Dick Wagner is playing the Magic Bag in Ferndale this weekend. The guitarist and songwriter of Bossmen, Frost, Alice Cooper, Lou Reed and shitloads more was supposed to be playing the show back in August, but he slipped and banged his head, and had to have brain surgery. That incident was just another chapter in what could be a book entitled The Unluckiest Man in Rock 'n' Roll.
Just a few years ago, Wagner had a heart attack and a stroke at the same time. The August show was to be his comeback, the glorious pinnacle of his rehab. And then he slipped in his swimming pool and smashed his poor noggin on a step. Surgery was necessary immediately to relieve the swelling.
The good news is, Wagner's all better and he's ready to play that show. I interviewed Wagner before the accident, back in August. That he was delighted to be preparing for a show after so long in recovery only made the subsequent slip so much more troubling. In the long run, it has proven to be little more than a minor blip.
Wagner should be a name familiar to far more people than it is. He's a supremely talented guitarist and an incredible songwriter. He wrote an Alice Cooper moment of absolute beauty in "Only Women Bleed." He's also a softly spoken gentleman and, while he's justifiably immensely proud of his achievements, he isn't one to toot his horn, at least not too loud. Besides, one need write a book to cover even the interesting things Wagner's done in his life so far.
The Detroit guitarist came to public prominence in the Bossmen and would have a string of local hits. Before that though, there were the Eldorados. "I formed a band serendipitously," Wagner says. "I was driving one day and saw a kid with a guitar, and I picked him up. We got some gigs and started developing a following. It was nothing really special. I was getting proficient on the guitar though. I went to a band called the Eldorados. They blew me away. That's when I realized that this is what I wanted to do. I tried to get better, and after a while I joined the Eldorados. That was a big advancement for me. We were the hottest band in the Detroit club scene back then, in the early '60s. I got into a physical fight with somebody in that band, so that ended. I joined a band called the Playboys out of Saginaw, but the band was renamed the Bossmen. We started building from there. We played a lot of club dates. We did eight singles, all local number one thanks to local radio. The stations all supported the band. You can't do that today, which is unfortunate. It's a much more difficult path now for young musicians. You have the Internet to make up for it, but it's still difficult. The radio stations gave bands a sense of being part of the local community. The Bossmen used to draw 2,000 to 3,000 people to every gig. It's all changed so much."
The Bossmen eventually broke up thanks to Wagner's hardline attitude regarding naughty substances. "We got better and better, and three years into the Bossmen we split up," he says. "I was the most anti-drug person you ever met, and if somebody in the band got busted for marijuana, I couldn't have that, so the band came to an end which was too bad because we were doing well."
That was pretty much that. The Bossmen have a small but snug place in the Detroit history books though. Not only did Wagner come out of the band, but also future Grand Funk man Mark Farner. Wagner went on to form Frost and become a celebrated part of the Grande Ballroom scene of the mid-to-late '60s and early '70s alongside the MC5, Bob Seger, Mitch Ryder and the rest.
"It was a more advanced sound," Wagner says. "More fluid. We put together what we called a 'killer set.' People were going nuts over it. The record company did not follow through at all with regards to promoting the band outside of Detroit. It is a mythological age. It was a special time. We realized that there was a San Francisco scene. It was huge here though. Nugent, Seger, Frost, Iggy & the Stooges, Mitch Ryder ... there are still a lot of those guys around today. They're all mythological creatures. Beautiful times. We always had some place to play."
Despite a healthy local following, the Frost just couldn't translate nationally like Seger or, to a lesser degree, the MC5.
Eventually, that frustration broke up the band and pushed Wagner to New York. "I was told about a project involving musicians in New York City, including Billy Joel," Wagner says. "I had some rehearsals with them. That could have been a real supergroup, but Billy couldn't do it, so I called Greg Arama from the Amboy Dukes to play bass with me. That worked out just fine. That was a band called Ursa Major, and the beginning of the middle period in the early '70s. That led to Lou Reed and then Alice Cooper."
