An Unlikely Bohemia: Athens, Georgia, in Reagan's AmericaRoundup
tags: colleges, music, 1980s, counterculture
Grace Elizabeth Hale is the Commonwealth Professor of American Studies and History at the University of Virginia and author of Cool Town: How Athens, Georgia, Launched Alternative Music and Changed American Culture. This excerpt is used by permission of the University of North Carolina Press, www.uncpress.org.
In Athens, Georgia, in the 1980s, if you were young and willing to live without much money, anything seemed possible. Magic sparkled like sweat on the skin of dancers at a party or a club. Promise winked underfoot like the bits of broken glass embedded in the downtown sidewalks. A new world seemed to be emerging out of our creativity, our music and art, and our politics, but also the way we understood ourselves and related to each other.
In my memory, the weight of the air on summer nights made possibility seem like a substance I could hold in my hand. Always, local bands played and people listened—at practice spaces and house parties and venues like the 40 Watt. People went to hear their roommate or boyfriend or coworker play one night and urged everyone to come and see their group the next. Easy to make and easy to hear, live music was everywhere. We used it to reinvent and express ourselves and connect with each other. We used it to live.
After the clubs let out, the scene kept moving until dawn. Small groups climbed the fences at apartment complexes—no one would admit to living in one—and went skinny-dipping. Sometimes people walked to a big Victorian house on Hill Street and danced to mixtapes in the hall between the rolled-back pocket doors until their clothes dripped with sweat and their heads spun. Occasionally, at midnight, a small drama troupe would perform an original play up and down the aisles of the twenty-four-hour Kroger. Film buffs too young to see movies like Sleeper, Raging Bull, and Paper Moon when they came out watched them for free in the air-conditioned quiet of the seventh floor of the University of Georgia's library. Often, people paired up, going home with the person they were seeing or an acquaintance or someone they had just met. One perfect July night, I lay naked with a friend on the cool cement floor of a screen porch as the wet heat thinned and the crickets rasped and we talked about music until dawn. Possibility proved more addictive than the beer everyone drank and the drugs many people took.
We were unlikely people in an unlikely place. No one expected us to do these creative things. No one who mattered thought that we could make a new kind of American bohemia. Yet Athens kids built the first important small-town American music scene and the key early site of what would become alternative or indie culture.
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