Various Artists (from the album Willie Nile Uncovered available on Parradiddle Records) by Dave Steinfeld
2020 is a big year for veteran singer-songwriter Willie Nile. For one thing, it marks 40 years since the arrival of his critically acclaimed, self-titled debut. For another, Nile released the excellent album New York At Night in May. And now comes the crown jewel: Willie Nile Uncovered, on Paradiddle Records, marks the first time a tribute album to the bard of Greenwich Village has been recorded. Over the course of two discs and 26 songs, a wide array of artists (some established, others relatively unknown) offer their versions of songs from Nile’s four-decade career. What’s nice is that aside from New York At Night, each of Willie’s albums are represented — with no less than six tunes from his 2006 masterpiece, Streets of New York.
The first disc of Uncovered ends with a rousing version of “One Guitar” (from Nile’s 2011 effort The Innocent Ones) by the great Graham Parker. Interestingly, the second disc concludes with a second, reggae-tinged take of the same song (billed as “One Guitar, Mon”) from Johnny Pisano, who also happens to be Nile’s bassist. Other highlights include Lucy Kaplansky’s lovely reading of “When the Last Light Goes Out on Broadway”; veteran singer-songwriter Kenny White’s bluesy version of “Vagabond Moon” (the first song on Nile’s debut album); a New Wavey take on “History 101” by the little known band Iridesense; and former Bongos leader Richard Barone’s catchy cover of “Streets of New York.” All in all, Willie Nile Uncovered is an overdue tribute to an underrated artist. (by Dave Steinfeld)
Listen and buy the music of Willie Nile Uncovered from AMAZON
For more information, please visit the Parradiddle Records website
Willie Nile Interviewed (by Dave Steinfeld)
Willie Nile has one of the more interesting stories in rock and roll. Born in Buffalo, he moved to NYC in the early ‘70s. Willie Nile was stricken with pneumonia during his first winter in the big city. It took him a while to recover but during that time, he honed his songwriting skills and took in his new surroundings. By the middle of the decade, a new music scene was coalescing in clubs like CBGB’s and Max’s Kansas City. Though he was more of a singer/songwriter than a Punk rocker, and though he played solo, in part because he couldn’t afford to hire a band, Nile was energized by the Punk scene and its offshoots. He began playing the local clubs and building a buzz. His self-titled debut was released in 1980 on Arista Records. Critically acclaimed, some went so far as to call him the next Dylan.
A year later, Willie Nile was back with his sophomore set, Golden Down. While not as consistent as his debut, it did boast fuller, more Rock-oriented production — and the title track was a classic. But when the album failed to provide the breakthrough people had expected, he wound up parting ways with Arista — and with New York City. Nile spent most of the 1980’s back in Buffalo where he raised a family and kept a low profile. His next album, Places I Have Never Been, wouldn’t arrive until 1991 — a full decade after Golden Down. While it was great to have him back, Places felt a little overproduced and uneven to these ears. “Heaven Help the Lonely” was a minor hit and the album featured some famous guests — but ultimately, Nile’s career once again failed to catch fire. Another lengthy silence ensued. Between 1991 and 2006, he issued exactly one disc of new material, the hard to find Beautiful Wreck of the World, on his own label.
In the mid-2000’s, Willie Nile returned yet again and, seemingly out of nowhere, delivered his best album yet! Streets of New York was a sprawling disc — fifteen songs — that found him at the top of his game. There were jubilant rockers like “Welcome to My Head” and “Whole World with You”; the somber ballad “On Some Rainy Day”; a detour into reggae on “When One Stands”; the folky, autobiographical “Back Home”; the gorgeous title track; and more. Everything came together — the songs, the performances, the production — and after 25 years in the business, Willie Nile finally made his masterpiece.
Since then, Nile has barely come up for air. He has released eight more studio albums in little more than a decade. Some have been fresher than others, but all have had their moments and a couple are flat out great. His latest effort, New York At Night, arrived in May and is one of his best. Working with longtime producer Stewart Lerman, songwriting partner Frankie Lee, and a rocking band, Willie Nile has assembled a tight, 12-song disc that functions as a loose concept album about his beloved NYC. The title track and “New York Is Rockin’” are catchy, self-explanatory pop songs. “The Last Time We Made Love” and “Under This Roof” are lovely urban ballads. Best of all may be the bluesy “Backstreet Slide.” 40 years after his auspicious debut, Nile remains a true believer — in both New York City and in the healing power of rock and roll.
Willie Nile and I spoke shortly before New York At Night’s release. The COVID-19 crisis had recently forced us to go on lockdown. So even though I live in upper Manhattan and Nile remains in Greenwich Village, it felt like the other end of the world. That said, we had a great conversation that touched on everything from the new album to his CBGB salad days to the pandemic itself.
Dave Steinfeld: We [last spoke] when your album American Ride came out — and that was a while ago. [We had] coffee at La Lanterna.
Willie Nile: It was 2013, yeah. That place is still there. But I worry about [whether] the great little restaurants will be able to survive this. You know, I heard last night that [the legendary newsstand] Gem Spa closed. St. Marks and 2nd. Really a drag. You ever eat in a restaurant on West 4th Street between MacDougal and 6th Avenue called Volare?
