A Creative Re-Birth: An Exclusive Interview with Dick Wagner

By Ryan Sparks, February 2012
Live Photo: Doug Diamond
Photo: Victory Tishler Blue

They don't call him the Maestro for nothing. For the past fifty years Dick Wagner's songs and distinctive guitar work have been featured on well over one hundred and fifty albums, ranging from Aerosmith, Lou Reed, Peter Gabriel and Kiss, to name only a few. Not to mention his pivotal role as musical director and close collaborations with shock rocker Alice Cooper throughout the 70's. Wagner was the cornerstone, co-writing some of the biggest hits of Alice's career including "Not Only Women Bleed," "Welcome To My Nightmare," "I Never Cry" and "You And Me". The tour behind Cooper's Welcome To My Nightmare album in 1975 helped to set the standard by which all future concert tours would be judged, as it combined a stellar one-two punch of dazzling theatrics and top notch musicianship, that was topped off by the searing twin lead guitar tandem of Wagner and Steve Hunter.

After his heady touring days with Alice ended, Wagner pretty much removed himself from the spotlight, yet remained active and in constant demand for his session and production work, something which he continues to this day. After suffering some serious health related issues over the past few years, that began with a near fatal heart attack in 2007, Dick has risen from the ashes and is thankfully undergoing a creative re-birth. He was not physically well enough to participate fully in Cooper's much anticipated Welcome to My Nightmare 2 album, and yet he once again delivered the goods by supplying Alice with another hit song in "Something To Remember Me By". He also turned in some scorching guitar work on the album's final track, "The Undurture". Although unable to tour on a grand scale with Alice and reunite with Hunter, last year marked the much heralded return to the stage for Dick as he embarked on a series of solo dates with his band to see if he could still cut the mustard. Fans lucky enough to witness these shows confirmed that Dick is not only back, but he's back in a big way!

In addition to committing himself to a handful of various different projects in 2012, Wagner has also just issued his autobiography, aptly entitled Not Only Women Bleed - Vignettes from the Heart of a Rock Musician, which is currently out as an e-book and can be purchased on Amazon. The book provides a fascinating glimpse into Dick's illustrious musical career, which will certainly to appeal to anyone curious about life on the road and the inner workings of the music business. There's plenty of sex, drugs and rock 'n roll to be found over the course of the book, as moments of professional triumph are interspersed with personal tragedy. Through it all Dick's natural candour, coupled with his wicked sense of humour, combine to make this a thoroughly enjoyable read from beginning to end.

In the following interview Dick speaks openly about his return to the stage and the new book, as well as what it was like to work with Alice and producer Bob Ezrin again.


Ryan: Before we start, how are you doing? Have you received a clean bill of health from your doctors?

Dick: I have indeed. I'm fine, I'm doing well.

Ryan: That's great. Hopefully with these health issues now firmly behind you in the rear view mirror, you're finally able to concentrate on making music and playing again. Have these health scares over the past few years changed the way you work at all and do you feel is there is more of a sense of urgency in your work now?

Dick: In a sense, but I think the urgency is more created by the amount of work that I have in front of me. There's just so many things that I have to accomplish. So that's the urgency. My health, I'm always aware of it and in the back of my mind I'm always asking myself how I'm feeling. I'm constantly monitoring myself to make sure that I'm not diving into too much. At this point I have a couple of projects that I'm working on, that I'm writing and playing guitar for.

We're doing a new Skinner Rat album and I'm going to be producing this band from Italy called The Mug Shots. I'm going to Italy in February to do the actual sessions, so I'm working on their material right now.

Ryan: You certainly seem to trying to make up for lost time as you've got a lot of different projects in the works for this year, which I'll ask you to talk more about in a little bit. First though, I want to ask you about your much heralded return to the stage that took place late last year. You did a short run of dates back on your home turf in Michigan, as well as Cleveland and a date in Canada. Describe the feeling you had when you walked out onto that stage for the first time and hit that first note. What was going through your mind?

Dick: The feeling was fantastic. I just felt so well received. I looked out at all these people and they were all there to see me. It wasn't like they were there to see Alice Cooper or Lou Reed or The Frost, they were there to see me. It was almost overwhelming, it was just beautiful. I didn't know if I was going to play that well, but I thought I did play really well. Especially towards the end, on those last few dates I was getting the mojo back. After going through all the illnesses and not having actually played the guitar for five years, I think I even surprised myself. I feel confident about the future, that I'm going to be able to do really well.

