Published: Sep 09, 2009
He was the next Bruce Springsteen. The next Dylan. The praise was off the hook — even from Robert Palmer, of The New York Times: "Every once in awhile the times seems to produce an artist who is at once an iconoclast and near-perfect expression of contemporary currents. He is one of the best singer-songwriters to emerge from the New York scene in a long time."
So why have you never heard of Willie Nile?
In a very small way, it’s my fault. In l980, when his first album came out, I was all over Willie Nile — I even got an assignment from The Washington Post to profile him. We had a pleasant interview, during which I learned that he still bought his clothes in the boy’s department. But I couldn’t get into the “next” business or define him with any precision, and I never wrote the piece.
Nile released a second album, and then he started fading from view. Inexplicable, really. In performance, he played accessible, loud, straight-ahead rock. He had a breathy, raspy, intimate voice and considerable stage presence. When excited, he’d leap — and, like Baryshnikov, he’d stay aloft for longer than you thought possible. But contract issues and changing tastes sent him into the wilderness; in the ‘90s, when I saw him open for Lucinda Williams, they were both so phlegmatic I wanted to throw ex-lax at the stage.
And now he’s released House of a Thousand Guitars — a CD so good you should put it on your Best New Artist list. There’s irreverent good humor (“Mr. John Lee Hooker’s gonna kick your ass”) in the title song (watch it here), a “Doomsday Dance” that will make you smile, a thoughtful slow number or two, and the songs that are his signature — optimistic, pounding, with energy that won’t quit:
I’ve seen lightning in the valley, heard the howling wolf call,
I saw the reaper in the alley, writing names upon every wall,
I see breaks out on the levee, in a world so far beyond strange,
Oh, but I have seen things change…
And then there’s a song that just goes beyond: an anthem that you should play so loud the pictures on the wall tremble. It’s called “Run”.
The idea is pure transcendence. Against a pounding drum and killer guitars, Nile sets himself up as a pure spirit, ripe with confidence and knowledge: “I’ve got the pulse of the universe running through my veins.” Then come the invitations: “Run….to the far off places…Run…from the streets of silence…” And, through it all, radiance and hope that’s infectious: “Everybody’s looking for the safe way out/ Not me, I want to scream and shout.”
Thirty years later, I hear the new, updated, same as he once was only better and wiser and louder Willie Nile. And I think: Yes. Absolutely. Run.
To buy “House of a Thousand Guitars” from Amazon.com, click here.
To buy the MP 3 of “House of a Thousand Guitars” from Amazon.com, click here.
To buy “Streets of New York” from Amazon.com, click here.
To buy “Arista Columbia Recordings 1980-1991” from Amazon.com, click here.