Willie Nile is a man all about New York City, his longtime home. The man about town was in the process of releasing an album about New York City, titled New York at Night, when the COVID-19 pandemic struck the world and put things on hold.
In May 2020, Willie released that album. Not long before he did so, he chatted with Parklife DC’s Mark Engleson. Now, Willie is back with another album about the place he loves to live — The Day the Earth Stood Still, his 14th studio album, which was released on Aug. 13.
Willie is on tour again with a stop at The Hamilton Live in DC on Saturday, Aug. 28. But Parklife has been sitting on this unpublished interview from when Willie was promoting New York at Night. And in this interview, Willie chats about how much he also loves DC. So with no further ado, we present this chat and strongly suggest you catch Willie live at The Hamilton this weekend.
Mark Engleson: Hello, Willie. This is Mark Engleson with Parklife DC.
Willie Nile: Mark, how are ya, man?
ME: [Laughing] About as good as I can be, I guess. How are you doing, Willie?
WN: I’m hanging in there. I’m in New York and dealing with this like everybody else. Strange times to say the least. How is it in DC?
ME: They haven’t gone to total lockdown yet yeah.
WN: That’s coming. You know they haven’t done a total lockdown yet.
ME: Yeah, it is. You can still get out and take a walk.
WN: You can still do that here. You can exercise, you can go to the store. Do you wear gloves and a mask when you go out?
ME: No, I’m not at high risk, so I’m trying not take stuff up [that other people really need].
ME: I try to get out and take about an hour walk each day. It’s raining today.
WN: It’s raining here in New York as well. We all gotta do the best we can to get through this and help each other. Crazy times. It is fascinating to take a walk in the streets now. It’s not a ghost town, but it’s close. It’s much quieter, there’s not many people, to say the least. It’s fascinating. There’s a beauty to it. I love New York City. The new album is coming out in mid-May, hopefully, and it’s very reflective of New York City. It’s still beautiful, even empty.
Now I’m looking out the window in the rain. Monty’s Restaurant is across the street, in the village. It’s a favorite of Joe Torre’s, and Flip Wilson used to go there all the time. We’re talking since the early ’70s, when I moved here.
It’s still beautiful, even though it’s not the hustling, bustling place it is. It’s strange. Crazy times.
Watch the official music video for “New York Is Rockin'” by Willie Nile on YouTube:
ME: Even though they’re close to me, there are streets I’ve never walked down, here in Arlington, Virginia. I usually stay pretty close to the metro line, so I walked a little bit more into the older sections.
WN: It’s amazing to me. I’ve done a lot of gigs at Jammin’ Java. There’s a lawyer — an attorney friend of ours, a good friend — he puts the band up at his place. It’s amazing to me how quick a drive it is from there to get to anywhere. When we play The Hamilton, one of my two favorite venues in the country, you get there really quick. It’s not far.
Washington is enchanting to me for a lot of reasons. In high school, I read The Day Lincoln Was Shot by Jim Bishop, and it really enthralled me: the streets, the names. I played the 9:30 Club at the old address, which was right next to Ford’s Theatre, years ago. There’s an alleyway you’d go in, and then there’s the backs of a few different buildings., one of which was Ford’s Theatre, from which John Wilkes Booth came out of and got on his horse and rode out of that alleyway. The history is amazing to me.
They said the old 9:30 Club was haunted. I go, “How do you know it’s haunted?” They go, “Because downstairs, there are cash registers that will open and close. The ghost is friendly, but it doesn’t like music. It goes away when there’s music.”
I love DC. When I was there last, a friend of mine, a congressman, hooked me up. I went to Ford’s Theatre and got to walk around. It fascinates me, this seat of power, these elegant buildings and monuments and whatnot. Always had good luck eating at restaurants in DC. I love it for a lot of reasons.
I played with Lucinda Williams, another good friend of mine. She was playing the 93:0 Club when she put out Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. I opened up her show there.
I love DC. It’s amazing how quickly you get there from Arlington. Boom, boom you’re there.
ME: if you look at the diamond shape of DC, Arlington — I don’t know if it’s all of Arlington County — what’s now Arlington, was ceded to Virginia. There’s very little southwest DC it’s the smallest chunk of the city, The Wharf and Georgetown, really. The Potomac crosses right through where it originally went, so where I am now it would’ve been DC, before it was ceded back to Virginia.
WN: I was on the rooftop of The Hamilton — maybe two times ago when we played The Hamilton. I love the whole operation: the owner, everybody, it’s a great place, great stage, great sound system, friendly people, food is killer. The audiences who come out are great, they buy a lot of merch, it’s always a celebration the play there. I just love it.
The manager said, “Want to go up on the roof? It’s a great view of DC.” You can see the White House down below, and there’s plexiglas protection between that and the White House. He was pointing out the sites in the distance, and he told a story of Gen. Robert E Lee and Abraham Lincoln. Lee’s got a place in Arlington, I think.
ME: The Arlington National Cemetery was originally Robert E Lee’s holdings.
WN: He told us the story, there was two letters, they have them in the Smithsonian: one from Robert E Lee to Lincoln, and Lincoln back to Robert E Lee. Robert E. Lee wrote Lincoln after the war, in whatever language, saying bad things about him, blaming him for killing so many southern males and destroying the southern culture. He’s going to build his house higher up, overlooking, so when he’s on his front porch he can look down on Washington in disdain. Something to that effect.
Lincoln wrote back that you need to take responsibility for your own actions in causing the death of so many Northerners and soldiers. So what I’m going to do is, is Bill the national cemetery right around your property, so every day you wake up, you’ll have these graves around you, to remind you.
I’m murdering the story, though. Fascinating letters.
WN: I had a former Congressman, Joe Crowley, who’s a good friend of mine. When he was 19 years old, I put my first record out on Arista records. I was playing Queens College with my band that spring. After the show, we’re all in the dressing room, sweating like crazy. Two college kids climb into our dressing room. He wanted to get a towel signed that I’d wiped my face off with and threw to the crowd. [Laughs]
He has still has the towel to this day. I signed it. He was, up until he lost to AOC, a congressman. Joe’s a good friend.
A couple times ago we played the Hamilton, I got him up to sing. Joe loves music. I played his 50th birthday party with my full band, and he sang background, playing guitars. He knew more the lyrics than I did! [Laughs.] I’ve had Joe Crowley on stage, jumping up and down, singing with my band, and we’ve got it on film. There’s a guy making a documentary about me. He was there, and he filmed it for posterity, Joe Crowley and my bass player doing pogoing on stage. I forget what we were singing, probably something by the Clash.
When we play there, some of the fans have kids. They bring their kids. I get ’em up on stage. It’s always a celebration. It’s full of life. It’s passionate.
I’ve got a really great band, and anybody who sees it can see they don’t hold back. We give everything we got. And if it’s not that, that’s when I stop performing.
I want it to be great, special, unique, inspiring. Life is hard for everybody. Music an outlet, something to ease the burden of your life. It’s a celebration of who we are and, hopefully, people at their best, raising their voice in song.
What amazes me — it’s always exhilarating for my band and me — is the audience. They always go out beaming, smiling, happier than when they came in. The stories I hear from people; it happens, more frequently than not, somebody will say, “I lost a relative four or five months ago. My friend said I’ve gotta go see this Wile Nile show. Something to make you feel better. I’m so glad I came.”
Willie Nile appears at The Hamilton Live in DC on Saturday, Aug. 28.
w/ Brad Ray
The Hamilton Live
Saturday, Aug. 28
Doors @ 6:30pm