Willie Nile is the walking example of pure rock 'n' roll. Black clad and cocksure, the man defines cool. But the New York City musician ain't cliché: he's classic. Playing with a fist in the air and a blast of exuberant rebellion. But Nile knows that even though it's all about the big beat, rock 'n' roll has some stories to tell, some hearts to break, and some wrongs to right.
Since the early 1980's, Nile has been churning out greasy denim and leather anthems that resonate all the way back to the cheap seats in stadiums as well as assorted gin joints and dives. With a career that spans nearly four decades, 10 studio and five live albums, Nile has had his share of music industry ups and downs. But you can't count Willie Nile out, Jack. Beneath a coif that looks like it was combed with a grenade, Nile is a man of humility, determination, and resolve.
Nile has taken a back seat of sorts on his latest album, "Positively Bob," in order to pay tribute to his hero, Bob Dylan. It kicks off with a 4/4 take on "The Times They Are A-Changin"' with some serious acceleration compared to the original, but it's still no less impactful. "Rainy Day Women No. 12 & 35" has the requisite gang vocal over some slippery slide. "Subterranean Homesick Blues" has a nice boogie feel to it. And it should be pointed out, Nile sounds a little like Dylan, voice-wise. The album closer "Abandoned Love" is powerful and arresting, making it just that more clear why artists like Nile venture into giving Dylan's music their own twist.
From a corner booth in a noisy New York City diner, Nile gave CITY a jingle to discuss Shakespeare, rock 'n' roll, and how to do Dylan in his own style. An edited transcript follows.
CITY: Was this record a daunting task?
Willie Nile: Oh my God; what a joy it was to make.
What gave you the idea?
Last May, in NYC, they were doing a Bob Dylan 75th birthday event, and they asked me to play four songs to close the show. So I looked for four songs that I could bring something to.
How did you select songs for the record?
I thought what will be fun to play live and what will work live. I wanted to play songs I could bring something to -- good energy and put my own feel on. There's no topping Bob's versions, and that wasn't my goal. It was a labor of love. I wanted to play them respectfully for new generations.
But still you did them Nile-style.
What is it about Dylan that does it for you?
I'm one of those kids who grew up on early rock 'n' roll from Little Richard, Elvis, Chuck Berry, The Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly. Then it was the British Invasion with bands like The Kinks and The Who. But it was when I heard Dylan who raised the bar so high that inspired me to no end. I started writing not long after that. Making a Bob Dylan record was the last thing on my mind. Bob's the Shakespeare of rock 'n' roll. He turned the world on.
And the material is still relevant, don't you think?
You sit there and listen to these great songs and they're so contemporary to today's world. I mean "Blowin' in the Wind," "The Times They Are A-Changin'" -- they're all so current. They're as meaningful as they ever were. The world's not in great shape.
If Bob Dylan is the Shakespeare of rock 'n' roll, who are you?
I'm a true believer. A true believer that music, whether it's rock 'n' roll or classical or reggae or jazz, if it's right, if it comes from a good place, it can be transformative. There can be salvation in it. Life is tough, just look at the news. All these years and the human race still doesn't have it together. Music can make sense of it. So I'm a true believer in rock 'n' roll who thinks a little bit of heart, a little bit of soul, and a little bit of boogie can get you some place better.