof-off musician. You can come up with a band that's so avant-garde nobody will like it, and you'll make money. It's tested all the time. Anything goes. Everyone will pay to see anything once."

Locals occasionally object. Linda Hopper, 25, got baptized in beer. She was humiliated, but understands now. "I did have bright red hair and orange lipstick."

Nor will Harry Joiner, 20, of Atlanta, make the mistake again of donning a dress for Phi Delta Theta's "Punk Night."

"I was lucky I didn't get killed," he says. "I made a narrow escape."

"Hey, where you get them green socks, faggot?"

He was a dark-haired boy with slits for eyes and a green Chevy full of pals who figured to make sport with rock wimps on Broad Street at 2 a.m. He leaned out of the car and leered at the crowd. Green Socks was eating potato chips, a red setter at his feet. The show was over. Slits-for-Eyes threw down the gauntlet again.

Green Socks knew how to handle it.

"Got a sawed-off shotgun in my car," he said.

So much for sport. The Chevy peeled away.

At least the bands treat one another with kindness. Bill Berry, drummer for R.E.M., popped in to hear Love Tractor the other night. And local groups often hire local backup groups when they go on tour.

Pylon once invited Linda Hopper and her group, Oh-Ok, to open for them at New York's Peppermint Lounge. She jumped at the break. But there was one condition: "Don't tell them you've only played six times." She kept the secret and pulled it off. Now the band has a record out, to good reviews.

"There's this absolutely incredible naivete here about the possibilities about life on Earth," says guitarist Vic Varney. "I don't know why we're so arrogant or stupid to think we can do the things we do, but we do."

"You eat a lot of brown rice," says Hopper, aiming to stick with show business as "long as I can before it bites me."

It is 92 in the shade, as Juan Molina, 25, a recent Georgia graduate, lugs his drums from the rat-infested basement of the Morton Theater, where Count Basie once played in vaudeville days. He rents the 10-by-15 foot room for $50 a month. It is hot, dank and dingy. Plaster is peeling. He loves it.

"Can you imagine what this space would cost in New York City?" he asks. His band, Go Van Go, plays regularly at the Uptown Lounge, a converted adult theater, but his girlfriend refuses to sit down to listen. "The seats are still nasty," she says.

This evening he's off to headline the 40 Watt Club. Son of a Cuban immigrant who works for an Atlanta pest control company, Molina bakes cookies for $3.50 an hour, waiting for his break. "It's the only thing I know how to do," he says. "Besides, there's a different rock hero born every week."

Others vote to self-destruct. One band made legend for throwing a going-out-of-business bash on the brink of stardom last December. "We didn't want to do this when we were old men and ladies," says Curtis Crowe, who hung up his drumsticks with Pylon to go back to work as a carpenter. "It was a good last show, great fun."

He never expected to get that far with two fellow Georgia students. "We had built-in obsolescence," he reflects. "Our goal was to play New York and get a write-up in New York Rocker now defunct ."

It happened fast. He found an old set of drums in a building and began banging away. He met Randall Bewley, who bought a guitar at a yard sale for $1, but didn't know how to tune it. Michael Lachowski wanted to play bass because it only had four strings and he thought it would be easy to learn. Vanessa Briscoe was recruited to sing, no experience necessary.

Fred Schneider, of the B-52s, heard them at a party, hand-carried a tape to New York and touted their act. After playing only five parties in Athens, Pylon was booked in 1979 to open for Gang of Four at Club Hurrah in New York. They were a smash. "We were absolutely stunned," says Crowe. "We didn't even know how to end our songs."

They put out a record, got rave reviews, then called it quits. Any regrets? "Sometimes, yes," he says. "You get up in front of 200 to 5,000 people and work like hell for 50 minutes and everyone stands up and goes, 'YEAAAAAH!' and then someone gives you a handful of cash. That's instant gratification."

On the other hand, there's Dawn Olsen, 26, who married her rock dream, Geno Champagne, a Yankee musician who came to town for a Human Rights Festival several years back.

"I saw him dancing and acting on stage and asked, 'Who's that?' " she said, greeting friends outside the 40 Watt Club.

"They told me, 'Aw, he's got a lot of women. He's a love-'em-and-leave-'em rock 'n' roller. Forget him.' But I said, 'He's mine.' "

She dressed up as a waitress to waylay him at a bar he frequented during his visit. She made eye contact. "We stared at each other all night long." She fought off girlfriends pounding on his hotel window. She got her man. They live in Connecticut with their two children.

"We're going to be rich and famous within a year," she predicted. "We'll be millionaires soon. And I'm going to get a giant hot tub big enough for all my friends. We'll invite you over to interview us on our yacht."