It's 1975 and in LA's sleepy South Bay, Back Door Man magazine is defining a proto-punk attitude… Don Waller talks to Ron Garmon
Intro by Kim Cooper, editrix:
When I was a kid in Hollywood in the '80s, the folks who worked at record stores were much cooler than they are today. The city was still cheap enough that a clerk's wages could finance a civilized life, so hep cats with insatiable appetites for new vinyl could spend years behind the counter at Rhino, Aron's, or my uncle David's Record Connection, dispensing snarky opinions on your purchases or just leaning on the counters digging the latest sounds.
I'm not sure when I became aware that Rhino perennial Phast Phreddie Patterson had once been a principle in a mag called Back Door Man--possibly from Danielle Faye, the exquisitely laid back Record Connection staffer whose sister D.D. was also a BDM alum. I didn't see a copy until the mid-'90s, and when I finally did I was intrigued by the writers' passion and their efforts to locate and interpret worthy cultural excrescences in an era where bloated excess was too infrequently punctured by real, raw art. During the magazine's short life, punk rock exploded, making it much easier for weirdoes to find good stuff. Magazines like BDM had a small but undeniable influence on the emerging underground, and it's fun to go back and watch them grasping at the straws that would eventually form a movement.
I've seen BDM's Don Waller around for years, but first got talking with him while promoting the Scramarama festival. I called to see if he might want to write about the show for the L.A. Times, and ended up spending a couple hours enjoying his tales of SoCal childhood and thirty years as a rock and roll writer. When Dave Laing (whose Dog Meat Records in Australia released a posthumous LP by Don's Imperial Dogs) suggested we interview Don for Scram, I thought immediately of putting him together with Ron Garmon of Worldly Remains mag, since Don and Ron are two of the most verbally adept, opinionated and well-dressed writers on the LA scene. Sure enough, they hit it off famously…
(note: the conversation is punctuated with much coughing and gargling; Waller’s nasal rasp is funny and confiding, as is his feline moan over terminal vowels like “y’kno-ow”)
Scram: Great, the commentators now interview each other…
Don: Oh, I’ve interviewed writers before. I understand why Studs Terkel didn’t include writers in his book, Working. We think too much about stuff. (cigarettes are lit)
Scram: As background, what L.A. radio stations were you listening to back in the early '70s?
Don: In the very, very early ‘70s, way before we started Back Door Man, KDAY was still pretty cool, because Bob Wilson was programming it. He ran it like a Top 40 version of an FM station, where you had three songs in a row, then spots and promos, then three songs in a row, and he’d play a lot of weird stuff. You’d get things like “Rattlesnake Shake” or “Oh Well” by Fleetwood Mac, and odd things. It was kind of the free-form era. When that went off the air, KROQ was around for a while and went away for a while. Look, the standard AM/FM stations were just, by ’74, they were just hopeless. I mean, you heard what you heard.
Scram: To quote the biographical statement you gave Brendan Mullen for the We Got the Neutron Bomb LA punk book: “FM radio sucked. Everything was either paid-by-the-note prog shite, downer-fueled heavy metal or kozmik kowboys Eagles krap. This was 1975.”
Don: That’s pretty much the way it was.
Scram: At about what time did free-form FM radio begin to die in this town?
Don: (long pause, Waller’s face contorts into baroque angles suggestive of thought) About 1972, for sure it was dead. You started with B. Mitchell Reid and Tom Donahue doing KPPC out of that church in Pasadena. That was where it started and that was just it. They did six hours, three hours of each, before it became a full-time station. I was still in high school, so this hadda be about ’68, ‘69. There was a great poster I wish I had, which said, “What kind of person listens to KPPC?” and had a picture of Jimi Hendrix. I think they did a couple like that, but that one was the best. Then there was KLOS and KMET as yer big FM powerhouses, but they gradually got corporatized, and there were strikes and stuff like that. Occasionally you could listen to weird shit on the radio. I remember the Credibility Gap on KRLA, and I can also remember Radio Free Oz, with the Firesign Theatre guys on KPPC. Johnny Otis’s show used to be on Sunday night on one of the FM stations. He used to have Shuggie [Otis] on, and they’d play with people. KUSC, before it went Classical, used to have student bloc programming, and there was this guy named "Memory" Lane Quigley who played nothing but '50s-type oldies, which was kinda cool. This was before American Graffiti came out. I remember listening to that in college. Rock 'n’ roll wasn’t that old, so, like in the mid-'60s when the Beatles came out, on Memorial Day weekend they’d have these Million Dollar Weekends where they’d play the library of gold hits. You’d hear the Five Satins doing “In the Still of the Night,” or the Flamingos' “I Only Have Eyes For You” and go, “What the fuck was that? That was a great record.” There was also the Wolfman. I just discovered him one night. Really early on, he was playing Lightnin’ Hopkins and Big Mama Thornton. Later, he got into more contemporary R&B, but it was still great. And his act was just fuckin’ great. By ’74, this shit has all but vanished.
