R.I.P. Don Waller, Influential Music Journalist and Imperial Dog
Courtesy Natalie Nichols
L.A. native son Don Waller has passed away, gone to greener pastures, I hope. He must’ve been in his mid-’60s, not sure. All I know is someone I respected and truly liked is gone, and it bites the bag to have to say it.
You may or may not know Waller from his long-standing presence — some 40-plus forking years — here in town as a music journalist and author of the definitive The Motown Story (Scribner's, 1985). He was also a chapter-contributor to the L.A. punk-rock history bible Make the Music Go Bang! and, in the ’70s, co-founded (along with Phast Phreddie Patterson) the influential Back Door Man fanzine/indie record label. You’d see Waller’s byline on loads of liner notes, too, including some of those big Rhino box sets of the ’90s like Beg, Scream & Shout! The Big Ol’ Box of ’60s Soul, plus several volumes of the Nuggets garage-rock compilations.
All that just scrapes the dude’s surface. He was the hardest-hustling freelancer in the rock-writing bizness, with regular and plentiful pieces in such esteemed journals as the Los Angeles Times, Mojo, USA Today, Billboard, Variety, Radio & Records, L.A. CityBeat, The Guardian, New York Rocker, Creem, Spin, Musician, Pulse, Request, Option, Raygun, L.A. Reader, the (Detroit) Metro Times and California, plus a lotta stuff for online outlets such as Amazon, iTunes, Launch, eMusic, Playboy.com, Rollingstone.com, Sonicboomers, Napster, Addicted to Noise and Feed the Monster.
Don had an authenticity about him. He came from both sides of the fence as a member of early-’70s proto-punks The Imperial Dogs, who wrote and recorded the original version of “This Ain’t the Summer of Love,” later made into a big smash hit by the Blue Oyster Cult. The I-Dogs' now semi-infamous performances are documented in a really swell DVD called The Imperial Dogs: Live! in Long Beach (October 30, 1974), which you can find if you look around for it, and you oughta, ’cause it’s an insanely rocking thing.
OK, there’s his resume. If you didn’t know about Don Waller before, the gist of it is that the man made a major, major contribution to what you know and think about pop and rock and American roots music; if you’re a fan of any of the above-mentioned stuff, Don’s DNA is inside you, whether you knew the man or not.
As his editor at L.A. Weekly in the ’90s, the main thing I recall about Don was how I, being always so under deadline pressures, had to time my phone calls to him, because a simple question about maybe dropping in a semicolon or em dash would trigger a half-hour diatribe about, well, everything (New Orleans cuisine was a favored topic), but mostly the minutely finest points of non-clichéd writing and the crystal-clear, correct usage of true fact in his reviews and features. That’s because Don was a real pop music scholar who just plain knew what he was talking about and, better yet, felt what he was talking about, felt it heatedly, feverishly, even. He didn’t just love music, he really kind of was music. Funny mofo, too.
Don Waller, right, at the Roxy circa 2009 with music publicist Cary Baker. "His knowledge of music (especially his beloved soul and blues, as well as the punk and new wave era from which he emerged) was second to none, his craft of writing top-notch," Baker wrote on Facebook.
Courtesy Cary Baker
Waller’s fiery, gritty authority is not something that drops like apples from trees, not anymore, anyway. That, and the way he’d keep up the chatter as he slipped a perfectly rolled jay into my shirt pocket as we edited his stuff together — well, that made me love the guy very much. Don was always very amusing, at the same time edifying as hell — and he was, by the way, always dressed to the nines and looking real, real sharp. I regret now not saying screw my deadline, let’s hear what the man has to say.
I want to sermonize here about taking the time to honor and appreciate the genuinely cool and smart and nice people on the scene and in your life. They’re adding color to your drab life. Don Waller colorized my life. Yours, too.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.