Inside His Volvo Station Wagon
You tool around Athens, Georgia, with Bertis Downs at the wheel, and you quickly understand he is a detail guy, a man who keeps his eyes wide open. For instance, he finds it odd and interesting that most of the churches downtown don’t have steeples. (“A little strange for the South, don’t you think?”)
He points out the twists and turns of his morning jogging route. (He does this as he maneuvers the Volvo down a one-way street. The wrong way. You tighten your grip on the door handle.) On the corner of College and Broad streets, he nods toward the second-story windows of a nondescript building, right above the Starbucks awnings. “Up there is where the 40 Watt Club used to be years and years ago. The 40 Watt’s had a few locations,” he tells you, “but I don’t think the guys ever played in this one.”
The guys? That would be Bill Berry and Peter Buck and Mike Mills and Michael Stipe, the four founding members of the band R.E.M. If you were even semi-conscious and had an ear glued to your stereo speakers or your FM radio in the eighties and nineties, then you remember the time back then when R.E.M. was arguably the biggest band in the world. The guys planted a rock and roll flag in a sleepy college town more known for football and pool halls. Was innovative, genre-tweaking music coming out of Athens before R.E.M? No doubt. (Think B-52s. Think Pylon.) But Athens, Georgia, didn’t get its official pin on the world music map until the guys broke out with a string of albums that redefined the rock landscape: Murmur, Reckoning, Fables of the Reconstruction, Lifes Rich Pageant, Document, Green, Out of Time, Automatic for the People, Monster.
But this isn’t a story about R.E.M. You’re pretty sure that tale’s been told so much, it’s all but coalesced into rock mythology. No, this is about Bertis Downs and his town. Because Bertis was there at the beginning in Athens, at R.E.M.’s conception. He became an integral force behind the scenes for the guys during their entire thirty-plus-year run, until their breakup in 2011. He was an advisor, a manager, a navigator for R.E.M. In 2018, he’s still joined at the hip with the band . . . and his town.
That Downs was a principal player in the saga of Athens and R.E.M. is proof of providence and timing, of luck and gut-level decision-making. And it’s a story that still hasn’t ended. But here’s where the story starts: Downs graduated from Davidson College (where he helped organize and promote concerts for a student organization) and headed to law school at UGA. Since he had experience in managing music shows—and he wanted-slash-needed a break from tort law and brief-writing classes—he volunteered to do the same for the concert committee at the University of Georgia. Funny thing. Another member of that student organization was Bill Berry, and they became acquaintances through their mutual love of live music.
In breaks from law school classes, Downs would head to a local, indie record store, Wuxtry Records, where he would feed his vinyl and CD habit. Downs was in the process of diving down the maze-like Neil Young rabbit hole, and his guide to the Young catalogue was a friendly, music-fanatic employee, one Peter Buck. They bonded over their love of Neil Young. “Peter was my Neil Young mentor,” Bertis says. So there he was, newly minted law student Mr. Bertis Downs, rubbing shoulders with half of what would become R.E.M., living in a town that was about to explode.
Bertis spies a parking place on the other side of the street and whips the Volvo in the opposite direction. You wait for the sound of crunching metal or police sirens. “It’s legal to make a U-turn here, right in the middle of the street,” he says. “Imagine that.” Okay, you trust him; he’s a lawyer. But you don’t relax your grip on the door.
The Lyceum on Prince Avenue
You see the big word plastered tastefully, right on the front façade of the shotgun-style building: LYCEUM. Bertis named the building, which serves as his office and R.E.M. headquarters, after the mid-nineteenth-century movement that sent well-known lecturers and academics and readers and entertainers around the country on the “lyceum circuit.” You wonder if this is Downs’s lecture hall, if this is where he holds court.
“We think this place was built around the 1880s. It was a grocery store at one time, and a cleaners, then a frame shop. It was probably a pool hall, too. It seems like every place in Athens used to be a pool hall at one time or the other,” he says, leading you inside. And there, between the walls, you see more evidence of Bertis Downs, detail guy. Everything has its place. The shelves are lined with neatly arranged books on music, on golf. There are framed New Yorker covers. There is a custom-made stand-up desk in the back, near the barn doors that separate the kitchenette from the office. But the walls, those are what you notice. One wall is reserved for family: photographs and mementos depicting Downs’s wife of thirty-one years, Katherine, and their two daughters. The opposite one is all about music.
Downs drops into a chair in front of the music wall. Behind him are photographs that trace the emergence of R.E.M.—the young, almost-baby faced rockers; the older, scowling, more experienced musicians. (“They didn’t much like getting their picture taken,” he says.) Sprinkled among the R.E.M. photos and memorabilia are photographs of Springsteen and U2, acts that R.E.M. encountered (and shared bills with) during their ’80s and ’90s run. And there are Neil Young pics, an echo of Downs’s early days in Athens, when Peter Buck would advise him which Young LPs to purchase.
