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.