'70s GUITAR STYLE-MASTER DICK WAGNER
By GEOFF GINSBERG
You may not have heard of him, but the odds are good that you've
heard him. Guitarist Dick Wagner has made a career for himself as a behind-the-scenes
kind of guy, working with the likes of Alice Cooper and Lou Reed, not to mention
Kiss, Aerosmith, Peter Gabriel, Meatloaf, Nils Lofgren, and yes, even Air Supply.
After starting out in one of the original DIY bands (they went from store to store around the state of Michigan selling their records), The Bossmen, in the mid-'60s, Wagner formed The Frost in 1967. The Frost was right in the middle of the incendiary Detroit rock scene that gave the world The Stooges, MC5, Bob Seger, and Grand Funk Railroad, to name but a few. The Frost was hugely popular in Michigan, but their extensive touring was for naught due to really bad distribution of their albums.
During a short stint in proto-melodic heavy metal power trio Ursa Major, Wagner hooked up with producer Bob Ezrin with whom he continues to work on occasion. It was this connection that led Wagner to play lead guitar on the classic Alice Cooper Group albums School's Out, Billion Dollar Babies, and Muscle Of Love.
When Lou Reed made his landmark album, Berlin, Wagner was called in to play guitar along with pal Steve Hunter (ex-Mitch Ryder, Chambers Brothers). The pairing of the two guitarists would last six years. Very few guitar duos ever have matched the skill, feeling, power, and compatibility of Wagner and Hunter. When it was time for Lou to take to the road, he had Wagner assemble the band and take care of the arrangements. The result was the live "Rock And Roll Animal", one of the greatest guitar records in existence. Combined with Reed's best songs (and that's saying a lot!), the fierce playing of the band led the album to (small c) classic rock status.
The Alice Cooper Group broke up in 1974 and the Hunter/Wagner Band was tapped to back Alice. Wagner essentially co-wrote the next four Alice Cooper studio albums (Welcome To My Nightmare, Goes To Hell, Lace & Whiskey, From The Inside) with Cooper and Ezrin. Welcome To My Nightmare, in particular, was huge, and a ballad Wagner originally penned in 1968 became "Only Women Bleed," a song that has sustained him financially over the years, as it has been covered by everyone from Etta James to Lita Ford, with about 20 other artists inbetween. The Nightmare tour was (at the time) rock's biggest tour ever, netting $9 million, an absolutely astounding figure for 1975. In '99 Rhino released an 81-track box set, The Life & Crimes Of Alice Cooper, and Wagner has 13 songs on it (plus two more that he signed away the rights to before the songs were even released).
Since moving back to his hometown, Saginaw, MI, in 1995 Wagner has reunited with his old buddies from the Frost for occasional gigs. The Frost played an amazingly well-received and well-attended homecoming show in Saginaw, and received several awards in 1999 and 2000, including the key to the city of Saginaw (the only one ever given away!), a lifetime achievement award from the Detroit Music Awards and a resolution from the Mich. House of Representatives thanking the Frost for all the band has done for Michigan R&R.
Wagner owns a truly spectacular 48 track digital studio (Downtown Digital) where he produces bands, and has a record label ( WMG). There has even been talk of a Wagner/Hunter reunion project (musically along the lines of R&R Animal), but nothing has come of it yet. Wagner still takes his music career very seriously, but seems most concerned with developing new artists, helping them to avoid some of the pitfalls that he has faced in his career and, hopefully, getting them bumped up to another level.
Dick Wagner seems happy and healthy these days, and with his flowing silver hair, he looks a bit like Moses (Chuck Heston version). We got together in May 1999 and talked about the Frost and their reunion, Lou, Alice and the box set, and a bunch of other stuff. Wagner was easygoing and forthright, and this is his story.
G: How and when did the Frost hook up?
D: I guess that would have been in late '66 or early '67. We really started out as Dick Wagner and The Bossmen, because The Bossmen had broken up, and I got together with Bobby Rigg and the Chevelles, and we formed what was eventually called The Frost. Originally we were called Dick Wagner & The Bossmen. Then I started adding all this material in and decided to change the name of the band to The Frost.
G: I guess (guitarist) Donny Hartman was in Rigg's band?
