& THE BOOM BOOM BAND
by Joe Harvard
Non-Bostonians probably have no idea of just how important Willie Alexander is in the history of the Beantown music scene- and that's a real shame. Without a doubt Willie "Loco" is one of the most talented and original of the personalities that emerged from the '70's punk era in any area that it flourished. Through his involvement with the Lost Willie goes back to the pre-punk days of Boston rock in the late '60's and early '70's, and his brief tenure with the Velvet Underground in its final Doug Yule-led days plugs him into the wider picture of national proto-punk acts. Willie is a genius, a poet, a badass keyboard player and an enormously charismatic performer. His influence on local acts is pervasive. Had Boston been a recording industry and record biz center like London, L.A. or New York there is no doubt in my mind that Willie would be as well known now as a David Johannsen, Patti Smith or John Lydon. While Boston's scene was every bit as vigorous and worthwhile as its counterparts the lack of an indigenous music industry- as well as any homegrown, internationally distributed magazine such as Rolling Stone or Trouser Press - made it difficult for acts like the Boom Boom's to draw national attention at a key time in their development. A number of major label deals for bands like the Boom Booms and DMZ resulted in weak (my opinion) records that were produced by persons without a clue as to what these groups were doing. The live performances of these bands matched any in the world for sheer excitement and enjoyment, but their best qualities were diluded and diffused in records that failed to focus on their strengths. The true originality of performers like Willie "Loco" and Jonathan Richman and the no-bullshit, straight ahead rock of guys like John Felice and Steve Cataldo also failed to fit comfortably into any mold that out-of-town A and R men could comprehend or their record companies package.
One of the most enjoyable gigs I've ever played was as part of Willie's backing group. Goo was the band that did the shows (Bob and Greg "Skeggie" Kendall, Dave Bone Pedersen and myself), three or four altogether during a short period in 1988. I was in a cast due to a badly strained ligament in my ankle (earned playing basketball- on heroin -with ace guitarist Rick Risti's monstrously tall "little" brother Ernie). Willie was in somewhat better shape, having quit drinking and now involved with a fantastic, very supportive woman named Anne. His voice sounded better than ever, and he emanated a serene kind of self-control, onstage and off, that I hadn't seen before. We played the Living Room in Providence, the Middle East and Green Street Station as I recall. The highlight was the Middle East show. I had a sudden flash of realization on stage and I leaned over at one point to scream at Skeggie "Jesus X, do you realize we're on Mass. Ave...playing 'Mass. Ave' with Willie! I've died and gone to heaven!" And so we were...just a few blocks away were the Cantab and other sights mentioned in that classic song, and the Middle East's front door opens onto Mass. Ave. Playing with Willie- even for those few pick-up gigs -is one of the all time highlights of my entire career. I can't think of a much greater thrill than playing "Looking Like a Bimbo", "Hit Her Wid De Axe", "Rock and Roll '78" (renamed "...88" for those shows) and a set full of other great songs by the guy whose music opened my eyes to a whole new world of musical possibilities, back around 1975 at the Rathskeller. While we were nowhere near hitting the musical heights of Willie's 'real' backing bands, such as the late 70's Neighborhoods, the '80's Confessions
The first time I set foot into the Rat to see what the hubbub was all about I was with my best friend, Anthony Rauseo. He and I were roadies for a band from East Boston called Honey Pie, led by a curvy Italian-American singer named Dee Borasso. Dee was a New England Conservatory pianist that eschewed classical music to belt out Led Zeppelin covers and play a clear set of Phibes drums, much to her parent's chagrin. Essentially a typical North Shore rock outfit, Honey Pie mixed Zep and Bad Company covers with their own material, mostly dramatic numbers about love gone wrong and such. Anthony and I had gone to audition for the band (he played drums), but these guys could really play so he and I ended up taking gigs as roadies. Dee took herself and the band very seriously. They rehearsed all summer, found a sweet but inept local guy (he was a 50 year old postman) to manage them, sent out a bunch of tapes and waited to be discovered. It didn't happen, so they tried a new strategy and started to play out. Their first show in town was at Dummie's- the short lived club that had its walls lined with the figures from the old Wax Museum on Tremont Street (soon after reborn as the Paradise Rock Club). Honey Pie was the sort of talented-but-corny band that typified the '70's Revere/East Boston pre-metal scene. The drummer was this disco guy who wore silk shirts and made exaggerated faces when he played; their technically adept guitarist (Teddy Palmisano) would climax the set with a note-for-note echoplex'ed solo on their version of Zep's "Whole Lotta Love" while Dee climbed aboard her clear plexiglass drum kit- a second kit set up expressly for that one song! All very Spinal Tap-ish. So that was where our heads were at as we watched the Bonjour Aviators and the Count go on after Honey Pie at Dummies that night. Gee, our band was so much better and both of those groups were -well, goofy. The Count was wearing a cape and carrying a sort of magician's cane, his songs were silly and weak, while the Aviators were OK, but to our jaded teenage eyes they all looked like bespectacled geeks. And we just didn't get what they were doing, although we had to admit that guitarist Fred Pineau was pretty good. If this was what passed for good music in this great local scene we'd heard about we would stick with our Aerosmith and Thin Lizzy records and keep toting Honey Pie's two drum kits around. And then...we went to the Rat and saw Willy.
