MaximusRocknRoll: Willie 'Loco' Alexander
Micah Ballard had just returned from the Gloucester Writers Center, reading for his book Afterlives (Bootstrap, 2016), when I spotted it on his table: I’ll Be Goode (Fisheye Records, 2016), a CD by Willie Alexander and the Fishtones. Being from Massachusetts, I knew who Alexander was. Most famous for his six-month stint in the post-Lou Reed Velvet Underground—unceremoniously dismissed by management along with bassist Walter Powers and Moe Tucker herself (!) before the final, all-Doug-Yule VU LP, Squeeze (Polydor, 1972)—Alexander is a legend of Boston rock, going back to its earliest days.
“Where’d you get this?” I asked. “He came to my reading and traded it for a book,” Micah said. “He lives in Gloucester and is friends with Gerrit Lansing.”
Thus I was prepared when, months later in Gloucester for my own reading, I found myself in the presence of a tall, wiry man with white punk-rock hair, trading a copy of Power Ballads (Wave, 2016) for a copy of I’ll Be Goode. Having been friends with poet and Charles Olson confidante Vincent Ferrini—whose former live/work space is the Gloucester Writers Center—Alexander checks out most readings that come through. (“I’m gonna take a memoir class with Hettie Jones,” he tells me later, knowing I know how cool that is, yet unselfconsciously displaying the depth of his reading.) He couldn’t stay for the post-reading hang out at Gerrit’s, so we parted ways and the disc buried itself in my backpack among the books and laundry.
Unpacking back in San Francisco, I came across I’ll Be Goode. I’m not sure what I expected, but it wasn’t the 6/8 drone of tremolo guitar punctuated by clarinet and sax shimmering out of my speakers. The song, “All Things Go,” is an adaptation of Lansing’s “Song (The Autumn Festival),” using its line “All things go underground with glee” as a chorus and mixing in other lines to tease a slow-burning five-minute eruption out of an 11-line poem. The song isn’t rock or jazz, but combines elements of each, and as the EP unfolded, it continued to surprise. “I Can Hear Louise” begins as unaccompanied spoken word memoir of being a kid in Gloucester, with more than a hint of Kerouac in the phrasing, before devolving into a moody piano/sax vamp. “Song for Mike”—the story of a local eccentric arrested for shitting in front of Dunkin’ Donuts after being denied access to its bathroom—doesn’t sound written but rather simply told from memory, even as Alexander weaves sung passages throughout, the whole served over a loop of bombastic trap drums and horns.
Listening to someone of his vintage composing over loops was intriguing in itself, for at 74—born the same year as, say, Mick Jagger—Alexander is a second-generation rocker, the first group to come of age in the wake of Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis. Yet he has rolled with the times and his approach to art has continued to evolve well beyond the point at which many of his peers have fossilized. By the time I reached the title track, a minimalist Ween-meets-Tom-Waits funkout over which he yowls in a voice fellow New Englander Stephen King once characterized as the “weirdest male falsetto ever laid down,” I was convinced Alexander was a some kind of crazy poet. The recurring couplet, “Marilyn Monroe / to Joe DiMaggio,” underscores the rhyme of this famous couple’s names (I’d never noticed!), and their repeated juxtaposition appears to imply so much, resonating without specifying, like much poetry. This technique is amplified in the closer, “No More Tony,” a portrait of a departed townie entirely sketched from a repeated couplet, “no more Tony and his cigar / no more Tony under his car,” even as most of the lyrics dwell on a little girl dribbling a basketball in the rain. The song’s barely a song in the traditional sense—more an improvised assemblage of riffs à la turn-of-the-’70s James Brown—and the backing track is a straight-up slice of hip-hop, though he loops his own live drums instead of a programmed beat. Much like a poet, Alexander samples himself.
“In my secret druthers I always thought what I was doing was poetry,” Alexander says. “When I was in high school I started reading Kerouac and all the Beat writers because that’s what was happening in ’59 and ’60. I probably read On the Road when I was 15. It had just come out and was like a hit record, like ‘Wow, this one looks good.’”
