Willie Nile Interview: The Bell Rings Loud & Clear
Photo by Cristina Arrigoni
BY JORDAN MAINZER
It’s apparent talking to Willie Nile that he lives for music. Within mere minutes of answering the phone during our interview last month, he’s telling me stories about meeting legendary horn player Bobby Keys, or details about his desire for DC to fiscally support classic record stores. Nile also emphasizes that he can’t wait to play SPACE in Evanston on Sunday, touring on not only his most recent album The Day The Earth Stood Still (River House Records) but 2020′s New York At Night, which came out during COVID lockdown. “People come for the ecstasy” of hearing live music, he said. “There’s a redemptive quality to it. There can be salvation in it--some meaning.”
To Nile, these aren’t just words. Growing up in Buffalo, NY in a music-loving household, he was exposed to everything from classical to big band to vaudeville, and he witnessed the evolution from rockabilly to rock and roll to, finally, CBGBs-era punk when he moved to New York. Though he released his self-titled debut in 1980 to much hype--many in the press calling him the next Springsteen or Dylan--his career saw some interruptions due to legal issues as well as recording delays. That’s all in the past; Nile’s been on a hot streak over the past 15 years, releasing over twice as many albums (10) as he did in the first 25 years of his career (4). The Day The Earth Stood Still is at least his best since 2013′s American Ride, and maybe even his best yet.
Ironically, The Day The Earth Stood Still was born from when playing live--one of the things he loved most--was taken away. The last show he and his band played before COVID was on February 29th, 2020 in South Orange, New Jersey. Everybody in his band except for him contracted COVID-19, his guitarist Jimi Bones sick for a month. (“He coughed so hard he cracked four ribs,” Nile told me.) Though they’re all okay now, and fully vaccinated, the combination of the experience of contracting COVID and the initial disappearance of live music has made Nile and company not take anything for granted. “We’re lifers,” he said. “We give everything for a passion for music.” They were back at it before a lot of others, playing live streams and outdoor shows. Nonetheless, Nile recognizes that not everybody is so quick to return to live shows; he still finds people in audiences every night who haven’t seen a show in over 18 months, witnessing friends seeing friends in the audience for the first time in years.
The title of Nile’s new album is taken from the 1951 sci-fi film of the same name, though the horror show it’s about is real. He was inspired to write the opening title cut when witnessing the surrealism of an empty New York City during rush hour, further angered by a pandemic that’s been prolonged by the wealthy for financial gain. “When the ABCs of logic meet the CEOs of greed / And the SROs of loneliness grab and start to bleed,” he sneers. “Blood On Your Hands”, a Steve Earle duet with a “Pink Houses” melody but post-punk level of disdain for the powerful, occupies similar thematic territory. At the same time, Nile’s not nihilistic; he’s not blindly optimistic, either. On the surface, you may think songs with titles like “I Will Stand” and “Time To Be Great” are filled with platitudes, but they’re more genuine in their aims, authentic in their inspirations. Closer “Way Of The Heart” is empathetic and heartfelt. “Reach out from the darkness / Step into the rising sun / And remember when you’re all alone / You’re not the only one,” he sings. And “The Justice Bell (For John Lewis)” is not only dedicated to the late Civil Rights activist and Congressman; it’s inspired by Nile meeting him. Nile’s incisive political commentary is in the same vein as one of those to whom he was oft compared at first: Like for Springsteen, it’s born out of a desire to make the world better. “Let’s make this a better world,” he said, “one song at a time.”
Read my interview with Nile below, edited for length and clarity.
Steve Earle & Willie Nile; Photo by Dominick Totino
Since I Left You: Can you recall any other time in your career when you wrote about something so immediate as the lockdown?
Willie Nile: I always write about things that are around me. I don’t sit down with a pen and a paper and think, “Let’s write a song.” I wait till things come to me. In this case, I had a couple songs that I’d written early last spring that I thought, “This could be the beginnings of an album here.”
