Dick Wagner -
In The Shadows
By Mitch Lafon
October turned into Alice Cooper month for Mitch and he continues with this exclusive interview with Dick Wagner. Dick is best known for being Alice’s musical director in the 'Welcome To My Nightmare' era, but in the industry he’s known as the go to guitarist for hire and has ghosted on albums such as 'Get Your Wings' by Aersomith, Revenge by Kiss and infamously on Kiss’ 'Destroyer'. He’s also worked with a who’s who of the industry including Burton Cummings, Lee Aaron, Air Supply, and Steve Perry. So, we sat down with Dick on Nov. 1st to find out more.
Mitch Lafon: What are you currently up to?
Dick Wagner: “I’m producing a new young artist named Miss Wensday.”
ML: How did you find her and what makes her special to work with?
DW: “She comes from a jazz background and she came to us and recorded some things that are more rock ‘n roll, so we combined the essence of both and called the album ‘Torch Rock’. It’s something new with songs that are commercial, but done with classical type arrangements and leading into rock ‘n roll. You’ll have to hear it to understand what I’m talking about. It’s almost a new genre.”
ML: I’m told you’re covering ‘Only Women Bleed’ with her...
DW: “We did a spiritual blues version of it. It’s great and it’s probably the best recording yet of ‘Only Women Bleed’. She’s just fabulous. She makes it about what it’s really about which is domestic violence. She really talks to women, so it’s a woman’s song all over again.”
ML: It’s a song that gets misinterpreted a lot. Over the years, I’ve had many people tell me it’s a song about promoting violence against women.
DW: “It’s exactly the opposite. If people actually listened to it – they wouldn’t have to have it explained.”
ML: Are you playing guitar on her album?
DW: “A little bit, but my primary guitar player on the album is Bobby Flores.”
ML: Let’s talk about your career – one of your first ‘ghostings’ was on Aerosmith’s 'Get Your Wings' album and the song ‘Train Kept A Rollin’’.
DW: “That’s correct, but it’s not really common knowledge.”
ML: Aerosmith never talk about it...
DW: “They never talk about it, but they acknowledge it when I’m around.”
ML: How does a guitarist come in and replace Joe Perry?
DW: “I was living in New York. Bob Ezrin and Jack Douglas needed some guitar playing, so they called me up and I went down to the studio and played. It’s real simple. Joe Perry wasn’t there neither was Steven Tyler although I had met them and knew them from before, in Boston, when I was living there. It’s not like I was a total stranger. They just needed somebody to play certain parts and I was there... and so was Steve Hunter. We both did that for them.”
ML: Could Joe not play the parts or was he not ‘available’?
DW: “I don’t know, but I’ll have to assume that he wasn’t available for whatever reason. I’m not saying that I actually think he could play the stuff we actually played, at least, not at that time. Steve & I had a lot more experience and had been playing a lot longer and at a higher level than what they were doing right then.”
ML: It’s become a signature riff – does it bother you that you didn’t get credit?
DW: “No, not really. There’s a shadow of bad feeling there, but not really. Each thing you do propels you forward in your career, so it didn’t hurt me. It would have been nice to have been given credit, but in the grand scale of the music business what does it really matter? Lots of musicians have ghosted for things and never gotten credit and that’s just the way it is.”
ML: You also played with Alice Cooper before Nightmare.
DW: “I played on several tracks on 'School’s Out' which was my first encounter with Alice. After that I played some solos and bits and pieces on all his albums until he and I really started writing together. The first song we wrote together was ‘I Love The Dead’ for the 'Billion Dollar Babies' album, but I got no credit on that either because I was told they were going to have only Alice’s name on the album and that was it, so I sold out my share of that song to them. That’s what you do when you need money, right? So, I sold it out and it turns out to be credited to Alice and (Bob) Ezrin. My name could have been on there and should have been on there, but it’s not on there. That was our first real writing experience together – “I Love The Dead’.”
ML: Before we get into your whole career with Alice – let me touch upon your involvement with KISS. Again, you replace a rock icon in Ace Frehley. We know you’re on ‘Sweet Pain’ from the 'Destroyer' album. Are you on any other songs on that album?
DW: “I played acoustic guitar on ‘Beth’ and I think there was a couple of other songs that I played on, but I’m not really positive. I don’t keep track of all this stuff and I don’t really remember.”
ML: When you went in to do the Kiss songs – did you go in thinking ‘I’m going to lay down my style of guitar playing’ or ‘I have to try and imitate Ace’?
