Last year on this date, August 6, Willy DeVille passed. I knew he’d been sick, but not that sick. While undergoing treatment for Hepatitis C, DeVille was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He went fast. DeVille lived hard, and American men who live hard often have a hard time making it through their fifties. DeVille didn’t make it. He died at 58.
Though he inked his first record deal with Mink DeVille, a five-piece performing in the mid-’70s as “house band” for the NYC punk club CBGB, DeVille was never punk. Or “new wave.” He was a romantic troubadour. Working in a style all his own, one combining, among other things, rock, soul, Cajun, blues, R&B, New Orleans second line, Tex-Mex, cabaret, mariachi, and salsero. The music always in service of his one lyrical preoccupation: Big Love. “What I usually do,” he once said, “is try to shoot for the heart.” That he did.
I was only a few months into rediscovering DeVille’s music when he fell ill and passed. I’d found on these here intertubes work from him I’d never knew existed, for I’d lost track of him during that long period when his records were released in Europe, rather than the States. I’d bookmarked in my life his “Mixed-Up, Shook-Up Girl” when it was first released back in 1977, but in the weeks before his death I came across the performance of that number embedded below, from 1994 in Montreux, and it’s been more or less at the top of my personal hit parade ever since. It renders the original, compelling as it is, something of a rough draft. In 1994 in Montreux, DeVille had found the right arrangement and the right players, and he knew exactly what the song was about.
“Mixed-Up Shook-Up Girl” is of a genre of songwriting I’m particularly fond of, one wherein young males think they’re writing about women, when they’re actually writing about themselves. If and when they belatedly discover that fact, the songs take on renewed power. Probably the classic example is Bob Dylan’s “Just Like A Woman,” which, when initially released, came across as one of his many smug put-down songs. But by the time he performed it for the Concert For Bangladesh, he knew that it was himself who “breaks just like a little girl”: there was real, raw, naked pain in his performance.
DeVille claimed as late as 1994 that “Mixed-Up Shook-Up Girl” was “about a woman I know who was a drug addict. She was mixed up and she was shook up. That’s what it’s about.” But when he spoke those words DeVille knew that explanation was bogus—because that’s the same year as occurred the performance offered below. And in watching it, it’s clear that he long ago learned that the song is about him, Willy DeVille. He’s the one mixed-up, shook-up, strung-out in his love. He’s also the one strung out on the opiates. For at this point DeVille was closing in on 20 years of heroin addiction (he would finally, permanently kick about two years later). This is at once one of the most beautiful, and one of the most sad, pieces of music I have ever witnessed. It is astonishing, in the old and reverent sense of the word. From out of agony, conjuring ecstasy.
I never wrote about DeVille when he was alive, and for that I feel like a heel. But DeVille saw such things coming. “I have a theory,” he said in 1991. “I know that I’ll sell many more records when I’m dead. It isn’t very pleasant, but I have to get used to this idea.”
DeVille in life could be a rough old cob—preceding a version of “Stand By Me” that is available on YouTube, you can hear him hotly threatening to come down and punch out a member of the audience who’d tossed a beer. But in his work he was consistently unafraid to be soft, gentle, wholly open. There was nothing “tough” about his love. About “Heart and Soul,” which nakedly expresses a man’s Big Love, DeVille said:
It’s a song about a couple who is very in love. They have no money, but someday they wanna get married in a big church, and have a gold earring and new boots. And you wanna look so pretty for that girl. I think men always try to be so “macho”: I think that’s very stupid. There’s nothing wrong with being a pretty man.
That’s Chet Atkins on guitar, playing the achingly pretty coda.
As is true with most artists, you want to stick with DeVille’s art, and not get too close to his life.
Once over on the Great Pumpkin a woman mentioned that she’d met a time or two Miles Davis—in life too often an actual monster. To those who enviously said they wished they had met Davis too, she said a wise and true thing: “meeting him for real happens with his music.”
So we don’t, really, need to know that DeVille’s first wife, Toots—who, as is apparent in the photos at this site, seems to have been Amy Winehouse before Amy Winehouse was born—was, according to DeVille’s friend and songwriting partner Doc Pomus, a “half-French and half-Pima Indian” woman who “favored a pair of nose rings, snow-white kabuki make-up and a Ronettes-style beehive the color of tar” and who “once put out a lit Marlboro in a woman’s eye just for staring at Willy.” Or that DeVille’s second wife took her life when she learned that DeVille was in love with the woman who would become his third wife, and that after DeVille discovered her body, he was himself involved in a horrific automobile accident that seems to have been intentional.
What really matters is that when he performed a song like “Heaven Stood Still” he managed, as critics several times observed, to quiet—and shame—every would-be tough guy in the hall.
DeVille wrote and recorded “Stars That Speak” for Pistola, his last disc, released the year before he died. Critic Thom Jurek noted, correctly, that “[t]his track succeeds in summing up DeVille’s entire mythology and professional persona in lyric form; it is read in his trademark smooth-whiskey-meets-cigarette-smoke voice. It reveals, just under the surface, not only the promise of dim lights, perfume, mystery, and sweat-stained sheets, but a figure whose most prominent feature is the outline of a human heart, cracked and broken over and again, who remains resolute in the notion that love prevails.”
DeVille fell into music as a young boy, “listening to groups like the Drifters. It was like magic, there was drama, and it would hypnotize me.” I hope he died knowing that he had done that himself. A song like “Stars That Speak” is a completely unique work, and it is dramatic, hypnotic, and alive with magic. And holds out the promise of same, to us.