WILLIE “LOCO” ALEXANDER
by Peter Van Ness
“Hear that? That trans-oceanic tshhh, tshhh, tshhh scratch on the record? That’s hip hop.”
Punk-rock icon Willie “Loco” Alexander cocks his head, thrusting one ear toward the 78 rpm record player in time with the rhythm of the needle at the end of a Bessie Smith song we’ve been listening to. He smiles and winks as if catching a new tune for the very first time. Infected by the scratchy beat, Willie wriggles over to the record player, nimble as a teen street dancer, with movements that drive the beat to infect me too.
He removes the needle and pivots. “I don’t know how I ended up playing rock ’n’ roll,” he muses. “I wanted to be a jazz drummer.”
Inspired by “Crazy Rhythm,” the B side of Harry James’ 78 rpm record “Easter Parade” (released in 1942—the year before Bill Alexander was born), young Billy (as he was known) would practice the drums on a suitcase stood on end, hitting it with his ankle and heel for the bass drum, playing a ride beat with a clothes brush and a back beat with his hand. Willie demonstrates holding an imaginary suitcase between his legs. Then he taps out a paradiddle with hands on knees and morphs it into an Afro-Cuban polyrhythm à la Mongo Santamaria, another source of Willie’s musical inspiration, all the while telling me how he adopted the nickname Willie “Loco” in 1962 when he was hanging with Afro-Cuban musicians, who all had nicknames. He figured he needed a nickname too and decided to combine the names of two of his favorite musicians: Willie Bobo and Joe Loco.
“It turned out to be perfect for punk-rock because with a nickname like ‘Loco’ you can do anything,” he explains.
Listen to Harry James’ “Crazy Rhythm” and you’ll hear a discernible back beat punching through the scratches to foreshadow rock ’n’ roll. It’s not hard to imagine that sound inspiring the “Godfather of Punk.”
Inspiration seems to come to Willie Loco from just about everywhere one can imagine along with many more unimaginable sources the rest of us routinely ignore. Every room on the third floor of his perfectly tidy house in the heart of downtown Gloucester, MA, is filled with books and music recorded on every medium ever used. (Well, I didn’t see any Edison cylinders or 8-track, but there are hundreds of CDs, vinyl LPs, 45s, 78s, cassettes—and machines to play them all.) There’s a drum kit, string bass, other instruments and, of course, his iconic keyboard covered with collage.
But that’s only the beginning. Every wall and most of the doors and ceilings on the third floor are covered with his collage too. These are no ordinary collages. Fashioned with clear packing tape that serves as a laminate over images from newspapers, magazines, books, posters, cereal boxes, concert bills, post cards, etc., Willie’s critically acclaimed collages have been featured in Manhattan at the Greenwich Village gallery, Esopus Space.
“I just can’t stop,” explains Willie as he shows me collages he’s taken down to make room for new ones (the packing tape keeps them in tact) and two-sided collages hanging on doors so you can turn them over to see either side. “Must be my addictive personality. I love the Gloucester Times and the trash blowing down the street, and especially promo sheets,” he continues. “I sample images from everything.”
Evoking a parallel with music sampling, Willie shows me how it’s done by opening a magazine to a photo. Then he rips a four-inch piece of packing tape, sticks it onto the face in the photo, lifts it off the magazine page and tapes it, artfully, into a spot on an existing collage that appears to have been waiting on the wall for this face all along.
Referring to the magazine, he says, “You thought this stuff was all real when you were a kid. But it’s all an illusion. Music is an illusion; it fires your imagination.”
Willie recalls his joy at the introduction of “sound on sound” recording technology in the 1960s when magnetic tape made it possible to record one instrument (bass, for example), then play it back so you can hear it in your headphones while you record another instrument (guitar, for example) on the same song, thus empowering a talented multi-instrumentalist like Willie to play multiple parts on the same recording, in much the same way as he creates his collages with multiple images.
“I hardly ever go in [to the studio] with a song. It’s all the same.” He gestures to the roomful of collage surrounding us.
“I’ll go in with a book full of lyrics. I’ll play the drums first. Then somebody will walk in to pay a bill or something and end up as a guest on the record.”
By now I’ve got it. Willie’s approach to art, to music, to life is to take the world as it comes and embrace it all. It’s as if he samples every experience and is inspired—perhaps even compelled—by these samples to create. That’s what makes his music, his art, and his life so vital.
Willie’s latest recording projects are yet a new adventure and a departure from his norm. He refers to them as “Breathing Versions—all the guys playing together.” He’s currently working with Alek and Rikki Razdan and Dave Vincent at Tony Goddess’ Bang-A-Song Studio on an upcoming CD. There’s a new sense of spontaneity in the way he describes these sessions. “We only just play,” he insists. “I don’t want to think about it. Just go in and do it.”
“Songs come when they come,” he continues. “Now I write songs about things I see or trip over… like the trash blowing down the street. [The song] ‘Telephone Sex’ was an exercise to see if I could sit down and write a song from start to finish on paper. It worked out but really I’m not very disciplined. Once on stage it just seems to come out. Some songs I’ll always mess up like the big ones, ‘Mass. Ave’ and ‘At the Rat.’”
