Dick Wagner

A Pod Returns to the Ship - Full Meltdown

Posted In: Arts & Entertainment, National Music, Artist Feature,   From Issue 735   By: Robert 'Bo' White

03rd November, 2011     0

Dick Wagner is a reluctant icon. He wants your attention but prefers the shadows. He will write great songs yet never reveal his true self. His strengths are in composing and arranging, but his lyrics will always lean towards the 'universal' as opposed to personal. I suppose there is too much at stake - as if a soul deep inner journey would propel him into uncharted territory and he would lose his way. It is a primal fear; a core wound.
 
So Wagner is destined to always be a mystery man. How could it be otherwise? 
 
Richard Allen Wagner was born in Iowa and developed his chops as a teenage phenomenon in Detroit. He practiced his craft daily much to the chagrin of his no-nonsense old school father. Wagner's obsession with the guitar amused and annoyed his father to the point where he would famously bellow,  “Lay of that E-string Richard.”
 
And like any dutiful son, Dick totally ignored his father and locked himself in his bedroom and played guitar until his fingers were bloody stumps. Wagner made his first big splash in mid-Michigan when Pete Woodman and Lanny Roenicke convinced him to join The Playboys - their massively popular band in Saginaw. Soon afterward Dick re-christened the group The Bossmen. And they were. 
 
In 1967 Wagner formed The Frost with Donny Hartman, Jack Smolinski and Bobby Rigg. It was a rock engine hitting on all the cylinders; melodic rock & roll with a punch, intelligent lyrics and great singing. When Gordy Garris replaced Smolinski in 1968, industry cognoscenti took notice - The Frost were the Beatles on steroids. Wagner's career kicked into high gear with legendary gigs where he helped musically reinvent Lou Reed and also formed a long-term collaboration with Alice Cooper. The rest is a history that includes ups and downs, heroes and villains and a whole lot of rock & roll
 
Dick claims that he has warm memories of Saginaw. As a budding sentimentalist, Wagner claims (with fingers crossed) he has fond memories of mid-Michigan, “I miss the cold winters, the snow storms, the vibrant economy… and I want a chance to play my music in front of friends and fans at least one more time.”
 
Wagner has formed a spectacular super group just for the occasion. The band features Al Bondar and Brian Bennett on Keyboards, Prakash John (Alice Cooper) on Bass, Jordan John on Drums, Robert Wagner on vocals, Ray Goodman (Mitch Ryder, SRC) and Dennis Burr on guitar and a special guest appearance of Bobby Rigg (The Frost). 
 
Wagner took a deep breath and ratcheted up half a smile, “I will be playing guitar, singing and reminiscing - the set list is more or less a retrospective with hopefully a couple new songs included”. He's a bit tight-lipped about his latest collaboration with Alice Cooper, the Welcome to My Nightmare II. “I haven't heard it yet, but I supplied the hit ballad and played guitar on the brilliant “Underture”.  It was my first recording session in 4 years, after my heart attack and a series of strokes.”
Wagner is fired up by his latest release from 2009, Full Meltdown.
 
Although Full Meltdown was released in 2009, many of Wagner's closest friends and fans, a group of Wagner loyalists known as the YES Team, were privy to several cassette tapes of his unreleased songs, many of which appear on this spectacular trove of buried treasures.
 
As Wagner and I forged a closer relationship I realized that my favorite-son icon was only human. It was a coming of age discovery that was as liberating as it was revealing though it caused considerable gravitational insecurity when my feet hit the ground.
 
Wagner developed a unique melodic style that was all his own - inverted chords, rapid-fire E string notations and economical use of sustain and tremolo. One needs to give a listen to the Best of the Frost LIVE at the Grande to astonish at his unencumbered talent.  Wagner is at his best arranging songs that could hold melody and harmony alongside masterful guitar playing. Years later Eric Clapton understood this lesson quite well when he dropped the guitar-god hype in favor of a deeper song craft with such great songs as Promises, Bell Bottom Blues, Let it Rain and Tears in Heaven.
 
Full Meltdown is a compendium of lost and forgotten songs that were excavated by a crack team of musical archeologists at Rhino Records in 2009. A Rhino executive called Dick to discuss releasing them. This puzzled Wagner, as he never had a Rhino record contract and no one could explain how the tapes ended up in the Rhino vaults.
 
Dick requested them back and they were returned forthwith. Dr. Gil Markle may be the unsung hero of this disc. An Internet search located Markle and the two friends were thrilled to catch up with each other and renew their friendship. Markle volunteered to master the songs from Wagner's 1979 Longview Farm Sessions as well as other songs that made the cut for inclusion on Full.Meltdown.
 
