I have many fond memories of my 19th year, spent almost entirely in Athens, Ga. 1984. A particularly vivid one is visiting Jerry Ayers at Howard Finster’s Paradise Garden. I am stunned to realize this was 32 years ago, as the images retain piercing clarity. Now, with the sad news of dear Jerry’s passing, those days pulse even more.
I first met Jerry in ’83 when I was in Atlanta band Wee Wee Pole. We opened for his band, Limbo District – sexiest Athens band ever – at the 40 Watt. Later, when I moved to Cobb St to play bass in Go Van Go, Jerry and I crossed paths a lot. We often talked well into the night beneath a streetlight, or under an awning. I admired his sweet, lone wolf quality, sought to emulate it. In his presence, I felt recognized as I wanted to be recognized, accepted, appreciated – all of utmost importance to a kid alone in the world for the first time.
Jerry and I were avid bike riders, and frequently passed one another on the blacktop, sometimes at 2 or 3 in the morning. We both sported straw hats. Sometimes, in the dark of a backyard party, someone would think I was him, which was quite a compliment. He was kind and nurturing, radiating energy, both elder and innocent. It was easy to forget his incredible history, in part because he was so interested in what was happening at that moment, which, to him, was always pretty fucking amazing. He could make a case for any quotidian moment being pretty fucking amazing. This perspective was contagious. You always walked away from him with more vigor than before. Needless to say, I would not meet anyone like him again.
In Autumn of ’84, Jerry was living at Paradise Garden in Summerville, helping rehab the long-neglected grounds, and writing grant proposals for Howard Finster. Thanks to REM’s championing, Reverend Finster was increasingly popular, but his sprawling, kudzu-wreathed, mud spattered, dawg-infested property was, to put it mildly, a mess of Biblical (literally and figuratively) proportions. Jerry was working hard to accommodate the rising tide of visitors, i.e. potential customers. This entailed much back breaking labor: shoveling, weeding, toting heavy, unwieldy, often crazy shit to a dumpster. Jerry knew international fame for Finster was imminent, and he wrote our mutual friend Cynthia Williams, imploring her to come partake of the magick, before Paradise Garden’s funky character was smoothed, before there was a gift shop, and, of course, while the still-vital Reverend still roamed the acreage with a liter of half frozen Coke, playing banjo, singing, and preaching on request. Prescient Jerry knew these times were not to last, in part because of encroaching renown, but also because Finster, a diabetic, ate almost exclusively junk food and never slept. Jerry said: If you want to meet a true holy man in his natural element, an art prophet, do not hesitate, come now. And if you can, bring money and buy art. (Incredibly, Reverend Finster would live 17 more years.)
Cynthia invited me to come along. I had no gigs, and was not scheduled at Kinko’s, so I said hell yes. We drove to Summerville on an Autumn day. Jerry met us in the rutted driveway, handsome in red clay-crusted waders and mud spattered, billowy clothes. Grinning like a hillbilly pirate. Cynthia and I were stunned at the place. Like most, I’d only seen Paradise Garden in the hazy, dreamy video for “Radio Free Europe,” which was, like most of what REM did at that time, tantalizingly obtuse. Arty. But now, in stark detail, Paradise Garden rose, a collection of ramshackle buildings, a couple trailers, art everywhere, a car carcass covered in Howard’s distinctive religious characters and Bible verses, bicycle parts, scrap metal, plywood, and the aforementioned dawgs. Perhaps the happiest dawgs I’d ever seen. Assorted family members came and went, all smiles, conferring with Jerry about various duties, chores. It never occurred to us to worry that perhaps Jerry – a former Warhol Superstar, a decidedly unhetero male – would be in trouble around these God-fearing rural folk. The divinity of the art, the devotional work, rendered all of that meaningless.
Jerry was very glad to see us, excited like a little kid to share. He squired us around, and we marveled at the twisted tower of bicycle parts, the paths beneath the stately oaks, the painted faces everywhere, all spreading good news about salvation, about a world unseen, a world of love and poetry. Angels. Elvis. George Washington. Jesus. Howard himself, as a grinning young man, touching the ineffable, brimming with hope, eyes fearless and joyful.
Jerry was particularly struck by Howard’s preternatural energy. He said: the man is tapped into something beyond, something unexplainable, because all he eats is garbage. Twinkies. Ho-Hos. Hostess Fruit Pies. And yet. Jerry told of waking in his room in the wee hours and looking out to the trailer where Howard basically lived, where the Reverend did most of his painting while the world slept. No matter the hour, the light was always on, an aura of creation radiating into the Summerville night.
Laughing, bespectacled Howard came out to meet us, resplendent in a polyester sport coat over a flannel shirt, ever-present bottle of Coke in hand. Cynthia asked if he would tell us a story, and he said yes. Like children, we sat on the floor before him in his trailer, and he told us of a woman he knew who put her son’s jacket on a hook when the boy went to Vietnam. She said she wouldn’t take it down ’til her son returned. And then Reverend Finster wept. He told us the jacket was still there, to this day. As he cried, we sat speechless. Then Jerry thanked him, placed his strong, lovely hand on the man’s shoulder, and ushered him back to us. Reverend Finster thanked us for coming, and Jerry led us into the late afternoon, shadows creeping.
I do not recall what or where we ate. But I do recall where we slept. Jerry was eager to show us the innards of a tower Howard had built with no architectural knowledge at all. Reportedly structurally sound. How did the Reverend do it? God told him how, that’s how. In the tower was a small shrine to the actress Lisa Whelchel, aka Blair on the Facts of Life; mostly clippings of her face from magazines, pasted to a kind of altar with a cross. It decorated a wall just outside the bedroom in which Cynthia and I would sleep on a terribly uncomfortable fold-out bed. I remember the dark of that room, the hum of a heater, the warmth of Cynthia beside me, a confusion of all that I’d seen and barely grasped. Yet also, a feeling of being lucky.
The next day, Howard was busy working, not to be disturbed. Cynthia purchased for me one of his two-foot-by-one-foot angels, a beautiful smiling creature covered in Biblical verse and exhortations. It pains me to write this, but somehow, in my months of couch surfing in Manhattan in 1985, I would lose it. It is the dearest thing I have ever lost. As I’ve come to know grief – the tax on a long life – I have learned not to grieve objects. Except for that.
I returned to Athens in 1987, while on tour with the Fleshtones, but I never saw Jerry again. With the advent of social media, however, we connected several times. Still, I never thanked him for his kindness on the streets of Athens, when I was a kid, struggling, for the first time, to be independent. Running from trauma. And I never thanked him for providing me with the experience of walking the holy land of art, where he fit in perfectly, where he made me feel welcome. But I think Jerry knew what he’d done for me. When I did not realize it, he knew I would carry that time with me for the rest of my life.
Thank you, Jerry.
RBW, Phoenicia, NY, October 25th, 2016