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Out with a Bang: Denny Lile & the Tragedy of Used-to-Be's

Is a taste of honey worse than none at all? Drug addicts who’ve bottomed out would probably tell you it is — that whatever summits they ascended have long since been buried under the ruins of so many squandered years, dollars and relationships. Then there are men like Nick Wasicsko and Denny Lile, whose cases aren’t so cut and dry.

As recounted in the book Show Me a Hero and the recent HBO mini-series of the same name, the 28-year-old Wasicsko became mayor of Yonkers in 1987, the youngest person ever elected to lead that large, blue-collar town just to the north of New York City. All he’d ever wanted to be was a public official, cruising to victory by virtue of a politically expedient stance which saw him reflexively oppose public housing in Yonkers’ whiter half. Under incredible legal pressure, Wasicsko eventually shifted ground, arguing that the city was better off preparing for the inevitability of residential integration, versus stubbornly sticking up for a principle whose time had thankfully passed. His pragmatic malleability would cost him re-election, but earn him national admiration in the process.

Wasicsko would eventually win and lose another city council seat, never parlaying his notoriety into a loftier level of government service. He had a law degree, a house on a hill and a wife who loved him. Ultimately, however, none of that was enough to overcome Wasicsko’s professional disappointment, as he shot and killed himself beside his father’s grave at the age of 34.

The blue-collar protagonist in Jason Isbell’s subtly devastating song “Something More Than Free” might be Wasicsko’s opposite. He busts his ass all week—swinging hammers, splitting granite, laying rail, hauling boxes — to back-breaking ends, but never once complains about it. To the contrary, Isbell sings, “I’m doin' what I'm on this earth to do. I don't think on why I'm here where it hurts; I’m just lucky to have the work. Sunday morning I'm too tired to go to church, but I thank God for the work.” 

When he ponders his reward, the narrator speaks only of family, love and leisure. He never desires honey; plain Cheerios are enough. It’s no stretch to wonder that had Wasicsko valued such simple virtues, he might still be alive today.

Somewhere in the middle lies Denny Lile, whose life and music are the subject of a new CD/DVD documentary set called Hear the Bang: The Life & Music of Denny Lile. A constant in Lousville’s thriving roots scene of the ‘70s, Lile, like so many talented artists who lacked leverage, saw his shot at stardom dashed by a punitive publishing contract, not to mention crippling stage fright. Given a performing slot at an important industry confab in Nashville, Lile got too drunk to take the stage. But in 1987, Waylon Jennings had a top 10 hit with a song Lile wrote (“Fallin’ Out”), which steered him enough dough to keep the dream aflicker.

Like kept writing, playing and drinking, eventually dying alone in a van down by a river. It didn’t have to end that way. Lile had a wife and daughter who loved him, but eventually couldn’t live with his self-destructive boozing, which he undoubtedly — and perhaps not inaccurately — considered part of his creative fuel.

The 16 tracks on Hear the Bang make it clear that, had Lile had the right connections, he could have really been somebody. Possessing of a soothing, effortlessly nimble voice, his music is a fusion of The Byrds, Jim Croce and Pure Prairie League. It was perfect for the era Lile lived in; alas, his success was largely relegated to the Bluegrass State.

As the documentary articulates, Lile could at times be a caring, attentive husband and father. Had he adjusted his lifestyle for his family’s sake, he might have found more to live for. But selflessness is elusive for many creative types—sacrifices made to appease or nurture others can mortally wound a muse. It’s a quandary which affords no easy solution, other than to go until the gigs dry up, feeling lucky to have the work.