The early 90s wasn't really the time to strike it big as a band from Athens. The Inside/Out buzz had fizzled, the bands that were significant during the 80s had yard sales to get rid of their equipment, and only a handful of artists in town were left to fight the good fight. Those that were left in town stayed due to their own reasons, but if you were in Athens in 1991, you weren't going to be getting a feature written about you in Alternative Press, nor would you get a national label to put out your records, nor would you get a semi-decent tour booked. It was all next to impossible.
When I moved to Georgia during the height of the early 90s recession, only Laura Carter and Dave Barbe seemed to be the permanent fixtures in town, and their bands (JackONuts and Buzz Hungry, respectively) were considered the lords of the local scene. Townie bands of the era culled the majority of their influences from the SST roster. Roosevelt and Hayride stole liberally from The Meat Puppets and Minutemen, Five Eight cribbed notes from Hüsker Dü, Porn Orchard, Bliss and Magneto were fans of the more Sabbathy sounding Greg Ginn records be they Gone or Who's Got the 10 1/2-era Black Flag. The point could be made that the true epicenter for most of the real burst of creativity can be credited to local barn-burning shows by The Jesus Lizard, considered the Johnny Appleseed of early-90s post punk, where seeds were planted and proceeded to blossom in the rehearsal spaces and clubs in town. One such band that seemed to appear virtually over night was Harvey Milk. Named after the homosexual San Franciscan politician, Harvey Milk Version 1.0 (which maintained until 1996, and is the only line up featured on this release) had Creston Speirs on the microphone, sledgehammer and guitar, Steven Tanner (formerly of the Cabbagetown skuzz rawkers Seersucker) on bass and the occasional armpit fart and Paul "Pauly" Trudeau on drums. Without exception, playing drums with Creston was probably the most stressful gig in the Athens music scene. Spires, then a percussion major at UGA, was a great drummer in his own right, so his complex arrangements and massive use of "white space" in his compositions were undoubtedly nerve racking for Trudeau.
The first two releases that bore the name Harvey Milk were on Self Rising Records run by Pattiy Torno, Chris Purcell and Ballard Lesemann in Athens. Alongside other Georgia upstarts Slumberjack, The Martians, Bob and Fiddlehead, the Refuel compilation signified the trio's debut appearance during 1992. In its immediate wake, the split with Hayride came out the following Spring of 1993 were their first tunes ("Blueberry Dookie" & "Smile") committed to vinyl. As was de rigeur for the time period, the seven inch single lorded over all other mediums of the time as the ultimate in obsessive, quirky, record-collector-y fandom. Labels such as Amphetamine Reptile and Sub/Pop reigned supreme in the medium, and what few bedroom label owners there were in Athens at the time, tried to muster the same sort of excitement with local releases as were given worldwide to, say, Halo of Flies.
The next single, in all of its unashamed anti-fidelity, was released by Chief Ruiz on his Reservation Records label in the summer of 1993. During this time, their first full length was recorded with Bob Weston in Chicago for Charlotte, NC's 227 Records. Although it's unclear as of this writing why it was never released, 5th generation copies still float around Athens and Atlanta. The tapes to this-now-infamous session have disappeared and (apparently) rest in the possession of Ted from The Melts. Ted, the unearthing of these sessions would undoubtedly be escorted by the sounds of singing angels and burbling children. Take that as a hint, bubba.
The Christmas traditional "Greensleeves" was recorded the fall of 1993 for inclusion on the annual Flagpole Magazine Christmas compilation entitled "Red Headed Stepchild Of The Flagpole Christmas Album." The next Harvey Milk single was, yet again, another split single between them and then-recent-Atlanta-transplants The Martians (whose second drummer would later come to join Harvey Milk). A split release between Self Rising and Reservation, the 200 copies pressed were given out exclusively with $5 admission to a 40 Watt show in early 1994. The show was significant as one of the few times that "All The Live Long Day" was performed complete with Creston's sledgehammer solo! During the spring of 1994, the band holed themselves up in Brooks Carter's studio to record what became their first full length "My Love Is Higher Than Your Assessment Of What My Love Could Be" for the Yesha label out of North Carolina. On April Fool's Day of that year, the band made a once-in-a-lifetime performance of lovingly deconstructing REM's "Reckoning" at the Shoebox on Washington Ave. Their renditions of "Harborcoat", "Camera," "Pretty Persuasion" and others were committed to a board tape which regretfully disappeared years ago. A year later at the same venue, a similar event happened when the band performed an entire set of Hank Williams tunes. Most obviously, their choice, and said performance, of cover material was flawless. You couldn't say these guys were anything if not consummate music afficionados.