D: Yes he was.
G: What about Gordy Garris, the guy who plays bass on the albums?
D: The original member was Jack Smolinski; he was a bass player from Alpena, MI. He was playing with Bobby and Don. I just basically took the whole trio and jumped in with them. But, after a trip to New York to audition for Blood Sweat and Tears, I came back determined to make this band happen and to write original music, and I knew that I had to get rid of Smolinski. He just wasn't cutting it. And I remembered seeing Gordy Garris in another band, I forget the name now, and I called Gordy and asked him if he wanted to join up with me too. He said yes and there you go - we had The Frost.
G: The Frost signed to Vanguard, which was known mostly as a folk label at the time. How did that happen?
D: Well, we were courted by two or three labels, but Vanguard had this guy Sam Charters flying in here every week from New York, and they were just like really putting the pressure on us, really wanting us to sign up, and really giving us the whole spiel, you know? And so we ended up going with Vanguard because of all the personal attention they gave us, thinking they were behind the whole thing. They were really gonna do a number all over the country for us. You know, we had a chance to sign with Columbia Records, which we should have done, obviously, but that's the way it goes. Columbia didn't send anyone out here, they were just calling me and talking about it. They wanted to make a deal with us, but we had Sam Charters coming in here every week, wining and dining us and doing the whole thing. So we decided to do that. And really, when you stop to think, it was not a good move. We didn't have any management - I was basically managing the band and doing everything myself. I pride myself on having made some good decisions in my life, but that wasn't necessarily one of them, although Vanguard did sell a lot of records in Detroit. They knew we were going to sell records in Detroit, so they geared up for that. Other places in the country they didn't do any real promotion, but we sold 50,000 albums in the Detroit area in the first month. And I think, realistically, it was probably within the first week.
G: That's incredible!
D: Everyone went out and bought it. I mean, we were already famous and people loved us. And when the record came out, man, Bang! It was number 1 for months and months on the radio stations and the charts in Detroit. Vanguard had the foresight to see that we were popular and they actually pressed up the records and had them in stores. But when we toured, like when we played the Fillmore West in San Francisco, there were no records in the stores. So they didn't really follow us where we were going. We went to Frisco and L.A. and we played. We played all over Canada. We did a lot of playing where there were never any records.
G: Right, and that's a totally frustrating thing when you're a touring band, because that's why you're out there in the first place.
D: It made us crazy. You'd never find any records, DJ's didn't know who we were, but we used the same approach as I did in The Bossmen. We would go to radio stations and just go in and meet people. They would like us, you know, as people, because we were pretty nice guys, really, and then they'd take the time to take a listen. In those days DJ's were still actually listening to records, and we'd get stuff on the air. Maybe it was one spin, maybe one hundred, I don't know. We were basically trying to do everything ourselvesbooking our own tours. We were tied up with Vanguard which wasn't really distributing the records the way we wanted them to, although we were selling the records here in Michigan.
G: And this was the "Frost Music" album?
D: This was "Frost Music", the first record, yeah. Then they came in and recorded us live at the Grande Ballroom, when we did the second album (Rock & Roll Music) which was half live/half studio. And you know, "Rock & Roll Music," the song, turned out to be kind of an anthem for us. It was a real big song for us. And, as a matter of fact, Vanguard did a good job for us in France, because it was the number 1 song of 1969 there. But we never toured Europe. We had no contacts for booking and stuff. So here we were, stuck, kind of doing this Mid-western thing. We were going to New England and Canada and knocking people dead at our shows, and there was hardly ever records for sale. It became kind of frustrating for us, you know?
G: You would have sold more records if you did it like The Bossmen, and took them around and sold them yourself.
D: We certainly would have, yeah.
G: 'Cause you would have sold tons at the gigs.
D: We should have been doing what people do today: Sell 'em out of the trunk of the car, you know what I mean?
G: Exactlyand that way you keep the 10 bucks rather than getting about one dollar.
D Right, you keep the $10. Exactly right. So The Frost ran its course. We were together maybe three-an-a-half years. Then this guy came in from New York City, a potential manager for the band, and I wanted to work with the guy.
G: What was his name?
