Just a few miles out of downtown, we turn onto an easy-to-miss gravel road. Immediately, a rush of trees envelop the car, the early pitch of autumn dusk obliterating any concept of direction or location. Brad Morgan swerves through the forest, the bed of dead leaves on the ground making the distinction between pathway and ground imperceptible.
"You guys aren't taking me out to the middle of nowhere to kill me are you?"
"I dunno," the drummer replies.
Soon we approach a rather rustic, tin-sided dwelling, the entrance adorned with faded circus posters. To call the place a shack would be an insult, but not much of one. As we enter through the kitchen, a small, grey, nervous terrier stumbles around my feet. The walls are littered with photographs of Harry Houdini, Charlie Chaplin, and an assortment of random circus performers from the turn of the century. A thick Bob Dylan songbook sits on a small table in the corner.
Seconds later, Morgan's bandmates, singer/bassist Don Chambers and guitarist Arthur Tarratus, enter. Don is carrying beer. Arthur holds a bag labeled "George Jones' Country Gold Dog Food." This cozy, out of the way abode, it seems, is their home. It's a fitting residence for a band that has chosen the moniker Vaudeville, and whose debut full-length, Into the Burlesque (Ghostmeat/Perfect Pitch), features photographs of Siamese twins and thin men alongside lyrics about snake charmers and sawing people in two.
Into the Burlesque contains a fair number of familiar, older pieces from Vaudeville's live set. "Bleak Little Savant," which follows the Vaudeville formula of sturdy basslines accompanied by Tarratus' mix of swirling, repetitive melodic lines and crunchy barre chords, was originally released as the B-side to "Mona Lisa Overdrive" a single from back when Andy Baker played drums in the trio and the Tom Waits meets Leadbelly dirge "Hole," with its chorus of "I bleed, I lust, I lie and I rust/There's a hole in the ground for me," should have become a sing-a-long for drunken sailors at ports worldwide by now. The album has the aura of a cleansing, as though the band had to release the older tracks in order to move forward.
"It's a relief to finally get it out of the way," Chambers concurs. "We weren't ready musically to record this album two or three years ago. It would've been a lesser thing."
Amid these Vaudeville standards, though, are scattered interludes such as "Clean Shave," featuring Scott Munn's cut-and-paste turntable mixing amid confused skronking from the band. It's a subtle juxtaposition with the more traditional guitar-bass-drums songwriting elsewhere on the album. These disparate elements eventually merge on "Helium Suitcase," a discordant mix of melodic and dissonant guitar work meshed with turntable chaos.
"That was a weird one," Chambers explains. "We were making up stuff, and Arthur and I would just happen to change to the same chords at the same time. We click like that sometimes."
The band recorded the album with Jeff Capurso at the 40 Watt on Sundays. Capurso, who has used the same approach with other local bands, such as Seven Foot Politic, then took the band to his house to record overdubs and vocals.
"Jeff has this really nice, tiled bathroom floor, and for 'Helium Suitcase' I put the mic on the floor and sang the song laying on Jeff's bathroom floor," Chambers explains, craning his neck in a pantomime of the incident.
"We used to plot out everything in the studio," Tarratus says of their earlier attempts to record. "It was a very uncomfortable situation. This time we just played."
Chambers: "It was really good that we recorded at the 40 Watt. We've played there enough that it was a comfortable setting to be in."
Unfortunately, some of the happier accidents the band has encountered were not documented on the album. When Tarratus traveled to Spain this past March, the remaining pair recruited the Possibilities' Bob Spires and Kevin Lane to play mandolin and banjo, and invited Ceiling Fan drummer Dave Gerow to make random noise for performances such as this past Human Rights Festival. Into the Burlesque, which was recorded last year, was pretty much in the can by that time.
"Our songs will always evolve and change," explains Chambers. "An album is like taking a picture at a certain time. That was us a year ago."
"I hadn't heard the recordings in almost a year, and when I got back from Spain I was really happy with them," Tarratus, the unlearned black sheep of a trained musical family, adds. "I think it shows our humorous side."
The humorous side of Vaudeville? In what, lines like "The dank silhouette of betrayal fills the room"?
"I don't know why people think we're depressing," the guitarist continues. "One friend came up to me after a show and said that we were the personification of manic-depressive. Later on, another friend said he laughed the whole way through. He said 'You guys are like Charlie Chaplin,' and I was like, 'Yes! Someone understands!'"
"Shit is serious and shit is funny," adds Chambers. "If you can't laugh at life, then you're truly, truly fucked."
