Interview: Willy DeVille
I want to tell you about an amazing experience that I had on Saturday May 13, 2006; I had a two-hour phone conversation with Willy DeVille. It was one of those things arranged by a publicist to be an interview. You know how they're supposed to go, me the interviewer ask him the interviewee questions about music, life etc, and he gives me answers to same.
Then I go and type them out as a question and answer session and everybody is happy. At least that's how it's gone for me in the past when I've done this sort of thing. It became pretty clear right from the start that this wasn't going to be a typical interview.
I had spent the last day downloading and figuring out how to set up and work a piece of software that would have allowed me to use my modem to record phone conversations. It was going to involve me using an extension other than the one running through the computer, so I had arranged for my wife to run the software while I talked to Willy on another phone.
Since she was going to have to co-ordinate the recording we decided she should answer the phone get his permission to record and explain what it was going to involve. For some reason I wasn't overly surprised when he requested that we didn't record our conversation because he felt it would take too much away from the moment.
He compared it to colour photography vs. black and white and how he preferred black and white because of the simplicity of the moment. Taking away from the moment too much would be lost. So he said to my wife: "so let's keep it black and white okay?"
Thinking about it afterward, and thinking of how our conversation went, I can see what he meant. If we had been conscious of being recorded we would have let that influence us in certain ways, and it would have affected any spontaneity our conversation would have had. We would have restricted ourselves to whatever typical information you normally hear in one of these interviews.
Occasionally I would remember to ask him a question and we would try and get back into an interview format, but we were soon off onto something else, or he'd answer in a way that was non-standard. Mainly we just talked about experiences we had in common, things that neither of us probably would tell others about and so I'm not going to talking about any of that stuff here.
Roughly our conversation could be divided into the early years, the middle part, and what's going on now, but we bounced around following no particular timeline. At one point near the end of our conversation he said, "It doesn't matter what age you are, as long as you're doing". Which sums up his whole career right there in a nut shell, Willy is always "doing" something to keep moving on musically, personally, and whatever else is needed for growth as an artist.
I don't use the word artist lightly ever; it's not some generic term used to refer to somebody who gets up on stage and performs. Talking to Willy for a couple of hours and listening to him talk about his approach, his feelings about his work, the almost spiritual way he described performing, and the obvious passion that came through his voice whenever we would talk music (plus having seen him perform on video recently) made it obvious to me that he has nothing in common with those who strive for mediocrity an are called artists by today's popular press.
So let's press on with this shall we, and I'll bring on the question and answers.
Me: "Where did it all start for you, you were born in New York right?
Willy: "No I was born in Stanford Connecticut (laughs) nobody's born in Manhattan. We moved there when I was thirteen or fourteen, but I had been coming into town since I was about twelve…I had fallen in love with the city.
Me: "The bright lights and all…"
Willy: " Nah, it was the musicians. Everywhere there was music it was amazing. But it was everything else too, you know, the smells of pizza…" (There was a pause at the other end of the line, as if he was remembering something) …" Somewhere else than where you are always looks better to you, and we all come from some little itty bitty place. I don't want this to sound like those, he came from a small town and made it big stories right, but it's more about having a dream and having the patience and the, oh I don't know what (me: "perseverance") yeah, to make it happen, you know, and that's what I feel like it's always been."
Me: "Why music, what was it about music that grabbed you?"
Willy: " Well according to my mom I was singing before I was talking right. I mean I don't even come from a musical family, but it just always seemed so natural to me. You know I grew up and I had older brothers, four and six years older, so there was always music around, on the radio at breakfast as we ate our corn flakes, or American Bandstand. I still remember listening to bands like the Drifters…It was like magic, there was drama and it would hypnotize me."
"Listening to the radio and the songs I would get you know like images of the story in my head, like reading a book and you imagine what's going on. I would see the music like that too, in my head while listening…."
