Remembering Don Waller

Don Waller (Photo via FAcebook)
Don Waller (Photo via Facebook)

Sometimes you had to steel yourself and take a deep breath, before starting a conversation with Los Angeles music journalist Don Waller.

“I have to admit he kind of scared me at first,” wrote music publicist and historian Cary Baker in a Facebook note today after learning that Waller, whom he met shortly after moving to L.A. 32 years ago, had passed away. “You ask a question and receive a 12-minute answer.”

Soon, though, Baker learned not to fear the oft-gruff, always-dapper Don, other than the time-commitment part of any encounter. And it wasn’t just because Waller carried with him seemingly infinite reserves of both knowledge and passion about music, particularly soul and R&B, garage and punk.

“It’s because he cared about you enough to want to explain or clarify,” Baker wrote, one of growing dozens of shocked tributes to Waller coming in as news broke.

Any of the many who knew him, whether they knew him well or merely found themselves in animated conversation with him at a rock club or party, knew him the way Baker describes, a truly caring, truly passionate presence, advocating for us all to dig deeper into music, into relationship with music, into the way it binds us. His death — he had been ill, but seemingly few people knew or knew the extent — created waves of shock and loss in the L.A. community and beyond, and outpourings of love to his longtime partner Natalie Nichols, another essential force in the L.A. music journalism community.

Waller’s strong, always authoritative views were well known to readers going back more than 40 years, first with the upstart fanzine Back Door Man, which he co-founded in 1975 with South Bay pals Phast Phreddie Patterson and D.D. Faye. The first issue had Iggy Pop on the cover, as well as the advisory “For hardcore rock ’n’ rollers only.”

It was a labor of love. “We put out 15 issues in three and a half years,” Waller told Marc Spitz and the late Brendan Mullen in their oral history “We Got the Neutron Bomb: The Untold Story of L.A. Punk.” “Our concept for Back Door Man was to make a magazine that we would want to read ourselves. To cover the kinds of music we liked. From blues to garage rock to Eno. To write about local bands. To tell the truth. To be funny. To get up people’s noses.”

That all applied to everything Waller went on to do, as managing editor of the music business trade magazine Radio & Records and regular contributor to the Los Angeles Times’ pop music team from the late ’70s through the ’90s. At the latter he applied his sensibilities and acute talents as a writer to everything from looks at virtually forgotten soul singers to the arrival of Jane’s Addiction as a new force in town to the revival of the Monkees as a touring act. He also was author of the book “The Motown Story” (1985) and wrote insightful liner notes to many archival releases from Rhino Records and other such dedicated labels.

The passions and sensibilities he brought to his writing about music first went on display in making music, when in 1974 he launched the pre-punk Long Beach band the Imperial Dogs — much for the same reason he and Phreddie launched Back Door Man, simply because no one else was doing it. The Imperial Dogs never made much impact, or perhaps came a few years too early, but they did play two gig at Rodney Bingenheimer’s English Disco, the first in November 1974. Its mix of originals and covers of such cherished acts as the Kinks, the Velvet Underground and Mott the Hoople, with Waller as the energetic, kinetic singer, was seen in the crudely shot “Live! In Long Beach (Oct. 30, 1974)” film, released on DVD in 2009. One song famously outlived the band, though, with Blue Oyster Cult offering a reinterpretation of the Dogs’ “This Ain’t The Summer of Love” on its 1976 album “Agents of Fortune,” right there alongside the still-staple “Don’t Fear the Reaper.” The BOC version went on to inspire covers by a wide variety of other acts, keeping Waller and the Dogs in the bloodstream of rock to this day.

It was at the Times that I first got to know Don, he already being a name and voice for great music well familiar to me. Oddly, I found myself editing him at various times, most memorably on some Sunday mornings in those pre-internet 1980s when we had to file our weekend concert reviews in person at the office. Waller should have been resentful of this young upstart editing his work. But he never showed it. Which isn’t to say he didn’t argue about any changes to his copy. He did. But with that care and passion cited above. If he ever acted as if I needed to be educated about something, well it was because I did. That continued for more than 30 years, in the most delightful ways.

One I edited was that Monkees review in 1987. Don sat at the desk next to me, cigarette dangling in his mouth (unlit, as the Times had recently banned smoking in the building, which he of course grumbled about). The review was great, insightful and witty, snarky in the right ways, but also loving in the right ways. But then there was the end, where he made a pithy reference to Jimi Hendrix having opened for the Monkees two decades prior, taking the voice of an annoyed child, writing something along the lines of, “The guy who opened had wild hair and did some strange things with his instrument that made me feel funny. Mommy, I’m frightened.” The opening act was Weird Al. I laughed as I read it, but said that there was no way the editors above us would run that. So he gave me a disdainful look, but rewrote it, winding up with the straightforward snipe: “Weird Al Yankovic opened. Twenty years ago it was Jimi Hendrix. How times have changed.”