Three months ago, the house at 495 Reese Street was in shambles. Reportedly the last crack house on the street, the dwelling stopped traffic as drive-up drug deals went down. Richard Hathaway saw opportunity knocking and stepped in.
"The neighbors were going to move out, they were so sick of that house," says Hathaway. "This was a horrible corner. Four years ago, these were all drug dealers."
Hathaway came in, bought the house from its absentee owner, kicked out the dealers and rehabilitated the residence. It is currently occupied by two young men whose worst transgression to date is leaving a couple of beer bottles on the front porch.
About eight years ago, Hathaway left his career as an accountant to enter the rental property business. What started as one house on Reese Street, has become around 50 residences that have undergone the same surgery Hathaway just performed on his most recent purchase on Reese Street. The "gentrification" performed by Hathaway and other landlords results in houses unaffordable to the low-income people in whose midst they sit, and the trend continues: retro-fitting low-income neighborhoods has been going on here since the 1960s.
In 1962, the federal department of urban renewal began Renewal Project # 50. The purpose of the project was to relocate families living in run-down homes in Athens and replace the dwellings with adequate housing. About 80 residencies in the Baxter Street area between Lumpkin and Milledge, were classified as "substandard" and demolished. Almost immediately after the project's completion in the fall of 1964, the University of Georgia bought the cleared land and built, among other things, three high-rise dormitories for the student population.
One year later, in the spring of 1965, the city of Athens received a temporary federal loan of $5,542,105 to finance Urban Renewal Project #51, this time around the College Avenue area known once as Lickskillet. From Pulaski to Willow and Broad, near the Oconee, approximately 351 families and individuals were "relocated" and the "slums" they lived in torn down. The project was to occur in two stages: during the first stage, property was sold to redevelopers on the condition that low-cost housing be built in the area. Homeowners displaced during this stage were paid a flat sum for their houses and pointed in the direction of a new home. Renters - and others whose condition might best have been described as squatting - were mostly put up in public housing until they could find adequate dwellings.
During stage two of the project, the rest of the property was purchased and displaced families were to be allowed to move into the homes that were to be built during stage one. By mid-1971, the stage-one area was occupied by the Bethel Homes housing project; an adjoining, separate, 32 units of public housing; a 118-unit high-rise for the elderly on Dougherty; and 24 townhouses on College Avenue, across from the public units.
Currently, Bethel Homes is in disrepair and at less than half-capacity. The townhouses are frequently occupied by middle-class college students. And much of the area, except for the fire station and the Lyndon House Arts Center, is under-developed. The most recent addition to the area is the just-completed banks of apartments lining both sides of North Avenue on the edge of downtown below the trestle.
"I must've moved 300 families out of that area in four years," says Hamlin Simmons, who worked as a relocation officer during the College Avenue project in the '60s. "There was a promise I made to them: if you're not satisfied by the way you are relocated, houses will be built back in your old neighborhoods... I wasn't told the details of what the plans were. I was kind of disappointed."
During Project #51, Simmons helped families relocate into public housing
projects such as Parkview and Broad Acres. And while the former Lickskillet
area - prominent before the Civil War - may not have undergone what all would
consider "urban renewal," Simmons says that something had to be
done to the area.
"It was substandard housing. They weren't weather-tight; a lot had outdoor bathrooms. You had three or four families living in one unit that should have only had one family in it." But, Simmons adds, after Project #51, a new influence crept into the area: "They know there's a waiting list of students who want to live off campus."
That sentiment is echoed by St. Mark's Methodist Church pastor Reverend A. R. Killian, who sits on the Bethel Homes board of directors.
"The 'Powers-That-Be' want to put college living in Bethel Homes," says Killian. "Bethel flourished until the value of the land started going up. When the mall came in, everybody said downtown was going to die, but it flourished. And Bethel Homes is now a valuable piece of property. Someone is holding back what needs to be done. And if an apartment is vacant, nobody's paying anything, so we can't repair, maintain it; crime is rampant. They aren't livable; people can't move into them."
And while Killian does not name names or offer substantiating evidence, his fears may be well-placed. The federal government is no longer the hub of renewal projects; private developers have discovered that low-income neighborhoods such as the Reese/Hancock area - a traditionally black neighborhood on the "West Side" - and the Cleveland Avenue area in what is known as New Town are full of run-down homes which can be purchased cheaply, renovated economically and rented profitably to college students.
Richard Hathaway say he only buys unoccupied, boarded-up homes and crack houses, not residences currently owned and occupied by families.
"What would you rather have," says Hathaway. "Run-down, boarded-up crack houses or renovated, good-looking homes? And it encourages the neighbors to take better care of their homes, too." Hathaway does not see his activities as destabilizing neighborhoods.
