TThirty years ago, Willie Nile left Buffalo, headed for New York City, and quickly established himself as one of the leading rock poets of his generation. A deal with Arista came by 1980, and by his third album, "Places I Have Never Been," he'd hit the jackpot with the hits "Heaven Help the Lonely" and "If I Had a Hammer."
Then the bottom fell out. Nile continued to craft incisive and passionate pieces, long on the singable hooks, and stuffed with caffeine-rush imagery that owed a debt to the Beats, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, New York City street bards Patti Smith and Jim Carroll, and punk's heartbeat, Joe Strummer. But he'd been dropped by his label. Suddenly, Nile couldn't get arrested.
Five years back, Nile -- who never stopped performing, writing and recording and continued to court a loyal cult following -- offered up "Beautiful Wreck of the World," and anyone with a pair of ears knew it was a work marked by real genius. Released as an independent record, "Wreck" landed on Top 10 lists all over the world and earned praise from peers such as Bono, Lucinda Williams, Springsteen and Little Steven. Remarkably, no major label picked up the record.
"I don't really have a theory as to why the majors passed on the record," says Nile, speaking to The News from New York City, amidst a rush of publicity surrounding the Feb. 21 release of his new album, the career-defining "Streets of New York." That PR run includes a free show at 8 p.m. next Friday inside the Albright-Knox Art Gallery and a full-blown feature slated to run on NPR Feb. 19.
"I was very happy with the reception that 'Beautiful Wreck' got," Nile said. "To have Bono, Lou Reed, Lucinda, Springsteen and others say such great things about it was meaningful for me. Who knows why major labels do what they do? I certainly no longer set my sail by their charts."
Nile assembled a killer band to support "Wreck," including friend and musical foil Andy York, erstwhile guitarist with the John Mellencamp band, and soldiered on. He started writing songs for what would become "Streets of New York" almost immediately, and he spent several years tracking them in various studios in the East Village and upper Manhattan. He opted to release the record through the indie 00:02:59 -- that's "2 minutes 59," phonetically -- and, based on the initial buzz surrounding songs from the album Nile was performing live, secured distribution though Sony/BMG, which means that, for the first time in some 20 years, we'll be able to find a Willie Nile album pretty much everywhere.
That's an exciting prospect, considering the strength of "Streets," an album with the heart of a vagabond, the soul of a troubadour and the keen, piercing eye for detail of a seasoned novelist. It's Nile's strongest, most well-rounded work, and has earned, already, a four-star review from Uncut Magazine, and the praise of filmmaker Jim Jarmusch, musicians Reed, Graham Parker, Ian Hunter and Bono, and former Time magazine music critic and Academy Award-winning screenwriter Jay Cocks. Not bad for a record that isn't even out yet.
Nile has an uncanny ability to conjure melodies that touch the soul, even after one listen. Many of the songs on "Streets" sound somehow Celtic, but they're very "New York-street," too. One hears Dylan, of course, and Smith, and perhaps trace elements of Carroll, Steve Forbert, and Mike Scott of the Waterboys. Yet ultimately, Nile sounds like himself.
So where did he get his "template"? How did he learn to write songs that cut to the quick so effortlessly?
"I grew up in Buffalo listening to everything from the Beatles, Stones, Dylan, Kinks and Who, to rhythm and blues, Hank Williams, Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry and so on. A wide variety of things," Nile said. "I love songs that have a fire in the belly and a wink in the eye. And I'm of Irish descent, so I imagine that has something to do with it!
"Actually, on second thought, I'd say Harpo Marx was the biggest influence," Nile adds with a laugh. "He had such a way with words."
Having "a way with words" has been a benchmark of Nile's career to date, and certainly elevates the sturdy, hook-inflected rock of "Streets" at every turn. One tune in particular, "Cell Phones Ringing (In the Pockets of the Dead)," has already become a bit of a classic.
"I was on the first plane out of JFK airport after 9/1 1, on my way to Madrid for a tour of Spain," Nile said. "When I got there, I was struck by how compassionate and caring the people were, concerning the victims of 9/1 1. When the train bombing happened in Madrid in 2004, it reminded me of their kindness. I now had friends over there.
"I saw a headline in the paper that read 'Cell Phones Ringing in the Pockets of the Dead,' and thought, 'Oh no, I hope that's not what I think it is.' Apparently, there were some 190 body bags lined up along the train tracks after the bombing, and cell phones were going off in the bags. Shocking stuff in this so-called 'civilized' world. I wrote the song in an hour. It's dedicated to the victims of that tragedy."
Following the Albright-Knox gig and the NPR special, Nile heads to Austin, Texas, for a showcase during this year's SXSW festival. It seems one of the finest songwriters ever to emerge from Buffalo is finally getting his due.