Yes, Lou Reed and Alice Cooper. Dick Wagner played and wrote songs on two of the greatest albums in rock 'n' roll history, in this writer's humble opinion — Lou's Berlin and Coop's Welcome to My Nightmare — bona fide, undeniable classics. Wagner prefers Reed's Rock 'n' Roll Animal to Berlin and Alice's DaDa to Welcome to My Nightmare. If an argument can be made for DaDa, it's not reflected in album sales.
There's an old legend surrounding Berlin. On the song "The Kids," children can be heard crying in the background. Legend says that they are producer Bob Ezrin's kids, and that Ezrin told them that their mom had left them forever and then locked them in the basement, to get the desired cries of distress. Wagner clears this up. "I'm sure they were told to cry," he says. "I can see Ezrin doing that, but I don't remember it happening. Telling them their mom had left would be cruelty. I wouldn't want to do that."
Berlin and Reed was followed by Welcome to My Nightmare and Alice. "I had just been working with Lou Reed. I had taken time off and started writing some songs intended for a solo album. I called up Shep Gordon, Alice's manager. I wanted to give him my songs and see if he wanted to manage me. I had a meeting with him and played him a song. He said that he was thinking of taking Alice on as a solo artist, and would I be interested in taking some of these ideas and joining up with Alice Cooper? Play some songs with him? I could hardly say no. I pulled these solo ideas for me and gave them to Alice, and what we did together went on Welcome to My Nightmare."
Arguably Wagner's most celebrated contribution to the album is "Only Women Bleed." "I wrote the music when I was with the Frost back in '68," he says. "I never felt the lyrics were good enough so I didn't do it with Frost then I met with Alice in '75. I played him that music and he liked it but hated the lyrics. He came up with the lyrics in about 20 minutes."
Wagner went on to work with Aerosmith (that's his guitar solo on "Train Kept A-Rollin'"), Kiss, Air Supply, Meat Loaf, Peter Gabriel, Little Richard, Frank Sinatra and more (usually in a writing capacity). When the lucrative work dried up, he kept busy producing and playing with local bands around Saginaw. Then that dried up too.
"There wasn't that much work but I was enjoying myself and I had my studio," Wagner says. "When Sept. 11 happened, it destroyed my studio business. I had a ton of sessions booked and they all canceled. Nobody was putting money into the music business anymore. That's why we made the move to Phoenix."
That's where he has been since, working steadily and keeping busy. When Alice Cooper decided to record Welcome 2 My Nightmare, Wagner did what he could. "I've been involved very little," he says. "They wanted me to bring a couple of things early on but I wasn't well enough. Bob Ezrin called me and said that he needed another 'Only Women Bleed.' I came up with this song called 'Something to Remember Me By,' which is a beautiful ballad. I do believe if the radio plays it it'll be a big hit. It's one of those Alice Cooper-Dick Wagner ballads. Like 'Might as Well Be on Mars' [from Hey Stoopid]. I love that song."
Having Wagner back in Detroit is going to be a rare treat. It's also, Wagner believes, the closest we'll ever get to a Frost reunion now. The show has been tagged "defrosted". "They want me to do a Frost reunion but Bobby [Rigg, drummer] couldn't do it," Wagner says. "He can't really function correctly. It's me, defrosted. I think this is the closest we'll get to a Frost show. On the night, I'll do Frost, some new songs. It's a retrospective. Some Ursa Major, some Alice Cooper, maybe some Lou. I have a new song called 'Motor City Music.' It's a tribute to Detroit. I'm recording it with Jim McCarty, Johnny Bee and Jimmie Bones. It's for a guy called Big Al, who does a charity where he feeds the homeless and cares for AIDS patients."
So what's next? "I want to get two projects started. I'm trying to get funding for a rock star serial killer movie that will be filmed in Detroit. I have seven songs written for it. I also have an album project I'm working on, about a guitar player in the Southwest and he's traveled from the spiritual world. I have four or five songs written for that. Both projects are different to what I've done before. I can't even describe them. I don't care about a label. I want to make this music and then find a way to get it out there."
Serial killers and spiritual rock 'n' rollers? Why not give Alice and Lou a call?
Dick Wagner plays at the Magic Bag on Nov. 11, with the Trews. 22920 Woodward Ave., Ferndale; 248-544-3030.