Saturday, February 11, 2012

Not Only Women Bleed

Not Only Women Bleed

By Dick Wagner

Let me start by way of disclaimer. I am not a disinterested observer of Dick Wagner’s career. We’ve known each other for several years and in that time we’ve spun the karmic wheel and embraced some level of acceptance for each other’s foibles. I have a gut feeling whenever he’s hydroplaning sincerity, “I love you brother.” At times I Imagine Wagner sees me as a rabid fan that squeezes him into a corner just to say “I really like you work with Alice Cooper – what’s he like?” But there’s no avenue of escape and he averts his eyes, and shifts his weight from one foot to the other until he spies another annoying fan and makes his exit by introducing us. It is clever and protective especially when you are the mystery man.

 The book is carved into vignettes that contain several short paragraphs with cohesive themes. It creates a sense that it’s a quick read – it is. But it also leaves me with a feeling that Wagner is sometimes skimming surfaces and leaving things out, cocking the bow but not releasing the arrow.  This is somewhat true in the vignettes about the Bossmen and the Frost. From 1964-1972, Wagner’s learning curve was incredibly high. He was a quick study who seemed to grasp and assimilate more sophisticated into his various projects whether it was the Frost, The Cherry Slush, Count & the Colony or the Pack. He was all over the map with a boundless source of creative energy. These were formative years for Wagner and his cohorts. Like a smithy bending hot iron with a hammer and anvil, Wagner pounded out sturdy little ditties that were both charming and durable. Listen to Here’s Congratulations,  I Cannot Stop You, Say What You Think, Wide Trackin’ and you might agree. They have stood the test of time. These early garage masterpieces were the building blocks of his craft. The caterpillar spins the cocoon and the butterfly emerges.

Wagner opened the book with a brief statement about his birth on December 14th, 1942. The first vignette skips over six decades to Wagner’s 60th birthday celebration at the State Theater in Bay City Michigan. I was there. I walked into the theatre late, near the end of the show; as I passed through the first set of doors I noticed Edgar Winter furtively gliding up the stairs to the balcony. I was happy for Dick. The place was packed. 

The book really started to cook when he wrote about meeting and performing with several of his rock & roll heroes. He recalled when his first band, the Invictas, backed Jerry Lee Lewis at a roller rink on Ortonville, Michigan. He drove up in an emerald green Cadillac, a fifth of Jack in his hands and yells out “The Killer has arrived.” Wagner was only seventeen years old. It wasn’t too long after that when he backed Roy Orbison at a gig at Devils Lake Pavilion near Adrian Michigan and accompanied him back to the hotel. Orbison asked young Wagner if he’d like to listen to a couple of new songs he was working on. He proceeded to play Candy Man and Crying. In the late sixties Wagner played with his rock & roll idol Little Richard at the Grande Ballroom. It was an unexpected appearance that also included Johnny Winter, Mitch Ryder and the Frost. Little Richard was in full camp wearing a suit made of mirrors.

 It was a baptism.

Wagner described his first live performance in Union Lake Michigan during a Paul Bunyan Days celebration. He was just a freshman in high school but had the pluck and courage to sing a current radio hit Sugaree in front of 500 people and pull it off without a hitch. It was the moment when he found his voice.

Wagner described an incredible cauldron of characters that seemed to emerge from a cloud, an ancient time when a person’s quirks were embraced instead of medicated. Teep Wicker was a huge Elvis fan, perhaps the first Elvis impersonator - though he couldn’t sing worth a hoot and bore no resemblance to his idol. Wild Bill Emerson was an extraordinary guitarist in the Mac Vickery and the Driving Band. He played left handed and had to turn his guitar upside down to play it. He would attach a little monkey on a string to his guitar and set it on fire, years before Hendrix became a pyromaniac. Emerson taught Wagner about using banjo strings on his guitar so he could bend the strings more easily.Wagner continued working with Vickery in a travelling gypsy caravan called Dr. Silkini’s Magic and Horror show. It’s a great story, a definite hoot.

In 1962 Wagner joined the Eldorados, a great Detroit show band that included Warren Keith on piano. This was a fortuitous event that created the opportunity for Wagner to enter the next phase of his musical journey.

