Earlier this summer I had the opportunity to review the new DVD by Willie Nile. Live From The Streets Of New York. It had been years since I’d really listened to any of Willie’s music, and the DVD brought back in a rush all the reasons that I’d listened to him years ago. Honest, passionate, and intelligent rock and roll without any of the pretensions that seem to have to crept into people’s music these days.
Yet he’s more than a rock and roller, as he’s been bitten by a muse who lets him look at the world with an eye full of mischief and an ear for the absurd. His songs spring from the streets of New York City, but he’s not blind to the rest of the world. The music might ring with a New York accent but his songs speak to everyone.
The other week I sent him off some questions through e-mail about him and his career and what you’re about to read are his answers. I hope reading this interview will inspire you to check out Willie again if like me you lost track of him for a while, or if you’ve never listened to him, that you take the time to do so now. You won’t be disappointed.
You mentioned in the DVD Live From The Streets Of New York that you were originally from Buffalo NY. Can you tell me a little about those early years and what influenced you to pursue a life in music
I grew up in a large Irish Catholic family with older brothers buying rock and roll records and playing music all the time in the house as well as having a lot of classical music played, so there was a wide variety of things to be heard by our small ears. We had dozens and dozens of international visitors, exchange students, Buddhist monks, Indian poets and governors, you name it. They came to our house, some for dinner, some for a few days, some for the summer and some for a year. It gave us all a pretty cosmopolitan world view. They all had different languages, customs, clothes, attitudes, etc., yet you could see how people could live together and get beyond the differences. It was interesting to see from such a young age. On top of that, my father was a great storyteller. Somewhere along the line I started writing poetry and when I learned to play the guitar I started putting the words into songs.
What was it about New York City that made you decide that it was the place you needed to be in order to do what you wanted to do?
It was where the beat poets were from. I was into Gregory Corso and Allen Ginsberg and the Beat sensibility. New York was also where the record companies were and it was closer than LA or Nashville. I had a bunch of songs I’d written and wanted to make a record. I used to hitchhike down from Buffalo in the summertime and sleep in the park when I was in high school and I found it to be a magical place. I felt free in the city.
You arrived in New York City in the 1970’s – it must have been quite intimidating to show up on your own and try to find your way as a musician – did you have any contacts or had you made any arrangements before hand? How did it end up coming together for you?
It was pretty simple for me. I wanted to record my songs and the record companies were in NY. It also felt like Paris in the 1850s and London in Dicken’s time. There was a timeless quality to it that I liked. It was definitely intimidating at first but I got over it after a while.
New York by 1977 was a hot bed for new music, with Patti Smith, The Ramones, The Talking Heads, Blondie, Mink DeVille, as well as guys like Lou Reed who’d already been around for quite a while – where did you fit in amongst all that?
It was an amazing time. I’d been living in the Village since 1972 and there were a lot of old ghosts from the 60s in the air. There was a pretentiousness in certain quarters that I found ridiculous. One day I was looking in the paper for new places to play I saw an add for CBGB OMFUG.
It was on the Bowery and not far from where I lived so I took my guitar and wandered in. At that time it was a Hell’s Angels’ hangout along with a lot of Bowery characters. There was a flop house above it. I asked who to talk to about playing there and was told. “Speak to Hilly.” I waited for a half hour and Hilly never came out. While waiting and looking at the jukebox I saw one record on there by a “Hilly Kristal.”
So I proceeded to pump about five dollars of quarters and played the song over and over until Hilly finally came out of his cave quite annoyed to see who was playing his song so many times. I think he got a kick out of some wise-ass doing something like that so he let me play there. This was when the bar had a jazz pianist as the entertainment and just before Television started playing there. I played in front of a bunch of Hell’s Angels and Bowery Boys. It was great fun. I got to remind him of that story on the last night at CBGB’s. I’m glad I got to see him before he died.
As for the scene that developed shortly afterwards, it was incredible. I used to go see Patti Smith and Television all the time, The Ramones, you name it. It was inspiring and original and it rocked. It was a welcome relief from the tedium of the music that was being played around that time. It was original music played from the heart by a bunch of outcasts and Dead End kids. I used to call friends up on the phone at midnight from the back of CBGB’s and hold the phone up and say: “Listen to this… you gotta come hear this, come to New York.” It felt like The Cavern Club in Liverpool back in the day when The Beatles started happening. They were great days.
You opened for the Who during their 1979 tour of the United States – how did that association come about?
I’d heard through my record label that Pete Townshend was a big fan of my first album. I didn’t believe it and thought it was just record company hype but when we played LA on that first tour, The Who’s management came to the show and after seeing me play invited me to open for The Who on their cross-country tour in the US. Naturally I said yes. I was a huge fan. It was magical to see them play night after night. I had never played with a band live before that tour so to be playing in front of 20 – 25 thousand raving Who fans night after night was pretty interesting. I had a great time.
