Don Waller: In Memoriam

Friday, November 18, 2016

My friend, Richard Agata, called me yesterday afternoon with the news that Don Waller died on Tuesday, November 15. While Don is probably best known as being the author of “The Motown Story,” he was also a musician, song-writer, music critic and historian, as well as a journalist who brought his skeptical stare to everything he edited. When it was time to do a final check on the boards we were about to send to the printer, there was no one I more trusted to be in the chair scanning the pasted-up columns.

For ten years (1985-1995) I worked alongside Don at Radio & Records, and it was a privilege to have a chance to see a professional at work in a field where many aspire, and most falter. It was an industry newspaper, and as such it was as much a part of the music industry as a newspaper enterprise. Our stand-out distinction was the integrity of our charts. You could buy an advertisement in our newspaper, but you couldn’t buy a boost in the chart position. We recorded what stations were actually playing, and if they decided to cheat on their reports, they risked losing being a reporter to our charts. My sense is that it was a risk that few were willing to take.

It was a weekly newspaper, and the schedule could be grueling. Even if one were inclined to shop on Black Friday, few of us at R&R ever did more than sleep that day. Monday of that week was a normal eight to nine hour shift, and then Tuesday would be a 14 hour shift, usually ending around 1:30 a.m. We would then return around 10:30 a.m. the next morning to work a ten to eleven hour shift to get all the work done that would normally be done on a Thursday and Friday. Waking up on Thanksgiving morning and starting to cook that day’s dinner took every bit of commitment I could summon. My guess is that Don Waller didn’t bother sleeping Wednesday night. He was as precise and devoted to perfection around the stove burners as he was at the keyboard.

The work ethic at R&R, epitomized by Don Waller’s relentless enthusiasm, has carried over into my academic life. There are people I meet at the university who simply wouldn’t last at a place such as R&R. They couldn’t cut it, and Don would be the first to let them know, though not in a confrontational way. As Lucie Morris, my dear friend and fellow typesetter, noted in her Facebook post, Don’s nonchalant humor was inspirational. One night, decompressing at 2:15 a.m. around a long production table, Don mimicked a recently hired worker in the news sections who had explained her indolent work pace at that morning’s meeting: “I don’t want to burn out.”

“Baby, you haven’t even caught on fire yet,” he had retorted.

She was gone within another six weeks, and it surprised us all to hear that she had landed a job at a well-known news outlet in Washington, D.C., which must have obviously had a less challenging culture than its reputation would have suggested.

Don had been a musician in his youth and had a band called Imperial Dogs, which would have had more success had it launched itself two years laters in the early years of punk rock. In 1974, the world was not yet ready for confrontational rock and roll. For Don, though, shifting from guitar to typewriter allowed him to use his considerable intelligence in a way that gave his performances as a writer an enduring presence in the conversation.

“The Motown Story” is out-of-print, but is far from being unavailable. Over 300 libraries around the world have the book in their stacks, and I guarantee that you will get something out of this book. I still quote his comment about the relationship between the bass guitar and the drums as a way to help students understand what vowels and consonants are doing in a line of poetry.

Don knew I was a poet and that I organized readings in the community. A few months after I was no longer working at R&R, I set up one of my favorite readings, pairing Ellen Sander, whose first chapbook is being published this fall, and Don Waller. My recollection is that Richard Agata did the flyer. I have rarely worked as hard to make a reading successful, and the raucous applause of a large crowd that afternoon in October, 1995 was all the reward I needed.

Don stepped off-stage in the full spotlight of a supermoon. I bow to his presence in my life, as I will bow to his absence. Whatever chance conjugations brought a force field named Don Waller into the universe, I can only say I am grateful to have met him and to have worked with him. He is the only person I have ever met that I would trust to do liner notes for my next spoken word project. The old saying that “the graveyard’s full of irreplaceable people” doesn’t hold true in Don’s case. There isn’t anyone to replace him. The kind of obsessive discipline that drove him to demand more knowledge about music, each and every day he lifted his ears to listen, can’t be found anymore.

Affectionate nostalgia is often a narcissistic luxury, and yet I will indulge. How else can I describe the recollection of those moments passing in the hall at R&R when we would pause and somehow pull it all together: the work, the music, the need to do both, the honor of the ordinary moment under pressure in the company of an extraordinary comrade. Thank you, Don. I say farewell with a very heavy heart.

DON WALLER
September 1, 1951 – November 17.2016

http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/music/la-et-ms-don-waller-20161118-story.html

http://www.allaccess.com/net-news/archive/story/159922/r-r-s-don-waller-passes-away
Joel Denver

http://www.rocksbackpages.com/Library/Writer/don-waller

Remembering Don Waller


Steve Hochman

http://www.laweekly.com/music/rip-don-waller-influential-music-journalist-and-imperial-dog-7625759
John Payne