Dick Wagner: Awakening from the Nightmare

By Jeb Wright

Dick Wagner is best known as part of the team, along with Alice Cooper, and Cooper’s manager, Shep Gordon, that masterminded Cooper’s successful 1975 album Welcome to My Nightmare.  Dick co-wrote the tunes, played lead guitar and was the band leader on the iconic album and tour. 

It might surprise one to learn that Wagner also played acoustic guitar on the Kiss classic, “Beth,” lead guitar on the Aerosmith classic “Train Kept A Rollin’” and also recorded and/or toured with the likes of Lou Reed, Peter Gabriel, Meat Loaf and dozens of other rock stars.  Wagner was an in demand talent and the ‘go to guy’ for one of the biggest producers in rock and roll, Bob Ezrin. 

Now, seventy years old, Wagner is returning to the music game after a five year layoff in which he lost the ability to play guitar and endured two brain surgeries.  Wagner triumphantly returned to the studio in 2011, appearing on Alice Cooper’s follow up to his classic album titled, Welcome 2 My Nightmare

Dick has also recently published his memoirs, stories of his extraordinary life in, and out, of the music business titled Not Only Women Bleed.  The title, a take on the Cooper/Wagner classic, “Only Women Bleed,” fits perfectly, as Wagner has survived the highs and lows, the darkness and light that comes with a 40+ career in rock and roll.   Now is his time to tell his tale. 

Jeb: I want to talk about your book, Not Only Women Bleed, but before we get into that, how’s your health? 

Dick: My health is good.  I was very bad for a long time.  All my recent tests have proven everything to be fine.  At this point in my life, I am very happy.  

Jeb: This book is unlike many other books that musicians have written.   It seems so real.  Am I correct in saying you did not use a ghost writer?

Dick: I wrote the book completely by myself; it is a very honest approach.  I have to admit there were certain things, in my career, that I did not include, because I didn’t want anyone being angry at me. 

Jeb: Not all of it is peaches and cream because you went through some dark times.

Dick: I didn’t want to do a Tell All book.  I am not a Hollywood Diva; I’m just a guitar player who had some success.  I just wanted to tell my stories.  I didn’t hide anything, because there is nothing to hide.  I did not want to be negative to anybody. 

Basically, this book is my experiences and value judgments about things that I have gone through and the way I look at the music business.  It is a very honest book and people seem to respond to it.  I’ve really been surprised there have not been a lot of questions about it from fans.  But the truth is, that it is a very honest book—very honest. 

Jeb: You must have wanted to do this for years.  What was the thing that made you finally do it?

Dick: I started getting better after my brain surgeries – I had two brain surgeries in 2011.  I had a condition called hydrocephalus.  It actually kept me from being able to play, or walk, without falling down.  Fortunately, my cardiologist caught it and I got a great surgeon, who operated on me.  He got me back to where I had equilibrium again.  I can feel time again.  

I could not play guitar because I could not feel it.  I could not, physically, do it.  My arm had been paralyzed for three years.  I finally decided that I had to be able to try.  Slowly, I taught myself to play.  I had a five year period where I didn’t play guitar, but I was writing songs without actually being able to play guitar.  I thought my career was over, because without playing guitar, what was I going to do? 

The surgeon put a shunt in my head and drained spinal fluid out and removed a blood clot.  The blood clot had actually moved my brain to the right.  It was a very dangerous surgery, but he fixed me up.  I could finally feel a pulse and could feel time and play in time again.  I was able to come back. 

I don’t consider myself to be 100% the player I was years ago, or even the player I was five years ago. There are some things that I can’t do that I used to be able to do.  I have adapted my style and I’m back out playing live and playing very well and people are still loving it.  I am thankful for all of it.  I made a big, big comeback. 

Jeb: What was the challenge in writing your book?

Dick: I have always written short stories and songs – I have been a writer forever.  I started messing around and writing short stories and, at one point, I realized I was writing a book. 

