The Southern music mecca of Chapel Hill, N.C., was rocked in 1991 when an enigmatic but soft-spoken communist bookstore owner and beloved member of the community, Bob Sheldon, was murdered while closing up shop for the night. The police have always maintained the killing was the result of a “botched robbery,” but many suspect it was a political assassination. The murder sent shock waves through the liberal activist and art/music scenes in Chapel Hill, and the ensuing investigation (or lack thereof) created more questions than answers. To this day, Bob Sheldon’s murder remains unsolved. North Carolina native Emil Amos reopens the bizarre case for CREEM and explains how it later ended up being referenced in a Sonic Youth song.
Chapel Hill, N.C., was an embarrassment of cultural riches in the 1980s and ’90s. The music subculture was essentially one big family where everyone knew each other, fed off each other’s energy, and watched closely to see where the movement would lead. One of the greatest college radio stations in the country, WXYC, acted as the lightning rod for the town’s music scene, and the profusion of local bands boasted their own autonomous language that created a curiosity around the country as hardcore college radio listeners struggled to grasp how groups as diverse as Polvo, Superchunk, Flat Duo Jets, Archers of Loaf, Special Agents of Her Majesty’s Secret Cervix, and the Squirrel Nut Zippers could all be from the same tiny town. Music and art thrived in Chapel Hill to such an extent that the media began proclaiming that it was “the next Seattle.” It was an open and vibrant community.
But amid the rich cultural charm of the Triangle—the area comprising Raleigh, Chapel Hill, and Durham—lay a darker element.
Bill Mooney, then a young designer from Raleigh (and now a longtime member of Sonic Youth’s circle), explains: “There were still Klan marches in downtown Raleigh in the early 1980s. There was the Greensboro massacre in 1979 where members of the Ku Klux Klan shot and killed five participants in an anti-Klan march organized by the Communist Workers’ Party. The first civil rights lunch-counter sit-in was in Greensboro. So most of the good stuff was in reaction to, or just existing alongside, the really terrible stuff. Like Austin, Texas, or Athens, Georgia, the liberal and truly fun Triangle music scene was a free zone in the middle of a very Southern, very conservative state.”