Willie Nile: The Power of Protest

A new wave of politically charged music from Nile, Amos Lee, Marc Ribot and the Indigo Girls

Music Features Willie Nile
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Willie Nile: The Power of Protest

Pop and protest have always been fraternal twins. In the ’40s and ’50s, Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger made music filtered through social conscience, using their particular brand of folk music as populist proverbs. For them, it served as a means of speaking out against injustice and indignity, despite being confronted by the objections of authority and banishment from the mainstream media. Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Phil Ochs, and even the Smothers Brothers in sometimes subtle and subversive ways, carried the banner forward in the ’60s, singing songs that rallied against the Vietnam War and in support of civil rights.

In more recent times, Jackson Browne, Bruce Springsteen and U2 have taken to the soapbox to address and advocate for specific issues in an attempt to shift a certain mindset. Not surprisingly then, with the darkness that’s settled over the world overall, and the despair and disenfranchisement affecting the U.S. in particular, an increasing number of musicians are also feeling the need to speak out. The aim and intent is to address the politics and policies that have resulted in today’s ever-widening divide.

On his new album, Children of Paradise, Willie Nile adds his voice to the chorus of those alienated individuals, offering songs that speak specifically to the immigration imbroglio, the environmental crisis and the widening pall of intolerance that’s substituted discord for discourse, adding to the division that’s taken so many people to opposite extremes.

“I’m a true believer that music can change the world, whatever form it takes,” Nile insists. “In my case, it’s rock ’n’ roll. Music can lift our hearts. Music can you pick you up. I write all the time and it knocks the chip off my shoulder. I just refuse to let these fuckers kill my buzz. I just refuse.”

Then again, Nile has always made it a point to pursue his muse with passion, purpose and perseverance. At age 70, he’s still the rebellious rocker he was when he relocated to Greenwich Village in the early ’70s and first began hanging at such habitual haunts as CBGBs and Kenny’s Castaways, the counterculture clubs that launched the punk movement by nurturing bands like Blondie, the Ramones, Television and the Talking Heads. Nile took a different stance, writing angst-imbued, anthemic songs that brought quick comparisons to Dylan and Springsteen in particular, making him a rock ’n’ roll Everyman capable of stirring the senses and arousing the masses all at the same time.

Signed by Clive Davis to Arista Records, Nile released his eponymous debut in 1980. Unfortunately, due to protracted legal hassles, his progress stalled with the release of his sophomore set, Golden Down, the following year. The squabbles kept him off the road and out of the studio for an extended period of time. In 1988, he signed to Columbia Records and recorded his third album, Places I Have Never Been, featuring an array of all star cameos from Richard Thompson, Roger McGuinn, Louden Wainwright III, the Hooters and the Roches. Unfortunately, the title proved somewhat prophetic. A record company shake-up delayed the album another two years and by the time it was released in 1991, his career had suffered though yet another setback.

Fortunately, over the past decade or so, Nile has managed to return to fighting form, courtesy of a series of albums—2011’s double header The Innocent Ones and Streets of New York, American Ride in 2013 and World War Willie in 2016—that have reaped him the recognition that’s been so long overdue. Yet despite the belated kudos, he retains his insurgent stance, refusing to knuckle under to any powers that be.

“I’ve spent a lot of time in the record business with its ups and downs,” Nile insists. “There are always going to be ups and downs. That’s how life is, but it’s never gotten the best of me. I still love music, I still love being alive, I still feel that passion, and I refuse to let these people kill my buzz. We’ll all be gone at some point down the road, but while we’re here, whatever we can do, however small that may be, if we can help lift each other up, then by all means, I’m all for it.”

Indeed, Nile’s new album echoes that sentiment. With its cascading choruses, rousing refrains and cover photos of some of the homeless people that inhabit his neighborhood, Children of Paradise serves as his own call to arms. “The seeds of revolution are planted in my heart/ I water them with human tears every day we are apart,” he sings on “Seeds of Revolution,” the tugging heartfelt track that opens the album.

“Don’t,” the third song in, is even more pointed.

“Don’t let the fuckers kill your buzz/ Don’t let the fuckers turn you into suckers.”

Several of the other offerings follow suit; “Earth Blues,” “I Defy,” “Gettin’ Ugly Out There” and the title track all find Nile railing against despair, degradation and those that would deny others opportunity to pursue their own dreams and desires.

