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  1. #1
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    Willy De Ville : Death Of An Icon

    Willy DeVille: death of an icon

    By Neil McCormick Music Last updated: August 11th, 2009
    7 Comments Comment on this article

    I experienced a moment of sad serendipity this week, when I heard the news that Willy DeVille had died, aged 58, of pancreatic cancer, on August 6th. I was sitting in my office, at my computer, stocked with a vast library of digital music. Behind me was my CD player, with shelves and shelves of thousands of CDs. And behind that, gathering dust, was my old record player. And there on the 25 year old turntable, as if it was waiting for me, lay Mink DeVille’s 1980 album, ‘Le Chat Bleu’. I had to move a pile of clutter to lift the lid. Blew some dust off the needle, set it spinning at 33 revolutions per minute, and let the needle fall into the groove with a satisfying crackle. A rich blast of horns, guitars, piano and cymbals filled the room, blending together with that warm vinyl rush, an echo of the way music used to sound in my youth, high and sweet and wide and vibrant yet somehow so hollow and drenched in reverb you can hear the space the band are standing in, as Willy’s nasally, New York street soul voice declared, with finger-clicking anticipation: “This must be the night, I can feel it to my fingertips, maybe just around the corner, something’s waiting for me…”

    It is not actually that strange that the record was there waiting for me. ‘Le Chat Bleu’ is one of my all time favourite albums, yet one I have never replaced on CD or MP3. It would just seem wrong somehow. The beautiful, evocative sleeve, featuring a blue tinted photo of a girl’s shoulder with a tattoo of a cat and the name Willy, is always somewhere near the top of the pile of my surviving vinyl, which has itself shrunken over the years just to those albums so integral to my youthful psyche I could never get rid of them. I love new music, and actually don’t dwell too much on past favourites, but whenever I am taken with one of those bouts of nostalgia where I am compelled to sit and flick through my old vinyl, there’s a very high chance that ‘Le Chat Bleu’ will wind up on my stereo. It is a perfect album, from first track to last, and how many of those really exist? I am listening to it now, and it sounds as real and thrilling as it ever did, completely alive to the moment.
    The thing is, it was never really in sync with musical fads and fashions. DeVille was a fellow traveller during the late 70s punk explosion that really shaped my musical consciousness, but he was never a punk. Mink DeVille’s one hit record was ‘Spanish Stroll’ in 1977, a swaggering, spoken word ramble through the Latino neighbourhoods of New York with clipped electric guitars and “ooh-ooh”-ing backing girls, coming on like Lou Reed if he had been the leader of the Puerto Rican Sharks in West Side Story. It was music steeped in history and locale and, in retrospect, has almost nothing in common with the Year Zero attitude of punk. DeVille and his band 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’s 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.

    Although he bounced from label to label and place to place, living a chaotoic life and struggling for long periods with heroin addiction (he outlived two of three wives), Willy DeVille made a lot of good records. But ‘Le Chat Bleu’ is his masterpiece. DeVille had hooked up with one of his heroes, Doc Pomus, the man who wrote The Drifter’s classic ‘Save The Last Dance For Me’, and that seems to have imbued him with the confidence just to follow his muse. It shifts through so many musical gears with understatement and confidence, from the strangled one chord blues of ‘Slow Drain’ to the classic soul balladeering of ‘You Just Keep Holding On’, the rock n roll swagger of ‘Savoir Faire’ and ‘Lipstick Traces’, the playful 30-ish cabaret of ‘Bad Boy’, the Cajun whirl of ‘Mazurka’. Recorded in Paris in 1979 with a band of great American session musicians, it is the sound of a man in his musical element. There are saxophone solos, washes of accordion, great backing vocals and high, lush strings. It doesn’t try too hard, it just is what it is, a perfect distillation of all the music that breathed within this complicated character. It ends with two of the most romantic songs ever recorded, the longing ‘Just To Walk That Little Girl Home’ (with it’s great, evocative opening, “It’s closing time in this nowhere café”) and the extraordinary chanson ‘Heaven Stood Still’, in which DeVille reveals a rich baritone speaking voice as he poetically recounts the depth of his desire over an elegant piano, before rising to suddenly sing in that high, soulful croon. It is almost crushingly kitsch and yet hugely effective.
    On the back sleeve, Willy DeVille stands in a doorway, photographed in black and white, skinny, dapper in fitted black outfit and white shoes, dragging on a cigarette, looking (as Doc Pomus’s biographer Alex Halberstadt memorably put it) like a cross between a Bullfighter and Puerto Rican Pimp. DeVille was already a man out of time in 1980. Like a bunch of philistines, Capitol (who thought they had signed a punk band, and were apparently perplexed by the wide musical range of DeVille’s latest recording) refused to release the album in 1979. They did eventually relent and put it out in Europe a year later, whereupon it made all the critic’s annual top ten lists, and sold well on import in America (where it was eventually released in its own right in 1981). DeVille subsequently left Capitol for Atlantic. It’s a hard record to track down now. They don’t even have the album on Spotify, but I have found eight of the ten songs, which, if you really want to give yourself a treat, you can listen to them on my Spotify playlist
    DeVille’s career never reached any great heights. The only other track the general public probably know of his is ‘Storybook Love’, from the soundtrack of ‘The Princess Bride’, for which he was nominated for an Academy Award. His passing was not the kind of music news that rocked the world. It was certainly not, like another recent pop death, greeted with scenes of public grief and incredulity. There were no experts lining up on television to endlessly repeat banal platitudes about the impact, private life and cultural significance of this talented singer. But at least he has left behind a perfect album. And that is more than can be said of most musicians. So let the needle hit the record …

    ... It’s closing time in the nowhere café …

  2. #2
    Thailand Expat
    robuzo's Avatar
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    19-12-2015 @ 05:51 PM
    Paese dei Balocchi
    Mink DeVille were a great band

  3. #3
    Cool Cat
    Perota's Avatar
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    15-03-2017 @ 05:11 PM
    Bangkok, Korat
    He could have (almost) written this one in Thailand

    Southern Politician
    by Willy Deville

    Momma had such high hopes for her favourite son
    He'd be an evangelist of God or maybe even president
    He was such the diplomat with so much southern charm
    But when he growed up he outgrowed all his friends
    He was a southern politician, a political man

    He sips mint juleps on evenings so warm
    He converses with the devil who wears a hat made
    of straw
    Saying "A smart-assed northern liberal was
    something I never could stand"
    While they might take an inch he takes all he can
    He's a southern politician, a political man


    He's a southern politician set on winning this
    here election
    Inside his big white plantation
    All the liquor and women that money can buy
    All the liquor and women that money can buy

    The folks down here believe in his cause
    His hands are clean and his vest pockets the law
    'Cos his brother the sheriff is head of the klan
    Well, the state's locked up tight in the palm of
    his hand
    He's a southern politician, a political man

    All 'round the big house painted white
    An electrical fence that's strung with barbed wire
    He's got guard dogs, shot guns and homemade pecan
    Friends come to swim, he gets a tan
    He's a southern politician, a political man


    There's cocktail parties every night
    Now his wife she don't love him but don't pay her
    no mind
    The smell of sweet gardenias always fills the air
    Well, they have black bodies floating in the bayou
    down there
    He's a southern politician, a political man

    He's kissing babies at campaign time
    He's making promises like they're going out of
    Loves every woman, child and American man
    Says he's religious, just a God-fearing man
    He's a southern politician, a political man


    Couldn't find it on youtube but found this classic instead

    The things we regret most is the things we didn't do

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