1995 signaled what would be the band's most productive year to date. The band recorded what would be known as their finest moment in the studio, namely "Courtesy And Goodwill Towards Men" for Reproductive Records out of Boston. Apart from a tour with Shellac in March, subsequent singles were recorded for Atlanta's Half Baked Records and Florida's Figurehead Records. Whereas the Half Baked single would linger in singles bins for a few years (a rarity amongst other Harvey Milk releases), the Figurehead single was impossible to find even immediately after it hit stores. After a tour with GodheadSilo in early 1996, this incarnation of The Milk would vanish from the radar screen at a house party with fellow Athenians The Martians, Jucifer and Hayride on the bill. As I remember, Harvey Milk didn't even go on stage until 3 in the morning and a bottle of absinthe was casually passed through the cheek-by-jowl crowd. Hayride finished their set as the sun rose that Saturday morning. But Christ, those were the days.
As I'm sure you've no doubt noticed, I've not discussed what Harvey Milk actually sounds like. Seeing as how you've opened this CD and are reading these notes, I would hope that it would be intuitive to have already placed the enclosed platter in your hi-fi and listen for yourself. Harvey Milk were a treasure amidst a sea of nothing during their lifespan, and their second incarnation (aka Harvey Milk 2.0) burned out quickly leaving the band's legacy in a handful of records scattered among the hands of only a few die-hard fans. Their singles were savage and abbreviated while their full lengths embraced the abstract and constitute musical Chinese water torture to the uninitiated. And true to their personal (read: absent minded) ways, the material on this release was neither culled from their master tapes nor their own copies of these releases (none of it was kept for safe keeping, if you can believe that), but rather taken from my own personal stash at the recommendation of Creston. Kid no one, I consider my Harvey Milk records as rare as hen's teeth. The mere act of finding many of these releases even when they originally came out was next to impossible. Hell, even though I had entree with the band, my copy of the Figurehead single wasn't found until about a year ago at the Wuxtry in Atlanta after sifting the singles bins for over five years. As awkward as it sounds, Athens reinvents itself every four years. Once a whole new batch of undergrads comes in, the wheels of change are in motion. That, of course, is the utter charm of the city. However, and this can't really be seen as anything other than an inherent fault in such a youth-oriented town, this also allows the giants of Athens bygone days to slip thru the cracks. Ask somebody at WUOG who Harvey Milk is and you might be lucky if you get little more than a grunt of acknowledgement. Even more recent Athens accomplishments could get that sort of treatment, so it can't be seen as anybody's fault. Remember, the early 90's were a barren wasteland in the Classic City.
Although the locals genuflected before Harvey Milk like the gods they were, it was hard to get anybody else to care. They had Flagpole writers in their back pocket, the clubs gave them any Friday or Saturday night they requested, but many times, their turnouts were less than stellar. So what happened after Harvey Milk ended, you ask? Following the band, Steven and Kyle went to LA for an attempted career at being a session musicians. Kyle Spence is in the Atlanta band The Tom Collins, and Steven has been sighted in Portland, Oregon and New York City and has performed with Bad Wizard. Paul went on to play brushes for Vic Chestnutt (among others) and is currently finishing up his studies in artifact preservation at the University of Georgia. Creston finished up schooling at the University around the end of the band and moved to the burbs above Atlanta to become a music teacher. His current musical endeavor, Mother, has one full length recorded and soon to be released and also has Pauly on drums if only playing in a more conventional capacity than in Harvey Milk.
Looking back on their career, it is somewhat disappointing that the now comparatively 'famous' pop bands of the Athens music scene (who were just cutting their teeth during HM's heyday) don't have more brutal counterparts like Harvey Milk to keep them in check. Not that noise rock isn't still embraced in Athens, but it's a pity that the butcher with the sharpest knives decided to call it quits. What is most endearing about the history of Harvey Milk is to see where their fans are on the globe (I recently met one from Antwerp, Belgium!), and also to see how fervent they are in the love of the band even though much of it wasn't exhibited during their career. If you were lucky enough to see them when they were around, I'm sure you understand when I say they were unquestionably the best band on the planet the night you'd see Harvey Milk. Hopefully, this collection of tracks will shed some light on that fact.
Harvey Milk is dead. Long live Harvey Milk.
- Henry H. Owings/Chunklet Magazine 10 April 2003