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“Under the Citgo sign/ She was looking so fine/ At the Rat ... Down in Kenmore Square/ All the bands play there/ At the Rat / Let’s go to the Rat!”
So goes the uber-Boston anthem by former Boom Boom Band frontman (and brief member of The Velvet Underground) Willie “Loco” Alexander.
The Rathskellar, known affectionately as “The Rat,” was the seedy incubator of Boston’s rock scene from 1974 until it shut down in 1997. It skulked there on Commonwealth Avenue in Kenmore Square: a basement dive, dark and proudly dirty. It spawned Boston bands like The Cars, the Pixies and the Dropkick Murphys. At some point, the Ramones, Patti Smith, Wu-Tang Clan and Joan Jett all graced its stage. Some squares thought it represented everything that was wrong with America (looking at you, Mike Barnicle), but for many it was the forefront of the punk revolution against blah business as usual. The building was razed in 2000 to make room for the posh Hotel Commonwealth (which opened an “upscale retro” Rathskeller Suite last year).
It is fortunate that Alexander wrote “At The Rat” and immortalized the infamous establishment. And it is possible that, after its doors were shuttered and its walls demolished, the still-living soul of the Rat fluttered out and lodged itself permanently inside Alexander’s body. Decades after Boston’s punk and New Wave heydays, Alexander embodies the elusive, wiry energy that enlivened that underground haven throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s.
“He was the granddaddy of everything that was right about music at the time,” remembers David Minehan, an Arlington-based engineer who has performed with Alexander. “It wasn’t a quest to be rich and famous, even though everyone puts their card in the hat. But he just did it his way. It was music that was so left-of-center, and just impassioned, and irreverent, and awesome.”
On March 14, Alexander will mount the stage at the Spotlight Tavern in Beverly (along with the Nervous Eaters and the Knock Ups), a fit septuagenarian with an impossibly hip spikey silver haircut.
“You know, there’s Rats in a lot of cities. But that was our place to play,” says Alexander. “And that was where all the original music was. ... I mean you had to play covers, pretty much, to play the clubs around Boston back in the early ‘70s and then in the ‘60s. I mean, you could play your own music, but they didn’t much care for it unless you played ‘Louie Louie’ in the ‘60s. And then in the ‘70s if you played Grand Funk Railroad, then they thought you were one of the gods. But the Rat and CBGB [in New York] and places like that, you just played your own stuff and it was great.”
Those years are perhaps the most defining of Alexander’s career. Born to a Baptist preacher father and a piano-playing mother, he spent the beginning of his life in Gloucester. As a boy, he discovered rock ‘n’ roll by way of Fats Domino, Little Richard, and Jerry Lee Lewis. He picked up the drums and then the piano, fell in love with jazz and Latin music, and returned to rock ‘n’ roll with the short-lived Boston band The Lost.
After the group folded, he joined soul outfit The Bagatelle, and following that toured overseas with the final, Lou Reed-absent lineup of The Velvet Underground. He did not record any studio albums with the band, though the tapes from those concerts resurfaced on a Japanese label in 2001. “I kind of listen to them with a kinder ear now,” says Alexander. “But it’s like, holy crap, you know? It was 1971. It was not exactly baby steps for me, but I was still kind of finding myself as far as style goes. I’ve been making records since ’65, but I was still looking around then.”
Alexander’s sound began to coalesce in the mid-‘70s with Willie Alexander and the Boom Boom Band. The guys played fervent guitar-driven rock, but they maintained the jittery strangeness of habitual outsiders, Beatnik kids on the cusp of a punk revolution. Alexander sang in a weather-beaten howl and infused the music with a wild, elastic energy. It was with the Boom Boom Band that he penned the iconic Boston song “Mass. Ave,” an ode to the street he traversed endlessly in those days: “In the bars all night/ In the morning such a fright/ On Mass. Ave.”
“Those were wild days, basically,” he remembers. “But you know, the feelings we got onstage—that was when I was doing the Boom Boom Band at the Rat, that was the first time for me fronting my own band and being responsible for all the material and kind of carving my own way. And it was working, and you could feel it, and that was really exciting.”
Their self-titled 1978 album was put out by a major label, MCA, and they toured the U.S. as an opening act for Elvis Costello. “I have hated these Beantowners steadfastly,” Village Voice rock critic Robert Christgau grumbled from New York. “Yet I've grown fond of this album. What seemed silly if not self-indulgent eccentricity in a failed 35-year-old rock and roller is brave and funny on an honest-to-God major-label LP.”
