This interview is split into two part for your ease of digestion. Part Two
I want to tell you about an amazing experience that I had on Saturday, May 13, 2006; I had a two-hour phone conversation with Willy DeVille. It was one of those things arranged by a publicist to be an interview. You know how they’re supposed to go, me, the interviewer, asks him, the interviewee, questions about music, life etc, and he gives me answers to same.
Then I go and type them out as a question and answer session and everybody is happy. At least that’s how it’s gone for me in the past when I’ve done this sort of thing. It became pretty clear right from the start, however, that this wasn’t going to be a typical interview.
I had spent the last day downloading and figuring out how to set up and work a piece of software that would have allowed me to use my modem to record phone conversations. It was going to involve me using an extension other than the one running through the computer, so I had arranged for my wife to run the software while I talked to Willy on another phone.
Since she was going to have to co-ordinate the recording we decided she should answer the phone get his permission to record and explain what it was going to involve. For some reason I wasn’t overly surprised when he requested that we didn’t record our conversation because he felt it would take too much away from the moment.
He compared it to colour photography vs. black and white and how he preferred black and white because of the simplicity of the moment. Taking away from the moment too much would be lost. So he said to my wife: “so let’s keep it black and white okay?”
Thinking about it afterward, and thinking of how our conversation went, I can see what he meant. If we had been conscious of being recorded we would have let that influence us in certain ways, and it would have affected any spontaneity our conversation would have had. We would have restricted ourselves to whatever typical information you normally hear in one of these interviews.
Occasionally I would remember to ask him a question and we would try and get back into an interview format, but we were soon off on to something else, or he’d answer in a way that was non-standard. Mainly we just talked about experiences we had in common, things that neither of us probably would tell others about and so I’m not going to talking about any of that stuff here.
Roughly our conversation could be divided into the early years, the middle part, and what’s going on now, but we bounced around following no particular timeline. At one point near the end of our conversation he said, “It doesn’t matter what age you are, as long as you’re doing”. Which sums up his whole career right there in a nut shell, Willy is always “doing” something to keep moving on musically, personally, and whatever else is needed for growth as an artist.
I don’t use the word artist lightly ever; it’s not some generic term used to refer to somebody who gets up on stage and performs. Talking to Willy for a couple of hours and listening to him talk about his approach, his feelings about his work, the almost spiritual way he described performing, and the obvious passion that came through his voice whenever we would talk music (plus having seen him perform on video recently) made it obvious to me that he has nothing in common with those who strive for mediocrity an are called artists by today’s popular press.
So let’s press on with this shall we, and I’ll bring on the question and answers.
Where did it all start for you, you were born in New York right?
No I was born in Stanford Connecticut (laughs); nobody’s born in Manhattan. We moved there when I was 13 or 14, but I had been coming into town since I was about 12… I had fallen in love with the city.
The bright lights and all…
Nah, it was the musicians. Everywhere there was music it was amazing. But it was everything else too, you know, the smells of pizza … Somewhere else than where you are always looks better to you, and we all come from some little itty bitty place. I don’t want this to sound like those, he came from a small town and made it big stories right, but it’s more about having a dream and having the patience and the, oh I don’t know what (me: “perseverance”) yeah, to make it happen, you know, and that’s what I feel like it’s always been.
Why music, what was it about music that grabbed you?
Well according to my mom I was singing before I was talking right. I mean I don’t even come from a musical family, but it just always seemed so natural to me. You know I grew up and I had older brothers, four and six years older, so there was always music around, on the radio at breakfast as we ate our corn flakes, or American Bandstand. I still remember listening to bands like the Drifters…It was like magic, there was drama and it would hypnotize me.
Listening to the radio and the songs I would get you know like images of the story in my head, like reading a book and you imagine what’s going on. I would see the music like that too, in my head while listening…
There’s something that happens to me when I sing, (a slight hesitation as if he’s unsure about talking about this, like how’s this going to go over), this is going to sound weird right, but it’s like I don’t know where the voice comes from for different songs, but it’s just there. I described this to a friend once and he said it sounds like voice shifting, where a masking spirit comes over people and sings through them…
That sounds like what happens to Native singers when they sit around the big drum and are playing. They sing in this high falsetto, that nobody can talk in, and that they sure don’t talk in…
Did you say native, like native American? Cause you know that I’m part native…
Which part? No, no, I mean which nation, sorry.
Iroquois, I’m part Iroquois, part Basque, a little of this and a little of that. I’m a real street dog.