It’s my favorite restaurant here in the Village. You know, there are paintings on the wall that have been there since the 1920’s. It was a speakeasy [back then]. The two owners are just great. When they give you a menu, they’ll say ‘look, we make everything fresh. So if anything’s not there, we’ll make whatever you want’. And they don’t bother you. One of a kind place.
I took some Italian friends of mine from Rome, a couple I know, and they couldn’t believe how good it was! To get their seal of approval was something. But I hope that place can hang on. So many little places, you know — special joints that give New York [its] character. I hope that we don’t lose too many of them.
It’s true. My favorite dive bar was right down the street from the Gem Spa. I went there ever since I moved to New York in the 80s. It was called the Grassroots Tavern.
Oh, I know Grassroots! That’s amazing. I used to go there in ’77, ’78. I mean, that’s where I would always go [after] CBGB’s. There was a band called The Cryers, from Mississippi. Hilly [Kristal], the owner of CB’s, managed them. And when they signed with Mercury, the whole [advance] went to the bar tab! (laughter). We used to go there every night and just order rum and cokes and watch whatever went on. The Cramps, The Ramones. You know, all the great stuff that went through there. Television — my all time favorite band from New York. [But] The Cryers used to hang out at Grassroots. I mean, we’d go there until the wee hours.
For those of us who weren’t in New York in the 70s but who are enamored of it — tell me a little about the city and specifically the music scene. You weren’t a punk rocker but you were part of that scene.
Oh yeah. When I moved here, in the early 1970’s, I always had the feeling there were holdover ghosts from the ’60s. I was playing acoustically because I couldn’t afford a band. I like all kinds of music but I’m a rocker at heart. I picked up the Village Voice one day and there was this new place called CBGB’s. You know, it was Bowery and Bleecker. I remember, I took my guitar, sunny day, walking down Bleecker Street. I walked up to the woman behind the bar and said, “Who do I see about playing here?” She said, “You wanna talk to Hilly. He’s in the back but he’ll be coming out.” So I sat down, had a beer and half an hour goes by. No Hilly.
So I went over to the jukebox. They had a lot of great stuff. And I see the very last song on the jukebox is by a guy named Hilly Krystal — both sides of the record. So I pump five dollars of quarters into the machine and pressed that song. Five dollars’ worth! I just sat back and had my beer and after about nine plays, this grizzly bear comes out from his den. This guy who just woke up. And I walked up to him and said, “Hi, are you Hilly? I like your song. What do I have to do to play here?” And he says, “Well, there’s a stage. Jump up.” It was just a couple of months before Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd walked in… They would do bills with Patti Smith. I’d get there early and see Richard and Tom onstage, just rehearsing. Two wicked guitarists. And then the whole thing exploded. All these bands came in: Ramones, Talking Heads. The place would levitate.
I had one foot in CBGB’s and one foot in Folk City. I would tell my friends in the Folk scene, ‘you gotta go to CBGBs! There’s these bands playin’ original music! It’s great!” Nope, not one of them. Nobody went!
Can I ask you about a couple of specific tunes on the new album? “Backstreet Slide” jumped out at me. immediately. Tell me about that.
(he laughs) Yup! A song comes to me — it could be a title, it could be an idea, it could be a guitar riff [or] an opening line. I don’t sit down [and say] “Oh, let’s write a song today.” I prefer just to let ‘em hit me. One time, I was just walking around the apartment and I came up with that (sings guitar riff]. You know, my girlfriend Christina is a great Italian photographer. She took all the photographs on the album. And she loves the blues. I like the blues, but she’s nuts about ‘em. And I’m still learning.
Anyway — I had that lick and I thought, “That’s kinda cool.” It’s like — if you think of the shortest distance between two points. For me, that’s “You Really Got Me” by The Kinks. That says it all in five or six notes. But I had that lick for awhile. And I just thought, “Man, I’m gonna write something [around] that. Something primal.” And it just came to me. “it was a cold, dark night/When the old man died.” It’s kind of a meditation on death, you know? The words just came out of me in a stream. And I love the way it came out. It’s just greasy.
The vocal on that — and most of the album — I would say of the 12 songs, eight of ‘em are complete takes. The band was all playing at once. Drums, bass, I’m playing electric guitar — or acoustic, depending on the song. And Matt Hogan cut the basics with us. So the four of us are playing all at once, and I’m singing. The album has that natural feel ‘cause we had the band playing live.
My spirit is still on fire. When you hear the new record, it’s full of rapture…. [This] city, even though it’s so changed, there’s still magic here. The energy, the grit, the mystery of it all fills me with wonder. Most of the songs on the album were written in New York or inspired by it in one way or another. I didn’t look to make a concept record; it’s just a bunch of songs I was collecting. I was making plans to go into the studio. And one night [last] summer, I went to the Iridium near Times Square. I got out of there at 10:30, by myself, and I was going to the subway station. I go down the stairs, the train’s in the station and the car door’s open. So I’m headin’ over there. And I notice [by] the open door, to the right side, there’s a can of whipped cream. Reddi-Wip! I just thought, “What the Hell?” And the guy to the right of it — you know, at one end of the car — I could see feet and legs covered in whipped cream. This happened real quick. And I wanted to look to the right, ‘cause I could just see from the waist down as I entered the car [but] I just thought, “I’m not gonna turn to look at that.” I wish now [that I had]. But I went to the left, to the other end of the car, and there was a seat. I just laughed and I thought, “Wow, New York City. What a place!” It was like two inches thick! On his shoes, on his ankles, up his calves [and] thighs — covered in Reddi-Wip! (laughter)
I was wondering if that reference [was something] you just made up or if it was based on something you actually saw.
