Willie Nile: Third Time Lucky

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F. Scott Fitzgerald — who is currently enjoying a posthumous resurgence thanks to the film version of The Great Gatsby — once said that there are no second acts in American lives. Willie Nile is living proof to the contrary. In fact, he’s living proof that not only are there second acts but that there are third acts. And in his case, the third act is the best yet. No one could write a script like this — maybe not even Fitzgerald himself.

Willie Nile is rock and roll. Born Bob Noonan, he grew up in a big, creative, Irish-Catholic family in Buffalo, New York. After college, he moved to Manhattan and settled in the heart of Greenwich Village. The time was the early ’70s; artistically, one could see it as the calm before the storm. Nile — who had not played professionally when he lived upstate — was stricken with pneumonia during his first winter in the big city. It took him awhile 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 Max’s Kansas City and CBGB. 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. Like fellow NYC transplant and troubadour Steve Forbert, he played the same venues as the Ramones, Richard Hell and the Voidoids, The Patti Smith Group and other bands. Probably unlike Forbert, Nile felt a kinship to punk — maybe because at his core, he was a rock and roller. His stage presence was (and remains) high energy and charismatic.

Nile began playing the local clubs and building a buzz, helped no doubt by a stellar review from the late music writer Robert Palmer. By the late ’70s, he had signed with Arista Records and his self-titled debut was released in 1980. Willie Nile didn’t produce a hit but it did get positive reviews — and for good reason. The disc featured stripped down production by Roy Halee and included some of his finest songs. “Vagabond Moon,” which opened the album, displayed a Dylan and Byrds influence while “It’s All Over” echoed the latter band’s sadder side. Elsewhere, Nile rocked with a vengeance on cuts like “She’s So Cold” and “Old Men Sleeping on the Bowery” while “They’ll Build a Statue of You” showed off his sarcastic side (and was again reminiscent of Dylan). It was not uncommon, in fact, to hear Willie Nile described as “the next Dylan” in those days — which was both a compliment and the kiss of death.

A year later, Nile was back with his sophomore set, Golden Down. It was not as consistent as his debut but it did boast fuller, more rock-oriented production — and the title track was a classic. The song “Golden Down” is actually what introduced this writer to Nile. I remember hearing it on the radio as a teen growing up in suburban Connecticut. Clay Barnes and Peter Hoffman’s ferocious guitars, coupled with Nile’s poetic lyrics about a woman who may or may not have been a prostitute filled my young mind with wonder about the big city. To this day, I can’t understand why the song didn’t become a hit, or at least a staple of AOR radio.

But it didn’t. And there were other, more business-oriented issues that Nile was dealing with too. After Golden Down failed to provide the breakthrough he’d hoped for, he wound up parting ways with Arista — and with New York City. Though he would still come down to the Village periodically, Nile spent the rest of the decade back in Buffalo for the most part and kept a very low profile. His next album, Places I Have Never Been, wouldn’t arrive until 1991 — a full decade after Golden Down. While it was good to have him back, Places felt a little overproduced to these ears. Moreover, it wasn’t his best collection of songs. “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.

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Act three began in the mid 2000s when a revitalized Nile came back yet again and, seemingly out of nowhere, delivered his best offering yet. Streets of New York was the album Willie Nile fans had been waiting for — literally for decades. It was a sprawling disc — 15 songs — and found Nile 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 clever, catchy “Asking Annie Out”; the folky, autobiographical “Back Home”; the angry rocker “Cell Phones Ringing in the Pockets of the Dead),” written about the recent terrorist attacks in Spain; 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 sat still. He returned in 2009 with the disc House of a Thousand Guitars and followed that up two years later with The Innocent Ones. While not quite on the level of Streets of New York, both albums have something to recommend them. Now comes Nile’s latest (eighth) effort. American Ride, which arrived June 25th on Loud & Proud Records, finds him back in top form. Co-produced by Stewart Lerman and the singer himself, the album contains a dozen tracks that run the gamut musically but when taken as a whole present themselves as a unified series of songs. Nile’s current band — lead guitarist Matt Hogan, bassist Johnny Pisano and drummer Alex Alexander — comes to rock, as my friend Sal and I found out when we took in a recent show in the East Village. Between that and the fact that Nile’s songwriting has grown more anthemic over the years, it’s tempting to say this is a rock and roll album — and it is. But that’s not all it is. Songs like “If I Ever See the Light” and the opener “This is Our Time” are most definitely rock and roll anthems. And even “Life on Bleecker Street” — a slice of life song which may be the album’s best track — becomes more anthemic as it grows, courtesy of the backup vocals. But there are several detours on this Ride. The title track is a folky tribute to America written by a guy who has driven through most of it. “She’s Got My Heart” is the prettiest song on the disc — a simple, straightforward declaration of love. “Sunrise in New York City” almost hearkens back to Tin Pan Alley. And right in the middle of the album is its one cover, a blistering version of “People Who Died,” the life-affirming song about death written by the late, great Jim Carroll (who himself left us way too soon). American Ride is probably Nile’s most commercial recording to date — and yet it retains his essence and is in no way a sellout.

Now in his mid Sixties, Nile is clearly on a roll. Not only is he writing some of his best songs ever and releasing albums much more frequently than he used to, but he’s touring with a vengeance. He has lost none of his passion as a performer over the years and, as noted above, he now has a crack band behind him. But even back in the day, Nile’s live performances were very well received — hence Pete Townshend requesting that he open for The Who during their 1982 tour.

More than 30 years after hearing “Golden Down” as a teenager in the suburbs — and after years of seeing him walking around the ‘hood, having mutual friends and so on — I finally got the chance to sit down with Nile for this piece. Appropriately enough, we met on a Sunday afternoon in Greenwich Village. Even though it was a hot day, he was dressed entirely in black. But there was no darkness here; in fact, he could not have been more personable.

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