Unfolding the Map
William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) pulls into Athens, Georgia to simply walk off his Swamp Guinea meal and sparks my reminiscences on my youthful music tastes, as well as an aside about moonflowers and romance. To place it all in geographical context, click on the map thumbnail at right. Leave a comment if you'd like to suggest music that I might want to hear. As I say below, I'm open to anything.
"The frogs, high and low, shrilled and bellowed from the trees and ponds. It was cool going into Athens, a city suffering from a nasty case of the sprawls. On the University of Georgia campus, I tried to walk down Swamp Guinea's supper. Everywhere, couples entwined like moonflower vines, each waiting for the blossom that opens only twice."
Blue Highways: Part 2, Chapter 16
If you ask me what I know about Athens, Georgia, I'd tell you the bands REM and the B-52s. Really. I didn't even know that the University of Georgia was located there. So it's my turn to learn more about Athens.
Of course, the B-52s and REM aren't just any bands, and Athens evidently is known as "The Liverpool of the South." But back in the early 80s, I watched an episode of Saturday Night Live and tried to make sense of what I was seeing on the television screen. There was a band, with two women with huge hairdos making ululating sounds, and a guy yelling something about a lobster. I thought they were the strangest thing I had ever seen, and frankly, I didn't like them. It took me years to develop an ear for them - I saw them in concert in the early 90s and again a couple of years ago and I really enjoyed them both times.
I felt the same way about Athens' other major contribution to music, REM. I liked the fast tempo and catchy lyrics of It's the End of the World as We Know It, but I wasn't taken by much of the rest of their music. Even today, I like some things by REM but am not convinced of their overall greatness. So, by extension, it's taken me a while to appreciate Athens as remotely contributing something to my life.
My sister credits me with influencing her music tastes when she appropriated my record collection when I went to college, but I was never really sophisticated in music. While punk bands and new wave were beginning in the late 70s and early 80s, the radio station in my little Northern California town was firmly locked in the early 70s when it played music for "the kids", and the "newer" stuff that my peers listened to was definitely of the heavy metal variety. The most daring music played on the radio or listened to by my peers was probably Frank Zappa. I didn't get introduced to some of the newer music coming out until I went to college and started listening to Bay Area radio stations. My approach to music has always been like my approach to wine - I know what I like regardless of whether it is considered a desired vintage or cheap. This has stood me in good stead, and has led me to lots of great music and an openness to pretty much everything. When I lived in Texas, this openness led me to a lot of great singer-songwriters and when I lived in New Orleans, the whole New Orleans jazz and brass band scene. I tend to eschew most modern pop, and look for music that is interesting and not cookie-cutter.
In the end, I came back to the B-52s, even though they eventually became pop. My wife had a couple of their early albums, and I began to appreciate just how radical they were back in the day when I was initially dismissing them as weird. Here are the B-52s on Saturday Night Live in 1980 - the first time I ever learned of them. They were just becoming a national act right about the time that LHM stops in Athens. Could it be that he might have caught some of their music, drifting with a breeze as he walked at the University of Georgia?
Switching gears a second, LHM gets a little romantic and throws a little sexual imagery in the passage above, where he equates the couples on the grass at the University of Georgia with moonflowers. The moonflower, like it's name implies, only opens in the evening. I remember moonflowers from when I lived in New Orleans, and they easily can be equated with romance. When they bloom at night, they are very fragrant and along with the scent of night-blooming jasmine, they scented the air in the New Orleans neighborhood where I lived with sweetness. It was easy, on a warm spring or hot summer night to let one's fancy run wild with imagination with those scents swirling around.
Moonflowers also figure in some voodoo that is related to romance, which again reminds me of New Orleans. John the Conqueroo root, used in some voodoo spells and potions to aid in gambling and flirting, comes from a plant related to the moonflower.
I hope, for the sake of those sprawling couples at the University of Georgia, that blossoms opened more than twice. But I'm sure that at a university as big as Georgia in the early 80s there were plenty of blossoms to be plucked in the moonlight. As the B-52s sang in their Song for a Future Generation: "Let's meet, and have a baby now!"
If you want to know more about Athens
Athens Banner-Herald's Online Athens (newspaper)
Athens-Clarke County Guide
Athens World (blog)
Blogs at Online Athens
Flagpole (alternative newspaper/magazine)
The Red and Black (independent student newspaper)
University of Georgia
Visit Athens, Georgia
Next up: Conyers, Georgia