Thursday, June 23, 2011

"Get your sail out in the wind"

I walked through the glass door of the red brick dormitory into the sultriness of June, 1994 on the Georgia Piedmont. The syrupy Heat and cicadas scared everyone away from non-essential tasks like learning. Sweating just isn't much fun. I hopped down the concrete stairs, passed Legion Pool, and took a left onto Lumpkin Street. I was heading downtown. The scorched streets were mostly dead and people were scarce. This was not the college I'd seen in the movies. Nobody seemed to be excited about learning or much of anything else and there were no young lovers cuddling on the parched grass. The hum of air conditioners was everywhere. It was the dead of summer. What few people I saw seemed agitated and in a hurry to get where they were going.

I'd been at college for all of a few days. My toes were just barely in the edge of the water. Three weeks earlier, I'd put on a mortarboard and marched across the field at the "Cougar Den" to gather my high school diploma. A couple of days after that, it was off on the senior cruise. "Whooomp! There it is." In music and life, it was a period of transition. I was heading off to the Great Adventure of American Youth more commonly known as college. My taste in music was becoming more developed. The hair metal and grunge that I'd cut my teeth on had faded. As tantalizing as it was to "look at that girl in the Daisy Dukes," such garbage did not cut it musically for anything more than a pep rally, and I was done with those. Except for the occasional bright spot like Beck's Mellow Gold or the Beastie Boys' Ill Communication, there was nothing to fill the void that grunge was quickly leaving behind. So, I turned to the past and it started with a band from just 40 or so miles up highway 41.

Around 1992, I discovered a song. It's the type of song that angels sing if there's rock 'n' roll in Heaven; one of the rare numbers that, no matter how far down in the Ditch one finds himself, will bring harmony.
Walk along the river, sweet lullaby.
They just keep on flowin', they don't worry 'bout where it's goin'.  
The first time I remember hearing it was sitting on a vinyl covered bench in the way back of a tan 15 passenger Ford van on the way from Cordele to Boone for a church ski trip. The four-wide bench in the back put one the furthest from adult supervision, so that's where I typically parked myself. The trips lasted forever. The battery indicator on your Discman would inevitably start to flash and you'd be relegated to whatever was on the radio if you'd forgotten spares. We were crossing into North Carolina after an eternity on the road when Dr. Patten (our do-it-all-totally-selfless driver/mentor/Sunday school teacher/role model/spirtual guide/chaperone) hit the "seek" button on the radio or shoved a new tape into the dash, or something. It hit me like a ray of sunshine:
Good ol' Sunday morning bells are ringin' everywhere,
Goin' to Carolina, won't be long and I'll be there. 
It takes a real Poet and Man of the South to wrap something as peaceful as church bells ringing on the Sabbath into a rock song, and Forrest Richard Betts is both. The ode to joy that "Dickey" wrote for his first wife, Sandy Bluesky, like a statue of a beautiful woman sculpted of old South Georgia red clay. It grabbed me by both ears. It was so far from what I'd spent the last five years listening to. So mellow and emotive.

When I got back home, a Wal Mart cassette copy of Decade of Hits was my first purchase. The tape quickly started to wear out, especially at the end of the first verse of "Blue Sky" and immediately before the beginning of the last. My eternal childhood sidekick, Zackary, had no patience for the solo, so "early mornin' sunshine, tells me all I need to know" was followed immediately by a buzz in the tape that signified habitual pressing of the fast forward button. As is so often the case in the life of a child, we didn't really understand what we were missing.