"There's something that happens to me when I sing, (a slight hesitation as if he's unsure about talking about this, like how's this going to go over), this is going to sound weird right, but it's like I don't know where the voice comes from for different songs, but it's just there. I described this to a friend once and he said it sounds like voice shifting, where a masking spirit comes over people and sings through them…"
Me: " That sounds like what happens to Native singers when they sit around the big drum and are playing. They sing in this high falsetto, that nobody can talk in, and that they sure don’t talk in…
Willy: "Did you say native, like native American? Cause you know that I'm part native.."
Me: "Which part? no, no, I mean which nation, sorry. "
Willy: "Iroquois, I'm part Iroquois, part Basque, a little of this and a little of that. I real street dog."
Me: "Heinz 57"
Willy: (laughs) yeah right. I prefer street dog."
Me: Did you ever hear any of that stuff Robbie Robertson did with Red Road Ensemble about, I don't know a dozen years ago… He's an Iroquois.."
Willy: "That's right he's from up around near you isn't he."
Me: "Yeah Grand River Six Nations reserve"
Willy: " There was this album he made with John Hammond that changed my life"
Me: "Robbie made an album with Hammond"
Willy: Yeah him and Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks, Lavon Helm, or Lee-von,( laughs) back in 1962, it was called So Many Roads It's still around on CD you've gotta to hear it, it's amazing."
Me: So how did it all start for you, what was your first band, was it Mink DeVille?
Willy: "Nah the first band was The Royal Pythons. Wanted it to be different from what everyone else was doing, electric this and strawberry that. But actually, you know I went over to London for a couple of years, real obvious American with my Pompadour hair. Kicked around until my money ran out than came back here.'
"I had only been back a bit when a buddy called me up, and they were out west in San Francisco, he'd had to leave town cause he'd gotten in trouble with the cops, and he said I should come out there it was really amazing, he'd already met Lighting Hopkins' drummer. So I bought a 57 Chevy Van and drove out."
"It was hard out there, just couldn't get anything happening, it was the early seventies, and, hell don't say I hated it, because that's not true, but it was hard. I conned the guys into believing that if we went back to New York I could get us work, cause I knew the city and the ropes of how stuff worked, which was stretching it."
Me: "How did you end up in CBGB ?"
Willy: "Well, I used to go over to "City Lights', you know Ferlinghetti's book store, and pick up a week old Village Voice. One day I saw this small, like one inch by one-inch ad, saying auditioning for live bands. Now New York in the early, mid seventies, there were hardly any places for live bands to play, maybe a Jazz bar. Everything had closed, so here was this ad saying auditioning for live bands."
"So I had convinced the guys that I could get them work, and we climbed in the van and drove back the other way. We got here and auditioned, along with hundreds of others, but they liked us and took us on. That was like 74-75, and we played there for three years. You know during that time we didn't get paid more than $50 bucks a night"
Me: "Each or the band"
Willy: "The band, shit that was barely enough for cigarettes. They keep asking me to come and play there for "old times sake" and you know that's not for me. That's for people who want to go there and say they saw me there, or Lou Reed in sunglasses or some such stuff. That's the past, not now."
"There was always some sort of shit that was going down there, cause there were all these managers with bands they had signed who they wanted to play there, so there was politics. All I wanted was to be a band that New York could be proud of; we wanted to play music that would make the glasses dance on the bar"
"Then there was this one night this guy named Ben Edmonds came in to the bar and saw us. He took us back up to his hotel room and asked us if we could make a record what would we put on it. I just said, the best damn music I could make."
Me: "He worked with Phil Spector?"
Willy: "Well it's hard to say who worked with who, right. You listen to that music and you hear those really high strings, and that percussion, and the castanets: that's all Jack's work. All that really cool stuff"
"Jack became like my first mentor in the business. Not to sound like some hippie or something, but it was like Karma you know for us to be together. There used to be some sort of Ladies auxiliary or something to our fan club, and they would send all these weird photos into us, like of tombstones and shit like that. Well one time one of them sent in this picture of a tombstone of Fredrick Nietzsche, who was Jack's great uncle, and I showed him the picture, saying Jack isn't this your great uncle and he said yeah."
