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Rock and roll history just an hour away

Staff Contributor

ATHENS - You don't have to travel to Memphis, Liverpool or Seattle to soak up some rock and roll history; you just have to take a one-hour drive up Ga. Highway 316.

Athens, Ga., isn't just the home of the University of Georgia. It's the fabled city where the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame-bound band R.E.M. cut its teeth. Rolling Stone magazine dubbed the city "America's No. 1 College Music Scene" as recently as 2003.

Most rock historians agree R.E.M. was one of the most influential music groups of the latter part of the 20th century. Pop music critic Jim DeRogatis has said the band is "one of the most creative, influential and righteous groups of the '80s," adding that "the quartet paved the way for the alternative explosion of the '90s."

Its four members - lead singer Michael Stipe, guitarist Peter Buck, bassist Mike Mills and former drummer Bill Berry - will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on March 12, so there's no better time than now to visit one of the great music capitals of the South.

Unfortunately, several of the hallowed halls where R.E.M. played before they became world-famous haven't been spared by the ravages of time.

No longer can you visit Tyrone's O.C. (Old Chameleon), the club where the band staged some of its earliest performances. The building has been replaced by a parking lot at the corner of Foundry and East Broad streets. And Uptown Lounge at 140 E. Washington St., where R.E.M. played several legendary unannounced shows, is now a restaurant and brewery called the Copper Creek Brewing Company.

Those remnants of the past are gone, but that doesn't mean you can't still walk in the footsteps of Stipe, Buck, Mills and Berry. Many of the places and people who inspired the enigmatic lyrics and offbeat style of R.E.M. are relatively unchanged, and one of the best ways to see these unpolished gems is a self-guided walking tour of downtown Athens.

To further enrich that experience, we've paired each suggested stop with an appropriate R.E.M. song. Download these tunes onto your MP3 player, and you'll have a soundtrack for the journey.

And if you want a few more recommendations for the road, try "Pilgrimage," "King of the Road," "Don't Go Back to Rockville," "Pretty Persuasion," "Radio Free Europe," "Everybody Hurts," "Shiny Happy People" and "What's the Frequency, Kenneth."

"The Church"

394 Oconee St.

"Can't Get There From Here"

Start your tour at the place where it all began. The fledgling R.E.M. members practiced at the old St. Mary's Episcopal Church ("The Church") and played their first gig at a birthday party there on April 5, 1980. The steeple, all that remains now of the old structure, is tucked away in the rear parking lot of the Steeplechase Condominiums.

As you exit the parking lot, notice Waterford Place Condominiums across the street. That complex's parking lot was once home to a commercial sewing factory and fiberglass fabrication plant that was converted into a live music venue in the early 1980s. It's where R.E.M. and other local acts were known to play in a square, cinderblock room. There was no bar, no restrooms, and even the couches came and went, according to local lore.

The Murmur Trestle

at Dudley Park

off Poplar Street and U.S. Highway 78

"Cuyahoga"

So named because it was pictured on the back cover of R.E.M.'s 1983 album "Murmur," this wooden railroad trestle over the Oconee River at Dudley Park was originally constructed in 1883. The trestle spans the river at the end of a five-mile bicycle trail known as the Athens Greenway.

This section of trestle, which brought the Georgia Railroad into downtown Athens, was threatened by demolition in 2000, but a public outcry spurred Athens-Clarke County commissioners to vote to preserve it.

Weaver D's Fine Foods

1016 E. Broad St.

"The One I Love"

The title of R.E.M.'s most famous album, 1992's "Automatic for the People," came from the sign posted outside this humble, lime green-hued, soul food restaurant.

Proprietor Dexter Weaver is still serving up stuff-your-gut Southern foods like barbecue pork, buttered potatoes, sweet potato souffle and macaroni and cheese. (Hold onto that styrofoam plate with both hands, lest it buckle under the pressure!)

Weaver says R.E.M. devotees often drop in to explore one of the band's old haunts, "but not as often as they used to." The amazing food and catchy slogan have brought Weaver attention from the national media, and helped make T-shirts and other memorabilia from the restaurant hot sellers.

Wuxtry Records

197 E. Clayton St.

"Finest Worksong"

R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck worked here and probably gained some of his earliest exposure to the bands that would later influence his songwriting. The indie music shop boasts out-of-print vinyl records, a nice selection of CDs from a new crop of Athens music artists like The Glands and The Woggles, as well as R.E.M. memorabilia.

The old 40 Watt Club

100 College Ave.

"Begin the Begin"

What is now a two-story Starbucks once housed the second incarnation of the 40 Watt Club - which has changed locations six times - on the top floor. Back in the day, patrons had to walk through a Blimpie's sandwich shop before heading upstairs, where R.E.M. played some of its earliest shows shortly after debuting at "The Church."

The spacious, well-lit upstairs area of the coffee shop bears no resemblance to the humble setting it once was - a dark, smoky den full of angst-ridden rockers without air conditioning and only a small P.A. system - but it still makes for a relaxing break from your downtown stroll.

If you want to see the current home of the 40 Watt Club or catch a show there from one of many promising local bands, walk over a few streets to 285 W. Washington St.

Georgia Theatre

215 N. Lumpkin St.

"Man on the Moon"

What self-respecting Athens band hasn't played a gig at Georgia Theatre? The old movie theater-turned-music hall opened in 1978.

R.E.M. stormed the stage here, as did homespun acts Widespread Panic and the B-52s, along with other prominent musicians from around the country. A cover charge of $10 to $15, depending upon who's on the ticket, will get you in to listen to the talented local acts that play here every weekend.

Melting Point

295 E. Dougherty St.

"Nightswimming"

At this intimate music venue, lucky fans just might catch a glimpse of an R.E.M. band member today, if one happens to be in town.

When we were in Athens in early February, a visit from guitarist Peter Buck had pub-goers buzzing. The famous strummer took in a concert by alternative country band The Gourds, which hails from Austin, Texas.

And since the club happens to be on the property of The Foundry Park Inn, a boutique hotel housed in a restored Colonial chimney house, you won't have to walk far to reach your bed after partying like a rock star in the city where it all began.

Editor's Note: The history of these landmarks was researched by Flagpole Magazine and provided by the Athens Convention and Visitor's Bureau. Accommodations for this story provided by Foundry Park Inn & Spa.

More info

•The Foundry Park Inn

www.foundryparkinn.com

•Wuxtry Records

www.wuxtryrecords.com

•Georgia Theatre

www.georgiatheatre.com

•Melting Point

www.meltingpointathens.com

•Athens Convention and Visitor's Bureau

www.visitathensga.com