It Came from Athens, Georgia
Pylon,featuring (l-r) Randy Bewley, Vanessa Briscoe, Michael Lachowski andCurtis Crowe, perform in 1979. (photo by Jimmy Ellison)
Pylon sprang into existence seemingly out of nowhere in the Georgia college town of Athens in February 1979, a cultural moment that was the equivalent of the Big Bang — like when Elvis stepped into Sun Records studios, a nearly clean break with the past. Four art-school students in the Deep South, Vanessa Briscoe, Curtis Crowe, Michael Lachowski and Randy Bewley applied their virtual ignorance of music and boredom with convention to create a new form that fused elements of punk aggression and dance music that was informed by a party spirit and incorporated rhythmic elements of hip hop. It bore no resemblance to the boogie-based Southern rock that prevailed at the time, and didn’t truck with any sentimental redneck attachments to Confederate heritage.
It stood shoulder to shoulder with anything out of New York — or Manchester, England, for that matter — and spawned a focus on local scenes. First Athens. Then Minneapolis, Seattle and Chapel Hill. Ignored by a bloated corporate music industry, Pylon and its ilk thrived in a secret network of coreligionists whose totems were exchanged through limited-edition vinyl singles, Xeroxed fanzines and college radio stations. “There’s this magazine called Subterranean Pop,” says Vanessa Briscoe Hay, picking up the publication as she talks by phone from her home in Athens. “I’m looking at it right now. It came out in 1980 and it’s all hand typed and hand pasted and you open it up and it says ‘a decentralized network of independent artists.’ That says it, doesn’t it? “It goes on to say, ‘Chicago, Cleveland, Texas, Seattle….’ We haven’t even gotten to the full page in the back devoted to Athens.” Pylon started almost as a whim, and Hay explains that the four members approached the band as artists with musical instruments intent on discovering how far they could push the form rather than as musicians seeking commercial success. “Originally, what happened is Michael and Randy were roommates in art school in Athens,” she says. “They were big fans of the new music that was being created in the late seventies and they decided to form a band. They decided their whole plan was to go to New York City, form a band, get written up in New York Rocker and then break up.” What actually happened was almost as sudden and haphazard. Bewley, Lachowski and Crowe auditioned their friend, Vanessa Briscoe, who was not yet married to husband Bob Hay at the time, for Pylon on Valentine’s Day 1979, after discarding the idea of using a Teach Your Parrot How to Talk record for vocals. The fact that they couldn’t really hear what she was singing was
overcomeby her obvious enthusiasm. From the start, Hay’s voice — equal partsdetachment and passion — cut a distinct path, modulating from quaveringrobotic commands to snarling protestations and neatly meshing irony,humor and anger. The spare and concise sound of the guitar,bass and drums was no less singular. Things happened quickly, in nosmall part to Pylon’s acquaintance with Fred Schneider and Kate Piersonof the B- 52s, a more quirky and at the same time
more conventional Athens band that had relocated to New York.“Two or three weeks later we were playing our first party,” Hay says.“The third time we played, Fred and Kate of the B-52s heard us, andthey invited us to come up and play in New York.They helped us get booked at Hurrah, opening for the Gang of Four. Idon’t think we’d played ten times before then. I don’t remember muchabout that show except that as we came of the stage there were allthese young men who wanted to shake Randy’s hand.” Now in its thirdphase after twice disbanding, Pylon performs only
sporadicallynow and doesn’t record new material. Hay works as a registered nurseand funnels her creative energy into a second band called Supercluster,while Lachowski owns and operates a graphic design business and Croweproduces film and television. Of the four, Bewley remains the mostinvolved in music and art. After checking her bandmates’ schedules Hayagreed to bring Pylon to Winston- Salem in response to an invitationfrom Shalini Chatterjee, who is married to music producer Mitch Easter. The Werehouse concert completes a circle for the band. Pylon’s second album, Chomp, wasrecorded at Easter’s Drive-In studio in 1982 and 1983 under thedirection of Chris Stamey and Gene Holder of the dBs. Last year, DFARecords reissued the band’s first album, Gyrate, and is expected to follow suit in 2009 with Chomp. “Thatwas so much fun,” Hay recalls. “It was in the garage attached to[Easter’s] family’s house. It was real nice to have a kitchen where wecould cook. His mother would come through and fix coffee for us and putout snacks. I have fond memories of speaking with his mom. She wascool…. She let her son build a studio in her house. She wasreal supportive.” Hay’s speaking voice is easy Southern honey,contrasting the harsh and guttural timbre of her vocals. Like almostall cool people, she discusses her creative contributions with a senseof joy that is free of self-importance or pretension. Hers is an openand generous invitation to all comers to share the creative experienceon equal terms. Hay describes her experience with Pylon as “awonderful gift,” but makes it clear that her life contains many others.“I never really planned on being a musician,” she says. “The secondtime we broke up I had a young daughter. I had to support her. I wasattracted to nursing, and so I went to nursing school. I already had adegree in drawing and painting, and there’s not a lot of places to usethat to get a job. I wanted to do something that was meaningful.” Hayput music aside temporarily to focus on raising her children. “Somepeople seem to be able to mix these things really well,” she says. “IfI’m going to be a mother, I’m going to be a mother. Kids didn’t ask tocome into the world; I take that job very seriously.” And yetthe moment of Pylon’s arrival is still fresh in mind. The passion isthe same. “There seems to be something that started happening in theearly-to-mid seventies,” she says. “You had things like Patti Smith,the Ramones and Television, exciting bands. Their whole thing was notto be corporate. You could do it yourself.”
To comment on this story, e-mail Jordan Green at firstname.lastname@example.org.