Dick Wagner: Not Only Women Bleed

    icon Feb 09, 2012
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Additional reporting by Robert E. Martin.


When it comes down to the topic of creation, not in the book of Genesis, but in terms of the creation of Classic Rock 'n Roll of an epic proportion, there is no finer exponent than Saginaw's legendary Dick Wagner.


While there exist many Michigan artists of greater notoriety, whether the reference point centers upon the incendiary blue-eyed Rock 'n Soul of Mitch Ryder & the Detroit Wheels, the proto-punk anarchy in the USA exported by the MC5 and Iggy Pop, or the rabid survival-of-the-fittest mentality as displayed by contradictory mindsets such as that of Ted Nugent; none have been able to touch that delicate arena of balance that begins with melodic simplicity - the fundamental building block of Rock 'n Roll as an art form - and evolve the intimations of notation from a simple song structure into a nuance of complexity as revelatory as it is eternally fresh.


From the Beatlesque emotive wonder spun with such timeless gems as Baby Boy and Bad Girl with The Bossmen, to his days penning rust-belt psychedlia with The Frost, fanning into the long and winding road of epic collaborations with Alice Cooper on - of all things - ballads that serve as inspiration for the title of his autobiography - Dick Wagner has stood as a singular artist, born and bred from the Great Lakes Bay - who's true gift lay within an ability to take the root of passion and pulse embedded within the core fragment on any given song and render it into an epic of majestic depth coupled with timeless mystery.


Wagner's finest moment committed can be witnessed with none other than the insufferably self-possessed Lou Reed on Rock 'n Roll Animal - arguably, one of the best Live rock albums ever recorded.  Wagner, along with guitarist Steve Hunter, take Reed's Sweet Jane to an entirely new level of stratospheric passion by fleshing out Reed's junkie minimalism with an expressively intricate introductory translation of guitar driven bedrock that stands today as one of the most inspiring musical constructions ever committed to posterity.


Indeed, when Rolling Stone covered the comeback that Reed made with Wagner/Hunter on Rock 'n Roll Animal, Reed fired the band shortly after the cover story appeared, feeling the two guitarists received too much attention from photographer Annie Liebovitz.  But hey, that's the way ex-junkies tend to roll. And ultimately, the proof resides in the pudding of the grooves, which thankfully is immune from ego.


But Wagner's performance on Rock 'n Roll Animal is symptomatic of both his greatness and his weakness, centered upon a perhaps fated and uncanny ability to translate the creations of other artists more remarkably and seemingly effortlessly than he was ever able to get his own material across to the masses.


And this subtext resonates throughout the pages of Only Women Bleed like the unspoken elephant in the room. So let us start by way of disclaimer. Neither Bo nor I are disinterested observers of Wagner's career. We've known each other for several years and in that time we've spun the karmic wheel and embraced some level of acceptance for each other's foibles.


As Bo puts it, “At times I Imagine Wagner sees me as a rabid fan that squeezes him into a corner just to say “I really like your work with Alice Cooper - what's he like?” But there's no avenue of escape and he averts his eyes, and shifts his weight from one foot to the other until he spies another annoying fan and makes his exit by introducing us. It is clever and protective especially when you are the mystery man.”


This book is carved into vignettes that contain several short paragraphs with cohesive themes. It creates a sense that it's a quick read - and it is. But it also leaves one with a feeling that Wagner is sometimes skimming surfaces and leaving things out, cocking the bow but not releasing the arrow. Ironically, exactly the opposite of what he is able to do with his music.


This is somewhat true in the vignettes about the Bossmen and the Frost. From 1964-1972, Wagner's learning curve was incredibly high. He was a quick study who seemed to grasp and assimilate more sophisticated constructions into his various projects, whether it was the Frost, The Cherry Slush, Count & the Colony or the Terry Knight & the Pack. He was all over the map with a boundless source of creative energy. These were formative years for Wagner and his cohorts. Like a smithy bending hot iron with a hammer and anvil, Wagner pounded out sturdy little ditties that were both charming and durable. They have stood the test of time. These early garage masterpieces were the building blocks of his craft. The caterpillar spins the cocoon and the butterfly emerges.


Wagner opens the book with a brief statement about his birth on December 14th, 1942. The first vignette skips over six decades to Wagner's 60th birthday celebration at the State Theater in Bay City Michigan. Bo and I were both there and the venue was packed.  He was rebuilding his vision and commitment to Saginaw by launching a new studio; and one couldn't help but note Edgar Winter also in attendance.


But the book really starts to cook when he writes about meeting and performing with several of his rock & roll heroes. He recalls when his first band, the Invictas, backed Jerry Lee Lewis at a roller rink on Ortonville, Michigan. He drove up in an emerald green Cadillac, a fifth of Jack in his hands and yells out “The Killer has arrived.” Wagner was only seventeen years old. It wasn't too long after that when he backed Roy Orbison at a gig at Devils Lake Pavilion near Adrian Michigan and accompanied him back to the hotel. Orbison asked young Wagner if he'd like to listen to a couple of new songs he was working on. He proceeded to play Candy Man and Crying.


In the late sixties Wagner played with his rock & roll idol Little Richard at the Grande Ballroom. It was an unexpected appearance that also included Johnny Winter, Mitch Ryder and the Frost. Little Richard was in full camp wearing a suit made of mirrors.


It was a baptism.


Wagner describes his first live performance in Union Lake Michigan during a Paul Bunyan Days celebration. He was just a freshman in high school but had the pluck and courage to sing a current radio hit Sugaree in front of 500 people and pulls it off without a hitch. It was the moment when he found his voice.


