“It’s here. It’s life. It’s everything. Bam!” Willie “Loco” Alexander tells me as we tour a retrospective of his paintings and collages at the Manship Artist Residency + Studios in Gloucester.
The 76-year-old’s paintings and collages, dating back to 1961, fill the walls and are tucked into shelves and alcoves throughout the big, rambling house of the late sculptor Paul Manship. The “Alexander Retrospective,” curated by Susan Erony, is on view at 10 Leverett St. from Oct. 19 to Nov. 3. Hours are Saturday and Sunday from 1 to 5 p.m.
The paintings read like broadsides scrawled in red, black and turquoise atop rusty backgrounds: “Fish Eye,” “Corn Dog,” “Uncle Moe,” “Yves Tanguy,” “Angels here now ½ off,” “Celia Cruz.” They bring to mind both 1950s painterly abstraction and folk art yard signs. The collages, often worked on both sides, are full of jangling headlines, show fliers, kittens, Hollywood stars, clippings from The Gloucester Times newspaper. “They’d start small and then they’d just get bigger,” he says. “And I’d turn them over. They’re photo sculptures.”
They all feel like glimpses into Alexander’s bustling mind. He says, “You can see I put in all of them church bulletins, newspapers, things I got off the streets. They make me feel good, I guess.”
In an upstairs closet is an altar to mid-20th century movie star Ava Gardner. “She was somebody I was in love with when I was a young boy in Gloucester. I saw ‘Show Boat’ at the Strand [theater] and she sang ‘Just My Bill’ and I melted.” As if she was singing right to him. “Half of it was because of the cleavage, of course.”
Alexander has frequently been called the Godfather of Boston Punk Rock—or, as Steve Morris wrote in The Boston Globe in 1977: “He is clearly the patriarch of the Boston punk rock scene that centers on the Kenmore Square club, The Rat, where Alexander first played way back in 1965 as a member of The Lost.” Alexander, then 34 years old, told the journalist: “We were the only group in Boston then with long hair. The audience was full of jocks with crewcuts. They thought we were a bunch of fags, junkies and weirdoes.”
Alexander grew up in Medfield, Gloucester, Newton and East Providence, the son of a Baptist preacher dad and piano-playing mom. He was inspired by the early rock and roll of Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis and Beat writers like Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg.
“I wanted to go to the Chicago Museum School, but they wouldn’t accept me. The same portfolio got me into the Boston Museum School,” Alexander says. He only studied at the art school briefly before trying out Goddard College in Vermont.
At Goddard, he joined up with The Lost, a psychedelic garage rock band that recorded a few singles for Capital Records before going their separate ways. He subsequently performed with The Bagatelle (a racially-integrated soul-rock outfit), Grass Menagerie with Doug Yule (“It was the wrong name to have when you’re crossing into Canada. ‘Nobody’s holding, right?’ ‘No, no, no.’ Of course everybody was.”), Nonie’s Blues, Radio Hearts (“two week bands, three week bands”). Around 1971, he toured Europe as part of a zombie Velvet Underground with Yule—after Lou Reed, John Cale and Sterling Morrison had left the band.
The Godfather of Punk moniker mostly comes out of his time with Willie Alexander and the Boom Boom Band, a scuzzy, woozy garage rock outfit that put out albums with MCA in the late 1970s. He did solo recordings in the 1980s before launching the jazzy experimental Persistence of Memory Orchestra in early 1990s. Recent years have also seen outings with the Fish Eye Brothers, the Raztones, and the Fishtones.
Alexander is one of those artists who inspires because he just always keeps creating and experimenting with new things. “I think I’m the same,” he says. “It’s just the things around me change. It’s my voice and sometimes it’s guitars behind me and sometimes it’s saxophone.”
But Alexander has not been known as a visual artist. Not that he’s hidden it exactly. At his concerts, he plays a keyboard that he’s covered with collages. You can see his art in the photocopied show fliers he creates. And his collages have hung in the window of Mystery Train Records, the used music shop on Main Street in Gloucester, where he moved from Somerville in 1997.
“I was more or less just doing collages for the last 20 years,” Alexander tells me. “Not that they’ve stopped. They’re just smaller. But I’m working on paintings now.”
Alexander often makes music and visual art in the attic of his Gloucester house. He had covered the attic walls with his collages, but not too long ago, he pulled much of it down.
“I wanted to paint the walls with sky stuff and aquatic things and flowers. My stuff’s gotten prettier and I’m having more fun,” Alexander says. “Anne”—his wife, photographer Anne Rearick—“says you are your history, you don’t have to look at it everyday. Every time I played a gig, I’d put up a poster. They added up after a while.”
If this is the kind of coverage of arts, cultures and activisms you appreciate, please support Wonderland by contributing to Wonderland on Patreon. And sign up for our free, weekly newsletter so that you don’t miss any of our reporting.