Coming to the Stage is… Willie Nile By: Dick Beach

Written by on February 2, 2022

Klaatu barada nikto is a phrase from The Day the Earth Stood Still. Willie Nile’s 

latest release plays homage to that film. He comes to The Linda on February 18th 

and this is part of the story.

RRX: We’re speaking with Willie Nile, who has been described as the troubadour of New York City. We thank you very much for joining us here for Xperience Monthly. 

WN: Thanks for having me, Rich. Happy to be here, buddy.

RRX: You’re a Buffalo kid. 

WN: Born in Buffalo. Born and raised, yeah.

RRX: So, I like to start these with where you’re from and influences. Your house was a pretty musical house to begin with. 

WN: Very much so.

RRX: Is that the start of all this? Were you writing when you were younger, before you moved to New York? 

WN: I was writing before I came to New York but that’s where it began, really. There was a lot of music in the home I grew up in. There were eight kids. There was a piano that was being played by my older brothers. My grandfather was a vaudeville band leader for over 20 years. I saw him play when I was very young. 

So, I had a lot of ragtime, boogie-woogie stuff growing up. There’d be parties at the house. It was always a very lively, Irish-American world, with a lot of music and a lot of laughter. My older brothers were bringing home rock and roll records, and the radio stations were on in the house. The TV was on when Elvis Presley was on. I was just a little kid. I saw the beginnings of the counterculture, the rock world. I saw the beginnings of all that. 

RRX: Of course, I have to ask the obligatory food question. I’m a big fan of Schwabl’s on Transit Road for a beef on weck. How about you?

WN: Wow. Schwabl’s. You know, beef on weck. There’s some great local foods there. Beef on weck is probably my favorite of them. It’s just a peculiar thing. Sponge candy is another. Buffalo has sponge candy. I’ll mention this to people in New York. I go sponge candy and they go, what’s that? It seems to be local to western New York.

Went to school one year in Ohio, first year of college. My roommate had a guitar. There was nothing to do in the middle of Ohio, so I learned to play the guitar. Then, my poetry turned into songs. I’ve been rocking ever since. 

RRX: Did you stay in college in Ohio. 

WN: I went one year. I fooled around. I goofed off in high school. I never needed to study; I was smart enough where I could just get by. 

RRX: Oh, I know that trick.

WN: Most of us do. But, when it came time to go to a decent college, I couldn’t get in. I had a decent average, but not good enough. So, there was a school in Ohio, Walsh College. They had just built a new dorm, so they were looking for out-of-state students. So, all of us losers and troublemakers went to Walsh College.

I’ll tell you what. You never know where the road’s gonna lead you. It led me to a place where I met my guitar player, Denny Wentz. The next time I play Pittsburgh, I got to look him up. Hey, look what happened with you teaching me the guitar. I started writing rock and roll songs. 

RRX: You had, I guess it would be called a residency at Kenny’s Castaways in the Village.

WN: Yes.

RRX: I am certain that that is no longer there because as so many other places are not.

WN: It was there for a long time. The Smithereens came out of there. Steve Forbert, the Roaches. It was a great scene there. It was what you hope for when you come to the City, a club. Locals would hang out late. After the show was over, locals would get up and just play new songs. It was a real cool Bohemian scene. I dug it. Then, CBGB opened, and I was always over there in the very beginning, seeing the bands play there. It was just such an interesting, fertile time. 

RRX: Was it just because it sounds cool, but how did you decide on the name Willie Nile? That is not your given name.

WN: No, no. My born name is Robert Noonan. I wouldn’t get on until like two or three in the morning. I didn’t like the guy. Didn’t respect him, didn’t care for him. I’m in line. He looks up, I’m giving him my name, he’s writing down the names in order. “Hi, my name is Robert Noonan, Bob Noonan.” He goes, “Oh, I’m sorry, I couldn’t hear you. What was that?” I go, “Oh, it doesn’t matter. You can just make something up.” He goes, “Oh no no no, it’s really important what your name is.” He gives me this little one-minute Las Vegas lecture. I go, “Oh, really? Oh, okay. My name is Huey Rosinbag.” Off the top of my head. He goes, “Rosenberg?” “No no, Rosinbag. Like the pitcher’s mound.” So, this guy writes, “Huey Rosinbag.” 

The week after that, I was Umberto Snorts. The week after that… I kept changing. Osgood Pequod. That was my favorite. I kept changing my name just because I refused to play the game and take this fame thing seriously. It’s not what I’m about. It’s a good rock and roll name, so that’s how…

RRX: Moving forward. The good news is that by the sounds of it, the 21st century has been good for you with respect to – well, except for the pandemic, which is its own craziness – writing and recording and performing.

WN: Oh yeah.

RRX: Do you feel that the 21st century has maybe been a bit of a reemergence.

