If the great cowboy star John Wayne were to describe the collected works of Don Conka, he would say "Slim and zip...and Slim just left town." The original drummer for Love -- a classic West Coast psychedelic and folk-rock outfit of the '60s -- as well as a Love drummer in several revived lineups of the band decades later, Conka appears on no recordings by Love or anyone else, wrote no songs, shows his face in no videos. His death circa 2004 was a reminder, however, that there are other ways to become part of a band's legacy besides participating in documentation and publishing enterprises.
A bandmember could be mentioned in the lyrics of a song, for example, maybe even a famous song. Considering the lack of royalty payments, this might even be more desirable than a recording credit; in fact, it is easy to imagine many people regarding such a mention as the coolest thing on earth. Conka is the "D.C." mentioned in "Signed D.C.," an absolutely haunting, grim portrait of a junkie that stands among Love leader Arthur Lee's greatest achievements. That is certainly enough to make Conka more important in the procession of Love drummers than, for example, the somewhat ham-handed but infinitely more reliable George Suranovich. But it gets better: Conka is mentioned in two, not one, Love songs. A much less direct reference takes place in the lyrics to "You, I'll Be Following," a toe-tapping folk-rock ditty sometimes mistaken for the stalkers' national anthem.
The character described in the lyrics of "Signed D.C.," with lines such as "I've pierced my skin again, Lord," was unfortunately not far from Conka's reality. His lifestyle was so precarious that many who knew him were initially surprised by the announcement of his death only because they thought he had already dropped dead. One of these is Hank Gonzalez, a Western swing and Texas psychedelic bandleader who auditioned Conka for a band in the '80s. "I almost hired him on the spot because I was so sure he was dead," Gonzalez recalls.
Some fans of Love would be forgiven for assuming the latter character doesn't know what he is talking about, since Gonzalez is one of several performers who have placed cover versions of "Signed D.C." on compilations of songs inspired by cities. "I knew it was about Don Conka at the time," Gonzalez insisted in an interview. "But the producer didn't. He was such a lame-brain he thought it was a song about Washington, D.C."
Conka's Love line runs back to the first half of the '60s. Lee's bandmates in these earliest versions of the band included John Fleck, who would later join the Standells. Conka was gone by the time Love finally made its debut album, by which time "needles" would have been a more accurate description of his instrument of choice than "drums." Despite the anti-addiction emotions conveyed so memorably in "Signed D.C.," heroin also became a problem for some of the players who remained in Love as well. Conka's status in the music business during the '80s was unique, to say the least. He was considered to have died not just because he was a heavy junkie but because a song had suggested that he was going to die.
As a contrast to those bad vibes, Lee must have been happy to have Conka back in the musical picture in the '90s. It was a version of Love that also featured the fine guitarist Shuggie Otis, but unfortunately no recordings were ever made with this lineup. A few other members of Love from the early days died around the same time as Conka, suggesting the kind of conspiracy involving the murders of obscure sidemen fictionalized by Carl Hiassen in his novel Basket Case.