I never set out to write a book.  I was just writing about phases in my life and what happened in my life.  After doing a few of those, I realized it could be a book.  It was a real challenge.  I wrote about 150 pages and I figured I had said it all. 

My manager, I gave the book to my manager, Susie Michelson, who is the editor of the book, and asked her to read it and see what she thought.  She read it and said, “No, this is not long enough to be a book.  It’s more like a pamphlet.”  We made a little joke out of that.  She said, “There is so much more for you to tell.”  I said, “I think I’ve said it all.”  She said, “No way.”  She made me a list of things that I could write about that I had not thought about.  She stimulated me to write more. 

For the last year, she was with me every day, writing the book.  She was editing and making sure there were no spelling errors and that everything was done in the right format.  She helped me construct the book and put it together.  I just started writing and it started to flow.  We made sure that it was done with the highest possible quality.  She put it together in book form and got designs for the cover. 

It was a team effort all along with my partners.  It is my story and I proved to myself that I could do it.  In the end, trying to be objective, I really had to conclude it was really a good book.  Anyone who is interested in the music business and music in general, would find this to be a very interesting book.  

Jeb: When you are writing personal things about your life it is a very cathartic experience. 

Dick: It was an emotional experience, writing this book.  I am very proud of it.  It really told my story.  I said in the book that I lead an “ordinary, but extraordinary, life.”  I am no different than anybody else, but I get to go through all of these things, like the live playing and the interaction of fans – that is the extraordinary part. 

Jeb: You asked Alice to write one of the forwards. 

Dick:  I asked him and to write the forward and he said ‘yes'.  I had another forward written by a friend of mine named Joern, who is a Fulbright Scholar and President of the Fulbright Association, Greater Los Angeles Board of Directors. He is a huge Alice Cooper fan from Germany.  My friend, Gil Markle, who has two doctorates in psychology and physics, wrote the afterward.  Gil owned Long View Farm Studios, where people like the Rolling Stones, Stevie Wonder, Aerosmith and others --including myself-- recorded. My album Full Meltdown, which is included inside the book, was recorded at Long View Farm. The music was lost for thirty years and then turned up at Rhino Records.

I got people who were friends of mine, personally involved with me, to say things about the book and about me.  It gave it a strong foundation.  They are all very smart people.  I consider myself to be just a hint above average in intelligence, but they are really smart people. 

Everything just came together to create the book.  It was really quite an effort and I’m really happy that they cared enough about me to get involved with me at that level.  Not to blow my own horn, but it’s an interesting story and I think I chose the right style.  You can sit down and read a chapter, or two, or you can skip around and read other parts first. 

Jeb:  Did the book spur any creative juices, musically?

Dick: Yeah, it did.  That motivation really started to disappear when I was sick.  When I started writing this book it really got me back to doing what I do.  The actual writing of the book inspired me, as a person, to get back to who I am; it was a big help. 

I had thought in the past, many years ago, that I wanted to write a book, someday.  I thought about writing a work of fiction; I never thought of writing an autobiography.  I felt I had an interesting enough story, and I saw all of these books by these other artists, so it came down to “Why not me?”  So, I did it, there it is. 

Jeb: Are you tempted to do a fictional story now?

Dick: I am, as I still write short stories. I don’t put a lot of thought into it because I am so busy with music.  To come up with something that is fictional that people might want to read it a real challenge.  Who knows?  I don’t know what I would be.  It is in there for me, the motivation, to write another book.  I really like writing—I love it actually.  To sit down and put words together is something I like to do. 

My poetry is really different.  I have a lot of good poetry.  Someone suggested to me, the other day, that I should put out a book of poetry and I am considering it.  I could put together a book of poetry very easily.  Meanwhile, I write songs. 

I have been out playing live in the Midwest.  I need a good agent to get that going but, so far, I don’t have one.  We are trying to figure out ways to get my name branded. 