"People who own their own homes have no interest in selling their houses," he adds. "And no one tries to buy them. What people try to buy is the beat-up ones."
"Rentals are very high in Athens-Clarke County," says Rick Parker, executive director of the Athens Housing Authority. "Owner-occupied homes are low. When you have more rentals in a neighborhood, it's not the most healthy thing. Neighborhoods are most stable when they have an optimum level of homeowners and renters. If a renter doesn't like a neighborhood, they can leave at the end of their lease. Things which encourage home ownership are good and wise for this community."
"It seems like homeowners take better care of their places," agrees Chatham Murray, who owns her own home, as well as four neighboring rental properties, in the Pulaski area. Like Hathaway, Murray bought abandoned houses (including the one she lives in) and restored them, renting them out mainly, as she puts it, so she could be in control of who her neighbors are.
"When I first moved in, a lot of the area was poorly maintained rental property with absentee landlords and grown-out lawns. It was pretty shabby... I've done massive restoration to these houses... If you go and restore a place and make it a beautiful home, there are people looking for it."
The families who already live in these neighborhoods generally can't afford the rent that landlords like Hathaway will tack onto the houses they buy. What's the long-range prospect for these neighborhoods if the people looking for this kind of housing are college students - who will live in the house an average of two to three years before moving on?
Richard Hathaway is blunt, yet positive: "Do you have to put so much money into a house that then to make your payment and have some kind of return is too costly to be a lower-income housing? The answer is 'yes...' It makes these houses worth a lot more. These neighboring houses are probably four times what they were four years ago.
"In ten or 15 years, this neighborhood will look better," says Hathaway of the Reese Street area. "It will be spruced up; the houses will be worth a lot more. People will be taking care of their houses." And most importantly, he adds, they will maintain a sense of racial and economic diversity.
"If this trend continues, those families will be displaced somewhere," rebuts Doug Bachtel, a UGA professor in the college of Family and Consumer Science. "A comprehensive housing study needs to be done. The growing enrollment at UGA is driving up rents. Certainly those people [who currently live in low-income neighborhoods] will be displaced. It will be a significant problem."
According to some of Bachtel's numbers, one could seriously question what decision homeowners would make in ten years when faced with the option of cashing in on increased property values or living in one of the few remaining low-income houses on their block.
"If you look at the real population, Athens is a poor community," says Bachtel, who points out that of the 90,000 people who make up the Athens-Clarke County area, 30,000 are students, leaving a "true" population of 60,000.
"Forty-one percent of which is African-American," says Bachtel, adding that just a few years ago, 45% of this African-American populace did not have a high school education. "Blacks have higher poverty rates in Athens... and the majority of the African-American population is younger than the white population."
"The availability of low-income housing is at a premium," Bachtel adds, "because these places can just be turned into lofts for students."
"People abandon communities. They leave them to fall apart. Someone with expertise should try to make it work," says Rev. Killian in defense of the developers. "If you have something and you lose it, whose fault is that? It goes all the way back to the Indians here. They had something and didn't use it, and the Europeans took it and did something with it. A couple of fellows have seen the opportunity [in low-income areas] and took it. If that's wrong, I fail to see it."
It's also not the only option. Rick Parker is enthusiastic about the Athens Housing Authority's First Home Program, which offers moderate-income Athenians assistance in purchasing their own homes. The program offers eligible buyers a "gift" of four percent of the home's cost as part of the down payment, as well as a fixed interest rate of as low as 6.1%.
"Let's say you've found a $90,000 home," says Parker. "Four percent of that is $3600 - you'd get a gift of $3600 at the closing table. If you needed $8000 total for closing costs, you'd actually only need $4400. "Eligible buyers receive funds from participating lenders who offer money based on a percentage of $10 million of tax-exempt bonds which AHA has sold, in order to create a pool of low-interest money. The program sets limits on buyer income and purchase price, but offers incentives in target areas that allow an income of as much as $67,620 a year and a purchase price of $135,280 on construction of a new home or $108,747 on the purchase of an existing home. Some of these target areas include the Hancock and Reese Street neighborhoods where Richard Hathaway and others are developing rental properties.
"We want to spur redevelopment in distressed areas by being generous with income and purchase-price limits," says Parker. The program, which has already been in operation for one year, has one more year left. It's an option he'd like more people to know about: "People are better off being homeowners," he says.
Katherine Henderson, an African-American mother who lives in the Reese Street
area near Hathaway's properties, says the neighborhood is improving.
