The Suburban Rasputin

Photo by Tenaya HillsThe last time I saw Wally George, he was gliding gingerly across a dance floor, microphone in hand, golden-throating “Kansas City” to a bar dotted with jowly old men and an acned kid in a Black Flag shirt, and I thought to myself: How can anyone not love this man? Because when I first came to California, it didn't feel like California until one late night when my friend had just moved into an empty room on the second story of a sterile beige townhouse with a mattress flopped on the floor and a rabbit-eared TV set on a milk crate—it looked like a halfway house, with lumpy white walls, knotty carpet, two empty electrical outlets, a closet hanging open, and nothing else but that mattress and that thrift-store TV—and we sat agape on the edge of the mattress and watched Wally George roar through the TV snow. The guy was a suburban Rasputin, all the heat and meanness and desolation of the surface-street sprawl concentrated into those laser-bright eyes (and that laser-brighter toupee—you coulda wrapped up a hot dog and grilled it in that thing), and I thought of the Minutemen: “Mr. Narrator, this is like Bob Dylan to me.”

Wally's politics? This was art, people, a surrealist razor slash across the eye every Saturday midnight. California suddenly coalesced into a landscape I could understand—24-hour doughnut shops on Whittier Boulevard, night skies that were orange and not black, deserted parking lots the size of my Arizona hometown, and Wally George—and somehow, it was fucking romantic. My then-girlfriend loved Wally, too (“He was like the angry-conservative dad I never had,” she'd say reverently), and we'd watch him rant in front of that picture of the Space Shuttle—ah, Wally, you were such a product of your time—when we came home from ratty punker shows in LA.

There was a certain way you had to do it: lights off, blue-white TV glow ricocheting around the room, silent. Respectful. You could laugh when it got too ridiculous, of course, but you weren't just watching a car wreck: Wally was always very cognizant of his fakeness, but under the bit-too-breathless blowtorch rhetoric was something else. It's hard to describe. It was something sort of tragic, a little desperate, a little show biz. Nathanael West could have put it better.

By the time I'd discovered him, Wally had limped out of four or five marriages, fathered a daughter (the actress Rebecca De Mornay) who didn't talk to him for years, and soldiered through a series of brutal operations. His show was slipping into reruns and he lived in a little apartment in Garden Grove, something solidly OC.

But he held valiantly to what he had: he had another little daughter he doted on, and he had his public. About a half-dozen of us, anyway, waiting outside a faded La Mirada bar to see what must have been one of his last public appearances. This was three years ago. He drove himself. There were no veiny right-wing Neanderthals chanting outside, no aging Nixonian hardhats with those beady little eyes, no fat-fingered ex-cop dads with pickup trucks and gun racks. Instead, waiting outside, were me and my girlfriend; a girl with hair dyed red and wearing black fishnets who came alone; another couple (the guy was the one with the Black Flag shirt); and a slim greasy kid in a leather jacket.

Inside, we ordered food, watched Wally chat at the bar and listened to the karaoke—there is something so goddamn depressing about karaoke during the daytime. And because he was a good sport, Wally got up to do some karaoke. He didn't look so bad—sick, maybe, but careful and confident and instantly charming once he got the microphone in his hand. He used to be a band leader a long time ago, I'd heard. He sang “Kansas City” without ever looking at the lyrics and did another early '60s standard with a suave Rat Pack delivery you wouldn't have expected. He smiled the whole time. It wasn't ironic or creepy. For some reason, I felt proud for him. Almost filial—I didn't want to hug him, certainly, because, you know, old people, but he gave my girlfriend a good squeeze, and I didn't mind. It seemed like a reunion.

Wally had spent just about 20 years gnashing at the freaks and weirdoes and longhairs and mutants and dopers and punks and burnouts, and at the end, he came back to us because, I guess, we were the ones who really loved him for what he was: Mr. Narrator, this is like Disneyland to me.

We clapped when he finished and started to leave. “Hey, Wally,” said the kid in the leather jacket as Wally was shaking hands on his way out of the bar. “What's up?”

“This guy!” barked Wally good-naturedly. “I haven't seen you since the Hot Seat! C'mere!” And he gave him a happy, comradely hug. It was like watching two old vets revisiting some grassed-over battlefield. In fact, it was the closest thing I've ever seen to two old vets revisiting some old battlefield. And again—strangely—I felt proud. When they do the KDOC tribute show this weekend, they'll remember Wally the firebrand; Wally the watchdog; Wally the red-faced, fist-shaking avenging angel of the UHF brand. They'll remember the chanting—”WALL-EE! WALL-EE! WALL-EE!” And I'll remember Wally hugging my girlfriend, Wally hugging some punk rocker kid, Wally snapping his fingers to a song (“I might take a train/I might take a plane/But if I have to walk/I'm goin' just the same”).

And he's gone now—cancer found him Tuesday in a Fountain Valley hospital—and I miss him already: he was one of the first people I ever met in California, and he made me feel at home.

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