Late May, I had a handful of songs. If you told me that New York could be a ghost town two years ago, I would have thought you were nuts. It was all that. Step out in Greenwich Village, go to a store, go for a walk, ride my bike along the river. I’d see nobody or just a handful of people. My storage space is near the Holland Tunnel, south Manhattan. Every day, from 3:30 PM on is rush hour. Friday, forget about it: You’re going out of town, you have to leave a few hours early. One Friday afternoon, last May, I went to my storage space to get something, walked around the corner to Spring Street, and there was not a car in sight. I looked uptown and downtown. I was standing in the middle of the street. I took a picture of it. It hit me like a ton of bricks: The Day The Earth Stood Still. I knew that movie when I was a kid, 1951 classic sci fi film. But it just came to mind because there was nothing moving, not a car, not a person, at 6:00 PM in New York City. I had [the song] in my head for a week or so, and I knew right away that it was a title track. It rocks. It’s got one of my favorite lyrics: “When the ABCs of logic meet the CEOs of greed and the SROs of loneliness grab and start to bleed / There comes a time for judgement / The time to pay the bill / And that is just the way it was / The day the earth stood still.” Those words just came out. I knew it was the center of it.
I’ll always write about what’s around me, but there’s never been a time like this pandemic that “what’s around you” has been so in your face. People dying, up to 2,000 a day again now. “Blood on Your Hands”, “Expect Change”, cause it’s comin. The one constant in life is that things change. It may be good, may be bad. Buildings get razed. People die, people get born. Our job is to try to roll with it as best as we can. “Time to be Great”--I’m watching TV, and it was the news, and it was bad, and I thought to myself, “What are we supposed to do in the face of this nightmare, this tragedy? You know what: Time to be great.” Last winter, my dad--he’s 103--was going out to get the paper in the morning. I said, “It’s pretty cold out there, dad.” He had just a shirt on. He gets the paper, sits down, and says, “Yep, it’s cold,” and then said, “Bring it on.” I thought, “You know what, time to be great. Time to be as good as we can. Let’s pick ourselves up through this and help each other.”
The album opens up with “The Day The Earth Stood Still” and the second song is “Sanctuary”, which is an older song. It’s not a concept record by any means, but there are a number of songs that deal with this nightmare we’re going through. “Sanctuary” is offering an oasis. I thought of Charles Laughton in that great old film The Hunchback of Notre Dame, by the bell, yelling, “Sanctuary! sanctuary!” We all need sanctuary. Music, love, and kindness can give us that.
I’m so proud of this album. It’s one of the best I’ve ever made. I haven’t done this many interviews since my debut album came out in 1980. It seems like it’s struck a chord.
And my band--I always tell people, “If you come to the show, first of all, bring two pairs of socks, because we’re gonna blow your socks off, and if you’re not blown away, money back.” This band brings it. We have fun. It’s a feel-good show. The world needs it. Last year, I put out the record New York At Night. There was debate whether we should wait a few months [to release it till the pandemic calmed down]. I thought, “It’s so negative out there.” We didn’t get to tour behind New York At Night--so the shows are really rocking, and we have a powerhouse of songs to play. I thought, “This album’s full of light.” I just wanted to put something positive out there, and I’m glad I did. I could still be waiting to put it out. You can’t wait. You gotta deal with the hand you’ve been dealt, which is what most of us are trying to do.
SILY: Even on this album, you do find a balance between incendiary political tunes and fun or funny tunes like “Where There’s A Willie There’s A Way” and “Off My Medication”.
