In conversation with Willie Nile; LTW chats to the guitarist who has accompanied The Who and Bruce Springsteen;
Louder Than War New York correspondent Marc McStea spoke to Willie Nile as he prepared for the release of his new album ‘Positively Bob: Willie Neil Sings Bob Dylan’
Willie Nile is one of those figures whose name is readily identifiable for the average clued up rock fan in the UK, but it would be fair to say that he remains more of a cult figure over here. He’s always been a part of the fabric of the New York rock ’n’ roll scene since his first forays into Greenwich Village in the ‘60s. He’s had the critical acknowledgment and the friendship – indeed sharing the stage on many occasions – of many of rock’s heavy hitters. He’s always fulfilled what I think are the three essential criteria – walk the walk, talk the talk and look cool whilst doing it. Releasing his debut album in 1980, he’s since been criminally under-recorded, in a stop-start career stymied by ill health and legal disputes. Never failing to deliver anything less than top quality albums of timeless rock n roll, for his last album he’s chosen a different route – recording a set of Dylan songs – Absolutely Bob.
This approach is not new in itself – there’ve been numerous attempts at a similar thing with varying degrees of success from others ploughing the Bob furrow over the years, but no-one has ever hit it as spectacularly out of the park as Willie does. The up-tempo songs are underpinned by a pounding, driving beat, fiercely committed vocals, a fantastic live feel and an injection of adrenaline – generating so much propulsive energy that it almost feels hard to listen to the Dylan originals again! Nile’s flame thrower, sonic assault, high voltage, take no prisoners, storm the walls and kick the shit out of the previous versions approach means that songs that on the face of it are in danger of having been done far too many times by far too many people have been reinvigorated – setting the benchmark by which all future versions will be judged (and undoubtedly found wanting)!
The essence of the Willie Nile approach is everywhere – the count-ins for choruses, the relentlessly joyous celebratory sense of what it is to be in a rock n roll band. Truly tapping into the romantic soul of rock n roll, Willie Nile should be as much of a household name as his friend Bruce Springsteen. I took the chance to run through a bit of a career history with Willie and get his take on why a Dylan album, and what next.
Obvious question first – why a set of Dylan covers?
I was invited to sing four songs in May 2016 in NYC at City Winery as part of a Bob Dylan 75th Birthday celebration. What struck me about all the songs I heard and sang that night was how current and meaningful they still are. They ring as true today as they did back when they were written. And also these songs are so great and you don’t hear them on the radio anymore. That these songs aren’t being played more is a shame. They’re so good. There’s something real and connecting and human with a great song and it was a joy to hear them and to sing them and to celebrate Bob and his magical collection of songs that night. It was there that the idea for this album was born.
Were you wary of treading similar ground to others who’ve done the Dylan tribute type thing?
No not at all. I simply wanted to bring some good energy to them and was passionate about it. I was just following my heart. I don’t care what others have done with the songs in the past. That had no bearing at all on why I wanted to do it. I just believed we could have some fun with it and do them in a respectful way.
What was rationale behind the songs chosen?
I chose songs I thought I could bring some good energy and passion to. There were so many to choose from. It was all very organic. At first I was looking for songs that would work well in concert. I didn’t labour over it. I just picked songs I liked and thought we could pull off live and in the studio. I was thinking and hearing a bit of ‘Bolero’ when I approached ‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall’. I was thinking a bit of Ramones on ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’, and maybe a touch of Chuck Berry and the Beastie Boys for ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’. I just tried not to get in the way and wanted to have some fun with it. I picked songs that I thought could work together well in a collection. Bob’s got so many great songs but I just followed my instincts and went with it. It didn’t take very long to pick the songs.
Did you record much that didn’t get included?
No. I knew which songs would be on the album and there was no need to do any extra songs.
What didn’t make the cut – and why?
There’s so many great songs to pick from it could have been more difficult than it was but I just went ahead and chose songs I liked and songs that would work together in a collection. ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ was too obvious and so well done I didn’t want to go near it.
I’ve always enjoyed people covering Dylan’s work – he’s a bit like the benchmark for your craft in the rock n roll world, in the way that a jazz artist kind of measures his worth against his contemporaries in the way that he covers the usual jazz standards. What have been the covers that have stood out for you by other artists?
Emmylou Harris did an amazing job on ‘Every Grain Of Sand’. Manfred Mann’s ‘Quinn The Eskimo’ was really good. Springsteen’s version of ‘Chimes Of Freedom’ is really great.
