‘Streets Of New York’
"Long after the bomb falls and you and your good deeds are gone, cockroaches will still be here, prowling the streets like armored cars."
Tama Janowitz (1957 - ____) US novelist, "Slaves of New York"
Celt In A Twist: No one can romanticize New York quite like Irish Americans. Deep in its urban chest pumps a heart full of Jamison’s and melancholy, exemplified by the songs of Willie Nile. But don’t take my word for it, Bono, Lou Reed, Graham Parker, Ian Hunter and many others have weighed in time and again, extolling the virtues of the finely crafted rock and roll statements on his two latest albums, Beautiful Wreck Of The World and Streets Of New York. Willie’s on the line to share more of his story. How you doin', Willie? It's a pleasure to meet you.
Willie Nile: It's a pleasure to meet you too, Cal and thank you for those kind words.
CIAT: Congratulations on the newest album, Willie. You’ve said that the streets of New York remind you of Pairs in the 1850s or London in Dickens' time, what are the parallels?
WN: I think just the economic range from the very rich to the very poor and everything in between. And, it's a big city. When I look out my window in the Village over the rooftops, I imagine the left bank in Paris or London in Dickens’ time. I think it has to do with the amount of people, the different kinds of people's lives all living on top of one another ... I guess that's my way of romanticizing it but, that's kind of how I see it.
CIAT: But you don't have to sidestep road apples or anything?
WN: No, there are no road apples so it's much cleaner than in the old days that's true.
CIAT: I can't wait to see it! Why is New York so essential to the Irish American experience and can you get that same feeling in Boston or Philadelphia?
WN: You can get that experience anywhere. I think what New York offers is its sheer size and it seems to be a magnet for people in the arts whether it's music, poetry or theatre. I think all three cities could offer the same kind of thing for anyone but I think New York is such a cosmopolitan city to a degree more so than the others.
CIAT: And, one last question about the city you live in ... can the bohemian lifestyle still be lead in New York or are those times fading?
WN: Absolutely it can still be lead. You know, it'll move from area to area. It's silly to think that people coming from small towns to the big cities to pursue their art or their dreams is going to stop. Whether it's a local bar or a new club, it's just always going to happen because of the nature of a big city being a magnet like that. It varies how much of a scene there is from time to time. But, whether it moves from Manhattan to Brooklyn or Hoboken, that varies but you can still totally live the bohemian life here.
CIAT: I hope this isn't a touchy topic. Your press material reads like a who’s who of rock’s most eminent characters from Springsteen and Dylan comparisons to tours with the Who to gushing praise for your work from some of the names I mentioned in the introduction. How have you managed to remain so stealthy in the music business?
WN: I've been very fortunate to get the kind of support from people like Bono, Springsteen, Lucinda Williams, so many people ... really; it's meant so much, that kind of encouragement. "You're doing the right thing. Keep doing it." It's been wonderful. How have I managed to remain? Smoke and mirrors, I think. I like to have a good time, a great time and whether my songs are serious like Cell Phones Ringing (In the Pockets Of The Dead) about the Madrid 2004 train bombing or if it's something cheeky like Best Friends Money Can Buy or something deeper like Back Home, a biographical kind of song, at the end of the day I like it to be positive. When I listen to music I want to feel good afterwards. I don't want to be brought down. I mean, I would continue writing and making music whether it was in complete obscurity, which I have done from time to time because that's what I do ... I love to write. That's how I express myself. But, I've been very fortunate. To get to play Shea Stadium with Springsteen a couple of times and Lucinda Williams ... I've played with her a lot and Lou Reed has been very, very kind, and Bono. I’ve been lucky. I guess you can fool some of the people some of the time.
CIAT: I don't think you're fooling anybody, Willie. They've got you pegged. You’ve got your Celt In A Twist. And we have Willie Nile on the phone to talk about his most recent recordings. Sample more of his wares at www.wilenile.com . We just heard one of your more blatantly Celtic drinking songs, the title from the album previous to the Streets of New York called Beautiful Wreck of the World. Are you still confident that at the end of the world, Jennifer Lopez will make love to you?
WN: I've moved on actually, from Jennifer Lopez. That changes from time to time. Jennifer Lopez is with Marc Anthony now and she's pregnant and it's just not working for me. So, I was putting Angelina Julie’s name in there for a while. It varies depending on who is on the cover of People Magazine (laughs). You can always dream and the song is fun. I wrote it with my buddy Frankie Lee and we wanted to write a spirited drinking song and have some fun with it. And, it sure is fun to play live. The audience always gets into it and sings along. I remember the first time I played it was in Stockholm during a solo show for about 1500 drunken Swedes. I had no idea what kind of response it would get and by the second chorus whole place had their glasses up the air, rocking side to side and singing along. I was shocked! And, that's what we wrote it for. So that was really satisfying. It's fun to write a song like that. I love singing that song live.
CIAT: That's amazing. I don't think I've ever seen 1500 drunken Swedes all in one place at one time.
WN: They must have been drunk to be singing along to one of my songs!
CIAT: You also have your serious moments. We’re going out on one of the most poignant songs I’ve heard in some time. Cell Phones Ringing In The Pockets Of The Dead. It’s a chilling image for our times. You have described it only briefly. Maybe you could tell us a little more and set it up for us.
WN: I live in New York City, in Greenwich Village and when 9/11 happened I heard the second plane hit. I came downstairs 10 minutes later to start my day and I looked up and saw one building on fire and then I saw both buildings were on fire. I knew right away it was a terrorist attack. And, I watched them burn from about a mile and half away. I lost a good buddy, bass player Geoff Hardie in that. He was working right where the first plane went in. So, mercifully he may not have suffered long. Four days later I was on a plane, one of the first flights out of JFK airport. If you remember back then, people weren't too crazy about flying, but I had a tour in Spain set up.
So, I was in the plane at the end of the runway and I could see the smoldering ruins. When I got to Spain, every single night I was struck by how compassionate and how concerned the Spanish people were. At every gig it was, "How is everyone doing? “What’s going on? “Please tell us what happened." It was very genuine and sincere. So, in 2004 when the Madrid train bombing happened, it immediately brought 9/11 back to me. I emailed some friends and called some people to see if they were OK. Later, in one of the New York papers there was a headline on an article that said, "Cell phones ringing in the pockets of the dead." It stopped me in my tracks. I thought, "Is that what I think it is?" I read the article and sure enough, there were some 192 body bags lined up along the train tracks and cell phones are going off in the bags and the workers were having a real difficult time dealing with it.
I remember the feeling ran right down my spine and it also made me very angry, thinking, "What kind of world is this?" We, as human race ... it's hard enough. If we all got along, life would still be tough. But, to have this kind of stuff going on ... this lack of understanding and compassion, it just made me angry. So, I immediately turned to my computer and started typing and wrote the lyrics right then and picked up the guitar and put it to music. So, Cell Phones Ringing (In The Pockets Of The Dead) I dedicated to the victims of the 2004 Madrid train bombing and the victims of all terrorist attacks that have happened and will continue to happen until some kind of sanity descends on the planet. I think that's doable but it's going to take some work.
And, when I sing it live, it really surprises me because when I'm doing the chant at the end, "Cell phones ringing in the pockets of the dead", audiences will very often sing along as if it were an old folk song moment. But, it's not a folk song. They're singing this edgy thing. It's pretty great because I think that all of us are just sick of it and it's not OK with me that people are killing each other. There are better ways of dealing with all this stuff. So, this is my way of fighting back against all the madness in the world.
Willie Nile was interviewed by Cal Koat on December 11th/07 for broadcast on Celt In A Twist, AM 1470, CJVB
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