So, why was I going to Nashville? An 8-hour car ride with my three oldest daughters to Music City, or as the locals and bumper stickers say, Nash-Vegas.
My wife’s great, but she’s not so into music scenes; and my youngest’s great, but she’s just too young (age 11). So it would be me and the other three (23, 21 and 19), 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,” (an alias to protect his guilt and dignity) whom I hadn’t seen in 30 years. RS is a Nashville native and now a bigwig lawyer, but he and I used to pal around at UNC, near where I still live. We’d often spend Friday nights together, beginning in his room reading Rolling Stone and listening to lesser-known albums of our favorite artist/hero, Neil Young (“Tonight’s the Night”). Then we’d head uptown to Franklin Street.
Back in the day, I admired RS for many reasons. One was his erudition combined with his vigorous pursuit of good times. He could analyze T.S. Eliot (“The Waste Land”) with a connoisseurship of hallucinogenic mushrooms. He wrote a hundred-page honors thesis analyzing 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.
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To be honest, I had fears anticipating our reunion: Had I physically changed? Had his personality changed? Would he even like me anymore?
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, 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 rushed us around downtown on foot and in his car, parking and perusing and then back in the car for the next stop. He drove us rapid-fire 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 19-year-old needed to be 21.
Speaking of “shrooms” and Bully and Third Man, at that store, 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’s performance; and this particular 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 had last done mushrooms.
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 “Heart of Gold,” Neil Young discusses Nashville, where the film was made, and how the skyline has changed 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, 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 lives in Hillsborough.