I didn’t like them. The first time I saw them, that is. Same for the second, third, fourth, and whateverth times after that. In ’94 and ’95, they were a fixture in the Atlanta and Athens scene, and I thought they were an unforgivably sloppy mess of a band. Living in Athens at the time, I saw them on bills with lesser-known touring acts and local bands alike, oftentimes playing to the same dozen people at rooms like the 40 Watt, the Shoebox, the Atomic Music Hall, the Point, the Midtown Music Hall, and the Clermont Lounge. The band’s fixtures: Kelly Hogan towing along her little teacup dog; Chris Verene wearing makeup and pigtails (and a dress, maybe?); and Justin looking like a wet, unfurled flannel shirt. Then there was Lopez. I had known Chris from his previous bands Seersucker and the Opal Foxx Quartet and from stopping by his place on Wylie in Cabbagetown. He was always polite, always cool, but his aloof demeanor underpinned a crushingly shy guy. Who in the hell knew he had this shambolic group the Rock*A*Teens tucked up his sleeve?
Flash ahead to 1998. I had moved to Atlanta to escape the swamp known as Athens and to earn a decent paycheck, and yes, I had continued to see the sloppy mess known as the Rock*A*Teens. Merge had just released Baby, A Little Rain Must Fall, and around this time, the estimable Ballard Lesemann had replaced Chris Verene on drums. Ballard had long been considered the Bun E. Carlos of the Georgia music scene. He had a hard thump on the floor tom, a solid foot on the kick drum, and a flair for being a showman behind the kit. I mean, can you name another drummer who drinks beer during a song?
That fall of ’98, I had driven up to Athens to see the Rock*A*Teens play yet another show with dirge gods Harvey Milk. The band had decided to call it a day and had a celebratory final show at the 40 Watt, which the R*A*Ts opened. And I gotta tell you, that night … I had … an epiphany. You know that scene in The Blues Brothers where John Belushi is in the church and God’s light shines down on him? An epiphany like that. I watched the Rock*A*Teens play as I had numerous times before, but watching them onstage that night was an “I have seen the light!” moment. A moment that I will always remember. A moment where I got it. I got it—the Rock*A*Teens’ swagger, their heartfelt lyrics, their powerful rhythm section, the random noisy flourishes, and the hooks that fell out of their instruments with alarming regularity. As Harvey Milk ended their career that night (at least for the time being), the Rock*A*Teens became one of my favorite bands from Georgia. Fuck that—one of my favorite bands from anywhere.
Over the following year, the Rock*A*Teens toured routinely across the United States and would disappear from Atlanta for months on end. Much like fellow Merge mates Neutral Milk Hotel, the R*A*Ts seemed to be knocking door-to-door, taking the gospel to the kids, but nobody was flipping out to the fevered level that I, if no one else, had expected. Golden Time was released. To call it a stone-cold masterpiece is an understatement. And then they kept touring.
By the time Y2K came along, the Rock*A*Teens had experienced a few more changes. Brandon Smith had departed and been replaced by Will Joiner. They had also added Jeff Wiggins to play keys at shows. While playing around Atlanta and touring across the United States, the band had started work on what would become Sweet Bird of Youth. The album was assembled in a very peculiar fashion as compared to their previous records.
Woodshedding with Ballard, Chris Lopez composed and recorded the majority of Sweet Bird’s basic tracks on keyboards and guitar at Rob Gal’s studio, and then lugged the tape machine back to their Black Box rehearsal space at the end of Krog Street to finish. During the next few months, things got peculiar (at least by Rock*A*Teens standards, that is). Band members Will, Justin, and Lopez would each go in on his own time and add his own flourishes to each track without the others’ knowledge. This unusual hands-off collaboration progressed for months during the spring of 2000. The ladies from Ultrababyfat (Shonali and Michelle) laid down Phil Spector-esque backup vocals on “If I Wanted to Be Famous (I’d Have Shot Someone),” and Shannon Wright sang an achingly spare duet with Chris on “It’s Destiny.” Anthemic. Majestic. Shimmering. Heart-aching brilliance. The Rock*A*Teens focused it all into Sweet Bird of Youth.
When Sweet Bird was released, the band was approaching the end of its existence. A few tours went by. 2001 turned into 2002, and the band was barely doing anything at all. Understandably. The band members all had their own lives, their own jobs, and their own destinies. The band’s final concert on New Year’s Eve ’02 wasn’t sheepish but rather a triumphant farewell. Lopez sang without his guitar on, standing on the monitors and screaming “I am the car, and I am the driver!” The crowd was as jubilant as the band.