D: Dennis Arfa. He owns the QBQ booking agency in New York now. He's Billy Joel's agent, and The Beach Boys, and Rodney Dangerfield. He's a big-time agent. And he came in and became a friend of mine. He wanted to manage the band, and the rest of the guys didn't really like him. He was very "New York," and a bit of a wheeler-dealer. He was a young guy, 21 or 22. I liked him. We got along really well. And he wanted me to come out to New York. So, The Frost split up and I went to New York. The first thing I did out there was do some rehearsals with Billy Joel and some other guys. We were going to form a band together. Billy ended up having some problems, couldn't do it, or whatever. So I'm stuck in NYC. Just me and a drummer. So I got a hold of Greg Arama, from the Amboy Dukes. Arama came out to New York, and that trio - we started rehearsing.
G: That was Ursa Major?
D: Yes. We made one record for RCA, and the Billy Joel thing went by the wayside. Billy went to California and became a star. But it kind-of started there. Dennis was acting as manager for all us people. So after Ursa Major came out on RCA, we opened about 20 dates for Alice Cooper on tour.
D: And we opened about 20 dates for Beck, Bogert, and Appice. Jeff Beck. That was the extent of our playing. We did do a few club dates as well, like down in Florida. We came home to Michigan and played a bit. Matter of fact, the last date Ursa Major did was in Pontiac, MI. And we got stuck there - they had like 20 inches of snow in one night. We were stuck in a motel for three days, fighting with each other all the time. We decided to break up the band, and that was that. When you get to Michigan with twenty inches of snow, and you just came from Florida, and you're already pissed off at one-another anyway, it's like AWUUGH! No more! I can't take this anymore! But it was a great trio. I mean, Greg Arama was an amazing bass player, and Rick Mangone was a great drummer, so the potential was there. And the dates we actually played, 40 to 50 dates total, we killed.
G: I've always liked the Ursa Major record.
D: I think it's kind of a classic, in a way. It's one of the first records to really be a heavy metal album with melody. It was also my first association with Bob Ezrin.
G: Yeah, that's another thing I certainly want to get into, but before we get to far ahead of ourselves, I want to ask about the Detroit rock scene in the late-60's and early-70s. Creatively and energy wise that scene was definitely one of the high water marks of the rock-era. You had The Stooges, MC5, The Rationals -
D: Question Mark, SRC, Savage Grace.
G: So did The Frost play a lot of gigs with all those bands at The Grande Ballroom?
D: Yeah, there were a lot of times that we would play places together in different combinations, and there were some big festivals like Saugatuck Pop Festival, and there was a big one at Detroit Fairgrounds. A lot of the bands played at Goose Lake, which was for about 200,000 people. The thing is, you could get five or six of those local bands together and draw 25,000 people. It was always fun. And in those days there were enough places to play that you could play seven nights a week. I mean, you could be out all over the state. And The Frost, every time a new place would open, basically the first opening night was with The Frost, because we were guaranteed to draw a huge crowd. Always. And so we held attendance records everywhere--all over the state for a long, long time until Bob Seger and Ted Nugent got real, real big. But then we were like the top band around, you know.
G: Yeah, that sounds pretty cool.
D: And it was real cool. But, there were so many great bands, and they were all different, and all interesting in their own way, but they all had that Detroit, you know, heavy guitar attitude...
G: Right. The attitude.
D: You know, that sound was born out of the industrial Mid-west.
G: Why Detroit? Why not New York, LA, or Florida? Why was it in Detroit and the surrounding Michigan area that there was so much high-energy rock and roll?
D: Well, you hear enough of those General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler factories goin' in your life, and you want to play your guitar loud. You have to compete with the background.
G: Like early industrial music, huh?
D: Yeah, kind of, y'know. I think heavy metal was more or less born here, as far as in America. Although the Detroit scene had a bad rap nationally - that we were all just "loud bands," if you take a look at some of the music that came out of that era, that's not true. Sure we were all loud, but there was some really great music there. There was such excitement at the live shows, and the audiences were totally into it, so as a vehicle for expression, during that time, in that scene, it was just happening. It was absolutely great. And when The Frost went to San Francisco, which was very hippie-dippie, you know, we went to the Fillmore and played for three days opening for BB King. You wouldn't picture The Frost and BB King, and what happened was, we completely destroyed the place. And of course BB King is BB King, so he always destroys the place. It ended up with me and BB King jamming and it was just really cool.