Jeb: A lot of what you are known for is what you did with Alice Cooper.  You co-wrote the songs on the albums you worked on with him, but his name, Alice Cooper, is a huge brand name. 

Dick: I am not trying to get away from Alice, but I am trying to get my name branded well enough that I don’t need to play with Alice.  I want it to be on a bigger scale, of course.  I am 70 years old now and age might make a difference.  I still see a lot of the guys out there doing it.  My story is unique in that I have been out of the business for five years due to my health and I made a big comeback.  That is a viable story.  I need to at least maintain my reputation. 

Jeb: Tell me how you wrote music when you were unable to play guitar?

Dick: I have a keyboard, which has a sequencer, so I could put something down.  I’ve got a whole library of songs that no one has ever heard.  They might be recorded, but everything is up in the air.  It has been very recent that I have been able to come back.  I need a little more time.  Keeping a band intact is hard because people need to be paid.  The band I have now are dedicated to me and my songs.  I just need to expand it now to a world market. 

I am going to make a CD, or at least cut a bunch of tracks.  Whether it gets released or not, I don’t know, as the business is kind of strange today.  It is almost impossible to make any money making an album anymore.  When you consider the time it takes to make a recording in a major studio—you can’t make it back.  Some things catch on and you do make money and that has been happening all of my life, so who knows.  Most of the songs I write are viable, but they are not very exposed. 

Jeb: A lot of guys are doing albums with the people they have played with over the years.  You could do a song with Steve Hunter and one with Alice Cooper.  Have you thought of that?

Dick: I would like to do that.  I have not written a particular song with a particular person in mind and then contacted them to be on the song.  I need to do that. 

I would like to do an album where I do a song with Meat Loaf, a song with Lou Reed and a song with Alice Cooper and a song with Suzi Quatro.  I would like to do that, but I have not done it.  Some of the people I have worked with I don’t even know how to get a hold of.  I am sure I could get a hold of them…that is a good thought and I’m glad you re-awakened that.  It makes me think that is what I should do. 

Jeb: I was looking on your website and I saw where you played on Schools Out by Alice Cooper and you only got paid seventy-five bucks.  Is that true?

Dick: That is correct.  I played on “My Stars” which is a pretty good track.  I played really well on that.  I think I played on more songs than that, but I know I was on that one for sure. 

Jeb: Looking back, does it make you smile thinking about that?

Dick: It does.  I look back on it and say, “They should have paid me more [laughter].”  I had some success with bands like The Frost and The Bossman, but I was just starting out.  I should have commanded more than seventy-five dollars. 

Jeb:  Did you co-write “I Love the Dead”?

Dick: I did indeed.  I sold my copyright on that song because I needed cash at the time.  I got paid small money and they got the song and all of the royalties.  I never saw anything from it. 

Jeb: When you’re breaking into the business you do what you have to do.  That was you paying your dues. 

Dick: That is exactly what it is, without a doubt.  I ended up writing all of that stuff for Alice and I got my copyrights on that, so it was worth it. 

I tell people all the time that you have to invest in yourself. If you don’t invest in yourself, then how can you expect anyone else to?  You have to believe enough in yourself, when you’re starting out, to put up some time and money, or something.  You can’t expect someone to come along and drop a fortune on you.  It happens sometimes, but not very often. 

Jeb: When did you first meet Bob Ezrin?

Dick: I met him in my band Ursula Major.  I was probably only 25 years old.  I learned a lot from him, but I know he learned a lot from me, also.  He called on me over the years to do things for him, so he must have liked what I do.  I would come in and write music and I would play and, if they would get a hit out that, then it helps their career, as well as my own.  It pays out at the end—it evens out. 

Jeb:  At what point in Welcome to My Nightmare were you involved?  This was a big career move for Alice. 

Dick: I was involved from the very beginning.  I had a meeting with Alice’s manager, Shep Gordon, and he said,” Alice is going solo and he needs a new band.”  I helped him put the band together for Welcome to My Nightmare.  Alice and I also wrote the album together.  I was there from the very inception, before he had even changed from the old band. 

