Assorted German, French, and Dutch news outlets are reporting the passing of Willy DeVille, one of America's true outsider rock & roll poets, at the age of 55. We will have an in-depth post from Allmusic's Thom Jurek early next week. In the meantime, here is a feature and interview, written by Jurek, we published in May 2006, just after DeVille had released his Live in the Lowlands DVD. It was one of his last U.S. interviews -- if not the last.
On a rainy, noisy New York City afternoon, rock & roll singer and perennial romantic troubadour Willy DeVille is screaming at garbage trucks out in the street beneath him: "Shut up, you noisy motherf*ckers! I'm tryin' to do an interview here!" The sounds of chaos are everywhere around him, a Chihuahua's yapping full bore, people are coming and going; he holds two conversations simultaneously besides the one we're having. He's exhaling cigarette smoke wearily yet he's animated: "So where were we?" he says in a slightly raspy vocal register that's not far from the one he uses on-stage, the place where he holds court and mesmerizes European crowds by the thousands; here, outside of New York and New Orleans, in the hundreds -- if he's lucky. The stage is DeVille's kingdom -- he is one of the sharpest dressers in rock & roll history, and had the refined Little Richard look long before Prince. He's regal in pointed Italian shoes, stovepipe trousers, silk, blouse-like shirts or all colors, with scarves, hats, and canes for props, like a riverboat gambler from the last century or looking like a pirate thief from the docks of European fiction and movies. Yet he can sing like a street-corner balladeer without ever stretching it.
"Now, where were we, man? When's the last time you heard a rock & roll record on the radio? You know, the kind that grab and hold you and make you glad you're alive? I'm still listening, still looking, but they're harder and harder to find."
DeVille should know. He is one of America's true outsider rock & roll poets. Like a street urchin's Bryan Ferry, he's been crooning and growling from the heart of rock & roll's elegant and storied past since the late '70s when he and his smoking band, Mink DeVille, were an important part of the thriving CBGB's scene. But Mink DeVille didn't fit the punk mold as comfortably as other groups of the era. They had the energy, they had the look, and they had killer short songs. But where Patti Smith was being produced by John Cale, Willy DeVille was hanging out with Doc Pomus and Jack Nitzsche -- both of whom he wrote with. Nitzsche produced and arranged the first two Mink DeVille records for Capitol -- Cabretta (1977) and Return to Magenta (1978).
DeVille is scrambling on the other end of the phone to get settled. He's promoting his new DVD, Live in the Lowlands, filmed at Amsterdam's famed Paradiso Theater. The performance is utterly stunning. He looks great and his band is crack -- featuring longtime collaborator Freddy Koeller, Kenny Margolis, harmonica boss Hook Herera, and a pair of great female backing vocalists in Dorene and Yadonna Wise, as well as a few others. The music on it spans his entire career, from the early days of his first brush with the radio covering Moon Martin's "Cadillac Walk" to his own "Spanish Stroll" and "Savoir Faire" from 1979's brilliant Le Chat Bleu; to "Demaisado Corazon"; "Even While I Sleep" (off his criminally ignored Backstreets of Desire album); and the title track to his latest, Crow Jane Alley. The covers are remarkable as well, from Billy Roberts' "Hey Joe" (done in convincing soulful mariachi style on the Backstreets album) to "Let It Be Me," to a truly unusual and burningly sensual read of Ferry's "Slave to Love."
"I still have the voice; it's better than ever, and I look great. I still have the clothes and the moves. For me rock & roll has always been about the theatrical show as well as the music. They dig that in Europe. They dig mystique; they dig sincerity; they dig that the music, the words, are still about simple street poetry; they still dig soul music, too. I think we do a great job on that DVD -- it comes across, what we do, we bring the audience in and then we take the music to them. It's simple. We offer simple songs about common and complicated experiences. That's what good rock & roll music does. It's real on that stage; it's a good show, the songs are, they make me proud; they come from the places I live and they scare even me sometimes."
On the small screen, DeVille is all of that and more. He's bigger than life by seeming to be at the mercy of it. He croons, growls, pleads, accuses, struts, or walks away broken. But there are those moments, too, when he stands as proxy for his protagonist -- who ultimately stands proxy for DeVille -- and is there to hold his beloved in an embrace that spans the ages. He's not grousing about his singing, either: his voice is stronger than ever, even if the guy on the other end of the phone barely resembles the stage performer.