DW: “I just do it my style. Listening to him... why? I’m not going to try to copy Ace Frehley. I’m there to lend whatever I have and they either like it or they don’t; which they did so...”
ML: How did you get involved?
DW: “Ezrin called me, so I came over and played. It was as simple as that. I didn’t really know Gene and Paul at that time. I got to know them later on and, in fact, I played on the Revenge album as well.”
ML: The song ‘Everytime I Look At You’ from what I know.
DW: “Right and Gene was nice enough to mention me in his book actually. I just wrote a book and mentioned them (laughs).”
ML: Is the book out?
DW: “It’s not out yet. I’m looking for a publisher. It’s called ‘Not Only Women Bleed’ and it’s memoirs of a rock musician. So look for it!”
ML: Quickly – on the 'Revenge' album. How did you get together with the band? Ace had problems in studio (for various reasons), but by ’92 Kiss had two guys in there that were bang-on musicians in Bruce Kulick and Eric Singer. So, how did it come about that you did the guitars on ‘Everytime I Look At You’?
DW: “I was in the studio right next door to the studio that Paul was recording in and he came over and said ‘Hey Dick want to come over and play on something?’ and I said ‘Sure’. So, I stopped my sessions, went over, played, and came back.”
ML: Do you know why Bruce Kulick wasn’t available?
DW: “I have no idea. I really don’t know.”
ML: Let’s talk Alice. It’s 1975 and you become his musical director.
ML: How do you understand your involvement with 'Welcome To My Nightmare'. There are different stories about it being a solo record then the band would get back together for the next record...
DW: “Shep (Gordon – Alice’s manager) approached me to work with Alice because he was going to go solo and they were leaving the band behind and would I help put a band together and write with Alice. I had written a bunch of songs that I had in the can and ready to play for Alice (which I did). We derived the material from that especially “Only Women Bleed’ which I had written all the music for back in 1968. So in 1975, when I played the song for Alice – he hated the lyrics (and so did I). So, we wrote ‘Only Women Bleed’ from a title he already had. That’s the true story of how it came about. We started that album based on that premise. We went down to the Bahamas and we went outside with an acoustic guitar and pencil and pad to write; and this tropical storm came up with 40 to 50 mile winds and we sat there. I started playing that riff that opens up ‘Nightmare’ and all of a sudden Alice sings ‘Welcome To My Nightmare’ and that was it. That was the beginning of that whole concept... on a beach in the Bahamas.”
ML: How did it feel when you started working with Alice and were you expecting to be on stage?
DW: “I knew I was going to be on stage because they always appreciated my guitar playing and I had played on the albums before. Like I said, Shep approached me and we did a little bit of writing and Shep wanted to know if we could get together over a period of time and write a whole album. We had to go to Hawaii to write first then off to the Bahamas – we couldn’t stay in California or New York. We had to move down to the islands to make it happen which we did and we made it happen.”
ML: Were they looking for a more pop sound? You gave Alice a more radio friendly sound.
DW: “Yeah, I think they were. I think they were looking for more accessible music than what they had been doing all their career which (some of it) was a little bit in left field.”
ML: Some of the early stuff was psychedelic...
DW: “Right, then Ezrin stepped in and they did ‘I’m Eighteen’ which was very accessible. They wanted more of that and they hadn’t been able to come up with anything until I came in and did the stuff that I did and it turns out they were ballads. I wrote some of the rock stuff too obviously cause I’m a rock ‘n roll player... I knew Alice from before because we had met in Detroit. We met when I was in a band called The Frost and he came backstage to see me one day and later that year I was flown out to Greenwich, Connecticut to the mansion (where they were living) and wrote ‘I Love The Dead’ with him out there. From then the relationship just developed. So, was I afraid? It’s always scary to sit down with a new person and write because you don’t know what to expect or what’s going to happen. It was the perfect collaboration between Cooper and I. It was immediate because we would just start laughing at shit. We would laugh and laugh until we’d settle down then we’d write a great song. We’d always come up with these weird titles, have a good laugh and then make great music.”
ML: You stayed with Alice ‘till around ’82 or so...
DW: “Yeah, early ‘80s. I left then he went into his 'Flush The Fashion' thing.”
ML: You stayed till 'Zipper Catches Skin'.
DW: “That’s right.”
ML: That was a strange The Cars meets Gary Numan album...
DW: “I don’t really know what that album was. It was spontaneous, at the moment, let’s do this. We were coming up with songs that were a little off the wall. Some of them were good and some not so good. The last album I played on with him was 'Dada' actually – which I think is an excellent album. It’s very experimental yet very musical.”
