If you followed his 35 years of making music with a yellow highlighter and a world map, you’d see that the much loved rock ‘n’ roller and songwriter Willie Nile has been on the road, and just about everywhere, over the years, especially the last couple. His starting point, aside from birth, of course, could be pegged as Buffalo, but we’re inclined to place his point of true musical budding in the late ‘70s/ early ‘80s-era Greenwich Village, when the folk clubs were infused with the still resonating vibe of the Beat poets. In your mind’s ear, set that kind of pointed poetry to the punk-influenced sounds of Jim Carroll, Joey Ramone and Johnny Thunders, add some “Kramer-like hair”, as Graham Parker observed, and you’ve got Willie Nile.
No doubt Nile heard the echoes of the Beats and the punks when he took to the stages back then, and he carries on the legacy of his forebears, loud and clear, to this day. “If you find authenticity in struggle, if you hate all that is fake and manipulative, or if you just love good ol’ rock ‘n’ roll, Willie Nile is your man,” writes Stephen Rowland of Nile’s album, The Innocent Ones (2011).
Like his sound, Nile is rooted in New York, but his reach is wide, including a loyal fanbase in Europe. Catch him on the road now, while he’s touring with his band for the release of his latest album, American Ride (rated ‘9’ here on PopMatters), with guest appearances by Eagles’ guitarist Steuart Smith and New York singer-songwriters James Maddock and Leslie Mendelson, among others.
“A statement of purpose and a call to arms, American Ride is a triumphant record, perhaps even a masterpiece of its form,” writes Jerrick Adams, “‘This Is Our Time’ is a bracing, effervescent opener… Over ebullient harmonies and a driving rhythm section, Nile makes his offering to the ghosts of rock’s past… and asserts the value of that past in the present.”
The man respects his history, that’s clear in his music. And notable fans such as Bruce Springsteen, Pete Townshend, Lucinda Williams and others have been singing his praises for many years, now. But as the times have changed, so has Willie. He’s long since turned off the highway of major labels and taken to the indie side roads, powering the making of his rock ‘n’ roll through ‘alternative fuel’, if you will. Fans worldwide have plugged in to PledgeMusic.com to help see American Ride to fruition.
Well, along with his many fans, we could go on and on about how “fucking great” Nile’s music is (and we do), but here, a certain tenderness is revealed. It’s not set to a tune, of course, but you may detect a certain rhythm coming from the man’s past and present, and driving him on in to the future.
PopMatters 20 Questions
1. The latest book or movie that made you cry?
This Wheel’s On Fire, the Levon Helm autobiography. Levon was a friend and supporter and we’ve done shows together. It’s a great read, one of my favorite rock bios. I was in Spain on tour reading it when I heard he was dying. It broke my heart and made the read that much more deeper and meaningful.
Levon was the soul and spirit of what’s best about music in this country and this world. His voice was one of a kind and his smile spoke of heart and compassion. God bless Levon Helm. They won’t be makin’ another like that anytime soon.
2. The fictional character most like you?
Charlie Chaplin’s The Tramp. Because he was a lover of life and beauty and an eternal optimist. He would have his moments but he would always rise above it and make the best of it. He never had a chip on his shoulder and he did not have a mean spirit.
I saw The Kid two nights ago and I will always respect and admire the great work of Chaplin. He raised people’s spirits in the hardest of times.
3. The greatest album, ever?
For me it’s a toss up between The Beatles’ Revolver and Bob Dylan’s Blonde On Blonde. Both are full of great songs, originality and utter brilliance. Both are deep and moving. Both are in a class by themselves.
The Beatles were breaking new ground with every album they made and this one in particular topped them all. It is a complete masterpiece. From the stunning “Eleanor Rigby” to the joyous flight of “And Your Bird Can Sing” and “Dr. Robert” to the drop dead beauty of “For No One”, it’s one classic after another.
