November 8, 2017

Former and Current Contributors Reflect on 30 Years of Flagpole

Photo Credit: Nat Gurley

Former Flagpole editor Steve Crawford helped pull an over-zealous fan off the stage at a Jesus Lizard 40 Watt show in 1992.

Good Lord! Just reading through all these reminiscences on the same day I had lunch with  former City Editor Dave Marr hammers home the inescapable fact that Flagpole, “Colorbearer of Athens Alternative Music,” has always been driven by the creative and colorful personalities who have worked here. What’s more, these flamboyant folks are in no way limited to the writers and editors, but have always included the ad reps, the production people, the office managers, the distribution engineers and even the odd publisher or two. That’s always been one of the great strengths of this magazine masquerading as a newspaper (or vice-versa): It attracts people who are involved in the Athens scene, and their experiences enhance Flagpole. [Pete McCommons, publisher, editor]

Talk of the TownWhat were the hot issues in Athens when you were at Flagpole?

I remember the Observer was up for grabs and the Athens Banner-Herald was looking to buy it. That sent our publisher, Dennis Greenia, into a whirlwind of activism, as it would’ve created a monopoly by one newspaper. If I remember correctly, a trash can got the better of his foot one night. It was the start of my own political awakening, seeing how one person could truly make a difference when they raised their voice. Other issues involved the usual rivalry between the clubs, the attempt to keep corporate businesses out of the downtown area, growth and development of the downtown area and so many other things. [Hillary Meister, former music editor]

The UGA English professor who was a big League of the South fan. [Richard Fausset, former managing editor]

Gwen O'Looney, SPLOST, game-day open container silliness, keeping downtown "downtown," if that makes sense… I must be missing something. [Jason Slatton, former music editor]

It was exciting to see the Prince Avenue bikeway finally come to fruition. Really democratized the street. But seriously… The comprehensive land use plan. Haunts me to this day. Athens as well, I’m sure. [Brad Aaron, former executive editor]

The internet was just beginning to pulverize the existing culture around media and music distribution. The aftermath of the 2000 elections and the 9/11 attacks was hard to miss, even in the festive, creative bubble of Athens. The Athens hip-hop scene was getting more prominent. Shows were starting to happen downtown, and there was a lot of cognitive dissonance in the existing scene about how to accommodate it—certain people were wringing their hands about drugs and violence at rap shows, knowing those things were acceptable as long as fans of football or Drivin’ N Cryin’ were responsible for them. Oh, and there was a mediocre local punk band who set a copy of Flagpole on fire as part of their act, because they didn't think "liquor-swilling gutter punks" was a compliment. [Emerson Dameron, former review section editor]

Who could forget the tale of NBAF, the proposed National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility? It all seems like a far-away dream about some parallel Athens now, but at the time a friend even referred to it as the Nirvana of all Athens new stories, and he was right about that. [Ben Emanuel, former city editor]

The oldest column of mine I can find is from 2008, a few years after I started writing for Flagpole, and covers El Paisano and Fox's Pizza Den, the latter of which is still open. There's no question food in Athens has gotten a lot better since I started writing about it, just as a function of the culture at large changing. Younger people are more willing to pay for decent food now, and everyone seems to care a lot more about food than they did. [Hillary Brown, food columnist]

My tenure was not that long ago, so many of the issues were the same as now: corporate takeover of downtown, badly planned student housing, T-SPLOST budgets, the lack of in-town grocery stores, too few bike lanes, too many bars, yada, yada. [Christina Cotter, former managing editor]

Perhaps the hottest story—er, no pun intended—was the fire that gutted the Georgia Theatre… It was the first story I covered in real time, posting photos and updates on our website instead of waiting for the next print issue to hit the stands. I know it’s something we take for granted now, but when I started in 2008, everything about the Flagpole machine was calibrated to produce one paper a week. Adapting our workflow to accommodate the immediacy of the web was a huge challenge, and Flagpole’s social media debut and online growth was, I think, the hallmark of my tenure. [Michelle Gilzenrat Davis, former music editor]

The hip-hop scene’s rebirth. Development’s impact on art. Festival and music-venue struggles. The rise of local band Mothers (and others). Trump, Trump and more Trump. [Gabe Vodicka, current managing editor and music editor]


Photo Credit: Nat Gurley

Michael Stipe in the studio in 1992.