Scram: Tell us about the founding of Back Door Man. Who were the people involved?
Don: Okay, Phreddie called me up one day and said, "I wanna start a magazine and I wanna call it Back Door Man.” I was living in Carson at the time, and I said, “Yeah. Good. Let’s get D.D. Faye to write for it.” She was my girlfriend, and she could write. “Let’s get Bob Meyers”—‘cause he lived around the corner from me when I was a kid, and I still knew him and I knew he could write. We both wanted our pal Tom Gardner and the Underwoods, too. That was the original hard-core staff. We’d met the Underwoods when Phreddie and I taught an extension class at UCLA. Liz had a bunch of vintage photos and fancied herself a photographer. Don was just a funny, cool guy. In retrospect, I miss Don Underwood’s voice in the later issues. He was a big champion of Roxy Music and Eno and weird stuff like that. There was a whole horrible falling-out early on with all that.
Scram: Was it over the direction of the magazine?
Don: No, it was more of a personality conflict. There were issues of responsibility and who’s doing what, etc, etc. Certain people weren’t happy with Liz, and they were a package. Stones were thrown and stones were thrown back. But that was the original crew and that’s how it came together. Phreddie typed it over at El Camino College and that’s why those first issues were just rife with fuckin’ errors! Spelling errors, grammar, all that stuff. It was very much a learn-by-doing kind of experience for us. I mean, none of us were journalism majors; none of us had worked for newspapers. Or anything.
Scram: What kind of local rock press did L.A. have in those days?
Don: I think the L.A. Free Press had just about folded. There really wasn’t any. The Times didn’t do much with the local scene. There wasn’t much happening. Let’s review: At the time, the Whisky was closed for a coupla years. The Roxy was running this “El Grande de Coca Cola” musical thing in there. The only way you could get into the Starwood doing originals was if you had a record deal. Most of the time, it was Quiet Riot doing their Slade act or something like that. There was no club to play per se. If you were doing original material, there weren’t a lot of places to play. Local radio wasn’t giving anything out.
Scram: There wasn’t any local scene for the magazine to support.
Don: There wasn’t much of anything. You could rent a union hall, say Mr. and Mrs. Joe Blow are gonna get married and you bring in a band. (pauses to consider)… Yeah. Yeah. It was a wasteland.
Scram: What was to be the point of the magazine, then?
Don: Well, we just thought the other magazines all sucked. We got really tired of ‘em all. Our goal was to write about music we cared about in a way we wanted to write about it. Nobody was saying anything about anything we cared about, so we thought we should do this ourselves. It was just frustration, I think.
Scram: I’ve had problems with printers over content. Did BDM?
Don: Yeah! We switched printers a coupla times, partly over rates, partly over who would do it. Most people didn’t want to bother with something that small. I remember that, after the last issue, the printer didn’t want to do it, and I think it was ‘cause of that shot in the back where all the one-liners are, where the girl's clutching that latex dress. We took that out of a magazine called The Lure of Latex or something like that. We did that as a center spread. It’s nothing revealing really, just suggestive. They said, “We don’t want this. We don’t like this. We don’t want the language.” I remember going down there in a suit to talk to people, saying, “C’mon, man, this is a money deal. We’re willing to pay. You can increase the price from what the previous printer was charging.” The manager of this place said, “No, we don’t wanna do it.” What can you say? The last two issues had foldouts in ‘em, for God’s sake. What good is that? The Johnny Rotten foldout is really good, and the flip of that, where D.D. does the reportage from the Winterland show with the Sex Pistols was the best thing we ever did. It’s a really good piece. I also liked the way that, when we got it in from D.D., we said, “Why typeset it? Let’s just shoot these pages with the editorial notes in the margins and all across." I thought that was the best piece of art direction I did. I’m very happy with that.
