Provostian Moments Vol. VI: The Droogs

18 Apr

What did DAVIE ALLAN & THE ARROWS, THE DWIGHT TWILLEY BAND and THE DREAM SYNDICATE and all have in common? Bassist Dave Provost, that’s who. Who has played in musical aggregations with the likes of AL GREEN, SKY SAXON, and KATHY VALENTINE? Dave Provost has.

Dave is a kind of rock n roll Zelig, somehow popping up at all the crucial turns and twists in LA rock history during the past 4+ decades. Over the years his formidable musical & rhythmic chops got him seats next to some seriously world-class musicians, while his gregarious, outgoing nature had all the rest inviting him to their after-gig parties. And now, he’s now spilling the beans about it all, starting with this post.

This is really, really good news to those of us who appreciate just where this man’s walked and rocked in his lifetime. So please: do take a seat at the feet of Mr Dave Provost for a spell, and follow him in his search for lost rock n roll time.

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The Droogs In Union Station

ichard and Roger Zumwalt spent their early years in Heidelberg, Germany, where Roger was born. They were the sons of an American military father and a French mother. The boys spoke English and French. Living in post-war Europe would have a lasting effect on the songs and music that The Droogs would make for the rest of the 20th century.
                                                   
The Zumwalts moved to California, and eventually settled in the San Fernando Valley. Younger brother Roger learned to play the guitar, and the two started a garage band named Savage Rose. They also went back and forth with the name Mother’s Milk. They played mostly covers, and a few originals. They worked the teen fairs and sock hops.

In the early 70s they changed the name of the band to the Droogs, after the street gang from A Clockwork Orange. To them, the name was a double entendre: droogeries are pharmacies in parts of Europe. The brothers also dropped their last name, and using just their middle names, became Rich Albin and Roger Clay. The two are very protective of their past. They are very nice, warm people that maintain a dark, almost gothic undercurrent. These are guys that cite Leonard Cohen as a major influence.

Punk music of the 60s had ended much to soon for the Droogs, and they set out on a mission to keep it alive. Since they didn’t have a snowball’s chance of getting signed, they decided to start their own label. A lot of the obscure groups that they had loved in ‘66 were on small labels, but the labels were not owned by the band.

The boys filed all of the legal papers required to copyright a record label, contracted the pressing plant, procured a studio, and hired a producer. The brothers did their own mailing too. This was 1972, long before it became de rigueur for Punk bands to release their own product.

Knowing that having the representation of a manager was important, but not wanting to relinquish any control, Rich invented an alter ego named “Wayne Davies” that only existed on the telephone, on contracts, and in Rich’s mind. Over the next 30 years, Wayne would be the group’s only manager. It’s hard to fire an imaginary friend. Wayne could never come to any shows, or travel with the band due to his acute agoraphobia.

At the time, Roger was the recording engineer for Wolfman Jack’s radio show. He ran the board on the Droogs first session, and almost everything else that the band ever cut. They had plenty of moral support from from rock critics like Mark Shipper, Ken Barnes, and Don Waller, but none from fellow musicians. To Rich and Roger, bass players were just frustrated guitarists, and drummers were Philistines. I can’t disprove of the drummer accusation.

The first record was produced by Rockin’ Ronny Weiser at “Casa de Elvis” studios. Weiser was well known for producing artists such as The Rockabilly Rebels and Gene Vincent. Two songs were selected from their live set, “He’s Waitin” by The Sonics and “Lightbulb Blues” by The Shadows Of Knight. The 45 was a limited pressing, and became a very collectable Pre-Punk single years later. Paul Motter played bass, and Kyle Raven played drums. They were the first of what was to become a revolving door of rhythm sections.

Over the next decade the Droogs continued making homemade records and being an unpopular band in Los Angeles. Don Waller’s Imperial Dogs were the only local band that understood the Droogs. The former Zumwalt Brothers were in danger of becoming an anachronism.

—–

I’ve always made it a point to catch the opening act. Somewhat out of respect, but also because I never like to tell the backstage lie “you guys were great!” knowing that I was really in a Mexican restaurant at the time. Having been a perennial opener myself, I was used to hearing it from the headliners.

I had seen the Droogs’ homemade records at stores like Bomp for a long time, and when they were on the bottom of the bill I decided to check them out. I stood in front of the stage with ten of their friends. The first thing that hit me was how much their guitarist looked like a young Jeff Beck, and that the singer looked like David Cassidy. The guitar was run in stereo with two amps placed on opposite sides of the stage. It was possibly the coolest tone that I’d ever heard. The singer sounded like a cross between Scott Walker and Keith Relf, a snotty baritone. Their rhythm section, however, was just sonic wallpaper.