Jeb:  Were you excited to make this move?

Dick:  I went to Shep with all of these songs that I had written and he said that I should forgo that, for now, and go with Alice and be his band leader, lead guitar player and songwriter.  I made a judgment to do that.  It was a decision I had to make, but when they made me that offer, I couldn’t really refuse it. At the time, Alice was number one in the world, so how could I say no? 

Jeb:  You wrote “Only Women Bleed” well before the song appeared on an Alice Cooper album.

Dick: I wrote the music for “Only Women Bleed” in 1968.  I was with The Frost at the time and it was going to be a Frost song.  They lyrics were not good enough, so we never recorded it.  When I got together with Alice in 1975, he loved it, but he hated the lyrics.  We re-wrote it with different lyrics based on an idea that Alice had.

“Only Woman Bleed” was one of the first songs that Alice and I ever wrote together.  The first one was “I Love the Dead,” the second was “Department of Youth” and the third one was “Only Women Bleed.” 

Jeb: Is “Only Woman Bleed” your crowning jewel?

Dick: That one, and also, “Remember the Child.”  If you’ve never heard that, then look it up on YouTube.  There is a live version on there that I did with an orchestra and it is one of my very best songs.  “Only Women Bleed” is the other one.  Those songs are unique and they stand by themselves. 

“Only Women Bleed” is the most successful song.  It has been covered by twenty-eight, or thirty, different artists.  It is a modern day classic.  I’ve got a copy of all of them on my computer.  Sometimes, I just listen to nothing but “Only Women Bleed” by all of these people.  It is always interesting to see how differently these people do it. 

Jeb:  I want to talk about the album From the Inside.

Dick: I think that album is up there with Abbey Road from the Beatles.  From the Inside has so much good stuff on it.  It is a very musical album. 

The other one I really love is DadaDada has a lot of great music on it.  I did a lot of the writing on that one.  It was made during a time when Alice didn’t want to make that album.  I finally got him to start writing with me.  I am very proud of that album.  It is the most unknown of all of the Alice Cooper albums I was on, but I really like it. 

Jeb: Lace and Whisky is my least favorite album you played on with Cooper.

Dick: That was a very drug oriented kind of thrown together kind of album.  It had “You and Me” on it, which is a great song, but the rest of the album wasn’t up to par.  We didn’t quite hit a peak on that record; I’ve always admitted that.  It is okay, and it has some good stuff on it, but we didn’t live up to the others that we had done together. 

It was just too many drugs; everybody was just too wasted and it was a half-assed effort, really, as far as I am concerned.  We did get the hit out of it, which was great.  I don’t want to really knock anything that we’ve done.  The ones that I think were great were Welcome to My Nightmare, Go to Hell, and From the Inside

Jeb: The live version of “I Never Cry” is amazing.  It has these subtle differences in it that make it very cool. 

Dick: Those subtle differences make all the difference.  The beauty is in the detail.  You have to write and play the best you can at all times.  Sometimes, when you’re drug induced, you don’t play well; I am serious about that.  I went through a period of drug abuse.  I try to be honest about things like this and make a full confession. 

Jeb: Were the songs on From the Inside really based on characters that Alice met while he was in the insane asylum?

Dick: I don’t know.  All I do now is that Bernie Taupin and Alice brought me lyrics and I wrote songs.  I never got into with them whether these were real characters, or not.  Alice creates such great characters that I didn’t even think of it. 

Jeb:  They brought the lyrics first and you wrote the music second?

Dick: Basically, Bernie and Alice would bring my lyrics and we would sit down at the piano and write the song. 

“How You Gonna See Me Know” is a great song.  I wrote the music to that in twenty minutes.  They brought me the lyric and I sat down at the piano and was done in twenty minutes.  It was just a natural song.