Longtime Wagner webmaster Don Richard helped collate several tracks recorded in LA 1988-1991 as well as tracks recorded in Michigan in 1995. The circle was complete and the songs were restored to their optimum glory. This is the Holy Grail for a Wagner compilation test. Take a listen…
 
1. Still Hungry - A majestic power ballad from 1991 that sounds like an outtake from a Flo and Eddie LP. It is intricate tempo changes, piano trills and a great Wagner vocal. The song gets a needed boost when Wagner unleashes a nuclear barrage of guitar virtuosity at the coda that signals a primal hunger - an urge that goes deeper than libido to a merging of souls through a deep sensual love. Mind, body and spirit. The soul does not need to be fixed; it needs to be heard.
 
2. Blue Collar Babies - A Hot Rocker and an almost screamed vocal with organ thrills, pumping bass and a heavy guitar over top of it all.  He's up and down the vocal charts - going down low like Fats Domino and screaming like Little Richard. Wagner is at his best displaying a McCartney-esque vocal range that he perfected with the Bossmen - check out Help Me Baby from 1965.
 
3. Insatiable Girl - a popping 2/4 Beat and Kinkified riffs. Wagner sings in a lower register on the verses - it's a song about sexual frustration.   On The Bridge Wagner promises he will give her everything she wants - but nothing seems to satisfy the insatiable girl - even Arnold Schwarzenegger. Wagner hits the E String hard and fast - conveying his frustration with a wall of guitar sounds not meant for the weak of heart.
 
4. I'd take the Bullet for You. A sad-eyed ballad filled with regret and longing. It is a soul-deep altruism that sustains Wagner as he faces a moment of truth. War is the metaphor for love in the Big City.  I'd take the bullet is about sacrifice in the name of love.  It's not so easy in the fast paced life of a New York Rocker. Wagner's economical guitar work is simply brilliant. It adds to the subtleties in the musical landscape that cannot obscure the pain in Wagner's vocal. It is like a mantra that has a hidden plea. It takes your breath away. This could be a father/son song or an ode to a lost love.
 
5. Another Twist of the Knife has an insistent straight up 2/4 beat that gives the song a thumping urgency. This is a break up song filled with anger and colored by a sense of betrayal. The singer keeps a brave face that can't quite hide the pain. This is Wagner at his most vulnerable - another gem. The punched up guitar work provides the musical landscape that holds competing emotions - love, anger, pain and doubt.
 
6. Stagger Lee.  Wagner's vocal is echoed and up front in the mix. It hardly sounds like him. The raucous arrangement barely allows Wagner to catch his breath. This is nothing like the Wilson Pickett or Lloyd Price R&B versions. It's a nuclear powered and idiom defying soul shaker that won't let go. Wagner blistery solo is an astounding statement of purpose. He remade Stagger Lee into a savage rocker. Stamp It - Wagner!
 
7.  Ecstasy is a power ballad of the 1st degree with several tempo changes, sophisticated arrangements and chord progressions. This powerhouse is from the 1991 the Music Grinder sessions. Wagner is in good voice and hits the higher registers of his impressive range and chorus "I need a little ecstasy.” The bridge is exquisite.
 
8. She Said is a gum chewing, finger popping pop song recorded in LA in 1988. This is Wagner's one-man show. He plays all the instruments and sings all the leads and harmony vocals. The synthesized backing gives it an orchestral feel
 
9. These Days. This song appeared to have a difficult labor and delivery. It is one of Wagner's most naked and honest songs. It is a stark lonely ballad with Wagner accompanying himself on piano. This song was birthed during the 1979 Longview sessions. Wagner seems to sing from his heart. The undiluted vocal is soulful ode to lost love. "It's hard living without you these days". It's a sad brokenhearted tale. Wagner brave vocal soars and cracks. You can almost hear him choke out the lyrics through his tears. This is Dick Wagner's lost masterpiece, a song of truth and pain.
 
10. Modern Times - Guitar is prominent. Vocal is up front and hot. It's a prayer of deliverance from the past and a vow to live in these "modern times". Wagner's guitar speaks as loudly as the lyrics. Love doesn't come easy for a tortured artist. Wagner is all over the charts on this. It's as disjointed as the era in which it was created.
 
11. I Might as Well be on Mars - Wagner composed with Alice Cooper in 1979. This is Dick's "one man band" version from 1991. This is a great unrequited love, perfect song no matter which way you cut it. I prefer a full band treatment I've heard Wagner perform it live several times -- always a highlight.
 
12. Steal the Thunder is another song from the 1991 music Grinder Session. This is a mid-tempo Brontosaurs - with a powerful chorus. Wagner's guitar work salvages this song from a musical black hole.
 
13. Darkest Hour - is the 1995 version of one of Wagner's greatest songs from his stint with Ursa Major. This version s a one man tour de force.  A great song no matter how you wrap it.
 
14. Motor City Showdown made its debut on a 1979 solo release entitled Richard Wagner - it was the highlight in an otherwise industrial LP. This is a soulful version from Wagner's lost Longview Farm sessions. He's cranking it out with all the cylinders firing.
 