It’s April Fools Day, he notes with approval, when we conduct our interview. In the months since first hearing I'll Be Goode, I’ve been listening to Alexander’s music obsessively, and I’ve not nearly exhausted his varied catalog. We’ve exchanged a few emails and, knowing his Beat predilections, I’ve sent him the odd City Lights volume, like Michael Rumaker’s Robert Duncan in San Francisco (2013). This has produced a steady stream of CDs in return, for the Philadelphia-born Alexander is unfailingly polite, being the son of a preacher whose ministry brought him to Gloucester from 1950 to 1955. Between these discs and what I’ve obtained online, I’ve gone deep. And what’s fascinating to me is how central poetry, particularly the Beats and their peers in New American Poetry (Grove, 1960), has been to his over-50-year career as an artist.
Indeed, though his piano- and violin-playing mother fostered his musical talents at an early age, Alexander thought of himself as a “beatnik poet” well before he considered himself a musician.
“Reading all these guys Kerouac was talking about, I got to Creeley,” he recalls. “He’s got these tight little poems, just so many syllables, it’s like old-fashioned stuff. So I’m trying to write poems at this point, and I’m trying to make them tight and I’m counting stuff, I thought, ‘This is the way to go,’ for a while.”
From Creeley it’s but a short step to Olson, given their friendship and correspondence, and though Alexander initially found the densely allusive Maximus Poems baffling, he was immediately drawn to Olson’s use of the local details of Gloucester.
“That’s the reason I really kept reading Olson,” he says, “because we had moved away from Gloucester and I was homesick for the place. He was writing exactly what was here. Putting the Sawyer Free Library in there. I could relate to that more than I could relate to all the antiquities he was referring to.”
By 1963, Alexander had quit the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston after a semester, and was giving higher education another try at Goddard College in Vermont. But he’d already gained stage experience, playing Afro-Cuban music in coffeehouses as a percussionist. (The “Loco” moniker dates from this period, an attempt to find a name suitable to the music.) Though he’d been passionately listening to rock & roll as an adolescent, the genre already seemed stifled by commercialization.
“After ’59, ’58, things went south,” he recalls. “Chuck Berry was in jail, they stopped playing Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard had quit and gone into the ministry. Then the Brill Building came in and they were manufacturing heroes for us kids, like Fabian, Frankie Avalon, and I didn’t think that stuff was so hot.”
His interest in rock was rekindled, however, on February 9, 1964, when the Beatles fired the first salvo of the British Invasion on the Ed Sullivan Show.
“That British Invasion was good stuff,” he recalls. “They were throwing our own music back at us. It opened it up to the roots again. They’re playing Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley songs, the stuff that turned me on.”
At Goddard, Alexander formed The Lost. Renowned among garage band connoisseurs, The Lost is a significant group in the annals of Boston rock. Before the year was out, The Lost had relocated there and, in ’65 on strength of their live following, became the second Boston band to sign to a major label, after Barry and the Remains. Capitol Records released a single, “Maybe More than You” b/w “Back Door Blues,” whose Dylanesque A-side was co-written and sung by Alexander, the group’s keyboardist. It was a minor regional hit, and while waiting nearly a year to release a follow-up, Capitol employed The Lost as a local opener for other label acts and even sent them on tour supporting the Beach Boys. But the failure of the second single “Violet Gown”—confusingly released, withdrawn, and rereleased in a different take with a different B-side—led to the label dropping the group. Disheartened, The Lost played its last gigs in January 1967.
Alexander would spend the next few years pursuing elusive popular success. Switching back to drums, he formed a folk-rock group with Lost bassist Walter Powers called the Grass Menagerie, whose repertoire included a rendition of Creeley’s poem “If You,” alongside originals and Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen covers. Hampered by constantly shifting personnel, including at one point Boston University student Doug Yule, the band got as far as cutting demos for Vanguard Records before dissolving. But Alexander’s next opportunity fell in his lap; in 1968, Lost drummer Lee Mason asked him to join a racially mixed soul revue called the Bagatelle, who were in the midst of recording an album for ABC Records, produced by the man who oversaw Dylan’s electric transition, not to mention the first two Velvet Underground albums, Tom Wilson.
“I only did two songs with him because I joined this band and they had already recorded 99% of the album,” Alexander recalls. “It’s funny because the first night I met the whole band, we’re posing for the album cover and I hadn’t even played a note with them.” Nonetheless, Alexander’s contributions—playing keyboards and singing on his compositions “Back on the Farm” and “Everyone Knows”—breathe life into 11 p.m. Saturday, otherwise a largely perfunctory, overproduced set of soul covers. Incorporating mimes and fire-eaters, the spectacle-driven group played several well-received stands at NYC’s Electric Circus, but folded in the face of indifferent LP sales.
