Buffalo's Bohemian bard: musician Willie Nile keeps writing and rocking
Updated: Jul 18, 2022
After 50 years in (and out) of the music business, Western New York native Willie Nile has garnered respect and admiration from the likes of Bruce Springsteen, The Who, Ringo Starr, and Lucinda Williams. His wide audience appreciates his songwriting and ability to bring rock and roll to life.
Several times each year, Nile can be found performing around Buffalo. On June 30, he took center stage for an outdoor show at Buffalo Place on Main Street, and was one of several acts at the Town Ballroom in February for a tribute to longtime music promoter Bruce Moser.
On Memorial Day weekend, Nile performed before 14,000 fans in Bethel Woods, site of the original Woodstock festival in 1969, opening for The Who. He called it a “mountaintop moment.”
For Nile, there have been many such moments since he relocated to Greenwich Village in 1971, eager to carve a career as a songwriter. With a nod to longevity, he feels blessed to be making music on his terms.
“At my age, it’s ridiculous,” he laughed. “I’m 74, and it’s more fun now than ever. I was in the studio all day, working on two new beauties that I just wrote and am very excited about. I’m fortunate that songs are still coming to me loud and clear, fast and furious. It keeps me going. I feel as good as I did years ago.”
As he has aged, Nile has become more prolific. Since 1980, he has released 14 studio albums — with nine of those coming in the past 13 years. In 2020, early in the pandemic, he launched New York at Night. His most recent album is The Day the Earth Stood Still, from 2021. Nile claims he doesn’t release new music lightly.
“I don’t put out songs unless I think they can be special,” he said. “I want my music to be meaningful to people who listen. I have no interest in being full of myself or being famous. Fame didn’t do a lot for Michael Jackson or Whitney Houston. For me, it’s all about the songs and the music: the recording and the shared experience of playing live. Life is hard for everybody. I’m able to go onstage for two hours, have a blast with my mates, and hopefully raise spirits.”
Return to Woodstock
Born in Kenmore as Robert Noonan, Nile grew up in Cheektowaga and graduated from Bishop Neumann High School in Williamsville, and the University at Buffalo with a degree in philosophy. Although he is a longtime Greenwich Village mainstay, Nile considers Buffalo home. He frequently visits his extended family here. His father, also named Robert, was born in 1917 and is now 104, living in Cheektowaga. Two of Nile’s four children live locally as well. As part of a large Irish Catholic clan, many around Western New York know Nile as “Uncle Bobby.”
“My grandfather, Dick Noonan, was a vaudeville orchestra leader for over 20 years,” Nile said. “He worked in the post office during the day. My dad regaled us with great stories. Dick Noonan was an incredible pianist, one of six kids. His brother, John, was the orchestra leader at Shea’s. For me, there’s a lot of family history in Buffalo."
Nile is familiar to readers of Buffalo Tales. He was a key source in our story about John Lennon’s assassination that published in 2020. Nile was also a fan of the feature we wrote about Shea’s Performing Arts Center. When we spoke most recently, he had just returned from opening for The Who in their first concert at Woodstock since the original music festival in 1969.
“By coincidence, I went to Woodstock when I was younger,” Nile reflected. “My oldest brother Richard was getting married in Newburgh, New York, on a Saturday in August. My girlfriend and I, along with my brother’s friend, John Gorman, were driving there for his wedding. Halfway there, John said there’s this concert festival going on with The Who and Jimi Hendrix.”
Nile was a fan of British Invasion music, especially The Who.
“We made a left turn,” Nile said. “Roads were closing. The Thruway was shut down. We had no idea what we were getting into. We parked the car — how we ever found it again was a minor miracle. We made our way through the woods and came upon this big opening, and down below us was the entire festival. We walked smack dab into the middle of it.”
He was there for nearly 24 hours, from Friday afternoon until midday Saturday. Then it was off to his brother’s wedding.
“I didn’t get to see The Who that time,” Nile lamented. “But it was a great event. It was fascinating to see this cultural touchstone. It looked like the world was changing for the better, you know? Now, 53 years later, The Who is back in Bethel Woods for the first time, and I’m opening for them. We got a huge ovation when we finished playing. You can’t make that story up. Crazy, huh?”
This wasn’t Nile’s first encounter with The Who. In 1980, in the wake of Nile’s self-titled debut record, he served as their opening act during a nationwide tour. For a young musician, moving from clubs to playing arenas illustrated how rapidly his career was in ascent.
“Starting out, I never played onstage in Buffalo,” Nile said. “I was never part of high school bands. When I went to the University at Buffalo, I was writing songs all the time, but I had no stage experience. I started playing open mics when I moved to New York. I almost got signed to Columbia Records by (legendary record producer) John Hammond one of the first times I was onstage. He liked me, but said I needed a little more seasoning. He was right.”
