Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The Imperial Dogs and an Interview With Don Waller (Part 2)

This is the second installment of the two-part series featuring an interview with Don Waller, the ex-frontman for The Imperial Dogs. The I-Dogs were a short-lived rock and roll band that seemed to exist for the sheer enjoyment of causing mayhem and playing electric music at bone shattering decibels. You can see this for yourself on the DVD The Imperial Dogs Live! In Long Beach (October 30, 1974).

As the singer of the I-Dogs, Don was an eccentric showman. Though his style predates many of the frontmen who later seemed to copy him, his flamboyant stage presence might be under-shadowed by his writing. In 1985 he had a book published, "The Motown Story". It sold enough copies to make the effort lucrative for Don, and eventually it fell out of print. You can find it on Amazon, but be prepared to pay. A good used hard cover copy (at the time of this writing) runs about thirty bucks to have it shipped to your door. Other copies, in very good condition run well over a hundred.

Don Waller has also penned his share of CD liner notes as well as having been published in the L.A. Times, USA Today, L.A. CityBeat, Billboard, Variety, Mojo, The Guardian, Creem, Spin, Musician, Radio & Records, BAM, Guitar World, Launch,, Sonicboomers, Napster and Pulse, to name a few. The list seemingly goes on and on... It's as endless as his razor sharp passion for music.

Despite his contribution to the mainstream press, Don might be most famous for the contributions he made to Back Door Man, a now legendary punk rock-zine founded in 1975 by current New York City record spinner Phast Phreddie Patterson.

Able to contact Phast Phreddie, I asked him if he would mind giving me a few words on Don Waller's writing style. His response was eloquent and surprising. He didn't offer just a few words, but got "carried away about the old days." Although he didn't necessarily say much about Don's writing style as I had requested, he did say quite a bit about Don the human being.

It was golden. And way more than I could have hoped for:

The personage of Don Waller first came to my attention when I saw his band Sugar Boy at El Camino Junior College in November 1972. The band impressed me because they seemed to be unique, playing songs I had never heard--I had not heard of The Move, Mott the Hoople, etc. at that point. Other local bands usually covered the obvious songs by The Rolling Stones, Cream, Iron Butterfly, Grand Funk Railroad and other acts I had basically given up on by then. I was into Captain Beefheart, The Mothers of Invention, Bonzo Dog Band, free jazz, Howlin' Wolf and anything that sounded weird to me--plus oldies but goodies.

Sugar Boy performed Eddie Cochran's "C'mon Everybody" in a manner that did not suggest nostalgia, and I thought that was hip.

A month later, Sugar Boy was opening for a more popular local (Torrance, CA) group called Clap. My brother and his friends wanted to go, so I drove them, knowing Sugar Boy was on the bill. All during Sugar Boy's set I kept bugging them, "When are you going to do the Eddie Cochran song?" "C'mon Everybody!!!" I literally pulled Waller's leg as he stood on the stage and I requested the song!

Around that time, I had listed a free ad in Rolling Stone looking for musicians to play wild free-form improvisational music of some sort. I didn't really play anything, but wanted to make noise. The only person to answer the ad was Sugar Boy's guitarist, Paul Therrio, who played sax and was into Albert Ayler.

He invited me over his house were he lived with Don Waller and some other folks and we discussed making noise for a while, until he had to go to work—he worked at a gas station in Gardena. At that point, Waller took over. He and I talked about music—with him pulling records from his collection to illustrate points and to turn me on to stuff I never heard before—until about two in the morning.

I heard of the MC5—having purchased the first LP when it came out. But the Stooges I only read about until that night. He played selections from Nuggets, which impressed me because Lenny Kaye had assembled it (I was a fan of Kaye because of the Eddie Cochran reissue he did about a year before that).

At the end of 1972—just days after my 19th birthday—I was a rudderless creep, destined to working crappy jobs because I knew I could never hack the college scene. Meeting Waller gave my life some direction—I still worked crappy jobs, but I knew what I was going to do with the little spending cash I could muster: buy records and go to rock’n’roll shows. Eventually it would lead to a rock’n’roll theory class that Waller and I taught at UCLA’s experimental college and then Back Door Man.

