Positively Willie
Veteran New York Rocker Willie Nile Guarantees Musical Satisfaction - Or Your Money Back

By Lee Valentine Smith

Willie Nile burst upon the music scene at the dawn of the '80s, surrounded by a considerable amount of promotional hype and an even greater collection of good songs. The promo teased the arrival of a New Dylan, but the fact is, he had his own style and played by his own rules.

After forays on Arista and Columbia and a decade-plus sabbatical from the music business, Nile is now back in action and more productive than ever as a decidedly independent rocker. A prolific songwriter, his latest release is a collection of unique Bob Dylan interpretations, appropriately titled Positively Bob.

Currently on tour with his band and playing selected dates in the US and UK as a duo act in storyteller mode, Nile will soon be leaving his New York home to hit the road for a long winter tour that includes a stop at Eddie's Attic. INsite caught up with him on New Year's Eve just after a marathon 2-hour-plus performance at Darryl Hall's venue/studio.

It's been a long time since you played a full-length show in Atlanta. Besides a couple of songs at a benefit, the last time you were here was opening for The Who in 1980 at the Omni. That's a very tough gig for anyone.

Yeah and I'll never forget it. The promoter, that big guy, Alex Cooley came backstage after my set. He pointed at me and said, 'Do you know what you just did?' I said, 'No, what?' He said, 'You just got a standing ovation from a Who crowd!' He goes, 'Lynyrd Skynyrd was booed off the stage a couple of years ago when they tried it and they're from this area.' I thought it was really sweet.

I know Townshend was a big fan of your first album.

Yeah and I've stayed in touch with Pete and Roger [Daltrey] over the years. I played with them again a couple years ago at a big benefit show for MusiCares in New York City. I sang "Substitute" and "The Kids Are Alright" and then for the encore we all did "Won't Get Fooled Again." It was The Who and the band with Bruce Springsteen and Billy Idol and Joan Jett - and me. It was crazy. I mean, I'm buddies with Bruce but I look at pictures from that night and I still go, 'Wait, what's wrong with this picture?'

You just did a Live At Darryl's House show, how'd it go?

It was at his venue and they record the whole thing. You just end up with a world class recording when you're done. We played for like 2 hours and 20 minutes and we roared. We could have gone another hour, it was such a blast.

That was with the band but in Atlanta it's the duo show.

Yeah it's my bass player Johnny Pisano and me. We did a storyteller tour a while back in the UK and that's what this is, it's an acoustic set but we rock it. We pull songs out of the hat and I'll tell some stories from over the years.

The stripped-down format is your earliest roots of performance. In the middle of the whole CBGB's punk band era, you were doing the solo singer-songwriter thing.

Yeah when I first moved to New York, I couldn't afford to have a band so I'd play solo anywhere I could. Open mics or wherever. I'd moved to New York to try to make records; I'd never had a garage or college band or anything like that. I was always just the poet, writing by himself in the corner at the library or a café.

Obviously the poetic imagery of Dylan was an early influence.

It's the messages of those songs that always got to me. Bob has always gone out to the edge and sent back missives, wither he's doing a Frank Sinatra song or his own 'Blowin' In The Wind." He listens to his own drummer. It's just so good to sing those songs of his. For Positively Bob I picked songs that I thought people needed to hear, just to carry it on. My two-year-old granddaughter, and I've got a clip of it, her mom is playing "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall," and she starts wailing: "It's a-hard, it's a-hard…" along with it. She's two years old! That's really why I did it, but that's why I make any kind of music, to share a few things along the way.

Do you feel like you're at a creative peak at the moment?

I walked away from it all in the '80s and then played out some in the '90s but it's really been in the last six or seven years that I think I've been really banging it. I didn't burn out so it's still fresh and I'm having a ball. See, I still believe in the transformative power of rock'n'roll, because it's really whatever makes you feel alive. There's a salvation in it for me. I won't walk out on a stage unless I feel like I can bring something to it. I want people to walk away from my show feeling glad they came out to the club.

You went through all the usual music business ups and downs, but you certainly don't seem bitter about it.

No and I think I'm most proud of that. When I first moved to New York in the '70s, I noticed that a lot of musicians had a big chip on their shoulder. That's understandable but I remember seeing all that and I've avoided it like the plague. I've got no chips on my shoulder and anyone who sees me play, they can see that I'm just having fun. I think that's what's kept me going for so long.

You may be the only artist ever to record on Arista who didn't come away jaded by the experience.

You've probably seen more of it than I have because I'm just one artist. Music scenes have so many people who are so easily jaded and get jealous or feel overlooked. But everybody gets overlooked sometimes because we're on the planet Earth. Nothing's easy and you'll get your heart broken some way. It just happens. I saw a lot of that when I was first in the Village. But I love the music so much I've refused to let anyone kill my buzz.

Your enthusiasm definitely shows in the live shows but it's also evident on the records, which is often so hard to capture.

I'm proud of both and I fell like I'm still learning how to do it. You want to bring something that's full of life and fun and passion - whether it's on stage or on tape. Now that I can do this storyteller-type show, it'll be even more fun because it's so intimate but it's still rockin.' Hey, I always say to people, 'If you're not knocked out, I don't mean if you just sort of like it, I mean if you don't love it, I'll give you your money back in two seconds.'

Willie Nile will play at Eddie's Attic on Thursday, January 18. For more information, please visit eddiesattic.com.

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