We Are Pylon

Legendary Athens Band's Bittersweet Celebration of Life

 

Pylon Grand Canyon Polaroid circa 1983, L-R: Michael Lachowski, Curtis Crowe, Vanessa Briscoe Hay, Randy Bewley

“I love Pylon,” exclaims Fred Schneider of the B-52s.

Whenever the topic of favorite music is introduced, the effusive Schneider absolutely raves about Pylon. It’s understandable, since he shares an ancestral bond with the legendary Athens-based band and was instrumental in securing their first out-of-town shows. Their ties are forever anchored in the core of the Classic City music scene. The groundbreaking B-52s began the so-called ‘golden age’ of groups, directly anticipating the 1979 debut of the revered quartet.

Thirty years of history hasn’t diminished Pylon’s allure, in fact their presence has always loomed large, often more as a spirit, during their lengthy hiatus periods. Known for a clever and quirky, art-fueled brand of beat-heavy new wave music, the group’s three-tier career was dotted with glowing acclaim from nearly every major news outlet, magazine and critic imaginable. The band consistently earned glowing praise from several generations of musicians and visual artists. The B-52s put Athens, Ga. in the collective consciousness, but Pylon truly made the Athens scene explode.

Their 30th year represents an extremely productive period. Sadly, it also marks the end of the group as well. Guitarist Randy Bewley’s death on Feb. 25, just a few days short of the band’s debut performance anniversary on March 9, 1979, terminated the band’s work-in-progress.

‘Working is No Problem’

The backstory is familiar to many who were alive in the early ’80s. Pylon was founded by Bewley and bassist Michael Lachowski, two University Of Georgia art students armed with a cheap guitar and bass. With no actual hands-on musical experience, the duo worked together in the fall of ’78 on repetitive song fragments as a new outlet to challenge their minds and fill some free time. A few months later, with the addition of drummer Curtis Crowe and singer Vanessa Briscoe (now Vanessa Briscoe Hay, having since married Bob Hay, the leading light of another seminal Athens band, The Squalls), the four visual artists quickly became audio adventurers as the Pylon art scheme was designed: Bewley’s odd tunings and instantly recognizable guitar sound. Hay’s distinct vocal style. Short bursts of enigmatic lyrics. Lachowski’s propulsive bass. Crowe’s insistent, workmanlike beat. An unassuming marriage of creativity that inadvertently birthed an internationally-known catalog of music and a swirl of sweaty dance-(p)arty memories.

pylon

Pylon (L-R) Randy Bewley, Vanessa Briscoe  Hay, Curtis Crowe and Michael Lachowski

The band is widely known for its three separate periods of activity. The beginning: ’79-’83, the return: ’88-’91 and the final period which began with a triumphant reunion show in 2004. Long before labeling music as “alternative” or even “college rock,” Pylon defined the genre. Unlike most of the bands from the late ’70s, the four delivered an undeniably catchy and mysteriously sketchy sound that remains as fresh and unique today as it was in that humid spring of ’79. And in stark contrast to many of their peers from the then-burgeoning new wave generation, their fans remain just as excited and downright reverent about Pylon as, well, just about anyone.

Just take a walk in downtown Athens with vocalist Hay. Friends and fans alike seem to appear from nowhere to offer heartfelt greetings as she walks the streets of the storied college town. She appears to take none of the salutations for granted, and welcomes each new well-wisher as a dear friend. And in this town, most are old acquaintances and collaborators of some sort. Even the unfamiliar Pylon fans who approach are treated with the same endearingly guileless regard. The devotion isn’t purely Athens-centric, either. When word of Bewley’s death spread, his Facebook site overflowed with heartfelt tributes from all over the world.

‘M-Train’

At Nuci’s Space, the nonprofit musicians’ resource center and practice hall near downtown, Hay is joined by bassist Lachowski to discuss the band in general and their tumultuous final year in particular. It’s a bittersweet meeting for all concerned. In 2004, the day after the band began their third phase of life, a welcome return following a generation of silence, Bewley, Hay and Lachowski joined this writer for their first interview in years. Now, the same seat where the soft-spoken Bewley sat remains empty, though his presence remains a constant in the Pylon camp. In the facility’s meeting room, just a few steps away from where the band often practiced, the musicians looked back on their history and forward to the future. And, just like our other gathering, Crowe was busy with his production gig. The good-naturedly caustic drummer was reached by phone a few days later, working on the set of the CW Network series, The Vampire Diaries. Hay holds a copy of Chomp More, the newly reissued CD of the band’s 1983 LP Chomp, the second and final Pylon collection from the industrious New York-based DFA Records. The company also issued the successful re-release of Gyrate, Pylon’s ’81 full-length, a couple of years ago. The angular and friendly Lachowski thumbs through a copy of Young, Foxy & Free, the hip lifestyle and art magazine he founded in 2007.

