(SOUNDBITE OF SONG THE STREETS OF NEW YORK)
LIANE HANSEN, Host:
Every year countless numbers of musicians pack up their belongings and head to New York City in hopes of breaking into the big time. For Willie Nile, that break came on July 29, 1978. He was the opening act, and the influential New York Times critic Robert Palmer was in the audience to see the headliner. But Palmer was so impressed by the 29-year-old Buffalo native that he devoted the bulk of his review to Willie Nile. Every once in a while, wrote Palmer, the time seems to produce an artist who was at once an iconoclast and near-perfect expression of contemporary currents. Since that review was published, Willie Nile has earned a great deal of respect in the music business but never became what you would call a star. It doesn't seem to matter to him. Willie Nile has just released a new CD with the title that pays homage to a place that has nurtured him over the decade, the streets of New York.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG THE STREETS OF NEW YORK)
HANSEN: That's Willie Nile playing an acoustic version of the title tune on his new CD called Streets of New York. We're actually sitting in a club called Kenny's Castaways, which has been in this location for 30 years. It's on Bleecker Street near MacDougal near Washington Square, near all of those landmarks you've ever heard of in Greenwich Village. He's on stage with his Gibson guitar and I have got a ringside table, and he agreed to meet me here on a beautiful day on the streets of New York.
I have to ask you did you change your name from Robert Noonan in order to play in this club oh so many years ago?
WILLIE NILE: I changed my name when I came to New York in the early 70s from Buffalo, where I was born. When I first started playing in the clubs, I found it very pretentious and cliquey. And you had to wait in line to get on the open mike nights, whoever the people that were running them, not all of them, some places were better than others. But the particular place I went to, they make you wait. You had to wait till three in the morning to play. And you're treated fairly disrespectfully, which I suppose is, they do it on purpose so you can get your bruises in early. And one night after waiting for a long time in line, I went up to the fella, and the guy said what's your name? And I said it's Robert Noonan. And he said, I can't hear you, what is it? And I said it's Huey Rosenbag, and he said, Rosenberg? I go, No, no, Huey Rosenbag, like the pitcher's mound. Like the pitcher's bag.
And so he wrote that down, and so my girlfriend and I waited all night long in the back laughing, knowing that he would come on, and he came on, introduced me, ladies and gentleman, Huey Rosenbag. And next week, my name was Moe Downs, and the week after that my name was Umberto Snorts. I was watching the great PBS series Search for the Nile. And I just woke up one morning Willie Nile. I thought it was a good rock and roll name. To say something's nihilistic made me giggle, being a philosophy major. So I thought it's a good rock and roll name. And that way if I get praised, or slammed, I'll always be one step back on the other, talk about this made up name.
HANSEN: When you were growing up in Buffalo, was the Village a place that you wanted to make pilgrimage to and stake a claim here?
NILE: Well, I don't know about staking a claim. But there was a lot of romance for me. I use to hitchhike down. When I was in high school, I hitchhiked from Buffalo on the throughway, when you could hitchhike. Just wandered the streets, you know, I used to sleep in the park. When you could sleep in the park before the bad park people changed things. Anyway, I would come down and just wonder the streets. The beats, I loved the beats, and the beats, Ginsberg, Corso, the great beat poets. I wanted to see it. It held magic for me. The same, I always and I still do think of New York as Paris in the 1850s or perhaps, London in Dickens's time. I like the notion of a huge city with a cosmopolitan collection of people, rich, poor, everything in-between. I mean New York City is dirty. It's dark. It's dangerous. It's got the three Ds but it's also very magical. It's glorious. You know. And for a writer there's no place better.
HANSEN: You write this great song that's on your CD. You're going to play it for us to take us out, The Day I Saw Bo Didley in Washington Square. I think the lyric that amuses me the most is when everyone says that they were there when Bo Didley was in Washington Square. And I would imagine that would apply to people who say, Well, I was, yeah, I was in the Village when X was happening, when Patti Smith, you know, did her first concert and, and you did see Bo Didley in Washington Square?
NILE: I'm walking down McDougal Street minding my own business, behaving myself as best I can. Who across the street should be walking with his round hat with a rattle snake around it, with a guitar in hand? I went that's Bo Didley, to myself I says. Talking to myself all the time as I do. It's Bo Didley, and it was. I obviously didn't bother him. I just looked in wonder. I thought there's Bo Didley walking down McDougal Street. How cool is that? Well, some months later, I read that he stays in hotel near there when he's in town. And a frequent collaborator, and my friend, dear friend, Frankie Lee who I wrote this next song with, we were hanging one night, writing, having a few beers, talking, and I mentioned that I saw Bo Didley in Washington Square Park, and he said, I saw Bo Didley in Washington Square Park.
So we were laughing our heads off. So we wrote a song about Bo Didley. And last year, I actually got to play it for Bo Didley. He was doing an interview on a radio show with a friend of mine, and they invited me in and I sang it for him. And he said, I like that, I like that. So anyway, we wrote it as a, it's kind of a day in the life of Planet Earth as seen through Washington Square with Bo Didley as the Greek chorus perhaps. And it goes like this.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG THE DAY I SAW BO DIDLEY IN WASHINGTON SQUARE)
NILE: (Singing) Well the sky it was orange, the trees they were bare. There were oceans of people all going somewhere. It was just like a painting, a day at the fair. The day I saw Bo Didley in Washington Square.
There were heroes and villains. Paupers in the seas. There were preachers from TV rolled up their sleeves. There was much dirty laundry in need of repair. The day I saw Bo Didley in Washington Square.
There were hipsters and pop stars and posers galore. The kind of location politicians adore. And the blind man was laughing asleep on the stair, the day I saw Bo Didley in Washington Square.
Singing lay down, lay down na, na, na. Singing lay down with me. He sang a song for those who just don't have a prayer. The day I saw Bo Didley in Washington Square. The Salvation Army was lost in a fog as the emperor of ice cream was walking his dog. And the members of Congress were chained to a chair. The day I saw Bo Didley in Washington Square.
There were orphans and outcasts for whom no one cared. There were runaway children on a park bench somewhere. There were divas from Uptown with nothing to wear. The day I saw Bo Didley in Washington Square.
Singing lay down, lay down na, na, na. Singing lay down with me. He sang a song for those who just don't have a prayer. The day I saw Bo Didley in Washington Square.
As the bagpipes were playing a mystical tune, the sky poured open the stars and the moon. And the arms of the infant were raised in the air. The day I saw Bo Didley in Washington Square.
As the full moon ascended its heavenly stare, two lovers embracing were caught in the glare. There are millions of people who will say they were there. The day I saw Bo Didley in Washington Square.
Singing lay down, lay down na, na, na. Singing lay down with me. He sang a song for those who just don't have a prayer. The day I saw Bo Didley in Washington Square. The day I saw Bo Didley in Washington Square. The day I saw Bo Didley in Washington Square.
HANSEN: Willie Nile playing The Day I Saw Bo Didley in Washington Square. Playing it not too far from Washington Square, New York, at Kenny's Castaways on Bleecker Street.
HANSEN: The tune is from Streets of New York, his new CD which has just been released on the Two Minutes Fifty Nine label. Willie Nile, I want to thank you so much for getting up and coming down to the club.
NILE: My pleasure. Thank you for having me.
HANSEN: Also like to thank Maria Kenny for opening up the club for us. Our producer is Jesse Baker, engineer is Neil Rout(ph). There's more information on our website NPR.org. This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.