Rant ‘N’ Roll: Willy DeVille, 1950-2009 – An Appreciation

The late Willy DeVille is still a presence in my household. He was one-of-a-kind. An American original. And there will never be another like him.

You’ve got to understand something about Willy. He was larger-than-life. Like Elvis. Or Superman. His physical presence on a stage elicited not only excitement—and anticipation for what was to come—but a certain amount of awe and reverence. He’d been through so much. New York City. Paris. New Orleans. He’d been there at punk rock’s dawn on the Lower East Side’s Bowery, where his band, Mink DeVille, was the house band at CBGBs. Then he created a highly-stylized and idiosyncratic brand of the blues way down yonder in New Orleans where he mixed ‘n’ matched it with Cajun flavor and Brill Building-styled composition. He was even nominated for an Oscar.

Willy did not descend from any one line of precursors like so many great artists at the start of their careers. In jazz you can draw a direct trumpet line from Louis Armstrong to Dizzy Gillespie to Miles Davis to Wynton Marsalis. In country, you can draw that direct line from Jimmie Rodgers to Lefty Frizzell to Merle Haggard to John Anderson. Willy DeVille had no antecedent. He was unique unto himself. Sure, he had influences, but those influences—Ben E. King, Muddy Waters, Phil Spector, Edith Piaf, Tito Puente—were so across-the-board that although he’d soaked up their individual essences like a sponge, it always came out pure DeVille.

On the DVD Live At Montreux 1994 (Eagle Rock Entertainment), it’s his voice that grabs you by the throat. Subtly shaking maracas, Willy sings from deep down below in a late-night bar-room nicotine-stained voice-of-experience. He’s wearing a shirt with Edwardian flourishes, red roses are entwined up his mic stand.

He uses his guitar as a burning-cigarette holder à la Keith Richards. “Mixed Up Shook Up Girl” is sophisticated and profound, the song’s melody like a long-ago and far-away memory that dreamily creeps up on you and you’re suddenly transported to that time and place where you can almost smell the surroundings. Sure, she’s mixed-up, she’s all shook up, but you love her, and she’s got you so tightly wound you’re ready to explode. Here, in a nine-minute+ orgy of inchoate feelings-run-amok, Willy feels the song so so much that on the line “and she got me so strung out,” he actually becomes, right before our eyes, strung out. Sweating, smoking, sniffling, he’s living and breathing the song, becoming the song. Here’s where the Piaf in him comes out…the ability to take a song and—whether by memory or the conjuring up of personal demons—make manifest the physical ramifications of that song by somehow altering his body chemistry. It’s an incredible performance, made all the more real by how obviously Willy is in the moment.

It takes a Cajun high step to revive the listener. All of a sudden, we’re in the French Quarter of New Orleans for “Even When I Sleep.” But, before you know it, we’re in the Candado section of sunny San Juan for the Latin clave of Willie Colon’s “Demasiado Corazon.” Trip up north for the very next song and you find yourself in a Puerto Rican New York City neighborhood for “Spanish Stroll,” where Willy calls out to his amigos as he sees them on the street. He’s one of them. It’s in his casual joie de vivre as he becomes the character in the song. And that, right there, is part of Willy DeVille’s genius. He is the song. He’s a travel guide. And every spot on the globe we traverse is filled with the sound, the smell, the touch, the sights of the environment from which it’s spawned. Sure, it’s just out of our reach. It’s only a quick swab of an alternate reality. But it feels so good. Its innate sweetness is so untouchable it couldn’t possibly be real. But, for those few minutes of each song, yeah, you’re there.

Who else would take a Jimi Hendrix song from the ‘60s, “Hey Joe,” and make it come out pure Mexicali? Who else would go “down the Mississippi down to New Orleans” and then shoot up north to New York City for Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me,” ultimately ending up in the Midwest of Chicago, Illinois for the Elmore James version of Robert Johnson’s “Dust My Broom?”

Only Willy.