Freda Love Smith is a lecturer and advisor in the School of Communication at Northwestern University. She is a rock drummer and co-founder of the Blake Babies, Antenna, Some Girls, and the Mysteries of Life, is a staff writer for Paste Magazine, and has published short stories in journals such as the North American Review, SmokeLong, Bound Off and Riptide. Her first book, Red Velvet Underground: A Rock Memoir, with Recipes, was published on November 1, 2015 by Agate/Midway.
(Photo Credit: Rebecca Dudley)
Being a musician on tour was the life experience that shattered my uptightness and helped me embrace a more flexible diet. Touring in a band presents a host of particular challenges: how to stay stable in constantly shifting surroundings; how to stay sane in often-crazy circumstances; how to stay civil in the close quarters of a van with four other humans; how to stay healthy in booze- and smoke-filled bars — and on the slim pickings of truck-stop food.
It didn’t take me long to discover that food was key to everything —stability, sanity, civility and health — and plain pasta would not cut it. I sought out restaurants with good-quality vegetarian food. I didn’t always find them (it was harder pre-internet!), so I learned to relax and do the best I could. Over many, many years, my map of America was drawn out of small rock clubs and reliable vegetarian-friendly restaurants. The Knitting Factory and Angelica Kitchen in New York. The Blind Pig and Seva in Ann Arbor. The Crocodile Café and the Gravity Bar in Seattle. The Middle East and the Five Seasons in Boston. But of all the bars and restaurants in all the towns in all the world, there is none that compares to the 40 Watt Club and the Grit, both in Athens, Georgia.
Athens is a town that outshines all the others in my memory. In part, it’s because I rolled through there during a few pivotal moments in my life. The first visit, all the way back in 1988, shines the brightest. It was during the first Blake Babies tour, a ramshackle effort along the east coast and down into Georgia. We were already on our third lineup: me on drums, John on lead guitar, Juliana playing rhythm guitar and singing lead, and Evan Dando, on loan from up-and-coming Boston punk band the Lemonheads, on bass and backing vocals. The Blake Babies and the Lemonheads had formed in Boston at about the same time, discovered each other quickly and become fast friends.
Evan and his Lemonheads partner, guitarist-singer-songwriter Ben Deily, attended one of the first shows the Blake Babies ever played, at an arty café called She’s Leaving Home. Evan stood front and center, enthusiastically rocking out, and Juliana was smitten from that moment, and far into the future. Of course, it was hard to meet that golden boy and not be smitten. Few people will ever gaze upon a human more beautiful than nineteen-year-old Evan Dando. And Evan wasn’t just a pretty face —he was an uncanny talent with a killer voice, a knack for melody and great taste in music. I will love him forever for bringing his copy of Big Star’s Radio City over to the apartment I shared with John and Juliana. “You guys are going to freak out,” he said. “I promise.” He was right. When Evan agreed to join the Blake Babies after we had unsuccessfully worked with two other bass players, we were delighted. As it turned out, it was only the beginning of a long cross-pollination between the two bands. John would later join the Lemonheads on drums, and years after that he would return as a guitar player. After the Blake Babies broke up, Juliana was an integral part of the Lemonheads’ classic record It’s a Shame About Ray.
Evan and Juliana’s rock stardom and tour buses were a long way in the future from that first Blake Babies tour. We traveled in Evan’s white station wagon, a hand-me-down from his dad. Shows were booked and the trip stitched together by a generous friend and early fan of the band, Michael Wegner, a recent transplant to Athens from Providence, Rhode Island. We were deliriously happy to be on tour; we didn’t care that one night we played in front of two friends (including Michael) and a confused promoter (who later said to John, “You need to get those girls in some dresses”). We loved everything about touring. We loved truck stops, where we bought Penthouse and persuaded Juliana to read the “Forum” section out loud to help pass the time on long drives. We loved Waffle House, where we became obsessed with the Waffle House theme song to such an extent that we taped it on our boom box so we could listen to it whenever we wanted. Which turned out to be often. When we played with They Might Be Giants, we were disappointed that they weren’t as excited by the Waffle House theme song as we were. Nobody on earth was as excited about anything as we were about everything. I even enjoyed hauling gear, and noticed that by the end of the trip, my arm muscles were becoming more pronounced.
“Hey,” I said to Juliana, lugging my heavy bass drum to the station wagon, “Touring is making me fit! Isn’t that cool?”
We might have been slightly irritating to be around.
Every stop along the road was amazing, but when we arrived in Athens, I thought we’d hit Shangri-La. Everybody feels this sometimes, right? You’re visiting a town, you fall under its spell, and you ask yourself, “Could I live here?” There are other questions embedded in this one, such as, “Would my life be different and better — would I be different and better — if I lived here?” Athens inspired me to ask these questions. And it wasn’t one particular thing about the place, it was everything: the draping kudzu, the warm, sweet air, and the population of pretty boys, all of them into poetry. We stayed with Michael in an old, slightly damp, undeniably charming house that he shared with Lynda Stipe, another musician and the sister of R.E.M. singer Michael. This was a detail that dazzled me, John, Juliana, and Evan, though we tried to play it cool. Every gesture by every citizen of Athens seemed to be an artistic statement. In Michael and Lynda’s house, autumn leaves covered the kitchen floor, leaves they swept in deliberately for the pleasure of that underfoot crunch.