(laughs) Yeah right. I prefer street dog.
Did you ever hear any of that stuff Robbie Robertson did with Red Road Ensemble about, I don’t know a dozen years ago… He’s an Iroquois..
That’s right he’s from up around near you. Isn’t he?
Yeah Grand River Six Nations reserve
There was this album he made with John Hammond that changed my life.
Robbie made an album with Hammond?
Yeah him and Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks, Levon Helm, or Lee-von,( laughs) back in 1962, it was called So Many Roads It’s still around on CD you’ve gotta to hear it, it’s amazing.
So how did it all start for you; what was your first band, was it Mink DeVille?
Nah the first band was The Royal Pythons. Wanted it to be different from what everyone else was doing, electric this and strawberry that. But actually, you know I went over to London for a couple of years, real obvious American with my Pompadour hair, kicked around until my money ran out than came back here.
I had only been back a bit when a buddy called me up, and they were out west in San Francisco, he’d had to leave town cause he’d gotten in trouble with the cops, and he said I should come out there it was really amazing, he’d already met Lighting Hopkins’ drummer. So I bought a 57 Chevy Van and drove out.
It was hard out there, just couldn’t get anything happening, it was the early seventies, and, hell don’t say I hated it, because that’s not true, but it was hard. I conned the guys into believing that if we went back to New York I could get us work, ’cause I knew the city and the ropes of how stuff worked, which was stretching it.
How did you end up in CBGB?
Well, I used to go over to “City Lights,” you know Ferlinghetti’s book store, and pick up a week old Village Voice. One day I saw this small, like one inch by one-inch ad, saying auditioning for live bands. Now New York in the early, mid seventies, there were hardly any places for live bands to play, maybe a Jazz bar. Everything had closed, so here was this ad saying auditioning for live bands.
So I had convinced the guys that I could get them work, and we climbed in the van and drove back the other way. We got here and auditioned, along with hundreds of others, but they liked us and took us on. That was like 74-75, and we played there for three years. You know during that time we didn’t get paid more than $50 bucks a night
Each or the band
The band, shit that was barely enough for cigarettes. They keep asking me to come and play there for “old times’ sake” and you know that’s not for me. That’s for people who want to go there and say they saw me there, or Lou Reed in sunglasses or some such stuff. That’s the past, not now.
There was always some sort of shit that was going down there, ’cause there were all these managers with bands they had signed who they wanted to play there, so there was politics. All I wanted was to be a band that New York could be proud of; we wanted to play music that would make the glasses dance on the bar.
Then there was this one night this guy named Ben Edmonds came in to the bar and saw us. He took us back up to his hotel room and asked us if we could make a record what would we put on it. I just said, “The best damn music I could make.”
The next thing was they brought out Jack Nietzsche to talk with me. We got drunk for three days. Jack had done all those records with the Ronettes and groups like that.
He worked with Phil Spector?
Well it’s hard to say who worked with who, right. You listen to that music and you hear those really high strings, and that percussion, and the castanets: that’s all Jack’s work. All that’s really cool stuff
Jack became like my first mentor in the business. Not to sound like some hippie or something, but it was like Karma you know for us to be together. There used to be some sort of Ladies auxiliary or something to our fan club, and they would send all these weird photos into us, like of tombstones and shit like that. Well one time one of them sent in this picture of a tombstone of Fredrick Nietzsche, who was Jack’s great uncle, and I showed him the picture, saying Jack isn’t this great uncle and he said yeah.
Jack wasn’t very well and he was going downhill slowly, and I remember they were throwing me this birthday party, and I found out Jack had died that day. It was the same day his great uncle had gone, the same day as my birthday, August 25th.
He was my first real professional friend, and I still feel like he’s looking out for me
I’ve got to know, how you’d come up with the name Mink DeVille
Well we were sitting around talking of names, and some of them were really rude, and I was saying, guys we can’t do that. Then one of the guys said how about Mink DeVille, there can’t be anything cooler than a fur lined Cadillac can there?
Cool so it’s true, I couldn’t remember if I had read that somewhere or not, or if it was some sort of urban legend.
Nope it’s true
The sound you described that Jack was doing with the percussion and castanets for the Ronettes and other bands, is that where those sounds in your music came from, the Latin rhythms and stuff?
Well you had to have that sort of sound if you wanted any street credibility in the lower east side where I came from you know. Everybody listens to the great music of Tito Puente, I love the sound of that stuff too, the congas and great percussion. It was the congas that hooked me into New Orleans, that great drumming.