Dick Wagner has played on classic albums from Aerosmith, Lou Reed and KISS but will forever be linked with Alice Cooper for his work as musical director and lead guitarist on the series of albums beginning with Welcome to My Nightmare up until the end of the seventies. Dick has written and recorded for a list of artists that is so vast it is almost dizzying but it always comes back to his association with Alice and now, thankfully, he has written a fantastic book called “NOT Only Women Bleed” about his life and times. I recently had the pleasure of talking with Dick about his long career in music, his new project as a writer and a number of other things I’ve always wanted to know and only HE could answer. Read on….
Legendary Rock Interviews: Dick Wagner is now an author. Was “Not Only Women Bleed” a fulfilling challenge to work on?
Dick Wagner: It was. It’s available now on digital and Kindle format on Amazon with a hardcover version to follow. I wrote it myself rather than having a ghost writer and Alice Cooper wrote the foreword. It’s a good-sized book at around 300 pages and it’s gotten really good reviews. It actually hit #1 on Amazon in it’s category so I’m pretty pleased. I think it’s a really good book, my life has been an ordinary life filled with extraordinary events you could say.
LRI: Actually sitting down and writing your memoirs is becoming something of a lost art with everyone leaning on ghost writers and heavy editing. Did it take a while to actually complete?
DW: It did, it took about a year or so to finish. My business associate Suzy helped me with a little editing of what i had written but it’s all my work, she just helped me clean up a few parts and really made sure it all made sense for the most part. She’s very smart. The stories are all stories from my heart and at my heart I am a writer, albeit a songwriter. The act of writing or storytelling is still pretty natural for me.
LRI: You and your band The Frost were part of that early Michigan rock scene. Scenes all over are not what they used to be but from what I understand that old school midwest rock scene was pretty special.
DW: It was FANTASTIC. We used to work and play mostly seven days a week. We would occasionally take a day off but there were so many places to play back then and The Frost was usually the first band a new venue would hire for their opening night because we were always generally able to draw a huge crowd. We were working all the time and driving all over the place for about three years. It was very exciting to be working seven days a week and always playing, those were fun times. There were many, many bands and it was a true scene because there were bands everywhere and GOOD ones. The audiences were fantastic and supported us all and there is nothing better than a Detroit or Michigan audience because they really appreciate the artist and will buy your records and come out to see you play no matter the weather, the financial climate. It was a very cool scene with very cool people and I loved it and was truly glad to be a part of it. I did work on the NEW Alice Cooper album but really just made my first official return to the studio and playing since my health problems to record a song called “Motor City Music” which is being released on iTunes. It’s sort of my tribute to that whole scene and the people in it. It turned out great. I also went on a sold-out six city tour and had a really fantastic crowd reaction. At first when I left for the first show I didn’t know if I could do it but once I got into the swing of it all it all came back to me. The crowd was really rabid and enjoying it and I’m enjoying them talking to me. I spent hours after the gigs talking and meeting fans who were having me sign their albums and all of that. It was a nice return to the stage, I hadn’t been on stage in over five years.
LRI: How important do you think your time working with Lou Reed was as far as your development as a writer and artist?
DW: I’m influenced by everything and everyone I’ve been around. Playing with Lou was my first time working with and being around Steve Hunter and it was a perfect match that sort of became a legendary duo. I also did the arrangements for Lou Reed’s live performances and was the band leader which is sort of the position I always seem to fall into without really anyone asking. I have always done that and guess it’s just my nature.
LRI: When you became musical director or leader for Alice Cooper it was right after he dissolved the original Alice Cooper Band. That had to be a pretty interesting time for everyone involved and especially you collaborating with Alice and producer Bob Ezrin. Two of my favorite songs from the WELCOME TO MY NIGHTMARE album are “Department of Youth” and “Years Ago”. My kids still get terrified when I play “Years Ago”. Do you have any specific recollections or memories of those tracks?
DW: Really….well I guess we did a good job on the atmosphere of “Years Ago” then (laughs). That song was started with a little piece of music I had written and molded to fit into that “Steven” theme that the album worked around. He comes out of the toybox and starts talking about his past and experiences and is already IN the nightmare. Hence the title “Years Ago”, he’s talking about his past. I just love that song because I think it’s such a strange piece of music. I thought it was cool and when Alice heard it he did as well and the lyrics just perfectly fit the music, I was like wow. I loved it when I finished the music, I just thought it was really an interesting piece. It’s a little spooky but nice, I’d like to hear it played more often. I know that “Department of Youth” was the second song I wrote with Alice, the first being “I Love the Dead”.
LRI: The GOES TO HELL album was the first official sequel to the Nightmare album. I have always loved that album and the title track in particular. Did you come up with that gallop riff that carries the verses on the song “Go To Hell”?
