Sunday, September 13, 2009

Willy DeVille

Back in early August, Willy DeVille quietly passed away from pancreatic cancer a few weeks shy of his 59th birthday.

I’d recommend reading the Wikipedia link for an interesting story. Born William Borsey, Jr. in a working-class part of Stamford, CT in 1950 of Irish, Basque and Indian descent. Street kid, left town as a teenager, rolled around as a musician, New York, San Francisco, London. Eventually found his way back to New York, around the mid-70s when the CBGB’s scene was taking off, and made a name for himself fronting the 70s punk/new wave band Mink Deville. Ran his course with them, went solo, had a minor hit with “Storybook Love” from The Princess Bride soundtrack, moved to New Orleans, then the Southwest, falling in and out with heroin all the while, finally kicked the habit, moved back to New York in the early part of the century, diagnosed with Hepatitis C earlier this year, at which time he learned he also had pancreatic cancer, and he was gone by August.

Those are some of the bare facts. What’s missing is the music, and before a few weeks ago, I was pretty uninformed about Willy DeVille. I only had Mink Deville’s first album on CD, used to have the second, and their last album, Sportin’ Life, on vinyl. Sportin’ Life might have threw me off his track for years. I recall finding it in a cutout bin at Sounds on St. Marks Place for a buck, gave it a try, and it was standard Willy DeVille sounding stuff with a very bad 80s production sheen.

What was the standard Willy DeVille sound? That’s the weird part, and something that should have struck me a lot more than it did until after his passing. He came out of that CBGB’s scene in the mid-70s, yet listening to that album again, I can hear he had nothing to do with that scene, and much more to do with the sound of the early 60s in New York, songs by Doc Pomus, that romantic “street” sound. Think of songs like “Stand by Me,” “Save the Last Dance for Me” and “You Better Move On.” You take those three songs, the rhythms, lyrics and feel, and you have the essence of Willy DeVille when he started. I had no idea where he came from at the time – I had assumed he was a Puerto Rican kid from Spanish Harlem. That was the look he affected: pompadour hair, tough-guy street looks, etc.

I can’t even recall how I came to buy a Mink DeVille album – probably read about it before I had heard anything. All I know is that when I put the needle down on "Venus of Avenue D” and the song shifted gears on the line, “In the back room the boys/They’re talking about you” I was won over. Just one of those moments in rock, the lead guitar kicking in, accenting the pounding drums and piano riff. And I knew Avenue D was a truly shitty part of New York City. (Still isn’t that hot, although gentrification really did a number on Avenues A and B … haven’t walked down past Avenue A in years, but recall a few “instructive” trips in the late 80s.) All he did was update a song like “Spanish Harlem,” writing about light being found in unlikely places in the city, and making it his job to preserve that delicate, unexpected beauty through his song.

It’s plain as day to me now, but since Mink Deville were packaged as punks, I didn’t catch on that Willy DeVille was a romantic revisionist. Those first two albums are a tribute to that early 60s Doc Pomus vibe, the street tough with a heart of gold, think of the working-class guy in “Uptown” by The Crystals who doesn’t make any sense in the world until he’s walking the streets of his ratty neighborhood. While it may not have fit in on the surface of the CBGB’s scene, it did more: reached back to roots stronger and more lasting than what was going on at the time and somehow updated the sound with a more gritty feel. It was about as un-punk as you could get – then again, that was the whole message of the bands who made it big from that scene, they were never all that punk (think Talking Heads, Blondie, Television, etc.). The Ramones were it for punk, and when you get down to it, they were just like Willy DeVille, grabbing onto the past and twisting into something he could call his own.

I never followed up on that initial interest in Mink Deville. I think at the time I pictured the band as being too slick – Willy fancied himself a dandy: skinny ties, European suits, pencil-thin mustache, slicked-back hair. It was a cool image, but it seemed odd to me at the time, just didn’t connect. (At various times in his life, he looked like: a Puerto Rican street kid, an Italian fashion victim, Vincent Price, a New Orleans dandy circa 1890, a biker, a vampire, an American Indian … it goes on.) I frankly never connected with DeVille for a long time. I pulled Sportin’ Life from a used bin on a lark, and it didn’t move me.

My loss. After his recent passing, I started thinking about Willy DeVille a lot. Remembered the promise of those early songs. And in some weird way, I grew into his sound again, this time for real, getting it the way someone who’s spent a few decades in the city can understand implicitly, but more importantly, grabbing onto that romantic sense of respecting the past. (It took me decades to realize the past is always with us, whether we like it or not. Consider it your shadow.)