"It was the best thing that could've been done," she says of Hathaway's efforts. "It made the neighborhood better. I've lived here about 50 years this December. For the last four years, it had gotten bad here; it was rough. You'd be scared to sit on the porch with all the shooting on the street... I just love my neighbors now."
"We're the only black fly in the buttermilk now," she adds, laughing.
"Freaknik this year seemed like a failure," remarks Goodie Mob's Cee-Lo when questioned about the annual Atlanta spring break festival. "We did a little bit of riding on Saturday, and it wasn't as congested; a lot of people didn't show up."
Cee-Lo laughs and continues in his deep, lethargic drawl. "I was kind of glad, though. All the streets to my house were blocked off by the authorities, and I was like, "I'm not freakin', I live here!' Maybe they do need to take it somewhere else."
It's strange how, as Atlanta rap crews like Goodie Mob and OutKast are quickly cementing the city as the new hub of innovative hip-hop, a large part of the core rap audience - post-adolescent black men and women - are backing off from what seemed like one of the defining moments of African-American college life. Then again, the meticulously layered rhythms of Goodie Mob - whose members have been participating in Freaknik since its inception in the early 80's - don't exactly supply the perfect party soundtrack for a weekend of cruising the thoroughfares of downtown Atlanta.
Over a lush and varied sonic mix of hip-hop, funk, jazz, and folk, Cee-Lo and his fellow Goodie Mob brothers - Khujo, T-Mo, and Big Gipp - weave empowered, opinionated, distinct, and even humorous lyricism that recalls everything from Public Enemy to De La Soul. On last year's Still Standing, the Mob approached topics as disparate as the state of the African-American woman in America (on "Beautiful Skin") to littering in the 'hood. ("I'm sick of y'all folks standing around...drinking a little summin' summin.' You take it, pour it out to your dead homies, then you throw it right at 'em," bemoans the half-smirking introduction to "Gutta Butta.") Every topic on the disc is tackled with wit and innovation, bolstered by Goodie Mob's wide-eyed hunger for all types of concepts and sounds.
"I've got this crate of records back home," Khujo explains from the group's Atlanta offices. "I was going through it and I pulled out this record - you ever heard of that band, Kansas? The cover on that album was so intriguing, I put it on and they've got all these wicked sounds. It just makes me realize how much homework I've still got to do."
"Growing up, I was into the moral side of music," adds Cee-Lo, "but I also thought Billy Idol's 'White Wedding' was the best song. I used to punch at the air like he did in that video. He had that snarl, and he was just a rough white boy. I loved him."
Cee-Lo is full of surprises: name-checking Portishead, Sade, Black Sabbath, The Cars' "Drive," Kraftwerk's "Autobahn" (itself the inspiration for Afrika Bambaataa's "Planet Rock"), and even The Velvet Underground's "Venus in Furs."
"That song is like a peyote trance, it's like The Doors. That's like the first trip-hop or acid jazz... With rock and R&B, the subjects are so broad. I get so weary with rap sometimes; Is all we can talk about is dope, murder, and bitches?"
Instead of falling into the common traps of stereotypically tough, posturing male rappers, Goodie Mob took inspiration from the ensembles they toured with at the beginning of their career. Dates with The Roots, Fishbone, and De La Soul helped give the Mob the lessons they needed to learn and the strength to follow their own paths. As they learned to work together as a group on their debut,1995's Soul Food, their lack of professional experience led Goodie Mob to create a niche all their own.
"Goodie Mob was not a planned concept," explains Cee-Lo. "We were four men, not four rappers. What we were doing came out of our coming of age."
Recently, the Mob has been working on numerous projects, including a collaboration with R&B singer Joi for the soundtrack to the upcoming film, Mystery Man as well as a movie of their own titled Radio 2000. The film will be a semi-documentary about pirate radio stations, "depicting what turned us on to music, what motivated us to rap," according to Khujo. "There'll be scenes with the FCC fucking with us and us broadcasting from places you wouldn't fucking believe." Goodie Mob is also finally close to finishing the follow-up to Still Standing, which has currently sold over 850,000 copies. The album promises to be a more upbeat affair targeted mostly towards those who have yet to catch on to the Mob.
"I'm not sure people have taken to us as a hip-hop group," explains Cee-Lo. "We use a lot of live music and there aren't many party songs. So we want to do a hip-hop album and show that we're skillful MCs - you now, that we can rhyme and produce an entertaining album. You can have that groove and still have something to say."
Khujo cites his newborn daughter, Siah ("Like 'Messiah'," he clarifies), as a major inspiration on his recent work: "I've been trying to watch what I say now. In rap it's all about 'Whose the bitch,' and 'Don't fuck with me.' There's gotta be a balance. You feel me?"