Anthony had heard about Willie from someone at Dummies, I think. We were both underage but somehow we bullshitted our way past the Southie doorman and got into the Rat. Here was this skinny guy setting up a beat-to-shit electric piano covered with stickers, very calmly and all. We thought "this is their roadie", craning our necks to see where the band might be. Ten minutes went by and then a group of guys hit the stage with the skinny cat in the lead. No big light show, no dramatic entrance, they just walked up, plugged in, and started to play. That sound was so new to us, so powerful and real and stripped down. Sev and David were a great rhythm section, whose straight-ahead power gave the Boom Boom Band it's name. Billy Loosigian was dressed in street clothes, at least by the standards of the time, but his Les Paul-and-Marshall sound was as big and bad as any of the dinosaur bands we listened to, his solos were incendiary excursions as good as- no, better than - those of any of the haircut-wielding poseurs on Rock Concert every week. I looked at Anthony and we both just started laughing, like you might laugh if you had just been frightened by your cat or seen some outrageous weirdness out in the street. We were both so surprised. The impact of that set was like my first real kiss: I went home and thought of nothing else for days but the Rat, Willie, the babes I'd seen and the sheer excitement of that no-frills set. I was sold, and I never looked back. I often wonder what if I'd had another experience like the week before at Dummy's- I might never have bothered going back, and my life would have been drastically different today.
A year or so later, when I'd started working at the Record Garage, Billy Cole introduced me to Willie. I discovered that Willie was like a godfather-figure to many of the bands around town. Working as a dishwasher at the time (like Little Richard at the time Tutti-Frutti became an overnight hit), his influence on the local music scene was enormous. Billy Loosigian was a former employee and a regular visitor so I got to know him, too. Like Willie, he was soft-spoken, polite and good-natured. Billy was a friendly guy who'd always take time out to answer a question or show you a riff- and he seemed to know them all! He lived in or near New Hampshire and spent a good deal of time practicing- a rarity in those times. Billy was a tremendous guitarist and I loved to watch him play as he hung around, picking up riffs and absorbing what I could of his style, which leaned toward Jimmy Page or Jeff Beck. We'd bust his chops sometimes by throwing a single around- the bathroom at the Record Garage was packed with boxes of the "Mass. Ave." b/w "Kerouac" single as the owner- Jack Griffin -had financed the Garage Records release. At one time I had a whole box of the 45's that Jack gave me. I handed them out to all my friends to try and spread the "gospel"- of course nowadays I don't have a single copy myself, and collectors have paid as much as $300 for one... as is befitting a record that instantly became a local anthem, served as an inspiration to countless bands, and a was the harbinger of Boston's homegrown, indie recording scene.
