A Conversation with Willie Nile
Mike Ragogna: I'm honored, Willie Nile. How have you been?
Willie Nile: Fine, Michael, doing very well, thank you.
MR: Rumor has it you have a new album called American Ride and it's awesome.
WN: That's what people are telling me. You never know what people are saying these days, but I'm really happy with it.
MR: Having been a long-time fan...
WN: ...thank you, Michael.
MR: [laughs] You're very welcome. When listening, I felt the depth and hard work that went into sequencing, lyrics, etc. Very satisfying.
WN: Thank you so much for saying that. That's what I felt when I made it. It felt really good to me, it felt natural, it rocked...it just felt real to me. It's a very satisfying listen for me as well.
MR: Let's start with "This Is Our Time," which sets up what follows on American Ride. Do you feel like, with this album, this is your time?
WN: I do, actually. It's been a long up and down, sideways, left turn, right turn journey for me and I've benefited from that. I've learned a lot along the way; I've kept my edge, and it feels now that everything's coming together. In the studio, I'm really comfortable; on the stage, I'm really comfortable, and the album reflects that, I think. I just came back from a month long tour in the UK and Spain and things seem to really be gelling, and I'm getting some good reactions from this album. So maybe this is my time after all.
MR: Willie, this American Ride of which we speak, what went into the writing? You have such an ease with songwriting, joining usually hard to put together thoughts, words and concepts smoothly, so how do you do that thing you do?
WN: I just let it flow. If I sat down and tried to write something clever, I couldn't do it. I just follow my instincts. I like stories, I like storytelling, and when something comes to me, if it strikes me as a good story, I'll just start writing it and see what pops out. Sometime, it's like from a dream, and I just take it down. If I really thought hard and tried to plan it, it would come across as false, I think. I think it comes across as easy because I just let it flow out of me and it comes from who knows where. Some distant radio signal on some far-off planet. I just take it down. Like the line, "Leaving New York City on a full tank of gas, got baggage in my car, I've got to get out fast," I was thinking about how I had done a tour with The Alarm in the UK and Mike Peters, the lead singer of The Alarm. It was a band that we would sometimes get together with Mike Peters and Slim Jim McDonnell from The Stray Cats and Captain Sensible, the bass player from The Damned, and they thought maybe if I joined them, we'd have some fun touring through Europe. I said, "You know, that would be fun," and Mike said, "Write something." So I just sat down with a guitar one day and started strumming it, and I thought, "This might fit, a road song. A traveling song." So I started writing it and knocked it out. Whatever came out, I just wrote down in a stream of consciousness kind of thing. The next day, I looked at it and kind of tweaked it here and there, but it kind of just came out like that pretty quickly. Then when I played it for Mike Peters, when I saw him a couple of months later, he said he had an idea, so he went in a room and changed a couple of chords and helped me finish the end of it. I had it and he helped me tweak it at the end. It just came in a stream of consciousness, a story about America. There are things about this country--the good, the bad, and the in-between. Some of it's not great, some of it's amazing, and I just tried to dance across the country in an automobile with a guitar in my hand and that's what came out.
MR: You're tapping into something that's ageless and energized by doing it that way. And it's interesting to hear how fluid these images come to you, like you're getting out of the way of songwriting itself.
WN: Yeah, I just let it flow. It surprises me as well that the songwriting sounds so youthful and enthusiastic and energetic. Who knows; I'm not young but I feel it. I feel much the same as when I first came to New York thirty years ago. I still feel the same fire burning in me. I still feel the passion. Why? I don't know. Supposedly, with rock 'n' roll, the quality of the writing goes downhill. With me, it seems to be the other way for some lucky reason. Maybe it's because it's been a bumpy journey, although it's been a great journey and I've learned a ton and I'm grateful for that, so where I am now is the guitar's in good shape and I'm more at ease than ever in my own skin with my guitar and my keyboards and my words. It's kind of like, when I'm on stage, I just did twenty-seven shows in thirty-one days all across Europe, and it was easy. I had a ball doing it, and my shows are very energetic. I don't lay back, I give everything I've got, and I'm feeling great about it. Why it seems like I've got this fountain of youth flowing in my neck of the woods I don't know but I'll ride it and take it as far as I can take it. It really feels really natural these days and very comfortable to me.