Ryan: So looking back on those gigs and getting the mojo back, it sounds like you're happy with the results. Normally it takes a bit of time for a band to iron out the kinks on the road before developing into a well oiled machine. Unfortunately, you didn't have the luxury to do that and coupled with the fact that you hadn't played the guitar in such a long time, but I'm sure it was a good test for you to see where you were at.

Dick: That's what it was. It was absolutely a test. I just needed to get out onstage and also to do it in such a way so I could see if I even have an audience, you know what I mean? That proved to me that I do have an audience and that I have a fan base that is supporting me. So I look forward to getting back out there this summer and really doing well. I hope to go to Europe and Australia and places like that. When I was at the NAMM show I made some contacts for some dates in Australia, so I'm working on that. I also got a call from the booking agent that is booking some dates for me in Michigan. I'm going to be doing a few in Detroit and in the western side of the state and then try to branch it out from there.

Ryan: You know how much I love that solo record that you put out in the late 70's (the Richard Wagner album was released on Atlantic in 1978). Did you ever get a chance to tour behind that album at all, or is this really the first time that your fans are getting a chance to see Dick Wagner solo?

Dick: Yeah, this is the first time. There I was, it was my show and people showed up, and they loved it. The reviews were really good and overall it just really gives me hope that I've got a career on my own. I don't have to play with Alice Cooper and I don't have to do any of that stuff anymore. At my age I'm not really into touring with somebody else. I will tour on my own, but it will be at a pace that I can actually handle. Alice goes out and plays four or five shows a week and he's got all the energy in the world, but he hasn't been sick. So for me it's a little different. I have to space the dates out a bit so that I can have time off. I just wouldn't be able to do four or five nights a week for seven months. I really couldn't handle that, it would be a little too much I think.

Ryan: You've played with so many great musicians over the years and you renewed some old friendships when you were putting your band together. Tell me a bit about the players you used and how you came to select them to help celebrate your return to live performing.

Dick: Well the first person was my son Robert. I've always worked with him on his music and I produced a couple of records for him. He's so talented. I asked him if he would join me on this tour. He's got a very successful band in Austin Tx. and he had to take time away from them, but they were totally supportive about him coming out here and playing with me, so it didn't turn out to be a problem at all. He was sensational. He was his usual self, he's a great front man. He adds another kind of energy to the show.

Then there was Prakash John who I played with in the Rock n' Roll Animal (Lou Reed) and Alice Cooper Welcome to My Nightmare band. I spoke to him and asked him if he would play bass on some dates with me and he was totally supportive. He came down and wanted to know if his son could play as well. It struck me at that moment that this would be cool, to have two different Father and son units. Jordan John is Prakash's son and he's just an amazing kid. He's twenty five. He's a great drummer and that's his primary instrument, but he also plays guitar. We were doing rehearsals at Ray Goodman's house, and I was in the kitchen when I heard this guitar playing coming from the basement and I thought "Wow, who is that?" I went downstairs and it was Jordan. This kid's been playing guitar for four years and he sounds like a monster. He's just an amazing talent. He plays keyboards the same way, so he was a very good addition to the band. He played drums with me. I'd be afraid to have him play guitar [laughs]. Besides I had Ray (Goodman) and Dennis Burr, two of the best guitar players from Detroit. They're both good friends of mine. I got them because I didn't just want competition for myself, but also to have that solid support of two of Detroit's best guitar players.

So we had three guitarists and it just sounded huge and beautiful. I think that worked out really well and in fact I think I'm going to use that approach again. There was some talk about Steve Hunter and I doing something and I think we will, but I think it will be around the beginning of next year. He just got off a seven month tour with Alice and he told me he's just completely exhausted. He just doesn't want to tour right now.

Ryan: In terms of the song selection, it was a real cross section of material from your back catalogue wasn't it?

Dick: Yeah, absolutely. I took some specific songs, for example a couple of The Frost songs and just did them with a new feel and new arrangements, just to modernize and rock them out a little more. So in these next shows I'm going to do a couple more Frost songs and give them the same kind of treatments. People will still recognize them and yet they'll be fresh and new at the same time. We did "Sweet Jane," the Lou Reed song. We did "Only Women Bleed" and "Welcome To My Nightmare," I think those are staples that I'll still be doing. Of course they're identified with Alice Cooper, but that's part of my identity with Alice. I had a big hand in those songs. I wanted to arrange them in such a way that they were modern and a little bit different. That's really what I want to do, is take a lot of this material from the last forty years and bring into a more modern sound, but also keep it familiar so people recognize the songs. I might also do the Air Supply hit that I had and the Nils Lofgren song "Shine Silently," which has been a hit over in Europe for years. It never really happened over here for some reason.

Ryan: And you never recorded your own version of it?

