After an uncertain start to his journey, the veteran rocker finds he’s pleased to be on an American Ride.
BY LEE ZIMMERMAN
“You know, this album surprises even me. I have a pretty good sense of what I got when I’m going in. It’s not just a random thing. I have a pretty good idea of what’s going to make for a nice collection, what will work together, what’s interesting, what’s poignant, what’s fun, and I’m just delighted.”
Willie Nile is obviously pleased his outstanding new effort, American Ride, but in a larger sense, he sees it as part of a career comeback that spawned four previous albums over the course of the past 14 years. Indeed, his enthusiasm is obvious, due in part to the fact that it’s a set of songs that tout Nile’s New York City environs and the latest in a series of seemingly autobiographical offerings that relays a personal perspective on a life that lately has been well lived.
Born Robert Anthony Noonan, the 65 year-old musician began pursing a music career after cutting short his tenure at the University of Buffalo and pursuit of a Philosophy degree. He chose instead to relocate to Greenwich Village in the early ‘70s, where, after a bout with pneumonia, he became a fixture at places like CBGBs and Kenny Castaways, the Manhattan haunts that helped spawn the city’s seminal punk scene. The buzz quickly spread, and in no time, he was lauded as Rock’s next big deal, winning comparisons to Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen.
Signed by Arista Records, he released his eponymous debut for the label in 1980. Peter Townshend personally invited Nile and his new band to open for the Who. However, soon after the release of his sophomore set, Golden Down, in 1981, Nile became entangled in legal problems severe enough to force him off the road and keep him out of the studio for several years after. In 1988, he was inked to Columbia Records, and after luring stellar assistance from Richard Thompson, Roger McGuinn, Loudon Wainwright III, the Hooters and the Roches, he recorded Places I Have Never Been. Sadly though, its release was delayed two years due to a company shakeup. By the time it appeared in 1991, his career had come to a standstill.
After rebounding in the late ‘90s, Nile now finds himself the first artist on the fledgling indie label Loud & Proud to benefit from national distribution. Clearly, there’s plenty of promise before him.
BLURT: Lately, You seem to have gone from peak to peak.
WILLIE NILE: It feels good. Thank you for saying that. I’m rolling with it, but I’m still feeling it. I still feel the fire and the passion and the edge. It still matters to me. I still get some redemption and passion out of it.
You’ve always toured more in Europe than you have here in the States it seems.
I toured in the ‘90s some, but not a lot. And in the last decade, it’s been more and more. I’ve been going to Europe. I’m there like four months out of the year pretty much these days and I have a real good following. Doc Pomus, a great songwriter and a friend of mine, told me, (adopting a grizzled voice) “Go to Europe, Willie. They know how to treat a songwriter!” They really do appreciate it. So I’m doing more and more live playing and it’s a lot of fun. And the music is fun to play and fun to listen to for me, and hopefully for other people. So to answer your question, the response is just overwhelming, and people are just loving this new record. We sold a lot of advance copies in Europe and they were going crazy. We got great feedback… You know, you can tell. It’s there. There’s no doubt about that.
So are you touring much in the States these days?
I never toured much in the past, but I’ve done 235 shows in the last two years, and this year I’ve already done a lot of shows. I’ve never really done that, so I never burned out on the road. I toured with the Who in the early ‘80s, but not much after that.
So what kind of reaction are you getting from these live audiences?
It’s unequivocal. I do it because I really like it and it makes me feel good to play for them, and it’s always the exact same reaction, I played in Albany on Saturday night, and the manager of the venue came up afterwards and said, “Everybody loved you.” So it’s inspiring me. It’s clearly inspiring a lot of people. We were touring all across the U.K. and we were pounding it, we sustained seven gigs in a row, and people that heard the record come up to me and the feedback they gave me is just great. I’m playing a lot of new stuff at the show and it’s just a lot of rip roaring fun. What I like with Rock ‘n’ Roll is when it has meaning but it’s not overbearing, but it’s still fun. It can be light in the seat but still be deep.
Your songs seem to resonate from very personal, biographical perspective, whether you’re writing about where you live or who you are, or what you know. You seem to find a lot of inspiration in that apparently.