Our Shining MomentsWhat one story do you most remember writing?

In 1989, I wrote an article titled “Why Doesn’t Athens Support the Music and Arts Scene?” which was reprinted in both the Athens Observer and the Athens Banner-Herald. The points I made in the article created enough interest among local business people that a Chamber of Commerce Music and Arts Business Task Force was formed. The task force worked for a year and came up with a list of proposed actions. The list was then presented to the City of Athens government with hopes that they would implement some of the items. That list included a suggestion I had made about creating an annual festival to celebrate the Athens music and arts scene locally while promoting it to the outside world. The local government studied the list with some interest, but unfortunately, they did not implement any of the ideas… After my initial disappointment passed, I starting putting together a plan for putting on that festival myself. I started AthFest as a direct result of the article I had written years before. [Jared Bailey, founder, former publisher]

I wrote a satirical how-to piece about getting kicked out of bars and clubs. For research, I talked to bouncers at the Manhattan, the 40 Watt and a few other places about the most egregious offenders they'd 86ed. On the day it was published, I was informed that I was no longer welcome at one of my favorite bars for my behavior the previous week, which included screaming, passing out on the floor and requiring the bouncers to call an ambulance. That was one of my earliest indications that I might have a serious problem with alcohol. I got sober for good almost 14 years later. I still think that piece is hilarious. [ED]

The cover story I did on the 20th anniversary of the B-52s is still my favorite piece ever. Not only was I thrilled to interview and meet every living member of a band I obsessed over in high school, but in my research I gained a very intimate appreciation of the early years of the infamous Athens music scene that continues to influence my broader appreciation for our local history and culture. Then there was the scathing takedown I wrote of The Phantom Menace that earned me a respectable pile of hate mail. I'm proud to say that piece stood the test of time. [Melissa Link, former calendar editor and features writer]

I was never more excited about a show in Athens than when I learned the Arctic Monkeys were coming to town. As a super-fan, I jumped at the chance to interview the band. After carefully curating a list of questions for frontman and songwriter Alex Turner, the publicist let me know I’d actually be talking to guitarist Jamie Cook. With that news, I crossed “Will you marry me?” off my list of questions and did a little more digging. The first thing that popped up about Cook was that he is on record saying he "fucking hates the [print] news." Perfect. I was nervous, but the interview went alright… The real fun came on the night of the show. I was so vocal about my love for the band in the weeks leading up to the gig that just about everyone in town knew this was My Night. Before I even knew what was happening, the amazing 40 Watt Club staff ushered me backstage after the show. I was beyond giddy. I managed to awkwardly strike up a convo with Alex, who was quite literally intertwined with then-girlfriend Alexa Chung. I suggested we venture to Go Bar for drinks and dancing, and, bless their hearts, they agreed. Soon I was leading the band and their crew through downtown Athens, like the pied piper of Britpop, and the night ended with me and my then-boyfriend (now husband) dancing side by side with Alex and Alexa to Pulp and the Stone Roses (thank you, DJ Dan Geller). It was magical. [MGD]

The Jason Aldean show at Sanford Stadium. Most of the story was about the history of attempting to do events there and how this show was, intentionally or not, the culmination of decades of discussion. [Gordon Lamb, local-music columnist]

It was the community conversation about the Atlanta firm Selig’s plan’s to develop the Armstrong & Dobbs property, where The Mark has now been built by the local firm Landmark. That experience taught me how powerful money is in local politics, and how little of it is necessary to completely overwhelm even the most committed efforts of grassroots activists. Selig absolutely controlled the local discussion of what they were and were not allowed to do, other than what was reported and explained in Flagpole at the time. Selig ended up pulling out of the deal (after I left Flagpole), not because they were defeated by local advocates for responsible long-term central development, but because the big-box clients they thought they had lined up to rent their retail space realized that, as we had argued all along, the intown location was terribly ill-suited for their suburban-style commercial uses. Then, with the local activists for responsible development exhausted and still utterly unsupported by the local government, Landmark moved in and did the maximal shitty student housing complex that was always the worst-case scenario for the site—with no resistance whatsoever. And they even found a way to shit on Patterson and Rebecca Hood. With plenty of money and no sense of civic responsibility, it was easy! So, yeah, that was memorable. [Dave Marr, former city editor]