No! It’s something you can’t make up.
I got out at West 4th, came up from the underground — it was a Friday night and it was teeming with humanity, you know? The rich, the poor, the lost, the lonely, the big shots, the bullshit artists, the visionaries, the good, the bad, the ugly… Panhandlers, drunken college kids… Everything. And as soon as I got on street level, I thought, “Wow! New York at night! That’s a song.” So by the time I got to my apartment, I pulled the guitar out and I had the first two verses. I just wrote it right then and knew right away, this could be a great album title.
2020 is 40 years since your first album came out! When you look back on that album 40 years later, any thoughts?
Well, yeah. I’m surprised I got to even make it. I’d never played in a band, I never performed in Buffalo before I moved here. I wrote songs in the house I lived in [or] at the University of Buffalo. In the library in the corner, I’d be there with a pen and paper. And you can hear the growth in terms of singing — the maturity of someone who’s done it now [for] 40 years. You hear that difference. [I’m] a more confident singer.
But I look back at that [time] fondly. I was playing Kenny’s Castaways; I always played at open mics back then. I got signed in ’78, at the end of the year [and] the album came out in 1980. I’d hang out [at Kenny’s] almost every night. They would have interesting people playing and then at the end of the night, locals would get up and play. It was what a kid like me was looking for when they came to New York. A scene, you know? So I finally got the courage to audition there. Don Hill was listening, he was at the board. I did three songs and he said, “I think we wanna book you.” It was a great experience. Six nights a week, two shows a night. That’s 12 shows! You know, I could barely tune my guitar! I’d be downstairs, sweating, trying to get it in tune. And I would go up there and do a solo show — jump around, leap off the stage and introduce imaginary band members.
So comes July of 1978 and I was opening up for a buddy of mine. [And] I remember this one night, there’s this guy not two tables back, and he’s really into it! Round glasses, you know, intellectual looking guy. And I [say] to myself, “Well, this guy’s really digging it. That’s cool.” And I get off after doing my 45-minute set and Don Hill says, “You know who that is? That’s Robert Palmer from the New York Times!” And I went, “Man! Glad I didn’t know that before I went onstage!” And they said, “He wants to meet you.” So I went over to say hello [and] it was really nice. And he wrote this review. Thursday night it hit the papers and Friday was when it hit the streets. And man oh man! He wrote this review that, you know, my mother couldn’t have written! He compared me to Gene Vincent, Buddy Holly, Dylan, whatever — it was just this beautiful piece. So [the next night] I’m walking down the street. It was a busy Friday night. You know, I had to walk in the street [because] there was so much traffic. And when I walked into the club — ‘cause the paper came out that morning — it was wall to wall! Upstairs [there were] legs hangin’ over, people staring at people, people I knew looking at me completely different. All of a sudden I had some kind of validation. It’s fascinating when things are in print. I was still the same me. I was really excited and nervous, but I didn’t change because I had all that history of writing by myself, up in Buffalo at the university.
[A few days later], I’m in Clive Davis’ office. And he called in all the executives; there must have been 30 people in there. And it was a dead room, with no live ambience whatsoever. I had to put on my [show]. I did my thing, told stories, sang songs. And then the whole bunch of us went into another room where there was a piano. I sang “Across the River” and “They’ll Build a Statue of You.” And when I sang “Across the River,” Richard Palmese, the head of radio, goes, “That’s the song!” And Clive decided to sign me. It was like, “Boom—boom—boom!” Robert Palmer review, Clive came and three days later I’m in [his] office and I get signed. God bless Robert Palmer for going out on a limb. So when I think of the first album, all those things come to mind.
Just to bring it all full circle — any thoughts about life in quarantine? I haven’t done too many interviews since this went down; you’re the second person. Any thoughts about this weird new reality that we’re all going through?
Sure. It’s vivid, to say the least. There’s a heightened sense of being alive. You know, I wake up and the blood’s flowing.
The first thing that comes to mind is when it hits seven o’clock. The applause. The bangin’ pots and pans and the cheering and the car horns. This is a horrific time. My girlfriend’s stuck over in Italy and they’re dying like flies there. But when those people raise their voices and they cheer… It’s so heartening. It’s so human. It’s so inspiring. That moment crystalizes what’s great about the human spirit. I mean, people are applauding front line workers — from the hospital workers to the garbage men. And it’s just heartening. God bless New York City for that. I love that racket! It just makes you feel like we’re all in this together.
Listen and buy the music of Willie Nile from AMAZON
For more information, please visit the Willie Nile website