In the summer of 1995 Halifax was my home base; however, I was actually playing gigs in St. John’s because that’s where I was able to get steady club work and make some sensible money. I was fortunate to be able to play a lot of originals at my gigs, and as such was able to attract the attention of Canadian music video channel MuchMusic when they came to St. John’s that summer to do a profile on the city’s original musicians.
Mike Campbell was the host of the show MuchEast, which featured east coast artists every Sunday night. When I got wind of Mike doing a piece on my hometown, I immediately called him and faxed him a bio (this was pre-email and internet). He responded and said he’d be interested in dropping by my gig at a bar called Junctions to videotape a few tunes. That night we had a great chat and realized that we shared a lot of musical interests, namely Petty whose influence I wore heavily on my sleeve during this period.
Mike and I kept in touch following the airing of the St. John’s MuchEast special, and when I returned to Halifax in late summer he invited me to his house to play me some records. I think he wanted to expose me to some songwriters who were on par with my heroes yet not on my radar. First he played me Steve Forbert’s Jackrabbit Slim, containing the hit “Romeo’s Tune.” I was blown away immediately by the album in general, which was full of great tunes yet I’d never heard any of them before. The second record he put on the turntable was from a New York songwriter named Willie Nile. Mike said if I liked Petty and Dylan I had to check out Nile. The melodic rock sound that came off the needle that day in Mike’s living room gave me a jolt. The first song was “Vagabond Moon,” and it was a no-brainer hit-making material. It was as good as anything released by the major acts we know today as rock legends, yet my lingering question to myself was, “Who is Willie Nile, and how has he escaped the larger limelight of mainstream rock?”
The album Mike played for me that day was Nile’s 1980 self-titled debut. The black and white cover featured a slim, handsome character in silhouette about to light a cigarette. This symbolic gesture matched the critical acclaim the album sparked upon its release, with rock’s biggest journalists hailing it as a re-awakening of the inspiring elements of rock and roll. It was produced and engineered by the legendary Roy Halee, who engineered Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” and produced the classic Simon and Garfunkel hits of the late ‘60s. The album caught the attention of Pete Townshend, who invited Willie to open for the Who on their 1980 North American tour.
The early ‘80s were an intense period for the music business, with the machine rolling at its peak power money-wise. Hence many artists were struggling under the weight of legalities. Nile’s entanglement in this respect relegated him to the sidelines, which seemed to derail his chances of the mainstream success his material warranted. However, he persevered and came back stronger than ever to release 1991’s Places I’ve Never Been; the the list of luminaries on the album was indicative of the respect he commanded in rock circles: Roger McGuinn, Richard Thompson, Loudon Wainwright III, and members of the Hooters. It spawned the melodic rock single “Heaven Help the Lonely,” which was as strong a song as any released that year by his contemporaries yet didn’t catch on like it should have, despite a high-quality video and major label release. Such is the way with music business, which in 1991 was far more concerned with cashing in on the grunge sound of Nirvana and Pearl Jam.
Nile steadily guided his career through the rest of the ‘90s and into the new millennium, releasing album after album of songs worthy of “classic” status in every way. Ironically, Willie Nile has been producing albums that easily and effortlessly surpass in songwriting quality any of his contemporaries, and that includes Bruce Springsteen with whom he has collaborated with both on stage and in studio. There’s something to be said for being able to tap into the hunger that is sometimes negated by financial and commercial success. I’m sure Willie Nile would embrace the spoils of wider success, but ironically his path has created an artistically superior output that I’m sure his peers envy to a great extent.
A few months ago I wrote a piece about the surprise Waterboys’ visit to St. John’s for a private show to which I was luckily invited. Equally surprising that night was Nile’s appearance as warm-up act for this concert. He came out on stage like a firecracker, dressed all in black with a sky-high tuft of hair that would rival Dylan’s in 1966. He performed for the small crowd like he was playing at a stadium for thousands. After he finished his set he mingled with the crowd, talking excitedly with everyone and happily obliging photos. Later that night at Erins’ pub I got the chance to meet and chat with him. I couldn’t believe how enthusiastic and friendly he was, asking me all about what I did musically and how I liked the show. I told him about owning a few of his albums and he was really appreciative of that. A jam session formed in the corner of the bar and I sat at a table with Willie watching the Waterboys play with the local trad musicians. After I had the chance to play a song, I immediately (and a bit drunkenly) stood up and announced to the bar, “Folks, the one and only Willie Nile is sitting right here with us. I’d love to hear him sing a song….would you?” Applause of assent erupted, and Willie grabbed the guitar and belted out one of his newer tunes as passionately as if he were doing his first audition for a record company at 22 years old. Everyone sat silently and listened in great respect for a man whose roller-coaster career in the peripherals of rock history has allowed him to keep creating with every ounce of talent and intensity he originally possessed in 1980 when a much-younger man graced the album sleeve of his first effort.
Mike Campbell, who first introduced me to Wille’s music all those years ago, has since hosted several sold-out Willie Nile concerts in Halifax at his popular live music venue the Carleton. On Friday, February 15th, St. John’s will have its first public opportunity to see Willie Nile and his band in concert at the Capitol Hotel. Local concert promoter and music aficionado John Steele, who was responsible for organizing the private concert back in November, has abided by his instincts that Newfoundlanders love a great rock show and are willing to take a chance on an unfamiliar artist based on reputation. The lucky few who get tickets to the show will come away knowing exactly why Townshend, Springsteen, McGuinn, Petty, Ringo, and many more have Willie Nile in their iPods. I will be right up there in front, following my opening performance with Brothers in Stereo, basking in the heat of rock and roll in its rawest and most passionate form. And I can’t wait.