While waiting for a slot to open at open mics, he began filling in silly aliases. Bobby Noonan joked about “Willie-Nilly.” He was riveted by a PBS series about the Nile River. Being a philosophy major, he liked the play on “nihilism,” and a stage name was born.
Around this time, Nile contracted mononucleosis, then double pneumonia. Health challenges delayed his music career.
“My wife was pregnant. I got a job working during the day, going to clubs at night, writing songs when I had time. I was living the Bohemian life. I got worn down, and I was in bed for eight months. It took me a number of years to be able to get back out and play late. Being ill slowed me down.”
By the late 1970s, Nile was part of the wave of young New York musicians who were breaking through. He was a regular performer at CBGB and the now-closed Kenny’s Castaways on Bleeker Street, a venue that gave performers like Patti Smith and the Smithereens a stage. In 1978, the New York Times wrote a rave review about Nile, comparing him with Buddy Holly, Bob Dylan, and Bruce Springsteen. That led to his first record contract with a major label.
“So I made a record,” Nile said. “I toured with a band across the United States for the first time. We finished the tour at The Roxy Theatre in Los Angeles. There was all kinds of talk about this new hot shot from New York City. Freddie Mercury came to the show. That’s when The Who’s manager offered me the tour. I went from playing 300 or 400-seat clubs to playing 25,000-seat arenas. It was amazing.”
Such a huge jump wasn’t intimidating for Nile. He learned to exaggerate his movements for a larger audience, he admitted, but music is still music.
“What I do is what I do,” he reflected. “I’ve always played with passion. I just sang with all my heart. We had a great tour, and I found the adjustment was not that difficult. Either that or I’m too dumb to know better.”
Nile is quick to credit fellow musicians he has played alongside. His first album featured Jay Dee Daugherty, a drummer with Patti Smith who has been nominated twice for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; Fred Smith, the bass player in the band Television; and guitarists Peter Hoffman and Clay Barnes. His second album, Golden Down, was recorded the following year. By 1981, however, the sheen had worn off Nile's burgeoning career.
“I had two highly acclaimed records, but I was dissatisfied with problems from the business end,” he said. “There were managers and lawyers. I thought, I didn’t get into this for hassles and I don’t want anyone to kill my buzz with music. So I just walked away.”
Nile convinced his wife to return to Buffalo, where they raised their children as he continued to write. It was the beginning of several years on self-imposed hiatus.
“It was a really hard time,” Nile recalled. “I couldn’t get arrested.”
That changed in 1987. Nile has always had a strong following in Europe, and after a performance in Oslo, Norway, he brought video of the concert to a producer at Columbia Records. After signing a new contract, the album Places I Have Never Been was released in 1991. Again, Nile praised the level of musicianship.
“Roger McGuinn from the Byrds is on that record,” he said. “British musician Richard Thompson and Louden Wainwright sang on it. Two guys were from Paul McCartney’s band — Robbie McIntosh and Paul ‘Wix’ Wickens, who’s still with McCartney today. Great musicians, and I got to make this record.”
Despite positive reviews, however, the producer who signed Nile left Columbia Records, and Nile found himself without an advocate.
“Next thing I know, I’m off the label. That’s when I decided to put my own label together and go the indie route.”
In making music on his own terms, Nile found comfort.
“I’ve never been a road dog,” he reflected. “I didn’t tour between 1981 and 1991. In the long run, that was a good thing, because I never burned out.”
While the pandemic forced many musicians to reimagine their craft, Nile has remained prolific. In the months just before Covid, he finished the album New York at Night, but was unable to perform live.
“Some people were holding back records,” he said. “I thought, these are such dark times, and New York at Night is so full of life, so let’s put it out there. It was released in summer 2020.”
Around that time, Nile walked to a storage space he rents not far from the Holland Tunnel in lower Manhattan, encountering no one. In the nation’s largest city, he was amazed at how empty the streets were. It seemed surreal, so he stopped to take in the scene, snapping photos of the desolation.
“If you had told me that New York City would be a ghost town…” he said. “I was living locked down, wiping my groceries in the hallway when we were learning about Covid. At rush hour, it can take 45 minutes to drive three or four blocks. Here I was on a Friday night at the end of May 2020, and there was not a car in sight. I literally stood in the middle of the street, looking north then south. There was not a car or a person. I thought, the day the earth stood still.”
Recalling the 1951 sci-fi movie of the same name, Nile began writing fresh lyrics during the walk home:
When the ABCs of logic meet the CEOs of greed,
and the SROs of loneliness cry out and start to bleed,
there comes a time for judgement, a time to pay the bill,
and that is just the way it was, the day the earth stood still.