MR: Is this all built upon the formative years you had during "Life On Bleecker Street."
WN: Yes, absolutely. I came here for forty years on and off living in New York. Bleecker Street was right out my window. The pulse of the city, the pace of the city, from the old men sitting in parks talking to their buddies or talking alone, to tourists coming all over the place out of every crevice, to guys with a hand out with a cup, to young rock 'n' rollers, to fashionistas, to the rich, the broken, the powerful, the sad, the happy, all of those things walk down this street, Bleecker Street. It's all there. It's like that great film Marcel Carné's Children Of Paradise, a great black and white. I guess I'd call it the Gone With The Wind of art films. It's a film all about dreams and in many ways, Bleecker Street is like the boulevard of dreams. From the years I've been there, the hippies and the ghosts of the sixties through the seventies and punk and CBGB's and Patti Smith, The Ramones, television... I saw all of that first hand. It's like the boulevard of dreams so "Life On Bleecker Street" just came to me. I loved it because it was about the street and the characters and they're real.
MR: Yeah, and the street itself has become a bit of a metaphor.
WN: Yeah, clearly. Again, it's not by design, it just happens that way. I let it come to me, I don't sit and labor to try to write some songs that are smart or clever or funny; I just let them come to me. That's the cool thing about experience. I'm still learning every day, and I'm very grateful for the journey I've had. I really am, because it's taught me so much. My feet are firmly on the ground. I feel really good and I've learned and gotten to a place I've always wanted to get to. I'm a musician and I'm a songwriter. I get to play my songs around the world and people come, all enthusiastic. My fan base is like a big family. People are really friendly and passionate about the music; they let me know it. I give everything I've got--I don't know how else to do it--and I get all that back every night when I try. It's so clear. I've got such a great band, and the band made this album--Alex Alexander on drums, Johnny Pisano on bass, Matt Hogan on guitar, with guest star Steuart Smith, who was with The Eagles and played on my albums before, and the great James Maddock and Leslie Mendelson singing background. It's a great team. Rod Morsberger is a dear, dear friend dying of brain cancer as we speak, and it's been a labor of love for me from Day One. I know in my heart if I didn't feel like it was something special that we could do, I wouldn't walk into the studio. I never toured in the eighties. I toured across the US in 1980 and the first year or two, but I walked away from the business in 1981 because it wasn't what I was hoping it would be. The business got in the way and it wasn't fun, and I thought, "I'm out." So I walked away, I moved back to Buffalo. But if I ever felt when walking out on stage that it wasn't going to be special, I wouldn't do it. It really feels special, more now than ever. I walk into the studio, I walk out on stage, these are very special days for me.
MR: It was a couple of years ago that your brother John passed away and on this album, you recorded "People Who Died" as a tribute to both him and its writer, Jim Carroll, who passed away.
WN: John died six years ago, and Jim was like two or three years ago. I knew Jim and my brother John lived right next door to me. I found his body. Great guy, sadly missed. I'm one of eight kids, and I always said that John was the brightest color of the rainbow. There's magic in all of us, but he wrote music, he was brilliant; he was funny, clever and is sorely missed. He loved that song, as did I. It's one of the treasures of rock 'n' roll. I remember the first time I heard the song, it came out in 1980 and my first record came out. I was in my car and a buddy of mine played the song and I went, "Wow, rock 'n' roll really can have meat to it." It can have meaning and depth and still be a great party song. Then you've got something. "People Who Died" is a serious subject, brilliantly executed and written, and I started doing it live, and I thought, "I've got to put this on my record." It's so much fun to play and it seems to resonate with the audiences. It was a way to honor John and Jim at the same time, and my band kicks the s**t out of it.
MR: I'm with you, "People Who Died" seems to treat a subject that's supposed to be more reverent in exactly the right way. It kicks the s**t out of the concept, making it a party.