The Playboys were the first rock band in Saginaw, Michigan. Butch White was the lead singer and guitarist, an enormous talent and unsung hero of the early rock & roll scene. The other members included Pete Woodman (drums), Lanny Roenicke (bass) and the aforementioned Warren Keith. As circumstances would have it, White was married and needed a day job to provide for his family. He was a weekend warrior. He left the Playboys at the request of his wife, leaving a gaping hole in the band’s lineup. Warren Keith had been impressed by Wagner’s skills in the Eldorados and recommended him. So Lanny and Pete fetched Wagner from his home in Waterford and brought him up to Saginaw. Under Wagner’s leadership a good band became a great band that set attendance records at the Village Pump in Bridgeport. This was only the beginning.

Wagner gave full credit to the Bossmen in helping to establish his rock & roll credentials. He also gave credit to Bob Dyer and Dick Fabian, starmaker Deejays who championed the Bossmen and were instrumental in advancing their career. Each of the Bossmen 45’s reached #1 on the Saginaw charts. They were our Beatles. Massive crowds followed them from Daniel’s Den to The Y  A- Go-Go, the Village Pump,  and Mt. Holly. They had a fan club that issued Christmas cards and “Bossmania” buttons as well as regular newsletters. Wagner’s future business manager, Mary Anne Reynolds-Burtt was a member.

The vignettes that detail Wagner’s influence in Saginaw provide a road map of memories for any of those early fans who came under the spell of his musical adventures.  The Frost expanded Wagner’s vision. Each stage of his career involved an evolution to greater artistry and a broader perspective. The Frost sounded like the Beatles on steroids but by their last LP, Through the Eyes of Love, they had developed a hard rocking sound that set the stage for Wagner’s next project.

Wagner described Ursa Major as a milestone in his songwriting, production and arranging. The band hit the road opening for Jeff Beck and Alice Cooper. Wagner acknowledges that though the music was a huge step forward Ursa Major “was destined to be a single, great, seminal rock album”

 Bob Ezrin’s influence on Wagner’s career cannot be overestimated. He was responsible for linking Dick to Lou Reed and helping to re-establish his relationship with Steve Hunter. The vignettes that cover this stage of Wagner’s career are an excellent read. It takes you on a high speed chase with hairpin turns. It’s exciting, almost breathtaking. It leads the reader step by step to the upper stratosphere of rock & roll – the music, fame, money, adulation and all the excess – culminating with the Welcome to My Nightmare Tour.  By all accounts it was a landmark event that was well conceived and executed - the biggest grossing tour ’75. The music was superb, fantastic. They were “the best band in the land.” They were Hollywood Vampires. All this glory set the stage for the next phase of Wagner’s life.

The Richard Wagner album was a great showcase for Wagner’s skills and could have been a springboard to a successful solo career. But things started to go wrong almost immediately. It started with a battle over the title. Wagner wanted Dick Wagner: Nights in The Heartland but Atlantic Records insisted on Richard Wagner.  It flopped.

Wagner had a tendency to go down a few side roads in the book as when he mentioned his IQ score, The Girl Rule or having six partners in one night of Dionysian excess. I felt that the details his sexual experiences were mostly unnecessary. I’m less interested in those adventures than what underlies them – the root cause, the core wound. He reveals his early abuse and the invalidating family environment that caused him to internalize negative messages such as “you will never amount to anything” or “you are worthless.” Later, as a young aspiring musician, he was sexually assaulted by the Invictas manager. He kept this toxic event secret, hidden away in a compartment of his mind where it festered and quietly undermined his capacity to trust and to love. It appears that these early wounds set stage for Wagner’s later sexual behavior that, by his description, contained elements of hostility and exploitation e.g., having sex with a woman and pushing a slice of blueberry pie in her face. His insistent numbing through the use of drugs, his high level of arousal, and buried anger were symptoms associated with those early experiences. This is the perfect storm of shame and doubt that led to a spiral of failed relationships, addiction and a stalled out career. This book could be titled “The Healing” because Wagner brought these memories back up to the surface after years in hiding. It’s called exposure - revealing dark secrets and past trauma by writing (talking and thinking) about them. It is the substance and process of recovery.

  It is courageous

The book is a must read for anyone who has followed Dick Wagner’s career, especially for people who came of age in Michigan during the sixties and seventies The casual fan may not know about Dick Wagner so the link to Lou Reed and Alice Cooper is critical to the overall success and sales of Not Only Women Bleed. The book is as entertaining as it is revealing. Some may wince at the graphic detail of Wagner’s Dionysian fall from grace but will also applaud his honesty and willingness to take ownership of his wrongdoing and to seek forgiveness.

Not Only Women Bleed is available @ It is only $9.99 but you need to download a Kindle in order to format the book so you can read it. It’s a good read, accessible, hilarious and graphic. Any fan of classic rock & roll would love this book. Pass the word brothers and sisters.


