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?
I loved the first album, got got an assignment from The Washington Post to profile him, couldn’t define him with any precision, never wrote the piece. By the second album, he was 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
Then came the comeback. Critics swooned over.. Streets of New York. His first CD, out of print, sells for 99.95 new, $30.00 used. (Listen to “It’s All Over” and you’ll understand.) His 1980s songs were reissued.
The he released House of a Thousand Guitars — a CD so good the unaware could put it on a 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 go to Willie Nile’s MySpace page, click here.