News Column

Celebrating Willie

May 23, 2013

YellowBrix

May 23--On the occasion of the 70th birthday of a local punk rock icon, Governor Deval Patrick issued a citation to acknowledge the Bay State rocker affectionately known as Willie "Loco" Alexander.

But that was just the beginning of a surprise birthday bash that would leave Alexander starry eyed.

The day was Jan. 12, 2013. Anne Rearick, a photographer and his muse, planned for something much grander than just a meal out in Somerville's Davis Square. At one point a friend showed up and then a local actor offered to show the couple the inside of Jimmy Tingle's old theater. They went down the dark hallway and stopped.

"Then we opened this door and the lights went on and everybody in the whole world was in there. I was like a deer in the headlights. It was overwhelming," he said in an interview this week.

"I knew Anne had something up her sleeve but I thought it was like this little dinner," he said. "But it was like a Kennedy honors for me having all these different bands play my music."

Dozens of musicians showed up to pay a musical homage to Alexander by playing tunes he has written over the past half a century, including Rockport's A-Train Orchestra, Moose Savage, Breadman, Jon Hardy and the Bags, Birdsongs of the Mezozoic, Reddy Teddy, Barrence Whitfield, the Nervous Eaters, Rupert Webster (all the way from London), Kenne Highland, Dave Sag, Jon Macey, Asa Brebner, John Powhida, Frank Rowe, Dennis Brennan, Peter Wolf, Mission of Burma, Andrea Gillis, Persistence of Memory, Roger Miller, and Gloucester's own The Boyfriends.

"All were there to honor a guy who has spent his life pushing the rock and letting it roll down on the hearts of Boston music lovers," said filmmaker Henry Ferrini. "He has been out there toiling in the fields of rock and roll for half a century. He has gotten a good bit of recognition and he's still making music. He will never retire."

This musical extravaganza will be unveiled on film at a special event tonight at the Cape Ann Community Cinema. The film is produced by the Gloucester Writers Center video archive and was directed by Ferrini.

The film will be shown at 7:30 p.m., followed by a live set by Willie Alexander and the Persistence Of Memory Orchestra. Tickets are $15, ($13.50 for cinema members), and are available at the box office or online at www.CapeAnnCinema.com.

Alexander still sports his spiky hairstyle, though the dark locks are now a tell-tale silver fox.

In the 1960s, Alexander played with The Lost. He also played with The Bagatelle, The Grass Menagerie and then replaced the legendary Lou Reed as the frontman of the Velvet Underground in 1971 before touring with the group in England, Scotland and the Netherlands. He earned the moniker "Godfather of Punk" from his fellow musicians on the vanguard of the emerging punk music scene.

The son of a Baptist minister, the enigmatic Alexander is far more than a musician. He is also a poet, painter, songwriter, singer and collage artist. He had a gallery show at a New York City arts foundation last year at Esopus Space in Greenwich Village. The show was titled "Willie Alexander: Wall Works" featuring his large-scale collages of his paper trash all taped together.

On the night of his birthday, Alexander said he was surprised at the variety of music that his friends performed on stage.

"The oldest song was probably from 1964 and they went all the way to the new stuff I'm doing," he said. "What's funny is that some of the people mentioned in my songs were actually performing the songs. It was just incredible. I don't even know how to play some of those songs anymore."

Barrence Whitfield performed "Garbage." Jon Macey, who played with the group Fox Pass, played his 1978 song "Looking Like a Bimbo" -- a song in which Macey is mentioned -- with some members of Alexander's Boom Boom band. The Nervous Eaters did the song "RA Baby," which stands for the initials of a Beverly band. One of his favorite tunes of the evening was by Andrea Gillis who performed a rendition of his song "Like Trash."

"Everybody brought something special to those songs," said Alexander.

"And he was further surprised when seven cakes were delivered by seven beautiful women -- Gloucester goddesses," said Rearick. The event was attended by more than 250 people, with 60 musicians and 26 performances.

Many fans best remember him for his Boston-inspired local hit tune "Mass. Ave."

Alexander, who grew up in Gloucester, said he wanted to ignore his milestone birthday.

"I was going to hide under a rock. I remember one of my best friends got really depressed when he turned 70. I didn't even have it circled on my calendar," he said. "But that night gave me a new lease on life and made me feel like I actually did something. I went through a mid-life crisis again. I never made a million dollars or made a million-selling record. But I've had a great life and seen the world because of my music. I couldn't be happier. Music keeps you on fire."

He credits Rearick with turning his life around, and the two made their home in the heart of Gloucester, which is where the musician spent many of his formative years growing up.

Cape Ann is known for its cross pollination of creative people, and in an example of this rich network, one of the guests at Alexander's January birthday party will actually be giving a talk just a block away tomorrow night at the same time of the party's film screening.

Ted Widmer, the editor of the recently released book, "Listening in: The Secret White House Recordings of John F. Kennedy," will be speaking at the Sawyer Free Library. Widmer, who served as a senior advisor to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and who was a speechwriter for President Bill Clinton, is also a musician and close friend of Alexander.

After the film screening, Alexander will perform with his Persistence of Memory Orchestra -- and perhaps the two can meet afterward.

Gail McCarthy can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3445, or at gmccarthy@gloucestertimes.com.

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(c)2013 the Gloucester Daily Times (Gloucester, Mass.)

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