The experimental college, in 1973, is worth noting because it was mostly Waller’s theories we discussed. At the first meeting of the class we played “Search and Destroy” real loud, as soon as all the students had taken their seats, before even introducing ourselves. Waller said, “This is the future of rock’n’roll.” This started arguments and some people walked out, but the people who remained enjoyed the class, which lasted a couple months, and some students later became influential in the music industry and/or writers for Back Door Man.

Bottom line, though, is that Don Waller was right.

Interview with Don Waller Part 2

(BD:) How did you arrive at naming the band The Imperial Dogs?

(DW:) Our mutual friend, Bob Meyers -- who grew up literally right around the corner from me in north Torrance and was also an original member of the Back Door Man staff -- came up with the name. We're were going to call ourselves the Plug Uglies, which was the name of a gang in Harrison Salisbury's book, "The Shook-Up Generation". The Plug Uglies gang name goes back to the 1800s -- they're cited in Gangs Of New York (which Martin Scorsese turned into a movie a couple of years ago).

Anyway ... we liked Bob's suggestion for several reasons. One, it had that oxymoronical combination of high-life (royalty) and low-life (animals). Two, it was in keeping with the rock 'n' roll tradition of naming your band, say, the Royal Coachmen or the Fabulous Dinos. Three, the commies were fond of using "imperialist dogs" as an epithet. Four, it sounded like a gang name.

(BD:) Is it true that the entire gig was set up and based off of a student's thesis about the decline of society, and by filming your performance she was providing documentation to support that thesis?

(DW:) We met Linda Pascale -- who was also from north Torrance, but we didn't know her growing up 'cause she went to a co-ed Catholic school on the other side of town -- through Phast Phreddie Patterson (the future founder of Back Door Man), who went to that same school. (We also met him after we'd all graduated high school. Matter of fact, Phast saw us play twice when we were still Sugar Boy, although we didn't really get to know him until several months later ... )

Anyway ... Phast brought Linda -- who happens to be one of the all time great rock 'n' roll fans -- down to the house where we were living in Carson to see us practice. Linda was in the honors program at what was then called Cal State Long Beach and was doing her thesis on "death themes in rock 'n' roll." (You really could do that sort of thing back then.) The school had a burgeoning film department -- run by Augie Coppola (Steven Spielberg also went there), so Linda decided to take advantage of that and make a film of us playing live be part of her thesis. (Obviously, she picked up on the dark themes -- S&M, drugs/O.D.'s, violence, etc. -- in our music.) She was also trying to do us a favor by getting us a gig, which as I noted earlier, were hard to get back in those dark days.

Parenthetically, when I say Linda's a great rock 'n' roll fan, know this: She can stand up on the bar and shout, "I saw the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and Bob Dylan and His Band -- as they were then-billed -- play the Hollywood Bowl in 1965 and I've got the ticket stubs to prove it!" (We're still good friends; in fact, we just finished working on a project together in which I spent four hours at her home just poring over her collection of magazines from 1964 and 1965. In so doing, I found a bunch of photos that I'd never seen before and we're going to use them in the long-awaited official home video release of "The T.A.M.I Show" movie -- it's set to come out on March 23 and it's going to be be great.)

Linda also had the mind-boggling foresight to actually BUY the tape from the school afterward -- she gave it to me, we all watched it, hated it, and I threw it in a box for 35 years -- which is why this DVD could even exist. Like I always say, she's the real heroine of this story.

(BD:) Noting the recent death of drummer Bill Willett, describe your current relationship with Paul Therrio and Tim Hilger. Is there, or has there been any discussion of a reunion performance... Or at the very least discussion about re-releasing more (or new) audio of The Imperial Dogs? (I would love to land a copy of Unchained Maladies: Live! 1974-75, but it is so rare and seemingly unaccessible.)

(DW:) Well, we're all still friends ... Tim and I lost touch for a while after the band broke up. (We were still living in the same house for several months until we went our separate ways.) We reconnected for a short time in the mid-'80s and then fell out of touch until about a year ago, when I looked him up on the Internet -- he has his own business, so he wasn't that hard to find -- and told him I'd digitized the videotape and did he want to see it? He came over to my place and watched it and was as surprised as anyone at how good it was. I've since sent him a copy of the finished package. Last time I talked to him was the night I found out that Bill had died. We were all sad and shocked about that. Tim's a really busy guy with his job. (He's an accountant who these days makes his living by writing about tax and accounting issues.) He's also divorced with two kids that are young adults or college age and mostly spends his free time playing golf -- he lost everything he'd owned, including his musical equipment, in a house fire in the early-'80s -- so I don't see or talk to him much. We keep meaning to get together -- and we really wanted to get all four band members in the same room again, which obviously isn't going to happen now -- but we haven't been able to do that yet. He says I was a great inspiration to him as a writer, so I'll take that as a compliment ...