Blonde On Blonde was also breaking new ground in so many ways with the depth of the material from the masterful “I Want You” to the cutting sarcasm of “Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat” to the mystic night time crawl through “Visions of Johanna” to the brilliant “Stuck Inside of Mobile” to the jaw dropping beauty of the last song, “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands.” Nobody was writing songs like this. The sophistication of the writing and the utter cool of the performances were like nothing else I’d ever heard before.
4. Star Trek or Star Wars?
Star Wars. It was so well done. To this day it’s still being copied.
5. Your ideal brain food?
I like to read the Beat poets, Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Bob Kaufman, etc. The spur of the moment and the instinctive quality of the work always clears my head out. When there are too many words and thoughts and the ten thousand things are weighing too heavily on my shoulders, I read the Beats and also Rumi, the Sufi mystic and that usually clears the cranial palette.
6. You’re proud of this accomplishment, but why?
Having four great children. For me it’s about family and I’ve been blessed with an amazing family. That my kids are independent, free thinking, confident, caring and loving people means more to me than anything.
7. You want to be remembered for…?
One thing I love about Bob Kaufman, the great Beat poet, is that he did not want to be remembered. How refreshing is that! It made me smile when I read that.
As for me, if my songs can be a source of inspiration to people in any way, then I’m satisfied. If any of my songs can help bring a measure of peace or brotherhood or sisterhood to the party then I’m happy. And if my songs can help kick the occasional door of ignorance and intolerance down, then even better.
8. Of those who’ve come before, the most inspirational are?
The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Buddy Holly, Harpo Marx, Walt Whitman, Shakespeare, Van Gogh, Michaelangelo, Monte Python, Chuck Berry, The Stones, Bobby Kennedy, John Kennedy, Buddha, Jesus Christ, Marco Polo, Ghandi, Pushkin, Groucho, Charlie Chaplin, Bob Kaufman.
9. The creative masterpiece you wish bore your signature?
10. Your hidden talents ...?
Ping pong, pool, hanging out, doing nothing, watching the clouds go by.
11. The best piece of advice you actually followed?
Doc Pomus once told me to “Go to Europe, Willie. They know how to treat a songwriter.”
To this day I’m in Europe touring four months a year and I love it. Great audiences, warm and passionate. And I love the beauty of the old world. Thanks Doc. You were right.
12. The best thing you ever bought, stole, or borrowed?
Buddy Holly’s single, “Peggy Sue”. First record I ever bought. I took my quarters to the local record store and bought it myself. I loved the rumble of it. It woke me up to a new world of sound and wonder and I haven’t been the same since. Thanks Buddy.
13. You feel best in Armani or Levis or…?
My birthday suit.
14. Your dinner guest at the Ritz would be?
Bobby Kennedy. I would tell him not to go through the kitchen at the Ambassador Hotel.
I think he would have made some great changes in the world. His death marked a major turn of events for our country and the world. I think he would have been president, gotten us out of Viet Nam, which would have saved thousands of lives, on both sides. And I think he would have lead the world to a more compassionate and caring place.
15. Time travel: where, when and why?
Hamburg, Germany, in 1961 when the Beatles were playing seven hours a night. It would have been great to see them mature and get better and do what they did best, which was inspire the world. But it would have been on a more intimate and smaller scale.
The next place I would go would be to the south of France to tell Van Gogh that his paintings were selling for $90 million and that he was not a failure and in fact was one of the most well known and respected artists in the world.
16. Stress management: hit man, spa vacation or Prozac?
Hit man, while at a spa vacation, on Prozac.
17. Essential to life: coffee, vodka, cigarettes, chocolate, or ...?
18. Environ of choice: city or country, and where on the map?
Country. Preferably Tuscany, Italy.
19. What do you want to say to the leader of your country?
Have the Smithsonian Institution take over or support local record stores that are our historic heritage. They’re disappearing and won’t come back. If they became part of the Smithsonian Institution they could survive and keep spreading the music and soul of our era.
20. Last but certainly not least, what are you working on, now?
I’m writing songs for another album. Just finished actually and am very excited about it.
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