Willie “Loco” Alexander is a rock’ n’ roll survivor, who’s Boston-based
career has traced the history of rock and roll for thirty years.

“Because I’ve been doing it for so long,” said 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 its 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 its 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.

[Read Willie’s
from the Boston Rock & Roll Museum.]

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