I did a long story about the complicated saga that either closed down or threatened to close down the animal rescue shelter out in Dewy Rose. I can't even remember now what that place was called. Once I got into the story, there was too much countryside interpersonal stuff going on than I felt like dealing with. It was sad for the dogs that had been rescued, and countless more that needed rescuing, but it was a pain to report on. Thanks for reminding me. [BE]

Selig, Selig and more Selig, although I came to Flagpole after the really fun part was over—Russell Edwards’ yellow box and the pickup trucks and all the memes. A blog post I wrote about all the silly write-in votes against Paul “Evolution Is a Lie From the Pit of Hell” Broun (including thousands for Charles Darwin) crashed our server. It happened again when I broke the story about the “n****rita” shot at General Beauregard’s, which was also international news. Another one we really sunk our teeth into was the aftermath of the sexual assault at Cedar Shoals in 2015. We won Association of Alternative Newsmedia awards for our coverage of the latter two. [Blake Aued, current city editor]

I wrote about a restaurant called Saving Grace out in Comer. It was totally fine, but it wasn't worth driving out to Comer for. My husband and I got a traffic ticket on the way there for having burned-out tail lights—which we didn't realize—and then I got hate mail for months. [HB]

Talking with Patterson Hood has always made for a good story, mostly because dude is so verbose. I have appreciated his honesty and insight; covering the Truckers in their most politically outspoken era has been revealing and rewarding. Chatting candidly with the late, great Ross Shapiro about The Glands’ too-brief comeback was an unexpected treat. Writing about Wuxtry’s 40th anniversary and Kindercore Vinyl’s opening reassured me—not that I needed it, but y’know—that Athens’ unique and thriving music culture persists. [GV]

I very vividly remember interviewing Kevn Kinney when his second solo album Down Out Law was released, and it was an amazing experience. I think he's one of the best songwriters we have out there, without a doubt. He's sort of our Neil Young, which now sounds pretty hackneyed, but his interview was so honest, so open, and he clearly has little regard for the "rock star" thing. Bless that guy, for sure. [JS]

Vic Chesnutt’s memorial article. That was really a difficult one. We were all on Christmas break and needed to reach out to the community for thoughts and remembrances of him. We were all so heartbroken; it was a tough one to pull together. [CC]

I interviewed Peter Buck while sharing a Mexican meal with him at Compadres that was a lot of fun to write. You can basically ask Peter one question about music that will open up a world of music knowledge from that man’s head that could fill pages. I think I asked him what he was listening to at the time. [HM]


Photo Credit: Deb Sommer

Jason Slatton, Russ Hallauer and Marc Pilvinsky at SXSW 1996

Talented Pals: What’s your favorite Flagpole story that you didn’t write?

We had so many great writers back then who have gone on to do amazing things. Some of those writers included Richard Fausset, who now writes for The New York Times; Steve Crawford, who was the publisher of a newspaper; Katherine Yeske (Taylor) worked for Michelle Roche and later Spin magazine, and is now at New York University; Henry Owings still does Chunklet, amongst other things; Diane Nuter (now Coll) is working on her PhD in counseling and was a music therapist for a while; Lisa May teaches American history and social studies; Marc Pilvinsky is working on a rock doc of Five Eight; Lance Bangs has gone on to create loads of film/video projects; David Ferguson wrote for Raw Story; Jerry Sumrell’s infamous textual fight with Vomit Thrower—all of these people wrote something for Flagpole at the time I was there that I loved. And then, of course, there were stories by Pete McCommons and Dennis Greenia, Crawford as the Movie Dope, anything Ort wrote, the guy that wrote the Postmodern column… I will say, there is life after Flagpole, and some amazing career opportunities as well! [HM]

Some of my best friends at the time were the other record reviewers at Flagpole. We cared passionately about music and thought the music business was ripe for mockery. Ballard Lesemann, Travis Nichols, Matt Thompson, James Blount, Paul Killebrew, Geoff Carr and a few other people were always trying to one-up each other with odd jokes and experiments. Travis wrote one review that consisted of one 400-word run-on sentence. It was obvious that he would become a published poet—or at least that he was the most serious David Foster Wallace fan of the group. [ED]

