His latest album, the appropriately titled World War Willie, finds this tireless troubadour venting passion through perseverance.
BY LEE ZIMMERMAN
Willie Nile possesses two of the key ingredients necessary for not only making a career in music, but sustaining it as well — passion and purpose. Add a third quality as well, namely perseverance. Born Robert Anthony Noonan, he remains a rabid rocker some 35 years into what’s best described as a roller coaster of a career.
It began innocently enough. After attaining a degree in Philosophy from the University of Buffalo, he relocated to Greenwich Village in the early ‘70s. Stricken with pneumonia during his first winter in the city, he spent his convalescence writing music. Once he recovered, he became a fixture at CBGBs and Kenny’s Castaways, the Manhattan haunts that helped spawn the city’s seminal punk scene. The buzz quickly spread, and in short order, he was lauded as Rock’s heir apparent, winning heady comparisons to Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen.
Signed by the fledgling Arista Records, he released his eponymous debut for the label in 1980. However, soon after the release of his sophomore set, Golden Down in 1981, Nile became entangled in protracted legal hassles which forced him off the road and kept him out of the studio for most of the decade. In 1988 he was inked to Columbia Records and after luring stellar assistance from the likes of Richard Thompson, Roger McGuinn, Louden Wainwright III, the Hooters and the Roches, he recorded another milestone, Places I Have Never Been. The title was sadly prophetic. The album was delayed two years due to a company shakeup and by the time it was released in 1991, his career had come to a standstill.
Happily though, in the past 20 years, Nile’s done anything but sit still. He’s a had a streak of superlative albums in recent years, beginning with 2011‘s double header, The Innocent Ones and Streets of New York, and continuing through 2013’s American Ride and culminating now in his latest opus, World War Willie. A master at creating anthemic rockers that surge with feeling and sway the emotions, at age 67, Nile’s now at the top of his game. [He’s also touring regularly: go HERE to read a review and see a photo gallery from a show last November in Toronto.]
Nile knows it too. His energy and enthusiasm are palpable, not only in the music he makes, but in the way he talks about his still-budding career. That was evident when Blurt was given the opportunity to speak with him just prior to the release of the new album.
BLURT: Where did you come up with the title to this latest opus?
NILE: In traveling with the band on tour, just seeing all these places, I was joking about the fact that all these stadiums were named after these corporate entities. So I was joking that maybe I should brand myself the same way and call myself Citibank Nile. We should all change our names to establish a corporate connection. One day I woke up with this idea that maybe I could establish a brand like the Delta Blues of Wall Street. That’s how the song “Citibank Nile” on the new album came to be. The alliteration of the title really struck me and I had a good time with it. And then I figured I’d call the album World War Willie. I just liked the sound of it and it sounded borderline ridiculous enough to appeal to me. And it came out on April Fool’s Day which fits the purpose. Any album with a title like that is perfect for April Fool’s Day. It’s about relationship wars, and I’m mindful of these kind of connections. I was on tour in Italy and we were outside Bologna and we walking to the venue. We came upon this huge mural where they had this picture of Dresden after it was bombed during World War II. As soon as I saw it, I knew that would be a perfect album cover.
So what was the inspiration?
I’m always in motion. I’m so passionate about so many things, just about life and just about being alive. I could have made the whole album full of songs about angst and strife, but it’s more playful than that. I had fun with it. I’m still hoping the world can come together, and this is my comment on that, so to speak. Let’s make the world better. To me, music is always about redemption and salvation and trying to make sense of the world. So the picture of me in front of this backdrop is about me trying to make sense of this world. I believe in music. I believe in people. I believe in the human race. But at the same time, I was having fun with the songs and making light of myself in a way. I don’t take things too seriously. I mean I do, but I can also make light of it too.
This album is timely — there’s a lot of discord and division these days.
There does seem to be a fair amount of chaos out there. You’d think every generation would learn from the mistakes of the past, but they don’t. It’s a tough old world out there.
It’s wonderful how, after all these years of making music you’re still able to create these anthems that sound so fresh and dynamic. You still have the spark. How do you keep coming up with these songs without retracing what you’ve done before?
