Rock Solid: Nile’s ‘Innocent Ones’ Strikes A Chord

He’s a cheerfully non-iconic rocker, with old-school cool oozing from every pore.

Over three decades of musical exploits, Willie Nile has earned a global cult following, including marquee-name admirers like Bono, Lou Reed, and Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band.

Photo: AP Photo
“Light of Day” benefit concert at the Paramount Theater in Asbury Park, N.J.

“I’m a longtime friend and fan of Willie,” Springsteen sidekick Nils Lofgren tells the AP. “The last couple of E Street Band tours, Bruce has brought him onstage with us and had him sing and play. … He’s great at it.”

The “musician’s musician,” who’s repeatedly risen phoenix-like from personal and professional challenges, is back – and doing some of his best work. Nile is enjoying enthusiastic audiences worldwide and rave reviews for his party-hearty yet socially conscious new album, The Innocent Ones.

“It’s the best; it’s the best!” Nile says, marveling over his hard-won creative success. “It’s the kind of thing that you dream about as a kid.”

Dedicated to the struggling, downtrodden and forgotten everywhere, the album and its “One Guitar” – a dance-inducing, gets-under-your-skin track anchoring a charity effort that includes Graham Parker – advocates enjoying life while making a difference.

Don’t be fooled by the lip that curls into the perfect flash of punk sneer; the hair that evokes full-blown Chia Pet; the onstage energy-bursts rivaling a Jack Russell Terrier.

Nile is a bonafide rock philosopher.

In fact, he has a university philosophy degree. He also was real-life-schooled in Greenwich Village’s famously fertile music heyday.

Not surprisingly, his body of work references Plato, Sartre, and some very weighty matters: terrorism, death, ecological disaster – all with a “celebrate life” underpinning.

“I’ve seen breaks out on the levee, in a world so far beyond strange,” he sings in the hopeful “Give Me Tomorrow.” … “I’ve seen hunger in the garden. I’ve seen empty eyes, full of pain. … But I have seen things change.”

His story includes some rock history moments.

In December 1980, Nile and John Lennon were recording in adjacent studios. Lennon ran out of guitar strings, so Nile had someone take his extras to his famous neighbor.

“I was going to put a note to John – ‘Thanks for all the music. I love you. Willie,’“ recalled Nile. “Then I thought, ah, too corny. I’ll tell him when I see him in person” in a couple of days.

“The last thing he played was my guitar strings,” says Nile.

Years later, Nile’s Beatle worship came full circle in a much happier way.

On a tour with Ringo Starr, “He comes walkin’ right over and he gives me a big hug. I thought, ‘Beatle sweat! I’m covered with Beatle sweat!’ It was a glorious moment,” Nile says with a chuckle.

In the early days, he was wedged into the New Dylan pigeonhole that chafed Springsteen. Nile still occasionally employs the half-spoken, freight-train-in-the-distance vocals and folk-strident themes that evoke early Dylan.

That connection intensified a generation later when Bob Dylan’s son, Jakob, appeared on a Nile album.

Recent critics have labeled Nile’s work folk-punk; roots-rock; singer-songwriter; power-pop; classic rock; alternative rock, Pete Seeger channeled through Joey Ramone.

He uses the term “New Classic,” denoting a “timeless quality.” But his personal favorite is “one-man Clash.”

Nile now has his own record company. He’s had contracts with two major labels. Weary of “hustlers” and gripped with legal woes, he says he walked away from the business twice.

During a decade-long hiatus, he continued songwriting but primarily focused on family in his native Buffalo, N.Y. At a recent performance, he sang the new album’s sweetly refreshing “Sideways Beautiful” in honor of a daughter.

“Some years were very thin” while trying to “raise four kids on fumes,” he concedes, lamenting the effects on his loved ones. But “tell me … who has not had a tough road?”

Despite years of relentless hype as “the next big thing,” it was nearly impossible to get his foot back in the stage and studio doors. He’s made his own way – aiming simply to strike a chord in whatever heart is meant to receive it.

Now, “I’m having a great time,” he declares. “I’m makin’ music. I’m fightin’ the fight. … I’ve never felt more alive.”

It’s taken a village to get there.

The Innocent Ones was already a success in Europe, but its U.S. rollout hit a snag. The fans – seizing on his premise that “One Guitar,” or one voice, matters – pumped nearly $20,000 into an artistic fundraising site to help hasten its American release.

“I got to tour with The Who across the U.S. I’ve sung with Bruce Springsteen at Giants Stadium in front of 70,000 people for half an hour,” says Nile. But it’s moments like this that leave him struggling for words.

“These are hard times economically. … The fans totally …” he says haltingly. “I was very, very – I mean, how great is it?”

On both sides of the ocean, crowds are responding to Nile’s call to action.

While his residence is Manhattan, he considers himself a citizen of “wherever my shoes are.’“

In January, he’ll return to the Paramount Theater in Asbury Park, N.J., for Light of Day, a weekend-long musical blowout benefiting Parkinson’s disease. Last time, Springsteen – a frequent surprise headliner – backed Nile’s rousing performance of “Heaven Help the Lonely,” dedicated to the people of Haiti.

Photo: AP Photo
Willie Nile, center left, with Garland Jeffries, left and Bruce Springsteen, right, at the Stone Pony in Asbury Park, N.J.

“I want my life to mean something,” says Nile, who fantasizes about joining the wealthy “1 percent” and spending it on charity.

“Be good to your neighbors, you know? … Life is brief. Make the most of it.”

He and Lofgren often share a kindred sentiment with fans:

– “Believe in your dreams.”