Travis Nichols’ interview with Vic Chesnutt. [RF]

This predates my time at the paper by several years, but I always remember Flagpole being goofy and oddball. Migraine Boy, Jeff & Jeff, hand-drawn advertisements, etc. [GL]

Matt Pulver’s April 2012 piece on ALEC and the privatization of public schools in Georgia, which was at least a little ahead of the national curve on that issue. [DM]

There are probably dozens in the running, among them just about any of Pete McCommons' Pub Notes in which he laments the loss of Athens prior to the corporate homogenization of downtown—before the high-rises came along to loom over our once-and-former Classic Cityscape. Another recent favorite is Kristen Morales' piece on the history of the West Hancock neighborhood as it faces gentrification and imminent pressure from Big Development. There's a special place in my heart for that neighborhood and the wonderful folks who live there, and I'm committed to doing everything I can to save it. [ML]

Jeff Tobias, an incredibly gifted and prolific writer and musician, contributed many of my favorite Flagpole articles, but there is one sort of silly story that has stuck with me. When Kindercore and Owl Scooters came together to present the “Hootenanny,” Jeff decided to mix things up by writing a haiku for every band on the bill. Somehow, he made it work. The verses were smart, funny and accurate, and for a minute I thought maybe our whole Calendar should be haiku-ed. Anyway, like a musical earworm, the last line of his Maserati haiku still manages to pop into my head randomly, eight years later: “dude: the drummer. dude.” When Maserati hit the stage at the Hootenanny, I stood in slack-jawed awe along with everyone else watching the late, great Jerry Fuchs behind the kit. I smiled and texted Jeff, “DUDE. THE DRUMMER. DUDE.” I’ll never forget the reply: “DUDE. WHO THE FUCK IS THIS? IT’S 1 A.M.” And I thought, “that isn’t a haiku at all.” Turns out Jeff had a new phone and I had his old number. Dude. [MGD]

More than the writing, I was humbled by the graphics. Larry Tenner is a goddamn artist. Ditto Cindy Jerrell, Larry’s design partner when I was there and one of the most decent human beings I’ve ever met. I was also lucky to work with gifted freelance photographers and illustrators who helped with the front of the book. Athens is a wellspring of talent. My home is still adorned with Flagpole art. [Brad Aaron]

I've been in Athens and reading Flagpole for 21 years now, and I have read a ton of articles in it. It's not an article, but the great Eastside Five Star Day lemonade blow-up and attending internet comments are certainly close to my heart. So are Patrick Dean's cartoons that ran every week for quite a few years. [HB]

I’ve been lucky to work with some dedicated and talented freelance contributors during my time at Flagpole. They deserve all the fame and fortune. [GV]

I especially loved some of the stories we’ve done about various subcultures that most people don’t get to experience, because I think that’s at the heart of what an alt-weekly should do: write about the people, places and ideas that “mainstream” media ignores. For example, Sarah Anne Perry on pagans, Rashaun Ellis on polyamory, David Schick on burners and Kat Khoury on Athens’ Muslim community. Schick scored a revealing interview with a UGA student who went to prison for making and selling thousands of fake IDs. Alex Laughlin found a rape victim who was willing to go on the record, which allowed us to humanize the issue of sexual assault on campus, not just delve into statistics. Stephanie Talmadge and Randy Schafer on homeless people and their dogs, and Stephanie’s hilarious diary about training for AthHalf. Kristen Morales has written some fantastic pieces on affordable housing, including digging into problems at Bethel Homes and a 3,000-word history of the Athens Housing Authority that was far more engaging than it had any right to be. Since the election, we’ve shifted gears and refocused on politics a little bit, and I’m proud of the way we’ve covered how Trump Administration policies affect our most vulnerable populations. [Blake Aued]

That's an easy one: John Huie's fantastic remembrance of the early days of the El Dorado, in the Morton Theatre building before the theater was restored. It should be required reading for everybody who loves Athens and loves Flagpole. This was probably in 2004 or so, and, come to think of it now, it probably subliminally motivated me to ingratiate myself at the paper in the first place. The piece is really a treasure. [BE]

I always loved the cartoons. All the cartoonists were incredibly gifted and happy to share their talents and humor with Flagpole. I was impressed by how easy it seemed for them to crank out cartoons about Athens’ culture that hit home in a biting yet humorous way. [JB]

I loved the two-part Molly McCommons-Michael Stipe interview. That was an interesting time for R.E.M. career-wise, and the pairing of those two was inspired, for sure. [JS]


Photo Credit: Amy Colombo

David Lowery (Cracker, Camper van Beethoven) and Velena Vego (40 Watt Club) in an undated photo.

