40 Watts of Freedom: An Athens Legend

By: Jeff Tobias

Yes, it's true. History compresses (if not crushes) every passing moment by virtue of its eternal extrapolation. But that doesn't mean those moments didn't exist... or that they weren't special or that they can't continue to be. A few blocks away from the bucolic field where the Music Tapes marched the Athens Popfest '07 audience (kazoos in hand) across the street from the lawn of the massive frat house where legendary krautrock band Faust set off firecrackers (much to the pink-collars' bemusement), and around the block from the ghost of its former self (more on that later) stands the 40 Watt Club, a living, sustained testament to the punk rock ethos that built Athens, Georgia. The town, which lives and dies by the University of Georgia and the whims of its mechanisms, has spent the last two decades building up its bar scene and worshiping at the altar of its college football heroes. And while that larger landscape has changed, the 40 Watt is the heart that keeps Athens pure.

The club was able to accomplish this goal despite many, many, many changes in location. Its initial foundation was based on necessity - the local weirdos didn't have a place to dance. It all started in the middle of downtown: College Square.

"The first one was a dusty old attic that Curtis Crowe set up for parties," says Barrie Buck, the club's owner since 1989. Crowe, the drummer for amazingly-influential/still-criminally-underexposed band Pylon, threw a few shows there in the late 70s. Like most do-it-yourself, autonomous zones, it had "charm" to spare. "There's where it got the name - the single light bulb swinging from the ceiling," says Barrie. "There was a Halloween party in '79 and then they decided to make it, as Curtis put it, 'quasi-legal' and moved across the street." The 40 Watt, mark II, is now part of a Starbucks.

Stipe and R.E.M. at the 40 Watt in the summer of 1988
Photo by: Bill Pitcher
Two more moves took the 40 Watt to a narrow storage space on Clayton Street. "We got in there for next to nothing," says Barrie. "The Guthrie Brothers [of local '60s traditionalists the Michael Guthrie Band] lent us a PA, [and we] just built it on virtually no money at all. Back then things were a little more lenient as far as requirements, building inspection and that kinda stuff. It was super-punk rock. It was great."

Soon enough, the venue began to outgrow its physical limits. "It was 1989 and back then, it was crazy," says Barrie. "People didn't go to bars, people went to shows. Now it's kinda the opposite. We would have bands come through and play two nights and still that wouldn't be enough. At that point I realized it wasn't a hobby, it was something I wanted to do for real. We would have The Melvins two nights, The Jesus Lizard two nights, Fugazi two nights, Drivin' n' Cryin' two nights."

Bands loved the club for its low-key friendliness, but necessity once again proved to be a motivator - the 40 Watt needed to expand. So, they simply made their final move, a jump around the block to a 500-person capacity room at the end of Washington Street. The prior space would later become the Caledonia Lounge, a scrappy space for up-and-coming local acts to wet their beaks in the scene.

Throughout the various geographical changes, the 40 Watt - along with Pylon and their more well known acolytes, R.E.M. and The B-52's - helped turn the small southern town into an established freak magnet drawing quality talent from throughout the United States. Athens came to represent the fun art party capital of the nation, with a downtown you can bike across in five minutes and a constant influx of young creative kids. The 40 Watt remains at the heart of Athens and its lure. When you have a show there, your band has reached a benchmark. And the bigger acts have maintained their loyalty, too. Rather than play larger rooms in town, the Drive-By Truckers prefer their well-established three-night runs at the Watt. Staying true to a for-musicians, by-musicians starting point has been instrumental in making the 40 Watt what it is, helping them steer clear of the Live Nation monster to remain an American original.

Vic Chesnutt at the 40 Watt Club
Athens is now bringing its punk-means-fun ethos to the world, albeit in the compressed form of the South by Southwest Conference and Festival (which can, at times, feel like an entire planet packed into one city). The Side Bar in Austin (sometimes called "Athens on steroids") will play host to the 40 Watt/JamBase SXSW Show, which will feature 23 bands, almost all of them hailing from Athens. The diversity is kind of ridiculous, ranging from established juggernauts Dead Confederate and The Whigs to up-and-coming collegiate noisemakers Reptar and Gift Horse. Rounding out the bill are 40 Watt favorites from beyond Athens' borders like J. Roddy Walston and The Business and Warpaint. Most impressively, legendary giants of the indie rock world Camper Van Beethoven will be performing.

"Last year, around four o'clock in the afternoon when we got to capacity, we were like, 'Wow,'" says Rick Poss, the showcase's organizer and longtime 40 Watt bartender. "Now, in our third year, the Side Bar recently acquired the building next door, so as the party's been growing, so have we."

It was Rick's idea to name each of the three stages after great Athens musicians who passed away in the last year: the venerable Vic Chesnutt, Maserati drummer Jerry Fuchs, and Jon Guthrie, who lent his talents to the Michael Guthrie Band, among other stalwart punk crews. The club's staff will be decamping out to the Texas sun to help run the show, bringing the 40 Watt's vibe and its old-fashioned ideas about music being fun and pure with them. History may keep rolling but the 40 Watt lives on.

If you are at SXSW come on by the 40 Watt/JamBase Party on Saturday from noon-8 at The Side Bar.

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[Published on: 3/16/10]

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