I was interested to hear you describe yourself as a troubadour at one point on the DVD, just because that’s not a word you hear people describe themselves as very often any more. What do you mean by it in terms of your music and your approach to it?
Someone who travels from town to town singing songs and telling stories would be considered a troubadour in days past. I guess that’s close to what I do. I write what moves me, in one way or another. It helps me get a hold on some of the madness that goes on in this world.
One of my favourite songs on the Live From Streets Of New York DVD was “The Day I Saw Bo Diddly In Washington Square”. I know you co-wrote that with Frankie Lee, but it, “Back Home”, and “Streets Of New York” all struck me as being distinctly Irish influenced. How much if any do you think that heritage influences your writing style?
I love Irish music and my family roots are Irish for the most part so it’s not surprising that some Irish influence would get in some of these songs. Irish music has passion, spirit, and soul and if there’s any of that in my music as well then that’s okay by me.
There are a couple of songs on the DVD, “Cell Phones Are Ringing (in the pockets of the dead)” and “Hard Times In America”, that are obviously political, but you’re more than just a political songwriter. Where do you find your inspiration for material?
I just write down what comes to me from everyday life. Sometimes it’s a love song, or a bar band rocker, or a minstrel fairy tale, or a poke at some phony who needs a good sock in the jaw, or a lowdown dirty rock and roll song that can ignite the masses to revolt and take over the planet and make it a better place for people to live in.
With Cell Phones, I live not too far from the World Trade Center and was in town on 9/11. I watched the towers burn and felt the shock and horror, as did everyone. I was on one of the first flights out of town a few days later on my way to Spain for a tour and was struck by the concern and compassion the Spanish showed night after night with their questions. They really cared about what happened and how people were doing. So, in March of 2004, when the Madrid train bombing happened I immediately checked to see if my Spanish friends were okay. The next day in one of the NY papers one of the headlines read: “Cell Phones Ringing In The Pockets Of The Dead”.
Apparently there were some 190 body bags lined up along the tracks and cell phones were going off in the bags. People were looking for their loved ones. It went right through me. It gave me chills and made me angry. That people could do this to one another in this so called ‘modern world’ really pissed me off. I wanted to fight back in some way. I think we, as a race of people, are capable of much more than this. It’s bullshit, all these religious zealots running around praising their ‘god’ and then killing some innocent people.
All sides are guilty of this recklessness. We’ve got to find a way to get more compassion in this world. So I just started typing away on my computer and wrote the song straight out. It was my way of fighting back. When I sing it live it’s surprising to hear so many people singing along with the outro chant “Cell Phones Ringing In The Pockets Of The Dead” in defiance of all this madness. It’s heartening, I must say.
When you write a song, do you have a specific intent in mind before you start, or do you just let the muse take you and then run with it?
Usually I just let the song happen to me. I just go by my instincts on whether to pursue an idea or a phrase or a line of music. If it feels like it could be something I’ll just follow that and try not to get in it’s way.
What’s all this that I read about the 2006 CD Streets of New York being a comeback CD? Had you not put something out for a long time before that?
I think it was 6 years since the last one was out (Beautiful Wreck of the World). I guess I just take too long between albums. I don’t see any of it as a ‘comeback’. I just take my time and do it when it feels right. I’m just now finishing up a new album for a release in early 09. Can’t wait to get it out there.
Earlier I asked you about what it was about New York City that attracted you in the first place, and it’s obvious that the city means a lot to you now. Are you able to articulate what it is about New York that makes it so special for you?
There’s an electricity to this town that is intriguing to me. It’s a cosmopolitan city where the rich and poor and everyone in between wander and roam about amidst canyons of concrete and steel. I’ve heard that Manhattan is built on a certain kind of granite that is a strong conductor of electricity. When you leave the island you can feel a certain quietness come over you.
There’s always interesting music and art and food and crazy people and people who think they’re normal but aren’t, you name it, it’s here. It’s the concrete circus where everybody gets a chance to do the do.
What’s next for Willie Nile – are there more CDs in the works, any tours on the horizon etc?
There’s a number of shows booked till the end of the year. The web site lists them (Willie Nile.com). We’re also putting together some tours for next year after the new album comes out. After we finish this new album I intend to make another one right away. The songs are still coming and it’s never been more fun so I plan to take advantage of the time and record as many things as I can. Here’s to making music and magic and maybe stumbling across a little inspiration here and there.
Well I can’t think of a better note to end this interview on than that, so thank you Willie, and I’m glad to see we won’t have to wait as long between drinks this time.