31 July 2017

RIP Dick Wagner

by Steve Liskow

A few months ago, I wrote about Chuck Berry, a household name even if you don't like rock 'n' roll.

Three years ago yesterday, Dick Wagner, one of rock's great unsung pioneers, passed away from respiratory failure at age 71. I never saw a word about it in the newspapers or online, and only learned about it because Susie Woodman, my high school classmate and ex-wife of Dick's first drummer, posted it on Facebook.

When I mention Dick's name, most people say, "Who?" When I mention certain bands or records, their eyes widen and they say, "That was him?"

Dick played on over 30 gold or platinum albums and CDs, usually as an unnamed session guitarist, but those records include the blazing duet (With Steve Hunter) on Aerosmith's cover of "The Train Kept A-rollin'," backing Lou Reed on his Rock and Roll animal tour, and several Alice Cooper hits--most of which he co-wrote. He also played or wrote for Kiss, Meat Loaf, Peter Gabriel, Rod Stewart, Tina Turner, and Frank Sinatra.

Back in my deformative high school years, I knew of Dick as the guitarist/vocalist/songwriter/arranger of The Bossmen, a Beatles knock-off band in Saginaw, Michigan.
Dick wrote practically all their material, and you could hear him grow and develop as the Beatles did. By the time his band ended its run in 1967, it included Mark Farner, who would later perform with Terry Knight & the Pack, which morphed into Grand Funk Railroad. Dick went to Detroit and fronted The Frost, a good band that didn't make it, and started writing and producing. Other musicians and producers called him "The Maestro" because he could read music (a rarity for guitarists), write like a devil, and play guitar like a monster.

In the early seventies, he released an LP, but his label decided to call it "Richard Wagner." Of course it ended up in the classical bins and sold about twenty-six copies.

Dick's brilliance led to problems. He developed an Olympian cocaine habit--maybe from hanging out with Aerosmith--and he admitted to a sex addiction that led him to cheat on his first two wives with possibly hundreds of women. Eventually, he developed heart problems and had a nearly-fatal coronary in 2005. That and pressure on the brain paralyzed his left arm and he had to re-learn guitar after surgery and a long bout of physical therapy.

He began to tour again, often with musicians he'd known in Detroit including Mark Farner, and Dennis Burr. At about the same time, I connected with him on Facebook through my high school classmate, who still plays session keyboards and performs around Detroit. When I was looking for blurbs for my first Woody Guthrie novel Blood On the Tracks, Susie--who inspired my character Megan Traine--said I could drop her name to various Michigan musicians.
She knew or played with Dick--and Bob Seger, Ted Nugent, Meat Loaf, Alice Cooper, and members of both Savage Grace and ? and the Mysterians.

Most of them, surprise, surprise, never got back to me, but Dick said, "Send me your book. When do you need something?"

A few months later, he emailed me his blurb, short, sweet, and perfect. It's on the back of the book, and I sent him a copy.
By the time it came out, though, his health was deteriorating and he never mounted the comeback tour that was in the works. I read his memoir and found a CD of the Bossmen's songs on his old website. I was amazed how many of them I remembered from fifty years ago.

At an open mic last week, I played on of Dick's best-known songs as a thank you to a star who didn't have to give me a boost, but did.

"Only Women Bleed."

Thank you, Dick.

5 comments:

Steve Oerkfitz said...

I remember seeing The Frost play at a club called Heaven in Waterford Mi.

Fran Rizer said...

Thanks, Steve, for sharing this. I knew the name and a little about Dick Wagner, but had no idea about some of his other contributions to one of my favorite genres of music.

Steve Liskow said...

Steve, I have a CD of the Frost live, recorded at the Grande Ballroom in early 1969, a few months after the MC5 recorded their live breakthrough LP Kick Out the Jams at the same venue. I've seen pictures of that now abandoned and ruined building in Detroit, and it's enough to make you weep.

The Detroit bands were great live because they played for a working-class crowd that demanded their money's worth. Whether they made it or not, several Michigan bands delivered for their audiences. I have a friend who was a hardcore fan of SRC and another who worshipped the Rationals (who did NOT have Glenn Frey as a member, contrary to urban legend).

These bands and musicians who had the goods but never hit big are a great reminder to us writers, though. If you only get one shot, you'd better have the real stuff in your holster.

Thanks for commenting.

Leigh Lundin said...

I'm copying this to my brother.

Eve Fisher said...

Wow! I never knew any of this... Thanks for the post.