Given the overwhelmingly positive response you’ve had to this album are you thinking volume two at some point?
I’m surprised how positive the response has been. It’s heartening. It would be fun to do another volume sometime but not yet. I’ve got another album of songs I’m writing and think I’ll do that next. Maybe down the road a bit but not right now.
You’ve been dogged by bad luck in your career – how have the knocks affected you?
I’ve had some bad luck but I’ve also had some really good luck. I got to tour across the U.S. opening shows for The Who. I’ve toured and sung on stage with Ringo Starr. Bruce Springsteen has invited me up to play with him numerous times in stadiums and in arenas and he’s joined me on stage a number of times. Roger McGuinn and Richard Thompson have played on my albums. I’ve been blessed with great musicians to play with and have had four amazing bands over the years. I’ve been very lucky with the press for the albums I’ve put out. They’ve been very kind to me. I’ve been blessed with a great family. I could go on.
Sure, there’ve been bad times but who doesn’t have them? We all go through the ups and downs in this crazy world. But I think I’ve benefitted from the hard times. I’ve learned from them and they’ve made me stronger. I enjoy life more than ever and appreciate the little things. I’m actually grateful for the hard knocks and think they’ve made me a better person, hopefully.
There’s never anything less than unbridled joy, a sense of triumph and upbeat positivity that runs through all your work – where do you think that comes from?
I think it comes from my mother. She was always so full of energy and ideas and was passionate about life. I never realized that until she passed and it hit me that I was a lot like her.
I’ve written about a lot of things that are clearly not positive or optimistic, like ‘Holy War,’ ‘Cell Phones Ringing (In The Pockets Of The Dead),’ which are both about terrorism. I’ve written about death, about phony’s and scoundrels and low life’s, but at the end of the day I don’t want my music to be a downer. Life’s tough enough without some sob story bad news merchant making things worse. When people leave my concerts I want them to feel much better than when they came in and that’s usually the reaction. It feels good to bring some joy to the world now and then.
You’ve written a lot of songs and your identity seems inextricably woven into the folklore of NY rock n roll – have you ever considered living somewhere else? Would you be the same Willie Nile or do you think you feed off the NYC energy?
There’s a lot of great places to live and I do enjoy wandering the planet but I love the energy and electricity of New York. It’s a good place to write. There’s rich and poor and everything in between and I dig the cosmopolitan atmosphere with people from all over the world living in close proximity. There’s a thousand ideas down every backstreet and alleyway.
What would the career high points be so far?
Playing on stage with The Who and Bruce at a Musicares event two years ago honouring Pete Townshend. Playing with Bruce in front of 70,000 at Giant Stadium and at Shea Stadium. Having my song “This Is Our Time” be the theme song at Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala’s speech in D.C. for the Voice Of America and getting to meet her and her family. There’s actually a lot of them. Like I said, I’m a lucky guy.
Being unable to play live shows for a couple of years because of a bad case of mono and having young children to feed and clothe. That was really hard.
Anything you’d like to set the record straight on?
Not really. I’d rather let the songs speak for me. I was never one to carry a chip on my shoulder and complaining doesn’t do much good. I’ve been luckier than most in being able to follow my dreams and write songs, make records and get to travel the world and play concerts and I’m deeply grateful for that. I guess my songs are there to set the record straight.
What are you listening to these days?
The Riptide Movement, a band from Ireland, are a favourite of mine. James Maddock, who’s originally from Leicester but has been living in NYC the past 15 years, is a great singer-songwriter. I’ve got a Chuck Berry Greatest Hits album that’s always getting spins, along with The Ramones and John Lee Hooker collections.
One of my favourite songs of yours is ‘House Of A Thousand Guitars’ – is that basically a tip of your hat to your favourite artists? Did you finish recording and think ‘damn I forgot so and so’?!
Yes it is a tip of the hat to some favourites. I had a number of other people who either didn’t have enough syllables in their name or just didn’t sound right. Steve Cropper was one. James Burton was another. But I do vary the names of those in one couplet. “You can walk barefoot on broken glass…in the House of a Thousand Guitars…cause John Lee Hooker’s gonna kick your ass” is the line I’ll change from time to time. I put Tom Petty’s name in last night.
What albums are you happiest with?
I think the last four are my favourites, ‘American Ride’, ‘If I Was A River’, ‘World War Willie’ and ‘Positively Bob: Willie Nile Sings Bob Dylan’, along with ‘Streets Of New York’.
Any you would have done differently?
