Whenever a dear friend steps onto the bus for the great gig in the sky, the introspective part of my psyche embarks on a period of reflection. Reflection upon not just the life of my friend, but what he meant to me, and me to him.
Dave Bliss Cloud was my friend. He wasn’t an East Nashvillian — he was a lifelong resident of the Hillsboro Village neighborhood. But he embodied what most would agree is a quintessential quality of East Nashvillians — Dave Cloud was one of a kind.
The notoriety he found in the last decade or so of his life was thrilling to Dave. He loved it. He would have loved the issue of the Nashville Scene that hit the streets the day after his funeral — the one with him gracing the cover. He’d be beaming with pride, making the most of it while playing it down. It wasn’t always that way, his cult status.
I first met Dave in 1980. Or was it ’81? He’d remember — his memory was insanely accurate. I’m not sure if it was a chance encounter or if legendary local deejay Hunter Harvey introduced us. Either way, Dave and I hit it off immediately. An early conversation revolved around the finer points of Stelazine versus Thorazine, which are heavy-duty psychotropics Dave was taking. He struggled with mental illness for much of his life, which didn’t diminish him one iota. In fact, it was Dave’s unequaled generosity of spirit, coupled with the depth of his love for others that allowed him to lead an incredibly rich and productive life in spite of his illness.
How he presented this to other people he knew, I don’t know, but he made no bones about it to me. And that was that. I didn’t care, but I saw how other people reacted to him and treated him, and it was occasionally heartbreaking. He never let it show to me, but knowing how desperately he wanted to be loved, I know it affected him. It should be said, however, that Dave’s desire to be loved was overshadowed by his ability to love.
Dave’s love was unconditional. If you were his friend — which automatically meant that he loved you — then that was it. No judgment. No agenda. No expectations. No nothing. You were his friend and that was all that mattered.
Particularly fond memories surround the times Dave, Hunter, and I spent together. There was always something afoot when the two of them were around, and it was usually spontaneous and surreal. They taught me how to not think too much; that life was much more nonlinear than meets the eye. They affirmed what I’d always suspected — that joy doesn’t come from possessing things, and that life is art. They were unselfconscious and iconoclastic. I’m not sure if God makes people like that anymore, and if he does, they’re probably drugged into some societal idea of normalcy.
I only got to play one show with Dave. Somewhere back in the early ’80s, I had a girlfriend attending Vanderbilt Law School whose roommate was chair of the Law School social committee. They asked if I could provide the entertainment for the Halloween dance, and, since there was a lot of money involved, I said, “Sure!” At that point, I’m not certain I’d even heard Dave sing, but I asked if he wanted to do the show, and he said, “Sure!” Jerry Dale McFadden somehow got roped in on piano — it turned out to be the first live show in Nashville for each of them. Along with Todd Gatewood on bass, we formed the legendary Big Red Rooster & The Cocks. Luckily I’d just moved an upright piano into the spare room of my apartment, so we were good to go for rehearsals.
Three days before the show, we had four songs down, with parts of 10 or so others kinda, sorta down, and an obligation to play three 45-minute sets. I was mortified, but no one else seemed worried. Sons of Zevon we weren’t. By the night of the show, we were ready to rock with about 15 minutes worth of material. The dance was being held at the Peabody recital hall, the building with the round dome visible throughout Hillsboro Village. Prior to the show, some unsuspecting sorority type approached me and said, “I hope you guys aren’t too loud. The band that played last year was too loud.” I looked her squarely in the eyes and said, “Honey, that should be the least of your worries.”
Meanwhile, Dave was backstage regaling the boys with stories about the psychic implications of quantum physics, and everyone was laughing so hard concerns about only knowing four songs soon evaporated. So we took to the stage in front of 300-or-so law students and their dates, all in full Halloween regalia, and broke into “Wild Thing.” Time passed quickly, but I do remember looking up and noticing the entire crowd was standing against the far wall, as far away as they could possibly get … from us.
That disconcerting image troubled me slightly during our first intermission, but it seemed to have enlivened Dave, for during the next set he pulled out all the stops. I no longer noticed the crowd, because all the action was on the stage. Dave began writhing on the floor, fellating the mic, sticking the mic down his pants, and taunting the crowd. This seemed to inspire Jerry Dale. His piano was practically inaudible through the din of the band, so he was walking across the keyboard in his cowboy boots and generally behaving like Little Richard on a bad acid trip.
Somewhere into our third set, during our fourth or fifth or maybe sixth rendition of “Wild Thing,” the entire room seemed to have been teleported into another dimension. By that point, the crowd was packed up against the stage, all eyes glued on Dave, writhing and jerking right along with him in some kind of primordial dance of ecstasy. To say it was surreal would be an understatement, and I’ve never experienced anything quite like it since.
Backstage after the final set, we were laughing and wondering how the hell we’d just pulled that one off, when the same girl who was worried about us being too loud came into the room and said, “You guys were amazing! Please, please do one more.” We all looked at each other, and without missing a beat, said in unison, “Wild Thing?”
By the end of the ’90s, Hunter had moved to Asheville, N.C., and I was trying to be a grownup. I’m pretty sure I failed at being a grownup, because that was never really a goal of mine to begin with. Dave just kept being Dave. One of coolest things about him was he was always himself. For the last 15 years or so, Matt Swanson, the extraordinary bass player from Lambchop, curated Dave’s musical life through the vehicle of Dave Cloud & The Gospel of Power. Thanks to Matt’s ability to (sort of) corral him and pull things together, Dave eventually began making records. He even toured Europe a couple of times. Matt told me recently “Dave’s my Iggy.” I get that, because Dave was totally a punk rock original.