Wagner describes an incredible cauldron of characters that seemed to emerge from a cloud, an ancient time when a person's quirks were embraced instead of medicated. Teep Wicker was a huge Elvis fan, perhaps the first Elvis impersonator - though he couldn't sing worth a hoot and bore no resemblance to his idol. Wild Bill Emerson was an extraordinary guitarist in the Mac Vickery and the Driving Band. He played left handed and had to turn his guitar upside down to play it. He would attach a little monkey on a string to his guitar and set it on fire, years before Hendrix became a pyromaniac. Emerson taught Wagner about using banjo strings on his guitar so he could bend the strings more readily. And Wagner continued working with Vickery in a traveling gypsy caravan called Dr. Silkini's Magic and Horror Show. It's a great story, a definite hoot.


In 1962 Wagner joined the Eldorados, a great Detroit show band that included Warren Keith on piano. This was a fortuitous event that created the opportunity for Wagner to enter the next phase of his musical journey.


The Playboys were the first rock band in Saginaw, Michigan. Butch White was the lead singer and guitarist, an enormous talent and unsung hero of the early rock & roll scene. The other members included Pete Woodman (drums), Lanny Roenicke (bass) and the aforementioned Warren Keith. As circumstances would have it, White was married and needed a day job to provide for his family. He was a weekend warrior. He left the Playboys at the request of his wife, leaving a gaping hole in the band's lineup. Warren Keith had been impressed by Wagner's skills in the Eldorados and recommended him. So Lanny and Pete fetched Wagner from his home in Waterford and brought him up to Saginaw. Under Wagner's leadership a good band became a great band that set attendance records at the Village Pump in Bridgeport. This was only the beginning.


Wagner gives full credit to the Bossmen in helping to establish his rock & roll credentials. He also gives credit to Bob Dyer and Dick Fabian, starmaker Deejays who championed the Bossmen and were instrumental in advancing their career. Each of the Bossmen 45's reached #1 on the Saginaw charts. They were our Beatles. Massive crowds followed them from Daniel's Den to The Y A- Go-Go, the Village Pump, and Mt. Holly. They had a fan club that issued Christmas cards and “Bossmania” buttons as well as regular newsletters. Wagner's future business manager, Mary Anne Reynolds-Burtt was a member.


The vignettes that detail Wagner's influence in Saginaw provide a road map of memories for any of those early fans who came under the spell of his musical adventures.  The Frost expanded Wagner's vision. Each stage of his career involved an evolution to greater artistry and a broader perspective. The Frost sounded like the Beatles on steroids but by their last LP, Through the Eyes of Love, they had developed a hard rocking sound that set the stage for Wagner's next project.


Wagner describes Ursa Major as a milestone in his songwriting, production and arranging. The band hit the road opening for Jeff Beck and Alice Cooper. Wagner acknowledges that though the music was a huge step forward, Ursa Major “was destined to be a single, great, seminal rock album”


Bob Ezrin's influence on Wagner's career cannot be overestimated. He was responsible for linking Dick to Lou Reed and helping to re-establish his relationship with Steve Hunter. The vignettes that cover this stage of Wagner's career are an excellent read. It takes you on a high-speed chase with hairpin turns. It's exciting, almost breathtaking. It leads the reader step by step to the upper stratosphere of rock & roll - the music, fame, money, adulation and all the excess - culminating with the Welcome to My Nightmare Tour. 


By all accounts it was a landmark event that was well conceived and executed - the biggest grossing tour '75. The music was superb, fantastic. They were “the best band in the land.” They were Hollywood Vampires. All this glory set the stage for the next phase of Wagner's life.


The Richard Wagner album was a great showcase for Wagner's skills and could have been a springboard to a successful solo career. But things started to go wrong almost immediately. It started with a battle over the title. Wagner wanted Dick Wagner: Nights in The Heartland but Atlantic Records insisted on Richard Wagner.  It flopped.


Wagner has a tendency to go down a few side roads in the book as when he mentions his IQ score, The Girl Rule or having six partners in one night of Dionysian excess. That he details his sexual experiences is mostly unnecessary, as one is less interested in those adventures than what underlies them - the root cause, the core wound.


He reveals his early abuse and the invalidating family environment that caused him to internalize negative messages such as “you will never amount to anything” or “you are worthless.” Later, as a young aspiring musician, he was sexually assaulted by the Invictas manager. He kept this toxic event secret, hidden away in a compartment of his mind where it festered and quietly undermined his capacity to trust and to love. It appears that these early wounds set stage for Wagner's later sexual behavior that, by his description, contained elements of hostility and exploitation e.g., having sex with a woman and pushing a slice of blueberry pie in her face.


His insistent numbing through the use of drugs, his high level of arousal, and buried anger were symptoms associated with those early experiences. This is the perfect storm of shame and doubt that led to a spiral of failed relationships, addiction and a stalled out career. This book could be titled “The Healing” because Wagner brought these memories back up to the surface after years in hiding. It's called exposure - revealing dark secrets and past trauma by writing (talking and thinking) about them.


It is the substance and process of recovery.


It is courageous.


This book is a must read for anyone who has followed Dick Wagner's career, especially for people who came of age in Michigan during the sixties and seventies The casual fan may not know about Dick Wagner so the link to Lou Reed and Alice Cooper is critical to the overall success and sales of Not Only Women Bleed.


The book is as entertaining as it is revealing. Some may wince at the graphic detail of Wagner's Dionysian fall from grace but will also applaud his honesty and willingness to take ownership of his wrongdoing and to seek forgiveness.


Not Only Women Bleed is available @ Amazon.com. It is only $9.99 but you need to download a Kindle in order to format the book so you can read it. It's a good read, accessible, hilarious and graphic. Any fan of classic rock & roll will love this book.


And its breaking records of a different format, having logged as Amazon's top selling new release in the musical autobiography genre. 


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