Awhile back, on his excellent “Buried Treasure” show on SiriusXM’s Deep Tracks, I heard Tom Petty play 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. OK, I wasn’t writing a blog at that point, but his passing nevertheless escaped my notice. Which obliviousness underlines the question, what happened to Willy, and why wasn’t he a big enough star that his death garnered some sort of notice?
I certainly thought he would be, the first time I saw him. It must have been the late 1970s, on some TV music show (although that’s odd, because I didn’t have a television for most of the ’70s). Whether it was “Soundstage” or whatever, I remember watching this guy — tall and skinny, in stacked heels and pompadour, with the hot moves with the mic wire, 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 sfew years — on FM Classic Rock, and a bit more so once I got satellite radio and started listening to Deep Tracks.
True to his practice of broadening listerners’ horizons, I think Petty played some other MD song, bless him. 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 — 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 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 (titled that in Europe, 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 — saying, basically, that they weren’t good enough for the big time. “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 completely different direction — and it didn’t seem to be rock and roll. The next album, Le Chat Bleu, was recorded in France and made use of accordions and string sections. 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 influence, and working with legendary musical talents (songwriter Doc Pomus, Night Tripper Dr. John, Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits). Critics raving about his albums —"His catalog is more diverse than virtually any other modern performer. The genre span of the songs he's written is staggering,” wrote Thom Jurek.”
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 Return to Magenta, which made it to No. 126 in the U.S., and nothing that Willy did solo ever charted.
OK, record sales shouldn’t be the final judgment on an artist and, no, I’m not really a music critic. But after hearing that song on “Buried Treasure,” and musing on that video clip I saw 30-plus years ago, I downloaded Cabretta. It is great, and worth the price of admission — if only for “Mixed Up Shook Up Girl.” But there’s some other great stuff there: “Cadillac Walk” and “Spanish Stroll,” and others.
And I ended up downloading Le Chat Bleu — which, while it doesn’t have an anchor like “Mixed Up,” still has a lot going for it.
A reminder that great talent often survives, and overcomes, bad luck, bad timing, bad judgment and popular sentiment. But sometimes still escapes notice.