“I didn’t set out to write topical songs,” Nile insists. “I just write songs as they come to me. But with the dark climate, the heaviness, the negativity, the division in the country now—I made this record as a pick me up for me. Music always lifts my spirits, and this is a record about passion and energy. It’s got all the stuff that I love about rock ’n’ roll. It’s heartfelt, pissed off, on fire and out of its mind all at the same time. That’s also where the country is, where the world is.”

Despite the setbacks, Nile seems fuelled by eternal optimism, a belief in the redemptive power of rock and the motivation it can inspire.

“People of good will can come together, and I wanted to put out something positive,” Nile says. “I get pissed off sometimes, but at the end of the day, I wanted it to be an uplifting album—me speaking up for humanity.

Nile isn’t the only one who’s found cause to speak up recently. Amos Lee refers to his upcoming album My New Moon as “a dedication…an offering, an altar of sorts to those who have shared their sorrows with me.” It finds Lee addressing a myriad of issues in personal and poignant terms—the Parkland High School shootings, a child struggling with cancer, the loss of a loved one and the search for survival that goes on even when the odds seem impossible.

Guitarist Marc Ribot treads some similarly tumultuous turf on his new album, the pointedly titled Songs of Resistance 1942 – 2018. A collection of jazz-infused protest tunes, it features the added voices of Tom Waits, Syd Straw, Tift Merritt, Sam Amidon and Steve Earle, the latter no slouch himself when it comes to speaking out. Although Ribot mines his material from archival sources, titles such as “Ain’t Gonna Let Them Turn Us Around,” “Knock That Statue Down” and “The Militant Ecologist” speak to today’s more militant mindset, one that also allows a few direct knocks against Donald Trump, the agitator-in-chief himself.

Still, Nile and these other artists in arms aside, protest music isn’t always about volume and veracity. For the better part of their 30-plus-year career, the Indigo Girls have supported specific causes—equal rights for gay and transgender people, gun control, the environment and freedom of expression—in more subtle ways, sans the more obvious political posturing.

“It’s sort of organic the way it happens,” the Indigo’s Emily Salier says. “We’ve been able to kind of sweep in on the work that was done before us. Honestly, we feel part of the movement. I need role models, I need people that inspire me and see me in a way that I can’t really see myself. When people are able to come out and say we’re grateful that we literally saved their life in one way or another, I’m grateful that we can be the carriers of that, whatever that is. I know what that means. It’s a pretty awesome thing to be a part of, but I don’t think we have the responsibility to do this or that. There’s no pressure to carry the banner. We’re just trying to be true to ourselves and be open to helping people and that’s it.”

For his part however, Nile is considerably more forthright. “I’m looking to celebrate compassion and humanity,” Nile says of his own efforts. “That’s what this record is about. I’m railing against the destruction to the planet with man’s hand in that, but I’m also celebrating love.”

Saliers says she’s a pragmatist. “I’ve tried to find a balance in my own life between being completely devastated by the hatred and the disassociation,” she adds, “It can be overwhelming. But we’ve come to the realization that we can only do the work we can do. There are always people who will feel different than I do, and I accept that reality, but I’m always going to work the best way I know for the sake of people and social movements. I’m going to vote that way and be an activist that way. I have learned to be patient and do everything that’s in my control. And what’s not in my control, I’ll let go of.”

Nile argues that despite its often times rebellious rhetoric, Children of Paradise is simply his attempt to celebrate compassion and humanity. “Obviously this is not paradise for a lot of people,” he argues. “Its downright hell. I’m looking to elevate and to recognize and to salute them. Life is tough. Some of the fat cats have it easy and they don’t really appreciate that other people don’t have it so easy, and if I can spread some joy, that becomes meaningful to me. And if it means something to somebody else, even better.”

Whether or not his message gets through isn’t the point, Nile maintains. “I’m already satisfied. There’s a lot of bullshit in the world and I’m a bullshit denier. I believe that music can be redemption. All it takes is one guitar. I’m looking for peace of mind and love and redemption and I’m trying to spread that around as best I can. It can be a challenge, but I’m not running for office. I’m just playing rock ’n’ roll with all my heart. So I’m not going to sit back. If I see something to write about, I will.”