Dick Wagner died today. It hurts me to say it and I’ve felt empty inside since reading Paul Brown’s announcement of it on Facebook. Paul handled keys for Dick along with a great lineup of musicians including guitarist Kirk McKim, drummer Sandy Gennaro, and bassist Dave Fowler at an intimate club show here in Nashville back in April. We’ll get to that night in a bit. Right now, I want to go back to my introduction to Dick Wagner and the circumstances, and people, that connected us.
As a die-hard KISS fan, the name Dick Wagner only rang a bell with me due to his ghost guitar work on the Destroyer and Revenge albums. He provided some excellent solos on the songs ‘Sweet Pain’ and ‘Everytime I Look at You.’ Aside from that, I didn’t know a whole lot about the man or his music. That was all about to change.
Mitch Lafon, a rock journalist from Montreal, was the first guest on the Decibel Geek podcast. I had struck up a friendship with Mitch through Facebook over our shared love of KISS. During one of our many discussions about why KISS should mix up their setlist or who saved KISS (Vinnie Vincent, of course), Mitch would give me leads for possible interviews for my brand new podcast. One of those leads was Dick Wagner.
With our Skype interview planned a few weeks in advance, Aaron Camaro and I got to work on researching Dick Wagner’s career; most notably with Alice Cooper. I had never really delved deeply into Alice’s discography (I know, that’s weird considering my favorite band). What I quickly learned was many of my favorite songs in the Cooper canon were co-written or featured Dick Wagner. The sense of melody, hooky guitar riffs, and grand sound of his many blazing guitar leads truly blew me away. I quickly started consuming mass amounts of the Alice Cooper catalog. I also received an advance e-book version of Dick’s then-new autobiography ‘Not Only Women Bleed: Vignettes from the Heart of a Rock Musician.’ Suddenly, I had gone from “I guess I’ll ask about the ‘Sweet Pain’ solo” to being very excited to talk to this man about his life and career.
We released Episode 31 – Dick Wagner on May 3, 2012. We tried to cover lots of ground in this discussion and I think we, mostly, accomplished that. What I noticed right away was Dick’s willingness to be very forthcoming and put details on the table about his life. He shared many great stories during this discussion about his experiences with Alice Cooper, his battles with addiction, the challenges he faced in the 1990’s while trying to fit into the Nashville music scene, his ghost work on albums by legends like the aforementioned KISS as well as Aerosmith, and details of how he’d come back from some severe health issues in 2007. It was solid hour of great discussion and Aaron and I were simply in awe at how grounded and down to Earth he was considering the rollercoaster of a life that he had lived up to that point.
I typically try to make our interview episodes special with song clips edited in to enhance the conversation as well as artwork for the episodes. I figure, if they are giving us their time, then I owe them at least that much. Our first talk with Dick was so engrossing and fun, we felt like we’d actually established a friendship through it. I worked very hard to make his episode as special as I could and was humbled beyond words when Dick and his manager/partner Susan Michelson gave us lots of praise for the episode and even had the audio adapted into a special video presentation to help promote the book. The good vibes were definitely in the air between us all.
A few months after the episode aired, Aaron and I were elated to receive signed copies of Dick’s book in the mail. Inside the front cover, he wrote ‘To Chris, thanks for the support, Dick Wagner.’ We were taken aback by the generosity that Dick had shown us. He certainly didn’t have to do that. He had given us plenty by coming on the show but this just reinforces what a great and genuine person Dick is. We knew we had to have him back on the show in the future.
Last year we had an idea to do some special episodes that would focus on a single album. They would feature a discussion with a key player in the album’s creation. I didn’t want to go for albums that were huge hits because there’s plenty of information out there on many of those through various tv specials and documentaries. What we had in mind were albums that are great but have been overshadowed or ignored due to shifts in audience tastes or mainstream opinion. We decided to title the series ‘Albums Unleashed’ and we automatically knew the perfect first guest.
When I approached Dick through Facebook about coming on the show again to discuss the 1983 Alice Cooper album ‘DaDa’ I was nervous. The album was largely ignored and reamins an oddity due to lack of information coming from Alice, who readily admits to being blackout drunk during much of the album’s production. I wasn’t sure if Dick would want to delve into such a difficult time. Surprisingly, he was actually excited to share the story behind the album. Serendipitously, Dick had scheduled a few days in Nashville this past April for a book signing and performance. We agreed to do the next interview in person.
|The Nashville Band
(from left): Kirk McKim, Paul Brown, Sandy Gennaro, Dick Wagner, Dave Fowler
The first week of April of this year will go down as one of the most musically fulfilling for me and our show. Once the interview was confirmed, I requested off work for a large portion of the week. I wasn’t going to miss this opportunity to spend time with one of my favorite musicians for anything. Like fate, schedules opened up that allowed Aaron and I to be joined by fellow
Decibel Geek contributors Andy Lafon, Mike Gahaffer, Billy Hardaway, and Rich “Meister” Dillon who had flown into town for a few days on his way home to Canada from covering the Monsters of Rock Cruise. It was truly a Decibel Geek week in Nashville.