Bo White

Kansas - Numinous Mind and Music for the Soul

Rich Williams, the extraordinary riff-meister of Kansas, sat down for a deep collar interview with Review Magazine.  Kansas is preparing for another extended tour in 2012 that will include a stop at the historic Temple Theatre in Saginaw.
Kansas has been a musical force of nature since the mid-seventies with such enduring hits as Carry on Wayward Son, Point of No Return, and Dust in the Wind. The music is incredible with ornate and complex arrangements, unusual signature changes, and poetic lyricism. They have underwent enough lineup changes that rock writers sometimes refer to that various incarnations as  Kansas I, II, III - though founding members Rich Williams (guitar), Phil Ehart (drums), and Steve Walsh (keyboards, vocals) have remained a strong stabilizing presence.
Kansas has released over 65 recordings (including compilations) in various formats - vinyl, CD, and DVD. They have toured relentlessly with only a few down moments in the past 38 years. They have grit and creativity to keep it going as long as love and oxygen wash over their spirit.   Kansas music is a strange and wonderful brew of folk, hard rock, and orchestral, almost operatic music. The musicians embrace a stubborn eclecticism that follows its own shadow and frustrates the critics. They have been criticized as overwrought and pretentious but the critics be damned, Kansas has survived and flourished despite their mixed reception. The band has retained a legion of loyal fans that are more than happy to sing songs of praise in the name of Kansas!
Kansas recently released a DVD Kansas: There is No Place like Home and a Special Edition 35th Anniversary Dust in the Wind Book.  2011 was a big year for the band and the energy is building for more concerts and recordings in 2012. The momentum is strong and Kansas is on the move. Come to the Temple Theatre and witness a great band that paints grand canvases with heavenly baroque music.
The concert is at the historic Temple Theatre on Thursday February 16th 2012 @ 8pm. Tickets are priced @ $79, $59, $39, $29. Call 877-754-SHOW 10am-6pm to purchase tickets. There isn’t a bad seat in the house!