WN: [laughs] I can’t believe I wrote those. I remember thinking, “Who writes these songs?” “Blood on your hands / blood on your hands / you can’t wipe it off with your one-night stands / blood on your hands / blood on your hands / little old ladies dying in the heartland.” It’s true! For those who didn’t look out for the people they’re elected to take care of. And then you’ve got “Where There’s A Willie There’s A Way”. Total fun, ridiculous fun song. “Off My Medication”, I remember I wrote that and thought, “I must be out of my mind to write a song like this.” If I heard that on the radio, I’d go, “Who the hell is this guy?” [laughs] So yeah, there’s a blend. There are incendiary songs.
I always write about love, and loss. I wrote “Holy War”. I’ll also write “This Is Our Time” or “Forever Wild”. I’ll write anthems of good news, something positive. I try to put the best spin on stuff I can. Life is real, and I write about it, and I’ve been blessed a lot of ways in my life.
I love the combination of songs [on The Day The Earth Stood Still]. This album ends with a song called “Way Of The Heart”, which I recorded in 2009. Other than “Sanctuary” and “Way Of The Heart”, all these songs were last year, and a number of them, last fall before we made the record. I re-sang “Way Of The Heart”, and I had the recording for years in a drawer. I thought, “This would be a perfect way to finish this album.” The “way of the heart” being the way the river runs. It’s an ongoing journey that we’re all on, and I’m so, so thrilled I’ve been able to make these albums.
Knock on wood, I’ve been healthy and strong, and taken care of myself. Nine albums in twelve years, and they don’t suck. The last four records I made, World War Willie, Positively Bob, the Dylan covers album, Children of Paradise, New York At Night, and The Day The Earth Stood Still. I’d hang my head on those albums any day of the week. It’s not just me. I have a great team around me. My band, my goodness. My coproducer Stewart Lerman, he does all of Scorsese’s productions ever since The Aviator. I’ve been working with him since 1988. They’re my songs, but you can’t do it by yourself.
I play generally older audiences, but if there are young people in the audience or who work at the venues, it never fails. They see bands and artists night after night [and] get jaded after a while. But their enthusiasm for a classic rock and roll show means the world to me. We don’t phone it in. It will never get to that point--I’ll walk away before it, though I’m sure I’d drop before that ever happens. You can see two songs in: “These guys aren’t kidding.” I’m just really psyched. We have four shows in the Midwest and SPACE is one of the bright lights.
Willie Nile & the late Rep. John Lewis
SILY: How did you meet John Lewis?
WN: I put my first record out in 1980, and I was playing at Queens College. These two kids climbed into my dressing room window to get a towel signed. I thought, “Sure, what the hell.” I signed the towel, and one of those kids ended up being former Congressmen Joe Crowley. Over the years, he’s been a really good friend. I played his [birthday parties.] A few years ago, Congressman John Lewis walks in, and I almost hit the floor. Joe walks out of his way to say, “John, you gotta meet this guy, he’s a great American poet.” He gave me a really nice introduction to John Lewis. And I had a really sweet moment with John Lewis. We shook hands, but I looked him right in the eye and held his hand and told him what an honor it was and thanked him for all he’s done for voting rights, equality and justice, and making it a better world and better country. He’s always been on the side of our better angels. I got to tell him that. He went on stage, and I was about five feet away, and he spoke for about 10 minutes, and it was just eloquent, beautiful, and heartfelt. It inspired the song, “The Justice Bell”, and I mean every word of it. “The justice bell will not be stilled, let it ring. For every dream that is fulfilled, hear it ring; hear it in the voiceless ones as they rise up and sing.” We’re working on a video for it now.
Everybody’s life has ups and downs, but that was one of my mountaintops. I’ve had a lot of mountaintops--I’ve been really lucky. I’ve sung with Ringo Starr on stage, I’ve toured with The Who, I’ve sung with Springsteen for over 70,000 people at Giant Stadium. I’ve been really lucky. Meeting John Lewis was a real honor for me. I know some people in DC, and they got the song to his former chief of staff and to his family. I think John would have liked it. God bless him.
