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Interview: Willy DeVille Part Two

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This is the second part of an interview with Willy DeVille. Part one was published yesterday.

I used to really like the work of Tom Waits back in the late seventies and early eighties, that sort of trash can jazzy/blues, and I was thinking there were similarities in your music, maybe not style, but intent.

Yeah? Maybe it’s something about the band and how we work together; when we set up on stage it’s not with the audience in mind, but so that we can see each other, and look around and have fun… if we’re not having fun, nobody else is going to have fun are they. So we want to be in contact with each other all the time.

Tom’s music is like that too, there’s that quality of being really tight, but so tight that you’re loose.

I want to tell you something about Tom. Back in 1980 I was banned in Boston. I had done something or other foolish, and this guy, a booking agent who if you pissed off could guarantee you’d never work Boston, said “Willy DeVille will never work Boston again.” Well Tom was playing in Cambridge Mass. and we were traveling with him. Tom refused to go on, not only if we weren’t allowed to play, but also if we didn’t get equal billing. He really put his balls to the wall for us. This agent guy was making this huge fuss about it, but Tom just said “Willy gets equal billing or I don’t play.” So they gave us equal billing.

Can you do me a favour, I want you to say thank you to Tom from me in what you’re writing. I want that out there. A lot of people don’t understand where Tom’s coming from, with some of his stuff, but I think when you’re an artist you just aren’t going to be satisfied with doing the same stuff over and over again. You want to do something new to surprise people with. Whether they like it or hate it…

One of the first teachers I had always talked about making people have an opinion, you don’t want anybody being ambivalent about your work

You had a good teacher

The last thing you want to hear is that your work is “nice”.

Yeah that’s for sure. You know and that’s what people have got to understand about anybody who’s serious about this stuff, it may sound selfish, but we can’t keep doing the same stuff over and over again. We need to keep trying different things.

The curse of originality

Yeah (laughs) I’m a singer/songwriter, and the front man, so I have to deal with all these different facets, taking the flak and so on. It’s hard to keep the passion going sometimes, and if you can’t keep changing it up, it would be damn near impossible.

Why did you leave New York for New Orleans

I was tired of being ‘Willy DeVille’, walking out of my building and having to be the guy who was up on stage all the time, even when I wasn’t performing. I wanted to get away from that. So I got down there and it was this famous guy had come to town, and I didn’t want that. So I decided to do an album with a bunch of the musicians from down there, the music of New Orleans.

People like Dr, John, Eddie Bo, Champion Jack Dupuis and all sorts of others. Victory Mixture is still one of the albums I’m proudest of; I think its one of the best records I’ve ever done. And you know what; I don’t think there’s more than one or two originals on it. It’s all old stuff, music from New Orleans

I remember as a kid I used to go see these shows where there would be like four or five bands on a bill, and it was great, and I thought wouldn’t that be a great thing to do. So I got in touch with all these guys I had made the record with and we did this great tour of Europe.

The travel, buses, and planes; and the accommodations had to be some of the worst I’ve ever experienced, but the shows themselves were great. At the end of each show we’d throw Mardi-Gras rows out to the audience, you know strands of purple and gold beads, and they’d never seen anything like it and they loved it.

You do a lot over in Europe, what’s the attraction?

Well I don’t want to sound like one of those guys kvetching, but have you seen what’s on the charts over here?

Wait a moment I have gotten something written down, where is it, yeah, here: ‘Striving for Mediocrity’.

(laughter) Yeah, that’s it. I mean over there they still talk about Eddie Cochran and all the great old stuff as if it’s still alive. There’s a passion that’s missing too often over here.

You recorded Le Chat Bleu in Paris because of your liking for Edith Piaff, is that right?

Yeah partially, but it was for the chance to work with some incredible people as well. Charles Dumont who had written a lot of the music for Edith, and Doc Pomus. You know the first day I walked into the studio and they were working with an orchestra, and I heard the strings playing one of my songs. I had to go into the bathroom and shed a tear. Seeing these guys playing their instruments, with long white hair hanging down over their collars, looking like what classical musicians are supposed to look like, doing a song I wrote, really got to me.

