Dog Bar Yacht Club
Willie 'Loco' Alexander is a rock' n' roll survivor, whose Boston-based career has traced the history of rock and roll for thirty years. 'Because I've been doing it for so long,' says Willie Alexander, 'I've almost got to a point where I can see my work. It's like a procession, where there's a whole bunch of characters. There's Taxi-Stand Diane, Dirty Eddie, Shopping Cart Louie. Most of them are based on real people. I usually just change the names.' According to Polly Campbell in the May 10, 1991, issue of the Boston Phoenix, Willie got his start playing in church. Well, not exactly in the actual services. His father was a Baptist minister and Willie would sneak into the church and bang away at the piano. His early influences were Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis. Somehow the path away from that church's piano led him toward the Boston rock and roll band, the Lost. 'Everything has changed so much since we started. Back then it wasn't like you were part of society. Now rock 'n' roll is an industry--there are awards, and it's on television 24 hours a day. Back then you were lucky to get a CYO dance on a Friday night.' This is what Willie Alexander told D.C. Denison, as published in the May 17, 1987, issue of the Boston Globe. Speaking of the Rat in Kenmore Square, he said, 'Twenty years ago it was the Rathskeller, a jock bar for BU and BC. I played there with my first band, The Lost. I saw my first Boston rock band at The Rat--Barry and the Remains, the loudest band I had ever heard.' The Lost was a legendary band that never made it as big as their abilities suggested they could. After recording on Capitol with his first group, Alexander was soon back on another major label with the Bagatelle. They put out '11 P.M. Saturday' (LP, ABC, 1968), a very entertaining album. It was heavy on covers of records by acts such as Sam and Dave, James Brown, and Sam Cooke. The most notable track, though, may be Alexander's own song, 'Everybody Knows.' If you could take off the violins and the background singers that were overdubbed, this song would have sounded up-to-date ten years later. After the Bagatelle, Alexander served in the last lineup of the Velvet Underground. By 1975, Willie Alexander was leading a new band. But where another 1960s guy might have given us some ballads with overblown accompaniments or warmed-over rhythm and blues, W.A. put out a fresh little single containing what may very well be his two most popular songs. 'Kerouac,' the featured side, is about the man whose writing taught Alexander his strong sense of place. 'Mass. Ave.' was more like the Declaration of Independence of Boston's glorious punk revolution. Butterfly on his right shoulder, how could Willie be bolder, on Mass. Ave. Willie Alexander's cuts on 'Live at the Rat' (2 LPs, Rat, 1976) were easily among the best performances on that album. And by the late 1970s, he was recording for a major label once again. His group, the Boom Boom Band, had an ace guitarist in the person of Billy Loosigian. Rolling Stone called Loosigian a real find. The two albums that came out of this period were quite controversial. Fred Schruers, in the February 23, 1978, issue of Rolling Stone, gave a flattering review to 'Willie Alexander and the Boom Boom Band' (LP, MCA, 1978). But Dave Marsh, in the Rolling Stone Record Guide, gave it only one star out of a possible five. Two critics, same company. Go figure. M. Howell, in the December 1, 1981, issue of the Boston Phoenix, found some middle ground by merely commenting that the MCA albums didn't catch Alexander's eccentric energy. The first of these records didn't particularly sound like the Willie Alexander his fans knew from his live shows; but it had it's moments--especially the decidedly-alternate arrangement of 'Everybody Knows,' from the Bagatelle days, and 'Looking Like a Bimbo.' Village Voice critic Robert Christgau confessed, in his guidebook to rock albums of the 1970s, that he had been no fan of Alexander but that he grew fond of this record anyway. Those who didn't like 'Willie Alexander and the Boom Boom Band' seem to have had a hard time listening very perceptively to the second album, 'Meanwhile ... Back in the States' (LP, MCA, 1978). Dave Marsh also assigned that record a single-star rating. But it is quite a different story from it's predecessor. Tom Carson, in the December 14, 1978, issue of Rolling Stone, gave 'Meanwhile' a mixed review. He called Alexander's arrangements dense and intriguing and declared that this album is better than the first. But Carson criticized the lyrics as long on quirkiness and short on substance. Well, sometimes we do call this singer Willie 'Loco' Alexander; so, peculiar lyrics might be expected. And many of his songs really are quite simple, both lyrically and melodically. This type of songwriting, though, is something Alexander does very well. Call him a rock minimalist. 