"Jack wasn't very well and he was going downhill slowly, and I remember they were throwing me this birthday party, and I found out Jack had died that day. It was the same day his great uncle had gone, the same day as my birthday, August 25th."
"He was my first real professional friend, and I still feel like he's looking out for me"
Me: "I've got to know, how you'd come up with the name Mink DeVille"?
Willy: "Well we were sitting around talking of names, and some of them were really rude, and I was saying, guys we can't do that. Then one of the guys said how about Mink DeVille, there can't be anything cooler than a fur lined Cadillac can there?"
Me: "Cool so it's true, I couldn't remember if I had read that somewhere or not, or if it was some sort of urban legend."
Willy: "Nope it's true"
Me: "The sound you described that Jack was doing with the percussion and castanets for the Ronettes and other bands, is that where those sounds in your music came from, the Latin rhythms and stuff?"
Willy: "Well you had to have that sort of sound if you wanted any street credibility in the lower east side where I came from you know. Everybody listens to the great music of Tito Puente, I love the sound of that stuff too, the congas and great percussion. It was the congas that hooked me into New Orleans, that great drumming."
Me: "I used to really like the work of Tom Waits back in the late seventies and early eighties, that sort of trash can jazzy/blues, and I was thinking there were similarities in your music, maybe not style, but intent."
Willy: Yeah? Maybe it's something about the band and how we work together; when we set up on stage it's not with the audience in mind, but so that we can see each other, and look around and have fun…if we're not having fun, nobody else is going to have fun are they. So we want to be in contact with each other all the time."
"Tom's music is like that too, there's that quality of being really tight, but so tight that you're loose."
"I want to tell you something about Tom. Back in 1980 I was banned in Boston. I had done something or other foolish, and this guy, a booking agent who if you pissed off could guarantee you'd never work Boston, said 'Willy DeVille will never work Boston again'. Well Tom was playing in Cambridge Mass. and we were travelling with him. Tom refused to go on, not only if we weren’t allowed to play, but also if we didn't get equal billing. He really put his balls to the wall for us. This agent guy was making this huge fuss about it, but Tom just said 'Willy gets equal billing or I don't play'. So they gave us equal billing."
"Can you do me a favour, I want you to say thank you to Tom from me in what you're writing. I want that out there. A lot of people don't understand where Tom's coming from, with some of his stuff, but I think when you’re an artist you just aren't going to be satisfied with doing the same stuff over and over again. You want to do something new to surprise people with. Whether they like it or hate it…"
Me: "One of the first teachers I had always talked about making people have an opinion, you don't want anybody being ambivalent about your work"
Willy: "You had a good teacher"
Me: "The last thing you want to hear is that your work is 'nice' "
Willy: Yeah that's for sure. You know and that's what people have got to understand about anybody who's serious about this stuff, it may sound selfish, but we can't keep doing the same stuff over and over again. We need to keep trying different things."
Me: "The curse of originality"
Willy: Yeah (laughs) I'm a singer/songwriter, and the front man, so I have to deal with all these different facets, taking the flak and so on. It's hard to keep the passion going sometimes, and if you can't keep changing it up, it would be damn near impossible.
Me: Why did you leave New York for New Orleans?
Willy: "I was tired of being 'Willy DeVille'. Walking out of my building and having to be the guy who was up on stage all the time, even when I wasn't performing. I wanted to get away from that. So I got down there and it was this famous guy had come to town, and I didn't want that. So I decided to do an album with a bunch of the musicians from down there, the music of New Orleans."
"People like Dr, John, Eddie Bo, Champion Jack Dupuis and all sorts of others. Victory Mixture is still one of the albums I'm proudest of; I think its one of the best records I've ever done. And you know what, I don't think there's more than one or two originals on it. Its all old stuff, music from New Orleans
"I remember as a kid I used to go see these shows where there would be like four or five bands on a bill, and it was great, and I thought wouldn't that be a great thing to do. So I got in touch with all these guys I had made the record with and we did this great tour of Europe."
