Newspaper Articles – Issue 13


by Dusti Rhodes

    In the beginning, there was Elvis and Buddy Holly . . . Jerry Lee Lewis, and Phil Spector . . . in the nearly 20 years that have followed, rock and roll has been psychedelicized, synthesized, brutalized, homogenized, and generally dehumanized to the point of self-destruction and near extinction.

    But take heart; there is a survivor, here to resurrect the original idea — rock and roll: hard and soft . . . tough and gentle . . . joyous and tearful . . . fearless and timid.

    Contradiction has long been the mainstay of rock and roll, and Willy DeVille is a contradiction unto himself; at once startlingly genuine and philosophically surreal, Willy grew up on the streets of New York as an outcast among outcasts, but he is not, by any description, a punk. A hood, maybe. A punk, never. He is perhaps better described as a compassionate, street-wise philosopher, embodied with the baddest cat on the block:

    “New York is my home, man, but it kicks me in the teeth . . . it’s like lemmings — fit in and grin, fit in, fit in . . . and I am not gonna fit in. Look, I may die tomorrow . . . but life’s a banquet and most poor bastards are starvin’ . . . I live for today; if tomorrow don’t come, then it don’t come; but that does not necessarily mean that I have no future. So you’ve gotta fight in this world. There’s people in New York who flirt with the void . . . I’m too in touch with the void to do that. I know how big I am in the universe . . . all this was written out for me long before I ever got this contract. I have a book that I’ve been writing now for maybe five, six years . . . every day I write something in it — getting closer, getting closer . . . I can look back at it and say ‘wow, yeah, I remember that’. . .”

    by Willy DeVille as told to Dusti Rhodes

“I was influenced by music really, really young . . . the radio was there every morning at the breakfast table . . . the first time I can really remember saying, ‘Wow! What is that? I like that!’ was like a Crystals song, or maybe “Da Doo Run Run’ or ‘Then He Kissed Me’ — one of those with like that really hollow sound . . . at that point I was just starting to develop . . . I was like five years old and I started singing along with the radio.

“The first time I ever wanted to, say, step on a stage and sing in front of people was at this teen club — like a neighborhood thing . . . that was our first gig, and Jesus, I don’t even think we had the right microphones or anything . . . they were like tape recorder mikes . . . and we played . . . so this guy Roger Rich wanted to get up and sing. Now Rog was the bad mutha of the school . . . he was bad — used to come to school every day dressed up — heavily — ruffled shirt, red vest, black iridescent pants, black high heeled shoes . . . very Latino . . . so Rog gets up to sing ‘Valerie’ by Ronnie and the Starlites . . . and halfway through the song, this guy cries, and keeps on cryin’ through the rest of the song . . . he was really down, man, doin’ the whole Jackie Wilson bit — sweat pourin’ off him and cryin’ — it was great . . . and I just said ‘Hey-y-y-y-y-y-, wow!”

In hood tradition, Willy quit school in the tenth grade: “I was always considered an asshole . . . I never fit in at school . . . I was always looked upon as the wierd.” He headed for the West Village to try to get some music going: “It seemed like I just hung out and hung out. I always wanted to play music but nobody really had it together then . . . they had psychedelic bands but that wasn’t my thing . . . you had all that ‘I love you, I love you, have a flower, and that whole God trip — then that died . . . the best to come out of that whole scene was Moby Grape and Sly Stone’s early band, and Santana . . . The Doors were offering something different, the Airplane had a chick singer, Janis Joplin was doing Etta James, but . . . ”

Disillusioned, dissociated, bored and still Looking For Something, Willy decided to leave New York for the streets of London: “I went all by myself . . . this artist friend of mine was leaving for Paris — another sort of misfit, you know — and I was sayin’, ‘Hey, he’s got nothin’, he’s just gonna sell everything and go . . . I could do that.’ People started telling me that I’d be hated there because I was an American, but then I dug that if you’re an artist, and you’re on street level, it doesn’t matter where you are.”

It didn’t take long before money and visa time ran short, and Willy headed back to the States:

“I decided to go to San Francisco — there was nothing really happening in New York . . . flower power was dead, all the day-glo paint was peeling off the walls, people were shooting speed; I mean, it was real ‘Night Of The Living Dead’. So I bought a truck and headed out west . . . traveled all around the country for a couple of years, looking for musicians who had heart, instead of playin’ 20-minute guitar solos, which is pure ego . . . and I found ’em — I met Mandfred at a party; he’d been playin’ with John Lee Hooker and a lot of blues people around San Francisco . . . I met Ruben at a basement jam in San Francisco, and he liked everything I liked from the Drifters to, uh, Fritz Lang!”

