It was on May 17 that I received the e-mail that broke my heart. Willy DeVille's wife Nina wrote to let me know that Willy had been diagnosed with Stage Four Pancreatic cancer. At the time she had asked me to keep it to myself, but as she's since gone public with the information at Willy's website I'm free to talk about it. We knew Willy was sick earlier in the year, but at the time the doctors thought it was Hepatitis C, and it was only when they were testing him, prior to beginning treatment, they discovered the cancer. It doesn't look like there's much they can do for him aside from ensuring his comfort, and Nina assures me that they have hospice people in making sure he's not feeling too much pain and that he's being well looked after.
I came to know Willy outside of his music first back in 2006 when I interviewed him (Part one and part two ) for the site just after the release of his first ever DVD Live In The Lowlands and his first studio recording in a number of years, Crow Jand Alley. It was an amazing experience as we talked for well over two hours about art, music, and life. If there was ever a performer who had every right to be bitter it is Willy, as his music career has been marked by record company stupidity and indifference. Capitol, his first label, didn't know what to do with his music – in fact they shelved Le Chat Blue, an album Rolling Stone called the fifth best of 1980, and music historian Glenn A Baker has called the tenth best rock album of all time, until sales of the French import version became so high they were embarrassed into releasing it.
Yet, in spite of a career where stuff like that was the norm, and a personal life marked by hardship and sadness (his second wife committed suicide and overcoming addictions) he still retained his passion and love for music and life. I had a great time with Willy, but I figured that was the end of that, and I would treasure the memories of that conversation for the rest of my life. However, in December of 2007 I received an e-mail from the German edition of Rolling Stone asking me if I was interested in updating the original interview for publication in their February 2008 edition. They were planning a special feature on Willy prior to a mini tour of Europe he was doing that spring to publicize his 2008 release Pistola. Instead of merely updating the interview I took the opportunity to get in touch with Willy again and do a whole new interview (part one and part two) which I then combined with the first, and wrote a couple of side bar articles, all of which ended up in the magazine. When combined with photos the special "Willy DeVille" section ended up being around fifteen pages long.
So Willy was responsible for my first paying writing gig, and it was a big one. He and Nina were really happy with what I had written, and we've been keeping in touch since then. In fact, Nina was able to direct some more work my way by recommending me for the job of writing the liner notes for a new DVD of Willy's, Live At Montreux in '94. Coincidentally, it was only shortly there after that I was offered the contract to write the book I have coming out this fall. I wrote Nina and told her that she and Willy were my good luck charms as the DVD liner notes had led to bigger and better wealth.
It was shortly after that we were writing a press announcement about Willy having to cancel his touring and recording plans for 2009 because of having to be treated for Hepatitis C. Unfortunately, all that's changed for the worse now, and when Nina contacted me in May it was to ask if I would write something for after he went, and I still will do that. However, I wanted to do something for him while he was still alive that would let him know what he's meant to people all over the world and how much his music has impacted those who've listened and appreciated what he offered.
Willy released sixteen albums either under his own name or under the Mink DeVille banner; there have also been fourteen compilation albums of his material released by various labels around the world; four DVDs of concerts that he performed; and at least three live albums that I know of, including the great Willy DeVille Acoustic Trio recording Live In Berlin, which featured some of the most soulful music you'll ever hear. His music has been used in three movies including Princess Bride (for which he garnered an Academy Award nomination for the song "Storybook Love"), Cruising, and Death Proof; and he's appeared on tribute albums for people as diverse as Edith Piaf and Johnny Thunders.
According to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland Ohio, for a performer to be considered for induction it must have been at least twenty-five years since they released their first recording and they must have made a significant contribution to the development and perpetuation of rock and roll. Well as far as I can see Willy meets all those criteria as his first recording was released in 1977 and he's been producing some of the best, and most soulful, rock and roll ever since. His album of New Orleans music, Victory Mixture, alone should qualify him for the job it did in bringing the music of that city to a whole new audience in North America and Europe.
Yet for some reason, while his contemporaries from CBGBs, the Ramones, have been inducted, Willy DeVille has not. In an attempt to redress this inequity and in an effort to create a lasting memorial to his great talent, I've started a petition asking that Willy be considered for induction into the Hall of Fame. If you're interested in supporting this effort please sign the petition and ensure that this great singer and songwriter is not forgotten after he's gone.
While this hardly seems adequate when compared to how much enjoyment Willy has provided people over the years with his music it's at least a tangible way to show our appreciation. It's a start anyway, and perhaps, like many other artists before him, his reputation will continue to grow after he's no longer with us and more and more people will come to know, what I've known for years, just how special he is. It's only a pity that it will mean him being taken away from us for him to receive the appreciation he deserves. In a perfect world he'd still be with us and be able to show up for his own induction ceremony.
I know that I would trade all the signatures in the world for the chance to see him perform live, or even to hear his voice coming down through my telephone wire a year from now, but barring a miracle neither of those events are going to be happening. My heart is a lot heavier these days knowing Willy is not going to be with us for much longer, and while this effort won't keep him around, it's a start in saying thanks. I'm not ready to say good bye yet so thanks will have to do for now.