A while back, on his excellent “Buried Treasure” show on SiriusXM, Tom Petty played a song by Mink DeVille. Which prompted me to wonder, whatever happened to Willy DeVille?
To make a long story short, and give the game away, William Paul Borsey Jr. — his real name — died in 2009, from pancreatic cancer. His passing nevertheless escaped my notice, which underlines the question, what happened to Willy, and why wasn’t he a big enough star that his death garnered more notice?
I certainly thought he would be, the first time I saw him. It must have been the late 1970s, on “Soundstage” or some other TV music show. I remember watching this guy — tall and skinny, in stacked heels and pompadour, the hot moves with the mic wire, the amazing stage presence — and thinking, “Mink DeVille is going to be big!”
Don’t remember what song the band performed on that TV show, but my guess is it was “Mixed Up, Shook Up Girl.” That’s a song that I heard occasionally — as in every few years — on FM Classic Rock, a bit more often once I started listening to Deep Tracks.
Petty’s always broadening listeners’ horizons, so I think he played some other MD song. After hearing it, I asked myself the aforementioned question, and did some reading. Turns out, the answer seems to be a mix of the ills that rock musicians were heir to — for sure, drugs and ego — but perhaps also critical indulgence.
DeVille had a turbulent and interesting youth — high school dropout, married at age 17, leaving his native Connecticut for a stint in San Francisco — and an early start as a musical performer, with a variety of local and regional bands. He broke through with Mink DeVille — name changed from Billy de Sade and the Marquis — which became one of the house bands at GDBG, the New York City club that birthed the punk rock movement.
That period produced “Cabretta” (in Europe, titled “Mink DeVille” in the U.S.), the album that included “Mixed Up, Shook Up Girl.” That band did one follow-up, “Return to Magenta,” but Willy then fired the guys he’d been playing with for several years. “Those boys went through the wars with me, the $50 a night bars, and I had to turn on them and lop their heads off … we were just a good bar band. That's all we were. We weren't ready to make great rock and roll records,” he later said.
DeVille then went in a different direction; the next album, “Let chat bleu,” was recorded in France and was stylistically different. His record label, Capitol Records, didn’t know what to do with it, but the critics did — a Rolling Stone poll rated it the fifth-best album of 1980, and one rock historian called it the 10th-best rock album of all time.
This was the start of what seems to have been a pattern: Willy moving from style to style, musical influence to musical influence, working with legendary musical talents (songwriter Doc Pomus, Night Tripper Dr. John, Marl Knopfler of Dire Straits), and critics raving about his albums.
No less than Bob Dylan said that DeVille should be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. But the commercial success didn’t match the accolades; Mink DeVille’s highest charting album was its second, “Return to Magenta,” which made it to No. 126 in the U.S., and nothing the Willy did solo ever charted.
OK, record sales shouldn’t be the final judgment on an artist. So after hearing that song on “Buried Treasure,” and musing on that video from 30-plus years ago, I downloaded “Cabretta.” Other than the joy of having ready access to “Mixed Up,” which I had always loved, I was initially underwhelmed.
But after starting to write this post, I decided I should perhaps give it — and Willy — another chance. And “Cabretta/Mink DeVille” fares better on a second listen, although a few caveats remain.
One is that the collaboration with producer Jack Nitzsche doesn’t deliver quite as expected. Nitzsche was a disciple of Phil “Wall of Sound” Spector, but at times it’s more like the Screen Door of Sound — not all that powerful.
“Venus of Avenue D” seems to cop its title, and some of its style, from Velvet Underground’s “Venus in Furs,” and “Spanish Stroll” sounds like Lou Reed and the Underground got together with the J. Geils Band. (The latter group’s lead singer, Peter Wolf, was a Willy DeVille fan.) “One Way Street” and “Gunslinger” sound like standard issue New York punk, although Willy’s vocal styling somewhat saves a pretty pedestrian lyric on the latter.
It’s Willy’s voice, and his songwriting, that are the foci of the album, as well as of much his career and critical acclaim. And those really shine through on “Mixed Up,” in his vocal phrasing, and a lyric that starts with “Candlelit, my eyes are slits.” Throw in the way he uses the backing vocals, the sparse arrangement — mostly just piano, restrained lead guitar and light percussion — and it’s a gem.
So I gave Mink DeVille another chance by downloading “Le chat bleu.” This one will take a while to digest, but I can see why Capitol Records execs were scratching their heads: the first half sounds a lot like the punchier tunes on “Cabretta,” with more of the Wall of Sound feel.
But the second half sounds more like what you’d expect, based on the album title and cover, and the fact that it was recorded in Paris. “Turn You Every Way but Loose,” for instance, sounds like BeauSoleil, sans Michael Doucet. Then he throws in a dash of doo-wop at the end of the LP. But the songs are generally tight lyrically, and DeVille’s vocal style is as before chameleon-like.
After doing a complete 180 on that album, DeVille kept making radical changes in direction, musically and in lifestyle. At one time, he owned a horse farm in Louisiana, splitting time between it and an apartment in New Orleans’ French Quarter; he later moved to New Mexico, after curing a long-time heroin addiction, and delved into his Native American heritage.
So, bottom line, I’m no more sure about Willy DeVille’s musical impact than I am about whether I’ll buy any more of his music. Even Billy Borsey himself had trenchant take on his legacy, saying later in life: “I have a theory. I know that I'll sell much more records when I'm dead. It isn't very pleasant, but I have to get used to this idea.”