Downs settles in his seat and into his story. “When I finished law school, I got a job teaching research and writing at the law school here. I was helping out the band as a volunteer. I taught for two years, then spent a year in D.C. I came back to Athens in ’84 to teach and was still helping out the band with things like taxes and insurance and contracts and accounting. They were earnest, intelligent guys. I thought they should make plans for a career in the music business. I started helping them do that. I learned pretty quickly. I had some mentors. Went to lots of conferences. Did lots of reading.” He pauses and glances at the wall. “Me and the band, we kind of grew up together.”
And Athens was growing as a musical nexus at the same time. Downs took note of it during those early years when he was pulling double duty, working with the band and teaching at the UGA law school. “I remember I had a couple of students who had come to law school in Athens because of R.E.M. They just figured, hey, if we’re going to go to law school, we can go to a place where we love the music. One guy came from Kansas. One came from Maryland.” Downs says that was the moment he realized Athens had become a true Southern mecca, a destination for R.E.M. fans on their pilgrimage.
(You confess: you suddenly remember pilgrimages of your own during your college years—Spartanburg to Athens, usually to the 40 Watt Club—trips that took a toll on your ’68 Mustang and your GPA.)
Lyceum. Yes, you believe Bertis Downs named his building well. You’ve just received a rock and roll history lecture from one of the learned.
The National on West Hancock
Bertis Downs feeds quarters into the meter in front of The National restaurant. He says with the price tag of a parking ticket hitting double digits, he has to keep loose change in the Volvo at all times. The National is one of his favorite hangouts. “I think I’ve eaten lunch here three times this week,” he says, walking through the door toward a table near the windows. “The chicken burgers are new. They’re great.”
When you find out The National is housed in a former tire-recapping plant (repurposed, as the kids say these days), you think you may have discovered an apt metaphor for Athens: something that used to be something else has evolved into something better than anyone could have possibly imagined.
The Athens music was just such an evolution, and the town benefitted from it. Back in the early ’80s and through the ’90s, “There was a critical mass here,”
Downs says. “I think it’s still true today. You travel anywhere in the world, people tend to know two things about Athens: University of Georgia football and R.E.M.”
Fortunately, says Downs, a decade ago some farsighted folks realized that “with this critical mass that continues, with this demand, there’s going to be a need for infrastructure. It’s not just bands. There’s agencies, there’s promotions, there’s marketing. So there may as well be something at the university that responds to those things.”
Hence, the birth of the Music Business Program at UGA’s Terry College of Business. “That’s the next phase of the evolution of Athens as a music destination,” Downs says. “There are kids going to Georgia now just to get their certificate in music business.” In the Music Business Program, students hear straight from the mouths of music industry experts (like one Bertis Downs), and they obtain practical experience coordinating and marketing events, producing content, managing artists, and operating labels. And they’re getting it all in the mecca, right here in Athens.
So you begin to get it; you understand. Things in Athens changed when R.E.M. set out on their musical path. They (along with Downs) stayed in Athens during the evolution. As Downs says, “The guys had an inertia here. They had family here. There was nowhere else they could live and do what they wanted to do at such a high level.” And things haven’t stopped changing. Bands still haunt the music venues in Athens and make musical waves nationally, like Drive-By Truckers and of Montreal. An old pool hall transforms into a “Lyceum” where stories are told and memories are housed. A sun-blasted building on Hancock Street trades recaps for chicken burgers. And a new, young wave of music industry leaders earns their chops in one of rock’s legendary destinations.
A Grassy Place, North Campus, UGA
Downs wants you to see this particular place, this lawn that yawns open into the north end of the university campus. This time of year, the grass has dulled, and the trees are winter-bare, but you can imagine what it looks like in the spring. Lots of blossoming. Lots of Frisbees. He wants you to see it, because Bertis Downs is always the detail guy. He points toward a metal archway a hundred yards to his left. “That,” he says, “is where the first black students at UGA entered the campus, under guard.” He lets that bit of history hang in the cold air.
There’s another reason he feels this place is important. It’s roughly the borderline between city of Athens proper and the university. Downs feels that’s a necessary demarcation.
Without the university, R.E.M. probably wouldn’t have existed. Stipe was an art student at the school. Berry was a student. Buck was a student at one time. So was Mills. It was, as Downs says, “This perfect little storm,” and UGA was right in the eye of that particular hurricane.
But the university shared the eye with the town that sits right across the street. Without Athens—and those late ’80s/’90s vibes it fostered—there might be no R.E.M., no mecca. (Ironically or perhaps providentially, from where the two of you stand on the grass of UGA, you can see the windows of that early incarnation of the 40 Watt Club.)
Downs shrugs his shoulders and adjusts his ubiquitous baseball cap. “You know, I realized just the other day, I moved to Athens forty years ago. Forty years. It’s hard to believe.”
Forty years, and there have been two constants in Bertis Downs’s life throughout those four decades: R.E.M. and Athens, Georgia. “The pieces all fell together,” he says. And for forty years, those pieces haven’t faded a bit.
You and Downs climb back into the Volvo. He backs into Saturday afternoon traffic on the street that separates the UGA campus from Athens. You think you hear somebody honk at you, but you notice you aren’t gripping the console anymore. Because you aren’t worried. This is Bertis Downs’s town. He’s a detail guy. He knows how to handle things.