He goes on to point out that when The Inflicktors’ covered “Mass. Ave.” they added all the lyrics that Willie left out of the single, originally released on Garage Records in 1975.
Willie is best known for joining The Velvet Underground after Lou Reed left and touring the world with them in 1971, but he says, “I’m more proud of The Lost and Boom Boom Band.”
The Lost was his first band—and Willie started out playing percussion. “I’d shake a wine bottle with empty gun shells and a metal chain in it. Great percussive sound. Then I played congas and sang back-up. Finally I started playing piano and singing lead.”
The Lost got signed to Capital Records and released three hit singles in 1966: “Violet Gown,” “Maybe More Than You,” and “Everybody Knows” (unissued by Capital, but released on The Bagatelle’s sole album, 11 P.M. Saturday, plus several times on Arf! Arf! Records and on The Boom Boom Band’s U.K. album, Pass the Tabasco).
The Lost sounded mainstream enough to record a commercial for Gillette’s “Look Sharp, Feel Sharp, Be Sharp” campaign in a studio in Revere.
“We released Bagatelle’s album in 1968; what a year that was! King and Kennedy shot—and Andy Warhol, but he survived. I wonder that that means. 1968 was the year girls stopped wearing bras. That’ll stop you in your tracks!”
After The Lost and Bagatelle, Willie formed the Boom Boom Band and got signed by MCA to make more hits. But it wasn’t long before MCA execs cramped his style. “People liked the crazy stuff that execs didn’t want on the album,” complains Willie.
“They told me, ‘You can’t say asshole,’” he continues, referring to when he fronted the band The Rhythm Assholes, who back Willie on his hit 45, “Kerouac,” with “Mass. Ave” on the B side. “But Jonathan Richman says it.” Willie makes his point like a teenager angling for privileges afforded his friends but denied by a strict father. He quotes Richman’s song Picasso, “’Pablo Picasso was never called an asshole.’ What a great rhyme!”
“Then greed ate them,” he growls with a sneer, implying music execs got what they deserved, “I have no sympathy for those devils.”
The music business has made Willie “Loco” Alexander a star, put him on the cover of Brett Milano’s book The Sound of Our Town, thrust him into the Boston Music Hall of Fame, but never made him rich. Through various contract machinations, he ended up with only $300 from the U.K. release of the Boom Boom Band’s Pass the Tabasco after MCA sold the rights to Mau Mau Records.
But Willie shows absolutely no signs of bitterness. He jokes about touring France in the ’80s and ’90s, saying, “I hate sound checks—especially in France; they always have to break for wine. In France I felt like I had to become the ugly American and chew gum. Every record I released in France has at least one word misspelled. It’s just something about them.”
Then he takes me into the room with the CD player.
“This is my masterpiece,” he insists as he plays “Pup Tune” off the recently reissued on CD, Live at the Rat, album. “It’s three chords: Eb Ab and Bb.” As we listen, he moves like he’s on stage, sings to the record. “Hear that falsetto? I was known for that.”
Then he plays “Who Needs You” by The Real Kids, also on that album. “This is my all-time favorite Boston Band. Listen to Howie Ferguson on drums. He’s ferocious!”
Willie says he’s made his best music after turning 50 and speaks with reverence about more recent projects, like putting Vincent Ferinni’s poetry to music—“Life Is a Poem.” He says. “I felt I had to earn my right to record those works. It wasn’t like covering a Chuck Berry song. It would be sacrilege to change any of his words.”
Now he’s busier than ever with all sorts of projects. In addition to his recordings, Willie is slated to narrate Tomorrow the World!, a punk rock opera by John Surrette (Boys Life), which recently surpassed its fundraising goal on the crowdfunding website Kickstarter.. There are two new films featuring Willie and the scene he inspired: The Boys from Nowhere and Let’s Go to The Rat. Willie’s 70th birthday bash in January 2013 was made into a film by Henry Ferrini.
Willie shows me the official citation given him by Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick at that party and points to the musical connection. Governor Patrick’s father, Pat Patrick, was a well- known jazz saxophone player, who recorded and performed with many of Willie’s musical heroes, including John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Sun Ra, and Mongo Santamaria.
He’s excited about upcoming shows close to home, including Friday, December 13 with Chelsea Berry, Andy Pratt, and T Max at Me & Thee Coffeehouse in Marblehead, dubbed “Cape Ann Invades Marblehead,” and New Years Eve in Rockport with the Razdans.
“Everything’s changed,” reflects Willie. “You used to be able to have obscure heroes. Now you can look them up. When I was a kid, you had to go after your music. In the ’70s you could see it on TV—a kid could see Alice Cooper on TV! Music was like wallpaper. Now it’s digital, in the cloud. You play a concert and before you get home people are watching it on YouTube.”
I ask if that makes him feel like he’s lost control of his image, his music. “Oh no,” he replies instantly. “That’s all an illusion anyhow. Once you become a performer, you belong to the people.”