Much like their performances back then, their body of work is a true catharsis. They were a truly homegrown band from Georgia that couldn’t possibly be mistaken for being from anywhere else. For anybody that ever wants a glimpse into what Cabbagetown was all about back then, the Rock*A*Teens’ Sweet Bird of Youth is a glorious introductory step.
—Henry H. Owings, Atlanta, January 2014
Live at The Caledonia Lounge, Athens, GA, 12/30/02
1. I Could’ve Just Died
2. Tuesday’s Just as Bad
3. If You Only Knew
4. Lady Ben
5. Cherry Red Compilation
6. Car and Driver
7. Stranger Coming
8. Don’t Destroy This Night
10. Black Metal Stars
11. It’s Too Bad Luv He’s a Sad One
12. Betwixt or Between
13. I’m Your Puppet
14. These Starving Heartists
15. Arm in Arm, In the Golden Twilite, We Loitered On
16. Please Don’t Go Downtown Tonight
|Track/Song Title||Artist||Duration||Price||MP3 Track|
|Play||Car and Driver||The Rock*A*Teens||03:37||$0.99||Buy|
|Play||If I Wanted to Be Famous (I'd Have Shot Someone)||The Rock*A*Teens||04:53||$0.99||Buy|
|Play||Please Don't Go Downtown Tonight||The Rock*A*Teens||04:43||$0.99||Buy|
|Play||Betwixt or Between||The Rock*A*Teens||03:31||$0.99||Buy|
|Play||Make It New Again||The Rock*A*Teens||04:48||$0.99||Buy|
|Play||Sun's Up||The Rock*A*Teens||05:09||$0.99||Buy|
|Play||It's Destiny||The Rock*A*Teens||03:22||$0.99||Buy|
|Play||Hwy R||The Rock*A*Teens||04:02||$0.99||Buy|
|Play||If You Only Knew||The Rock*A*Teens||03:18||$0.99||Buy|
|Play||I Hope You'll Never See Me Like This||The Rock*A*Teens||03:44||$0.99||Buy|
|Play||That Day Is Today||The Rock*A*Teens||03:04||$0.99||Buy|
|Play||Ma, Look What the City Did to Me||The Rock*A*Teens||03:25||$0.99||Buy|
|Play||Our Future Was Then||The Rock*A*Teens||03:31||$0.99||Buy|
|Play||Lee Knows Every Raindrop||The Rock*A*Teens||03:09||$0.99||Buy|
|Play||Put It Right Out of Your Mind||The Rock*A*Teens||04:06||$0.99||Buy|
|Play||No Books About It||The Rock*A*Teens||03:44||$0.99||Buy|
|Play||Pretty Thoughts Strike Down the Band||The Rock*A*Teens||04:58||$0.99||Buy|
|Play||I Could've Just Died (Live)||The Rock*A*Teens||05:02||$0.99||Buy|
|Play||Tuesday's Just as Bad (Live)||The Rock*A*Teens||03:28||$0.99||Buy|
|Play||If You Only Knew (Live)||The Rock*A*Teens||03:37||$0.99||Buy|
|Play||Lady Ben (Live)||The Rock*A*Teens||04:33||$0.99||Buy|
|Play||Cherry Red Compilation (Live)||The Rock*A*Teens||04:17||$0.99||Buy|
|Play||Car and Driver (Live)||The Rock*A*Teens||04:33||$0.99||Buy|
|Play||Stranger Coming (Live)||The Rock*A*Teens||03:20||$0.99||Buy|
|Play||Don't Destroy This Night (Live)||The Rock*A*Teens||05:21||$0.99||Buy|
|Play||Inseparable (Live)||The Rock*A*Teens||02:57||$0.99||Buy|
|Play||Black Metal Stars (Live)||The Rock*A*Teens||04:18||$0.99||Buy|
|Play||It's Too Bad Luv He's a Sad One (Live)||The Rock*A*Teens||04:46||$0.99||Buy|
|Play||Betwixt or Between (Live)||The Rock*A*Teens||03:36||$0.99||Buy|
|Play||I'm Your Puppet (Live)||The Rock*A*Teens||06:38||$0.99||Buy|
|Play||These Starving Heartists (Live)||The Rock*A*Teens||03:23||$0.99||Buy|
|Play||Arm In Arm, In the Golden Twilite, We Loitered On (Live)||The Rock*A*Teens||04:05||$0.99||Buy|
|Play||Please Don't Go Downtown Tonight (Live)||The Rock*A*Teens||05:41||$0.99||Buy|
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