I’ve lived in New York City for four decades now and I know it like the back of my hand. I saw the whole CBGBs thing happen from the get-go. I played there just before Television went in. There was a black jazz pianist — he was a professor at City College — and he was the entertainment, and I went in there one day after seeing an ad in the Village Voice. I was wondering where I could play. And I saw an ad for this new place, CBGBs, and I took my guitar and walked down Bleecker Street and said to somebody, “Who do you talk to about playing here?” I didn’t know anything about it, but I just kind of dug the name. So they said, “That would be Hilly. You got to talk to Hilly, and he’s in the back but he’ll be out, so just wait and have a beer.” So I wait, and half an hour goes by and there’s no Hilly. So I go over to the jukebox and the last song is something by a guy named Hilly Krystal. So I figured, that’s gotta be him. I pumped in three or four dollars worth of quarters and played it again and again and again, just punching the button a bunch of times. I sat back with my beer and sure enough, after about nine plays, out from the den comes this grizzly bear looking guy, and I’m thinking, what the fuck. But I got his attention. So I said, “I like your song.” So he asked me to play my guitar and sing him a song, and he liked it and I got the gig. The last time I went in and saw him, I didn’t realize he was so ill. He looked not great. I reminded him of that story and while he didn’t remember it, he laughed.
So you have a lot of tales to write about apparently.
I’ve been living in New York, I’ve written about the things around me, the future, the past, the present. Whether it’s love or politics, you name it. I’m having a lot of fun with it, I really am. All these years, it’s been my journey. It’s been circuitous to say the least, but all along, since my first record came out, I’ve been writing my own story. That’s what I would do no matter what. I would always write. It’s my way of expressing myself.
As you say, the journey’s been up and down at points…
Yet with your first album, you’re signed to a major record label, Arista Records. Then, even after that deal went sour, you again land on your feet by signing with Columbia. There certainly seemed to be great promise there in the beginning.
The promise was certainly held for me in the beginning. I always knew there was something going on, but I didn’t know for sure. Not having bands in high school – I was a poet, I was playing acoustically – I knew there was something going on, but I wasn’t ready yet. So all that promise that I had in the beginning, I wasn’t really sure what it meant. Pete Townshend liked the record, so I thought it must be good. Now, all these years later, I totally benefited from my journey. I’ve stayed hungry and I was able to write and woodshed and mature as a writer away from the cameras. I was able to develop as a person and a better writer, and I’ve learned things from all of it. I did a lot of home demos in the ‘90s, I wrote all kinds of songs. The more I wrote, the more I got better at it. So now when I go in the studio, it feels really comfortable. And when I walk on stage I feel real comfortable. I feel like the promise that was held for me, it’s realized now. And I still have some things to say and I’m trying to say it in a fun, engaging and inspiring way. I’ve benefitted from this up and down cycle. It made me a better person. It made me a better writer.
Then the deal with Columbia came along and maybe you thought, great I’ve been redeemed. But the same thing happens. They delay your album and you’re left in oblivion.
Here we go. I got my second chance. The guy that signed me, my champion there… I waited for him and two years went by. And then we started looking for a producer. So it took between the time I was signed with them and the time the album came out nearly two years. And in that time, my guy’s star had fallen with the company and he didn’t have any influence. So when it came out, it was totally on its own. There was no push behind it. Richard Thompson, Roger McGuinn, Loudon Wainwright were all a part of it – a great cast of characters, great fun, but then after that, I just kept writing, and in the late ‘90s I started playing around New York again and I went to some friends of mine and said, “Let’s try these songs out.” I had a big batch. I thought we should play them out. So we started playing, and it was so much fun, and it felt so good, I said, “We should go in the studio and document these.” So I went in initially to cut these demos, but I also wanted to get the feel of a band playing live in a room. And it became like, “Hey this is good. I should put this out.” Which I did. And it did well. Then I put the next one out a few years later. So the next one came out in 2006, Streets of New York and that put me back on the map. And since then I’ve been steadily building and the fan base has grown. It’s gone so far beyond the hype of that very first record.
Speaking of hype, early on they had you billed as the next savior of rock ‘n’ roll…
So what was that like? Were you afraid you wouldn’t meet the expectations? Was it intimidating at all?
No, I wasn’t intimidated. I thought it was a little ridiculous because I knew it wasn’t true. It was Bob Dylan, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Bruce Springsteen. I realized people needed reference points and they were using those, but I never took it seriously. I’d get phone calls from this one or that one. The New York Times, The L.A. Times, calls from Germany, from all over the place declaring that it was a great record. I liked it, but I thought there was room for growth. And that’s what I’ve been doing all these years. So was it intimidating? No, I didn’t take it seriously. I always came at this from the sheer joy of it. Being a fan and loving music, from the Beatles on it was so much fun. From Buddy Holly and Fats Domino, the Everly Brothers, the Beatles, the Stones, the British Invasion, Dylan… all that great stuff. Randy Newman, Tom Waits, all the great artists. The whole panorama of great artists I grew up with. I love it. It means something to me, the day it stops being special is the day I walk off the stage. I won’t go to the studio. I’ve already got another album written that I’m very excited about. I’m sure I’ll write more but I’m ready to go into the studio now.
