About a month ago I had the opportunity to interview Willy DeVille. I had asked him at the time if it was okay for me to record our conversation, and he had asked that I not for fear of it taking away from the moment. He used the comparison of colour photography versus black and white, saying he preferred the latter because of the simplicity in the moment.
It was more than just a concern about losing spontaneity because of the awareness of being recorded; it was an expression of a desire to keep things as simple and uncomplicated as possible to preserve the integrity of a moment in time at it's most basic. Colour photography leaves nothing to the imagination, eliminates ambiguities. Black and white, on the other hand, suggests some things, while leaving others in shadow and open to interpretation in much the same manner as real human interaction.
That's Willy DeVilles's music in a nutshell, all shadows and suggestions, full of the ambiguities of human nature and gritty reality. He reduces, or distils, life down to its essential elements through his ability to depict moments in time and place lyrically in the same manner as a black and white still photographer.
His most recent studio album, already two years old, Crow Jane Alley provides plenty of opportunity to witness his approach to song writing and performing. Of the ten songs, eight are originals and two are covers that ideally suit both his temperament and musical goals. "Slave For Love" by Bryan Ferry sounds far better with Willy singing it than any other version I've heard as he is able to make the song into a simple statement of intent, rather than a mawkish sentimental ballad.
Then there's his take on that old favourite "Come A Little Bit Closer" by Jay and the Americans. It's a riot; with Willy laying it on so thick that you can hear the leer on his face and see the suggestive twinkle in his eye through your speakers. It's almost as if he's making fun of the old machismo Latin image that he used to have in the days of "Cadillac Walk"
But it's his own material where Willy truly shines. The opening track "Chieva" could be a song to a lost love, a woman who has done him wrong, until you listen closely and realize it's actually about heroin and kicking the habit. The description of the drug as a seductive force in ones life, it's power to make you love it and the way in which it destroys you all at the same time, has never been sung about in such an evocative manner before.
On "Downside Of Town" and "My Forever Came Today" Willy looks at both sides of love; when it goes sour, and when you're in the glow and warmth of a new relationship. Both these types of songs have lent themselves in the past to the worst excesses of cheap sentimentality in pop music. But in this instance neither one strikes a false note.
Maybe it's his gruff and raspy voice, perhaps it's the blues tinged jazz feel of the music. Whatever it is Willy's versions of the break up song and the finding new love song are far and away superior to anything anyone else has done in that genre.
Perhaps it's because I'm so jaded from hearing so many people try so hard to convince you of their sincerity when they squeeze out their love songs, that to hear someone sing low and natural, without artifice, in black and white, is a relief. Compared to the histrionics that passes for emotions these days in music, Willy demonstrates that the old adage, less is more, is not just a cliché.
Willy has always loved the music that is the roots of American pop music. Even back in the days of Mink DeVille and playing at CBGBS the band would play songs by Little Walter and other older blues artists. On Crow Jane Alley not only is the music steeped in that sound, but he has written a tribute to one of the greats of the Blues, who perhaps never got quite the recognitions he deserved: Muddy Waters.
"Muddy Waters Rose Out Of The Mississippi Mud" is about the Blues as much as it's about Muddy Waters, but since the two are almost inseparable anyway a distinction would have been moot. It also shows that Willy DeVille hasn't lost his love and affinity for the music that forms the bedrock upon which rock and roll stands.
Willy DeVille is one of the survivors of the Rock and Roll wars and he's come out the other side with his integrity and dignity intact. Unlike some other's of his generation or older he's not descended into an almost parody of his former self by fighting against the realities of age and time.
His music carries the scars of that battle, but that only adds to its ability to communicate on a level that is both personal and universal simultaneously. He has the ability to write a song that feels like he understands what each of us has gone through at one time in our lives or another.
Crow Jane Alley is the work of an artist who after thirty plus years in the business still has the ability to surprise and delight his listeners. Listening to this disc only confirms that Willy DeVille is one of the greats who have been ignored for too long. If you don't know his work than this will be as good as any a place to start, and for those who have been missing him, well you won't be disappointed.
(Originally published June 2006)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.