Athens band on the cover of the NYRocker

Athens band on the cover of the NYRocker

‘Volume’

“Pylon ended when Randy died,” the soft-spoken Hay says solemnly. The words hang heavy in the room, an almost surreal statement of mortality for the beloved band. Lachowski slowly nods in agreement. “His passing was a very clean and clear ending. It’s allowed us to look back, with no doubt that the band is over. But we have to be able to make something good from it.”

“Randy’s death, and the death of Pylon too, was one of those moments that changes the rest of your life,” adds Crowe. “Pylon changed everything for me and the end of Pylon has changed everything. It ended everything, except what we can do with what already exists.”

Ironically, Bewley’s death has been the conduit for one of the busiest years of Pylon’s career in the past two decades. The remaining members agree that he’d appreciate the renewed interest and welcome the chance to perpetuate the history of the band. Local papers and magazines clamored to issue tributes upon his passing. But for months, the survivors were far too emotional to offer much in the way of personal tributes.

“Randy was our brother,” says Hay.

“It was such a shock to deal with. It took a while to really do anything.” Lachowski continues, “Flagpole wanted us to write something for the issue that came out a couple weeks after he died, but we just couldn’t do much then.”

Back in February, Bewley asked Hay if they should plan any events to celebrate the band’s first show. “I said, ‘Randy, it’s gonna be our anniversary all year long!’ I said, ‘It’s gonna be fine.’ And two weeks later, he passed away. Feb. 25, 2009. And we just couldn’t do anything [Pylon-related] for a while. We just couldn’t. So, we made it through the summer. In between times, I worked on the Supercluster record.”

As the Chomp reissue, in progress before Bewley’s untimely passing, returned to post-production in July, a special concert was held on Bewley’s birthday that month at the 40 Watt Club. “That was tough to be a part of, but it was finally time to do something,” says Lachowski, detailing ongoing plans for the memory of Bewley. After a mourning period, he shifted into creative overdrive, producing a commemorative T-shirt, a set of buttons, a line of collectable art prints and an ambitious proposal for a monument in downtown Athens. But this is hardly the Grateful Dead-style of tasteless merchandising. Even in the face of tragedy, Pylon operates on its own terms and timetable.

‘Gyrate’

The groundswell of interest in the band has given the remaining members time to take a thoughtful look back. “It’s been a year of heavy, heavy focus on Pylon,” says Lachowski, warming to the topic. The Summer issue of his Young Foxy and Free magazine, released in early June, contains a gorgeous seven-page spread dedicated to Bewley, with artistic contributions from Hay and Crowe. “It’s part of my process of trying to figure out a way to touch on his life, but to do it in a public setting.”

He opens the magazine with reverence and explains the meaning of each page, a visual salute to their fallen comrade. “Those seven pages are some of my favorite things I’ve ever brought into being,” he says proudly. “Until the day I put it together, I didn’t know how it would look or which images to use. That was a concern that helped me re-launch the magazine, and to surround Randy with other content with a positive, uplifting and fun approach, with music and people and the whole spirit of everything.” It worked. The graphic-heavy publication includes photographs of a series of Athens personalities, including an appearance from longtime Pylon supporter Michael Stipe.

“And that’s what we’d like to be remembered for,” agrees Hay. “Maybe that’s the legacy of Pylon, maybe it’s that we weren’t the biggest band, but we influenced some people in a good way. I wouldn’t want us to be remembered so much for the break-ups—we had those and it started and stopped at times. I’d rather them remember it for how much fun it was and the music we created. We were an irreverent bunch of fun lovin’ people who wanted to make a difference.”

Pylon at Memorial Hall in Athens, circa 1981 (L-R) Michael Lachowski, Curtis Crowe, Vanessa Hay and Randy Bewley. Photo by Jay Thomas

Pylon at Memorial Hall in Athens, circa 1981 (L-R) Michael Lachowski, Curtis Crowe, Vanessa Hay and Randy Bewley. Photo by Jay Thomas

‘Verb’

“Pylon,” says Crowe, simultaneously saddened and excited by the topic, “is a verb. It’s something that happened. It was a vibrant, living thing that happened when the four of us were together. I’ve had people ask, ‘Can you play again, maybe with a different guitar player?’ No. No, there’s no way. We could play, but it wouldn’t be Pylon. We are Pylon.”