"The travel, buses, and planes; and the accommodations had to be some of the worst I've ever experienced, but the shows themselves were great. At the end of each show we'd throw Mardi-Gras rows out to the audience, you know strands of purple and gold beads, and they'd never seen anything like it and they loved it."
Me: "You do a lot over in Europe, what's the attraction?"
Willy: "Well I don't want to sound like one of those guys kvetching, but have you seen what's on the charts over here?"
Me: "Wait a moment I have gotten something written down, where is it, yeah, here: 'Striving for Mediocrity'."
Willy: (laughs) "Yeah, that's it. I mean over there they still talk about Eddie Cochran and all the great old stuff as if it's still alive. There's a passion that's missing too often over here."
Me: " You recorded Le Chat Bleu in Paris because of your liking for Edith Piaff, is that right?'
Willy: " Yeah partially, but it was for the chance to work with some incredible people as well. Charles Dumont who had written a lot of the music for Edith, and Doc Pomus. You know the first day I walked into the studio and they were working with an orchestra, and I heard the strings playing one of my songs. I had to go into the bathroom and shed a tear. Seeing these guys playing their instruments, with long white hair hanging down over their collars, looking like what classical musicians are supposed to look like, doing a song I wrote, really got to me.
"When I did this album I wanted to make music that would stand the test of time. I take what I do seriously, but at the same time I have fun making every album I do. If that's not there, if you're not enjoying the album how can you expect anyone else to? It may sound selfish but I'm playing the music I want to, and everyone else can kiss off as far as I'm concerned."
"On Le Chat Blue we had all these great people involved, you know, and we thought we had something great. I came back to America, and my label at that time said, 'well we think we should put it on the shelf for a while'. This was right before Christmas for God's sake when you know people are going to be buying stuff, so I asked them what the problem was?"
"They said they had never heard anything like it before and didn't know what to do with it. We had Charles Dumont, Elvis's goddamned rhythm section, and they say they've never heard anything like it. I was heartbroken and angry. Finally Maxine from my distributor in France phones and he says, Willy what's going on? So I told him."
"He said don't worry we'll release it over here. We did, and then it became a matter of not what are we going to do with Willy Deville, but who the hell let him get away. As an import it was wracking up great sales here. Capital finally went and released a copy of it, but never did too much work on it."
"I remembered what Nietzsche said, which was he never could understand why they had signed us in the first place. They were the Beatles and the Beach Boys, safe bands, and they hired a bunch of guys who looked like street toughs who looked like they were going to kill them." (He laughs)
Me: "I wanted to ask you about the album you made with Mark Knopfler, I can't remember its title ("Miracle" Willy supplied) how did that come about? Was he assigned to produce you by your label or did it come about some other way?"
Willy: "It was Mark's wife Lourdes who came up with the idea. She said to him that you don't sing like Willy and he doesn't play guitar like you (Me: "Nobody plays guitar like him. Willy: "That's for sure") but you really like his stuff so why don't you do an album together?"
"So I went over to London to do this album. It wasn't easy because we didn't want it to sound like a Dire Straits' album, and his guitar playing is so unique that it was hard to do. But nothing good is going to be easy. I know that I spent the whole time really trying to impress Mark, I wanted it to be good."
"But, yeah it was his wife Lourdes who was responsible more than anyone else for that album. She's a really great lady, really nice. I still really like that album, especially "Southern Politician"
Me: "In an interview with you on theLive In The Lowlands DVD you talked about Mark's reaction to the song "Storybook Love"…
Willy: "Oh yeah that was funny. I played him what I had and he looked at me and said how did you know about that. I said what, and he said that was working on a movie with Rob Reiner called the Princess Bride and I'd just written a song that told the story. He got on the phone and phoned Rob and told him, and Reiner said to get it out to him as soon as possible. So we did it up rough and sent it off and he loved it."