When I did this album I wanted to make music that would stand the test of time. I take what I do seriously, but at the same time I have fun making every album I do. If that’s not there, if you’re not enjoying the album how can you expect anyone else to? It may sound selfish but I’m playing the music I want to, and everyone else can kiss off as far as I’m concerned.

On Le Chat Blue we had all these great people involved, you know, and we thought we had something great. I came back to America, and my label at that time said, “well we think we should put it on the shelf for a while.” This was right before Christmas for God’s sake, when you know people are going to be buying stuff, so I asked them what the problem was?

They said they had never heard anything like it before and didn’t know what to do with it. We had Charles Dumont, Elvis’s goddamned rhythm section, and they say they’ve never heard anything like it. I was heartbroken and angry. Finally Maxine from my distributor in France phones and he says, Willy what’s going on? So I told him.

He said don’t worry we’ll release it over here. We did, and then it became a matter of not what are we going to do with Willy Deville, but who the hell let him get away. As an import it was wracking up great sales here. Capital finally went and released a copy of it, but never did too much work on it.

I remembered what Nietzsche said, which was he never could understand why they had signed us in the first place. They were the Beatles and the Beach Boys, safe bands, and they hired a bunch of guys who looked like street toughs who looked like they were going to kill them. (He laughs)

I wanted to ask you about the album you made with Mark Knopfler, I can’t remember its title (“Miracle” Willy supplied) how did that come about? Was he assigned to produce you by your label or did it come about some other way?

It was Mark’s wife Lourdes who came up with the idea. She said to him that you don’t sing like Willy and he doesn’t play guitar like you,

Nobody plays guitar like him.

That’s for sure, but you really like his stuff so why don’t you do an album together?

So I went over to London to do this album. It wasn’t easy because we didn’t want it to sound like a Dire Straits’ album, and his guitar playing is so unique that it was hard to do. But nothing good is going to be easy. I know that I spent the whole time really trying to impress Mark, I wanted it to be good.

But, yeah it was his wife Lourdes who was responsible more than anyone else for that album. She’s a really great lady, really nice. I still really like that album, especially “Southern Politician”.

In an interview with you on theLive In The Lowlands DVD you talked about Mark’s reaction to the song “Storybook Love”…

Oh yeah that was funny. I played him what I had and he looked at me and said how did you know about that. I said what, and he said that he was working on a movie with Rob Reiner called the Princess Bride and I’d just written a song that told the story. He got on the phone and phoned Rob and told him, and Reiner said to get it out to him as soon as possible. So we did it up rough and sent it off and he loved it.

The next thing I know I’m standing backstage and listening to Dudley Moore and Liza Manelli introduce me before going out to sing “Storybook Song” at the Oscars. There I was standing backstage with Tom Selleck and Karl Malden, waiting to onstage. It was weird…

Yeah I saw that awards show, I think I watched it just to see you. I remember thinking wow, and to quote a line from the movie My Cousin Vinnie“Oh and you blend (laughter)

Yeah it was a really strange experience. But you know Tom Selleck was really nice. When I got off stage he leaned over and squeezed my knee and said “you did great.” That was really nice of him you know. Malden was a little more standoffish. I went up to him afterwards to tell him how much I liked his work and he just kept saying, “That’s so nice of you to say that”. But I guess if you’re always getting that, it must be tiring (pause) I wouldn’t know. (laughter)

Well I guess I should be letting you go soon, but I wanted just to find out what you’ve got planned for the future. When I saw you in the DVD you were walking with a cane and in some pain, and I was hoping that’s nothing permanent.