15. Feel it all Over - is a perfect finish to Full Meltdown. A spare piano regales into a full frontal assault that hits you like a hard slug to the chest - vocals are mixed up front and shouted out above pounding drums and a rocking guitar. Wagner's vocal is amazing he goes from talkin' blues, to a low register to a high falsetto. It showcases how amazing Wagner was as a vocalist. He has incredible range and he sings sweet and low or he screams and shouts - whatever is needed or unexpected. Sometimes Wagner's vocal gymnastics are jaw-dropping unbelievable, as evidenced on this superlative performance.
 
Feel It All Over is another uncovered gem from 1979 - it was a good year for Wagner, musically speaking. It was a time when he reached out for autonomy and a chance to create music through his own unique perspective. In this case his vision was 20/20.
These songs should have been released 30 years ago. It's a dirty shame that the best music ever created is sometimes never heard. These lost treasures reveal Wagner's genius song craft and his ability to create music for the soul and for the heart.
This was Wagner at his youthful cock sure best. He deserved better than he got.
CODA:
 
For Dick Wagner, it had been quite a journey, from watching life from his window to responding to what he's observing and finally to attempt to see life as it really is; to move from being the “Mystery Man” to being Richard.
 
As a young man, just barely into his twenties, Wagner was regarded amongst industry insiders as an incredibly gifted talent, a musical prodigy of sorts that could do it all. He seemed to possess an uncommon mixture of talent and desire in what would become his calling, his fate.
But instead of predestined superstardom, Wagner's career became a series of fits and starts, early promise and lost opportunities. And though music provided the vehicle to experience his own nature in action, Wagner always seemed to step on the head of his shadow at those critical moments.
 
But on December 16 2003, the clear frosty night seemed to illuminate the silence in his mind. Dick knew from experience that things happened to him when he is quiet, reflective. He recalled his very first professional gig, just in his teens.
 
Dick put on a brave face but had to turn away from the audience during a solo when stage fright ratcheted his anxiety to almost an intolerable level, as it coursed through his body, his knees weakened, his mind became mush, and his fingers were paralyzed by millions of supercharged electrical impulses that tingled and snapped.  He just knew it - he was about to pass out or panic. Instead he turned his back on the audience and somehow found the courage to recover and play the solo, spot on the mark.
 
Wagner was never able to escape this performance anxiety, though he developed a routine to calm his fears. He would imagine each song, each performance and what he would say to the audience, an internal rehearsal of sorts that most public speakers or performers practice in some manner.
 
But in accessing the womb of his feelings and emotion, Wagner's memories would always surface sometimes welcome, sometimes not, but always without invitation. They seemed to mirror his longing.
 
Like his father's complaints about his exuberant and noisy guitar playing,” Lay off that E-String Richard”!   He would remember the high school sweetheart that he left behind. Her parents didn't approve. He wondered if she knew how successful he was and if she ever thought about him. 
 
Dick was celebrating his 60th birthday at the historic State Theater in Bay City Michigan. Located on the corner of 1st and 3rd, the storied venue had undergone a series of renovations. Like other clubs across the state, the theater was built in the mid-forties and was intended to bring in the most popular films of the day. As the market changed and robust corporate expansion created huge multiplexes, little gems like the State Theater, became passe' and folded quietly only to resurface in the sixties as teens clubs and concert venues.
 
The State was no exception, booking the best of local and national acts throughout the sixties and seventies, until the rot set-in and the appreciation of live original music became more and more of a cultish-like pleasure. Then the Theatre became reborn & refurbished.  The idea for the birthday show was cooked up between Wagner and his wife Sandy and his manager Mary Ann Reynolds-Burt. They took great pains to invite Dick's family and friends, his colleagues and fans, through hundreds of mailings, emails, phone calls and print advertising. Dick was proud of his music and of his band yet he agonized over his losses. “Damn, he thought, it's a bitch to be sixty”.
 
He began to envision a time of reckoning when he would no longer play his music onstage. Maybe that's what motivated Dick to offer his birthday up to a public display. It seemed out of character but it signaled another phase in his life, a healing that allowed him to touch his longing and mirror it back to us as love and awareness.
 
Yeah, Dick was ready for this night and he was prepared to open up his life for anyone who cared to take a look - to honor his impressive body of music from the Bossmen to Alice Cooper and beyond.
It was a gift to the people he loved most. It was an act of courage, a glorious night indeed. 

The Dick Wagner Show 'De-Frosted' will be happening on Friday & Saturday, November 18 & 19th at White's Bar. Dick will perform with special guest star Prakash John from Alice Cooper & Lou Reed, Ray Goodman (SRC & Mitch Ryder), with special guest appearances by Bobby Rigg of The Frost, Robert Wagner, Jordan John, Dennis Burr, Al Bondar, Brian Bennet, and Dave Wagner. Doors open at 5 PM and showtime is at 7:30 PM. Tickets are $20.00.  
 

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