It works different ways, as sometimes the lyric comes first and sometimes the music comes first.  Sometimes, they even come at the same time and it just flows out of you.  You never know how it will work when it comes to writing.  I am very open to all of the ways it can happen.  I remain open-minded when it comes to writing. 

Jeb: I would think it would be more difficult to take someone else’s words and put music to it.

Dick: Well, probably so, but in the case of Bernie Taupin and Alice Cooper…they were extraordinary words.  They write in a natural fashion and it was not too hard for me.  Those guys were tuned into me and it works when we do it.  We have not done it in quite a while. 

Jeb: Did you learn to be a chameleon and to adapt to the artist you are working with?

Dick: You have to be able to do that.  When you do collaborations then you have to really work together.  I can co-write with anyone.  My only problem is that I’m usually faster than they are, so I end up writing the song myself.  I have to work fast, as it flows out of me and I have to put it down.  I can’t wait around for someone else to catch up.  So far it has worked out pretty well. 

Jeb:  What songs did you write for Meat Loaf?

Dick: I wrote “Execution Day” and “Fallen Angel.”  He might have done one other song of mine too, but I really don’t remember. 

Jeb: Do you like to be involved when someone uses one of your songs?

Dick: I like to get involved, to a certain degree, with artists who record my songs.  Sometimes I play and sometimes I produce, it just depends on the situation. 

Jeb: You played on an album with Peter Gabriel. 

Dick: I played on a couple of songs on his first solo album, the one with the car on the cover.  I played guitar on there.  I was with Peter in the studio doing it, so I was right there with him.  It was the only thing that I ever did with him.  I did a couple of really good solos. 

Jeb:  Do you approach the creative process differently depending on if it is an entire song or just a solo or just doing production?

Dick: I just have a rule: You’ve got to know the song and you’ve got to have some sort of direction for the artist.  I take that and just be myself within that context.  It usually comes out good because I’m able to feel that particular situation. 

Jeb: Legend holds that you have songs that have never been released with Steve Perry of Journey fame. 

Dick: I do.  I have two, or three, songs that Steve Perry and I wrote at my house when I was living in California.  We recorded them and made master demos; they could be released today.
Steve Perry is difficult, so it never ended up being released.  It was not a fight or anything; it was more a disagreement between Steve and me as to who owns what.  It is not released and it is not owned by anybody; he has his fifty percent and I have my fifty percent.  The songs really turned out great. 

Jeb: You were on Alice Cooper’s Welcome 2 My Nightmare that came out a year or two ago.  What did you play on that?

Dick: I played guitar on “The Underture.”  That was my first session back from the illness.  It was at the very end of my not being able to play and training myself to play again.  It scared the hell out of me to go into the studio and try to play.  I didn’t know if I could do it, but it worked and it turned out great.  I also wrote the song, “Something to Remember Me By.”  I gave that song to Alice to put on the album. 

The album is more modern; it’s a good album, but there are a couple of songs on it that I totally disagree with.  “I’ll Bite Your Face Off” is a song that I hate because that is just a parody of Alice instead of being the real Alice Cooper. 

Jeb: Last one: What do you want to happen starting in 2013?

Dick: I want to go out and play live and make another album.  I have so many songs I think I could really make a great album.  I would also like to have my book sell.  If I had those three things then I could die a happy man. 

Jeb: Last one: Where is the best place to buy your book?

Dick:  The best place to buy it is on the website www.notonlywomenbleed.com.   Every book that is ordered from that website I will autograph.  I am always getting orders for books and I am signing all that come from that website. 

When we get an order, we ship it the next day, so you don’t have to wait around for a month for your book.  If you order it, then you get it right away. 

Jeb: It sounds like your team is really like a family to you. 

Dick: We have a real family atmosphere with my partners.  My management team really is a family.  I am really proud of the people I work with as they are brilliant and fantastic people.  I’ve got the best of all worlds going on.  I just want more and more of the public to get involved. 

Buy Dick’s book here: www.notonlywomenbleed.com