"It's like what happened in Colorado at that school." he continues. "My heart goes out to those parents. When I was in middle school we prayed every day, and that kind of stuff just didn't happen. That's the sixth shooting in the past six months. It's like the we're living in the Last Days."
Khujo is adamant that while the forthcoming third album, due out in August, will still focus on such pressing contemporary concerns, Goodie Mob won't let their somber, apocalyptic predilections interfere with the beat.
WHAT THEY ARE: LOCAL HIP-HOP CREW RHYME AND REASON
You may have seen its red and yellow cover poking out of your friends' backpacks and baggy back pockets. If you've been lounging in the best living rooms around town, you may have heard its impressive stash of unreleased tracks from Nas, Old Dirty Bastard, and Mobb Deep, as well as its inventive - and undeniably dead-on funky - remixes of Phil Collins' "In the Air Tonight," R.E.M.'s "Leave," Michael Jackson's "I Can't Help It," and Edie Brickell's "What I Am." If you have, you've been fortunate enough to hear the debut mix CD from local DJ, Danger Mouse.
"I started doing this in high school for my friends," explains Danger Mouse. "I was the one who bought all the new shit because no one else would. I'd put all the best stuff on these tapes for everybody." And while his new CD, Danger Mouse Vol. 1, is the perfect party platter for your post-2:45 curfew house jam, Danger Mouse's true love is constructing dense hip-hop beats for his crew in Rhyme and Reason.
Working with samples and his Roland, D.M. helps create the quartet's self-described "backpack hip-hop" alongside DJ Chrisis, who is best known for his 100% Productions parties at Mean Mike's and the Athens Brewpub. The duo are joined by MCs Fort Knox and Crucial Point, who many may remember from their work with locals Aftermath.
"Anyone who has kept up with the scene knows how much they've put into it," says Danger Mouse. "They'll grab the mike at any rap party around town."
D.M. and Chrisis check DJ Premier of Gang Starr, The Roots, Portishead, and Wu-Tang's RZA as major influences on Rhyme and Reason, adding that the group incorporates numerous styles into their hip-hop mix.
"There's the Southern element, and there's the East Coast beats, and there's the West Coast style in it too," explains DJ Chrisis. "But it's not any one side. It's all sides."
Americans fell in love with kudzu during the 1876 U.S. Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, when it was imported to the United States from its home in Japan. At the Japanese pavilion, the vine was used as an ornamental covering for the arbors. It bore lavender flowers with the aroma of grapes. Americans fancied it so much that it appeared again just seven years later at the New Orleans Exposition of 1883, this time at the American pavilion.
Through the early 1900s, kudzu was used as an ornamental shade plant on the porches of homes throughout the South, later as feed for livestock, and still later as an agent of soil enhancement and erosion protection. The plant was a miracle for many farmers, either for the high-protein count their live stock needed, or because it revitalized soil which had been nutritionally depleted by years of planting cotton and tobacco, or because it made a good cover crop which reduced erosion.
The US government was enthralled by kudzu as well. In the early '30s, when Congress created the Soil Conservation Service, young men found work planting the vine as part of the Civilian Conservation Corps. During the '40s, the federal government paid farmers up to $8 an acre as incentive to cultivate the plant.
From Ally To Alien
By 1948, there were 480,000 acres of kudzu in Georgia and agricultural planners had the goal of a million acres by 1950. As the Southern chronicler Tifton B. Merritt put it, "Why, the whole state of Georgia would have washed down into the Atlantic Ocean if kudzu hadn't reached out and grabbed ahold of all that dirt and held it back!"
By 1955, the vine had so overrun the South that even those who had originally promoted it began to change their minds. According to Gary L. Wade of the University of Georgia co-operative extension service, "By 1960, kudzu research had shifted from propagation to eradication."
In 1972, the U.S. Department of Agriculture officially categorized kudzu as a weed.
In Japan, kudzu is used in a variety of food recipes and medicinal preparations. Kudzu noodles, kudzu soups, kudzu teas and even deep-fried kudzu leaves are standard edibles. It can be used as a colloidal thickener (like corn starch), as a coating for deep-fried foods such as chicken, or as a jelling agent in desserts. In Asian medicinal preparations, kudzu is used to treat colds, asthma, diarrhea, fever, smallpox, obesity, dysentery, measles and other ailments.