One day in 1982- at the Record Garage -Loose mentioned that he was going to Europe as guitarist with Andy Pratt- I believe Matthew MacKenzie was Willie's guitarist at the time. It turned out that we'd both be there around the same time, and I said I'd give him the Paris apartment number of my girlfriend, Eve Troutt. We joked about a possible get-together: "oh, you'll be in Europe, I'll be in Europe too...see you there". When I arrived in Paris I had a lousy time, and it was tough on Eve and I. It was August when the Parisians go away South for their holiday so that anyone left in the city was grumpy and rude. Their was often a palpable hostility when Eve and I were together- she is mixed (Jewish dad, African-American mom) and maybe people thought she was Algerian or some other nationality that is targeted by the French brand of rascism (we aren't the only country with assholes in it). Perhaps it was the area we were in or just bad luck; when I told Jonathan Richman about it he was shocked, and he sang me a bit of "Give Paris One More Chance". All I knew was I that was treated better when I went out alone than when we were together. It was much the same crap I had experienced in London years earlier- except then it was with my Pakistani lover and it was English rascism. We decided to escape for the weekend and took the Magic Bus to Amsterdam.
After we arrived in Amsterdam and found a little hotel to check into I got a map and walked over to find a few clubs I'd heard about, feeling it was a good time to check out their hash bars. When I got to the Paradiso, a former church-turned-rock club, I heard a guitar riff played in a distinctive and familiar style coming out of the open door. Sure enough Andy Pratt was playing that night and there was Loosigian onstage setting up his rented Marshall amp. It was a hoot to walk up behind him and yell up to the stage "hey, can you turn that down we're trying to sleep next door!"- needless to say he was surprised to see me. Eve and I went to the show that night (what's the Dutch word for "Guest List"?)- Loosigian rocked as usual -then hung out for a short time with Billy afterwards. The band was a bit freaked out as a man had been shot during their last show at a large outdoor festival in Rotterdam. They needed a break, and that next week Billy and the bass player-John Troy from the Pousette-Dart Band -came to Paris to visit us. We had a nice, candlelit spaghetti dinner, marred only by a bit of tension caused when John Troy developed an instant and very obvious crush on Eve. It was understandable since she was drop-dead gorgeous, but still somewhat offensive to our hospitality as he came on pretty hard. Ah, well, forgive and forget. Well, at least forgive.
Willie has had a panoply of Boston music luminaries in his bands over the years- not least of which were original Boom Booms David, Sev and Billy. After their victory in the '79 Rock and Roll Rumble the Neighborhoods became Willie's back-up band for a while, a move that helped mature the group and seemed to add a further dimension of skill to the 'Hoods already talented David Minnehan. It also got Willie through the period after the breakup of the Boom-Boom Band in style. Walter Lure played bass for one of my favorite Loco bands, the Confessions, which also featured two late, great rockers: drummer Ricky "Rocket" Rothchild and Matthew MacKenzie on guitar. Seeing Matt and Willie, two of the finest talents to come out of Boston, on stage at the same time...it was a dream lineup for many fans. I saw them a number of times, including a very cool show at which the doors of the defunct Boston Opera House were thrown open for a night. Matthew's untimely death left a void in the rock scene where once a fantastic guitarist stood, and he is much missed not only by music fans and friends but also by those who appreciate true artistry as a quality that transcends genre or the medium it occurs in. I miss the hell out of Matthew, I know Willie does too.
Not long after Helldorado Productions started booking shows at the Middle East I thought it would be a good idea to have an All-Star show and record it for posterity on 16-track tape. The All-Star band played one set, along with Lazy Susan, the Bones and Xana Don't- all bands I was playing in at the time. Willie went on and read both poetry and prose stories from his youth with a pulsing kind of Jack Keruouac feel to it. I recorded that too, and if Willie accedes I'm going to put up a chunk of it next month for you to listen to. I'm also hoping to add an interview with his Loconess as well, so stay tuned for more thrills in the near future.
In 1998 Willie keeps on going strong, like the Energizer bunny- no, more like a beat poet on a benzedrine and coffee kick with a full tank of gas and a perpetual place to go. Willie Loco Boom Boom GaGa, 1975-1991 rereleased much of Willie's early catalogue, and there's a healthy number of compilations to complement the New Rose and Arf-Arf LP's. Every now and again you can still catch Willie around town, usually at the helm of his off-beat Persistence of Memory Orchestra. In the spring of '98 I was happy to see Willie still in top form at the Middle East Restaurant's Tenth Anniversary show, following Roger Miller onto the stage and finishing just before I dragged my own old bones up there. I'd be proud to follow Willie onto any stage, any time, but it's a whole lot easier going on before him!