WN: Absolutely. 

RRX: A rebirth of the things you’ve been doing?

WN: It’s been a renaissance for me. I’ve put out four albums in the last five years and nine in the last 12. It’s not about how many. It’s the quality. In the last five years, I’ve put out World War Willie, Positively Bob, the Dylan cover album I made. Children of Paradise, New York at Night and The Day the Earth Stood Still. I’d hold those records up against anything. That’s the last five years, nine in the last 12. House of a Thousand Guitars, The Innocent Ones, American Ride, If I Was a River

RRX: Official plug time. The lucky thing for my region is that you’re coming to play at The Linda in Albany. I know that we are in for an absolute treat. 

WN: Thank you. Thank you, Rich. It’s been a couple of years. I love coming up there. I’ve played The Linda many times. But it’s been a few years. I love it. I love playing there. They’ve got a great piano. The sound system rocks. It’s gonna be a storytelling night. I’m gonna tell stories and play stuff. I’ll play fan faves. I’ll play really obscure stuff. I was playing the piano the other day and I played the first song I ever wrote. I went, that’s pretty good. I’m really looking forward to it. It’s gonna be a unique, special night. The Linda rocks. It’s great. I love coming up there. 

RRX: In the background, I am currently playing The Day the Earth Stood Still because that has been on my repeat list. 

WN: Thank you, buddy.

RRX: One of the really fascinating parts is that it shifts between rock and roll or folk or something melodic. By the titles of the songs and the lyrics that I’ve been reading – because I got the kit from your lovely publicist – this entire pandemic, for someone who wants to get out and do what you do, had to have been traumatic. 

WN: This past year, we started playing in April 2021. We’ve been playing, not as much as usual, but we’ve been playing a bunch in Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, all over Jersey, New England, Boston, thereabouts, Buffalo. We did a Midwest tour in October, the band and me. So, I had been playing. 

It was during the course of this year; I made The Day the Earth Stood Still. So, I’m making a record, there’s a lot involved with it. They couldn’t have come out any better. It couldn’t have. If the baby Jesus was playing on it, it wouldn’t sound better. The guys played great on it. So, I had that going on, working on it. This year, there’s been a bunch of shows. 

RRX: There are two songs on this that I would like to hit with you, they seem to be the yin and the yang of the entire deal. It’s prescient that it’s playing currently in the house, “The Justice Bell.”

WN: Oh yeah. 

RRX: Wow. 

WN: Thank you. I’ll sing that in Albany. Yeah, “The Justice Bell.” I met John Lewis. He’s a hero of mine. This brave man, this courageous man, trying to speak up for voting rights. A very humble guy. I like humility. Humility is a very underrated virtue. He’s all of that.

RRX: Because I do have my own little twisted view of the world, the yang to that yin is “Off My Medication.”

WN: I’m working on a video for that.

RRX: You can see how I flip those. I read the lyrics first and then I listened to it. I went, uh, okay. That’s a little disturbed, but…

WN: That’s completely disturbed. I was writing it thinking who are you? What planet did you come from? It’s so much fun. I’ll write about anything. Like “The Justice Bell.” I was moved to write that song about John Lewis and the struggle for some people. “Off My Medication” is like a Saturday night rock and roll party song that’s nothing but fun. 

RRX: I showed my wife – I had her read the lyrics. She kind of looked and I said, “Somehow, I think Willie Nile was channeling Warren Zevon.”

WN: Oh yeah, God bless Warren. That is a bit Warren, you’re right. I met Warren. We had a day together in the dressing room we shared in Providence, Rhode Island, mid-1991. I had a record out with Columbia Records and he had a new record out. We were at, I think it was HJY, if there’s any brain cells left in my head. Providence, Rhode Island, a great station, great people.

I got there early. They were petrified. They were real scared by his coming ’cause his reputation precedes him as a wild man. He couldn’t have been nicer. He wasn’t drinking; he had been through that. We shared a dressing room. We swapped albums. It was a pleasure and an honor. When he was dying – if you remember, he was on Letterman.

RRX: Amen. I have a way I end the public part of this. I am always interested in what would you say to the world? If you had any platform anywhere, what would you say are words that you would like the world to hear that would be the lasting statement about your philosophy about life, and about people, and about anything?

WN: Follow your heart. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Look out for your neighbor and your loved ones. My father had quite a line. My father is 104. He’s still going strong.

RRX: Good lord.

WN: Oh yeah, it’s great. I saw him.  I was with him last week in Buffalo. He said, “You walk a straight line. Do the best you can.” He would say, “Leave the rest in God’s hands.” Treat people good. Follow your heart. Do the best you can and what you can’t control, you let it go.” Somewhere in there is the answer. Do unto others as you would have them do until you. 

RRX: Thus endeth the official part of the recorded interview and thank you.

WN: You’re welcome.

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