DW: (hums the legendary “Goes to Hell” riff) That part?
DW: No, that was Bob Ezrin (producer). He came up with that on the piano and then we incorporated it to guitar…yes that is a GREAT little riff. That was terrific. Bob, Alice and I pretty much wrote that whole GOES TO HELL album and i also helped a lot on the production of those records as well in addition to the writing and arrangements.
LRI: How did the idea for “I Never Cry” come about? It became such a massive hit and was covered by lots of artists.
DW: We wrote that spontaneously in Hawaii when we were down there for a month to vacation and songwriting. It was a nice place to write every night on the veranda on the bay with the moonlight over the bay in Maui. It was an idyllic place to be to begin with and “I Never Cry” was one of the first things that we wrote when we got to Hawaii. I remember having a little keyboard out there and just coming up with that little music and that feel of the song and then Alice came out and started working on the lyrics. That’s how we used to write a lot, I would come to him with a particular piece of music and we would dream it up from there. Really great ideas would seemingly fall out of the sky, out of heaven. They would just fall out and there it is so you make it up from there.
LRI: Did you have a sense that you were covering new ground or doing something a little different when you were working on the LACE AND WHISKY album?
DW: (Laughs). You ALWAYS have the feeling you are doing something different when you are working on an Alice Cooper album. You can’t sit across from the man and write songs without something odd or different coming about as a result. We always tried to have a sense of humor running at all times though and all we would do is sit and laugh half the time. Having said that, LACE AND WHISKY was a disappointment to me. I think there’s some really good music on there but at that point I think I was getting pretty messed up on drugs and Alice was a complete drunk, that was his really alcoholic period. To me, it didn’t turn out to be as good of a record as the previous two. The song “Road Rats” is really about the Nightmare tour and all the work we were doing, that song says a lot, unfortunately it was used in that Meatloaf film, ROADIE. LACE AND WHISKY sort of strikes me as being a bit more disjointed. It doesn’t have the same continuity as the others and to me that was a little bit of a letdown.
LRI: The Alice Cooper Show was the live album that followed next. Sometimes it has been reviewed poorly by critics or mentioned by Alice as being one of those periods he was out of it but the fans love it.
DW: I like it as well. It was recorded at the Aladdin Hotel shows in Las Vegas during the “King Of The Silver Screen” tour in the summer of 1977. I really don’t know why anyone would be down on that album, I think it’s a VERY good album with good performances. I think Alice sounds good on that one, he was out of it but he still did a good job regardless. I remember Steve and I had a sensational time there onstage in Las Vegas, we were really cooking. It was a great show at that point and I think that’s reflected in the recording and mixing. Bob Ezrin and Brian Christian did a great job on the sound of those tapes but there were not many overdubs necessary. I think I may have only fixed one or two guitar parts and Alice fixed up a couple of his vocals. That album is one of those ones that fans continually ask me to sign because I guess it reflects that era of us as a group live. Steve and I were really talking about doing something together again, that seems to keep coming up but never really happens. I don’t really put too much stock in it until it happens but it would be nice to work with Steve again.
LRI: I just love the next album, FROM THE INSIDE. The packaging and art reflects the intrigue of the music itself. Would you rate that album and the songs “Jackknife Johnny” and “The Quiet Room” as some of your favorite moments ?
DW: I would. I just love that album. I love those songs. “Jackknife Johnny” was the first song we recorded when we began work on the album and I remember Alice and I wrote that at his house and then took it in to the studio. That’s another great song that kind of went unnoticed which is a shame. “The Quiet Room” is another one of those catalog songs we did that never really got the airplay or recognition it should have, it’s such a great track and I really enjoy the guitar solo on that song, it’s very special to me. I love the piano part at the beginning which was something David Foster the producer contributed. I think that is an absolute GREAT song that really puts you in the mood and moment of that album. I remember that album because we had some new people in the studio. The guys from Toto, Cheap Trick and the Elton John Band did some work and Bernie Taupin worked with Alice and I on the writing of those songs. It’s a very personal album and underrated but I think it just turned out GREAT.
LRI: How deep into character was Alice at the point that he wrote FROM THE INSIDE?
DW: Well, he had just got out of rehab of course which is what “The Quiet Room” was all about. I think he was in there for about a month. I think when he came out he was much more real and less trapped in the character. He was much more coherent and physical. He and Bernie were hanging out and working on the lyrics. He would give them to me which gave me some of my musical ideas at that point and I think the first one we wrote was “How You Gonna See Me Now”. That song did become a big hit actually but I honestly think that Alice wrote the majority of those lyrics more so than Bernie. The words sound much truer to Alice personally than Bernie.
LRI: You left Alice’s circle after that point and recorded a solo album and did writing for others post 1978.
