What do you think of Robert Anthony Noonan? Doesn’t ring a bell? Well, he’s originally from Buffalo but could just as well be hailed as the Mayor of Bleecker Street.
Oh, you mean Willie Nile? Yeah, the very man!
I don’t know when I first met Willie thought I do remember his record company president, the legendary Clive Davis, boasting that Willie would be the next Dylan. Back in the early 80’s that was akin to a death sentence.
Willie has had a number of near misses in the superstar stakes but I’m firmly convinced this is his time. Why, because he’s got great songs and the wherewithal to deliver them onstage. His new album, American Ride, is a revelation.
It hasn’t been easy for Willie, but then again, the man wanted it all – the family, the music career, the home life, the bright life. He raised four children and still managed to hone his craft and turn out a number of top-class albums – all the while developing his legendary stage presence.
There were times he had to do without himself in order to put food on the table for his family. That’s the Buffalo Irish ethic. You do it, you do it quietly, and you only talk about it years later when it’s history. “We all got through it, and were tougher and wiser for the experience,” he shrugs, although those of us aware of the full story know the cost.
That’s what a dream does for you – and no matter what calamity befell him Willie always kept his eyes on the prize. Probably no surprise since he’s descended from Noonans, Kiernans, Kanes, and Gallaghers; from an early age he was determined to fuse the immigrant poetry of their lives with the rock & roll he grew up listening to on FM Radio.
That’s what propelled him onto the mean streets of New York as a young man. He got a job in the mailroom of a publishing house and played the Bleecker Street strip at night, burning the candle up the middle as well as at both ends. Ending up with an illness that one doctor feared was Leukemia he was forced to return to Buffalo for some years to restore his health.
No one on the strip doubted that he’d be back and his friends were always there for him. Willie too was never less than encouraging to his peers: I don’t know how many nights I saw him in Paddy Reilly’s bopping to the beat while urging on Black 47.
But he never lacked for his own fans. The late great Mayoman, Pat Kenny booked him numerous times, and it was while performing at Kenny’s Castaways that the New York Times gave him a spectacular endorsement on his return to New York.
Bruce Springsteen is another admirer and has invited him onstage at Shea Stadium and other arenas.
I asked Willie about that experience – “It was great, man,” he replied with a glint in his eye, “except that one night Clarence Clemons’ ring fell off and rolled over center stage. When I tried to retrieve it for him, I looked up and Bruce was staring down, no doubt wondering what I was doing on my knees in front of him.”
Bono too thinks the world of Willie. Speaking about American Ride, he enthused, “There are a few Americas here to discover - the mythic, the magic, the very real. It’s one of the great guides to unraveling the mystery that is the troubled beauty of America.
Willie’s family is grown now. He raised his kids and did the right thing. But the dream still shimmers before him. He’s on the road much these days, in Europe and all across America, punching the Rock & Roll clock and enjoying every moment of it.
There’s a lot of ear candy out there – mucho gloss with very little substance. When you want to get to the heart of the matter and come face to face with the real deal, Robert Anthony Noonan is your man – or should I say, Mr. Willie Nile.