"The next thing I know I'm standing backstage and listening to Dudley Moore and Liza Manelli introduce me before going out to sing "Storybook Song" at the Oscars. There I was standing backstage with Tom Selleck and Karl Malden, waiting to onstage. It was weird…"
Me: "Yeah I saw that awards show, I think I watched it just to see you. I remember thinking wow, and to quote a line from the movie My Cousin Vinnie"Oh and you blend" (laughter)
Willy: "Yeah it was a really strange experience. But you know Tom Selleck was really nice. When I got off stage he leaned over and squeezed my knee and said 'you did great'. That was really nice of him you know. Malden was a little more standoffish. I went up to him afterwards to tell him how much I liked his work and he just kept saying, "That's so nice of you to say that". But I guess if you're always getting that, it must be tiring (pause) I wouldn't know" (laughter)
Me: "Well I guess I should be letting you go soon, but I wanted just to find out what you've got planned for the future. When I saw you in the DVD you were walking with a cane and in some pain, and I was hoping that's nothing permanent."
Willy: "No that was just temporary, I had to have hip replacement surgery, which is a bitch to recover from but now it's pretty much better. I got to tell you I'm in the best shape I think I've been in my entire life. You know I've got to keep exercising the leg to help it heal so I go for walks everyday, and, I bet you never thought you'd hear this coming out of Willy DeVille's mouth, I've been thinking of going to the "Y" to work out" (laughs)
"We've never been to Japan or Australia, so we want to do a tour of those countries. I've got a little sister who lives out in Australia who I haven't seen in ages, so I'd like to see her. There aren't many of the family left anymore so that would be a good thing. Anyway she's so proud of her big brother."
"Nina (his wife) and I can make a trip to Japan into our second Honeymoon. I've wanted to go out there before but the idea of the travel was just too much."
Me: "Yeah I just saw Arlo Guthrie in concert and he talked about his recent tour out to Australia. He said the trip was brutal. 15 hours stuck in a little cabin breathing bad air."
Willy: "Oh shit and I thought you were about to tell me it wasn't that bad."(Laughs) It doesn't matter. You know there are people there who want to see us, so I figure we owe it to them to come over and do our music for them" (Author's note: I've since learnt that it's an Australian record company, Raven, that's been responsible for re releasing a lot of Willy's older material, with all sorts of bonus features)
"I've also been working on a book. It's about all the people I've known who are no longer around, the ones that didn't make it for one reason or another. It's going to be funny, but it's also going to be dark at the same time. These were all friends of mine and they were great people, but well things happened. So I want to write about them, and tell their stories."
Me: "That reminds me about something else, you know I look at pictures of you now and they're so different from ones twenty years ago. You don't look as angry, more at peace."
Willy: "I'm more comfortable in my own skin now than I have ever been. So that could be it."
Me: Whatever it is, it hasn't diminished your passion. Where does that come from?"
Willy: "My passion comes from my music, which is an expression of the passion I feel from making music. There's this feeling you get of absolute silence when you know that the crowd are listening, and that silence is louder than anything else I've ever heard in my life. Those are my moments of absolute bliss. I feel sorry for people who can't feel those moments of euphoria. But in order to feel passion you have to be passionate about something in the first place. For me that's music."
Me: "Thanks Willy, this has been great"
Willy: "Thank you, I hope we can get up to Canada sometime"
Me: "Me too"
So, there it is, as best as I can piece it all together, two hours of conversation and thoughts with Willy DeVille on the telephone one Saturday afternoon in May. There's a lot of stuff that he asked I not talk about, and I had no problem with that, because it was just conversation between two people about stuff that had nothing to do with anybody else.
There were quite a few times where I wasn't making notes of any kind or even thinking about what I was doing as an "Interview". I was having a conversation with a very interesting, intelligent, and aware human being. Those are few and far between enough that I can appreciate them for just that. The truly hard part was remembering that on occasion I should be writing things down.
I've rearranged our conversation so that it works in a more uniform interview sense, so Willy if you end up ever reading this, that's why it seems different from how we talked on the phone. I've done my best to recreate what was said as exactly as possible, and I hope I got it right. Apologies if I didn't.
Thank you Willy DeVille for an incredible two hours. I don't know if something as two dimensional as words on a computer screen can capture someone as alive as Willy DeVille. But I hope that all of you who read this can experience at least a little of what I felt while talking to him.
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