In this country, those with a curious eye and time to spare can find kudzu creations throughout the South. Baskets woven from kudzu vines, kudzu paper used in artistic collages, kudzu jelly, kudzu syrup and kudzu soap. Most health food stores stock powdered kudzu root; some carry dry kudzu noodles or a fresh selection of leafy greens. In publications such as The Book of Kudzu, by William Shurtleff and Akiko Aoyagi, one can find numerous recipes for kudzu preparations, including information on weaving kudzu cloth.
Of course, The Book of Kudzu, which was published in 1977, also mentions research at Vanderbilt University on using kudzu vines and leaves in the production of automotive fuel. Twenty-two years later, kudzu still doesn't seem to fuel much more than streams of curse words from Southerners.
According to some, though, the value of kudzu is about to rise again. Recent research at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte (UNC) has backed up claims that kudzu is useful in treating hangovers. Amir Rezvani and David Overstreet, research associate professors of psychiatry at UNC, and David Lee, an organic chemist at Research Triangle Institute, collaborated on studying the effects of an herbal tea used in China to induce sobriety or relieve hangovers. The tea - composed of seven different herbs, including kudzu - was fed to rats that were part of an alcohol-related test group. The rats were selectively bred to prefer alcohol over water, an aptitude that occurs naturally in some University of Georgia sophomores. The UNC rats greatly reduced their alcohol intake after ingesting the herbal compound. Although the results are still inconclusive, the scientists are focusing on the chemical "puerarin" as the sobering factor. The herb which supplied the purest form of puerarin? Kudzu.
Tim Murphy, professor of Crop and Soil Sciences at UGA, argues that there may not be much of a role for kudzu in the American marketplace, though. Murphy, who calls himself a "weed scientist," deals mostly with controlling plants such as kudzu, and is part of the loosely organized Georgia Exotic Pest Plant Council, a group concerned with containing non-native, invasive plants, such as kudzu, hydrilla and Chinese privet, which are "able to disrupt the native plant community."
The professor says that while kudzu can be controlled by repeated clippings, there's not much that can be done with the clippings.
"Kudzu doesn't want to have to make more foliage," he says. "It wants to store sugar for its dormant period during the winter. If it has to continually make more foliage, it will use up its carbohydrates and die. That's the basis for mechanical control of kudzu, such as repeatedly mowing it, and biological control, such as letting cows or goats graze on it. "
Which, according to Murphy, is why kudzu makes for unreliable forage for farm animals and why it was phased out as such by the '60s. After a few months of grazing, the kudzu begins to thin out and die. But could kudzu clippings and vines, culled from the "mechanical control" of the plant, be collected and used for the various applications the Japanese utilize?
"Sure you could," says Murphy. "The whole question is if there is a market for it. I can't tell you the number of kudzu plants in Georgia, but if we could make a marketable product from it, it would be phenomenal. The problem is that it's a matter of supply and demand. And we've got much more supply than demand. But it would be a stretch to accomplish."
"If someone could develop an international market," says UGA's Gary Wade, "then perhaps they could harvest all of this kudzu for some purpose. But the roots [from which the Japanese dietary staple, kuzu powder, is derived] could go as much as 20 or 30 feet underground, making them very difficult to get."
Wade, who says that most people who contact him "want to get rid of kudzu, not cultivate it," also commented on a company which tried to grow kudzu for export to Japan.
Sakae Bio, a Japanese food processing company, bought 165 acres of land in Opelika, Alabama, in September, 1990. According to the Atlanta Constitution, Sakae Bio executive Hayato Inoue said he felt that kudzu grown and harvested at the site could be shipped back to his homeland at a good profit. At the time, Japan had a 1,500 tons per year kuzu powder habit, and Sakae Bio supplied one-third of it. The Alabama site could have meant an even larger share for the company.
According to Dr. John Everest, a "weed scientist" from Auburn University who followed the company's American development, the plan folded not long after it began, supposedly during the test crop stage.
"They grew some very good kudzu," Everest says. "The kudzu they grew was very popular with the deer, in fact. It was lined up in nice rows and smelled very sweet. [Sakae Bio] couldn't keep the deer away. The deer wiped the company out."
Could some entrepreneurial health food company that wanted to try its hand at the domestic kudzu market gather up all the offending kudzu they wanted? Surely the DOT would subcontract all of this work to some would-be George Washington Carver, who would clear the landscape of this beautiful menace and make a bundle on never-before-thought-of uses for the vine?
"That would probably work," says the DOT's Bruce Irvin. "I would love somebody else to come get our kudzu. It causes so much trouble."