DW: Yes, I did a great album for Atlantic right after I left Alice and it was also produced by Bob Ezrin and I really spent a lot of time in those years afterward writing and doing session work. I did so much that it’s hard for me to remember it all without consulting my book NOT ONLY WOMEN BLEED (laughs). I put out another good solo album a couple of years ago called FULL MELTDOWN which featured a lot of material written during those years.
LRI: You did hook back up with Alice for the DaDa album in 1983. That album is REALLY overlooked in the grand scheme of things but featured some really interesting material like “Enough’s Enough” and “Pass The Gun Around”.
DW: Thank you, I love that album and had a lot to do with it as far as writing and production along with Bob Ezrin. I also played bass in addition to guitar on the DaDa album. It’s definitely one of my favorites along with FROM THE INSIDE, GOES TO HELL and NIGHTMARE. “Pass The Gun Around” was REALLY representative of Alice’s alcoholism, in other words, pass the bottle around, pass the gun around. I love the solo on that song. I really do love that album man despite their not being any real commercial success to show for it, there were no radio hits or tour or anything but I just love the songs on DADA. It really flows because there are some really great songs on that album. That album was really never heard by anybody. It came out as the last album for Warner Brothers and Alice got no promotion from them whatsoever BECAUSE he was leaving the label and they were finished with him. That album truly belongs in the “undiscovered gems” category. If you go through Alice’s catalog and listen to that album it just stands out more and more as the years go by. It was a brilliant moment in his catalog and criminally overlooked. It is near and dear to me because I was so involved in the writing and production of it and I actually was the one who really got Alice going to WRITE the album. He really didn’t want to write it at all. He was in Phoenix and enjoying his family and didn’t want to leave and go to Toronto to record it. I ended up having to go down to Phoenix and talk to Alice to sort of break the ice because there was a little bit of discontent between he and Bob Ezrin at that point. He was really dead set against going up to record it and I ended up having to be the middle man. I really wish more people knew about the music and effort that went into that album and made it a point to check it out, it’s really amazing.
LRI: You hooked up with Alice and Ezrin yet again for last year’s sequel album WELCOME 2 MY NIGHTMARE which was one of the highlights of 2011 to me. How did you get involved with the guys again and what do you think of the end result?
DW: I like it, I think it ended up being another great album. I was a little reluctant to hear it because I was a little too sick to get involved in the additional recordings beyond what I did on “The Underture”. Somewhere during the process Bob Ezrin called me and said they wanted to get a NEW “Only Women Bleed” which is like “Oh, ok!” because you can write a song like that every day right? (laughs). I wrote the song “Something To Remember Me By” which is the ballad on the album and I think it turned out beautiful. I really like that song and wish that they would consider THAT as a single or video, that’s only my opinion of course. I think there are a lot of amazing moments on the latest Alice album and I think that it proves what I have always thought which is that Alice is a greater artist than he gives himself credit for being. I think sometimes he has a hard time accepting how deep and involved and complex his character and art can be and he is truly much more amazing than he believes himself to be. I think some of his audience can appreciate the less “over the top” elements of his work. There is a lot more to Alice than obvious lyrics or guillotine or throwing of chickens. Having said that, I think sometimes the fans can see that better than Alice himself can.
LRI: You were a part of some of the most theatrical shows in the history of Rock and Roll though, wouldn’t you agree?
DW: I was, it was my job but I much more prefer the focus to be on the band and the music which is something I think Alice is finally coming around to. I had told him that for years and he would never listen. That give and take between Alice and the musicians in his band is a show unto itself. I was a part of all the theatrics you’re talking about John but it certainly wasn’t by choice and wasn’t my idea. I’m much more about the music and the band itself which is how I’ve always been, even before Alice. I understand that Alice has always been a pioneer in theatrics and has done that with many people over the years from the very beginning but I really prefer to just play guitar and sing the songs. When I do my shows I perform them straightforward like that and I think Alice is talented enough to do that too, those songs themselves are classics even without all the theatrics.
LRI: I wanted to also ask you about how you got involved with my alltime favorite band KISS. You played guitar on the DESTROYER album which is yet another classic album. Was your connection mainly through Bob Ezrin producing it?
DW: Yes mostly through Bob although Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons both became friends of mine and we’ve worked together from time to time. Paul Stanley and I spent some time writing together and he gave me a four Cd Boxset of Tony Bennett once (laughs) which was very cool of him. They’re friends of mine and I worked on not only DESTROYER but also the REVENGE album with them. I played the guitar solo on “Every Time I Look At You”, I just happened to be in the next studio over and Paul came and asked me if I’d play on one of his songs so I said sure. On the DESTROYER album I play on “Sweet Pain” and the acoustic guitar on “Beth”. They had more or less finished the basic track of “Beth”, not the orchestral track and wanted some acoustic guitar.