"I've had my moments -- some of them have lasted years -- where I've not been kind to myself. They say the body is the temple of God; OK, I'll buy that. I think the mind is, too, and I've had my struggles. I'm trying to take care these days." But he switches again quickly: "I feel like I'm 25, and I can play like that, too. It ain't like the Rolling f*cking Stones who have a canned show they've been playing for years and everything is all set. When I go out there, it's without a f*cking net or a million-dollar stage set. We offer real entertainment on this level; we have to weave f*cking magic from nothing. And on most nights, I deliver in spades, man."
He's not saying anything that's not true. In a theater or in a bar, Willy DeVille pours it out. His songs are populated with protagonists who search relentlessly and desperately for love and redemption under streetlights in alleys, on the poor side of the city where the broken glass shines in the gutter. When they find it, they hold on tight because they know it's the lifeblood of the spirit. They hold on way tighter than most, even against the odds because they -- being broken, ruined, and lost -- are seeking those as desperate as themselves. They are too smart to bet to wait for an eternal heaven when it can be found in a kiss or caress. And DeVille can do it in forms as diverse as country and Latin soul, New Orleans funk, garage rock, spooky blues, gypsy folk, and anthemic roots rock.
DeVille knows about desperation. Continuing to live in the States is a constant battle. The man who plays -- and sells out -- the Paradiso, and the Olympia Theater in Paris, stage home of Edith Piaf, Charles Aznavour, and Charles Trenet, can barely tour here at home despite putting out consistently good records -- especially over the last decade and a half. He had his single big moment on American radio when his tune "Storybook Love," from his first solo album -- produced by Mark Knopfler -- became the hit theme for the film The Princess Bride. But success proved elusive. He lived in Europe, and for a long period in New Orleans where he recorded with the cream of the Crescent City's session crop -- including Dr. John, George Porter, Eddie Bo, Allen Toussaint -- issuing a number of records during his residency there, including Victory Mixture, Big Easy Fantasy, and Backstreets of Desire.
DeVille's been through his share of rough stuff. He lost both his parents and Nitzsche in a short period of time, the latter two days before his birthday. Being back in New York, where the streets are ever present, is a full-circle homecoming both good and bad. When asked why he returned to New York, he replies quietly, "The bottom of my life fell out and I got outta here for a while to New Mexico just before all the hell broke loose in New York."
"I started here, man. This is nothing new to me, playing and living in New York. I wish it were easier, but if I didn't want to do it, I f*cking wouldn't. I have new projects going, and I'm writing like crazy."
"Bruce Springsteen and Billy Borsey (DeVille's birth name) may have gone to different high schools, but we both come from the same part of the country, we both make music big as life itself -- it's in that root flesh-and-blood stuff; it's the same kind of music. We both heard the same records and we both loved the same records, and it shows in what he does, and in what I do too. F*ck the suits. I'm glad he's been as successful as he has. It gives me hope that there's real music out there still that can be embraced by people who can find meaning in rock & roll. While I can still do this somewhere, and while he's still packing stadiums, it means the suits haven't killed everything off yet. I'd love to write with him or work with him on something."
DeVille's heart is all over the place on Live in the Lowlands. There is nothing but the song and its performance. His guitar playing is sharp, and the view doesn't need to reach for the suspension of disbelief. In the 1981 film Pennies from Heaven, Steve Martin's Arthur says with absolute conviction to Bernadette Peters' Eileen, "There's got to be a place where those songs are real!" For anyone watching or listening to DeVille on this DVD or on any of his records, they are real in the moment he sings them. And they resonate in both image and sound. His live performances are much more than smoke and mirrors; his audiences believe every word, and they trust him implicitly. He knows their desires, and has uttered the same desperate prayers. And if he still believes it enough to sing about it, then, for an hour or two they can, too.
"Man, we don't need no f*cking four Shetland ponies singing, 'Yeah, Yeah, Yeah,' or some dress-up sh*t like American Idol," he snarls. "I've been trying to make good music all my life; stuff that grabs me in the same way Van Gogh's Starry Night painting does. It never lets you go. That's what I go for. No more, no less. The suits want to jazz themselves up by trying to throw a bunch of sh*t at a wall and congratulate themselves, when all I want to do is write a good song, a song that will get into your heart and f*cking stay there."
DeVille asks me about when the last good record I heard was -- again -- then goes back to screaming at the garbage trucks, his conversations, and ranting about the rain coming in the windows. But it hardly matters. He may be erratic and agitated, but he's good-natured about it. The bottom line is that the music doesn't lie, the DVD doesn't lie, and the guy on the other end of the phone doesn't, either. He's a survivor, and a consummate performer, and he isn't apologizing for who he is on- or off-stage.