Showing posts with label rock 'n' roll. Show all posts
Showing posts with label rock 'n' roll. Show all posts

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.

03 April 2017

Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll


by Steve Liskow

On March 18, Chuck Berry passed away at the tender age of 90 years and 5 months. All the media featured glowing eulogies and long articles about his influence on rock and pop music and how his guitar style became the fountainhead of rock, paving the way for everyone from George Harrison and Keith Richards to Jack White and Ted Nugent and a million unknowns like me.



It's true that Berry popularized licks that Robert Johnson and Elmore James had made blues cliches. What's easier to overlook is that Berry was a terrific lyricist who turned two-and-a-half-minute pop songs into short stories that resonated with his young audience. He gave teens in the Fifties a voice with dozens of songs that became rock standards, and he showed a whole generation of songwriters who followed him how to do it.

F. Scott Fitzgerald once told his daughter that to learn to write English prose, one should compose a perfect English sonnet. He said the form is so rigid that the writer has to learn to work within the constraints. Berry did him even better, working within the boundaries of a simplified music form that demanded he also match the rhythm and melody to the mood and meaning.

Berry was nearly 30 when he recorded "Mabellene," his first hit, backed by members of the Muddy Waters blues band. That song borrowed from a country song called "Ida Red," but Berry added a guitar lick that imitated a car horn. He also added a plot involving cars and speed and unrequited love. The Beach Boys would ride this formula into the ground a few years later, with Carl Wilson imitating Berry's guitar on "Fun, Fun, Fun," "409," "Dance, Dance, Dance," and several other songs.

Berry knew about isolation and angst, too. Don't forget, he was a black kid growing up in St. Louis when segregation was still the norm. He knew about not having it all, and he understood the pressures to survive. "Almost Grown" tells us about small victories and small dreams, all he dares to have:

    "I don't run around with no mob/ I got myself a little job./ I'm gonna buy myself a little car/
     I'll drive my girl in the park."

"School Day" captures the feel of being stuck in a big urban school where he's just a name in a grade book, if he's even that. Millions of kids knew what he meant when he said:

     "American Hist'ry and Practical Math, You study 'em hard and hopin' to pass.
       Workin' your fingers right down to the bone, And the guy behind you won't leave you alone."

He's added conflict to the mix, as all good story-tellers do. And the savior is rock 'n' roll:

      "Soon as three o'clock rolls around, you finally lay your burden down...
        Drop the coin right into the slot, you gotta hear somethin' that's really hot."

And there's our resolution, finishing with the line "Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' roll!"

"No Money Down," one of his lesser hits, tells of a fast-talking used car salesman who offers outrageous deals to get our hero into a flashy new car and out of "that broken-down raggedy ol' Ford."

Berry constantly uses contrasts to make his point. Sometimes it's verbal, but sometimes he sets happy music against a serious story. "Memphis, Tennessee," covered by Lonnie Mack as an instrumental that lost the irony, and later by Johnny Rivers, tells the understated story of a broken marriage as a father tries to reach the little girl he no longer gets to see:

     "Help me, Information, bet in touch with my Marie,
       She's the only one who'd phone me here from Memphis, Tennessee
       ...We were pulled apart because her mom did not agree
       And tore apart our happy home in Memphis, Tennessee
       ...Marie is only six years old, Information, please,
       Try to put me through to her in Memphis, Tennessee."

That song is from 1959, when most acts were still singing about sunshine, lollipops, and rainbows. Berry is addressing more serious topics.

Humor helps him balance the hopes and reams that crash into the reality of color and youth. But things will change. When we learn more, the dreams get bigger. Berry's signature song was "Johnny B. Goode," about a little country boy ("Colored" originally, but he changed it to get radio air play) who

     "...never ever learned to read or write so well, but he could play a guitar just like a-ringin' a bell."

This song has the archetypal Chuck Berry riff and the variations show up in song after song. If you were a kid of the time--like the Beatles, the Stones, the Yardbirds, the Beach Boys, the MC5, Ted Nugent, Jerry Garcia, or thousands of other Baby Boomers like me--these were the licks you HAD to have in your arsenal, along with "Louie Louie," "Gloria," and--if you had a drummer with moxie--"Wipeout." Not just because the girls went crazy if you could duck walk to them, but because they kicked ass like nobody had ever done before.

The song shows where that little country boy can go, too.

     "Maybe someday you name'll be in lights a-sayin' 'Johnny B. Goode tonight!'"

Dream big, dream bigger. Go, Johnny, Go.

Berry's other lyrical gift is humor. Teen-age frustration creates dramatic tension and comic outcomes, often at his own expense. He captures youthful angst with humor and economy, again in rhyme and simple rhythms. "No Particular Place to Go,' which has almost the same melody as "School Day," tells of a kid who has a car (Maybe even that broken-down raggedy ol' Ford) and a girl..and hopes to parlay the combination into some action. But it doesn't happen:

     "The night was young and the moon was gold, so we both decided to take a stroll
       Can you imagine the way I felt, I couldn't unfasten her safety belt.
       Riding along in my calaboose, still trying to get her belt unloose
       All the way home I held a grudge for the safety belt that wouldn't budge..."

Simple? Sure. But simple is hard because you can't hide anything.

Years later, I met Joe Bouchard, the former bass player from Blue Oyster Cult, when I took a theater design class along with his wife. When the instructor mentioned that BOC was the first band to use lasers and flash pots in their stage act, Bouchard almost blushed.

"Yeah," he finally said. "The monitors back then sucked, so we couldn't always tell, but the bells and whistles keep people from noticing that sometimes we weren't in tune."

Maybe Berry's guitar wasn't always in tune, but his stories never missed.

Rock on, Chuck.