Lou Reed and Dick Wagner

What He Is Is What He Is

Dick Wagner, sideman to the stars

by Daniel Siwek

Dick Wagner What do Aerosmith, Lou Reed, Alice Cooper and Kiss have in common aside from the makeup and the sex, drugs & rock and roll? Dick Wagner. If he never wrote a hit heÕd still be a Detroit music legend with his psychedelic garage rock band The Frost, but lucky for us he did write hits and provide the above-mentioned artists with masterful and iconic guitar work that should qualify him as a Rock and Roll Hall of Famer on those merits alone. With Steve Hunter he made twin-axe-attack history on ReedÕs Rock and Roll Animal, specifically a Velvet Underground-goes-Allman Brothers version of ÒSweet Jane.Ó Then there was the duoÕs trick or treat on Alice CooperÕs solo debut, Welcome To My Nightmare, where Wagner would also co-write ÒOnly Woman Bleed,Ó a song covered many times by artists from Tina Turner to Guns ÔN Roses.

The hit streak with Cooper continued but so did his not-so-secret gig of ghost-shredding for high-profile bands when their lead guitarists either couldnÕt cut the mustard or were too busy at a card game to make it to the studio (fans of Ðsmith and Kiss know who weÕre talking about); and it was pretty much a guarantee that if you saw Bob EzrinÕs name as a producer you were going to be hearing Dick Wagner. Backing up these big names came somewhat at the expense of WagnerÕs own solo career, but not completely, as his recent retrospective album Full Meltdown (Desert Dreams Records) proved. After a nearly fatal heart attack and stroke, WagnerÕs had to train his hands all over again on the guitar, but after some blood, sweat and tears the wizard is casting magic all over again, as he just completed an American tour to promote his comeback album and his new biography, Not Only Woman Bleed ( http://www.wagnermusic.com/ebook.html).

BLUEFAT: Not Only Women Bleed is a great title for this book, but another Alice Cooper title, ÒWhat I Am Is What I AmÓ [from a line in Cooper/WagnerÕs 1977 song ÒYou and MeÓ] would have also been appropriate, right?

DICK WAGNER: It would be a great idea for even a subtitle. It felt very freeing to finally say things in my own voice and my own style, you know? I tried to be honest and open about what itÕs like to be a touring artist and recording artist, and tell my life story at the same time; but I do think itÕs a universal story, because some of the things that IÕve experienced are everyday, walk-of-life sort of things. I really wanted to express the idea that IÕve lived an extraordinary ordinary life.

When did you feel that you were really back?

I felt vindication when I was playing on stage one night in Michigan, and it was like, wow, it just clicked. I felt loose again, I felt like I could play and invent, you know, because IÕve always been a player that took chances. It felt even better knowing the audience loved it. ThatÕs when I felt like I was back and I started booking shows. IÕve got a booking agent thatÕs getting me a European tour and IÕm working on Australia. ItÕs an expensive proposition but I have to do it: IÕm turning 70 this year, IÕm at an age that I never thought IÕd get to but IÕm still out there playing. IÕm still alive and IÕve still got music to play. IÕm still writing.

What do you think about the music scene today?

ItÕs very tough when you hear the music thatÕs out there, from Bruno Mars to Justin Bieber and Maroon Five. I suppose they own the market place, and I have to go strictly by my name to get the bookings, but thatÕs okay, itÕs my name. The record business sucks, and itÕs very difficult to sell CDs these days, but I still do at my gigs, and people are buying them. In fact, IÕm finding out that kids actually love music again, and theyÕre cool with going out to see people who are a little older, because IÕm having sold-out audiences. IÕve been doing this for almost 50 years now, and my career still amazes me, because now IÕve got fans on social networks, and IÕve come back from illnessÉIÕm out there promoting the book, and weÕre working on Sirius, and hopefully an appearance on Howard Stern.

If thatÕs the case, letÕs get to the Howard Stern questions, like what about those twins you mention in your book?

I was young and I was very capable. Thinking back on it, you donÕt get that often, and that was a perfect day, I must say. They were identical! Just imagine that. You imagine that and then you read the book and see how titillating it is; but it actually happened, and itÕs a good story to tell, you know?

