Willie Nile: Third Time Lucky


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Let me start with the new CD. Tell me a little about recording it and also about Pledge Music.

Before we did a Pledge Music thing to raise money, we recorded it last summer. We recorded them in September and mixed it in the fall. And I went in the early part of the summer with my band and Stewart Lerman, who won a Grammy this past year for Boardwalk Empire. I’ve worked with him many, many years. Great guy. He’s got a studio in Weehawken, New Jersey. We went in, you know, my band — Johnny Pisano on bass, Matt Hogan on guitar, Alex Alexander on drums — and we cut the basics in two days. Then had a couple of days of overdubs. It was done pretty quickly and has the feel of a live performance — which it pretty much is. The song “American Ride” is my vocal and my acoustic guitar. That’s take three from beginning to end. There were no overdubs; it’s just me telling the story.

Rob Morsberger did strings on “The Crossing.” He had brain cancer, got it a year and a half ago. He was 53…. a really great guy. Very kind. I met him through Stewart Lerman. And Rob… You know, he had brain surgery a year and a half ago and another one this past November. And in January, they said two to four months to live. He died… what’s today? I don’t think it was last Sunday, it might have been the Sunday before that. I think so. I can’t remember now, I’ve been traveling quite a bit. In late January, they did a benefit for him on Hudson Street. And I had never seen him perform his own stuff. They filmed it; they’re making a documentary of his battle with brain cancer. He had the worst kind of brain cancer and the worst degree of it. And bore it bravely…. He was so cool with it. He’s on the album too. Sorry to digress. But Rob Morsberger’s just a great artist. The community of artists, here in the Village and around the world, I treasure.

So American Ride was gonna come out on my own label originally. I did a Kickstarter campaign for the last record. The Innocent Ones came out in 2011 and it did great! There were no ads taken out. There was no money behind it. So I was gonna do the same thing with American Ride. But then my manager said, “We should do a Pledge Music campaign.” Pledge Music and Kickstarter are alike. Whether you’re a musician, painter, film maker, poet, tightrope walker, whatever — you can raise money for projects. Basically, you offer people something in return for any money they contribute. In the case of records, it’s signed CDs, private house performances — whatever. So we set a limit, and within four days of starting we reached the limit. Four days! That blew me away. And then we went to 300 percent over what we wanted to get. So what it meant to me is that the music’s resonating.

I sent an email to Bono in February. He’s a friend and I’m a huge U2 fan. And I sent him an early copy of the album and said ‘If you like it, if you could give me a quote to help get the word out, it’d be much appreciated’ — not knowing what to expect. Sure enough, a few weeks later, I got this beautiful email with a quote from him. I’m very touched that he would take the time to do that. He’s a real poet. He wrote, ‘It’s a ride alright. On foot, on horseback, with the occasional roller coaster thrown in. There are a few Americas here to discover: the mystic, the magic and the very real. One of the great guides to unraveling the mystery that is the troubled beauty of America.’ I read that and I just said ‘Wow!'”

I loved “Life on Bleecker Street.” Maybe it’s because I lived down here for years. But even beyond that, it’s just a good song. Tell me a little about what went into that.

I’ve lived here on and off for 40 years. I can see it out my window and it runs through the heart of Greenwich Village. I love the city. It’s enriched my life quite a bit — the Village in particular. And the cast of characters that you see any given day on Bleecker Street are all real. It’s like a day in the life on Bleecker Street.

I woke up one morning with an idea for a song. I just thought, ‘I live in the basement of a building.’ I don’t live in the basement; I live on the roof! But ‘basement of a building’ had the alliteration… I went ‘that flows.’ So I picked up my guitar and wrote it. It came very quickly. And I wrote about real things that I’ve seen. It’s a good rocker. It’s got Who sensibilities to it. I love the song. We had a blast doing it.


Did you co-write “God Laughs” with Eric Bazilian? That’s another one that jumped out at me. Didn’t he write “One of Us?”

Oh yeah!

I wanted to ask how you guys wrote that song (laughs). It just got me thinking that Bazilian writes about God — or lack there of — a lot!

We were in Sweden together a few years back, doing a benefit for a children’s cancer hospital. I’ve known Eric for years — since the early 80s. We had guitars one night and he said, ‘You know, I’ve got this song. Maybe you can help me finish it. But I’m not sure, you know, I already had a big God song.’ So I just took it and finished it, you know? And I liked it because it’s fun, it’s a good pop song with a Buddy Holly influence. When I played it, I wasn’t trying to be blasphemous in any way; I was just trying to have fun with the notion that God hopefully has a sense of humor. I was in Madrid a few weeks ago. Great audiences, really fun. And I’m signing CDs after the show and this fella comes up to me. I recognized him as being one of the guys who was jumping around a lot. And he said, “Hi, I’m a Catholic priest. I just wanna say that your new album is incredible and I can’t tell you how much ‘God Laughs’ inspired me.” That meant a lot to me.

The one cover on this album is “People Who Died.” I gotta tell you: I loved Jim Carroll and I was very sad when he died. I might get teary eyed talking about this (interviewer does indeed get teary eyed).

(reassuringly) That’s alright.

He’s one of the guys I always wanted to meet but didn’t.

You never met him?

No. I saw him read but I wasn’t writing professionally yet and I didn’t expect him to die so young, I guess. I know if he hadn’t died, I would have met him.