ML: Let me ask you about 'Dada' – many would consider that to be the weakest link in the Cooper catalogue. Why do you think it’s a strong album?
DW: “It’s very interesting that people would think it’s weak. I just think that musically it’s very good. It may not be hit songs, but it wasn’t pushed by Warner so there couldn’t be hit songs. The musicality and imagery... it’s really about leaving Warner Bros.. That’s what it’s about. It was the last album for Warner Bros.. The song ‘Former Lee Warmer’ is really 'Formerly Warner'. All the imagery there was about Warner Bros. (like the evil old man in the attic) and leaving Warner Bros., so that was the underlying story in there. I think it was brilliant in that sense and there was some spooky kind of cool songs in there too.”
ML: So, it was like a veiled middle finger to Warner.
DW: “Exactly – that’s what it was all about.”
ML: That’s funny and something I never knew.
DW: “I don’t know if anybody has ever known that because I’ve never really told anybody.”
ML: Well, thank you for telling me.
DW: “Hey, no problem.”
ML: Tell me about the association as it develops after Nightmare. You came in on a big high then you move on to Go To Hell...
DW: “Which was another concept album and I think was a very good album.”
ML: It’s one of my favorites.
DW: “Ezrin, Alice and I worked very hard on coming up with that concept and those songs. I think it really worked very well.”
ML: Let’s talk about Bob Ezrin. He was responsible for pretty much everything that was big in the ‘70s. What makes him that good?
DW: “Well, success breeds success. He had big records then he did The Wall (Pink Floyd). People come back to someone that has that kind of success, but the bottom line is that Bob Ezrin is a great musician, he’s a good songwriter and he’s very good at editing out that which shouldn’t be there and constructing something that should be there. He’s a good engineer – he’s got good ears.”
ML: You’re back with Alice these days. Tell me about the current writing sessions.
DW: “Well, I’ve written a couple of songs for Alice which he’s heard and loved, so we’re definitely back writing together again, but I’m just waiting for him to get off the road. Then we’ll be able to sit down and do full blown writing sessions like we used to.”
ML: Did Alice and you sit down and write a couple songs?
DW: “No. He’s given me a couple of titles and I sat down and wrote the songs. When I did his radio show with him, I played him the songs and he loved them. So, I guess we’re back in business.”
ML: What kinds of songs are they? Modern sound or trying to recapture the glory days?
DW: “Well, I haven’t really developed the sound. If I can produce this, it’ll be a more modern sound. They’re very guitar oriented, but I don’t really know what to say... I hope to have a conversation (possibly next week) about producing his record because I’m really on a roll.”
ML: When your relationship with Alice ended in the beginning of the ‘80s – was it acrimonious or was it just time for everybody to move on?
DW: “Alice and I don’t have a problem. I’ve had some problems with his management so it was acrimonious to a certain degree. But let bygones be bygones and we’re fine now... everybody.”
ML: What is or was the writing process with Alice?
DW: “Well, these songs are different because they’re very current songs in my writing. They’re not like the old songs of the ‘70s, but I’d like to throw the guitars on them to make them identifiable with that era. These are more basic, but better songs. These are songs that anybody could do not just Cooper – not geared to that image. I think Alice should steer away from that image and start to become a real artist... as a writer. That’s my opinion and whatever he does – he does.”
ML: What do you mean by ‘steer away from the image’? Do you mean steer away from the whole theatrics...
DW: “Yeah. That stuff has been done for many many years and I would rather see him, visually, turn himself into a famous songwriter. He’s a great lyricist. He can write about anything and be great at it.”
ML: But at this point there are certain expectations from fans to see a guillotine or electric chair...
DW: “Do you remember when David Bowie made a change? Any artist can do it and if it’s right – it should be done.”
ML: Part of what Alice is today – you developed. It was your imagery and vision.
DW: “I understand that, but at the core he’s a great songwriter. Eventually, you have to turn into the human being and not the caricature and survive on all your talents. That’s what I think, but, of course, I’m not his manager and I’m barely a writing partner.”
ML: With Nightmare you did a full theatrical presentation and as a guitarist would you have preferred to simply ‘rock’?
DW: “Well, I enjoyed the theatrics because it was fun, but I would have loved it to be a bare bones band and just rock. It’s hard to say though – I really enjoyed the theatrics. It was fun and as long as you’re having fun – what the hell?”
ML: Do you prefer producing or playing?
DW: “Both, but at this age I prefer producing. I’m getting old, man.”
For more info visit: www.wagnermusic.com or www.desertdreamsllc.com