G: Yeah, that must have been pretty thrilling for you as a young guitarist.
D: So The Frost, we were out of our element, in a way, with the kind of music that we played. But even there, in San Francisco, people just absolutely loved it. And when we went down to L.A., the same thing happened there. They'd never heard our music before and they loved it. I remember the first time The Frost played as "The Frost" on a big date in Detroit. We played Meadowbrook--it was some kind of festival. There was about 15,000 people there, and it was the first time we'd been exposed to a "Detroit" audience. The headliners were the MC5 and the Stooges, and all these other bands, and The Frost was this new band in town. We came on in the middle of the afternoon, all dressed in black and looking cool, and just did our thing, and the audience went absolutely nuts. That was the beginning of our reputation as being this great, mysterious kind of band. From there on it just kind of snowballed. It was automatic. My phone rang off the hook, y'know? People wanted to book The Frost. Those were great days, and radio was exciting in Detroit. Our album was number 1 for like four months straight, and we got knocked off by Led Zeppelin.
G: Well, you certainly can't feel to bad about that! I'm sure you're not alone - Zep must've knocked a few others off as well.
D: But that whole scene was absolutely great. There are still remnants of people from that scene that still play today. You know, myself and The Frost have done some dates. And then there's Cub Coda (RIP) who did the show with us here in Saginaw. But there's a lot of great players that came out of that era. Bob Seger, especially. And he succeeded more or less by staying in Detroit and playing and playing and building the audience even bigger, until he was selling out the Silverdome [a 70,000-seat football stadium] as a local band. Bob Seger is one of the great talents, no doubt. He's not singing much anymore, I don't know exactly why.
G: I heard he got like $50 million for letting Chevy use "Like A Rock."
D: Oh, he got a tremendous amount of money for that. And that has really helped Chevrolet. Whoever had the idea to combine the two - that was pure genius. Bob doesn't need to make the money. He's got the money. He always loved performing, so I don't know exactly why he doesn't go out and tour anymore. But whatever, you know. Maybe he's content.
G: Maybe he's got the family thing going on.
D: Maybe he has one of those little money counters, and he just puts the dollars through and counts.
G: So how did you hook up with Bob Ezrin? Was it from playing with Alice Cooper? Opening for them when you were in Ursa Major? In fact, didn't Ezrin produce the Ursa Major record?
D: He produced Ursa Major, and I'm trying to remember if we were working on that before I played on School's Out.
G: You and Ezrin used to be like a team.
D: Yeah, we've had a relationship for a long, long time. Ezrin was a disciplinarian with those guys [the Alice Cooper Group]. He made them practice, he made them play right, and he made them be better. In some cases he brought in other musicians to do what they couldn't do, so he asked me to play guitar on School's Out as a session player.
G: Because Glen Buxton [R.I.P.] was too wasted?
D: Yeah, he was wasted. He couldn't really do, y'know, stuff. So I played stuff on that. I remember being out on Long Island, rehearsing Ursa Major. We had just gotten this deal with RCA, and Dennis Arfa, our manager, said, "There's a guy who wants to see you. He's a producer, Bob Ezrin." And Bob came walking in, this 21-year-old kid with hair down to his ass. I said, "Who's this punk? What's he think he's gonna do with our music?" So, he was real cool. We got along. We were of the same mind as far as how records ought to be made, you know? And he worked out great. So that's when I first met Ezrin. And then, I think this is right after that, we were in the studio with him, and they were doing the Alice Cooper record at the same time. And they asked me to play on the Alice Cooper album.
G: So Buxton was pretty wasted. Did he even know he wasn't playing this stuff?
D: I don't think he really knew. It's hard to say for sure. He was never in the studio. I used to go up to the mansion in Greenwich, and he'd be there, but he'd usually be upstairs in his room. You know, he'd be isolated and then he'd come down once-in-a-while and just poke his head around. He was never really into it. And when they toured, they had other guitar players doing it too.
G: Why didn't they quietly just bring you in and phase Glen out? Was it for image purposes?
