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Willy DeVille and How to Write a Biography

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There are two ways of looking at a blank page if you’re a writer; either as an opportunity or as an indication of how bereft you are of ideas. Sometimes you can stare at the blankness, and even though you know what you want to write, the challenge its empty visage presents renders you speechless. That first word you put down on the page will commit you to the attempt of beginning something new, and sometimes finding the courage to begin, to overcome your uncertainties, is too much and you simply walk away, either putting the pen down without writing a word or closing the word processor with nothing to save.

It was in early 2009 that I first suggested the idea of writing a biography of Willy DeVille to his wife Nina. Willy had just been diagnosed with Hepatitis C and would be spending the next while undergoing a series of treatments to help his body recover. As he had been forced to cancel all his recording and touring obligations I had thought that he and I could work on it together over the winter. He could record thoughts on tape and I could start writing them out. However before anything could come of it I received an offer to work on another project, which was to begin almost immediately and ended up taking up all my time until nearly June 2009.

I’ve written elsewhere about the events of this past spring, of Nina writing me in May of 2009 to let me know Willy had been diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer, which is as close to a death sentence that you can be given without a court order from a judge in Texas. So when I was finally able to bring up the subject of Willy recording a few notes about his life for me to use it was already June and he wasn’t even well enough to do that. The drugs he was taking for the pain, and the cancer itself, were not only sapping his strength, but stealing his brain.

However, Nina gave me the go-ahead to work on a biography, saying that Willy had liked my writing and really, really liked me and it would be an honour if I could put it together. That was a bit overwhelming, believe me; I go asking permission to write Willy’s biography and not only does Nina say yes but makes it sound like I’m doing them a favour. I knew Willy had been pleased with how our interviews had turned out, had liked the reviews I had written of a couple of his CDs and DVDs, and the liner notes I had written for another DVD, but this was a little more than that. However, after I got over the initial burst of “Wow”, the sense of responsibility set in. Nina was entrusting me to preserve her husband’s legacy.

The thing is, I don’t even like most biographies. I find the format of repeating what other people have had to say about somebody in order to create a portrait of a person to be annoying. I know I’m exaggerating, but it ends up feeling like you’re reading one long series of “he said this and did that” which doesn’t allow you to get to know the subject. So the first thing I decided was that there was no way I was going to write a book like that. However, what are the alternatives?

Of course no matter what the format, the research still has to be done to fill in the gaps in my knowledge. Luckily for me people began to contact me over the summer with their stories about Willy. In June I had taken it upon myself to begin a petition to have Willy considered for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which required that one of my email addresses be made public. As a result various people began to contact me to talk about Willy. Nobody knew about the plans for the biography at the time, it was more they were looking for a sympathetic ear to talk about what he meant to them. Amongst those who contacted me were people who had known Willy when he was still Billy Borsey from Stamford, Connecticut, and they’ve proven to not only be valuable for the information they have been able to provide, but as moral support for the process.

There have been other people from all over North America and Europe who have been equally generous with their memories and even photographs, a great many of which have never appeared in print before. Some may have appeared on websites, but none of them have been published in the pages of a book. Most important of all, I’ve started to hear from musicians Willy played with over the years – people who were in bands with him before Mink DeVille, members of Mink DeVille from the CBGBs days, and people who played with him on his last tour of Europe in the summer of 2008. It doesn’t seem to matter if they played with him for twenty years or toured with him once – he still made enough of an impression for them to want to talk about him.

The raw material is being assembled: pages and pages of people’s thoughts and memories and transcripts of old interviews; audio and video tapes of interviews that he gave on various radio stations and for television shows; and of course his music – some sixteen CDs worth of original recordings plus greatest-hits packages, his contributions to collections commemorating people as diverse as Edith Piaf and Johnny Thunders, and the vast assortment of recordings that have been uploaded onto YouTube since his death. Somewhere within all of this is the story of Willy DeVille, and it will now be a matter of finding the connecting threads and tying them all together in a coherent fashion so I can relate it to readers.

Which brings me back to that blank page I mentioned in the first paragraph. The sensible thing would be to create an outline – a chapter by chapter breakdown of the book detailing what each will be about and its significance in terms of Willy the person and Willy the artist. My idea is to take all the information and turn it into a third-person narrative so that it reads like a novel. At first I thought it would be best to follow some sort of chronological order – travel with him from Stamford, Connecticut to CBGBs, then continue down south with him to New Orleans and his time spent wandering in the desert in the Southwest, and then back to New York City.

Yet as I sit staring at the blinking cursor I wonder if that will be enough. I’ve been entrusted with a man’s legacy and the thought threatens to overwhelm me at times. I don’t really give a fig about people’s expectations for the book – I’m bound to disappoint somebody no matter what I write. What I care about is doing justice to my subject. How do you tell the story of a person’s life with only words on a page and still images? It’s like suggesting a butterfly pinned onto a piece of paper under glass gives you any indication of what it was like alive. While including audio and video samples of his work with the book will help, as the video embedded in this story proves, it will only capture one small facet of him, not bring him completely to life.

I’ll just have to reconcile myself to failing, but make the best damn attempt I can. That may sound defeatist, but unless I realize that before I start, I’m never going to start, because I’ll never get over my fear of failing. Accepting the impossibility of a task and spitting in its eye by going ahead and doing it anyway is what Willy did most of his career. So I can’t think of a more appropriate approach to be taking. He played his music for the love of it and hoped for the best; I’ll write this book for my love of what he gave the world and hope for the best.