Scram: What was the record company gravy train like in those days?
Don: Probably richer than it’s been in the last three months. There were things like, say, when Ram Jam played the Starwood on the strength of “Black Betty.” Nobody wanted to go see ‘em, so Pat Siciliano, the publicist, ordered buckets and buckets and buckets of Pioneer Chicken. There were unlimited tabs, if you can believe that. We were never as abusive as some people were. Maybe there were some nights when Phreddie or somebody might’ve abused a tab. We would ask for multiple tickets, like all six of us needed to get in. Or eight, or whatever the fuck. Nobody gave a shit. There was certainly a lot of largesse back then, but we were so naïve! If I knew then what I know now! We didn’t loot ‘em. The people and companies who took out ads really liked, or pretended to like, what we were doing for their acts. It was all good publicity and all good. We actually did refuse certain advertising for acts we didn’t like, which was really dumb as shit. When Casablanca was running that ad for Angel [Punky Meadows’ cutie-pie '70s metal act whose White Hot (1975) was a stoner favorite and critic’s despair], we told them we hate that fuckin’ band. What the fuck were we thinking?
Scram: Probably of all the “sell-out” letters you’d get.
Don: At the end, we didn’t get a lot of letters because we started making fun of everybody in the letters so viciously that they’d never write in. Which was stupid! We’d take the hate mail and trash it. And if you didn’t hate us, we’d make fun of you, too.
Scram: What was performer access like in those days?
Don: Pretty good. When Patti Smith played the Whisky that was the first time we went backstage there. She played for a bunch of people who didn’t give a fuck. She was the opening act for some fucking band I can’t remember. There weren’t a lot of people there, but we went every night. It was amazing. We went back and hung out with her and Lenny Kaye. She emboldened us and encouraged us a great deal. We were The Press. We were always on the list at the Starwood, for example, and they made their money because we drank like fools. Part of that was because Eddie Nash owned it. Y’know who I’m talking about?
Scram: Tell me.
Don: Eddie Nash was the guy who was implicated in those Wonderland Murders [A particularly sordid affair involving racketeering, drug dealing and the 1981 beating deaths of four people in a “highly secured” house in Laurel Canyon; the bloody handprint of porn star John Holmes was found at the scene, but he was acquitted and the case remains unsolved.] He owned the Starwood, the Odyssey, the Seven Seas and a few other clubs in town. It was fucking organized crime, mostly a front for drug dealing. We’re talking Tony Soprano now.
Remember, things were a lot cheaper then. Tickets were a lot cheaper. There was no restricted parking. You could park for free in West Hollywood and walk up to the Whisky. Even if you got hosed for the ticket and hosed for drinks, you still could do it. We were big Iggy Pop fans and would hang out on the fuckin’ street for two hours waiting for the Whisky’s doors to open. We ate copious amounts of marijuana brownies and lots of white crosses too. Lids were ten bucks.
Scram: How was distribution?
Don: Of the publication? Well, originally we just sold it in local record stores, then we did a lot of mail order to stores across America. The last several issues, I think we were distributed by Jem, the import retailer that also handled Bomp! and that kind of stuff. Everything with a $1 cover price was distributed by Jem. A lot of people wrote in for subs. Remember, there was no MTV, no Internet, no way to get this stuff around, so it was all word of mouth. We tried to get into all the big record stores like Tower, or certain record stores in Cleveland, Boston or wherever.
Scram: Did you initially design it as a local magazine?
Don: No. We wanted to cover the local scene, because somebody should. The local scene shifted from the kind of bands playing hall parties in the South Bay to the Runaways, the glitter scene, stuff up here in the city. I covered Kim Fowley’s “New Wave Night” or whatever the fuck it was called at the Whisky, which was just (puckers) horrible. Kim just let whoever showed up first get up on stage. Don’t tell me that the Germs were a great band. They were horrible.
Scram: There’s still a rather silly personality cult around Darby Crash.
Don: Yeah… I’ll just say that that was a load of shite. The music was shite; Darby was a load of shite. I’ve talked about this before. I can remember where I was when Darby died. I was sitting in our apartment over in West L.A. and we’d eaten all these mushrooms and we were waiting for Charlotte Caffey to get there. It was a rainy Sunday night and Charlotte comes in and says, “Darby’s dead” and we just all started laughing.
Scram: At what point did you start putting out records?