I poked around the web and found a few treasure chests of his albums. (Email me privately if you want some tips.) And I found many of his albums are now hard to find – either expensive imports or simply out of print. So I was more than glad to do the Rapidshare thing this time, nailing down most of his catalog.

And I feel like I lost a friend I never knew I had. Much like Warren Zevon, DeVille truly took off when people en masse stopped paying attention. He grew. He explored all types of music, and found he could play them. He wrote great songs that are as elemental and true as those of his heroes, songwriters like Doc Pomus. In listening to his albums over the past two weeks, I’ve heard him run the gamut in terms of sounds and influences: Springsteen, Van Morrison, early 60s pop, the Stones, the blues, Mellencampish country rock, Tom Waits, Buddy Holly. He even had a celtic-sounding song! And he never lost it. His last album, Pistola, came out last year, and has a few winners on it. (Try “So So Real” from that album.)

But through it all, and something I never fully understood, he had that underlying latin rhythm to all his work. And, again, that was more tribute to songwriters like Doc Pomus and the sort of lilting rhythms they infused their songs with. “Save the Last Dance for Me” is a latin shuffle. A lot of those graceful ballads from the early 60s were.

That rhythm must have spoken to the Spanish side of DeVille’s heritage. So with that song, you had a nebbish Jewish songwriter writing a Spanish shuffle for a bunch of black do-wop singers. It was that sort of cross-cultural sharing that once made American pop music so great … and is totally lost and destroyed now. DeVille grasped that sort of quiet diversity and used it himself, much more when Mink Deville faded away as a band, and he was left to his own devices. Basically, he recorded albums that were very good, but went nowhere in America. Apparently, they love him in Europe, in France and Spain particularly. I recall a big controversy over Le Chat Bleau, his 1979 album with Mink Deville that was at first rejected by his American record company, released in Europe, did very well, then came out here to critical accolades (but so-so sales). It may sound like a standard album today, but back then, nobody was putting out albums like that. Los Lobos would come around a few year later and have a similar sound, but they didn’t have DeVille’s eclecticism – one song would sound like Springsteen, another like the Drifters, another like Edith Piaf. That sort of shit mows down critics, but does nothing for record companies, who rarely know how to market something that daring.

DeVille was very similar to another European icon who is nobody in America: Chris Rea. If you don’t recall, Rea had a big hit in the late 70s with the soft-rock classic “Fool (If You Think It’s Over).” If that’s where your grasp of Rea ends, you’re missing out on a decades-long career spanning a few dozen albums, with nearly each one sounding new and different, branching off into the blues, traditional European instrumentation, rockabilly, soul, celtic … and so many more influences. He’s had a remarkable career, and you’d be hard-pressed to find his CDs in most retail stores, much less meet anyone who’s even remotely aware of his music.

Like Rea, DeVille somehow found a way to keep making music, and not just punching the clock, putting out really challenging, interesting music. Of course, I’m a bit of a bullshit artist, because none of this was made clear to me until about two weeks after his death. Again, it was like finding a friend I never knew I had. And I’m more than glad now to spread the word. When I listen to Willy DeVille now, I hear someone who should have been a lot more popular than he was. But given that he became harder to pin down musically as he aged, that would have been hard to do without a massive fan base already in place leading up to that sort of exploration. Maybe he was better off that way, at least creatively if not financially. There’s some kind of freedom in not having to worry about what record companies and millions of fans want.

I’ll include three links to MP3s below to give you a sampling of some of my favorites:

“Southern Politician” by Willy DeVille

“Bamboo Road” by Willy DeVille

“Stand by Me (live at Montreux 1982)” by Mink Deville

So long, Willy. You are not forgotten, and sorry it took me so long to come around. You deserved better than what you got. Then again, if you had the chance to make this kind of music and go on living, you were doing something right.


Anonymous said...

Great essay! You nailed Willy DeVille. I love the eclecticism and the daring, not to mention the solid roots in many diverse American sounds. I hope more people discover him. There seems to be more interest in him after his death.

You might want to sign the petition to put DeVille in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Here's the link:

Catalina said...

Thank you so much for this, very well written!
I relate to the part where you wrote "it was like finding a friend I never knew I had"...
"So long, Willy. You are not forgotten, and sorry it took me so long to come around."
A great artist, a fascinating personality, who left so much behind, for many to enjoy. Respect