Published in The Coaster, Asbury Park NJ, June 7 2018/ photos by Cristina Arrigoni
Across the sands and seas of centuries, the world’s scientists, adventurers and spiritual leaders have debated a precise location for The Source of the Nile — that elusive point from which all life, energy, wisdom, passion, and good times flow forth into the fertile land. If only they’d thought to ask that guy sitting there in Washington Square Park with the Buddy Holly guitar, the classic-cool leather and shades, and the gloriously aspirational coif that’s just this much closer to heaven — had they done so, Willie Nile could have told them that it all begins “in the heart…the beating heart, where rock and roll comes from.”
“Rock and roll is about shared experience, and expression,” says the electrified singer-songwriter and street-philosopher king who emerged fully formed from the gritty NYC folk/rock clubscape of the late 1970s — and who marks his milestone 70th birthday on June 7. “Rock and roll is at its best when it’s pissed off…when it’s in love…and when it’s out of its mind, all at the same time.”
A Buffalo-bred signifier of a New York/NJ scene and sound that stretches from Brill Building pop and coffeehouse Dylan, to the big-hearted punks of Max’s and CB’s — and such fellow troubadors as Garland Jeffreys, Jim Carroll, Richard Barone, Steve Forbert, elder statesman Lou Reed, and hungry young Bruce Springsteen — Willie Nile is well known around Asbury Park as an Honorary Shore Rocker; one who’s shared many a stage with Bruce and the E Street gang as both gracious host and special guest. At an age when many of his contemporaries are dozing off to Matlock reruns, this “active adult” has some red-hot irons in the fire — including an all-new album (Children of Paradise, slated to drop on July 27), and a June 9 Rock and Roll Birthday Bash that finds the septuagenarian Willie primed to blast out all the candles on the cake (and take his trusty axe to that piñata), right here in his favorite seaside city.
Since “Chuck E. Cheese was booked,” the site of that Saturday soiree is downtown Asbury’s awesomely all-purpose auditorium the House of Independents, a venue that the birthday boy praises for its “great stage, P.A., lighting, brick walls, heart and spirit…this is gonna be a day of celebration, and we’ll be givin’ ‘em their money’s worth.” With a start time of 7 pm and Colossal Street Jam putting forth the opening bid, the evening promises a sonic smorgasbord of selections from Nile’s decades-deep catalog of socially savvy and passionately pantheon originals, punctuated and peppered with some well-chosen covers — anything from Lou’s “Sweet Jane” or Bob’s “Blowin’ in the Wind,” to a gabba-gabba goulash of Ramones rousers. The event will be recorded by a film crew, as part of a planned documentary feature on the vivacious veteran. And — since it ain’t a party without a few invited guests — part of the fun springs from speculating as to who just might be making that scene (Nile, for his part, offers only that “I’m sendin’ out some smoke signals”).
Expect Nile and band (guitarist Matt Hogan, bassist Johnny Pisano, drummer Jon Weber) to also give a public airing of new material from Children of Paradise, his eleventh studio album of original songs (following up 2017’s all-Dylan collection Positively Bob) — and the latest entry in what’s proven to be a remarkably productive and prolific period for the artist who once put a whole ten years between albums (a symptom of an unhappy interlude in which “I walked away when it became more about the business than the music”). A no-nonsense blast of wide-woke wordcraft and serious social conscience, the dozen-song set pulls no punches in its tackling of such hot-button issues as climate cataclysm (“Earth Blues”), spiritual crises (“Gettin’ Ugly Out There”), people-powered activism (“Seeds of a Revolution”), and all those who would dare troll a good thing (the salty exhortation “Don’t”). All delivered in a way that’s squarely in keeping with “a rockin’ record…not preachy, or mournful at all.”
“I love this record…and I refuse not to end on a hopeful note,” says Nile in reference to the album’s closing tracks, “Rock and Roll Sisters” (“a shout out to all the women, all the sisters everywhere, in this time of MeToo”) and the buoyant anthem “All God’s Children.” As the songwriter adds, “My feeling is that music can make us do better…ease our pain, help us learn, and in due time it will turn around.”
It’s been quite a journey for the wand’ring minstrel whose earliest albums appeared on major labels like Arista and Columbia (“those days of A&R guys and showcase gigs are long over”), and whose on-again/off-again career really found its footing with his first self-release Beautiful Wreck of the World in 1999. Available for pre-order through the artist’s website, Children of Paradise is an entirely fan-funded project through PledgeMusic; one that prompts Nile to proclaim “the revolution starts with the fans…the fans GET it.”
More than just a confirmation of a veteran rocker’s undimmed skills, the new album also serves as a stunning showcase for a gallery of images by Cristina Arrigoni, Nile’s girlfriend of eight years and a professional photographer that he met while on tour in her native Italy. The “mostly homeless” faces that look out from the album booklet complement the plain-spoke printed lyrics in a way that “captures the dignity of these human beings…it reinforces that we’re all Children of Paradise, whether we’re the ones who are outside lookin’ in, or the ones who are eating caviar and drinking champagne.”
Repeating his mantra of “I’m a believer,” Nile asserts that “not many people get to do this thing that I love to do…I write these songs for me; they mean something to me, and I hope that they connect with other people as well.”
“I was fortunate to come from a great family…my grandfather had a vaudeville orchestra, and my parents were very encouraging…but when I first came to New York, I saw a lot of people with chips on their shoulders,” he adds. “I swore never to have that chip on my shoulder. I believe that people all have good sides…I’m a believer.”
Tickets for Saturday’s 7 pm soiree ($30-$60 are available in advance at houseofindependents.com, or from the box office — namely, Lola’s European Café, right across Cookman.