More than a quarter century has passed since the release of Willie Nile’s first album, accompanied by press notices comparing him to Dylan and Springsteen. The enthralling new Streets of New York finds the artist in his mid-fifties, his youthful energy unflagging, and he’s never sounded more committed to the themes he’s tackled. They range from the title track—a gritty paean to his adopted hometown that he describes as “my love song to the city”—to the chilling “Cell Phones Ringing (in the Pockets of the Dead),” his unflinching response to the 2004 Madrid train bombings.
Some who have heard the album describe it as Nile’s London Calling, a characterization prompted not only by his rousing cover of “Police on My Back,” the Eddy Grant-written classic that appeared on Sandinista!, but also by his own hot-rod reggae tune “When One Stands”; both reveal Nile’s deep spiritual kinship with the Clash, as does the outspokenness that spews out from songs like “Game of Fools” and “Best Friends Money Can Buy.”
Nile is a songwriters’ songwriter. No less a personage than Lucinda Williams has said of him, “Willie Nile is a great artist. If there was any justice in this world, I’d be opening up for him instead of him for me.” And he’s never been more eloquent than he is here. Lou Reed hails Streets of New York as “a great album,” while Graham Parker calls it “a real gem—stirring melodies, passionate vocals, intriguing lyrics…every track a winner.” Says Ian Hunter, “Willie’s from the big-hearted downtown alleyways of NYC (New York commitment). Well done!” Little Steven adds, “Willie Nile is so good I can’t believe he’s not from New Jersey!”
Nile grew up in Buffalo, New York, part of a bustling Irish Catholic family with what he calls “an open-door policy.” For as far back as Willie can remember, his parents welcomed house guests from around the world for extended stays, and “the cosmopolitan nature of the world kind of rubbed off,” he says. After studying philosophy at the University of Buffalo, he headed for Greenwich Village, determined to make a name for himself as a latter-day troubadour. That he did throughout the ’70s, becoming a fixture in the Village folk and rock scenes and getting tabbed as the next big thing to come out of that long-thriving artistic community. Writing in The New York Times, the great rock critic Robert Palmer called him “one of the most gifted singer-songwriters to emerge from the New York scene in years.”
He made his recording debut in 1980 with his acclaimed self-titled LP on Arista Records, following it a year later with Golden Down. He also opened the Who’s North American tour at the personal request of the band. In 1982, he signed to Geffen Records but got caught in record-biz limbo and didn’t manage to release another record until 1991, when Columbia issued Places I Have Never Been. With the EP Hard Times in America in 1992, which became a cult favorite throughout Europe, Nile finally managed to jump off the major-label hamster wheel. Gathering together his resources over time, he managed to put out his first self-released album, Beautiful Wreck of the World, just before the end of the century.