Since ’99, you’ve been on such a roll. It would seem such a challenge to continually reach the same bar, or at least not to repeat yourself.
It’s where I’m going now. And I’m still learning. Music is still teaching me stuff and I’m just growing into it more and more. At this point it feels so comfortable. It feels like second nature. If I don’t think this next record is going to be really special, I won’t go into make it. What’s encouraging about American Ride is that people seem to really like it.
There seems to be two great elements in sync. One, these anthemic melodies that are just so riveting and the other is that the subject matter which seems to be so relatable. Anybody can appreciate what you are singing about. It’s not just pie in the sky.
When we’re touring now, people are often hearing the songs for the first time, and still be able to relate to them right away, We’re getting standing ovations. I like stuff that’s accessible. I like all kinds of stuff. I can make an obscure, crazy, kind of off my butt record if I wanted to, but it’s too much fun right now, so I’m just having a great time with it, trying to inspire myself and others. I’m just taking a cue from what comes to me. I don’t sit down and try to write a song. I just let them come to me.
Do you envision your albums as concept pieces and write songs to fit the theme?
Not usually. Usually there’s a couple of songs that I feel are at the core of an album. In this case, I thought “Life on Bleecker Street,” “American Ride” and maybe “The Crossing” could be a real great core of an album. So it was built around those three songs. I thought to myself, I like these. They have location, I like the way they felt, I love the melodies and music. And the words had meaning to me.
You sound very satisfied. So many artists that have been around as long as you have tend to look back on their earlier work as the high bar of their career, and their current attempts fail to match up. But with you, it seems just the opposite.
I just want to make masterpiece after masterpiece and just make them so great that I’m really proud of them. So that we can just go out and play them and have people react to them. Life can be tough, People say, “Oh, your road has been tough.” But whose road isn’t tough? You learn from it. You pick yourself up. I’ve been lucky. Even though there were times when I‘d be so down, I’ve got no chip on my shoulder. I’ve avoided that. A lot of times people that have had big success have a big chip on their shoulders. But it’s so stupid to have one. My shoulders are too small to carry one, but there ain’t nothing there anyway.
Then again, you were a philosophy major in college. That might have something to do with it.
I went to the University of Buffalo and had a great time. I took classes that I liked and there was revolution in the air. But there was no design to it at all. So in my senior year, I had a meeting with my advisor who I and never seen before. So I said, “How am I doing?” And he said, “You’re a philosophy major.” So I asked him, “What can you do with a philosophy major?” And he said, “Well you can go to grad school. So I laughed, and I decided that I’d go to New York City and make a record instead. But I had a great time. I learned a lot there.
Maybe you put your philosophy education into effect with your music.
I think so.
That’s what great music is about – expressing a philosophical perspective in a melodic way. It seems it has come full circle for you.
It’s come full circle in spades. There was an article that recently came out where they called me “The Bard of Bleecker Street.” (chuckles) It’s just that I’m having a great time. I feel really comfortable and confident. I’ve been very fortunate in that there are some really great artists who I admire and who have been supportive in championing me. Bruce Springsteen for one. I’ve been onstage many times to play with him. Giant Stadium the first time, for more than 70,000 people. Bruce called me onstage to play songs and I walk off and he called me back on. I ended up being onstage with him for an hour. I’ve played with him at Shea Stadium as well. How many people do you know that play stadiums and invite their friends up to play? He just loves to rock with his buddies. And he’s joined me onstage a number of times. He’s so great and supportive.
Lou Reed’s been really supportive, and Bono and Lucinda Williams… and Pete Townshend. I still see him. I write him whenever I go to the U.K. and he invites me out. And Roger Daltrey came out to see me last year. It was just the greatest thing. I played this pub and the crowd was so enthusiastic. They gave me six standing ovations. It was packed to the rafters. And Roger was among them. I have the friendship with guys like that which is incredible. My journey has been wonderful. I got to tour with Ringo and the All Starr Band in ’92. He called and he asked me to fill in for somebody and he dug it. So I got to tour around the Northeast with him. And it was Dave Edmunds, Todd Rundgren, Nils Lofgren, just a great band. And the last night was up in Saratoga and we were having an uproarious good time, and Ringo came over just before the encore and saw me. He walks about 30 steps over to me and he shook my hand. It was a really gentlemanly thing to do. Then he gives me a big hug and says, “Willie, you did great. Thank you so much for opening the show. We’re really happy you’re here and we’re really proud of you.” And I’m thinking, “I’m covered in Beatle sweat!” That was my thought! And then he asked me to come up and join them for “With a Little Help From My Friends!”
Really, what a journey!