Alexander spent the next couple years with several short-lived bands. In August 1971, however, he received an offer from former Grass Menagerie bandmate Doug Yule, who was now leading the Velvet Underground. Following Lou Reed’s departure, Yule had switched to guitar and handed bass duties to Alexander’s longtime collaborator Walter Powers. When Sterling Morrison quit, leaving only Moe Tucker from the classic line-up, Yule invited Alexander to join on keyboards. This version of VU lasted six months, touring the Midwest and Canada—including a memorable gig with Captain Beefheart—and then England and Holland, two shows of which are documented on the boxset Final VU 1971-73 (Captain Trip, 2001).
“It took me years before I could listen to any of that Velvet Underground stuff,” Alexander says, “because I didn’t even know those songs. I was high as a kite and just trying to hit the chords when I was sure of them. I remember I had to practically beg Doug for anything, as far as structures go. But a lot of their songs were fairly simple.”
Alexander is understandably ambivalent about his time in VU. Listening to Final VU, I can’t help wondering what might have been had that version of the group—whose setlist included three Alexander numbers—remained for the Squeeze sessions. Given VU’s prominence, this six-month period inevitably receives disproportionate emphasis in accounts of his career. But the most significant period of his work as a pop artist was yet to come, through a return to his poetic roots.
After VU, Alexander played in several fleeting bands, as well as solo piano gigs and guest spots with other groups. Taking matters into his own hands, accompanied by friends, he went into the studio to record what became his signature solo single, “Kerouac” b/w “Mass Ave.” (Garage Records, 1975). A poignant homage to his favorite writer, the majestic, mid-tempo “Kerouac” is an offbeat song, given its lack of guitar, to cut at the dawn of American punk. Yet the self-released 45 made its way around the country, thanks largely to a chance review in the circular of regional record store chain Strawberries, and it remains a cult classic, recently covered on The Wink (Drag City, 2016) by millennial toestubber Tim Presley. The flipside, “Mass Ave.,” which inspired Stephen King’s enthusiasm, is a more conventional yet completely ecstatic rocker, an ode to the 16-mile thoroughfare that begins in Dorchester, Boston and ends somewhere in Lexington. In it we see the influence of Olson’s and Kerouac’s poetics of the local, as Alexander conjures Boston/Cambridge street life and references landmarks like the Cantab Lounge. Even more than “Kerouac,” “Mass Ave.” points the way to Alexander’s mature lyrical style, a celebration of everyday eccentricity, as manifested in later work like “Song for Mike” and “No More Tony.”
Shortly after, Alexander found himself fronting a hot new group.
“There was this battle of the bands and I borrowed this band, and we won,” he recalls. “So they decided to stay with me. And it was a good thing because we sounded great together. That was the Boom Boom Band.”
Willie Alexander and the Boom Boom Band quickly became a staple in Boston clubs. The group’s three contributions would form the backbone of Live at the Rat (Rat Records, 1976), a compilation released by the club Alexander first played with The Lost in ’65 which became the heart of the city’s burgeoning punk scene. Soon the group was discovered by Craig Leon, co-producer of eponymous debuts by The Ramones (Sire, 1976), Blondie (Private Stock, 1976), and Suicide (Red Star, 1977), who brought them to NYC for stands at CBGB and Max’s Kansas City, and landed them a deal with MCA Records.
“He actually got the best deal for himself, as I found out later,” Alexander laughs. “But there’s no hard feelings about any of that stuff. He got that record on MCA and it went all around the world. We went from underground to overground in a big way, from having nothing to have two semis full of equipment. And lightmen and soundmen and all of that, and management, and record deals and $300 in your pocket after having 79 cents.”
The MCA deal yielded two LPs, Willie Alexander and the Boom Boom Band (1978) and Meanwhile . . . Back in the States (1978). Alexander feels Leon’s assembly-line methods never truly captured the raucousness of the Boom Boom Band—documented on Live at the Rat and more recently Loco Live 1976 (Captain Trip, 2001)—and while the production smooths out the group’s punkier edges, there are undeniably sublime moments throughout these discs, particularly the Bowie-esque “Rock & Roll ’78,” a nostalgic look back at adolescence complete with shoutout to Gloucester’s Half Moon Beach. Unfortunately, a lack of hits coupled with MCA’s discomfort with Alexander’s raunchier lyrics scuttled plans for a third LP, and Willie Loco found himself at the dawn of the ’80s once more on his own.