WN: It kicks the s**t out of death. It really does. It kicks the taboo away from it. I remember when I went to Europe to play that summer, one of my musicians said, "Don't you think it's kind of a heavy song to be singing, especially with a different language?" I said, "You know, I could see that part of it, but it's such a great song, I think it will work." And to see the audience with such recognition on their faces to say, "Holy s**t, I know that song," and they go crazy! It's kind of like there's some salvation in it. "Let's sing about our loved ones that are gone, let's raise our fists to the sky and go, "Yeah I remember you! Here's to you! I salute you and I'm going to still dance here in your memory. I'm in for that party!" Jim Carroll wrote a masterpiece. That's clearly up there as one of rock 'n' roll's masterpieces up there with "Satisfaction."
MR: I'm with you. So you wrote what probably could be the answer to the Joan Osborne hit "What If God Was One Of Us?" with "God Laughs." I love that you not only personify God, but you're also injecting a slightly larger concept of "God IS all of us" in addition to the fun character you've made.
WN: That's spot-on, Michael. Thank you for saying that. You're totally right. I figure if there's a God or whatever people's different beliefs in "God," there's a lot made of God in this modern world in many different ways, the good and the bad, and I figure anybody that brilliant to create such a fascinating, deep, mysterious, unbelievable world has got to have a sense of humor. So I just went for it and had fun with it. There are moments where he listens to the news and goes home and cries...that just came to me. I wrote it with Eric Bazilian, who wrote "One Of Us." Eric's a good friend and we were in Sweden together playing a concert and he said he had this song idea and wondered if I would help him finish it. I loved it right away and I just ran with it. I just let it come to me and put down things that whatever twisted sense of humor I have--a little bit Charlie Chaplin a little bit Monty Python, a little bit dyslexic--I just let it fly out of me. If you overanalyze stuff it's going to come across. I just let it fly, and I did on that one. I had an amazing experience in Spain just two weeks ago. I played a concert and I was signing autographs after and a gentleman came up to me and he said, "I'm a priest," and he was a big fan, he jumped up and down and he said, "I'm a priest and I want to thank you for your song 'God Laughs.' It is so inspiring to me, you made it so human with a mystical whatever, thank you." I was really surprised and I was really happy that he took it that way. Some people might not appreciate it that way, thinking it's irreverent, but it's not meant that way at all. It's meant in the deep way that it's meant and he got it and he said it inspired him to no end, and I could look into his eyes and could tell he meant it. So That meant a lot to me. It's a twisted, crooked, fun, happy, seat-of-the-pants look at our magical world through the eyes of a wild poet living on Bleecker street.
MR: [laughs] Then comes a kind of juxtaposition with "Holy War." God's still the same character but in it, you're like, "You know what, dudes? He doesn't need your bulls**t."
WN: Well a lot of times--it can be any culture, whether it was the crusades from then to now a lot of different cultures, it's not eastern or western, for me it's not particular--it's any place in general, from the inquisition in the name of God, things that were done to people, torture and whatnot to the modern world where people claim God is with them and only them in the name of that blow people up. I was watching the news one day and there was a terror bombing and people died and it hit me like a ton of bricks. I thought, "God is great, yeah, but you're not. That doesn't make you great." That's what came to me. I thought, "We can do better than this as a race of people." I believe in the human race. I think we're capable of great things, I really do, and that's why I would even bother to write a song like that. It's an angry prayer for piece. That's what that is.
MR: It seems like we're always living in a time where "God" is used as an excuse or a rationalization for doing horrible things.
WN: There's been so much bloodshed from so many people in so many places. I'm not placing blame anywhere; there's a lot of blame to go around. If someone killed someone in my family, I'd be so hurt and want revenge as well, so it's not a judgment of anybody, it's just a prayer. God may be great, but that's not going to make you great for killing a doctor. It's a mixed-up crazy world and that's just my reaction to one event that I saw on television that hurt me. I'm for compassion, I'm for spreading love and peace and brotherhood and sisterhood. If there's any message, I'm just trying to raise that bar. Let's try to help each other as best as we can. I'm not pointing fingers, but there's a lot wrong in the world and it would be nice to see more compassion and more understanding and love in it.
