February 27, 2013

R.E.M. Lawyer Bertis Downs Talks Music and Education

Photo Credit: Jason Thrasher

Bertis Downs had a front-row seat to local legends R.E.M.'s 30-year career as one of the most influential and popular rock bands in the world. So, when people had the opportunity to ask him anything, what did they want to know about? Education.

Downs sat down with Willson Center for Humanities and Arts Director Nicholas Allen at the Chapel for a public conversation Feb. 18. They touched on Downs' upbringing and R.E.M.'s rise to fame, but mostly focused on his current passion: public schools.

Downs, the son of a Presbyterian minister, was raised in West Virginia, Taiwan and Clarkston, GA, before going off to Davidson College in North Carolina, then the University of Georgia School of Law. (He nearly picked Vanderbilt, but UGA's tuition was lower.)

Originally, Downs wanted to help the poor, perhaps by becoming a public defender. He was profoundly affected by a summer job creating a recreation program for inmates at the Fulton County Jail at age 18. The same summer in the mid-1970s, he also worked as bellhop at a Midtown Atlanta hotel where the Rolling Stones stayed. 

"I was amazed that these old guys—30, 32—were still doing it," he said. "I was kind of in awe."

By the time he got his law degree, President Reagan was in office and cutting funding for programs like Legal Aid, so Downs took a job grading papers at the UGA law school. At night, he would go out and partake of Athens' nascent music scene.

"I was able to stay up later in those days," he said.

Downs hooked up with his friends in a new band called R.E.M. around 1981 and became their lawyer, then their manager. (He had bonded with guitarist Peter Buck over Neil Young at Wuxtry Records.) Starting with their first LP, Chronic Town, in 1983, each subsequent record sold a little better, and the band played bigger and bigger venues on each tour until, in 1988, they left the indie label IRS for Warner Bros. It was a calculated risk for the major label, Downs said, but executives left the band alone because they had a track record of success.

An 11-month worldwide tour behind Green in 1989—the album is slated for a 25th anniversary reissue in May—almost killed the band, so when Out of Time came out in 1991, they decided not to tour. And they had their biggest hit with the mandolin-driven "Losing My Religion." So, they stayed home after releasing Automatic for the People, too. 

But R.E.M. had other promotional strategies, Downs said, like playing MTV's "Unplugged," that worked well. "They were always aware of the way they wanted to present themselves," he said. To them, popularity was a means to an end; it allowed them to write songs and play music.

One particular memory that stood out, Downs said, was holding his daughter on his shoulders and watching the band play the Live Eight benefit in London in 2005 with Paul McCartney and U2, then flying to Switzerland for a concert six hours later. 

"Pack it all in; figure it out," he said. "It's kind of hard to top that."

When it came time for audience questions, though, no one asked about Michael Stipe's cryptic lyrics or how the music industry has changed over the decades. They wanted Downs' opinions on education.

Downs and R.E.M. were always interested in politics. They'd bankrolled Gwen O'Looney's upset mayoral campaign in 1990 and went on to contribute to progressive candidates at all levels of government. Downs said he gave up politics out of frustration three or four years ago, though, and decided to tackle a single issue: education, something he's simultaneously optimistic and pessimistic about.

"I've never felt better about our local situation, our local schools," he said. "But I've never been more concerned about these sort of clouds coming in from the west on a macro level."

He pointed to a community garden at the old West Broad School and the H.T. Edwards complex—home to the alternative Classic City Performance Learning Center, Whatever It Takes and the Boys & Girls Club—as perhaps little-known evidence that the local school district is headed in the right direction.

Downs' children attend Clarke Central High School and Chase Street Elementary School, and they've had great experiences, he said.

On the state level, it's a different matter. For example, some legislators have proposed expanding tax credits for private school tuition, which Downs said is draining millions of dollars from public schools.

Downs was also opposed to a constitutional amendment voters approved last year allowing charter school proponents to bypass local school boards and go to a state commission for approval. He criticized further efforts to impose charter schools on communities, such as a "parent trigger" bill in the legislature this year that would force school boards to consider parents' petitions to convert schools to the charter model. The idea is also being pushed in other statehouses by the corporate-funded conservative group ALEC.

"How can you not be in favor of choice?" he said. "Then you see what the effects are... It's an overall weakening of local schools."

Downs was also part of a group of parents who took out ads in local media outlets last year attempting to shame state lawmakers for cutting education funding to the tune of about $15 million in Clarke County alone. If funding continues to decline, he asked, who will ever go into teaching? 

"I want teachers who are respected, who are paid, who have professional development," he said.

In the end, Downs said he wants "good schools for all kids," a bumper-sticker slogan meaning good teachers, reasonable class sizes, decent facilities and engaged parents. Athens has those ingredients, he said—but not everywhere does.