Throughout the 1980s, Alexander released a string of idiosyncratic records on French indie label New Rose Records, home to visionary misfits like Johnny Thunders, Alex Chilton, Moe Tucker, and Roky Erickson. (If you want to hear a masterpiece from this period, I refer you to “Gin,” though there are many others.) Recording for a French label with sketchy U.S. distribution is an ideal way to cultivate obscurity—though he still has a following in France, where he tours occasionally—and Alexander is engagingly frank about the shifting fortunes of an artist making original music. Dishwashing was his go-to job, because he could pick it up and drop it according to need. Eventually he found a niche working in group homes with developmentally disabled adults, a community he keeps in touch with though he’s retired from active duty.
But if I race through this period, it’s simply to get to the present. Since leaving New Rose in the early ’90s, Alexander has largely abandoned pop music in favor of his own peculiar muse. (For a truly genreless disc of mad genius, try The World Famous Non Stop Seagull Opera Meets the Fishtones at the Strand (Fisheye, 2010).) He’s released two spoken word discs, as well as albums with his longtime combo the Persistence of Memory Orchestra, among other configurations. In 1997, he finally moved back to his beloved Gloucester, with his wife Anne Rearick, a photographer. Aside from music, he’s assiduously practiced collage since the ’60s, culminating in a 2012 gallery show, Wall Works, at NYC’s Esopus Space, and in recent years has been posting short videos—cinépoèmes really—to his youtube channel willieloco13.
His major concession to rock in the past dozen years has been occasional reunions of the Boom Boom Band, including a triumphant third LP, Dog Bar Yacht Club (Fisheye, 2005), a more accurate studio representation of the band’s live prowess than its MCA LPs. And where his earlier poetic turn in “Kerouac” presaged the advent of the Boom Boom Band, the group’s revival has led to Alexander’s current preoccupation with turning poems into songs. Dog Bar opens with “Gravelly Hill,” whose lyrics are drawn from The Maximus Poems. Olson may seem like an improbable source for rock music, but Alexander has an uncanny knack for zeroing in on the perfect passage for such transformations: “It is not bad / to be pissed off // where there is any / condition imposed, by whomever, no matter how close // any / quid pro quo / get out. Gravelly Hill says / leave me be, I am contingent, the end of the world / is the borders / of my being[.]” As is evident from the recording, the success of such adaptation depends on a mild disrespect for the source itself.
“With Chuck Berry all those beats are laid out and he’s tight, but these guys are like, movable foot or the breath and they’re all over the place,” Alexander notes. “And that would be harder to put into a song. So I had to make it ok with changing things around or adding a syllable. Or adding a line or repeating a line.”
While Alexander has returned to Olson since—Seagull Opera features a version of “Letter #27”—and added Lansing to the mix with “All Things Go,” the main source of these transformations has been the work of Vincent Ferrini, beginning with a request from his nephew and Gloucester Writers Center founder, Henry Ferrini, for the poet’s memorial service.
“Originally Henry said, ‘Why don’t you look through some of his poems, see if you can put some music under ’em,’” Alexander recalls. “I found three or four and I made some quick arrangements. That’s what started it. I got some kind of a grant to do something so I rearranged them some more and picked out some more. Seeing something that caught my ear and seeing if I could sing it. A lot of those, they’re like one line, on paper, so I would have to repeat them three or four times.”
“With Vincent, I knew the guy, so it was like he was in the room with me,” he continues. “I had to earn the right to do some of that stuff. I finally did something like ‘The Gold’ or ‘Life Is the Poem.’ But I had to work my way up to that.”
The result of those sessions, Vincent Ferrini’s Greatest Hits (Fisheye, 2009), continues to exert its influence on Alexander’s work.
“I never thought I’d be doing that stuff, but he’s part of my act now,” Alexander says. “When I perform I do one or two of his every time. I do them different every time but that’s what happens.”
For almost any other rocker, such activity would be an anomalous late career move, but for Willie Alexander, it’s simply another chapter in the story of his constantly evolving art.
“People respect you because you do take chances,” he concludes, “so you can’t stop taking chances now.”
Garrett Caples is the author of The Garrett Caples Reader (1999), Complications (2007), Quintessence of the Minor: Symbolist Poetry in English (2010), Retrievals (2014), and Power Ballads (2016). He is an editor at City Lights Books, where he curates the Spotlight poetry series. Caples was also a contributing writer to theSan Francisco Bay Guardian and has coedited the Collected Poems of Philip...