Thursday, August 13, 2009

A Razor In The Wind

WILLY DEVILLE, FOUNDER OF ONE OF THE ORIGINAL CBGB's house bands, passed on last week at age 58 after a battle with cancer. DeVille's group was lumped in with the burgeoning mid-'70s New York punk movement that featured acts as diverse as the Ramones, Talking Heads, Television and Blondie, but the soul-and-R&B-drenched sound of Mink DeVille was indeed most NOT like all the others in that groundbreaking scene.

As DeVille said of his time at the legendary punk club on Bowery Street: "We auditioned along with hundreds of others, but they liked us and took us on. We played (at CBGB) for three years. During that time we didn't get paid more than fifty bucks a night."

Actually, the Mink DeVille story -- "one of the greatest all-but-unsung legacies in rock history" according to AMG -- began many years before, when Willy DeVille left his native New York City for London in 1971, hoping to find like-minded musicians who were into old blues instead of all the groovy, hippie vibes left over from the '60s: “electric this and strawberry that,” as DeVille put it. The journey next took him to San Francisco, where he formed a band called Billy DeSade & the Marquees that played in some of the seedier bars of that city. After changing their name to Mink DeVille ("There can't be anything cooler than a fur-lined Cadillac, can there?") and reading an article about the nascent New York punk scene, Willy convinced his bandmates to drive cross-country in 1975.

Mink DeVille would catch on in New York quickly enough to have three songs chosen for the landmark Live at CBGB's compilation album a year later. The band was signed to Capitol Records after label executive Ben Edmonds was blown away by their exciting live show:
"When Mink DeVille took the stage (at CBGB) and tore into "Let Me Dream if I Want To" followed by another scorcher called "She's So Tough," they had me. These five guys...were obviously part of the new energy, but I also felt immediately reconnected to all the rock & roll I loved best: the bluesy early Stones, Van Morrison..., the subway scenarios of the The Velvet Underground, Dylan's folk-rock inflections, the heartbreak of Little Willie John, and a thousand scratchy old flea market 45s. Plus they seemed to contain all the flavors of their New York neighborhood, from Spanish accents to reggae spice."
Mink Deville's first two albums, 1977's Cabrera and '78's Return to Magenta, wear those influences on their sleeves, but played with an aggressively jaded swagger. Both records were produced by the legendary Jack Nitzsche, who called DeVille the best singer he had ever worked with. Cabrera features the band's best-known song, "Spanish Stroll," as well as its "punkiest" moment -- the dual guitar attack on "She's So Tough" from the first album would have fit in nicely on a Television album. But most of the songs:
"reached deep into blues and soul, the classic romantic pop of Ben E. King and The Drifters, with a side order of Spanish spices and New Orleans Zydeco swing. They favoured castanets over tom-toms, and accordion over distorted guitars, and Willy delivered his vocals with a sweet, tuneful flexibility that brought out the emotional resonance beneath his nasal sneer. What the wiry, dapper DeVille had that tied him to fellow CBGB resident bands like The Ramones, Television, Blondie and Talking Heads was an edge. He was drawing on some of the same musical areas that Bruce Springsteen’s epic rock dipped into, but Willy was an entirely different creature, a macho dandy in a pompadour and pencil moustache, with the dangerous air of a New York gangfighter and an underbelly vulnerability that came out through the romanticism of his music. Springsteen sounded like he was your friend in desperate times. DeVille sounded like he couldn’t quite decide whether to serenade you or pull a knife on you." [Daily Telegraph critic Neil McCormick]
By the time I saw Willy DeVille live -- New Year's Eve 1985, the Ritz on 11th Street, $35 ticket price -- he was incorporating even more flavors into the mix, especially Cajun music. Can't recall if there was an opening act that night or what time the show ended, but I was working at a liquor store on 88th Street and Second Avenue at the time while attending storied Hunter College. New Year's Day fell on a Wednesday that year, and so after the concert ended in the wee hours, I headed uptown to open up, catching a few uncomfortable hours of sleep on a desk chair in the back of the store before 10:00am reared its ugly head. Just a rock & roll snapshot as we remember Willy DeVille and his singular contribution to its history.

"Mink DeVille knows the truth of a city street and the courage in a ghetto love song. And the harsh reality in his voice and phrasing is yesterday, today, and tomorrow — timeless in the same way that loneliness, no money, and troubles find each other and never quit for a minute. But the fighters always have a shot at turning a corner, and if you holler loud enough, sometimes somebody hears you. And truth and love always separate the greats from the neverwases and neverwillbes."
-- Doc Pomus

Here's Venus of Avenue D, Spanish Stroll, It's So Easy, Bad Boy and She's So Tough, courtesy of

Retro Music Snob has an MP3 up of Little Girl

New York Times obit

New York Rocker tribute


jimithegreek said...

a killin me withthe obits!!

The Warden said...

Hey, I writez 'em as I seez 'em!

Nazz Nomad said...

really well written. great use of design and font sizes too!

The Warden said...

Thanks, Nazz. As you know, I studied at the feet of the great font masters in upper Burma. Well worth it...