I just went to see the Coen Brothers' new film, Inside Llewyn Davis, and I kept thinking of Willie Nile. The Greenwich Village hootenanny clubs pictured in that movie were Willie Nile's first musical home, when he landed in NYC with a freshly-minted degree in philosophy from Buffalo and a Dylanesque nasal rasp to his voice. But this wasn't 1964 -- it was the 70s, when punk and New Wave were busy driving the last nails in folk's coffin. It was Willie Nile's genius to blend all these elements -- folk's melancholy tenderness, punk's immediacy, New Wave's snarky humor -- into a fresh cocktail. We should all have been listening.
But we weren't. I certainly never heard of him back then. Willie Nile somehow fell through the cracks, despite enthusiastic endorsements by such tastemakers as Bruce Springsteen, Pete Townshend, Bono, the late great Lou Reed, and kindred spirit Graham Parker. It didn't help that bitter label disputes in the early 80s made him walk away from the biz for nearly a decade. (The 80s being the decade that nearly killed rock music, that was probably a good thing.) When he returned, he stayed just below the radar, an indie artist before the term was coined -- a status that gave him the freedom to ignore ephemeral trends and stay true to his own sound.
His 2006 album Streets of New York was the first I heard of him, an arresting collection of gimlet-eyed urban character sketches, sung in that slightly gritty rasp. In that go-go, pre-crash, early Bloomberg era, it offered up a surprisingly endearing romantic vision of New York City as proletarian refuge. (Nile definitely belongs in that pantheon of rock bards of Manhattan, along with Dylan, Lou Reed, David Johanssen, and Larry Kirwan.)
But even that record didn't prepare me for how much fun Willie Nile can be live. I caught a show of his out in New Jersey a couple years ago, sharing the bill with Marshall Crenshaw. He simply rocked out, with mischievous high spirits and humor.
So I'm thrilled to find that his newest album keeps rocking out.
The troubadour strum of this song's beginning -- "got my bag and my guitar / I gotta get out fast" -- makes it seem folkier than it is. Why does he need to leave town fast? Doesn't matter, and we never find out. Because this is basically your classic road-trip song, tracing the musical geography of the United States (love the map graphics on the video). Even as he begs his "baby" to take this American ride with him, it's not really a love song; he doesn't focus on the girl, he just wants to share this great experience with her.
Maybe it's because Willie has been touring a lot more in the past couple of years, but the tempo of this song ticks along exactly at 55mph. The lyrics whip past like half-glimpsed road signs and billboards -- "goin' down to Memphis on the 419," "we're taking 95 down to FLA" -- rapid-fire lyrics being a familiar Willie Nile trait. It can take a couple of listens to catch them all -- thank goodness for this lyrics video.
Notice how he adds musical elements as the song moves coast to coast -- gospel singers, a plucked banjo, steel guitar. He's not only seeing the American landscape slide past the car windows, he's hearing the American soundscape reveal itself. And he's got such an appetite for it all, it's infectious.
Besides name checking cities and states, he throws in a few musical references -- Elvis Presley, Al Green, Delta blues, the "brothers on the radio" (Everlys?), rock and roll music, bebop jazz. But it evolves into a grab-bag of other cultural associations as well -- spaghetti westerns ("the good, the bad, and the in-between"), the "redwood forests" of "This Land Is Your Land," Custer's Last Stand in Sioux country, the "dream" of Martin Luther King and Abraham Lincoln. He's like a kid in a candy shop, marveling at everything.
It's interesting to see such a quintessential New Yorker taking to the road. He could have gone into full fish-out-of-water crankiness, but Willie's nature is more upbeat than that. He actually co-wrote this with a non-American, Mike Peters of the Welsh punk band the Alarm, and maybe that helps account for the sense of wonder at seeing this great country unspool beneath their tires. When he sings, "Your untamed beauty got me on my knees," I don't even think he's thinking of his girl -- it's American's beauty that has him awestruck.
I can see Bruce Springsteen covering this song, except he'd probably make it bombastic, pushing for iconic status. I prefer Willie's easygoing original, rambling around the country (this is any thing but a direct route he maps), taking things as they come. He sure makes a fine road-trip companion.