Their set consisted of overdone cover songs, and some great originals. One song in particular caught my soul, “Only Game In Town,” which contained the most heartfelt lyrics about being in an opening band that I’d ever heard. True underdog greatness that could have been a Kinks song.              

I’m not an aggressive guy, but after the set I burst into their dressing room, and informed the Droogs that I am now in the band. This worked out fine because the bassist and drummer had just quit. The hierarchy seemed to accept the defection as a given. They had been through this many times before.

After the show I went out for coffee with Rich and Roger. We spoke of Salvador Dali, Lenny Bruce, and Son House. They weren’t typical rock musicians. They were culture vultures like myself, but they were far more worldly and sophisticated then I could ever be. They were also not forthcoming about the fact that they were brothers.

After a call from their manager – the illusive Wayne Davies – we started working on their first 12 inch EP, Heads Examined, which featured a cover of the Lollipop Shoppe’s “You Must Be A Witch”. Because of the group’s autonomous nature, the record date was fun and very low pressure. The Droogs had gotten recording down to a cost efficient art form.

I had however noticed a flaw that ran through most of their early singles. The arrangements were quirky, fragmented bits and pieces borrowed from rejected songs that they had written in the past. What garage punk aficionados saw as naive charm, I saw as unprofessional. From that point on, the Droogs allowed me to be the arranger.

The Droogs Live In Europe

With the enlistment of drummer Jon Gerlach we played four shows in three days on the East Coast. The first show was at the NY disco Danceteria. At the second show we preformed to a packed house at the Rat in Boston where we shared a bill with the Lyres who were an amazing band, and lovely people. Ira Kaplan from Yo Lo Tengo mixed our third date at Maxwells in Hoboken, and that same evening famed music historian James Marshall set us up on a 4 am show at an Alphabet City speakeasy called No Sey No, which to this day is still the best gig of my life. These three days would become the turning point for the Droogs, and the shape of things to come.

After our successful New York trip, the Droogs went back into the recording studio. We really liked what producer Earle Mankey had done for groups like the Long Ryders and the Three O’ Clock. He had also been the guitarist for Sparks, and having another musician in the fold was a great asset. Earle was truly a fifth member.

We liked his idea of only recording music that could be recreated live. Earle records one song at a time from start to final mix down. Mankey was also open to letting Roger co-engineer the sessions. I think that The Droogs’ Stone Cold World and Kingdom Day are both very great records. The cost of making the two LPs was under nine thousand dollars, and that included food runs to McDonalds.

Between 1983 and 1997 the Droogs released five studio LPs, two live LPs, an anthology of the early singles, and an EP. On our third album we broke loose from our self contained ways, inviting friends from other bands to write songs and sit in. Paul B. Cutler was the producer. Brian Hudson formerly with the astounding Cleveland punk band the Pagans became our drummer, and added a harder attack.

We’d struck a ten year deal with the German Psych label Music Maniac – our fictitious manager Wayne Davies handled all of the telephone negotiations with label owner Hans Kesteloo. All five of our European tours were stellar experiences. We were really in our element, with pubs, fine dining, and art museums. The venues kept getting bigger, and bigger. We no longer considered ourselves an LA band. The Droogs had no use for the Paisley Underground. Why the hell would we want to play to 50 people in Hollywood when we could sell out shows in Berlin or Madrid?

The British Heavy Metal magazine Kerrang had named Kingdom Day as one of the best albums of the year, and in 1988 our US label PVC booked us on a tour with British guitar god Robin Trower. The pairing of our groups was a perfect fit: a guitar lover’s dream. The Droogs became a harder act to follow. I don’t recall ever seeing a female face in the crowd between Chicago and Detroit. After the Trower dates we continued on our own tour of the South, and ended our jaunt with a victory lap around a sold out CBGB show in New York.

Much later in July 1997 we played our two final shows. Denmark’s Roskillde festival was extremely oversold, and had an audience of 90,000 drunken Vikings. The Droogs already had a Sunday opening slot for Supergrass and Isaac Hayes, when our road manager informed us that we had to be on stage to fill in for the Saturday night headliners the Wu Tang Clan. We followed Radiohead and the Smashing Pumpkins.

The anger caused by the Hip Hopers cancelation grew to a fever pitch. When Rich referred to the Wu Tang Clan as Wang Chung as a joke, the bottles started flying; our lighting director was knocked unconscious by a bottle that missed our drummer. No joke, it was a fucking bloodbath. We played our set, and got two encores. The Copenhagen newspaper stated that any European band would have left the stage at the first signs of violence, but because we were American we shrugged it off as just another night.

On the flight home we drank champagne and talked about Man Ray and Kienholz, but not a word was ever spoken about the band again. The Droogs went out On Top.

- Dave Provost

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