Closet Rock Opera

John Alexander: simpleton or savior?

Massachusetts singer-songwriter John P. Alexander has been here before. He hung out with fellow Vietnam vet and former Seminole Chief Jim Billie at a Hollywood nightclub. And he toured South Florida with his sticker-festooned acoustic guitar back in 1999. This information and more was gleaned from his website, johnalexander.com. And it is to that windswept, near-abandoned outpost on the fringe of cyberspace that you must now journey to understand the rest of this tale. Trying to reach Alexander via the phone number and e-mail contact on his page has been unsuccessful, but maybe it's for the best. Speaking to Alexander is unlikely to shed any light on his music, which is what this column examines.

Without being aware of it, I've owned a cassette produced by Alexander called A Winter's Way Rock Operaprobably since about 1997.At the bottom of a box next to a dead silverfish, the tape remained hidden until approximately 5 p.m. on the afternoon of July 25, when it was uncovered during a protracted archeological dig of an office closet. As part of an ongoing archival process by which songs from old tapes are digitally extracted and burned to CDs, the TDK D-90 cassette was given a cursory audio examination.

It was at precisely this point that the world turned completely upside down and my head popped off. When my cranium landed atop the stump of my neck again, all my preconceptions regarding the link between aptitude, creativity, and skill had been reshuffled forever.

There exist very few examples of direct creation, the rarity that is an original idea untainted by outside influences. Truly, the work of John Alexander has not been synthesized from other elements. Regardless of the size of your record collection, no matter how extensive your travels to foreign cultures, rest assured you have never heard any music even remotely like this.

Searching for reference points is nearly fruitless. Only the Shaggs' 1969 album Philosophy of the World is permeated with the same guileless honesty and charming ineptitude. (If you don't know the Shaggs, you owe it to yourself to try them.) Alexander's guitar technique is utterly unique. Jandek, a reclusive Houston-based songwriter, may display a comparably loose style, but Alexander's other-worldly cadence is entirely his own. On his website, he refers to his education, explaining "All my guitar lessons in the early 1970s stressed the 'free French classical style' or no capo, my one guitar school method used, today."

He doesn't elucidate what that might entail, but judging from Winter's Way Rock Opera, it involves completely random tuning, no fingers on the fretboard, and arrhythmic strumming. For starters, A Winter's Way Rock Opera isn't rock at all -- the only instruments are an acoustic guitar and harmonica, and the only rhythmic underpinning is what one would feel when being tossed about during a small-craft warning. Tales of pinball-playing blind kids are kept to a minimum; in fact, there are no characters. Anderson's voice -- one listener describes it as "a homeless retarded Neil Young" -- brings tears or laughter to anyone who comes into contact with it... and how can that be a bad thing?

Remorselessly amateurish, pathetically childish yet not playful, Alexander's music originates from a pure place. He makes Wesley Willis and Daniel Johnston (schizophrenic, highly idiosyncratic, and whimsical artists) sound like university professors.

And in a gratuitous attempt to lend this tale some local appeal, allow me to submit the lyrics to one of the rock opera's jollier moments from a little ditty called "Okeephenokee [sic] Daddy." Removed from their context, they could easily be from a Ween song circa 12 Golden Country Greats. But they aren't.

I've got an Okeephenokee daddy

Down in Florida

He don't care much about anything

Except spending 24 hours a day

With beautiful Okeephenokee mama

Down in the Everglades

When beautiful Okeephenokee mama

Goes to the shopping maaaaalll

The Okeephenokee daddy goes to the billiards hall

It ain't long before Okeephenokee daddy

Gets a bad case of missing beautiful Okeephenokee mama

Down in the Everglades Florida

Okeephenokee daddy blues

Okeephenokee daddy blues

Statistically speaking, John Alexander's music may well be the worst ever to be produced and shared with the rest of humanity. That said, it is also completely unsullied by expectations, the music industry, by good taste, by conformity. Literally, it is a ticket to another world.

 
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