D: Well, it was a known entity at that time; it was the Alice Cooper Group. And I think they felt loyal to him, they had all grown up together, and it would be hard to just get rid of someone who was there from the very inception.
G: At one point he was a REALLY good guitar player.
D: Yes he was, yes he was. But he got brain damaged, you know? But then later on, Alice's manager, Shep Gordon, asked me to help him put together a new band. You know for Alice. And Alice really liked my writing. We had written together, me him and Ezrin. We wrote "I Love The Dead," which was the big thematic song at the end of Billion Dollar Babies tour. So I'd done some writing with him, and he liked writing with me, and asked me if I'd help put a band together and be his co-writer.
G: Before we get to that, I want to ask you about Lou Reed and the "Rock And Roll Animal" deal. I think a lot of people, myself included, look back on that as one of the truly great guitar records ever made. The playing is all the way out there, the guitar tones are so sweet, and the songs are among the best ever written.
D: Lou's a great songwriter.
G: Yeah, you take "Sweet Jane," "Heroin," "White Light/White Heat," and "Rock and Roll," and you've got four of the best rock songs ever written.
D: Yeah, they are.
G: And then you guys took those songs to a whole other level. Who did the arrangements on that tour?
D: Most of the arranging was mine, yeah. I was more or less the leader of the band, and the guy who did the arrangements, although that intro to "Sweet Jane" is Steve Hunter's. He had already written that as a composition, and we just tagged it on the front of "Sweet Jane," because that was a really cool thing and it fit together perfectly.
G: Yeah, it certainly worked.
D: Of course, that's sort of a classic thing.
G: Actually, my former editor thinks the "Sweet Jane" intro, just in terms of guitar playing is one of his favorite things of all time.
D: A lot of people say that, and I agree with it. It's very, very cool.
G: But also, the twin rhythm guitars in "Rock And Roll" are just beautiful, and so exciting.
D: I think that Steve Hunter and I were like - what's a good word for it without sounding too egotistical?
G: Just let 'er rip, man...
D: I think we were the best example of two rock-and-roll guitars playing together since Eric Clapton and Duane Allman in Derek & The Dominos. Although it was a different style of music, we just had that intensity. And Steve and I have been that way from the very beginning. Steve was playing with Detroit (the band) with Mitch Ryder, and I was in Ursa Major, and we were playing in Ft. Lauderdale at a club. Steve Hunter was in town with the Chambers Brothers, and came out to the club one night with the Chambers Brothers. We talked a little bit and I said, "Well, come up and jam, you know?" And this was with Ursa Major. We played for like two hours, man, and it was like, "Wow." It was just there. We could feed off each other, and knew when to let each other play. It was just great. Bob Ezrin was going to produce the Lou Reed album, and he'd already worked with Steve and me--on the Mitch Ryder record and Ursa Major. So he thought we'd be a pretty good combination. We already knew it would be. So we got together and played on the "Berlin" album.
G: "Berlin" is definitely a landmark album in rock history.
D: I think it is a landmark. As far as songwriting goes, it absolutely is. It's a spellbinding album. It didn't do well because it was not "up" enough. It's a very depressing album.
G: As a follow up to "Transformer", which is such a nice little record, it was like, the most depressing album ever made.
D: Just phenomenally dark.
G: So it was a commercial disaster, but 25 years later, looking back, it might have been the best thing Lou ever did.
D: I think it is. Just the whole concept of "Berlin," and that opening little thing with the piano and the 1930's sound. It's a brilliant album.
G: Didn't working on that cook Ezrin completely?
D: Yeah, he got pretty cooked on that one. That was quite an artistic tour de force for him, and for Lou, and for all of us, really. We believed so much in it, because it was so artistically beautiful and wonderful. And this was going to be, like, "the Sgt. Pepper's of the 70's." And it didn't happen. And that was such a disappointing thing to us, because we put so much into it. It was such a beautiful piece of work. Anyway, that's when Steve and I started our association. Then Lou wanted to play live, to go to Europe etc. So Steve and I got together with him, and Whitey Glan (drums), Prakash John (bass), and Ray Colcord on keyboards. And we formed the "Lou Reed Rock And Roll Animal Band." From the first note, I remember the first rehearsal, when that band played: "Oh, what a band!" It was just immediate. At that very first rehearsal I said to those guys--this was before Lou came in to sing, we were just playing, "You know, we're going to do this thing with Lou, but at some point, this band needs to make a record." I said, "this is just too good." So we put that together, rehearsed for two weeks, and we went Europe and did a tour. And the band just absolutely killed everyone. All the reviews in the magazines and stuff were about me and Steve Hunter, really. Kind-of negative about Lou. He was pretty "out there" at that time, but you know, Lou was the genius of the songs anyway. He should've gotten more recognition, but it's interesting how the press dealt with it. How they really built up the band.
