In 2015, Southside Johnny presented an evening of Bruce Springsteen songs at the Stone Pony in Asbury Park. In a pre-show interview, we had the following exchange:
“Q: Is this the kind of show that, early in your career, you might not have done, because you might have been worried about seeming to be in Bruce’s shadow, or something like that?
A: That’s exactly right. Absolutely. Years ago I would never have done this. But I’m 66 years old, I’ve been doing this for almost half a century. I’ve made my own way in the world. Besides, who gives a shit? (laughs) There is some trepidation early on. You think, ‘I don’t want to ride on the guy’s coattails. He’s done great things for me.’ You also have to forge your own identity. But now, after all this time, who would care about that? Anybody who cares about that is living in the past.”
I imagine a similar dynamic was at play in Willie Nile’s decision to record an album of Bob Dylan songs: Positively Bob: Willie Nile Sings Bob Dylan, which will be released June 23 on the River House label.
Dylan has been a huge influence on Nile. “Discovering Dylan’s songs in the ’60s was incredibly liberating; it made me realize that there were no limitations or walls that could not be scaled or knocked down,” he has said.
Still, recording an album like this is not something he would have done early in his career, when some in the music industry, looking for a “new Dylan,” saw him as a potential candidate. (The “new Dylan” phenomenon was such a real thing back then that Loudon Wainwright III, one of many who felt uncomfortable with the label, wrote a song about it).
But at this point in Nile’s career, why not? Like Southside, he has forged his own identity. And why would you let some old comparison — which now seems like it’s from another lifetime, anyway — stop you?
And so we are lucky enough to have Positively Bob: 10 Dylan songs, sung with great sensitivity and passion. Nile doesn’t reinterpret them, exactly, but often delivers them with fresh twists like the driving rock beats to “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “The Times They Are a-Changin’,” and the street-gang swagger to “Subterranean Homesick Blues.”
Eight of the 10 songs are from the ’60s. It’s not surprising, I guess, that Nile would instinctually go to the songs he grew up with (and that many of us grew up with as well): “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” and “I Want You” and “Rainy Day Women #12 and 35” (see video below) and so on.
As he writes in the liner notes, “These songs meant the world to me when I was younger and they mean the world to me now. The mystic leap of faith it took to write them, and the courage it took to believe and make a stand in hopes for something better, makes my heart sing and wander now as it did when I first heard them.”
I’m glad he ventured into later decades, though, for “Abandoned Love,” whose wistful, romantic poetry feels perfect for him (and his weathered, distinctly textured voice), and the sublimely philosophical “Every Grain of Sand.”
Nile performs at the Wonder Bar in Asbury Park, June 17 at 8 p.m.; the Long Beach Island Foundation for the Arts & Sciences (with Chris Cygan opening), June 22 at 8 p.m.; and the Tarrytown Music Hall (double billed with The Smithereens), June 23 at 8 p.m.
For information, visit willienile.com.