And then there was the club, the 40 Watt, an otherwise standard venue that shimmered with the traces of its venerable history. Amazing bands had launched from its stage: the B-52s, Pylon and, of course, R.E.M. I imagined I could feel their presence. Our show there went well. Thanks to Michael’s vigilant efforts at promotion, we drew a small but respectably sized crowd. During our set I looked out to see Lynda Stipe and her boyfriend ballroom dancing boisterously across the floor. The next morning, in her kitchen among the autumn leaves, she offered her review of the show: “Y’all’s music is hard to waltz to.” Oh well. Nothing could make me love Athens less. I had fallen for the place.
The meals I ate during those few days made me fall even harder. Even the restaurants in Athens were quirky and creative, every plate of food lovingly prepared and determinedly non-mainstream, from soul food (butter beans, greens and cornbread) served cafeteria-style to the grainy, delicious whole wheat biscuits at the Bluebird Café, to, well, everything at the Grit.
Which brings me to the Grit: a fantastic vegetarian restaurant and a central Athens hangout, a place I’d come to anticipate visiting for years and tours to come. Food at the Grit was simple and distinctive. During that first visit, I had a bowl of brown rice, pinto beans and vegetables that was exciting. Now I recognize that the excitement had a lot to do with the fact that the Grit, and that bowl of rice and beans, resided in the heart of a scene, a creative community in the process of inventing itself, realizing itself. Athens made it seem like any place in the world could become an artistic center, not just New York, Paris, or London, and like anybody could be an artist, whether they came from a family of painters, farmers or factory workers.
The Blake Babies seemed to fit right in. We were on this tour to promote our first record, Nicely, Nicely, which we had recorded piecemeal: some in a recording studio, some at a live gig at Harvard University. We’d received help from dozens of people to make the record happen. Parents donated money, friends volunteered time and effort and microphones, fellow musicians doled out advice and instructions. We tried for a while to find a record label, making a cassette demo and sending it around, but when nobody called us back, we forged ahead and put it out on our own label, which we called Chewbud Records. The cover art for Nicely, Nicely featured the slightly crazy, adorable doodles that covered Juliana’s notebooks, and the back of the album featured unprofessional, unguarded photos of us in our shared apartment. It was DIY at every level. When the record came out, we packaged up copies and sent them to radio stations and zines using a list generously shared by Curtis Casella from Taang! Records, the Lemonheads’ first label.
And the DIY didn’t stop there. We waited impatiently for radio stations to play the record, and when it didn’t happen to our satisfaction, we made it happen. One night, we shamelessly called Emerson College’s WERS and requested the song we’d decided was the single, “Wipe It Up,” during the station’s local radio show. It was a sweet moment of triumph, sitting in our living room, hearing our song over the airwaves.
During the entire Nicely, Nicely promotion cycle, including the station wagon tour, we had our eyes on bigger prizes — we wanted a real record label, agent, manager, all the things bands are supposed to want. But we must have known somewhere in the backs of our minds that this was a golden age for us, and that once we surrendered aspects of our career to others, we’d lose some of this glowing “go, team” feeling.
In Athens, I could see the lines connecting the dots from the leaves on Lynda Stipe’s floor, to the doodles on our album cover, to the homely and delicious bowl of rice and beans at the Grit. The lines added up to a picture full of possibility. I wish I could say that subsequent tours were as joyful as that first jaunt. Touring became a little less fun, and then a lot less fun, but I was lucky to be able to return to Athens many times, and regardless of whatever else was going on, I always enjoyed breathing its air and eating its food.
Adapted from a recipe in The Grit Restaurant Cookbook — I decreased the sugar and upped the lemon juice to rebalance the flavors. “A grand-slam home run,” wrote one tester.
Plan ahead — this needs to sit in the refrigerator overnight in order to become truly amazing.
I did not include a dough recipe, figuring everyone has a favorite already. You can also purchase pre-made frozen dough.
Makes one 9-inch pie
Double-crust pie dough
Oil, for greasing
2 tablespoons cornstarch
Juice and zest of 1 medium lemon
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 teaspoons brandy
4 1⁄2 cups fresh blueberries
3⁄4 cup granulated sugar
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, chopped into small pieces
1 heaping tablespoon sour cream
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
1⁄4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1. Preheat the oven to 450° F. Lightly grease a deep, 9-inch pie pan.
2. Roll out 1⁄2 of the dough and transfer it to the prepared pan, pressing lightly and evenly into the bottom and sides.
3. In a large bowl, combine the cornstarch, lemon juice and zest, vanilla, and brandy and mix well. Add the blueberries, sugar, butter, sour cream, flour, and cinnamon and gently stir until combined. Pour the mixture into the prepared pie crust.
4. Roll out the remaining 1⁄2 of the dough. Cover the pie with the dough trimming as needed. Crimp to seal the edge of the pie. Prick or slash the top in whatever pattern you fancy, to allow steam to escape.
5. Place the pie on a large cookie sheet. (This is really important! This is a very juicy pie that will otherwise drip all over your oven!) Bake for 10 minutes, then reduce the oven heat to 350° F and bake an additional 50 to 55 minutes, until golden and bubbling. Remove from the oven and let cool to room temperature. Cover and refrigerate overnight. Yes, overnight. Your patience will be rewarded.