“That song came out like a rocket ship and happened to land on my pen,” he said. “I don’t sit around and try to manufacture that stuff. It just comes.”
Bob Silvestri, an entertainment writer for Best of WNY.com, has known Nile for more than 20 years. Silvestri, 62, has been active in Buffalo’s music scene since he was a teen.
“Willie is so prolific that whenever he gets inspiration, he’ll write out a song,” Silvestri said. “One time, we went to the Sportsmen’s Tavern, and Willie walked in and said, ‘Give me a pen.’ He grabbed a newspaper and started writing in the margin. He wrote a song sitting there.”
When Nile visits Buffalo, Silvestri helps set up radio interviews or travel accommodations so Nile can maximize the time he spends with family.
“We talk almost weekly, wherever he is,” Silvestri said. “I’ve known Willie a long time. You start out as a fan, and then you become friends.”
Nile boasts about the talent in his current band: Johnny Pisano on bass; Jimi K. Bones on lead guitar; and Jon Webber, whom Nile calls “one of the great drummers in the world.”
Nile remains prolific, in part, because his writing process is not structured.
“I don’t sit down to write. I don’t look for stuff. Sometimes I’ll get an idea or a line or phrase that will have a meter to it. I may be noodling around on a guitar. If I wasn’t writing like I am, I wouldn’t bother, but these are the glory days for me. The music speaks for itself.”
Rolling Stone magazine wrote of Nile: “Better than most performers have to offer by far.” USA Today called him “a rocker’s rocker.” And the New York Times said Nile is “one of the most gifted singer-songwriters to emerge from the New York scene…”
Irina Romoson isn’t concerned with good press. As a fan, she fell under the spell of Nile’s music in 2018, after traveling from her home north of Toronto to see Nile perform at the Town Ballroom. Since then, she has driven to New Jersey, Philadelphia, and across Eastern Canada to watch him perform more than 20 times. Romoson, 53, was in the crowd at Buffalo Place.
“His music has a kind of feeling that you attach to it,” she reflected. “His lyrics are really talking about life. I come early for sound checks, and the whole band are very kind and full of goodness. Willie is out there playing guitar and doing jumping jacks and telling amazing stories.”
One of his pals in the industry is Bruce Springsteen. Nile and “The Boss” share a mutual respect and admiration.
“Bruce is very generous and loves to rock,” Nile said. “We’ve played together a number of times. I played with him at Shea Stadium at the end of their tour in 2003. When Giants Stadium was being closed, he played the last five shows there. He had one guest, and it was me. I was onstage in front of 70,000 people clowning around with Bruce.”
Another of Nile’s “mountaintop moments” happened with Springsteen in Buffalo in November 2009, at what was then HSBC Arena.
“The last show that (saxophonist) Clarence Clemons played was in Buffalo, although we didn’t know it at the time,” Nile said. “I went with my daughters, and was given great seats by the side of the stage. Bruce was up there rocking, and wandered near us. I leaned over and said to my daughter, ‘I think he just saw me.’ Five minutes later, I get a text from an assistant saying ‘Bruce wants you up here. Come backstage now.’ Next thing you know, I’m sharing a microphone with Little Steven singing Jackie Wilson’s ‘Higher and Higher.’ It was an amazing performance by the band. I looked at my daughters and we were just laughing. You can’t make this stuff up."
Nile and Springsteen are among several musicians who have helped raise money for Light of Day, a charity to combat Parkinson’s Disease. Nile also performed with Steve Earle, a songwriter who is Nile’s neighbor in New York. Along with Springsteen and Rosanne Cash, they helped raise money for a school that serves autistic children.
Nile recently married Cristina Arrigoni, a photographer whose subjects include many legendary musicians. Besides her husband, she has photographed icons like Bono and Jackson Browne. Arrigoni is responsible for several of Nile’s album covers, and he gushes about his wife’s talent.
“We have a home in Italy, so we go back and forth,” he said. “It’s been an across-the-ocean romance. She has a book called The Sound of Hands. It’s all photographs of musicians’ hands. On the cover is Johnny Winter, who has since died. She has a unique style and is absolutely brilliant."
Amid his world travels, Nile continues to celebrate his hometown. At his June show at Buffalo Place, he beamed to the crowd, reflecting about how wonderful it was to be home.
“Buffalo is a magical place,” he said. “It’s a special city that is blooming. People are good, hardworking, and down to earth. Rock fans in Buffalo are really serious.
“I left Buffalo with a dream, and never gave up. It’s taken me to interesting places, for which I’m really grateful. Everybody has ups and downs, and I’ve benefitted from mine. I never take anything for granted.”
story © 2022 by Jeff Schober
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