I’m for fighting the fight. I believe in this country and the people of this country. I believe in the potential, the dream that is this country. This is hopefully the land of freedom for all. Clearly, it’s not. Clearly, we have problems and we have a long way to go. But that’s not going to stop me from trying to do my best just to raise the bar, spread some goodwill. I’m a believer in rock and roll. I think music can heal, and I’ll do my best to do that. I was born in this country, and I believe in the better angels that are here. Meeting John Lewis was a real thrill. Looking into his eyes, I couldn’t believe it. God bless John Lewis.
SILY: What’s the story behind the album art?
WN: My wife, Cristina Arrigoni, is a photographer. I met her when she was hired to photograph me 11 years ago when I was touring in Italy. We hit it off and we’ve been together ever since. These photographs were taken in Washington Square Park in New York City. She knew I was gonna call the album The Day The Earth Stood Still, and one day, she said to me, “I think I’ve got a good idea for your album cover,” which happened for Children of Paradise, her idea being the four homeless people on the cover. She said, “This guy’s name is Johan Figueroa-Gonzalez,” who I write about in the booklet. He’s in Washington Square Park. He’s a performance artist who does a living statue thing. He paints his body white and will stand on a pedestal and change shapes. The back of the album is him standing on the Washington Square Arch. He looks like he’s an old Medieval figure. It’s just timeless. All the pictures are of Johan except for the one of John Lewis and I [sic].
I saw him last weekend and gave him copies of the album since he hadn’t seen it. He was so thrilled. I asked him through Cristina, “What can I say about you? I want to tell people about you on the album.” [He said,] “I’m a survivor, doing my best to encourage people to embrace their emotions through my performances as a living statue. In these times of people dehumanizing each other, my hope is for people to begin to feel empathy.” That’s the last bit of the booklet, and it’s a perfect summation of what this album is. How these things come together is beyond me, but it’s a perfect combination of Cristina’s great photography, and Johan’s brilliant artistry. I’m so proud of this record. I love them all, but the bell rings loud and clear with this album.
If anybody goes to New York City on a weekend before the cold weather comes, you’ll see him. Sit down for half an hour and watch him do what he does. He’s another artist I would love to see the city [financially] support.
SILY: What else is next for you?
WN: I’m always writing--that’s nonstop. I don’t have any plans to record yet, but I’m always working on songs. There’s a guy making a documentary film about me that’s been ongoing for the last few years. COVID obviously stopped us, but we’re on again and hope to finish filming by the end of the year. I met the guy a handful of years ago. He’s from Austria. He wrote me a bunch of emails saying, “I want to make a movie about you.” I didn’t know who the guy was. I’m not a glory boy; I don’t need to have my face up on screen. I like to be involved in things that are credible and good. I didn’t respond, and a friend of mine said, “You should meet this guy.” I flew to Austria from New York and met him as a courtesy and said, “Why do you want to make a movie about me? What’s such a big deal about me?” And he said, “You never gave up. You’re doing your best work now. It’s a story of inspiration with New York City as a backdrop. All of these hall of famer rock and rollers are huge fans of yours.” We talked for two hours, and all the things he picked up on were really smart, and it changed my mind, so I thought, “Maybe let’s give it a shot.” We filmed in Italy, in Spain, at the BBC with the great Johnnie Walker interviewing me. We filmed in the States, Canada, all over New York. He came to Buffalo to interview my father. So we’re working hard trying to finish the documentary. I’m going to Italy to film at the end of October.
SILY: Anything you’ve been listening to, watching, or reading lately that’s caught your attention?
WN: I’ve been watching the Ken Burns Muhammad Ali documentary. Music-wise, I always listen to the classic stuff. There’s a singles collection of The Kinks [I’ll listen to] during the little bit of working out I do. I like Lindsey Buckingham’s new album. Intriguing production, great guitar playing. Jesse Malin’s record that Lucinda Williams produced. Lucinda’s last record I loved. James Maddock. Classical music, old blues, R&B, Motown. The Four Tops.