MR: Beautiful. Let's talk about "There's No Place Like Home"
WN: Yeah, the album ends with that. From "The Crossing" to "There's No Place Like Home," it's a big, long journey and I travel a lot, so I know the value and the treasure that is family and that is home. You can think of the human race as a family, which, on our better days, we do. On my better days, I do, and I travel a lot and see a lot of friendly, warm, loving people and I feel that. I grew up in a home with a real cosmopolitan background. We had foreign exchange students; we lived in Buffalo, near Niagara Falls and we had people from every country on the planet come to my home, week after week, year after year. It was a really unique and special--and we all knew it at the time--view of life on this planet. We saw different clothes, different smells, different foods, different religions, everything. I saw all that. I had the benefit of growing up in a cosmopolitan home environment, so I know the value of home. I've seen people on the road far from their homes, and I've been on the road far from my home. So I'm glad I wrote that song. It came real quick and I thought, "This feels good." Woodie Guthrie would like a song like this and that's good enough for me.
MR: My traditional question: What advice do you have for new artists?
WN: It's pretty simple. I'd say follow your instincts, follow your heart, and do what's meaningful to you. If you have fun with it, that's one thing. The business has changed, and with the internet there are a lot more doors open. I would say follow your heart, have fun with it, follow your instincts...sing your song from as real a place in your soul and heart as you can find, sing with everything you've got. I also would say that if you have fun with it, it's likely other people might have fun with it as well. So follow your heart and have fun with it.
MR: What advice would you tell Willie Nile when your self-titled, debut album came out?
WN: [laughs] I would say it's going to take a lot longer than you'd think, but stay with it because you're going to get there. I'm getting there and it feels really, really good. It took a long time. It's thirty-three years ago that the record came out, and I've been writing all the time. I'll always write, it's what I do. I'm a songwriter, I'm a poet. My advice to myself in 1980 would be follow your heart, follow your instincts, never give up, hang in there and you'll get there. And it's happened.
MR: Nice, congratulations.
WN: Thank you.
MR: You're very welcome, and I have one obnoxious question, which is, at the time everyone was making a huge fuss over you, were you surprised when even Springsteen makde a fuss over you?
WN: I'm absolutely surprised and deeply grateful. I'm very, very fortunate. Sometimes I get the question, "Oh do you feel bad that you're not as famous or as wealthy as whatever, so-and-so, this guy, that guy?" I go "Not at all!" It's been an amazing ride. I've sung with Ringo Starr on stage, I got to open a tour for him, I toured across the US with The Who opening up shows night after night. I opened up for Ringo And His All-Starr Band across the Northeast, and on the last night, he invited me to sing "I Get By With A Little Help From My Friends." When I met Nick Jones of The Clash after I toured with The Who two years later, he was out on stage and The Clash had just played and I introduced myself to Mick Jones. I said, "Mick, I'm Willie Nile, I'm a big fan of yours." He looked at me and said, "I know you, I've got your record. You're great!" I said, "Get out of here, you don't know who I am," but he did, he had my records as a young kid growing up in the UK. Same thing with Lou Reed. When I met Lou, I said, "Hi Lou, I'm a big fan of yours." He said, "You're Willie Nile, I've got your records." And Bruce...I knew Patti Scialfa from years ago when she sang with Southside Johnny, and we used to tour and do some shows and she always was really nice, a wonderful person and a great singer. I ran into her in Los Angeles when I was promoting my Colombia album Places I Have Never Been, and she said, "Willie, come here, Bruce and I love your record. We work out to it in the morning every day." So I met Bruce back then, and he was so nice and so kind and complementary and over the years, we've become good buddies. He's invited me on stage. I went to see him to say hello the week Johnny Cash and Warren Zevon passed away, and I went backstage and he was singing Johnny and Warren songs all that week. So was I, and we spoke about that and he said, "You want to come and sing 'Glory Days?' Get a guitar." Next thing I know, I'm on stage in front of twenty-thousand, my family attending, and I went out and sang "Glory