Don: We did two singles by the Pop, one single by the Zippers and the one Imperial Dogs single that came out after the band had already broken up. Back Door Man Records was a joint venture of me, Tom Gardner and Gregg Turner. We did those four singles and then dissolved it. Twelve fuckin’ years later or something like that, Dave Laing in Australia calls Ken Barnes, who’s like this real avid record collector, and says he really likes the Imperial Dogs single, and Ken tells him the guy who made it is sitting in the next office! Dave talked to me and I said I had a bunch of other shit on tape. I picked the stuff I liked and sent it down there and we put that record out.
Scram: From a pure vibe standpoint, compare the L.A. scene then to that of today.
Don: Well, it’s different. Certainly there’s a lot more media out there. There’s the Internet. Fanzines, lots of ‘em. The clubs are kind of weird, because L.A.’s in kind of a downward spiral right now. Look at all the fuckin’ tribute bands and shit. There’s not one band that’s broken out of L.A. recently. Back in the '80s, you had Van Halen, X, the Go-Gos, the Bangles, the Blasters, the Minutemen. All different kinds of music and the clubs were hoppin’. How can Silver Lake be so happening when there’s only two fuckin’ places to play? And you can’t put twenty-one decent bands on in a week? To me, the scene is very fragmented here in L.A. They don’t like this, won’t go see that. And the dance music scene has been bad, ‘cause it’s really cheap to hire a DJ. That was a problem back in the '70s too, y’know, when the whole disco thing came in. It’s gotta be healthier overall, because of the support systems. But I go out a lot and there’s nobody for whom I’d say “You just gotta see these people or set yourself on fire.” Maybe I’m just too far from the street, but I don’t see it.
Scram: I get around quite a lot and can say that there’s no there out there. Nobody’s talking about anything going on.
Don: Certainly it’s easier to make a record nowadays. We never had rehearsal spaces. If things would’ve happened a little later, because I walked away from music at a certain point, I didn’t play anymore. If I knew that a punk revolution was gonna come in two years and change the world, I would have stayed at it. By then, people were paying me more money to write about music than to play it.
Scram: That’s still the same.
Don: And I wouldn’t have to split it up four ways at the end of the night. I had a career at that point. Phreddie is a club DJ and does liner notes and obits, and he worked at Warner-Chappell music publishing in New York and ran record stores and stuff like that. D.D. is teaching ESL classes at Santa Monica College and Glendale. She’s got a Master’s in Linguistics. Tom sells food to restaurants and plays guitar with Paul Therrio from the Imperial Dogs in a band called the Wig Titans. They’re good. Gregg formed the Angry Samoans and wrote for Creem, but he teaches math these days. Oh yeah, he makes records with the Bloodrained Cows. But I’m the one person who really became a pro writer out of the whole thing.
Scram: How much did Lester Bangs wind up influencing the style and editorial direction of BDM?
Don: Oh, well, Lester was a great influence. I’d stand up on the bar and shout that. Also people like John Mendelsohn, y’know, whose work was really good. Personally, the biggest single influence on my writing was Nik Cohn. His Rock from the Beginning, I read in 1969. I got it out of the library; I was a poor kid. I never read anything I agreed with so much. I loved the way he told the stories. He’s the person that I stole the most from. Everyone else is secondary, tertiary or worse. Lester and the whole Creem thing was a big influence on us. Other people were more influenced by R. Meltzer than I was. Maybe Gregg Turner. We were also influenced by Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor.
Scram: What was the origin of the inside back cover ad in issue # 3 that has Kim Fowley soliciting a girlfriend?
Don: He paid for it.
Scram: Was he serious?
Don: I can only guess at his motivation. I think it’s obvious. (laughter). I’ve always thought of Kim as an eccentric uncle. He’s very funny when he’s not talking about his own projects. When he’s talking about his own stuff, its just bullshit on bullshit. I would watch him work the phones and come up with weird slang and say things like “Gram Parsons is just a guy who knew a lot of George Jones B-sides.” He’s a pig. I really must say that. A lot of women find him disgusting.
Scram: So I keep hearing. Quite. There was some controversy about racial jokes in BDM.