You could always walk up to him. He was approachable.

He was just a real gifted cat. And for my money, that song is one of the forgotten treasures of rock and roll. It’s kind of about a taboo subject but it’s such a great, rocking, riotous song. I remember hearing it on the radio and going “Wow! That’s rock and roll. It means something.” I wanted to bring it back. My brother John — my youngest brother — died six years ago. So when I sing it, I put my brother’s name in it. It’s a way for me to honor Jim and my brother John — and it’s a hell of a lot of fun to sing.

The album really does take you on a ride. It’s like a complete circle, whether you intended it or not.

Well, when I was putting it together and making song choices… “The Crossing” is a song I wrote with Frankie Lee. Great songwriter. It’s a song about the Irish coming across the ocean to this country for a better life. But obviously when writing it, I was aware that you could be from Africa, from Asia, from Europe, you know. Or even a personal journey. Getting over a broken heart; whatever particular mountain exists in one’s life, it’s a crossing. So I was aware that American Ride was the title of the album and I thought, “Well, that’ll fit nicely, thematically.”

And to close the album off with “There’s No Place Like Home,” I thought made it come full circle. It’s not a concept album per se but there’s a thread running through it. I love ending it with “There’s No Place Like Home.”

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 ’70s, I always had the feeling there were holdover ghosts from the ’60s. I was playing acoustically because I didn’t have a band. 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. 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; it was great. And then the whole thing exploded. All these bands came in: Ramones, Talking Heads. The place would levitate.

I’ve gotta ask you about the song “Golden Down.” I heard that when I was still living in Connecticut, as a teenager. That should have been a classic. Did anything or anyone specific inspire that?

I saw “The Barefoot Contessa,” a Humphrey Bogart film. And I think also just New York street life. People I’d see on the street — from prostitutes to the rich to the poor. The thing that fascinates me about New York is the extremes. You know, you’ve got very poor people, sleeping on the street. And you’ve got the very rich. When I first moved here, I thought ‘This reminds me of Dickens.”

The music came to me, and the idea. It was very much a street song. Someone played it the other day on the radio and he said, ‘It’s a song about a prostitute.’ It’s actually about a woman who men desire and don’t respect. What’s the line in the second verse: Street princess/on a throne of cream. I remember writing that and going, “Okay. That’ll work.”


Now what happened between the albums Golden Down and Places? There was a 10-year gap.

I walked away. Problems with a manager and problems with an attorney led to problems with the record company Arista. I had a new record; Golden Down was out. And I was going to court — you know, arbitration stuff. I did everything I could to try to make it work for everybody. But for me, it became more about business than about music. And I just thought “Fuck this.” I came here to make records, to have fun, to pursue the life of an artist in this great city. The first time I got onstage, I got offered a record deal. ESP Discs, The Fugs’ label — one of my favorite bands from the ’60s. And I thought “Well, this is easy.” Little did I know!

So here I was playing gigs at night, traveling, doing interviews — and I’m going to court in the morning. And I thought “This blows!” My wife was pregnant. We had two kids with a third coming. And I thought, “You know what? Fuck this.” So I moved back to Buffalo to raise my kids. It was a good thing to do but when I tried to get back in a few years later, I couldn’t get my phone calls answered. No one was interested. When people smell money, they’re interested. What else is new? That great Dylan line: “Money doesn’t talk, it swears.” He’s right.

Fortunately, I never got a chip on my shoulder. I’m either too stupid or I’m having too much fun. I mean, the ’80s were tough. I had a couple of publishing deals. I tried working in the post office — and that was too much for me. There were tough times. I borrowed money. But we raised four kids on fumes and they’re great… And they saw us struggle. And they benefited from that.

Not only that but the benefit of having gone through that… When the first record came out, that was the next big thing. You know, they were comparing me to Springsteen and Dylan. I’m not Bruce, I’m not Bob; I’m Willie. And I didn’t think I was that good anyway — yet.

That’s gotta fuck with your head a little.

Oh, not at all. I didn’t take it seriously. I never believed any of that stuff.

Willie Nile was a name that just came to me one night in a dream. To say something’s nihilistic appealed to my sense of humor. And I thought it was a good rock and roll name. Johnny Chicago, Willie Nile, whatever. And I found that I kept a distance by using another name. If they’re gonna praise me, they’re gonna use the name I made up and if they’re gonna slam me, they’re gonna use the name I made up! So who gives a shit? I refused to take it seriously. So when I walked away from the business, I never took seriously any of the praise. I knew I was learning — but I didn’t think I was there yet.

Then I got signed to Columbia after all those years…. But it came and went really quick. Richard Thompson’s on that record, Roger McGuinn, The Roches. It was a great record but it was the wrong time, wrong place.

It’s nice to see it happening later for you. I always knew I wanted to write but I didn’t know in what context. I went to school for playwriting. But I didn’t make a dime from my writing until I was in my 30s. But because I got into it late professionally, I appreciate it more. Because I know what it’s like to go to a job that I can’t stand.

Exactly. I’ve benefited from my circuitous path. You know, through the Siberia of the ’80s. I raised four kids with my wife. We had some of happiest days even though economically, it was tough. But because of that, they’re better off. They appreciate things more. So do I, like you said. I’m happy — more than ever, I’d say. I’m a lucky guy.

Read our review of American Ride here.


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