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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.
  • Marian McNulty

    Richard all the best with the book, Mr DeVille deserves the best and you must be the person to deliiver. Wish you the best for this. Marian

  • Mara

    Hi Marcus! How are you? Wish you all the best. & please please please write a book about great Willy DeVille!!! It will be absolutely fantastic. He was/ is pure rarity.

  • Deirdre Curran

    Please write this book. He was so aggregiously underrated and underappreciated in this country, he should be an American Icon. The loss is huge – HUGE. His story needs to be told, and kept for the history books. His music and that amazing voice will live on forever. God I miss the guy….I was born in 1966. Sneaking into the clubs in NYC as a teenager in the early ’80’s (I grew up in Larchmont, NY, on the Stamford train line), I was underage and under his spell. The Ritz, the Lone Star, I’ll never forget going to see him play again and again; if Willy was playing somewhere in NYC, I was taking my babysitting money, sneaking out of the house and I was there. It makes me so terribly sad to know I can never do that again. Those will always be some of the most precious memories of my lifetime. He was just amazing. That voice….ohhhhh that voice. So much love for Willy and gratitude to him for sharing his incredible talent with us all. Love love love to you Willy, wherever you are.

  • imene

    Hello, this is a huge task to write this biography. This life should definitely be told. Im very excitet about this book.
    Many people miss Willy and his concerts.

    Sorry for my bad English.

    imene from germany/berlin

  • mimi

    I was close friends with Willy and Toots for a number of years – I stayed with them in NY and Toots stayed at my place during some “interesting” times. I was in touch with Willy over 30 years, knew Lisa, though not as well as I knew Toots, and have met Nina at Willy’s memorial. But mostly – if you want any input about the years 1979 to 1986 – I have pics also, could you post contact info please.

  • Hi Mark, Any news about Willy’s upcoming biography?

  • MacLeod Cushing

    I grew up a mile from Billy Borsey in Stamford, CT. He terrorized me in Belltown School during his neighborhood bully phase. A friend of mine named Richard Craven was one of Billy’s close childhood friends and his earliest “live” musical influences. Richard was writing songs years before Billy and I believe that’s where Billy got the idea to be a songwriter. Richard works at Colony Records in Times Square NYC. He is a manager there, has worked there for 30 years. Richard also knew Toots quite well. By the way, one of Billy’s childhood friends was Jackie Robinson Jr., son of the baseball immortal. Jackie Jr. had many problems and died young in a car accident.

  • Geena

    Fabulous. We wanna know EVERYTHING !

  • SpanishStroll

    Richard, I will be one of the first to buy your book. Since about 1978 I’ve been intrigued as to why Willy didn’t find more success in the U.S. He had more soul and a larger musical vocabulary than Springsteen. He alluded to it a few times in interviews (once he remarked something to the effect that his nose had been broken many times because he wasn’t afraid of being an asshole) that he rubbed many people the wrong way, especially in the period 1980-85 when he was deep in his heroin addiction. I think this really hurt his career — that and the fact that many couldn’t distinguish between Willy DeVille and Mink DeVille. It’s amazing how he made a second career for himself after moving to New Orleans. He fell in love with the place. And his association with John Phillip Shenale was very fruitful for him. Some of the musicians he played with on the albums he recorded in L.A. were amazing. I’d also like to know more about his friendship and collaboration with Jack Neitzsche and his childhood in Stamford. And what the hell was he doing in tiny Los Cerillos Hills, New Mexico? Anyhow, there’s more than enough material for a book. Good luck with it. Take it one word, one sentence at a time, and pretty soon you’ll have it done.

  • This has to be difficult, not so much the writing, I don’t think you’ll have any problem, your writing is lovely. But the loss. It’s a bitter sweet endeavor you’re undertaking. I’m looking forward to reading his life through your words.

  • Wolfgang

    With Willy even writing down “then he said this and then he did that” could never go wrong because he was always original, not faking anything, had a great sense of humour and sensitivity, just watch this Willy DeVille interview!

  • marion

    What wonderful news, a book about Willy!
    Fans over here in Europe are delighted about it. Maybe you can lay your hand on pictures showing Willy in his childhood?
    Would be great!!!

  • BJ Drwenski

    Richard,I love your style of writing.A book about Willy is long overdue and I suspect you will do a fine job.Willy was a special dude alright and has the nicest committed fans in the universe. I swear Willy and his musuc pulled me out of a deep depression and helped me see the sunshine again.I was 58 y/o when I discovered him and joined my 1st and only fanclub..that is how much he affected me.Can’t wait to read it.
    BJ Drwenski,Great Falls,Montana

  • Rick

    Richard, I’ve followed all your writings about Willy. I look forward to a full bio! There are many phases of Willy’s life I’d like to know more about.

  • Helen Bortolussi

    This is great news. Love your style of writing. Word about Willy’s upcoming biography is already spreading among fans. This is what they’re all waiting for, believe me.

  • Carol Peskofsky

    How exciting for you Richard.Sorry to say I hardly ever read but I really enjoy anything you have written so far. You get to the point and it is clear. Good luck Richard should we start a fund to help publish this book when it’s finished.