“I think about Randy every day,” says Lachowski. “And the Chomp reissue is a big part of that.”

In 1983, to follow-up the success of its early singles and first album, Pylon first released Chomp to decidedly mixed reviews. Not from the critics, who mostly applauded the experimental temperament of the LP, but from the band itself.

“I think we were a little disappointed in it at the time,” remembers Hay recalling the “disjointed” nature of the experiment. The album was recorded over an 18-month period and at two different studios. The process began at tiny Channel One studios in Atlanta with the late Bruce Baxter handling production, and the remainder was captured in several different sessions at Mitch Easter’s Drive-In Studio in Winston-Salem, with production work from musicians Chris Stamey and Gene Holder of the dB’s.

Hay remembers there was a bit of pressure to issue a new album, since Gyrate had been successful. “But we don’t write that way. We can’t just crank something out. We have to go through a process of it and enjoy it. We either write really fast or really slow. We were touring and then we’d do shows, then we might not feel like seeing each other for a few weeks, then it’d be time to get ready for another tour, so the process was really, really slow. And in the middle of all this, we wanted to be a little more experimental, too.”

Executive Producer Danny Beard, owner of Pylon’s original label DB Recs and the Wax ‘N’ Facts music store in Atlanta’s Little Five Points area, says the band was simply too close to the record to be objective. “It’s a great record. You know how it is with second albums,” he says. “As it grew, they’d have a few songs and then go up and work on it. They had high standards and wanted to do things their own way. I remember R.E.M. said they didn’t like Fables Of The Reconstruction, but I think it’s one of their best albums, too.”

‘Altitude’

“Listening to it all now,” says Hay, holding the disc, “some ideas didn’t quite work out and others are about as good as anything we ever did. I think it’s a strong record, overall. And kids are buying it now—it’s so wild! We were working on it from ’81 into ’82, way before some of them were born.”

Pylon, circa 1990 (L-R) Curtis Crowe, Michael Lachowski, Vanessa Hay, Randy Bewley

Pylon, circa 1990 (L-R) Curtis Crowe, Michael Lachowski, Vanessa Hay, Randy Bewley

“I like it,” says Crowe. “There are a few clinkers on it, but that happens. And you never know, sometimes you think, ‘What a stupid song,’ but somebody will come up and say they like the one that you don’t. If one guy likes it, maybe there’s 10 more somewhere who like it. Maybe there’s 12 people in the world who like it!”

“I read a review [of the reissue] the other day,” laughs Hay, “saying it was full of ‘college-radio guitar tricks.’ But they forget, Randy invented those! People copied him when they did some of that so-called ‘college radio’ stuff back then. Other bands had groupies. We had guitar nerds that followed us.”

The re-release campaign posed some complications, including lengthy delays due to audio problems and time spent trying to locate and then remaster the original tapes. Jeff Calder of the Swimming Pool Q’s and engineer Rodney Mills assisted admirably. The tedious process took several months to complete. “I can’t imagine what all they went through to pull all of this together,” says Lachowski. “I remember one time, Randy called and says, ‘Me and Jeff have found two versions of “Buzz” here, could you, real quick, go listen to the record and tell me if it’s the one that fades out?’ I was like, ‘Good God! Those poor guys!’”

Lachowski, who handles Pylon’s graphic art duties, is pleased to be a part of Chomp More. “Its good that it’s finally out, and these are the two albums we really care about. And they compliment each other, in look and feel. We were pretty tough to please and I felt like we were kind of limping to the finish line that time. Our first album was made in a few days. I think we were embarrassed that this was in so many pieces. And that’s the kind of stuff that was in the air when we broke up [in 1983]—maybe we felt like we’d run out of gas or something.”

Pylon

Pylon

‘America’s Best Band’

Even though the band did break up shortly after the album was released in ’83, it remained very much alive in fan interest and support. When they returned a few years later, they had a renewed approach to business and a growing number of fans, aided by R.E.M.’s mid-’80s pronouncement in Rolling Stone that Pylon, not them, should be known as “America’s best band.”

“We thought we’d been real knuckleheads about some things during Pylon part one,” says Lachowski, who infamously detailed their refusal of a tour with U2 in the documentary film Athens, GA. Inside/Out. “We were kind of rude to the idea of band business and we got resentful about that side of things. In 1988, we decided to see if it could be more of a ‘career.’ Then we were listening to advice instead of being purists.”