Small Town Soap Opera: Pulling Teeth with
I'm shaking my head as I sit on William Brandon's bass guitar case. This has simply gone all wrong. The Rock*A*Teens have just finished their set opening for Man or Astroman? at the 40 Watt. It's quarter to one when I finally get a chance to talk to Brandon and lead vocalist/guitarist Chris Lopez. I'm half-drunk, they're tired, and everyone seems more interested in reading the scrawled graffiti that proclaims "Drivin' and Cryin' kick much ass" and "Ceiling Fan are a bunch of fags" across the pale walls than in talking about anything.
I had been warned. The previous reporter who had been sent to interview Lopez returned rag tag and disheveled, timidly holding a dog-eared scrap of paper containing what little information he could glean from the Cabbagetown songwriter. The decision was quick: get the band together for a group interview, thereby lessening the effect of relying simply on one reluctant rock star. Incompetence and miscommunication followed. What I thought would be a scheduled and organized interview, became a mere impromptu talk with people who seemed more eager about checking out the new Astroman lineup out on stage.
"Hey, what's that there? That thing with the top on it," grunts
Lopez as he nods towards the table at my side.
"What? My beer?" I respond.
"Yeah. Let me have that beer."
"You want my beer?"
"Man, I'll get you another one later. C'mon."
Brandon is amiable, laughing at the request. Soon, drummer Ballard Lesemann enters the room. To the delight of Lopez, he is carrying two six packs of beer. There is a general roll call questioning the whereabouts of Justin Hughes, the apparently well-behaved second guitarist who never seems to be found. Lesemann and Brandon are pleasant and possess a fair amount of knowledge about the band, but it doesn't seem to be enough.
Brandon joined the Rock*A*Teens just over a year and a half ago (He is credited on last year's Baby, A Little Rain Must Fall as Brandon Smith), and Lesemann only just joined the ensemble last Summer, just before the band recorded Golden Time, the new album to be released by Merge on March 23. The man who wrote most of the songs on that album, though, is slumped on a sofa, with complete disregard for the idea of discussing his work.
"You don't like to talk about your songs, do you?" I question Lopez.
"Well, ideally, what do you want to talk about?"
"Why don't you just ask us some fucking questions?"
Where the hell is Justin?
The show had been rough. Unlike most Rock*A*Teen gigs, which showcase a variety of songs from the band's five year-plus career, tonight was almost entirely made up of songs from the new album. While the band has seen worse nights -- such as when Lopez broke a guitar string, refused any replacements, and spent almost the entire gig stumbling around the stage, playing lead singer -- the performance didn't live up to the material on Golden Time. Produced by Rob Gal in Atlanta, the album is the best sounding recording the band has ever released. Lopez agrees: "The latest record is really hi-fi. Well, as hi-fi as we can possibly record."
The band is tight, the songs swing like no other Rock*A*Teens album, and the work as a whole makes up for some of the ground lost on Baby, A Little Rain Must Fall, which suffered both from the loss of drummer Chris Verene and Lopez's decision to overdub the drum tracks himself. While songs like "Teen Muscle/Teen Hustle" and "N.Y. By Helicopter" from that album sounded great live, on disc they lacked the punch. Lesemann's presence on Golden Time opens the band up rhythmically -- especially on "Small Town Soap Opera," with an intro just waiting to be sampled by Master P -- and having a live drummer around for practice and whatnot obviously tightened the band up.
"Not that Chris Verene was any slouch," remarks Brandon, "but having Ballard around made a big difference in the sound. It was a lot different, but it was a lot easier to work with."
Brandon also credits the fact that the band had more time to work with Gal on the album, adding flourishes such as keyboards and strings that enhance tracks such as "Across the Piedmont," which is probably the closest to Motown soul The Rock*A*Teens have ever approached. Lopez's continuing improvement as a lyricist is also evident in songs such as "Little Caesar on a Bicycle." Lopez is taken aback by the accusation that the lyrics' references to "Little Ceasars" and "Napoleons" recall the work of Nick Cave and Tom Waits.
"Little Caesar -- that's a movie. There's a movie titled Little Caesar, y'know?" responds Lopez. "The song is about this young kid in my neighborhood who just owns the street. There's all these strange ghetto kids who rule this intersection in my neighborhood."
Lopez continues on the topic of lyrics: "A lot of it's self-deprecating humor. Y'know, a lot of writers like Stipe and Cave and Morrissey get taken very seriously, but what they're singing is very funny. It's all camp and humor. I just don't think people really listen. We're thinking of printing the lyrics on the Merge website."
After Lopez unexpectedly departs to watch Man or Astroman?, Lesemann sums
up the innate strangeness that being a Rock*A*Teen entails:
"It's weird. It's like we're coming from four completely different tracks and somehow we meet at the same place, and it works."
