The Persistence of Willie ‘Loco’ Alexander

YOU DON’T HAVE to be mad to like Willie Alexander’s new album (and it doesn’t particularly matter if you are), but from the moment The Persistence of Memory Orchestra kicks off, it’s plain that there’s something awry… like, there’s no guitar! And that coming from a man who, intentionally or otherwise, wrote the my-guitar-wants-to-kill-your-momma mega-monster anthem of the Yank-punk holocaust, ‘Hit Her Wid De Axe’, is akin to changing your name to Sherlock Holmes and then taking detective lessons.

Alexander, however, regards such confusion with ambivalence – thirty years of rocking and rolling does that to people. A crash course in history sees Alexander turn up in the most extraordinary places – a post Brit-invasion band, the Lost; a post-Lou Reed Velvets line-up; and a crucial stake in forging Boston’s New Wave scene of the mid-late 1970s, single-handedly forged from nothing more than a clutch of brilliant singles.

Rhino’s Mass Ave Bostonite punk comp was named after one of them, but there were so many others, plugging the DIY ethic while Punk was still a sperm in J.Rotten’s eye. Acolytes call Alexander the father of Beantown Punk, but it’s more accurate to go even further and lay the whole East Coast scene on his shoulders.

And again that ambivalent stare, tempered this time with a wiry smile. “You realize that I was already past it by then?” Alexander was 35 when punk hit the US, and though he led by example, he can argue very successfully that it wasn’t him that changed with the times, but the times which changed towards him… this is the man, after all, who presented a pre-pubescent nephew with the first New York Dolls album for Christmas, then sat back smiling while the other adults in the room stared in horror. “Men in lipstick? What is he trying to do to the child?”

“Rock’n’roll has lost its power to shock,” Alexander muses quietly. “It sells magazines and deodorant, it’s all over the television…” – the days when it was a dirty secret, shared by the kids while their parents looked on in dismay are long dead and buried, basically because the current crop of adults can still remember being kids, and have heard all the secrets before.

Maybe that’s what The Persistence of Memory Orchestra is all about, returning to roots which haven’t been swept up in the cross-generational cataclysm. It’s a very primal record, seeking out that moment of traumatic transition when rock first mutated from the swamps of jazz and blues, then nailing it into place
with the energy of experience.

Alexander was 13 when he first encountered rock’n’roll, “and the music you hear at that age, when you’re first opening up to the outside world, is what remains with you for the rest of your life.” Certainly, if you run through Alexander’s back pages (a task best accomplished via 1991’s Willie Loco Boom Boom Ga Ga compilation), the sax’n’smoke filled beat club conjured up by the Orchestra isn’t really that great a departure.

‘Kerouac’, the 1975 single which “I wrote in two minutes, after thinking about Jack for twenty years” is basically a duet for piano and cello, and if Alexander’s US reputation really is built on the likes of ‘Axe’ and ‘Mass Ave’ (and the storming ‘At the Rat’ – ‘At The Hop”’ rewritten for the jumping Boston punk kids), then it just proves how treacherous nostalgia can be. “There were things that I did, particularly when I was started making solo albums (1981’s Solo Loco), but as far back as ‘Kerouac’, which didn’t involve guitars. So the Orchestra – two saxes, drums and piano – isn’t totally unusual for me. Besides, I can’t do ‘Mass Ave’ forever!”

It would be pretty tiresome; in fact, he concludes, “the only thing that’s not tiresome is that I never get the words right. And I keep coming up with new verses.” Several of these could be refined from ‘Fishtown Horrible’, a live-in-the-studio improvised rap which ranks amongst the most instantaneously gratifying cuts on the new album. There is a sense of bitter remembrance (the persistence off memory, remember?) to the song which promptly permeates the remainder of the set.

‘Whatever Happened To Rita Ratt’ pursues an old friend who simply disappeared one day (but who has resurfaced since the song was recorded – thank heavens for happy endings!); ‘MF Swine’ recalls a ‘60s Boston scenemaker; ‘Shopping Cart Louie’ remembers a war hero who survived the Battle of the Bulge, only to be murdered in a hometown alleyway; and ‘Mystery Train’ speeds Willie back to his Elvis-loving childhood, and attaches itself to ‘You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling’ and ‘Be-bop-a-lula’ in that steady stream of covers which Willie has made unquestionably his own.

Alexander rarely revisits his own past, however. Old songs erupt only “if people ask for them,” or when the original Boom Boom Band reforms for the occasional benefit show. “Usually, I don’t play them. It’s usually all new stuff. But I’ve been playing with the Orchestra for three years now, so people are used to it!” – and would probably protest if he did go back to the days of “De Axe”.

So though Alexander hasn’t reinvented himself, he has redefined his audience – which is quite a feat for someone whose laurels are larger than their lunchbox. He doesn’t look at it quite like that, of course, and that’s good as well. Too many other folk rest assured within their legend, too lazy (or too scared) to try and start anew.

But there again, Willie Alexander never was “other folk”, was he?

© Dave ThompsonCreem, 1995

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