Don: That’s more later as people looked back on it. I think that was Chris Stigliano, who has that fanzine out of Pittsburgh, Black To Comm. He did a piece on BDM a few years ago and didn’t talk to anyone involved. He just did what Chris does, which is spin his own interpretation of events, which I suppose is what any writer does. Somehow this came to my attention and I wrote him back a long letter, trying to clear up errors and misconceptions. The remark “David Bowie, I hope you O.D. on Afro Sheen” is a reaction to Young Americans. It was a joke. I mean, Bowie’s face was pasted onto Sly Stone’s body on that picture. There were a lot of bad things happening in black music then. I’ll say this. Me and Bob Meyers went to see P-Funk play the Forum on the Mothership Connection tour. Bootsy Collins was the opening act. There were 18,000 people at the Forum, and sixteen other people besides me and Bob were white. I know. I counted us. If you’re lookin’ at James Brown or P-Funk, you think, “What the fuck is Donna Summer?” A lot of that stuff was pretty bad. Why listen to the Bee Gees when you can listen to Wilson Pickett or Otis Redding or P-Funk? The jokes we made were sex jokes or homosexual jokes or racist jokes. It wasn’t like we weren’t going to make fun of David Cassidy just because his dad got burnt to a crisp. We made fun of Johnny Winter (“Albino more of his records after hearing this.”) and the Eagles (“Pissing and moaning about the good life is uncalled for.”)—all classic stuff. Just take it in context. Nowadays, in my own stuff, I don’t do that kind of stuff unless it’s put in the mouth of a very stupid character. I love The Boondocks comic strip. Aaron McGruder’s very good, but he’s in the community. He’s a black person writing about black people for black people, so he can get away with saying all kinds of stuff. If I were to go on Comedy Central with that stuff, I don’t know if I’d get away with it. I’d have to prove my bona fides first. I just don’t feel like having to explain the jokes. (sighs, very tired) I think it was somewhat of a different time.
Scram: How did you get contributors?
Don: People came to us. Lisa Fancher. Bangs and Meltzer might’ve been solicited. The only person we paid was Meltzer, who asked for thirty-five bucks. It says so in the piece. Lester did it for free, ‘cause he was prolific and he liked us. We never really reached out to anyone.
Scram: At what point did BDM begin to get noticed nationally?
Don: Pretty quickly. Around about the time we did the Runaways stuff, we started getting new orders. We were written up in Bomp! and some of the other fanzines. I’ve got some of those.
Scram: What ended the magazine?
Don: The aforementioned printer problems, also we were only getting 50% from distributors. We didn’t make as much money when we went national as we got when we self-distributed. Also, people had kind of gotten into their own thing. D.D. was busy managing the Zippers. Phreddie was busy being Phreddie. I was working at Radio & Records back then, a day job that was pretty time-consuming. A sense of frustration set in. Slash came along and was very popular. It was all new and had no history. Slash was like the biggest little small-town newspaper. It was this small community that all had their pictures and records in there and all wrote about each other and was one big clusterfuck. We were kind of scrupulous about avoiding that kind of conflict of interest. We thought we were a national magazine and not a fanzine (laughs). We thought, “We’re dreaming if we think this is gonna change the world.” Of course it did, twenty years later, but that’s another story. But it was pretty hard to compete with what was going on. Today, the standard rap goes: “First there was the Ramones, then the Sex Pistols, then Nirvana!” There was like fourteen fuckin’ years or somethin’ between the Sex Pistols and Nirvana! The Pixies, the Minutemen, Camper Van Beethoven didn’t happen? No indie rock, no punk rock, no Sonic Youth, no Black Flag? Nothin’ happened?
Scram: One can almost understand ignorance of textbook history, given the shitty state of education, but ignorance of history you’ve lived through?
Don: Not all of them have lived through it, but basically that’s the thing. There’s Punk Rock Mach I, which is what you find on the Nuggets box, which is kids in garages wanting to be the Yardbirds and the Stones. Punk Rock Mach II is pretty much what the Ramones produced. A different style of punk rock, which is still around in a weird form nowadays. Half of it is the come-join-our-gang shit, which is all just done to sell skateboard wear. Then there’s a segment of it that’s a little more committed. Punk rock is like suburban blues, it’s a little like Muddy Waters, the same themes rehashed with little differences. Suburban frustration. I don’t have a problem with it, and I can’t tell some thirteen-year-old kid who’s getting drunk for the first time or losing their virginity that this is not a valid aesthetic experience. Sit there and say music hasn’t been any good since Buddy Holly died? Fuck you! Music is better than ever now because there’s more new shit to listen to and there’s always the old shit to listen to and any old shit you haven’t heard is new to you.