True Confessions of a former mayor: What I learned about the power of collaboration from the “Pearl Jam Twenty” documentary.
Having grown up a huge music fan I’ve always been fascinated by what contributes to a music scene happening in any given city. As a student at the University of Georgia in the eighties and early nineties, I was fortunate to be able to witness firsthand how Athens became a thriving music mecca by being the birthplace of bands like R.E.M, the B52s, Love Tractor, Widespread Panic and the Drive-by Truckers to name just a few. Being in the midst of it I never gave much thought to what caused the scene but was just happy to be there when it was happening. And then last year I watched Cameron Crowe’s “Pearl Jam Twenty” documentary and a light bulb went off.
As I watched how Pearl Jam formed from the ashes of Mother Love Bone I was struck by the number of musicians that were friends with, and who had played with, the band’s late lead singer Andy Wood. I also was struck by the fact that these musicians from different bands like Soundgarden, Pearl Jam and the Screaming Trees, among others, didn’t just play together, they hung out together and even lived together with Wood having been the roommate of Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell. Cornell’s taking Pearl Jam’s newly minted lead singer Eddie Vedder under his wing reflected the true kinship of these bands and their friendship certainly helped raise both groups to higher levels while helping to lead to the their collaboration with the Temple of the Dog side project. It was then that I began to realize that it was this cross pollination of personalities and musical styles within a city isolated from the mainstream record industry which led to constant collaborations that ultimately helped shape the Seattle music scene giving birth to the grunge rock revolution spearheaded by the release of Nirvana’s “Nevermind” in 1991. In the city of Seattle a creative ecosytem had been established giving birth to a movement that would change the world of popular music as we knew it.
In retrospect I began to see that the same thing had happened in Athens all those years ago. While I was in college and going to see bands at places like the 40 Watt Club, the Uptown Lounge and the Georgia Theater, it was never an unusual occurrence for different members of different local bands to take the stage with each other for a jam session. Like Seattle, Athens had been a place that was far removed from the mainstream music industry where the creation of a creative culture led to fertile ground for musical experimentation and the formation of eclectic bands that often went on to international fame. Although there was never a singular Athens sound, all the bands, like those in Seattle, had a focus on maintaining their musical integrity and on not selling out for the sake of mainstream success. In considering this it hit me that the two scenes and the two cities were ultimately inextricably linked by the friendship formed by R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe and Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain with the impact found on the louder, more agressive sound of R.E.M.’s “Monster” released in 1994 in the wake of Cobain’s passing.
So where am I going with this you may ask? I’ve always been a firm believer in the power of collaboration and what it can mean for cities. When cities operate in silos they tend to stagnate as different groups and organizations don’t see the big picture with regards to reaching their maximum potential because there’s no creative riffing between them. However, when a collaborative spirit is the focus of a city with individuals, groups, businesses and other organizations freely exchanging ideas and perspectives, an ecosystem can be created where the city thrives much like the music scenes in Seattle and Athens did and still do to this very day. In the end you can learn a lot from rock and roll.