As for Paul ... well, we didn't talk or see each other for a few years after the band broke up. But we eventually started seeing each other again in the '80s. Then Paul wound up moving down to north San Diego county 'cause he and his wife, Mary Fleener -- who's a semi-famous visual artist, a musican, and also a South Bay homegirl -- bought a house down there near the water ('cause Paul's a serious surfer). It's about three hours away, so occasionally I'll go visit him when they throw a party or he and Mary will come to L.A. for one of her art openings. We always have a great time hanging out. If we lived closer together, I'd see him a whole lot more.

We've had some great times together over the last couple of decades. There've been some legendary parties. And we used to get together on occasion and write some "hundred dollar songs" -- some good ones, too. Paul still plays every day and he just keeps getting better 'cause he works at doing so. One year, he threw out all the picks in the house and just played finger-style. Another year, he played in nothing but alternate tunings. He's one of the most creative musicians I've ever met and he taught me a lot. Last time we spoke was about a week ago -- he called me out of the blue -- and we talked some politics and a bit about music, but mostly about cooking. Heh.

Parenthetically, Paul, Mary -- a damn good bass player-- and Tom Gardner -- together with a female drummer that Mary found playing in a local dyke bar -- played together a couple years back and made a CD under the name the Wig Titans. It's a really good combination of witty, roots-rock (think Rockpile) and minor-key, guitar pop (maybe the Smithereens?). Three singer-songwriters; two lead guitarists. I wrote their bio -- it's on the Internet -- and you can get a copy through the fleenerwerks website. Unfortunately, there were some, uh, personality conflicts and they broke up a couple years back.

But I really do wish I could see Paul more often. Mary and I are also good friends and I enjoy her company as well. Tim Napalm Stegall, who wrote the Ugly Things story about the Imperial Dogs, says, "You South Bay people are like ... tribal." I explained that's because there were so few people in the South Bay (which is population-wise, the size of Dallas, Texas) that were into the same kind of music, books, movies, we were,that when you found each other, you became instant and close friends. These relationships go back 30-40 years, so you can understand why outsiders might see us as clannish ...

As far as an Imperial Dogs reunion goes ... we could never do it without Bill. He was a monster drummer. And even if he was still walkin' the planet, Tim hasn't played in decades and I haven't sung onstage since 1978. It would've taken weeks' worth of practices -- and we all live so far apart even that would've been very difficult -- and I don't think we could've ever come with kissin' distance of that crazed level of intensity that you see on the DVD. Plus, Paul, Tim and Bill all have or had high-paying day jobs (computer programmer, accountant, and aerospace engineer, respectively) so there's no way anyone could've piled enough money on the table to make it worth their while. I think it's better that we remain semi-legends ...

As far as releasing any more audio goes, how 'bout we sell all these DVDs I've got sitting around my boho love-shack first? To begin with, the audio on the DVD is better quality -- plus you have the visual element -- than anything we've got on audio tape.

Yeah, there's three original I-Dogs songs on the LP that aren't on the DVD. "13 Sons Of Satan," "The Bad And The Beautiful," and "Needle And Spoon." (And I'd like to see them get a wider release). And yeah, there's one other I-Dogs original ("Suck City Shakedown") and a pair of cool covers (Eddie Cochran's "Nervous Breakdown" and Earl Vince & The Valiants' "Somebody's Gonna Get Their Head Kicked In Tonite") that I didn't put on the LP -- and I wouldn't mind those eventually seeing the light of day, either. But people have gotta show me there's enough of a demand for that.

(BD:) Lastly, I read somewhere that cooking is your hobby, but music is your life... Actually I am just the opposite... What did you make the last time you went crazy in the kitchen?