Flagpole FlubsWhat's a story you wrote that you wish you could forget?

I would try to be fair to all the local musicians in Athens, but for one particular record review, I did a horrible job. I won’t say who it was for, but it was a local favorite in frat party circles that most “townies” couldn’t stand. I’ll leave it at that. [HM]

I did not write the article by Patrick Keim about local punk band $hackler, but I published it. The reaction to the story was so strong that it almost killed Flagpole. [JB]

I'm trying to be polite, so I won't access the worst interview I ever had to do, but, as a close second, I will say I likely could've prepared better to speak to Marty Willson-Piper. He hung up on me, but I deserved it. And the one show I wish I could forget? Palace Brothers, Viva Last Blues tour, 40 Watt. That was ridiculous. I still want my $10 back from Will Oldham on that one. [JS]

Once I decided to tweak Hugh Acheson for coming off like a snob in an interview with a national paper’s fashion section. He didn’t think it was too funny and took to Twitter to get his revenge. It didn’t go well for me. If I remember correctly, at one point a chef from Oxford, MS threatened to drive to Athens to beat my ass. The lesson: Don’t pick fights with people who have 50 times more Twitter followers than you. [Blake Aued]

There was the "investigative" piece I did in which I went undercover as a possibly knocked-up co-ed to a local pregnancy crisis center and was shut up in a potpourri-scented room wallpapered in Bible verses and forced to watch graphic videos of aborted fetuses narrated by Blair from "The Facts of Life." [ML]

Not a story but a regret nonetheless. I wish I could forget accidentally calling AthFest “AssFest” on stage at the Flagpole Athens Music Awards. Alas, my dear “friends” are kind enough to remind me of the slip-up… every year. [MGD]

In hindsight, I was probably too eager to make #DavidLoweryBeefs a thing. Sorry, David. [GV]

The Movie Dope listings that we wrote entirely in grammatically atrocious German (“Das Mövie Döpe”), just to see what would happen. Nobody thought it was funny. Not movie fans. Certainly not the Germans. [RF]

For a short time, I had an intern from Germany: Fabian, a very nice college kid. Pete thought it would be a great idea to send him to Oktoberfest in Helen and have him report on it—kind of comparing ours to Munich’s. Initially, Fabian was very excited because he was a little homesick, but when he saw the bastardization of his country’s traditions, I think it played out more like a Werner Herzog film for him. He actually cried. [CC]

Almost all of my old writing makes me cringe. That's progress. [ED]


Photo Credit: Hillary Meister

Indigo Girls at the 40 Watt Club in 1993.

Those Were the DaysWhat’s your favorite Flagpole memory?

Flagpole was full of pranksters, and also people who took their work seriously and helped me develop ethics, discipline and a more mature perspective. It had a diligent copy editor named Margaret Moore who did as much as any other one person to help me improve as a writer in the technical sense. I think of her whenever I get into pedantic arguments about the merits of Chicago style versus AP, which are a major component of my marriage. Other than that, I remember hanging out late in the office on deadline days, splitting cases of beer with Ballard, cranking out copy and trying to make each other laugh. [ED]

I will never forget sitting in Java drinking espresso made by Vernon Thornsberry while I cranked out text for the ’Pole. As I sipped and wrote, Rick Hawkins, Dennis Greenia and Rachel Reynolds would scurry around the printing equipment using their magic to make a magazine out of the words and pictures I had cobbled together. [JB]

Taking home first place in the Athens Business Rocks competition with my Flagpole comrades, The McCommunists. Despite years of writing about bands, that was my first time actually in one… and a packed 40 Watt Club is a hell of way to make a debut. Maybe it’s time for a reunion show? [MGD]