Not really. I think I’ve just learned more from experience and they seem to be getting better. It’s either that or I’m drinking better wine these days.
You must have crossed paths with Bob – any feedback from him on the album?
His publishing company used to administrate my catalogue and our paths have crossed a few times. I sent along a copy for him. I don’t know if he’s heard it or not. They’re great songs and there’s no telling if he has any interest in hearing them anymore. He’s earned the right to let silence speak for him and I will always respect that.
You’ve worked with – in one way or another – most of the major figures in rock n roll – anyone you wish you’d had the chance to connect with now gone?
I was going to meet John Lennon the day after he died. I was in the Record Plant Studios in NYC making my second album and John was recording there as well, making a record with Yoko. I sent over some guitar strings when they ran out of strings late one night. It was the last thing he recorded, a song called “Walking On Thin Ice.” The next evening he was killed after he left the studio after signing an autograph for who he thought was the guy who gave him the strings the night before. It read: “To Ken. Who strung me along. Peace and love. John Lennon.” Ken was a friend of my co-producer who was bugging him to get an autograph and since we did John a favour the night before he obliged in signing it but was told it was for the artist in Studio A who sent the strings. Ten minutes after he left he was shot and the phones started ringing off the hook. I’ll never forget that night. Still so very sad to this day.
That fierce attack that you bring to your work – that level of intensity – is one thing that really sets you apart form a lot of people for me. Where is that coming from? To me it feels like you’re still hungry and never settling for what you’ve got. Would that be a fair assessment?
I’d say that’s a fair assessment. Had I gotten stinking rich early on maybe I would’ve lost my edge and gotten soft. Who knows? But I’m grateful for the journey I’ve been on. I’m still hungry and am grateful for that. It’s certainly been interesting I will say.
I’ve interviewed a lot of people who’ve had years in the business including – Suzi Quatro and your fellow New Yorkers Walter Lure and Alan Merrill – like you they all seem to have that undying passion for the music, a deep and justified pride in their work and a good sense of self and their value and status in the rock n roll hierarchy. Would that be a feeling that you recognise in yourself?
Yeah I can identify with that. I was never looking to be an American Idol of any kind. That held no interest for me. Fame is not a path that’s going to get you anywhere worth getting to. Mind you I’d surely like to be stinking rich but I wouldn’t sell my soul to get it.
I also think that their enthusiasm confirms what I’ve always believed and said before in articles – that rock n roll truly is the elixir of youth – I’m sure you’d concur with that?!
Oh yes indeed I would. There’s nothing like strapping on an electric guitar and plugging in to a good amp and turning it up loud and blasting out some ethereal nonsense. Can’t beat it. It makes you feel good to be alive.
What is your success level outside USA – where are your best markets?
I usually play small theatres, clubs, festivals, and the local home for wayward boys and girls here and there. I do pretty well in Spain, Italy and the UK. All places where I’m wanted by the law of course.
Has there been anyone, past or present, that you’d like to hear doing one of your songs – and what in particular?
Jeff Buckley singing ‘On The Road To Calvary’. I wrote it for him after he passed. We were going to write together. I would have loved to have heard him sing it.
When you’re writing are you stockpiling material or do you have a writing blitz in the studio?
I write all the time and don’t go into the studio till all the songs are written.
In this modern age where it’s become so hard to make money from recorded music, are you finding that you’re having to gig a lot more to make a living. I’m sure you must have noticed the change in revenues streams etc from your early days through to now. Do you think things are better now re accessibility and openness or do you think the financial price artists have had to pay may be too high?
I think things are better now. There’s more ways to get the music out there and that’s a good thing. I never was a road dog. I only toured a little bit in 1980 and ’81 and then walked away from the music business when it became more about business than music. I didn’t want them to kill my buzz so I said ‘screw it’ and walked away. It’s really only the last 7-8 years that I’ve been touring regularly. It seems to keep me fit and helps me not to go crazy so I’d say it’s a good thing. I’m having more success now that at any time in my career so I’ve got no complaints. I just try to write and record the best songs I can and put it out there. And there are some things you just can’t put a monetary value on. Money’s good, of course, and necessary, but there some are things that money can’t buy, and that’s what makes it all worthwhile.
What ambitions do you still have?
I’m thinking of running for President.
Bruce Springsteen picture courtesy of Debra L Rothenberg/FilmMagic
All of WIllie Nil’ back catalogue is available direct via his Bandcamp Shop, including a limited vinyl edition of ‘Positively Bob: Willie Nile Sings Bob Dylan’