Days" with the E-Street Band. What a blast! Some people say "Your journey's been hard." Are you kidding me? Everybody's journey is hard. What's easy? Show me something easy. Michael Jackson didn't have it easy and how famous can you get? Two weeks later, I went to see Bruce at Shea Stadium to thank him for bringing me up and he got up and said, "Hey, get a guitar, come on up for 'Twist And Shout'." Next thing I know, I'm up there for half an hour singing, and he comes up and says, "Come on back tomorrow night, we'll do it again." Bruce is also very loose, plays it by the seat of his pants, follows his instincts, loves to rock 'n' roll. He's done it not just with me, but with a number of artists who he's supportive of, like Joe Greshecky, Elliot Murphy, Garland Jeffreys, Gary U.S. Bonds...artists that he believes in. How many people do you know that play stadium shows invite their friends up? He was playing Giants Stadium and I got a phone call from his assistant saying, "Come early." Bruce knew I was coming and I went up on stage in front of 70,000 people going Bruce-crazy. It was a blast. A total riot. I wish everybody could experience that hurricane, that tornado. It's incredible. If you go to willienile.com, there's a clip on the first page of Bruce coming on and joining us on stage and singing "One Guitar." He's a true rock 'n' roll guy. He just is. He's still that teenager that loves his guitar and loves rock 'n' roll and what it means to him as he was as a kid. I can see it in his eyes, I can see it there next to him on stage, the audience can see it, and there's a guy who gives 200% every time he walks out there. In his words, he says, "Not one day goes by that I'm not grateful." And the same thing here. Not one day goes by that I'm not grateful.
MR: And there's Bono and others who love you.
WN: Yes, I've been very lucky. Bono has been very supportive. Levon Helm was a dear friend, God bless him, supportive, encouraging all the time to me. Bono sent me a beautiful quote about the album. "It's a ride all right, on foot, on horseback, with occasional roller coasters thrown in. There are few American figures this clever. The mythic, the magic, very real. One of the great guides to unravelling the mystery that is the troubled beauty of America." What a poet. And what a good guy to take the time to do that. I sent the album to him and I asked if he had time to give it a listen and get the word out and boom, two weeks later I get this email and this beautiful words from a real poet and a guy with his heart in the right place. Is it meaningful? Very, very much so. Some things money can't buy.
MR: And there'll be reissues of your earlier albums.
WN: The first one is going to be out digitally. Sony Legacy did a thing where they asked fans in general of the whole Sony world what albums they most wanted to be reissued and mine was one of the four. I couldn't believe it. The first album Willie Nile is going to be out digitally shortly. And we're working on it, of course and have some special stuff.
MR: Willie, thank you. Any other thoughts?
WN: Singing on stage with Bruce, singing on stage with Ringo, getting to tour with The Who, being pals with Bono and having him give these beautiful words on an album I spent lots of time getting the experience to come up with and write. I'm very, very grateful and I would say to anybody whether you're an artist or not, when the road's not easy, because all of our roads have their highs and their lows, no question, some mountains are seriously hard to climb, but I'd say just persevere. Keep the faith. After his mother died, a priest said to my dad, "It's cloudy now, but the sun will shine again." To anyone out there on these roads, if the weight is too much to bear, hang in there, keep the faith. Tomorrow's a new day. There are so many times I could have just turned and said, "To hell with this," but it was my passion. Words come to me easily sometimes and I love music. I've always loved rock 'n' roll, so I've put the two together and I'm making my living from it now. These are great days for me, so I think anybody having hard times should just hang in there, persevere, tomorrow's another day, it's going to get better. Keep up the fight. It's worth it.
1. This Is Our Time
2. Life on Bleecker Street
3. American Ride
4. If I Ever See the Light
5. She's Got My Heart
6. God Laughs
7. People Who Died
8. Holy War
9. Say Hey
10. Sunrise in New York City
11. The Crossing
12. There's No Place Like Home
Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne
photo by Carl Mahoney
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photo courtesy of The Quick & Easy Boys
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