Willie Nile: Places He Has Never Been

Before I even turn on the recorder, Willie Nile is telling me his theory of how the granite under Manhattan Island conducts electricity, which accounts for the perceptible charge that many people feel makes New York City so special. It's also what draws artists like flies, none more passionate than singer-songwriter Nile, who's personally contributed a few volts during his years in NYC.

"I used to hitchhike down from Buffalo when I was still in high school, thrilled with all the romance and magic the city held. This big, dirty, dark, dank—it's got all the D's—dangerous place."

But when Nile arrived in the late '70s and began to make contact with the music community, he found hurt feelings, grudges, and a chip on every shoulder.

"It felt like you were in a broken-hearts society," he says to me at a midtown restaurant over a lunch of chive-slathered chicken paillard as big as home plate. "We all get our little hearts nicked. I was just too ignorant to take it personally. I'm a tough little Irish-American kid." He smiles, lowers his head, raises his fists, and throws left-right combination air punches.

Nile the music fan quickly became a denizen of the then multihued downtown scene, and used to call friends long distance from the payphone in the back of CBGB's while the band Television was playing, to try to convince them to come to New York to hear what was happening. "None of them ever came," he says with disgust.

By the late 1970s, Nile, who stylistically combines the east-coast grit of Springsteen with the lyrical wordplay of Elvis Costello, all sung in a distinctly Dylanesque whisper, had become a leading member of that scene—and, after New York Times critic Robert Palmer wrote a laudatory review, the flavor of the month and the object of a classic record-biz tug of war.

"It was fascinating to see. I mean, I'm a fan. I love music. I'm a writer, poet, looking to have fun, maybe make a living doing this stuff. So I get written up in the New York Times, this fantastic, dream review, and how people treat you after that—how things become legitimized once they're in print, makes me laugh. I'm the same idiot I was the day before. Just because somebody said I'm a highfalutin' idiot . . . "

Nile signed with Arista, released his self-titled debut album in 1980, and a year later its follow-up, Golden Down. Reissued on CD in 1992, both are now out of print, though LP copies have been known to fetch upward of $70 on eBay. "Seventy bucks, that's a joke!" Nile howls, although he's visibly flattered. After Golden Down, the crush of commerce on art intervened, and Nile's relationships with both Arista and his own management turned sour. There followed years of struggle to feed his wife and four children, during which time he and his family moved back and forth between New York and Buffalo.

In 1991, Columbia Records released Places I Have Never Been. Like Nile's first two albums, this sparkling collection of rock songs, some bouncy, some poppy, some more gritty and loud, should have found a larger audience. Tunes like the soaring title track, or the stomping, anthemic "Heaven Help the Lonely," remain among the best from that era of rock music. Despite them, and the presence of such guests as Richard Thompson, Loudon Wainwright III, and Roger McGuinn, Places disappeared without making the impression it should have, thanks to more label fumbling.

"Wrong place, wrong time," Nile says, turning my well-worn copy of Places I Have Never Been over in his hands, showing me how the photos of him on the front and back of the booklet—one head-on and charming, one with his hands over his face—were switched over his objections. To Nile, the switch is only the most visible sign of how the process of making Places was botched from the start.

The wiry, high-haired Nile kept at it and bounced back yet again, working day jobs to support his family and never giving up on music, despite circumstances that might have broken lesser men. A self-released album, Beautiful Wreck of the World (1999), captured the band that has now lent its considerable talents to Nile's new record, the stunning Streets of New York. An unabashed Valentine to New York City and the most accomplished collection of original songs of his long career, the record falls squarely and favorably into a lineage of New York–centric records that includes Lou Reed's New York and Television's Marquee Moon. The advance pressing of the album came complete with supportive, even gushing quotes from Reed, Lucinda Williams, Steve Van Zandt, and Bono, who simply said, "Streets of New York is a great album."

At a recent record-release party, held on a bitter February night at Mercury Lounge in downtown Manhattan, Nile had a ball. Onstage with most of the band heard on the new album—which includes guitarist Andy York, drummer Ritchie Pagano, and bassist Brad Albetta—he tore through most of its songs. The rocked-up opener, "Welcome to My Head," the triumphant march "The Day I Saw Bo Diddley in Washington Square," the minutely observed rock ballad "Faded Flower of Broadway"—all were given even more muscle and bone than the album versions. Particularly stirring was Nile's tribute to 9/11, "Cell Phones Ringing (in the Pockets of the Dead)," which references a headline Nile saw about the train bombings in Madrid, Spain. By the closing notes of the album's title tune, which he performed alone at the piano, Nile was all smiles.

"I don't need to be famous. I'm not into the American Idol thing. It's fool's gold. I don't need adulation. The money, I'll take it. My journey being under the radar, on the side of the radar, above the radar, below—so far below—has been really interesting and very useful as a writer. It just is. When you can work and live and grow away from the cameras, so to speak, that can be a great thing."