'Meanwhile ... Back in the States' has a few things going for it. One of them is the band. Any album featuring Billy Loosigian has one thing to like, right from the start. The record includes two of Willie Alexander's best-known numbers--'You Looked So Pretty When' and a reinterpretation of 'Mass. Ave.' For my own part, I also like the song, 'Modern Lovers.' After Alexander's relationship with MCA ended, many of his albums were released in France on the New Rose label. 'Gin' (45, Varulven, 1980), one of his best singles from this period, seems to have been more popular in Europe than here. And M. Howell reported that, locally, W.A. pretty much dropped out of sight. About the time Alexander released 'Solo Loco' (LP, New Rose, 1981), he told Ed Slota of Boston Rock (Issue 23) that he was taking better care of himself. 'You can't kill yourself forever, you'll wind up dead.' Words to live by. Dean Johnson contributed an important full-page article to Issue 32 of Boston Rock. During a tour of France, as Johnson's account goes, a kid played Alexander his own cover of 'At the Rat.' Fans approached the American and asked him to autograph their copies of the Bagatelle album. And concert-goers requested songs that he had released on obscure singles. We get stories of French rock fans who spoke hardly any English but long ago mastered the two essential words, 'Willie Loco.' When people on the other side of the Atlantic value this guy's music so much, we might wonder whether we Americans fully appreciate our own native talent. It was hard to be a Willie Alexander fan in those days. You could purchase his New Rose albums in the Boston area and at a few other places, such as Northampton. But, out here in the provinces, his records were difficult to come by. Nor, as I recall, were they given a lot of promotion. In the 1980s, Alexander often recorded and performed solo or at least without a full band; and it seems likely that economics was a factor. In his 1987 interview with D.C. Denison, he said he was only playing out two or three times a month. In 1987, Willie Alexander and the Cars were inducted into the Hall of Fame at the first Boston Music Awards ceremony. W.A. told D.C. Denison that he got really nervous. 'I'm not used to getting awards, I'm used to playing the piano and singing.' Then on Sunday, October 11, 1987, Alexander was paid another special tribute at Green Street Station. Following a retrospective of his career--which was presented by the Boston Rock and Roll Museum's own Chuck White--Alexander was reunited with his former musicians, including members of the Boom Boom Band. In the Boston Globe on the 13th, Jim Sullivan said the performances sounded crisp and fresh and he described Billy Loosigian's guitar solos as 'searing, hard-rock leads.' Alexander called the evening 'magic, one of the highlights of my whole career.' At the Green Street Station show, Alexander had this to say about his solo performances: 'They make me feel like a gunslinger walking into town with just a horse and not a whole posse.' Yet around that same time, perhaps in part because of the reunion performance with his old group, he got to thinking about singing with a band again. In the August 26, 1988, issue of the Boston Globe, Jim Sullivan announced a concert at the Rat. Sullivan said that Alexander was once more leaning toward out-and-out rocking. And later we learn that his friends wanted to be a part of it. In the April 28, 1989, issue of the Boston Phoenix, Kris Fell quoted drummer Boby Bear as saying, 'I bothered and tormented Willie for years to let me play with him.' 'The Dragons Are Still Out' (LP, New Rose, 1988) had such slight domestic distribution that I shopped around all over Cambridge and Boston for it and came away empty-handed. Sometime the next year, it was issued domestically as 'In the Pink' (LP, M&W, 1989), in a remixed, remastered version with a somewhat different selection of songs. The title track, 'In the Pink,' gave Alexander another substantial hit in the Boston market. He seems to have had his best success with his full rock bands. Alexander's rhymes are often quite playful. One of my favorite examples comes in the song, 'The Dragons Are Still Out,' where he connects Heavy Metal to Hansel and Gretel. According to Steve Morse, in the Calendar section of the October 17, 1991, issue of the Boston Globe, Alexander toured France three times in 1991. It was about that same time that he began giving concerts with his Persistence of Memory Orchestra. Morse called this three-piece group 'starkly minimalist' and predicted that you wouldn't find them in the Top 40 anytime soon. But as Jim Sullivan wrote, back at the time of the Green Street Station tribute, 'the world's loss remains Boston's gain.' Kris Fell described Willie Alexander as sweet. One article said that he had played for years in benefits of all kinds. Yet another said that he worked hard in concert to be endearing. Alexander may be something more than merely one of New England's best pop musicians. It seems that he's also a really good guy. Late in 1991, he sent me an autographed copy of his French compilation, 'Fifteen Years of Rock 'n' Roll with Willie Alexander' (CD, New Rose, n.d.), 'for listening all these years.' I was facing being laid-off from a job, at the time, and could ill afford to buy a copy. This gift meant a lot to me then, and it still means a lot today. In the May 13, 1986, issue of the Boston Phoenix, Sally Cragin characterized Alexander's songs as 'keen observations of the neglected and down-and-out.' That sounds more than a little like the work of one of America's most-written-about songwriters, Woody Guthrie. Hard-hitting songs for hard-hit people. 