The foundation for Mink DeVille had firmly been set within the trio, and they made the rounds of a limited club/lounge circuit, including a stint at a notorious S&M bar called the Fulsom Street Barracks. There were few opportunities to be found in San Francisco, and the trio soon headed back to New York, where they would become a part of the small “new wave” scene that was attracting some attention there. Jobs were scarce, the circuit was small, and the band went through a series of lead guitarists before the arrival of Louis X. Erlanger, another San Francisco refugee. It was with Erlanger’s added input that original material for the band began to take form , and the reputation grew accordingly.

CGBG’s was the setting for the now famous live album that provided Mink DeVille with their initial exposure beyond the New York circuit, in spite of the fact that it was not truly representative of the group: “The guy had about ten miles of tape of us, and they put on what they wanted to . . . the only thing I wanted put on there was ‘Cadillac Moon’ . . . the rest of it, I had no choice . . . all of ’em are ‘I hate New York’ songs. I went up to the studio and the guy there said, ‘Every time somebody comes up here it costs me $100’ and I said, ‘An, please . . . okay, I’ll split . . . spare me.’ He took 45 minutes to mix three songs . . . it’s really scary. I mean, the guitars are so outa tune — I was playing a #13 Japanese leopard skin guitar. But there’s something about it I like — I don’t know what. It was very amateurish.”

CBGB’s was also the scene of the fateful meeting of Mink DeVille and Ben Edmonds, of Capitol Records:

“He went down to see Tuff Darts, and I guess he thought they were too macho. We didn’t even have our piano player that night, and we just played a really short set . . . but he really liked us, and he saw something there. Before you know it, I was up in this big hotel room, having wine and talking with him.”

As the wheels began to turn and the Beginning was in sight, Willy happened into Max’s Kansas City for a reggae festival one night, where he discovered the group that would become his backup vocalists — The Immortals:

“They came up and they started singing, ‘Please, lock me away / And don’t allow the day’, which is a song I always thought was on the candy-ass side . . . but when I heard them do it, it was totally disarming . . . it was like, these guys aren’t kidding . . . I just fell in love with them. I hadn’t seen guys sing like that since The Miracles.”

The services of legendary Jack Nitzsche were procured to produce the first Mink DeVille album . . . it was a completely natural choice, as Jack had worked with groups that had provided the soundtrack to Willy’s youth — like The Crystals and The Ronettes: “Jack and I hit it off beautifully. It’s a real spiritual relationship. Sometimes it’s like looking in a mirror with him . . . it got to the point where I didn’t even have to talk, just say, ‘Jack . . . ‘ and he’d say, ‘Yeah, I think so . . . ‘ It was very tight, very magic — a lot of pressure, but good, positive pressure. It snowballed. There is something in that album that I don’t even understand.

“But everything on there can be reproduced on stage. We went against strings on the first album — decided it should be outright, raw, and rude.

“It’s kinda like a party album; I want people to fall in love to it . . . I mean, guys still like girls, don’t they? It’s like goin’ to a dance, lookin’ really sharp — people still do that, don’t they? Youth never changes, and the opposite sex is like — ‘boing‘ — two magnets.”

So Willy DeVille is bringing rock and roll back to where it all started — remember all those songs about teenage love; the good guys and the bad guys; hot nights and hot cars? Here is the stepchild of that generation of music. Get comfortable, snuggle up on the couch with someone you want to be in love with, and listen . . . you’ll hear the end of the tale and the beginning of the legend as Willy alternately croons, growls, snarls and moans his way through a street-life symphony; a carefully balanced pastiche of the purest elements of life and music — simplicity without banality, emotion sans soapy froth.

Mind you, it’s a sound that will probably seem foreign, at first, to rock and roll fans who’ve nearly been suffocated in the sheer volume (in both senses of the word) of 70s rock.

So I’ll spare the mutual agony of trying to convey a sound with words (all those beat little journalistic phrases like “throbbing bass line”, etc.); if you’ll just take a deep breath, and listen to the album: you’ll hear the sound of rock and roll being born again — bloody, naked and crying, and full of brand new life.