Arts & CultureBlogCulture Briefs

Tales of Pylon and Other Treasures Pulled Out of the Rabbit Box


Photo Credit: Barbette Houser

Judy McWillie shares her story at Rabbit box.

Rabbit Box and Art Rocks Athens jointly hosted the lively “Stories from the Athens Arts & Music Scene 1975 to 1985” at the Melting Point on June 11.  

Rabbit Box is a monthly storytelling series where people in the Athens area share their real-life tales related to the month’s theme. There are typically eight storytellers. They each get eight minutes to share their story and a timekeeper holds them to their limit. No notes are allowed.

“Rabbit Box,”a song by Vic Chesnutt from his first solo release Little, was the inspiration for the name of the series. Like many of Chesnutt’s songs, “Rabbit Box” relays a tale from his youth—in this case, of Vic “discovering Daddy’s tools” and building a rabbit box out of scrap lumber. He catches a possum and a kitten instead of the desired rabbit, “both of which were a bitch to set free… cause I thought they was a’gonna bite me.” The stories at Rabbit Box are often like that; you don’t quite know what you will get, and sometimes they hurt.

Art Rocks Athens Foundation is a non-profit organization formed to explore the influence of art and artist on the Athens music scene from 1975-1985. 

The storytellers featured included Judy McWillie, the first woman to be appointed a full professor at the Lamar Dodd School of Art, recalling the splendor of Dee Dee, a black transvestite whose 6’6” presence on Clayton Street back in the day awed her and inspired her, leaving an indelible impression; Bryan Cook, a musician in a number of well known local bands, who shared an amusing story about his idea to show up at the 40 Watt with his fellow Hindu Love Gods bandmates (including members of R.E.M.) in a big limousine-only to arrive at the club with no one out front to witness their prank; and Rick Baker, who, in the early 70’s, when there wasn’t much for young adults to do in Athens, helped instigate a series of Meigs Street late-night lemonade stands which, at their peak, had nearly 300 visitors at a time.

Loss was a common theme of the evening. Roy Bell, a local contractor, whose high school friendship with Ricky Wilson of The B-52’s was based on rebelliously long hair and a shared love of rock music, lamented Ricky’s untimely death in 1985. Maureen McLaughlin, the Executive Director of Art Rocks Athens and now a three-time Rabbit Box storyteller, revisited her associations with The B-52’s, Pylon, and the Patti Smith band before recalling her last encounters with the late and beloved Athenian poet John Seawright. She became emotional as she emphasized the loving relationships within the art and music communities of Athens. “We have walked through the fire together, y’all,” she said, before inviting everyone to raise a glass to “toast our absent friends.”

Humor was a key element of the event as well. Keith Bennett, an art director based in Atlanta, lightened the mood of the evening with his amusing anecdotes about meeting his wife Cindy Wilson of the B-52’s in the late 70’s. Meeting her at one of the famous early parties, he decided not to speak because, he reasoned, he had a “100% chance of not blowing it if I didn’t talk to her.” He went on to describe those early years, humorously lamenting that “I finally get a girlfriend, and it turns out she’s going to be a pop-rock star.” In a nervous and engaging monologue, he described his experience of being a roadie for the band while a manager seemingly conspired against him. 

Jeff Hannon, who was the featured “crackerjack,” or unplanned storyteller whose name was drawn at the event, also delighted the audience with his recollections of the era of $1 cover charges for Tyrone’s, $1 beers, heightened hormones, punk haircuts, and “no AIDS.” He captured the spirit of the day when he described the stress on 4 x 4’s used to hold up ceilings in clubs with all the dancing going on, saying, “It wasn’t really a party (back then) until the floor looked like a trampoline.” 

Curtis Crowe, the drummer for Pylon, delivered the goods with tales of the band’s early days, including a house party at Lamar Wood’s brick house that got recorded. Vanessa Briscoe Hay ended up giving a tape of the show to Fred Schneider of The B-52’s to “take to someone in NYC… one of the 8 million people there—that’s how it happens.” In his mock description of the ways of the music business, Crowe went on to describe 45’s as things that were about 7” wide with a “hole you could drop a golf ball through… that’s what your career was based on.” He went on to describe how, with a little smooth talking on the part of Vic Varney, an invitation to open for international headliners Gang of Four in NY was extended into a tour which included Philadelphia. Crowe joked, “We’ve played five parties… and now we’ve got a tour.”

In Philadelphia, the club owner asked Pylon to play a second time in the same evening, as Gang of Four was stuck in traffic in the Holland Tunnel “breathing carbon monoxide and drinking Jack Daniels.” The band obliged, playing all eight of their songs again but in a different order. Fortunately, Gang of Four did eventually show up before the crowd got completely out of hand. They managed to play five songs before the cops shut them down. Curtis, a huge fan of Gang of Four, beamed as he said that “Everyone in the room got their money’s worth that night.”

The same could be said for everyone at the Melting Point on this evening, too.