(DW:) Well, I cook about 98% of the meals that my longtime galpal and I eat every year. (We only eat out for business purposes and on special occasions.) I've been cooking since I was a kid 'cause my mom always worked and she told my younger brother and I, "I'm not gonna have you guys be at the mercy of the first woman who comes along and can cook you a meal." Heh.

I got more serious about it when I was a young buck living out on my own and couldn't afford to eat at McDonald's every night. Plus, my ex-wife was of Sicilian extraction and her dad used to own a restaurant back in Pittsburgh, so after we'd exhausted all the stuff we'd learned how to cook as kids, we discovered the secret was to learn how to make different sauces. (She's now a certified pastry chef who owns her own bakery/cafe; she's also married to a guy I've known for 20-some years -- we're all still pals.)

So, cooking for me is economical, healthier (and remember that I still smoke and drink and dance the hootchie-coo) -- and, let me put this poetically, I cooked my way into a lot of hearts ... (My galpal of the last 15 years hasn't cooked a meal since we started living together back in 1997.)

What I'm leading up to is that I cook every weekend and we eat leftovers during the week 'cause we're both free lance journalists with crazy schedules that we can't really control. Mostly it's just simple stuff: meatloaf with mashed potatoes and peas; macaroni & cheese; various types of enchiladas, soups, and chilis; spaghetti & meatballs -- although everything, including the enchilada and marinara sauces, is made from scratch with fresh ingredients. I've got a gas grill, a deep-fryer, a water-smoker, and an ice cream maker that get a lot of use when the weather's warmer.

As for the last time I did what I call "stunt cooking" ... hmm ... I made Hoppin' John (blackeyed peas 'n' rice) and collard greens for New Year's, but that's traditional ... I did a chipotle-pineapple glazed ham, Southern biscuit muffins, roast garlic mashed potatoes, green beans with walnuts and a lemon vinigarette, and a gingerbread cake with caramel icing for Christmas ... hickory-smoked turkey, pan gravy, cornbread-pecans-bacon stuffing, yams with brown-butter vinigarette, Brussel sprouts with chorizo, and a walnut-raisin pie for Thanksgiving ... I did three kinds of tapas (tuna & green olives, ham & machengo cheese, tomato & garlic), a shrimp-scallops-mussels-chicken & chorizo paella, and a Spanish-style chocolate cake for my galpal's -- her name's Natalie Nichols -- last birthday party ...

But things have been rough for writers all last year so I haven't done a whole lot of "stunt cooking." However, since Natalie and my "first date" was a Super Bowl party -- and we're both serious pro football fans -- we always do something special for the Super Bowl and usually the meal is based around which teams are playing or where it's being held. Since Natalie's from a small town outside of Erie, Pennsylvania and a big Steelers fan, last year I did a traditional Pittsburgh thing called "Devonshire sandwiches." Basically, it's a pile of sliced roast turkey breast, topped with semi-crispy smoked bacon and a thick cheddar cheese sauce served open-face and eaten with a knife 'n' fork. I don't think you could eat more than one unless you were playing for the Steelers, about to pull a shift at a mill, or you'd been out drinking all night, which pretty much sums up life in Pittsburgh... Ha ha ha.

The great Jenny Lens, who's photographs document the early '70s punk rock scene so relentlessly has said that Don Waller (Phast Phreddie too) writes "from the heart and hip". Obviously this is how he handles every situation he becomes involved in. Aware of my interest in this band, and that particular era of music, Jenny emailed me a great reminder: WE MUST CONTINUE TO GIVE PROPS to pioneers, but with respect.

I couldn't have said it better than that... Don Waller, the singer, the writer, the cook, and THE MAN is certainly worthy of insurmountable respect.

Thank you, Don.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I find it odd that there is no mention of the 1975 bass player (and the one pictured in the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre flyer), Dan Schamber—former bass player for Atomic Kid, which was to evolve into the band The Zippers from that same era. Dan had quit Atomic Kid in 1974 and was contacted by Waller to join Imperial Dogs late ’74 or first of ’75 after Tim had quit the band. Many of the “non-video” recordings on the “Unchained Maladies” are bassed by Dan Schamber. Dan was with the band when Paul Therrio called it quits and the Imperial Dogs disbanded. The “live” recordings with Dan on bass were recorded at the Carson practice garage—Dan having joined the band barely a month before the St. VDM appearance. I still possess a copy of the cassette tape burned at that 1975 recording.