There was a major snow day when most of Athens shut down—January 2011, I think. It must have been a Monday, because Pete drove his Mini Cooper to my house to get me to the office to make sure that the paper went out that week. There was a skeleton crew there, just enough to get ’er done. At some point, some bourbon was involved, and Pete, Larry Tenner, Dave Marr and I started grabbing boxes and whatnot to use as sleds to slide down the steep hill on East Broad Street right next to the office. I remember Dave and I talking Pete out of the idea of sledding down on a metal office chair. Maybe we should have let that one play out. [CC]

Hiring the 8-Track Gorilla to play our Christmas party. It was like we were Jeff Spicoli and the gorilla was Van Halen. [RF]

It was a lot of fun being in on the ground floor of the creation of the Athens Press Club, which probably doesn't even exist anymore. The club existed somewhere in the space between being simply a smattering of happy hours (usually at the Georgia Center after taping "Athens News Matters" for WUGA) and being a bona fide alliance of media organizations banding together and pooling our resources to serve the people even better than ever before. Most important and most legit of all, the club put on a series of candidate debates that were a ton of fun. Remember when there were like 10 people on stage, all running in the special election for U.S. Congress? Live radio broadcasts from the Melting Point? And Andy Rusk’s surrender speech in that rollicking race for mayor? [BE]

I did love being in the middle of an election, but I wasn’t on the winning side of too many that I cared a lot about. I took great pleasure in going up against Doug McKillip after he’d betrayed Athens in 2012, and though I was already gone from Flagpole by the time he lost his race, I felt like I’d done my part. I loved huddling with Pete and feeling like the stuff we worked out was going to make a difference in our town as long as we covered it properly. I loved working with Chris Cotter on editorial decisions when there were tough calls to make, like when Vic died and when R.E.M. broke up—not because those were fun or happy occasions, but because we had a special responsibility for our coverage that we took seriously and that I think we lived up to. And honestly, I liked the staff meetings. Those are nice people. [DM]

One is when the staff played that sadistic game where you take each other’s Christmas gifts and I ended up with a tin of breath mints shaped like penises. And then I complained about them, but instead of saying “penis-shaped,” I said “penis-flavored.” Priceless Freudian slip. Still makes me laugh uncontrollably. You had to be there. Another is the night Pete and I traded mezcal shots at 283 and ended up knocking off a liquor store. Sorry—package store. [Brad Aaron]

There was that time when a sizable Athens contingent from Flagpole and AthFest were in Austin, TX attending South by Southwest, and Pete McCommons and I could've very easily ended up in the pokey for public urination. [ML]

I've never been in the office on a regular basis, but I do remember, for years, walking down past the Farmers Hardware building to the old office to get my check or pick up some CDs (when I also used to write about music). I got trained there on how to put stuff up on the website. I got to flip through shelves and boxes of CDs to see if there was anything I wanted to write about (helllooo, Bubba Sparxxx). I waved at Pete. I grabbed a brand-new copy of Flagpole. And then I headed back out the door and up the hill, to my day job. I did it over and over and over, to where I didn't even have to pay attention as I walked there. I've been in the new office two or three times. It still takes some effort to remember where it is. [HB]

The best moments are fragmented and blurry (and that's all I'm saying about that), but some of the best moments were also some of the most quiet and contemplative—just having a couple of beers with Dennis Greenia and crew at the Globe on a Friday afternoon, or listening to Pete McCommons tell the occasional ribald joke. I also have to put one specific moment at the top, now that I'm thinking about it: SXSW, the year we helped pull together the Jesus Christ Superstar show at the Austin Music Hall with the Indigo Girls and a (seeming) cast of thousands. That was one for the ages. [JS]

Working at Dixon’s Bike Shop in sweltering heat. Attempting to aim paper balls into S. Crawford’s mouth from the second floor of our old shop as he slept on the couch downstairs. Working on the Flagpole Christmas albums was tons of fun. Taking the cast of Amy Ray and Michael Lorant’s Jesus Christ Superstar: A Resurrection to SXSW to perform was beyond amazing. Meeting Syd Straw, Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love, all of the musicians that came through town. Walking down Clayton with Robyn Hitchcock talking about his pumpkin patch. Dancing with Billy Bragg at the 40 Watt.  Interviewing Michael Stipe with Molly McCommons. Working on Gwen O’Looney’s campaigns. Our first Flagpole birthday party—but that’s a tale for another time. [HM]