You’ve heard their agonizingly painful stories for months, and every time, it cuts to the core. Musicians everywhere, across our region, across the country and across the world, whose livelihood relies on being out and about and connected and engaged, finding themselves crestfallen and beaten down by the loss of live gigs, losing precious time with their bands as well as the ability to tour and promote their new music that was on deck before the s–t hit the fan. All in all, stuck in the mud of the excruciating and harrowing reality of a career in lockdown.
But to the much-deserved credit of so many of them and their digging deep in their souls to find solutions and ways to carry on, the majority of musicians took deep breaths and rallied high in their own creative and dynamic ways in order to keep going, keep playing, keep engaging, keep creating, and keep….SANE.
And globally revered longtime rocker Willie Nile is certainly no exception, on either end. Sure, he was also hit hard, he lost a slew of gigs in the US and Europe, and his whole band, miraculously except him, contracted COVID. Like so many of his close musician friends, Willie also felt the bigtime brunt of the blow.
But his typically positive, compassionate and optimistic vibe that has carried him through a still-present rock and roll career for decades also sustained him through the last sixteen-plus months as well, hoisting him up on a churning life raft of writing new songs, releasing albums, performing virtually, and writing more songs. And even while also suffering the knockdown of the times, he was able to remain positive while also absorbing the captivating intrigue of the pandemic while living in his beloved New York City where things were as desperately hellish as anywhere on earth.
“I dug it, I live in Greenwich Village and it was fascinating living here, it intrigued the hell outta me,” said Nile, 73, who joins host Steve Houk on the next episode of Z-TV’s Living On Music, available via invite this Monday at 7pm. “Yes, obviously it was a horrible nightmare for the whole planet, just so bizarre, and yes, it hurt everyone, even me for sure, I mean look what happened to my band. If you had told me two years ago that (New York City) would be a ghost town, like some sci-fi zombie movie, I woulda thought you were nuts. But I love New York, and even with this going on, I love the energy, I love the vibe, and even behind the windows of the ghost-like buildings, I knew there were people living, and surviving. It did inspire a bunch of songs, and knock on wood, I’m still going.”
Nile used his beloved admiration for the Big Apple to create and release the album New York At Night in the spring of 2020, a rollicking Willie Nile-style rock and roll homage to his NYC, and another way for this rock mainstay to turn lingering sorrow into some kind of joy.
“There was a lot of discussion about whether we should hold the album because we couldn’t tour behind it,” Nile said. “But I thought, it’s so dark and negative out there, and New York At Night is such a positive record, for me it’s electrifying. My decision to put it out was that these times were so hard, we could use a little bit of pick-me-up. There’s no way you can listen to the album and not feel better.”
But Nile didn’t stop there. He started solo with virtual gigs and then was joined by his longtime bassist Johnny Pisano, first in-studio but then roaming New York City with a guitar and bass and a cameraman, playing songs everywhere from Battery Park with the Statue Of Liberty in the background, to in front of Buddy Holly’s Manhattan apartment rolling a version of “Not Fade Away.” Nile’s longtime pal Steve Van Zandt used his own Underground Garage Sirius radio program to help Nile present what was called “Live On The Streets.” It kept him moving, playing, and all on the streets, roofs and byways of his coveted city.
Another way Nile used his relentless energy to keep his music alive and flourishing was to record over the last few months, and then release this week, his latest record The Day The Earth Stood Still, available now at willienile.bandcamp.com/album/the-day-the-earth-stood-still. Although Nile’s ever-present optimism still reigns on this record, the title cut does reflect what has been shaking us all to the core these past months.
“I remember standing out near the Holland Tunnel,” Nile reflects, “and looking up one side, and looking up another, and there was no one in sight, no cars, nothing, then I walked home through these haunted streets. Then that great old sci-fi film from 1951 came to mind, The Day The Earth Stood Still, I thought of that title, and I said, that’s a song. And based on both that and what I saw, the lyrics came to me. ‘The day the earth stood still, the day the earth stood still, I saw grown men crying making up their will, the day the earth stood still.’ And that was the beginning.” Nile performs a rare acoustic version of the song during his appearance on Living On Music.
For Willie Nile, it was a time that like so many of his colleagues gutted him on one end, but revived and inspired him on another. And it was his own strength, and even a family revelation, that helped him to shine amidst the darkness.
“I’m watching the news during this whole thing, and wondering, so what do we do in this nightmare, what do we do as human beings on this planet? And I just thought…probably my father’s inspiration coming through me…it’s time to be great. Let’s pick each other up. Let’s be the best we can.”