'A lot of my songs,' said Alexander, 'are kind of like shopping lists in that I name a lot of places. I'm a chamber-of-commerce kind of guy--Mass Avenue and Gloucester. ... I get into specifics. It's all you can do. You write what you know.' That, too, is what Guthrie did. In the April 3, 1992, issue of the Boston Phoenix, Polly Campbell spoke of how Alexander's stories turn places and people into history, and history into songs. When it came time to compile his recordings for 'Willie Loco Boom Boom Ga Ga: 1975-1991' (CD, Northeastern, 1992), he did the hard work of seeking out the original masters.According to Bill Jackson, in Issue 122 of Boston Rock, Alexander said, '[T]he French one ['Fifteen Years of Rock 'n' Roll'] didn't have the master tapes of a few of the things, and in general it was kind of a rush job, I thought.' He had an easy time selecting the recordings made before his MCA days. According to the Calendar section of the March 19, 1992, issue of the Boston Globe, Alexander told Paul Robicheau, 'It would be too much if it went back to the '60s. I wanted to keep it more in the stuff I put out as a leader.' From the period following his MCA contract, he had eight albums to go through and the decisions were tougher. 'This CD has some stuff that I know nobody's ever heard.' I put out work in a vacuum.' 'Boom Boom Ga Ga' includes many of the same obvious choices that appeared on 'Greatest Hits' (LP, New Rose, 1985), plus it added newer records, such as 'In the Pink,' and inspired selections, such as 'Just Another Fool.' It has twenty-two tracks in all, including 'Abel and Elvis,' the debut release by Alexander's Persistence of Memory Orchestra. For those who are interested in Boston's own school of pop music, this album is essential. As for the Persistence of Memory Orchestra, he said, 'I think I have a jazz attitude as far as improvising and all that goes. But I don't have the technique; I'm a rhythm guy. That's why I have Ken Field, he's the soloist. And Jim [Doherty], he can hold a beat and also do a lot of stuff off it. I like the three. It's nice, it's minimal. The space between things is becoming more and more important to me. There's not much room for space in rock and roll.' On Wednesday evening, January 13, 1993, at the Rat, came Willie Alexander's fiftieth birthday party, coordinated by Anne Rearick. The guest of honor performed with his Persistence of Memory Orchestra, now including saxophonist Mark Chenevert. That event also featured the second-ever reunion of Willie Alexander and the Boom Boom Band. The January 15, 1993, issue of the Boston Globe reported Peter Wolf as saying, 'When things are so much like instant coffee on the 'scene' today, and a lot of people come and go, it's an honor to know guys who not only love it, but spend their lives livin' it.' 'Willie is the real deal.' Since 'Persistence of Memory Orchestra' (CD, Accurate, 1993), the new group's first album, six Willie Alexander discs have come out, including two from his Lost days. Alexander told Polly Campbell, 'All you need is one hit. One hit that's on every radio station in the world. Then, get the house in Gloucester, get the house in France. The penthouse on Mass Avenue. Get in those cabs to make last call at the Rat.' This, of course, has not beenWillie Alexander's fate. But he also told Campbell, 'Every ten years I get another fifteen minutes of fame.' 'I'm an artist, a musician. It's not going to go away. You just keep doing what you do.' Just days ago, Willie Alexander and the Persistence of Memory Orchestra released 'The East Main Street Suite' (CD, Accurate, 1999). (I learned of it too late to get my hands on a copy.) So, Willie Alexander has a new record, and once again the sky's the limit. The reviews are only starting to come in; but Hayley Kaufman, in the December 6, 1999, issue of the Boston Globe, gave it quite a build-up. Kaufman used words such as bluesy, jazzy, poetic, and smoky to describe the music, and says it's just plain cool. Willie Alexander is jazzy, he's poetic, and he is with us once again. From the Lost, a 60's garage-band that made a couple of records for Capitol, to the psychedelic late-60's Bagatelle, to a brief stint in the post-Lou Reed Velvet Underground, the Boom Boom Band in the punk 70's, which recorded for MCA, to an introspective take on the 80's recording for the French label New Rose, and renewed band energy in the 90's with the Persistence of Memory Orchestra, Willie has maintained a consistently high level of emotional and artistic integrity.