Dick: No, but I'm going to. That's one of my plans for the future, is to do my own version of that song. Anyway, first I'm going to put all that stuff together for the live show and then I'll add in some new material. The show was already two hours long, so I don't know maybe it will end up being a three hour show [laughs].

Ryan: With such an extensive back catalogue and a wealth of great material to choose from, including songs which I'm sure you've never performed live, the challenge is not only to, as you said modernize and rearrange the songs, but also to figure out what to and what not to include in the set list. That's got to be difficult.

Dick: It is, because when you get a band of players of this calibre, your first instinct is to give them all opportunities to shine in the live show. I have to do that, because that's what I'm all about. So the shows are going to naturally be long because of that. You want to make sure everybody has some time, as well as myself, because I like to take off on some solos now and then.

Everybody seemed to love it and they all stayed around. At the end it wasn't like I was playing to a quarter of the house, they were all still there just digging it. Hopefully I'll be able to keep that up. It might be because of the novelty of me actually being there, but on the other hand when I was out playing with my band in Saginaw (Michigan) during those kind of off years, everywhere I played they all stayed around, so there's some kind of power in the music I make that keeps people interested. That's kind of my formula for working. It's kind of a long show, but that's ok.

Ryan: Let's talk about your autobiography that you recently published, entitled Not Only Women Bleed. I know you poured your heart and soul into writing this book. When did you decide that this was something you wanted to do? Was writing the book therapeutic for you as you recovered from the effects of your heart attack?

Dick: Yeah, that's more or less when I started. I don't know how I got into this. I started writing a couple of stories; I had written this short story which I think is really good, but it's never been published. I finished that and I had just enjoyed writing it so much. I started writing little bits thinking maybe I was on the way to writing a book, so I just kept going, one memory at a time. I was getting them down and then trying to put them into sequence, so that there was some kind of flow to it. Because they were short stories in this vignette style, I felt that it was a sort of new way to approach writing an autobiography. I'm not sure if that's true or not.

Ryan: Well that's something that really appealed to me, that you took a different approach with regards to the layout of the book. You can open the book and start at the beginning or skip to a particular section.

Dick: Right. If you see a title in the list and it sounds interesting, you can click on it and if you think it turned out good, maybe if you do that a couple of times, you'll end up going to the beginning and read it from the start.

Ryan: That being said, it's also a very easy and thoroughly enjoyable read all the way through and I think that's the true testament of what separates a good book from a great one, is when the reader can't put it down and they want to finish it in one sitting.

Dick: Right, I hear you. Thank you.

Ryan: For someone who has made their career out of writing, playing, arranging and producing music, was the transition to writing a book a difficult one?

Dick: Not at all. This whole thing flowed naturally for me. I think it also opened me up as a person as well. It's made it easier for me to do interviews and things. I used to get a little bit, I don't know if you'd call it frightened or stage fright or whatever, but for example it was harder for me to handle doing a television interview. Now I feel a lot more comfortable doing it, like with you. If we had a camera in front of us it would seem very natural to me. So it's opened up my sense of myself in way that I'm more familiar with myself after having written this book. I understand what the hell I'm all about. It's definitely an ego driven thing that I even wrote a book. When you stop and think about it, it's pretty egotistical to sit down and write a book.

Ryan: Well not just to write a book, but to write a book about yourself.

Dick: Right. So you have to decide if you think your life is worth having someone read about it. I felt it was, having gone through a lot of different things, as well as having been associated with a lot of great artists and musicians. I knew that there would be that element to it that a lot of people would be interested in, just for the music business. But I had to tie that in with who I am and how I got involved in the music business, so it really just came naturally.

Ryan: So the challenge when writing it, was of course to make it an enjoyable read, but on the other hand not make it come across as some sort of self serving tribute.

Dick: I really tried to do that. Let's call it humility or whatever, but I really tried to temper the I, me, my, kind of thing. I was always aware of that as I went along, wondering if it was too much about myself. There were times when I would break off and write about something else or something inconsequential, but was still able to make a story out of it. Then you have to toss that all together like a salad. I had Suzy (Michelson) working with me over the past year. We did a whole year of intensive editing, formatting and putting it all together so that it was a book. She did a marvellous job working with me. She always encouraged me to write more. She would come up with a list and I would say "Ok let me write about that". So it was a great collaboration in the end. I would say it was a three year project. The first couple of years I was just writing things down and I would let some people read it, just to see if they thought it was cool. Then Suzy got involved and really kicked my ass and made me work.

Ryan: Through the hazy passage of time with various different substances and whatever else what else was going on, did you find it was difficult to remember specific dates or certain events?