G: One of the big raps against Lou prior to that tour was that the band he toured with in 1972, The Tots, were sub-par. When you listen to that stuff now, it was actually pretty good, but they weren't near the level of the R&R Animal Band. And when he hooked up with you guys...probably anyone who was paying attention before was like, "WHOA!!! I certainly wasn't expecting this!"
D: Yeah, 'cause that band was amazing live, just amazing.
G: There are two albums from the tour, "Rock And Roll Animal" and "Lou Reed Live", which are basically the same show?
D: It's the same show.
G: How much of it is actually "live"?
D: It's all live, all of it.
G: So what did (producer) Steve Katz do to get his name on the record?
D: He didn't do anything. He just sat there.
G: That's what I figured.
D: That's what the band sounded like. That's just it. That was just live, a pure live record. Which really shows you how great the band was. Because that's without doctoring it and tailoring it, and it's still just incredible.
G: And you know, one of the really bizarre things that I don't think people realize is that Animal was made on the tour for Berlin, and those records are about as different as any two albums Reed has ever made (OK, "Metal Machine Music" was slightly out there, too). You've got the somber orchestral vibe on the one hand and the screaming two-guitar thing on the other. Were people surprised by that? Were folks expecting some kind of recreation of "Berlin" when they got "Rock And Roll Animal"?
D: I don't think so, because I don't think most people were actually that aware of "Berlin" in the first place. A lot of the songs we did, of course, on the "Rock and Roll Animal" tour were from the "Berlin" album. Only they were the band's versions, if you know what I mean.
G: What was it like working with Reed during his "extreme behavior" phase?
D: Lou's a great songwriter, but an enigmatic character. We got along very well, but I suspect he thought I was a little bit too "normal," as a person.
G: Now, on to the Cooper years. First off, what do you think of the just released box set, The Life And Crimes Of Alice Cooper?
D: Well, having just looked at it, I think it's a beautiful package, I think it's really well done. It's phenomenal, really. It's so cool. And the book inside, I mean I haven't read everything, but I was glancing through it all, you know, and it's quite a statement about Alice Cooper as a superstar. I think it's really the kind of notice that he's deserved for a long time. And the selection of songs, just checking over the titles, I think it's a great chronology of what he started out as, how he ended up, and how he got there. I think it's a great collection of songs. And of course I'm very thankful to have 13 songs of mine on there. Actually I wrote a couple of other ones too, but I'm not credited. "I Love The Dead," and "Escape." I wrote the melody to that song, but they asked me not to be on the song because there were already four other writers.
G: I guess Kim Fowley was one of them?
D: Yeah, and to be honest, I don't remember these people even having anything to do with it, but they know. It's alright. I was there, I was making a lot of money, had a lot of songs on the record (Welcome To My Nightmare), and I really didn't care. And they asked me to please sell my rights, because other writers, like Fowley and Mark Anthony, didn't want to be part of a song that had that many writers on it. I guess they didn't care who wrote the damn melody, but then again, whatever! It's one of those things. It'd be nice to have more royalties, you know, but I've made money off these songs and continued to do so, so I don't have any sour grapes, really. It's not a big deal to me. "Escape" is not the greatest song in the world. If it were "Only Women Bleed," I'd be fighting, of course. [Joint laughter.] I feel like I should fight for "I Love The Dead," but I did make a deal with them at the time. I sold my rights to the song. You know, because they caught me at a time when I really needed money, and they gave me some. Not as much as I would have made over the years, but it was a bird in the hand. So I sold my rights to the song, and it came out as being written by Alice and Bob Ezrin. But the truth is that I'm one of the primary writers of that song.
ON TO PART TWO