“I fell in love immediately,” says Minehan, a touring member of The Replacements, whose punk group The Neighborhoods got their start at the Rat during the Boom Boom Band’s heyday and became Alexander’s backup band after the Boom Boom Band split. “Because [Alexander] was such a kooky, I mean he had this great kind of—I don’t even want to call it campy, because it was just sort of this super-feminine, but very male, romantic side of Beat poetry, and, god, I don’t know, Marlene Dietrich, rolled into one, or something. Very glammy, and very woozy. And with kind of a rockin’ band behind him. I just fell in love with every ounce of it.”
The demise of the Boom Boom Band marked the end of Alexander’s most notorious period. He spent most of the ‘80s on the French punk label New Rose Records, touring Europe between stints as a dishwasher at a restaurant on Mass. Ave. in Boston. He had trouble selling the records in America because they were printed and primarily distributed in France. “I was washing dishes and then I’d go for a tour of France for this company and get encores and stuff every night and come back to Boston and wash dishes. It was ridiculous, but it keeps you humble I guess.”
Alexander lived for a long time in Somerville and moved back to Gloucester in 1997 with his then-partner (now wife), photographer Anne Rearick. He parted ways with New Rose Records in 1991 and has maintained a prolific, but largely under-the-radar artistic life ever since. He has, in his quiet way, become a model for DIY, community-oriented art for art’s sake while at the same time coming into focus as one of the revered pioneers of Boston rock.
In 1993, Alexander released “Private WA,” a weird, interior collection of spoken-word ramblings and chaotic soundscapes. In 2006, the Boom Boom Band reunited with “Dog Bar Yacht Club.” In 2009, Alexander put out “Vincent Ferrini’s Greatest Hits,” a collection of the late Gloucester poet laureate’s verses set to music. Those represent a mere sampling of Alexander’s more recent output; he has released albums as Willie Alexander’s Persistence Memory Orchestra, Willie Alexander and the Raztones, the Fish Eye Brothers, and the Fishtones. He recently collaborated with Landmark School in Beverly for their high school production of T.S. Eliot’s play “Murder in the Cathedral.” Guitar rock is rarely his chosen mode of expression these days; he prefers the heavy squawk of the saxophone, the frenetic, intricate rhythms of the jazz trap set, the dense detail of observational poetry. He is deliriously avant-garde, although he still likes to pound out a 12-bar blues. He is languid and contemplative, but for the moments when he is zanily, cacophonously loud.
“It seems like all I write about is Gloucester these days,” Alexander remarks. “Different things that happen, or things that are in the air. That’s the way I always have been. It’s almost like I’m a Chamber of Commerce guy and I’m writing about the street I live on. I lived on Mass. Ave. for a while, and there’s a song. I went to the Rat, and there’s another song.”
A visit to Alexander’s YouTube page is a bit like being dropped into his brain. He makes surreal little videos and posts them to the account. The scrape of a snowplow gives way to a shot of the cold, eerie New England countryside. The faces of friends flicker by, along with the graffitied sides of buildings and seagulls arcing past the clouds. There are numerous shots of the walls in Alexander’s house, which are covered in vast collages: newspaper clippings and celebrity photos and ticket stubs from long-gone shows. (In 2012, Alexander mounted an exhibition in New York City of his collages called “Wall Works.”)
“You put yourself and your friends and your heroes and everything up there,” Alexander explains. “And that’s basically what it is. It’s your life and what’s important to you and what goes through you and what sticks into the net.”
His video-making was inspired, he says, by his friendship with the Gloucester documentary filmmaker Henry Ferrini, who is known for his dreamy, circuitous style. (Alexander narrated Ferrini’s 1994 film “Middle Street.”) In Alexander’s videos, you get a sample of the soundtrack running through his mind, but most importantly you see the world from his perspective.
“Some people just swim in artistry, you know?” says Minehan. “And there’s honing of the craft, but the fact that [Alexander] just breathes it like air and exhales it in art—it’s wonderful.”
When asked which of his albums he likes best, Alexander answers, “It’s always the next one, I guess.” There is a second Fishtones album in the works, and a musical adaptation of Gloucester poet Gerrit Lansing’s poems, although no release date for either.
The point is that Alexander isn’t the type of guy to look backwards. Or, if he does, it is with a quick glance over the shoulder as he wanders down to the pier, taking in the salty air and the slimy debris. It is momentarily, when he pauses before papering over the last corner of a concert poster from the Rat, intent, as always, on that ever-present impulse, the lifelong practice of making something new.