Billy Loosigian, New Hampshire's answer to Jimmy Page, went on to play with the Joneses. Their live performances were always good for a solid night's rocking, and their LP Everything Changes was released to an overwhelmingly positive critical reaction. Comparisons to Bad Company were common, though they reminded me more of Free if we're going to start using comparitives. While the Joneses' music was a far cry from the old Boom Boom days, the excitement that Billy could generate with his guitar playing remained essentially unchanged. I saw the group perform at the Boston Music Awards, the same show that was dominated by the New Kids on the Block with their audience of screaming teenage girls, and they not only came away unscathed but actually seemed to make a favorable impression on the NKOTB nubiles, as well as the rock crowd. I guess good, solid rock and roll will always stand on its' own two feet, even under adverse circumstances. One thing is for sure- performers as charismatic and original as Willie Loco are few and far between; I feel fortunate to have been born where and when I was so that I could see one of the best in action.
UPDATE, 2001. As of this writing, Willie continues to write and record with the energy and vibrancy of players half his age. It's a rare thing for any artist to retain those unique qualities which initially made them interesting past their first few years in the industry... and quite another thing for him to keep and improve on those qualities for three and a half decades. Many musicians and songwriters who sprang from the punk years either fizzled out as drugs or entropy took their toll, or, in the case of those who found success, had to deal with this thorny issue: the alienation, anger and desire to find acceptance (or simply attract attention and/or piss people off) which propelled their early persona was impossible to maintain in the face of widescale acceptance, i.e. fame, as well as the co-opting of the visual and musical aspects of punk by mainstream culture (can you say "new wave"?). With the fuel for their musical fire unexpectedly spent, the qualities which made these rebels-without-a-contract seem so dynamic and attractive vanished. Some, like Bob Geldorf of the Boomtown Rats, turned their outrage into non-musical avenues, becoming advocates for social issues. Others, such as Richard Hell (Television, Voidoids, Heartbreakers) turned to literary outlets- in Hell's case, because he recognized that any attempt at musical growth would stymie the audiences who came to his shows expecting a freeze-frame version of the artist from 1976 - '79, and he had no desire to "go out and try new things just so they can hate me for it". A few have against all odds and reason maintained the drug habits that made them outsiders in the first place, and so preserved their suffering-artist vibe and anti-hero status; of those the demise of the late, great Johnny Thunders illustrates the inevitable end to that game plan. At present a few well-known, veteran Boston rockers have doggedly pursued the Keith Richards Handbook for Elegant Junkies despite a resurgence in their popularity and new opportunities to tour and record; but with the seemingly indestructible Thunders gone, and even Keith pursuing the legal 'cure' of turning booze-hound, it's hard to imagine their current path as one of any longevity. Despite the best wishes of those of us who know and love said die-hard Beantown dope fiends- or the misguided admiration of the next generation of junkie guitar players -dope might preserve tissue, but it's a piss-poor way to keep your youthful rebellion chugging along.
The rarest categories of punk-era survivors are guys like Willie and Jonathan Richman. Richman has survived despite his status as a cult hero constantly threatening to bubble up into the mainstream (though if his appearance in the blockbuster hit Something About Mary didn't get the job done, he may yet be safe from the threat of mass popularity), and in spite of his rejection of the mantle of "next big thing" he shrugged off after the delayed release of the first Modern Lovers LP. While he hasn't maintained his earlier teenage angst, Jonathan has become even more interesting as he's become a happier person, and his live sets with minimal-kit drummer Tommy Larkin just get better and better. Which brings us to Willie. Had things gone differently back in 1976, Willie may have gone down the road to ruin in a hotbox fueled by gin and tonics. We'll never know. But what we can say- and see for ourselves -is that sobriety hasn't impinged on his abilities one iota, and that whatever demons he managed to boot out of his psyche left without packing his energy or ever-exploratory creative skills in their luggage. As for fame, in Boston Willie is revered as practically a rock and roll saint, and recognized as being on a par with the great innovators: Chuck Berry, Elvis, Bowie, Lou Reed, Iggy, Brian Jones, Ray Davies. If the rest of the country or the world never quite understood that, my sense of justice will always be offended... but my selfish side is happy that we got to keep him for ourselves. Willie is still the King.
Be sure to visit Willie "Loco" Alexander's Personal Web Site ... then y'all come back now, y'hear!