Dick Wagner: Invisible Virtuoso

Aquarian Weekly
5/9/12 Buzz

Guitar Legend Dick Wagner Bears His Soul in New Memoir

In a 1975 interview, conducted when he was musical arranger, band leader and co-lead guitarist for rock legend, Alice Cooper’s record-breaking Welcome to my Nightmare world tour, Dick Wagner, then 33 years-old, told the New Musical Express; “I don’t personally give a shit about being a star; I just want to be a good guitar player. But if that means becoming a star then I’ll become one on a natural basis. I go on pure gut feeling; I was invited to play on Bowie’s tour, but I turned it down even though I really liked David, because it didn’t feel right. One thing I’ll never do is let this business make me crazy. I always try to pace myself when I’m on the road, and when I get some time off I go hang out with my friends and have nothin’ to do with any of it.”

Dick Wagner

Nearly 40 years later, approaching 70, Wagner has never changed his tune about being a star, which he achieved divergently through a lasting respect from rabid rock fans and industry insiders, especially fellow musicians, and long surpassed being a good guitar player throughout a career filled with incredible high and lows. The part about the business not making him crazy, however, was a little more difficult. Serious life threatening and relationship damaging sexual and drug addictions were a constant undercurrent to one of rock’s most compelling arcs.

It is all well documented – dark reflections, humorous anecdotes and insightful memories – in Wagner’s tightly presented memoir, Not Only Women Bleed, titled after one of his most memorable compositions, the achingly poignant, “Only Women Bleed”, a song most known, as many of Wagner’s best work, for someone else.

“I tried to avoid bragging on myself in this book,” Wagner explains, sitting comfortably in his desert home in Arizona. His voice, ragged from years of smoke, drink, and vocal shredding, still evokes the rough affect of his Detroit youth. “It would have been easier to bullshit, but people can read through that. It’s just a story of a human life. I mean, the things that happened to me are unique because they happened to me, but they could have happened to anyone.”

A survivor of serious drug exploits and, more recently, surgery to remove a blood clot on his brain, Wagner humbly reminisces about the days when he was best known for being one of the top studio and touring guitar sidemen in the world; asked to lead international tours for Alice Cooper, jump-starting Lou Reed’s solo live career and subbing on lead guitar (in some cases un-credited) for Aerosmith’s Joe Perry (Get Your Wings) and KISS’s Ace Frehley (Destroyer). His songwriting partnership with Alice Cooper, who in his heartfelt preface to the book, once filed Wagner under “guitar players I’d like to steal”, produced some of the most theatrical tracks of the era and hit ballads like “Only Women Bleed”, “I Never Cry”, “You and Me”, and “How You Gonna See Me Now?”

Yet many rock fans would fail to pick him out of a line-up.

“I’m an artist and have been since I started doing this,” Wagner insists. “For me, it’s about playing well and doing different projects and being able to handle all these different kinds of music and being able to play something great every time. That was my goal… always.”

A studio engineer who, before working with Wagner for the first time in the mid-Seventies, idly queried if he was as good as advertised to famed producer, Bob Ezrin, who used Wagner either exclusively or strategically on most of his projects. Ezrin simply raised his eyebrows and said, “He’ll play, you’ll hear, you’ll know.”

“I’m an artist and have been since I started doing this,” Wagner insists. “For me, it’s about playing well and doing different projects and being able to handle all these different kinds of music and being able to play something great every time. That was my goal…always.”

As if there were a red emergency phone always near-by, Wagner recounts his guitar gun slinging days when he could get a call at any time from either coast and have to be ready to perform on records that were huge hits; “Sometimes I would know a couple of days ahead about a session, and sometimes, like for instance with Aerosmith, I got the call when I was sitting in my apartment at The Plaza, grabbed my guitar and went down to the studio.” Then, after absorbing the track, under pressure and with a looming minute-by-minute deadline, Wagner would sit in a corner and craft his part. “My philosophy in playing on somebody else’s record was get inside and learn the song and treat your guitar playing as an extension of what the melody of the song is and the mood, the attitude of the song; staying, of course, within the confines of what the chord changes are. There are limitations, but you also have complete freedom when they just give you a spot and say, ‘Go for it’, you got a chance then to come up with something that will be lasting.”