We went to Dick’s in-store book signing at Howlin’ Books on April 2nd. Standing in line and seeing The Maestro a few feet away, I quickly realized I didn’t have anything to get signed. I snagged a copy of Alice Cooper’s ‘Goes to Hell’ album off the shelf and sat down with Dick to sign it. He was in excellent spirits and told me he was looking forward to our interview. While we were sitting there, a young man (no more than 22-24 years old) came in with an old Marshall amp head. It turns out that he had purchased Dick’s Marshall amp head from the 1975 Nightmare tour and brought it to show Dick and get an autograph. Upon seeing this long lost piece of his past, Dick’s eyes welled up. You could almost see the memories of that tour flooding into his memory. I felt privileged to see this moment and will always remember it.
The next night our crew headed downtown to The Basement, an intimate club that’s located under Grimey’s Record Store. For the next few hours we were treated to an awesome night of music with Dick as the band leader leading his charges mentioned earlier in the story. They tore through old-time rock and roll classics that gave Dick his start, songs from The Frost and Ursa Major, and rounded it out with ‘Welcome to My Nightmare’ and ‘Only Women Bleed’ from the Cooper years. Dick’s playing was top notch and the crowd ate it up. The band seemed thrilled to be playing with such a musical legend.
The next day it was time to get down to our DaDa discussion. We met Dick at his hotel in Nashville. I could tell that he was fatigued from the previous two days events as well as many visits with longtime friends but he also had a smile on his face. We sat in the hotel lobby for the next 2 hours talking about DaDa; the song compositions, the stories about hotel hijinx during off-hours, and the battle with Warner Brothers as well as with addictions. It was an engaging and enlightening discussion. What struck me most was seeing how emotional Dick would get when discussing certain songs such as the opening line to ‘No Man’s Land’ and ‘Pass the Gun Around’ (in my opinion, possibly the greatest guitar solo of all time). The DaDa album was a commercial flop but I could see that it meant the world to Dick and was a proud muscial moment for him.
When we released ‘Albums Unleashed: DaDa with Dick Wagner – Ep134‘ I had no idea of the response. We were flooded with e-mails and social media messages from Alice Cooper and Dick Wagner fans thanking us for having Dick tell the story of the album. What also struck me was how many people absolutely LOVED the album and consider it a lost classic. I sent Dick and his partner Susan every piece of feedback praising his appearance on our show and they were absolutely delighted at the reaction. If you were one of those that sent in a response and are in mourning today, just know that he saw your words and it gave him a smile. Almost immediately, Dick said he wanted to do another ‘Albums Unleashed’ and discuss ‘From the Inside.’ Sadly, it wouldn’t come to pass.
If you’re not a regular listener of our show, July is KISS month on our show and we focus solely on KISS. It’s a very busy month for Aaron and I and we rarely have extra time for other episodes. I saw that Dick was struggling with health issues again and sent him a word of encouragement on Facebook and he replied that he was still excited to do the next episode. I suggested early August and he agreed that it would work for him. I only wish it had.
Upon hearing the news this morning, I can’t begin to explain how much I regret not jumping on board and making time to record that discussion with Dick. I know it would’ve been a great talk and more fun than ever. I, like so many of you, felt that he would pull through these health problems and be back on the mend and back on our show in no time. But alas, only God can decide when our time has come.
I knew that Dick was getting up in age and had battled his share of health problems so this shouldn’t have come as much of a shock. But, this has hit me harder than I ever expected. By making a connection, not only through our interviews but also through his music, I feel a serious loss from a bond formed over different generations.
I felt empty most of the day and was nervous about it but I decided to listen to some of Dick’s work with Alice after hearing the news. As I listened to ‘No Man’s Land’ and ‘I Love America’ from DaDa, I smiled and even laughed a couple of times from the tongue in cheek lyrics and good-hearted music. As I listened to ‘I Never Cry’ from ‘From the Inside’ I felt contemplative and emotional. And as I listened to ‘My God’ from the Lace and Whiskey album, I felt comforted knowing that Heaven just got one helluva guitar player.
Play on Maestro, play on.
– Chris Czynszak