Pylon’s middle period begat Hits in 1988, a collection of old favorites. Two years later came Chain, an enjoyable batch of strong new material that Lachowski in particular isn’t fond of. By 1991, the band had stopped again amid conflicts and increasing family concerns. “In Pylon one,” he recalls, “We did what we wanted to do. We returned to that in the 2004 period.”

But the gregarious Crowe, who was once offered a lucrative spot as the B-52s drummer in the late ’80s, had serious concerns about returning for one more round with Pylon when the band began to talk about a possible return in 2004. “I thought, here I am, a middle aged guy, trying to recreate a rock and roll past? What am I doing?” he laughs.

“I was flying home from a job on the set of Californication, and I sat next to this girl on the plane. She must have been, I don’t know, in her twenties or so,” says Crowe. “We struck up a conversation and music somehow came up. I said, ‘I play in a sometime rock ’n’ roll band. We made some records and all that stuff, had a small amount of success.’ I said, ‘We’re getting back together to play a series of shows. What do you think about an old guy like me, out there playing music again? Is it depressing? Is it, what? I’ve just gotta know!’”

“She said, ‘It all depends on if you’re playing the music you made then or the music you’re playing now.’ It was the best advice I’d ever heard in my life! I don’t even know her name but she made me feel so good about playing again. I came home, ready to play the music we’d written back then, but every time we played, it was like the first time we’d ever played it. So it was always new.”

“We laughed that we were trying so hard to be authentic,” continues Lachowski, “We were like the Pylon Historical Reenactment Society instead of just being people in our late 40s in a band again.”

Working around Crowe’s busy schedule, the band played a wildly successful “secret” return show in 2004. A series of local and national performances followed, including a triumphant final performance at New York’s famed Knitting Factory in December 2008. “Everything we did from the 2004 period, until last year, and the last trips to California and New York, we were completely full of gratitude, in the moment and recognizing that this is an amazing thing that we could never have predicted,” says Lachowski. “We were all in a really good place. We were doing it because we wanted to it and it was really fun. We didn’t expect it to happen, so we enjoyed it. Again, on our own terms.”

Pylon completed no new material in its last 20 years of existence, instead the band focused on live shows, which far exceed even the greatest moments of their recorded work. “If you listen to the board tapes, you miss that ‘soul factor’ of being there, dancing, and the feel of the room,” says Hay. “Even if it’s not a perfect performance, that can be even better because there’s a whole different feeling in it. I can imagine the sound waves going out and going further and further away, till they’re in outer space.”

‘Gravity’

No matter the medium, the Pylon message has remained the same. “We were never angry or bitter,” says Lachowski. “We were fairly strident and maybe we came across as serious, but I think we were serious about having our fun.” Crowe adds, “Even in our darker stuff, there was always a positive. I hope that’s our main legacy, to be an uplifting, positive influence for rock ’n’ roll. If we do that, then we’ve done all we could ever hope to do. But see, that’s how we were raised.”

The nurturing nature of the original Athens music scene made Pylon possible, Crowe continues. “Back then, we were all each others’ biggest fans. We supported each other and we’d be there cheering each other on, ‘Yeah that was great!’ Now, it might not have been good, but you know what, it was great anyway! So with all that support and love, you couldn’t really fail. You could try new things. We tried out all kinds of things in front of audiences. Songs with no beginning, no middle, no end! We’d try anything out, right onstage if we wanted to. You crash and burn in front of everyone and then you just get up and do it again. Everything is forgiven. That’s where we came from.”

Thirty years of artistic freedom isn’t a bad legacy for a band that originally only planned to do one show in New York, get a good review in a music magazine and then break up. “Pylon defined our lives,” says Crowe. “The experiences I’ve had were the things most people just fantasize about. But we really got to do it and live that life.”

Hay agrees, adding, “We were equal, it wasn’t like any one of us was better than the others. We were a team and I’m so glad I had this journey with them.” She opens the CD and slowly reads aloud from the liner notes. “‘Dedicated to Randy Bewley, 1955- 2009. Donations in Randy’s memory may be made to Athens-based musicians support center Nuci’s Space, where Pylon practiced 2004-2008. We love you Randy.’” She pauses, finally adding, “It doesn’t replace him, but he’s left something with us.”

“I miss Randy a lot,“ she concludes, her voice cracking with emotion. “I miss Pylon.”

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