So Strung Out

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.


12 Responses to “So Strung Out”

  1. 1 santera hoochie August 8, 2010 at 12:26 pm

    fascinating post. bookmarked for re-reading. gracias, mi companero.

  2. 3 Diana August 13, 2010 at 2:09 am

    I think mixed up, shook up girl is about Toots, Willy’s first wife.

    She was on heroin, just like Willy, and quite a character. He also sings: “I know you’ve gone away, but not forever”.

    From what I heard he was together with Toots and then they broke up for a while. When Toots came back she had Sean, her son, who, as we know, was not Willy’s child. Willy and Toots reconnected and got married.

  3. 4 Guy Huffman August 13, 2010 at 12:23 pm

    Great line: “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.

    I never thought of that — but it is a genre.

    I loved Willy DeVille’s music. I really think he was shortchanged by his home country. He’s at least as good as Springsteen (who came from the same part of the world as he did and had a similar musical vocabulary). I hope more people discover and rediscover him.

    • 5 bluenred August 14, 2010 at 7:37 am

      I think he had greater range than Springsteen. Though he wasn’t as prolific. I hope DeVille is right, that his music will continue to grow, now that he’s passed. That has happened with a number of truly American artists who, in life, were more appreciated in Europe, than at home.

  4. 6 bluenred August 16, 2010 at 8:47 am

    Another one I like: DeVille’s cover of Dylan’s “Billy 1,” written for Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid. Here he comes full circle: all the way back in 1964, when still a teenager, he formed a band in Stamford called Billy & the Kids.

    Nice guitar.

  5. 7 johnny August 18, 2010 at 12:19 pm

    I find the comparison of Willy to Bruce Springsteen quite irritating. To say he was “as good as” Springsteen is an insult. He was much more versatile, mastering almost every range and style of music, from rock ‘n roll, blues, to cajun, R&B, latin music etc. etc.

    Furthermore; Willy was a unique singer with a unique voice. “The best singer I ever worked with”, according to Jack Nitzsche. You’ll have a hard time finding his equal.

    As for stagepresence: when Willy hit the stage, the audience was magnetised. The coolest cat around. Had more charisma in his little pink than Bruce in his entire body.

  6. 8 imbarrazante August 20, 2010 at 12:15 pm

    Don’t compare Willy to Bruce please. Nothing less than an insult. Willy was much more talented in every possible way.
    The epitome of cool.

  7. 10 quote August 23, 2010 at 12:25 am

    Quote by John Train: “Listen to Willy sing “Mixed Up Shook Up Girl” from the Mink’s debut album. “Candle lit // My eyes are slits // Jumping now! // Paperclip.” I had to research this one. Turns out the you can use a paperclip to heat up black tar heroin”.

  8. 11 Louis X. Erlanger September 26, 2011 at 9:28 pm

    Interesting seeing people’s take on the music. Having been there, I can say that the early Minks were not into Springsteen. However, Springsteen did a nice version of the Mink style with “Brilliant Disguise”. Springsteen’s a great songwriter, and he had similar influences as we did. But he cooked them up into a completely different sound.

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When I Worked

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