Lee Gordon was living in Seattle when he experienced one of the many miracles that have occurred in his life. "The day after Mt. St. Helens blew, I saw a multiple homicide," begins Gordon. "This guy drove his car up on the sidewalk and ran over the pedestrians. I watched four people being dragged under the frame of the car.
"That night I was standing at the intersection," he continues, "and I hated the West Coast so much and I prayed to God that if I had a unicycle, I'd ride it back to Connecticut to be with my family. The next day I came back to that intersection and there was a unicycle in the same spot I had been the night before! I rode it about a block before I had to stop because the tire was flat. And I didn't know how to ride a unicycle."
Gordon -- known as Dr. Thump to those who have seen him playing piano downtown on the flatbed of his Thumpmobile -- is, quite certainly, one of the most interesting stride pianists in this part of the world. Born in upstate New York in 1957, Gordon was first enthralled at age 5 by Thelonious Monk's "Lulu's Back in Town." At age 13, he taught himself Scott Joplin's "Maple Leaf Rag" by ear. When he was 15, he built a boat and rowed the length of the Erie Canal, from Buffalo to Albany, New York. By age 19, Gordon says, he was an international rare piano dealer. Today, he says that he knows more than 400 ragtime and swing tunes, and claims to have learned them all completely by ear. Whether or not you believe his stories may be a sort of litmus test, akin to whether or not you've taught your children to believe in the Tooth Fairy or the Easter Bunny.
The multiple stories Gordon tells about himself intertwine and play off of one another a lot like left- and right-hand piano parts. He cites Teddy Roosevelt as a blood relative and traces his lineage back to a New York family that owned Greenwich Village in the 1600s. He recalls that his father was a "card-carrying beatnik" who frequented poetry readings and jazz concerts, and worked with famed psychologist B.F. Skinner. Gordon says his father eventually landed a job at IBM during the '60s, at a time when Big Blue was at the cusp of the computer revolution.
"I come from a family of real eccentrics," Gordon says. "My aunt milked rattlesnakes and was once on the Olympic swim team. When she was 12 she stole a ukulele from Dutch Schultz's mansion."
Then there was the time Gordon encountered yet another miracle while being stalked by a West Virginia antique dealer who wanted to kill him. "I ran to the woods and fell to the ground, face first, chanting, 'Lord help me,'" he says. "Then a great sense of love came over me. 'Get up,' a voice told me."
The voice led him a few steps ahead to a wallet laying on the ground. "It had $300 in it. It belonged to [gymnast] Mary Lou Retton. I borrowed the money for a bus ticket away from West Virginia and mailed the wallet back to her. I've since written her, explaining the situation, and I paid her back."
Gordon also spent five years as a monk in a Hare Krishna monastery in Florida. Eventually the head monk tired of the pianist's predilection towards singing cheerful and philosophical songs from the 1920s. During a rendition of "The Best Things in Life are Free," Gordon was told, "If you like music so much, why don't you go to Athens with all the other musicians?"
Taking this as a sign from God, Dr. Thump came to Athens, spending his first night here at the Salvation Army shelter. By 3 a.m. he'd left, and found a recycling bin off of Broad Street to sleep in. Soon, he snagged a refrigerator box and two pallets from the old Frigidaire building and made himself a home near College Avenue. Eventually, he bought a $100 van to live in. He currently resides in Five Points, plays at Books-A-Million, and still occasionally performs downtown.
"I use the piano to bring people in and engage them in philosophical conversation," explains Gordon, who says he is currently writing a book about his life and the 100-plus "bona fide miracles" that have happened to him -- everything from "being aware of people's names and hometowns as they approach me" to "having a leaky Bic pen spot disappear from my clothes overnight." He plans to send the finished copy to his sister, who apparently works on sound effects for Lucasfilms, as well as an ex-girlfriend who works for Random House publishing.
Gordon hopes the project will earn him the money needed to purchase a plot of land and start a spiritual retreat where folks could live by Thump's creed: "Be clean, love God, and go vegetarian."
For Gordon -- whose repertoire includes Gershwin, "Fats" Waller, Scott Joplin, Irvin Berlin, and Jerome Kern -- music and spirituality are inextricably bound. And though it's difficult not to wonder if a few of his tales are tall, listening to Gordon play in the back of his truck his thick, worn hands working the old keyboard as if solving a great musical puzzle is irrefutable proof that this man is an exceedingly talented pianist.
"All ability comes from God," Gordon says. "And it takes a lot of ability to play stride piano."