Randy Bewley, R.I.P.

At 5 p.m. yesterday, Pylon guitarist Randall “Randy” Bewley passed away, and my beloved hometown of Athens is a lot poorer for it. Randy contributed to our town in multiple ways, as a member of a legendary band, as an elementary school art teacher, and as a father of two, an all-around great guy by all accounts. To call him a unique talent would be an understatement. I will put this in as delicate manner as possible: Randy Bewley was not a good “traditional” guitar player. He was not the guy you’d call upon to cover a song straight up. He was not a “strum the chords” kind of guy. But make no mistake of it: Randy was an amazing guitar player, one of the handful of true artists out there whose tone and style of playing was immediately recognizable.

Pylon started, as many great (and Athens) bands do, before its members were truly comfortable with their instruments, and they were a better band for it, using the members’ lack of technical prowess as a raison d’etre. Their early success around Athens gained the interest of the B-52’s, among others, and that led them to an opening gig for Gang of Four in New York in 1980. The pairing makes complete sense, with both groups’ emphasis on punk rock/new wave that has a good beat that you can dance to, but I’ll go out on a limb here and say that Pylon’s music is more universal, preaching about (and against) things like literacy, dancing, conformity, and the general nature of being cool. Pylon was aggressive, minimalist, danceable, Southern, and androgynous. Randy fairly stabbed at his guitar, usually in spiky rhythm with Curtis Crowe’s relentless drumming. Add to that Michael Lachowski’s menacing monolithic bass bum bum bums and Vanessa Briscoe (Hay)’s primal howls, and, wow, what a rad band.

Coming up around the same time as R.E.M., the band’s influence and history on the Athens music scene can’t be understated–they practiced at the original 40 Watt location–but it goes much farther than that. I often see this sort of thing written about Pylon: “Though they never achieved R.E.M.’s level of success….”, but let’s be frank, how many bands do? Pylon, before their first of two break-ups, opened for the Talking Heads, R.E.M. (who covered “Crazy” and called them the Best Band in America once in Rolling Stone), Gang of Four, the B-52’s, and the entirety of U2’s first US tour! Not bad for a band of four UGA art students who just wanted a free trip to NYC out of the deal, as the legend goes.

The band left behind three albums—two of which are out-and-out monsters—and in the last eight years of the dance-punk-indietronica-whatever-you-wanna-call-it renaissance, Randy’s spiky rhythmic guitar style has been adopted by a legion of bands, whether they know it or not. Though Gang of Four is the most bandied-about influence given for bands like Hot Hot Heat, Franz Ferdinand, and the Rapture, I’d like to think that there is just as much Pylon in there as well, and certainly Vanessa Briscoe Hay’s superior yawps opened the door for a host of nontraditional female singers like Kathleen Hanna and Karen O. As their music became au courant again, Pylon reunited for a number of shows and small tours over the last few years, but their getting back together always had the good-natured feel of “why the hell not?” rather than a cynical cash-in. And, good God, the band had not lost a step. In fact, I would say two of the best shows I’ve seen in the last five years were Pylon shows, sweaty, wild affairs whose departing audience bore the Permagrin™ of a communal good time. It’s no surprise, then, that DFA latched onto them, reissuing Gyrate last year and Chomp in the coming months. Half of DFA’s catalog owes a great debt to Pylon, and it was nice to see James Murphy and Co. acknowledge that fact.

I didn’t know Randy super well. He performed in Vanessa Briscoe Hay’s newest project Supercluster, and they recorded and practiced at my house often because my roommate Kay played bass in that Athens supergroup. To be honest, I played the role of weird roommate who hung around in the shadows, fairly in awe at the talent convened in my kitchen, munching on the army of snacks the generous Vanessa brought with her to satiate her bandmates’ collective sweet/salt tooth. Randy was always a gracious, nice guy, and I eventually got up the nerve to talk to both him and Vanessa, and what little acquaintance I have had with them I count as one of the great treasures in my life. He had also joined Hannah Jones’ New Sound of Numbers project, now called Sound Houses, and his presence has transformed that band into a kind of monotonal This Heat/Silver Apples dance band that was becoming one of my favorites in town. He remained possessed of that singular guitar tone and style, for better or worse. I once heard Supercluster try to do some (for charity) Elton John covers in the other room, and it was a glorious mess. Randy refused to play nice with the chords, as unique in approach as ever, dismantling the songs and reshaping them in his image. Like I said, it was kind of a mess, but, in retrospect, he stayed true to the style he created, a committed musical nonconformist until the end. That’s the greatest compliment I could pay any musician, really.

Pylon, “Danger” (from Gyrate)

Pylon, “Cool” (at the Knitting Factory a couple of months ago)

Pylon, “Stop It (Rock and Roll No)”

Pylon [MySpace]

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