I guess it’s because I’m still alive and still feeling that passion and that drive. It hasn’t deserted me. Life still matters. Where they come from and why they keep coming… that’s a mystery to me. I’m working on a new tune. I love writing. That’s what I do. If something strikes me, I pick up my guitar or sit down at the piano and write about it. It’s a great outlet for me. I’ve never had more fun…that’s what’s so interesting to me.
You’ve been lauded by some very distinguished individuals… Pete Townshend and Bruce Springsteen, among them. You even toured with the Who, did you not?
I did a three week tour in the early ‘80s, and ended up in L.A. where the Who’s management came to see me. I ended up touring with the Who across the U.S. I had heard Pete was a fan of the first album, but I thought it was just some kind of hype.
Nevertheless, you scaled back after that, did you not?
I didn’t tour a lot in the ‘80s, and eventually I just walked away. It became more about the business than the music. That’s not why I came into it. It was the music that inspired me, and it still does. So I didn’t play throughout much of the ‘80s. I moved to Buffalo, raised my kids, my four children. Those were hard times, because there was no money coming in. But I was still writing, and eventually Sony called me up. And then in the ‘90s, I started going to Europe and at this point, I’ve been going there for years. In the last five or six years, I’m doing more touring than ever. I’m working very hard, but fortunately I never got burned out. My health is good. There is a certain amount of bitterness that’s felt by some musicians. After all, life is hard. Everyone has their burdens. But that monkey that’s on a lot of people’s backs never came to me. Music is why I do it. It’s the songs that do it for me, whether it’s about having a good time or about love and loss or something that’s political.
So are you the rocking grandpa in “Grandpa Rocks?”
“Grandpa Rocks” is kind of about me. I have four grandchildren. It’s amazing. It’s a Clash-like tune with a lyric that’s kind of tongue-in-cheek. I’m enjoying the music and the performing more than ever now. It’s a blast. The songs come from everyday life. They keep coming. It’s a blast to go out now and play with my band. We’ve gotten really tight. It comes through on this record I think.
You were with some major labels for awhile — Sony, Arista etc. Many artists speak with disappointment or disgust about their major label experience. What was the experience like for you?
I see a lot of that disappointment, but I don’t feel that bitterness. A lot of people really tried hard for me. We can talk about the word “success.” For me, if I write a song that pleases me, then that to me is success. It’s about the craft. It’s never been about fame for me. It’s the music that resonates, something that makes something clearer. You can talk about the great songs, whether it’s “Satisfaction” or “Blowing in the Wind.” Those are songs with meaning. It penetrates my soul. For me, it began with “Peggy Sue” by Buddy Holly, the first record I ever bought. I listened to it a thousand times. It changed my life. So I’m still dancing down the street with the music in my head. The fact that at age 67, I’m having more fun than ever is amazing to me. People don’t believe that this 67 year old geezer and his band can rock like this. If the song inspires me and inspires other people, all the better.
There’s a very inspirational song on the album called “Runaway Girl.” What’s the story behind that?
“Runaway Girl” is about empowering women. They asked to use a song of mine for an appearance by Malala Yousafzai, that young Pakistani girl who crusades for human rights, and that was what they used. I walked into her event in Washington D.C. and there were all these signs, “Our time, our place, our moment in the human race,” and that’s the chorus of the song. It was very meaningful to me.
It’s very unusual to find someone with your kind of idealism these days.
Maybe I don’t know any better (chuckles).
You seem so joyful, almost like you’re in a bubble. It’s remarkable to find someone so driven and inspired.
I feel like I’m just getting going in a way. I will not go into a recording studio unless I feel like I can come out with something special. I’ve walked onstage with a fever, but if I don’t think it will be special, then I’ll stop. I love recording. Eight out of twelve vocals on the new album are scratch vocals. I didn’t change one word. I think I’m singing better than ever. I think it comes from all the stage work I’m doing.
You mention that fame isn’t the goal, and yet you’ve had this 35 year career…
I’d love to be stinking rich. There’s no doubt about it. Just because I could do more. I could help people and I wouldn’t have to worry about surviving. But that was never my thing. It was all about the music and that’s served me well.
But is it ever frustrating that more people aren’t aware of what you do? Do you think it’s strange that you’re not filling arenas at this point?