Dick: There were times when I was trying to get into a memory in order to dredge it up in detail, but most of it came out as if I was having a conversation. My memory turned out to be a lot better than I thought it was going to be. When I got to about an hundred and fifty pages I figured I was finished and that I couldn't write anymore, but I knew it wasn't really long enough to be a book at that point. Suzy kept driving me to come up with more, so I would go back and think about an idea and I would write it. She really pushed me. She speaks four languages, so she was really good at making sure it all made sense. Although I kept insisting that some of her grammatical things, which were more correct, were not in my vocabulary. I had to make sure it was in my voice.

Ryan: The other thing that struck me while reading the book, was that unlike a lot of these other rock 'n roll autobiographies, your book doesn't come across as a "tell all" kind of memoir that's out to name names . The focus is on you and you are very open and honest about the things you've done in the past, which I think really makes that connection with the reader that much stronger. For example, at one point early in the book, you mention not necessarily wanting to delve too deep into your past drug use and yet that particular topic is covered with a sometimes alarming sense of clarity and detail. Did you struggle at all with what to include and what to leave out, not only in reference to the drugs but with anything else?

Dick: Well there are some things, that if I plan on continuing to work in this business, that I couldn't really talk about in great detail. So I tried to soft peddle a few things, but it's pretty much me being totally honest. Doing what I did as far as soft peddling is not being dishonest, it was me not revealing certain things that could get me into a lawsuit or blackballed from this or that. I just wanted to protect interests. Besides I didn't feel particularly vindictive when talking about some of the stuff either, so why do that? Why reveal all when people's private lives are involved? So I held back to a certain degree, but these stories are honest and how I remember them.

All in all when it was all finished and I sat down and read and re-read the book, I just felt that it was a really good book. I felt that I had been honest and that now it would be up to people to see if they could relate to it. I was kind of afraid that the more conservative among us would be shocked. It's funny because I was talking to my neurosurgeon and his wife the other night. They both had read the book. They were both really cool with it and they loved it. I kept thinking that she loved it and he loved it, but for different reasons. I think she's kind of conservative, but she got something out of it. The fact that they both loved it just showed me that it crosses over to the different natures of different people, because it's basically just human stories. There isn't any made up plot, it's about humanity. I do believe that we're all more alike than we are different. We really have much more in common. I've had a couple of people write me to say that I was basically telling their life story. One guy lost his daughter when he was twenty four. There's the lost love. I got a letter from another guy who had a true love and lost her and how this touched him. It's been very interesting.

Ryan: That's evidence of a true connection right there isn't it? When your art connects like that with somebody.

Dick: It's fantastic. So when they write me I definitely write them back and in some cases we have further conversations about it. The fact that anybody has actually taken the time to read this book, that is a real honour for me. So I honour them back.

Ryan: In the book you mention how painful it has been being estranged from your daughter. Has the fact that you've written about her helped to repair your relationship?

Dick: That's interesting because I got an e-mail from her, the first e-mail that I've had from her in twenty years. She contacted me and I wrote her back, but I haven't heard from her since. The fact that I hadn't heard from her in over twenty, almost twenty five years, was very interesting. I don't know if it's because she read the book, but what she said to me was "I heard through the grapevine that you've been looking for me". I've been trying to reach her for twenty two years. The door has been opened a little bit and I hope it continues to open wider.

Ryan: Hopefully the book has been the catalyst and has helped to open up some dialogue between you.

Dick: I think so, because why else would she suddenly contact me now? She had to have heard about the book. I may have sent her an e-mail telling her about it, I'm not sure.

Ryan: Shifting gears a little bit. Tell me how you came to be involved in Alice's Welcome to My Nightmare 2 album. It would have been a crime had you not been able to partake in the sequel, considering you played such big role in the original album.

Dick: When they began work on the album they asked me, but I was really sick so I couldn't play. I could barely the lift the guitar, much less play it. So at the time I had to tell them that I wasn't up to it. Bob Ezrin called me again and asked me if I would get him another "Only Women Bleed" [laughs]. Like you write one of those every day. So I went back into my catalogue and I had this song called "Something To Remember Me By" that I had played for Alice before and he had always loved it. He was always talking about wanting to record it. So I sent the song to them and Ezrin loved it. They did a great version of it, I like it a lot. So that's how I got involved on the song. Then I told Bob that I felt that I was ready to play a little bit, and he said "Ok the album's finished, but I've got this "Underture," so I'll send you the tracks and you can play on that." He sent me the Pro Tools tracks and I took it into the studio here in Phoenix. It was my first session in five years and I didn't know if I'd be able to do it. But I thought I played some pretty good stuff on there. I actually played more than what was used, but my guitar is definitely on there. If I had been feeling better physically, I might have made an attempt to go to Nashville and sit in with all those guys and record, but honestly I just wasn't up to it.