No that was just temporary, I had to have hip replacement surgery, which is a bitch to recover from but now it’s pretty much better. I got to tell you I’m in the best shape I think I’ve been in my entire life. You know I’ve got to keep exercising the leg to help it heal so I go for walks every day, and, I bet you never thought you’d hear this coming out of Willy DeVille’s mouth, I’ve been thinking of going to the “Y” to work out. (laughs)

We’ve never been to Japan or Australia, so we want to do a tour of those countries. I’ve got a little sister who lives out in Australia who I haven’t seen in ages, so I’d like to see her. There aren’t many of the family left any more, so that would be a good thing. Anyway she’s so proud of her big brother.

Nina (his wife) and I can make a trip to Japan into our second Honeymoon. I’ve wanted to go out there before but the idea of the travel was just too much.

Yeah I just saw Arlo Guthrie in concert and he talked about his recent tour out to Australia. He said the trip was brutal. Fifteen hours stuck in a little cabin breathing bad air.

Oh shit and I thought you were about to tell me it wasn’t that bad.(Laughs) It doesn’t matter. You know there are people there who want to see us, so I figure we owe it to them to come over and do our music for them (Author’s note: I’ve since learnt that it’s an Australian record company, Raven, that’s been responsible for re-releasing a lot of Willy’s older material, with all sorts of bonus features.)

I’ve also been working on a book. It’s about all the people I’ve known who are no longer around, the ones that didn’t make it for one reason or another. It’s going to be funny, but it’s also going to be dark at the same time. These were all friends of mine and they were great people, but well things happened. So I want to write about them, and tell their stories.

That reminds me about something else, you know I look at pictures of you now and they’re so different from ones 20 years ago. You don’t look as angry, more at peace.

I’m more comfortable in my own skin now than I have ever been. So that could be it.

Whatever it is, it hasn’t diminished your passion. Where does that come from?

My passion comes from my music, which is an expression of the passion I feel from making music. There’s this feeling you get of absolute silence when you know that the crowd are listening, and that silence is louder than anything else I’ve ever heard in my life. Those are my moments of absolute bliss. I feel sorry for people who can’t feel those moments of euphoria. But in order to feel passion you have to be passionate about something in the first place. For me that’s music.

Thanks Willy, this has been great

Thank you, I hope we can get up to Canada sometime

Me too

So, there it is, as best as I can piece it all together, two hours of conversation and thoughts with Willy DeVille on the telephone one Saturday afternoon in May. There’s a lot of stuff that he asked I not talk about, and I had no problem with that, because it was just conversation between two people about stuff that had nothing to do with anybody else.

There were quite a few times where I wasn’t making notes of any kind or even thinking about what I was doing as an “Interview.” I was having a conversation with a very interesting, intelligent, and aware human being. Those are few and far between enough that I can appreciate them for just that. The truly hard part was remembering that on occasion I should be writing things down.

I’ve rearranged our conversation so that it works in a more uniform interview sense, so Willy, if you end up ever reading this, that’s why it seems different from how we talked on the phone. I’ve done my best to recreate what was said as exactly as possible, and I hope I got it right. Apologies if I didn’t.

Thank you Willy DeVille for an incredible two hours. I don’t know if something as two dimensional as words on a computer screen can capture someone as alive as Willy DeVille. But I hope that all of you who read this can experience at least a little of what I felt while talking to him.

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About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site Qantara.de. He has been writing for Blogcritics.org since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.
  • http://elvirablack.blogspot.com/ Elvira Black

    Terrific piece, Richard! Willy sounds like an incredible guy.

  • BJ Drwenski

    Great article Richard….it was just what a Montana woman starving for more Willy info needed!

  • Sue Few

    Just read your interview with Willy – great! I interviewed him at the beginning of this year, on the telephone, and I had to stop the interview early on for a moment because I FORGOT in was an interview, I felt as tho I was talking to an old friend…Willy understood, “You are…” which made me feel more comfortable and able to continue. He is smart, generous and kind & fun! – had so many interesting things to talk about – mainly his music and what he wants to do next. Your interview brought out the best in him…..thank you!
    Sue Few