By Don Wilcock
There’s a song on Willie Nile’s latest album, World War Willie, called “Grandpa Rocks.” It’s one of few songs on the CD that is obviously autobiographical. He’s got four grandchildren between the ages of two and nine. “You know, it’s a riot. I wrote that for them. It’s clearly about me,” says the 68-year-old rocker who plays The Linda in Albany on Friday night (April 21).
“When I read them stories – whether it’s ‘The Night Before Christmas’ or whatever – I’ll change the stories. I’ll make stuff up. There are certain stories with dinosaur this and somebody’s going to school, and I’ll completely change it, and it includes something in their lives that they would recognize and just make ridiculous connections, and they’ll laugh and laugh.
“So, this one calls me fun grandpa, but I mean it was sometime when the nine-year-old was five or six, she said to her mother, ‘Mom, I miss Grandpa.’ She says, ‘Which grandpa?’ And she goes, ‘black-haired Grandpa.’ And JoJo goes, ‘Why?’ And she said, ‘Mom, I want him to come to our house and stay forever and ever.’
“That’s amazing. That’s a pure, beautiful love that humans are capable of. People lose it as they grow often. I’m playful with them. I still have a joy about me. I’m lucky. I’m either too dumb to know better, or I missed the memo about, ‘You’re older now.’”
Nile first came on the scene in 1980. He hangs with The Who and Bruce Springsteen, but he’s always been unassuming. Never about image.
His music has always been simple but deep and never naïve. He sounds more like Peter Wolf than Woody Guthrie, but he has Woody’s home-spun flavor of smoked hickory that somehow comes out rock solid.
“I feel the same passion, the same fire that I always felt, and it’s more fun than ever with the experience now. In the last bunch of years, I’ve been touring a lot. I didn’t tour at all in the beginning. Sure, I played with The Who and the first three years I did some tours, but not much, and then I walked away, and I didn’t play again until a benefit in ’87 for no money for a writer in Oslo who died, and that slowly got me back into it. I always write, no matter what.”
Nile’s always written his own songs, but he has a new album, Positively Bob: Willie Nile Sings Bob Dylan, due out on June 23. “I’m having an absolute blast doing it. Really a labor of love and so much fun. I was invited to sing. There was a show in New York City. They were doing a Bob Dylan 75th birthday, and a promoter contacted me and asked me if I would come and sing four songs for the show. I usually say no to that type of thing, but I said, ‘Well, let me think about it.’
“So, one night I stayed up late looking over his website and looked at all the songs. Then I said, ‘If I think I can find a song or some songs that I can bring and have some fun with, then maybe I’d do it.’ One song, ‘Love Minus Zero,’ I sang, and I said to the audience, ‘This is such an amazing song, and you don’t hear it on the radio.’ I had so much fun doing it, and I thought that I can give it some good energy. I just liked it. Bob was always a big influence and a hero of mine.
“The songs (on the CD) are just a labor of love. I thought it would be fun, and it sure was. It’s coming out great. I didn’t overthink it. Just a nice change of pace, you know. I’ve been putting out solo records. I mean I’ve got one already written. I’ve got so many songs, it’s not funny.”
Creativity is so hard to measure. Nile has always put his muse ahead of business. He may have sold a fraction of the number of albums that Levon Helm did, but “When Levon Sings” on Nile’s latest album is written from the heart of a man who knew Levon personally, and the song was blessed by Levon’s daughter Amy. And when he covers the Velvet Underground’s “Sweet Jane” on World War Willie, it’s with the personal satisfaction that the late Lou Reed had many Willie Nile CDs in his personal collection.
“I’m not looking to be an American idol. That was never my goal. It was to make a living and write and sing and make music that was meaningful to me. And if it means something to me, maybe it could be meaningful to somebody else. The fan base I’ve got is really great. They’re so strong, and they’re supportive big-time in Europe and North America. I’m able to make a good living making music. It’s a ball. I mean I’m living the dream, No kidding.
“At the end of the day, I want people to walk out uplifted, feeling better, smiling. Life is tough, and my job as an artist is to have people leave the concerts feeling a hell of a lot better than when they came in. I’m playful with them. I still have a joy about me. I’m lucky. For every giving, we receive. You don’t give to get something back, but just in giving it’s a good thing. You help somebody else. It’s a just a good way to go through life.”
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