Ryan: You mentioned your old friend and band mate Steve Hunter touring with Alice. Has it been somewhat bitter sweet for you seeing him up there onstage with Alice again? The two of you with your twin lead guitars played such a vital role in that band. Do you think you'll have the opportunity to play again with Steve and Alice again at some point?

Dick: I have a feeling that now that Alice knows that I'm back out playing again and doing gigs, I have a feeling that he might invite Steve and I to do it next year. I pretty sure he'll ask Steve, but whether he'll take a chance with me I don't know. It's a high energy show and it's five days a week, it's a lot. I'm going to have to tell him that he's going to have to pay me a lot of money for me to drag my ass out on the road with him [laughs].

Steve and I have already been talking about doing a Hunter / Wagner tour. He wanted to record, but I told him that you can't record first, because it costs too much money. We'll record at some point and use that as merchandise on a tour, but the best thing to do is to get together and rehearse for a couple of weeks. I've been talking to some really great players about doing this, but all the people we want are really expensive. I'm talking to some booking agents, so we'll see. But I think it will be next year. I don't think it will happen this year, so I'm going to go out myself this summer and try to play catch up. This will give me a chance to get back out there and then hopefully we can finally combine forces.

Ryan: Last question for you Dick. So much great music came out of Detroit in the 60's and 70's Dick, why do you think that was? Did it have something to do with the social and political fabric of the city and the state, or was it just something in the water that churned out great bands like Alice Cooper, Grand Funk, The MC5 and Ted Nugent, to name just a few.

Dick: It's partly in the water and it's partly due to the fact that it was all industrial at that time. Kids grew up in blue collar families, with ambitions to get out. Detroit rock was just a harder brand of rock 'n roll. People like myself, (Bob) Seger and Nugent, we were trying to make it out of there. Guys who were trying to make it out of there just developed a certain style of playing. We all loved Eric Clapton and Cream and Led Zeppelin, so we were big fans of that kind of music that came out of England, but we gave it that Detroit spin, which really created a sound. As a matter of fact I wrote this song called "Motor City Music," which I've just recorded with a Detroit band and Prakash on bass. It's going to be released very soon. It will be my first single. We've got a music video that we just shot, which is being edited right now. The song is a tribute to the music of Detroit.

The song will be featured in the closing credits of this film called Louder Than Love, which is the story of The Grande Ballroom, so I think it really caps the film off in the right way. I also have "Mystery Man" and "Rock and Roll Music" included in the film as well. So I have three songs in this upcoming movie.

We're also going to be releasing the video for it and the song will be up on iTunes and the proceeds from this song will be going to this guy named Brother Al. He's a Franciscan monk who goes into the inner city of Detroit and feeds the homeless. In the winter time he gives them scarves and gloves, hot coffee and sandwiches. He does this on his bicycle. He has this hot dog cart kind of thing on the front of his bicycle and he goes around to the homeless and takes care of them. So the money from this song is going to go to the Brother Al Project. I think he has about five other guys with him now travelling around on bikes. They're doing good work, so I want to help them out. I don't know how much money I'll raise from the song, but however much I raise I'm gonna give to him.

Ryan: Before we conclude, is there anything that we haven't talked about that you want to plug as far as upcoming projects or plans for the rest of the year?

Dick: I've written several songs for a movie called Silas Gore. The filmmakers are still trying to get the final funding, but they can't touch it until the full amount has been raised. I just spoke to the Director of the film the other day. Once they're ready to go I have the soundtrack already written. Then I have another project with Vicki Blue, who used to play bass with The Runaways. Now she's a film producer / director and a great photographer. In fact I just did a photo shoot with her in Palm Springs on my way back from NAMM. This project that Vicki and I are developing is called El Guitarista. I have four or five songs written and demoed for that project. So for both of those projects I want to get into the studio and get these songs recorded. In the end I might put out another CD, which I know CD's don't sell much anymore, but I might go ahead and record these songs and just do an album. A combination of the Silas Gore and El Guitarista material. I don't know how it will work [laughs]. The backers that I've just signed on with for a Canadian tour this summer, I left the demos with one of the guys and he called me up and said "Man this is some of the best music I've heard in years". So it's real different. If you're not just looking for balls out rock 'n roll and you're looking for some substantial songs, then I have them.

I also have the Skinner Rat album. Gary Telgenhoff has come up with some just wonderful songs for the Skinner Rat image. Then I have The Mug Shots. I have so much to do, I have to complete these things.