Features/What to SEE/Film/Music

The great unknown

12 September 2023

A new documentary digs into the mystery of an enigmatic singer who could – and should – have been a superstar, writes Norman Burns. 

It’s the late 70s … A wood-panelled radiogram (look it up, kids) in my high school common room is blasting out the local station. 

A mesmerising whirl of proto-punk, reggae, seminal New Wave, power pop and a whole lot more, it’s an era when a live DJ would, if they liked the look of a record, put it on air and consequences be damned. 

On this day I catch something about a “Puerto Rican punk” and the first chords of Mink DeVille’s Spanish Stroll cut across the room. 

This is cool; a swaggering, Latino-wrapped slice of street opera that burns into the memory: 

Now he’s a razor in the wind 
And he got a pistol in his pocket… 

Willy DeVille and his band blaze like a meteor across the airwaves. I’m sure he’s going to be “big”. 

But – just as quickly – he’s gone, a disco tsunami sweeping all before it, Mink DeVille included. The band is consigned to my memory as a one-hit wonder. 

How little did I know and how wrong I was, as the fascinating documentary Heaven Stood Still: The Incarnations of Willy DeVille reveals. 

Not only was one “Willy DeVille” about as Puerto Rican as I was, but he then spent the next 35 years crafting an amazing body of work that covered doo wop, French torch songs, pure rock ‘n’ roll and a whole lot more, all – largely due to being categorised as a “difficult artiste” by the major record companies – unplayed on the airwaves and unknown to most. 

‘Heaven Stood Still: The Incarnations of Willy DeVille’ examines the life of a musician who should be better known.

Willy DeVille was, in fact, born one Billy Borsey in the dead-end Connecticut factory town of Stamford. A self-confessed loser at school. Billy looked to music to escape the drudgery of his teen years. 

Just performing on stage wasn’t enough, though. After being captivated by the movie West Side Story, he morphed into a complete stage persona – the “Puerto Rican” Willy DeVille. 

And when Willy, under the guise of his band Mink DeVille, scored a gig at New York’s buzzing CBGB club things took off. 

Director Larry Locke peels back the layers of Billy Borsey’s unlikely saga of almost-stardom (well, in France at least, he was a star) in Heaven Stood Still. If you have any interest in great music – even if you’ve never heard of the guy – the film is a must see. 

Locke unravels a tale that’s part-detective work and part-homage to one of America’s greatest artists, a multi-genre trailblazer with a voice to kill for but who remained virtually unknown in his homeland. 

It’s sprinkled with great anecdotes from fellow musos such as Ben E King, J Geils Band frontman Peter Wolf and others (“he was in a bubble of his own creation,” says Talking Heads drummer Chris Frantz) and mesmerising footage of Willy in full flight on stage.

The chameleon nature of his artistry (think David Bowie meets Springsteen) put him in the “too hard box”. His record label dumped him, refusing to release a just-recorded album, Le Chat Bleu, exploring Cajun and French cabaret themes. Shattered, DeVille sought refuge in France where he found an appreciative audience. 

Willie DeVille and first wife Toots backstage at Max’s Kansas City in New York City on 14 January 1977. Photo supplied

DeVille was never one to stay still, though. He swapped his Piaf obsession for a stroll through doo wop territory, mariachi music and, thanks to an approach from Dire Straits’ Mark Knopler, even wrote an Academy Award-nominated song – Storybook Love, for 1987’s The Princess Bride. 

With talent to burn, DeVille also battled his own demons – and a serious heroin problem – and his romantic life had enough material for several Shakespearean tragedies. 

DeVille had the swagger, the voice, the charisma and the talent to be a superstar and yet, deep down, he only ever wanted his music to be heard.  

Wolf tells a story how, years after Spanish Stroll was released, he heard DeVille was playing a local club. When he and around a dozen friends turned up, they were the only ones in the audience. DeVille performed as if he were in front of a stadium of thousands. 

See Heaven Stood Still (the titular track is jaw dropping) and check out some of DeVille’s eclectic, spectacular back catalogue – and play your part in delivering his artistic redemption long after it fell due. 

Heaven Stood Still: The Incarnations of Willy DeVille is at the Luna Leederville on 15 September 2023.

Pictured top: Willy DeVille the Conjurer in the early 1980s. Photo: Gary Heery

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Author —
Norman Burns

Norman Burns would, if NASA let him, happily take the first rocket out of here. But in the meantime he plies his trade as a freelance editor and writer and has several decades under his belt of media work in Australia and internationally. Naturally, those old rocket-shaped slides are his go-to at the playground.

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