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••• The International Writers Magazine: Reunion in Nashville

Nashville Skyline
• Duncan Shaw
So, why was I going to Nashville? Why would I try for a year to make this happen: after two prior dates didn't work out (December 2016 and June 2017), I made sure the third time was the charm (December 2017), but why?


Using my powers of persuasion to sell my three older daughters (ages 23, 21 and 19) on the idea of accompanying me on an 8-hour car ride to Music City – or as the locals and bumper stickers say, Nash-Vegas – why my crazy motivation with them?

My wife's great, but she's not so into music scenes; and my youngest daughter's great, but she's just too young (age 11). So it would be me and the other three, my music buddies of the last few years.

The main reason we were going was to see my best friend from college, “Raoul Shakey” or “RS” (a false name for my friend who’s profoundly real yet I use it to protect his guilt and his dignity), who I hadn't seen in about 30 years. RS is a Nashville native and now a bigwig lawyer, but he and I used to pal around a lot in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, USA, at the university there, near where I still live. We'd often spend Friday nights together, beginning the evening in his room reading issues of Rolling Stone and listening to lesser known albums of our favorite artist / hero, Neil Young (e.g., Tonight's the Night). Then we'd go out and head uptown to Franklin Street and its various watering holes.

Highlights from those days and nights include seeing the great music doc The Last Waltz; a Talking Heads concert during their famous "Speaking in Tongues" tour; a massive triple-concert at D.C.'s RFK Stadium, on a Saturday and repeated Sunday with over a hundred-thousand fans each day, to take in Tom Petty (& the Heartbreakers) and Dylan and the Dead.

And speaking of the Talking Heads, their former frontman, art-rock legend David Byrne, has a new solo album getting rave reviews (American Utopia; I saw him perform it in May in Atlanta at the Shaky Knees festival). Legends like Neil and Byrne don't fade away; rather, they reincarnate and reinvent and reappear . . .

Back in the day, I admired RS for many reasons. One was his erudition combined with his vigorous pursuit of "good times". He combined the skill set of analyzing T.S. Eliot poems ("The Waste Land", of all things) with a connoisseurship of hallucinogenic mushrooms. He wrote a hundred-page honors thesis analyzing the novels of Thomas Hardy, titling his paper "Song of the Goldfinch: Failed Communication in Hardy's Novels" – as he explained to me at the time, said song being a symbol in literature of said failed communication. Only RS could have taught me these things, in combination.

To be honest, I had fears anticipating our reunion in Nashville after three decades of being apart: had I physically changed (to an uncomfortable degree); had his personality changed (in college, how well did I REALLY know him); would he even like me anymore (a sadness as sung by Dylan, say, in a song like "Girl from the North Country" from his album Nashville Skyline)?

Traveling to see RS by car, I was reminded, after the fact, of Hunter S. Thompson in his book Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. A little like Thompson and his crazy car companion in that story, screaming through the California desert on their way to Sin City, my girls and I were rocketing through rural Tennessee on our way to Nash-Vegas (sans the Thompson drugs).

And when we finally got to Nashville after eight tiring hours, RS, like Thompson decades before him, completely took over the wheel and created an unforgettable time. Frantic and frenetic, manic and maniacal, it was like 30 years of pent-up anticipation came pouring out of him in a gushing blast of boisterous Raoul-ness.

He was, aura-wise, everywhere at once. His mind and his body worked with enormous energy as our tour guide, rushing around the downtown with us, both on foot and in his car, parking and perusing and then back again in the car for the next stop. He drove us rapid-fire through the city streets from place to place, beginning with Jack White's Third Man Records and ending, about eight hours later, with various pit stops in hipster East Nashville. In between were beers and food and tremendous catching-up laughs.

One of the places on our tour was Mercy Lounge to see the Nashville-based band, Bully, but we were denied because my nineteen-year-old needed to be twenty-one. Another band, indie-rock outfit The Wild Reeds, who I've been trying to turn RS onto and whose label is East Nashville-based Dualtone, played that same club in April.

At last we parted ways with RS, with hopeful plans to hook up again the next day, but it didn't work out. Yet the girls and I saw a ton of stuff on our own, and had a great time anyway.

Speaking of "shrooms" and Bully and Third Man, at that store, our first stop, RS chatted up one of the staff, and he happened to have in his pocket a Nashville Scene write-up of Bully's previous night performance; and this particular female employee just happened to have shot that story's photos. And we read the write-up and praised her pictures, and while sidling away from them I heard him say to her, apropos of I never found out, something about it being 30 years since he last did mushrooms.

That store scene set the tone for the tour, and to our merriment generated our catchphrase for the night: "the stars are aligning" . . .

Watching RS in tour-guide mode, I was reminded, again after the fact, of a scene in The Great Gatsby, when the character Myrtle Wilson is described (more aura than actual) as moving like a whining top spinning at top speed. Also while hoofing it that night, I remember feeling that my heart was willing, but my hamstring was killing.

In the 2006 Jonathan Demme music doc about Neil Young (Heart of Gold), Neil discusses the city of Nashville, where the film was made, and how the skyline has changed over the decades because of new buildings. And he wondered aloud what Hank Williams would have thought, after stepping out of the Ryman after an Opry show where he played in the early '50s, and from the street looking up and around today at this new skyline, with its "Batman Building" (AT&T building). But Neil says that while the architecture may have changed, the city's spirit is the same.

Same with RS and me: different look after decades apart, but same spirit. Same crazy spirit.

© Duncan Shaw June 2018

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