May of 1994 brought the release of Where it all Begins. The slow drag of growing up in the small town South was about to give way to something much More. I could feel it, but it did not yet have a soundtrack. In retrospect, listening to Where it all Begins began a shift in my mind. It wasn't about what was newer or different, but instead what was better. I knew when I heard it that I loved much more about the Allman Brothers Brothers than one or two songs. I knew that Duane Allman had lived and died young, but I did not distinguish between the music that came before and after that fateful day of October 29, 1971. My mind was far too undeveloped to appreciate a 36 minute "Mountain Jam," (that would come like a cold chill later on), but I could hear that this band was an Institution. The first time I heard the Bo Diddley chugga chugga of "Nobody Left to Run With," I was hooked. My young mind previously had no idea how to process an extended blues guitar solo. "Blue Sky" was Lesson 1, but there, like Zackary, I just couldn't wait for the next verse. The soaring peaks of "Back Where it all Begins," the mercury tickle of "Soulshine," and the call-and-response on the "Nobody Left" outro changed that. It started to sink in that the bluesman tells a story with his guitar that is every bit as compelling as what the lyricist has to say with his words. You just have to listen. "Roll on back to some place you ain't never been," to borrow a line from Gregg. To hear a band that had done so much in the past dig so deep in the present excited me. What Had Come Before in music took on new meeting. Just as I could not wait to shake loose of the confines of growing up in a small town and to dive into college, I was ready to learn much more about these giants of the past. The wave that started in 1992 carried on. I saw the Brothers play everywhere from a sweltering horse park in Conyers to the banks of the Suwanee river and it was special every time. To think that it started in the back of a van on a church trip.

There is a street in Athens, Georgia named "Lumpkin." It is the coronary artery that feeds man and machine to the sacred ground where our State's children have come to learn for some 226 years. Aspiring baccalauretes coming from all points south use this street to complete their journey. As it moves northward from Baxter Street, Lumpkin climbs steadily from the valley created by Tanyard Creek. Eternally polluted now, that pencil-thin body of water flows just next to or under Sanford Stadium. The valley is spanned by the bridge that crosses the west end of the stadium. The stadium sits in the valley. My grandfather, Lewis Lafayette Spence ("Double" or "LL" to nearly everyone who knows him; "Pop" to me), graduated from the University of Georgia in 1942. He reports that climbing the north side of the valley between classes involved trudging up a couple of hundred stairs ending up somewhere near where Memorial Hall stands today. There was no bridge at the time. Thank goodness I never had to deal with those stairs, but no technology of the last 70 years has made it easier to walk up the concrete sidewalk from northward on Lumpkin from Baxter in the Heat of June in Georgia. You sweat.      

By the time I got from Mell Hall to Baldwin Street on that steamy day back in June of 1994, I was just under half way and about tired of walking up that hill. I took a right on Baldwin Street so that I could rest a bit before I headed back uphill for downtown. With the smell of the Hot Dog Man's wares drifting through the stifling air, I took a left onto Herty Street and passed between Park and Leconte Halls. (There is a mountain in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park that is 6593 feet tall called "Mount Leconte." I don't think it's named for the same guy, but the Leconte's must have loved hills, because Leconte Hall sits on one of its own.)

Fully sweating, I topped the hill on Herty. That put me on North Campus. While only the Almighty himself could have conceived the University of Georgia, some supremely enlightened men, including Abraham Baldwin and Josiah Meigs, handled the layout. North Campus is the living embodiment of their genius. William Wordsworth's poetry would not have suffered a bit for lack of aesthetics if he would have gone to college on North Campus. It is a glorious place to take a stroll or to sit and think . . . so long as it is not the middle of June. I kept moving northward to "the Arch." I was a freshman. Heeding Pop's advice and with a nod to tradition, I was careful not to walk under it.

A hop across Broad Street and past the old Chinese buffet on the left put me onto College Avenue. College is a cross between a grand European boulevard and "Main Street" in a Faulkner novel. Making the block past the Grill and dodging the hackysacks and eau de townie on the street, my destination came into sight. Wuxtry Records. The living, beating heart of music in Athens. Concert venues come and go, but Wuxtry remains the same. Starting around 1978, somehow, someway, a quantum shift in music started in Athens in the form of the B52's, R.E.M., and dozens of forgotten bands that were no doubt as important but failed to find popular mass. (For the full story, see Rodger Lyle Brown's excellent Party Out of Bounds: The B52's, R.E.M., and the Kids Who Rocked Athens, Georgia ). Over a few year period surrounding 1980, everything that we came to know as "alternative" music in the 1990's was (arguably) born within two miles of where I stood. Wuxtry is where these world-changers worked and traded before anyone knew who the hell they were. The store thus sits not only at the corner of College and Clayton Avenues, but at a critical juncture of modern music history.  

