Athens: Outside, In

By Ziona Kocher

“What was the first thing you noticed about Athens?”

This is the question posed to me late one night during a brainstorming session. It made me pause. What was the first thing I noticed? I don’t remember. I was four years old, and my mother and her friends were in Athens as a bit of a pilgrimage. The first thing I probably noticed was that I was tired and wanted to go home.

They were there for the same reason I found myself headed to Athens so many years later. They wanted to see the place where it happened. The story has been told to me many times, and each time, I wish I was able to remember.

Being borderline obsessive Indigo Girls fans, they had seen “Live at the Uptown Lounge” more than a few times, and once in Athens they tracked down the original location and soaked it in. Looking back now, I long to be at that show and see Amy and Emily belting out “Kid Fears” when Michael Stipe pops out of nowhere (so it seems) to do his part. I’ve seen the Girls live more than a few times now, and “Kid Fears” is never quite right without the distinct quality his voice provides.

Unfortunately, these are not my memories. These things that I am recalling are stories I was told while going through photo albums, when Mom happened to recognize a UGA lamp pole and decided to share the magic she had experienced there, and that I had been dragged along for, or from a concert I have watched a few times on an old VHS.

Fast-forward 15 years, give or take. Driving up through Georgia, we had quite a debate over what to listen to. Whenever we drove to Atlanta, we listened to the Indigo Girls, simply because that’s what you do when you drive to Atlanta. There were obvious suggestions for R.E.M., but that seemed too obvious. We eventually decided to skip around whatever I had on my iPod, but once we hit the back-roads and knew we were almost there, there was one option, and one option only. And yes, it was the Indigo Girls. We turned up “Chickenman” and sang along, probably more loudly than was necessary. “On the road to Athens…”

So there’s that question again. “What was the first thing you noticed about Athens?” In all honesty, it would have to have been the fact that we had taken a wrong turn. Or maybe that the that intersection we had just gone through was really weird. Or possibly the fact that it wasn’t quite as chilly as I would have liked. That’s not very meaningful, though, is it?

We were making this trip as something spur of the moment. I had an unexpected day off from school, and I had been wanting to take a road trip to Athens for some time now. It had started out with a rediscovered love for R.E.M., but it grew beyond that. The Indigo Girls, the B-52’s, Pylon, the Modern Skirts…I wanted to see where they came from, and simply be in that environment for a little while. I wanted to know why so much amazing music came from someplace so seemingly random. Unfortunately, I didn’t learn that, but I began to understand something about the community that I had become so infatuated with.

Now, you’re probably thinking that I must be completely insane to think that I understood how this town works after being there for three days. But honestly, it seemed quite clear to me. Where I live, you don’t have people wandering downtown playing music. It’s hard to find a single poster for a music venue, and in Athens it’s hard to go three steps without seeing at least fifteen. I am used to planning weeks ahead if I’m going to see a band play, and in my brief time in Athens, I saw a few that were stunning in a single night without any planning at all.

I treasured that weekend I spent in Athens, and could not imagine any way that it could be improved. Sure, if I had been there a week later I would have seen the Modern Skirts at the 40 Watt instead of Doctor Squid and the Leading Edge. Maybe if I had been there a week earlier I would have spotted a celebrity. But that wasn’t necessary. I came away from this trip having spent some time with one of my closest friends, and discovering some amazing new bands. And I knew that I would be coming back. I knew there would be a time when I would be back in Athens and see everything I had ‘missed’ the first time around.

And that did happen. After some serious arm-twisting, I was back in Athens for Athfest, this time with a bigger group and even more magic. In the six months or so since I had been there, my love for Athens music had exploded. One might even say I was the Athens Music Junkie’s apprentice. After weeks spent planning, we knew exactly who we wanted to see and when we wanted to see them. To put it lightly, it was intense.

In those three days, I saw old Athens, new Athens and everything in between. I would have been perfectly happy just seeing the bands, but being close personal friends with someone who writes a music blog, and thus has major music connections, definitely came with some perks. I had the opportunity to meet with some musicians that I had admired for a while, as well as some that I had just fallen for. The best introduction would probably be to Matt Daniel of the Leading Edge, whose three song EP had been played regularly in my iTunes library since seeing them in January. Not only is he a stellar musician – he also shares my appreciation for harassing a certain Music Junkie we both know.

I suppose at this point I might be off topic, as the assignment was to talk about what I first noticed about Athens – not to wax romantic about wonderful vacations since past. But really, everything that really hit me about Athens in the time I spent there was what I first noticed. The music is everywhere. You can’t escape it. And that’s what makes Athens special. In big cities, people talk about the fact that there is music everywhere. It’s different in Athens, though. Maybe it’s the fact that it’s on a smaller scale that makes it special. I don’t think that’s quite it, though.

Music is simply engraved in Athens. It started small, and slowly established it’s place in the community. Now that is what the community revolves around. It is for this reason that I am happy I first experienced Athens during it’s regular operating hours. It wasn’t trying to show off with an impressive line-up and big outdoor stages. It wasn’t trying to prove anything. My first time in Athens, this little town was just going about it’s business as usual, and even then you could feel that pulse, and see the evidence of it everywhere you looked.

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