The audience is still growing at this point. I’m making a living and I’m doing well. But it is what it is. It has nothing to do with society’s perception of it. My sense of importance isn’t dependent on people patting me on the back and telling me how great I am. It would have been easier to have the big money, especially in the ‘80s when I was raising my kids. I didn’t have the hits in the early days. But I’ve been able to learn and grow and I’m letting it evolve. Yeah, it’s frustrating when you want to go to Europe and you can’t bring everybody because the costs are prohibitive. But I’ve been working through it. I have a good agent who’s able to book me in a lot of arenas overseas. I’m not done yet. I’m able to do what I love to do and I’m lucky in that regard. How many people get to do something they love? I’m grateful for that. Do I need to be the biggest guy on the block? No. I never had that. I’m not concerned with what other people are doing. I just have to make my music. That’s my job. And it’s working. I’m having a great time. I’m making records I’m really proud of.
It’s interesting that you finished off the record with “Sweet Jane.” Was that your tribute to Lou Reed?
He was a friend of mine and he was so nice to me. He’d always greet me with a big smile and he was so kind. I saw him ten days before he died. A friend of mine invited me to a book signing that he was going to do for this big coffee table book of photographs that he and Mick Rock collaborated on. The place was packed to the rafters. Then my friend told me, “Lou’s not coming. He’s not feeling well.” So I knew things weren’t great. And then ten minutes later he walked in. Lou went out of his way — and by out of his way, I mean he was dying — but he came out to support his friend Mick Rock.
That must have been a very special event.
It was the two of them at the table. Lou’s color was very gray and his hands were shaking. He didn’t look great, but he still came out and he was still interesting and funny, and it was great to hear the two of them reminisce about the ‘70s. When it was over, I went behind the stage to talk to somebody, and when I turned around, Lou was walking right by me. People were helping him walk because he was very fragile. So I went over and put my arm around his shoulder and said, “Lou, it’s Willie,” and he looked up and gave me a big smile and said my name and then gave me a big hug. And I gave him a big hug back. He said, “It’s great to see you. I love you man,” and I knew it was goodbye. Then ten days later he died. We worked up a little arrangement of the song and we’ve been playing it ever since. So we decided to record it for the album. God bless Lou Reed.
Your last album, If I Was A River, took some people by surprise. It was a set of piano instrumentals and very different from anything you had done before. What was the inspiration for that?
As a kid, I took piano lessons. I absorbed the influence from my grandfather. He worked in Vaudeville and he was a great piano player. So I took classical lessons and then gradually got interested in rock ‘n‘ roll after hearing it on the radio. Chuck Berry and Little Richard and Buddy Holly and Jerry Lee Lewis, all that great stuff. I’d always have the radio blasting. But piano was my first instrument. I picked up guitar later. I’d just sit at the piano and play. I’m known as a rocker, but I also do a lot of ballads and I always wanted to do an album like that, with just piano based songs.
It certainly was a change from the album that preceded it, American Ride.
American Ride was a great album as far as I was concerned. I was very pleased with that. For me, it was a mountaintop. It was really well received. But I always wanted to do a piano album. I have so many more songs in that vein too. I could make five albums like that and I want to make more. But most of these songs were written relatively recently. I wanted to make a minimal album compared to the work I had done, because the seeds for World War Willie were already planted. I knew I was going to come back with a real rocker of an album. So it was the perfect time to release it, especially around the holidays. And it did very, very well. As it turned out, the piano that was in the studio was the same piano I played 35 years before, the night John Lennon was killed. I was in the Record Plant recording my second album for Arista at the same time he was recording “Walking on Thin Ice,” Yoko’s song. I was in studio A and John and Yoko were in the next room. He started on a Monday. We started on that Friday. And in the studio there were two pianos, one which John had done a lot of stuff on for his sessions. For me, it was so special because John had played on it. We were so excited. My producer knew him and we had plans to meet him a couple of days later, but of course, fate intervened. I was literally playing that piano when the call came in that somebody had shot John.
What a tragic story.
Life is very temporary and transient. Things keep changing, especially the order of the day on this planet. Life is tough, but if you can make music and get people out of their blues, it’s a great thing to be doing. For those of us who make it or write about it or go to see it, it become transformative. It’s a form of redemption and something to be celebrated. How many people get to share that?
Live photos of Nile by Eric Thom for BLURT.