The plate glass window has the slight clouding of age and the faded and cracking facade does nothing to betray that appearance. New releases and items of interest are displayed in the window using 19th century technology (a chalk board). You can pay attention or not, your choice. It's a serious place. You can feel it in your ears the moment you walk in the door. It has the smell of history. The vibe is more library than music store. Hushed tones are the way to speak and one need not expect immediate assistance. The place is so confident in its own being that it doesn't need marketing tricks or embellishments to garner customers. The people who come are there for one reason, to buy music. But unlike the people in the electronics section of a Wal-Mart for a similar purpose, Wuxtry's patrons do not care to be distracted by anyone or anything that might somehow affect what they choose to purchase of their own free will and choice. Unless they ask, in which event a supernaturally knowledgeable clerk will be able to guide them to _exactly_ what they need.

I had my own mission that day and $20 in my pocket to carry it out. In '93, I subscribed to Entertainment Weekly and they released a list of the 100 Greatest CD's of all time. I'm a sucker for music criticism and lists, so I found the list most interesting. The number one CD was one I'd never heard of. Exile on Main Street by the Rolling Stones. I knew little about the 'Stones beyond the more popular numbers on the Hot Rocks greatest hits compilation; not that I knew what Hot Rocks was. I only recognized some of the tracks, like "Satisfaction" or "Honky Tonk Women." "Paint it Black" had been popularized as the theme song of the Tour of Duty television show in the late '80's. That was the extent of my knowledge of the Rolling Stones.

The system of organization at Wuxtry is not complicated. The new CD's are arranged in waist-high flat bins segregated alphabetically with white plastic dividers between the letters. Letters are written on the dividers, intermittently with a thick black permanent marker or whatever else may be convenient. Much like Weaver D's restaurant down the hill, a request for assistance is typically met with a slightly annoyed albeit helpful response. (The typical Wuxtry staffer would be too immersed in deep thought about meaning-of-life style issues like which Butthole Surfers era is best and whether the Flaming Lips were more relevant before their post "She Don't Use Jelly" sellout to be bothered with helping a 'Stones rookie find one of the most notorious rock albums of all time). I had to have help that day because a scan of the "R's" did not reveal the treasure that I sought. It turns out the only copies of Exile they had were 1994 Virgin Records deluxe edition remaster and those were kept in the glass case by the register. Cardboard CD longboxes had only recently died and "soft" CD packaging was in its infancy. The '94 deluxe edition of the album had a thick cardboard sleeve that was designed to recreate the original album packaging. The sleeve slid into a hard plastic clear case made of "jewel box" material. Picking it up was different. It had the black and white look of pure, unadulterated cool. There was enlightenment to be found inside, I could feel it ["Just wanna see his faaaaace...."]. The price of $17.99 was stiff for 1994, but I'd have bought it if it cost five times that much. I wanted it. ["What's the matter with the boy?"]. My work there was done. I gave the clerk a twenty, collected my meager change, and hit the door. I had a new subject to learn and the teacher was the Discman laying on my metal frame twin bed back at the dorm room.

There was a lot of road between Wuxtry and Mell Hall, and I needed to cover it quickly. No time for North Campus sightseeing. Back south down College. Right on Broad (forget the Arch). After a diagonal against the rules Frogger run across Broad by the old obelisk, a quick left onto Lumpkin. Being at college was exciting, but  I took off back down the hill as fast as I could move without looking like I was in a hurry. The heat was at its peak, but I had gravity on my side this time. Once I got past the row of fraternity houses on the right, I hit the short cut across "TEP's" lawn, over the chain by the sidewalk on Baxter, and back through the glass door. Whew. Air conditioning. The two flights of stairs to the second floor. Down the hall (out of my way, guys) and into the room. Good. Zackary was at class. I had the place to myself .... Why do they make this cellophane so hard to get off ... The dense plastic smell of a new CD unsheathed for the first time ... A disc of solid yellow with a splash of black writing across the top ...  Do I have fresh batteries in this thing? Maybe not. I'll plug it in to be sure. Light off, air conditioner on high. Jump on top of the red and blue piped bedspread that Mom had sent me with; a little sweat won't hurt this old pillow. The tiny balls on the spindle in the center of the Discman click into the hole of the CD. It  starts to spin. The flashing "00" turns into a "01." The laser doing its job. Closed my eyes. One deep breath . . .      


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