It seems that you were trading licks with more than just Duane Allman; the legendary Sweet Connie even comes up. Can you tell us about the whole groupie era?

Connie was a notorious groupie and she was with everybody. She fell in love with our road manager and she did her usual trip with the whole band, and then he dumped her. That was the time, that was my life, you know? Touring, playing, traveling, and there was always a woman around, and it was amazing how the whole sex scene was free and easy. Back then if you were a touring rock & roll musician the girls were just part of the natural flow. They loved it, and I was addicted to a lifestyle and conquest and partying. But in the end it cost me my health and gave me a heart attack. Now IÕm in it strictly for the music.

How do you look back on The Frost, your band that ruled MichiganÕs Grande Ballroom in its day?

The Frost never got its due. I think the music was ahead of its time and we were a monster band live. If we were on the right record label and had the right push we could have been another Who.

How did you go from meeting Alice Cooper to being one of the most trusted co-writers/sidemen in the business?

Alice and I did a show together once and he introduced himself and said that he loved my guitar playing and my songwriting. I went to Shep Gordon and told him that I had all these songs and wanted to do an album, but he told me that Alice was about to do a solo album and asked me to help him put a new band together, as well as be a co-writer and his new lead guitarist. It fell into my lap, and even though I turned down working on a solo album to go with Alice, it worked out pretty well.

Your appearance on CoopÕs ÒSchoolÕs OutÓ went uncredited, so people may have thought you played with Lou Reed after The Frost.

Lou Reed was definitely a step up from whatever notoriety I had with The Frost, and that particular live album we did, Rock and Roll Animal, is legendary. So I got a real good boost out of that and managed to get all the guys to come over to Alice CooperÕs band when he wanted to change.

That band, the one that recorded ReedÕs Rock and Roll Animal and, later, CooperÕs Welcome to My Nightmare, was really slick, progressive and funky. Do you think that you guys influenced BowieÕs band to also get super tight and funky for David Live, and not just the Philly soul as he said?

ThereÕs no doubt about it, you can hear the influence. We had a very talented, very progressive band, and without patting myself on the back too much, I think it was the best rock & roll band ever assembled at the time. Every night was perfect. ItÕs hard to be objective because I was there, but we were the best out there.

The twin guitar attack of you and Steve Hunter has a cult of its own. What was that musical relationship like?

There was just an immediate flow between Steve and I because our sounds were similar but we also came from slightly different backgrounds. We both agreed immediately to share the spotlight and the solos 50/50, and it worked out perfectly.

What about your relationship with sweet Lou himself?

I think he thought I was just an ordinary guy and that he was something special. I donÕt know that to be a fact, but he did once tell me, ÒYouÕre so predictable.Ó I donÕt know if he was referring to a song I was playing or what, but Lou wasnÕt that kind to me. He loved my arrangements for the Rock and Roll Animal tour, but he didnÕt like all the attention that was going to me and Steve, so I got fired. ÒThatÕs it,Ó he said, ÒI wanna go in another direction.Ó But for a while there, I was the main guy: I was the band leader, the arranger, and I was handling some of the business for the band just like I would do with AliceÉso I was the first to go. But thatÕs okay; I knew I could manage myself without Lou Reed or without Alice Cooper. I did a lot with these people, but at the same time I did it on my own, and IÕm still out there playing and producing.

You were Bob EzrinÕs ace in the hole on more than one occasion, from Lou to Alice to Kiss. Do you think he had a divide-and-conquer attitude in the studio [where heÕd work with the star of a band, leaving the others expendable]?

I never heard him say that, but in practice, I guess he comes in and exerts his authority. HeÕs hard to please, but heÕs also a genius. HeÕs a great producer and he knows whom to use, and even before a song was recorded he knew exactly how it was going to turn out. I learned a lot from him, and I know he learned a lot from me. He brought me in on some really good sessions and we had a good relationship.

How would you describe the stamp you put on a recording or a performance?

Whether it was Lou or Alice, the image was one thing, but the actual music was often elegant and majestic. I mean, thatÕs the way I look at my writing, I have to feel like thereÕs an orchestra playing; even if itÕs three pieces, I hear an orchestra. Once you put me in charge of the band things tended to come out the way I do things; and by that I mean, why have me there if weÕre not going to do something on that majestic, concert, stadium level?

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