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Los Angeles music writer, proto-punker and sharp dresser Don Waller has died

When music writer Don Waller, who died Thursday at age 65, had an issue with an artist, he didn't pull his punches. More important, when he loved something, he usually had something to say about it —  and used his pen to shout it to the world.

Whether as singer of Los Angeles proto-punk band the Imperial Dogs, as co-publisher of the scene-shaping Los Angeles music ’zine Back Door Man or as a freelance writer with nearly 400 bylines for The Times, Waller ran a wide swath through underground L.A., and he did so dressed not in ragged punk garb but in hand-tailored suits. And he knew how to cook, to boot. 

He died after a battle with lung cancer, said his longtime partner Natalie Nichols.

Donald Lee Waller was born in Los Angeles on Sept. 1, 1951, the son of Roy Waller and the late Kitty Waller. When he was young, Waller worked in a South Bay steel mill during the day as he was sweating onstage as a budding rock star at night.

One of the Imperial Dogs’ early songs, “This Ain’t the Summer of Love,” earned attention when the rock band Blue Öyster Cult recorded it on its hit 1976 album, “Agents of Fortune.”

Nichols described Waller as being so obsessed with James Brown while working at the mill that his boss asked him what he was doing. When Waller said he was singing, his boss replied, “Well stop it. We think you’re hurt!’” 

“The style mattered. However he wrote things, whether it was a blurb about himself, or liner notes, or a TV recap,” said Nichols, “his voice was in everything.” She added with a laugh that Waller “didn’t hold back. If he thought somebody was an idiot, he would say, ‘You’re an idiot.’”

Waller got early bylines as a staffer in the 1970s at the then-thriving music industry magazine Radio & Records. He did so while documenting the underground scene with Back Door Man, which published 15 issues starting in 1975.

Waller was present at the creation of Los Angeles punk, and he wrote as a pro and as a scenester. When he interviewed the late Gun Club founder Jeffrey Lee Pierce and then-collaborator Kid Congo Powers, Waller didn’t do it at a club but at Pierce’s mom’s Hollywood apartment.

At the same time, Waller’s love of classic rhythm & blues informed his perspective. Waller’s only book, “The Motown Story” (1985), was a rollicking history of the Detroit label.

In its introduction, the writer urged the reader to step away from the pages to listen to a snippet of an early Motown single. “Why are you reading this? I’d rather listen to the music than read about it,” he wrote. “There’s no way that reading a bunch of nonsense syllables can give you the simultaneous feeling of tension and exhilaration you get from listening to those ten seconds of music.” 

On the industry side, Waller wrote liner notes for sets including “Beg, Scream & Shout!: The Big Ol’ Box Of  ‘60s Soul,” the classic garage-rock series “Nuggets” and “Motown Superstars Sing Motown Superstars.”

He got away with a lot while at The Times, often pushing against the paper’s accepted standards under the guidance of then-pop music critic Robert Hilburn and editor Richard Cromelin, among others. 

In a 1985 Times review of Los Lobos’ landmark 1984 album, “How Will the Wolf Survive?,” Waller described “the sound of a small-time dance hall on a Saturday night, the band playing a little bit of everything: razor-fight blues, swinging country shuffles, jambalaya bayou boogies and a couple of traditional Mexican tunes for the old folks.”

Of Tom Waits in concert: “a distillation of junk-shop instruments, half-forgotten folk songs, sea chanteys, nursery rhymes, Dixieland, voodoo chants, be-bop, blues, country and a thousand and one records heard once on a radio long ago.”

During a review of Bad Brains at the Roxy, Waller painted a picture of “foot-long dreadlocks flying.” At an tiny McCabe’s gig by Grammy-winning producer T Bone Burnett, Waller captured an image of the artist closing the set “by walking out onto Pico Boulevard to serenade the waiting late-show crowd with a campfire sing-along of ‘Kumbaya.’”

Waller is survived by his partner Nichols, his father, Roy Waller, a brother, James Waller, and a sister-in-law, Sandy Waller.

There’s a lot of terrible music out there. For tips on the stuff that’s not, follow Randall Roberts on Twitter: @liledit

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