Wagner’s whirlwind rock and roll life, as depicted in is his book, was a rollercoaster ride of dizzying proportions. None of it – the women, the hijinks, the bizarre to the sublime – is left out. The reader is invited backstage and on stage, riding on the tour buses, cavorting in the hotel rooms and sequestered inside the studios, while also crawling through an addict’s shadow of desperation and amazingly find a guiding light.

Not Only Women Bleed harkens back to the burgeoning Detroit rock scene filled with the who’s who of late-Sixties and early Seventies pioneers of what champion rock critic, Lester Bangs once dubbed “the rattly clankings” of blue-collar, assembly-line heavy metal; Iggy and the Stooges, Grand Funk Railroad, the MC5, Ted Nugent and more. Wagner’s slick leads and becoming a master composer of both blistering jams and tender ballads penned for such local acts as The Frost and Ursa Major earned him the repudiation of guitar virtuoso, jumping into difficult back-up band jobs to expand the primacy of the stars.

Rock n' Roll AnimalThe best example being the searing duel-guitar suite that opens Lou Reed’s “Sweet Jane” with fellow guitar great, Steve Hunter that appears on the classic live album Rock and Roll Animal, which inspired a generation of axemen. According to reports at the time, Reed was so jealous of the glowing press and wild accolade from concertgoers directed towards Wagner and Hunter he sacked the entire band. The record went gold, prompting RCA to release second volume, Lou Reed Live a year later, which lead Wagner and Hunter, along with Reed’s entire touring band, to lend its magic to the new Alice Cooper solo project and its ensuing massive tour.

When asked to describe the guitar as if it were a seminal relationship in his life, much like he does with all of his friends and colleagues in the pages of Not Only Women Bleed, Wagner does not hesitate. “It’s really like a lifelong marriage with a woman who is your soul mate, who is always there for you and you always carry her with you in your heart. I used to sleep with my guitar. I don’t mean sex. I used to take it to bed with me, so that if I woke up in the middle of the night I could play it. I had a boom box I kept beside the bed and I had these tapes with backing tracks for the blues and lie there in bed for hours and play guitar to it. That’s how I learned how to play, to completely involve myself in it. It’s like a marriage. It’s the two of you; a way to hide, express yourself and go outward. It can become all things. The guitar has been that important to me.”

But although defined by the instrument, if not secretly becoming among the best guitarists of his generation, Wagner’s story is that of survival, both personal and professional. Even in the midst of recovery from brain surgery in 2011, he worked on two songs for Alice Cooper’s Welcome 2 My Nightmare, the sequel to his and Wagner’s collaborative 1975 masterpiece. And as Wagner reflects now, as he does in Not Only Women Bleed, the long, hard but rewarding road can lead to better places; “When I wrote the last chapter of the book in recovery from brain surgery, it was a completely cathartic moment in my life and it really made me feel kinder, closer to humanity. It very much was a bearing of my soul. Without sounding pretentious, I have to say I understood something lying in that hospital that I never understood before.”

Wagner’s unique rock and roll journey is a touchstone in American music history, even if much of it has been behind the scenes or inside the hub of creativity, and it is about time it receives its due.

But for Wagner, he can take it or leave it. For him, it is the camaraderie, the inventive pursuits and his beloved instrument that has fueled him and the pages of his fine book all these years later.

“I received a lot of ‘non-credit’ credits and some attention over the years, but my favorite may be one time when I took my sons to see Aerosmith at the San Antonio Convention Center,” Wagner fondly recalls. “Steven Tyler put his arm around me in front of all those people backstage and said, ‘This is the guy who helped us sell three million records’. I really appreciate that more than anything.”

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