Using Newspapers to Track Dates and Locations: The Last Resort and the 40 Watt Club “Uptown” (Part Two)

At the start of 1983, the Athens music scene that had come under the national spotlight in the previous half-decade seemed fairly stable. The clipping below, found in the Athens Observer for February 24, 1983, gives a sample of what was on offer. The relative small size, and arguably confusing lay-out, of the 40 Watt’s advertisement may suggest where it stood in the nightclub scheme of things: two nascent acts associated with the new music scene, Is/Ought Gap and Oh-OK, visited that spot while Gregg Allman played the Mad Hatter. Allman’s fans would find plenty more music of a similar ilk that weekend: Friday night, the Randall Bramblett Band at Smoke’s, and Saturday night, the Normaltown Flyers at Friends, located in the Georgian building. The Last Resort offered fare perhaps more appealing to the 40 Watt’s regular attendees, especially local band the Squalls and, from Atlanta, Current Rage. Meanwhile, a decidedly different brand of entertainment was taking place at a certain Bourbon Street.

Fast forward to the Athens Observer published on April 7, 1983, and the situation is unchanged: Let’s Active, a group from Winston-Salem, North Carolina, with ties to R.E.M. played the 40 Watt while Tall Dogs set up at Smoke’s. This clipping also provides a taste of what was going at the J & J, out on Commerce Road, and Ronnie B’s, closer to campus.

This next clipping from the Athens Observer, April 14, 1983, has been split in two for easier viewing. Notice that Smoke’s appears to be in business, but advertises no live music. Meanwhile, the “i and i” ran into trouble regarding a John Prine show. In the first part of our article on the B & L Warehouse/ Buckhead Beach, a clipping from the Athens Observer mentions this situation as it pertains to the “i and i” closing.

A big change was coming: in the Athens Observer, April 21, 1983, the 40 Watt advertisement announces the arrival of the “Uptown” version of the club, located at 382 East Broad Street. As we can confirm from the clippings above, this was indeed the same address as the now-defunct Smoke’s. This new 40 Watt debuted in fine form, hosting Pylon in what would turn out to be the final year of the first phase of that band’s history (they would return for two more, 1989-1991 and 2004-2009), even announcing an appearance by R.E.M. that, alas, would not happen. At this point in that band’s history, they would switch to playing Legion Field when returning to their hometown. As we have seen in the April 14 Observer clipping above, Pylon had originally scheduled an April 22 gig at the “i and i,” but it had been moved, presumably because of that club’s financial troubles. Or perhaps the new 40 Watt was just a better site for the band’s first gig promoting their second album, Chomp.

The fate of the Last Resort is harder to discern at this point. As suggested previously, the nightclub had started booking more rock bands. The commercial pressures that may have caused this decision certainly had their effect, as the venue temporarily closed in 1978, reopening in February, 1979, under new ownership. An update in the Red and Black, February 9, 1979, seen below, does not go into as much detail as we would like, but at least mentions that the club had undergone extensive renovation.

An indication of how those who had come to enjoy the original version of the Last Resort felt about these changes is provided not by an Athens publication but by the Atlanta Constitution, namely one of its music writers, Bill King. In a November 1, 1980, article in that newspaper, “A New Outlet for the Folk Circuit,” King notes, “the Last Resort’s latest ownership now concentrates on local rock bands.” King, a former resident of Athens, explains that the “folk club” circuit (apparently the term, listening room, was also in favor at that moment) that had been prevalent in the Southeast the previous two decades served as “an alternative acoustic music scene” that grew out of the Folk Revival of the late 1950s-early 1960s. (The “new outlet” noted in the article’s title, by the way, referred to the Speakeasy, a short-lived venue located, like Friends, in the Georgian.)

While acoustic singer-songwriter music would make a comeback roughly a decade after King was writing those words, by 1983 artists like Pylon, Let’s Active, or–an example seen in the 40 Watt ad above–Jason and the Scorchers formed part of a new “indie,” or “college,” rock music. Heralded years later as its own “alternative” to the mainstream, only in retrospect is it easy to see how artists signed to record labels that were “independent” of the mainstream, and who eschewed commercial considerations, were not only a vital part of local scenes like the one found in Athens but were part of a nationwide trend. Before this punk-inspired/ D.I.Y. shift in the listening and socializing habits of American youth, if nightclubs featured live rock music, it was likely to be in the form of artists performing the songs of the top sellers of the day. Most of the bands that you would have heard in the 1970s at the B & L Warehouse, for example, were “the ones who play big high school proms […] and a host of other Top 40 rock and roll cover bands,” as Bobby Byrd described the scene in a Red and Black article from September 19, 1979. In this sense, the Last Resort, in its movement away from folk, blues, and jazz toward rock, actually bridged the gap between two eras of American music as performed at small venues.

Meanwhile, neither the Athens Observer nor the Red and Black noted the closing of the Last Resort, except in passing after the fact. The venue’s advertisements disappeared from the Observer by May, 1983. However, the Last Resort was still to be found in the Athens Banner-Herald/ Athens Daily News Saturday Nightlife listings for June 25, 1983, as seen in the above clipping. Note that the morning and evening papers were still being published separately at this point but were combined on Saturdays. As with the Athens Observer clippings, these come from the Heritage Room’s microfilm collection. The listings are provided in their entirety to give the reader a fuller impression of what was going on in Athens at the time than what can be gleaned from these articles focusing on particular businesses. Unfortunately, this column seems to have only rarely listed performing artists and special events; while some of these spots merely served drinks and served as discos instead of live-music venues, undoubtedly there is a lot of information for the historian to fill in here. At least all of the businesses have their street location noted.

The listing found two weeks later, in the Athens Banner-Herald/ Athens Daily News for July 9, 1983, as seen above no longer includes the Last Resort. Though it may not have been a headline story, undoubtedly the Last Resort’s closure is a landmark in Athens entertainment history, alongside, say, the opening of the Washington Street version of the 40 Watt in 1991 or the fires that devastated Tyrone’s and the Georgia Theatre.

On a lighter note, a clipping from the Athens Banner-Herald/ Athens Daily News, July 15, 1983, shows another 40 Watt ad and lets us know what movies were being screened at the Palace Theatre (part of the Plitt Theatres chain), the Georgia Theatre, and the city’s last drive-in. And we see what new game was being promoted at Showbiz Pizza. Good to know, I suppose, that Porky’s II was attracting crowds in Athens.

We end this installment with a Red and Black article (October 25, 1983) describing the Athens scene toward the end of 1983. Especially noteworthy is the rise of a new hot spot, the Uptown Lounge, located in a building on Washington Street that in recent years housed Copper Creek Brewing. Two more essays in this series, about the Uptown and its successors, especially the Atomic Music Hall; and about the Georgia Theatre as it progressed from music venue to movie theater back to music venue, will expand upon the story of Athens music from the early 1970s to the early 1990s.

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