You recently completed the 2011 Collegiate Symphony Tour to raise money and awareness of college music programs. It sounded like a fantastic project. How many concerts did you put on? Did you reach your goal?
We are still doing those events actually. We did them last year and the year before and we have dates set for this upcoming year too. It’s an ongoing process. We’ll do it until no more colleges will want to do it anymore (laughs).  Ever since we did the DVD There No Place Like Home, we wanted to do more orchestral work so we did an album with the London Symphony Orchestra and we wanted to get it filmed and we eventually did it with the Washburn University Symphony in Topeka Kansas. Once that came out we could present it to colleges and they could see it – that this is what we do. It answered a lot of questions for them. One thing led to another and we got a sponsorship from D’Addario  and it took on a life of its own. Now we’ve done over 40 colleges. The doors been kicked in and it’s a lot easier now. It’s been very successful; it’s in part a benefit for the music departments at the colleges. D’Addario has also donated a lot of equipment, funds and scholarships for students. It’s been a lot of fun so we hope we can continue doing it.
It seems like a massive commitment. Was it difficult to teach the orchestra musicians?
Some songs we do only with the symphony because they seem to fit well with that genre. We’ve always been very symphonic by nature, it’s not a shoehorn, and it works really well. Scores are advanced to the colleges so they have plenty of time to learn the music. It becomes part of the curriculum and they have an opportunity to work on it long before we get there. Larry Baird, our conductor, scored the music and he shows up and does a rehearsal with the musicians, sometimes the day before, sometimes just the morning of, or even in the afternoon. It’s really more of a sound check, get the levels set, smooth out the rough spots and then it’s show time.
 It seems your actions match the poetic and spiritual lyricism in many of your songs. Your music seems to reflect a message of hope, is that how you see it?
Well, yeah, a lot of the lyrics Kerry wrote (Kerry Livgren composed the biggest Kansas hits. He left to form AD, and focus his writing on a Christian worldview) were ambiguous and hopeful- inspirational and seemed to mean something different to the individual. Inspirational is a good word.
Kansas seems very active as far is touring. How do you prepare for the emotional strain and physical crunch of touring?  How is it that you are able to keep it up without becoming depleted in some way?
Well, we figured it out a while ago. To continue to do it we have to keep it fun. Riding in a bus, playing five nights a week stops being fun in a hurry. The hope that we aim for and never quite reach - it is sort of what we do…basically I leave on a Friday morning and come back on a Sunday afternoon. That’s basically how we work throughout the year. That’s the rough framework of it. It works very well for us; everyone has a home life and a family life. We are rarely in a bus, we fly to gig and stay in a nice hotel. It keeps everyone healthy and happy.
Right now I’m going stir crazy because we took January off - we’ve been off since the first of December and we don’t start up again until the middle of February so these are the confusing times for me. It took me a long time to figure out what to do with myself. The rest of the year I’ve got the weekend to prepare for and it works very well for us. Once you make peace with the travel and just kind of relax it’s actually fun. It’s just not tough…I had a real job once and it’s just not like that. We do eighty shows a year
You have released several albums and CDs since 1974. That is an incredible body of music. What sparks your creativity?
Some of it is the record company decides to re-wrap something, slap a different cover and then they put it out. The last thing we did was the DVD. It was a hands-on experience in our control. The decisions of the record company are beyond our control like re-mastering of old product. Recently I saw they did something with the early Kansas stuff when we were on CBS.  They did a real nice package of that. What our focus has been on since we did our DVD There’s No Place like Home, artistically, has been college dates - reinventing ourselves in that way. Playing with the college kids - they bring an enthusiasm to the table that you don’t necessarily get when you are playing with a professional city orchestra. It’s new to them, they are not getting paid and they really appreciate it. There is nothing planned at this time to go back into the studio to record new material.
It is said that your progressive music -complex orchestral arrangements and heavy rock & roll guitar riffs were inspired by groups such as King Crimson, Yes…Emerson, Lake and Palmer – even Frank Zappa. I can hear it. But what do you say, who inspired Kansas?
All of those – King Crimson, Jethro Tull Gentle Giant…early Genesis. They were all an inspiration to us. We grew up playing the hits of the day. We listened to Mitch Ryder & the Detroit Wheels and a lot of soul music so we grew up as a rock & roll band. As we grew up we began to take it in another direction so underneath it all, this is what helped give us a heavier sound. We are pretty heavy handed; we don’t have a light touch
Rich, you are a brilliant guitarist that can rip and soar and yet play very melodically. Did you learn from a master? Who inspired you as a guitarist?
No. I just took a few lessons when I first started playing in high school. I loved Eric Clapton - early Eric Clapton. I was influenced by his work with John Mayall. Before that I played a lot of soul music, Ike & Tina Turner stuff. I liked Ike’s style. But Eric Clapton with the Bluesbreakers…that Les Paul through the Marshall really cranked. I heard blues before but not with that tone and intensity. It was really eye-opening to me to hear such a strong voice coming from a guitar…and all the early Yardbirds stuff was incredible - Jimmy Page was in the Yardbirds, Jeff Beck was in the Yardbirds… Eric Clapton. They influenced everybody.
You are excellent musicians but the vocalists are integral to the Kansas sound as well – they sing their asses off – the lead and harmony vocals are exquisite. Who arranges the vocal parts?
Steve Walsh is the main vocalist, always. Billy Greer is the new guy on bass and vocals. He does a lot of the singing. He’s the new guy but it’s his 26th or 27th year with us. And then on violin Dave Ragsdale does a lot of backup singing. He’s been with us since the nineties. The new guys aren’t even new. We’ve been with them forever. They’ve been with us longer than some of the original members.
I read that in the early “broke and starving” days of Kansas,  Phil Ehart told an interviewer, “We were going to play this style of music and not compromise, even if we had to f***ing starve.” It seems like an inspired comment. How do you view that comment now, does it still resonate with you?
Well, that is the exuberance of youth, when your life is all ahead of you and you stand firm on a principle -   all for all; one for one. You live in a stinking band house and make decisions. You know, I’m glad we did. That type of a determination is a young man’s game
When did you get your lucky break?
As a group we were kind of the last man standing in the area (in our age group, anyway) that wanted to play music professionally. We did not want to play the hits of the day in a Holiday Inn. We did not want a day job and we wanted to do original material. For a lot of people it’s too risky. If we do that we can’t play the prom. Well, fuck the prom. Even more than that we wanted to do stuff that’s outside the box. We made a demo tape – we mailed out four reel to reel tapes and one ended up on Don Kirshner’s desk. He was our benefactor. He listened to part of the tape not knowing there were six or seven songs on the other side, so basically he liked one song on the tape, What Can I Tell You…it ended up on our first album.  So he sent a scout out to see us. We were playing in a small town in western Kansas. The gig was at the Ellenwood Opera House. We played there a lot. We wanted to impress this guy - he didn’t know it but it was free to get in and the beer was free. It was packed and people we standing in line waiting to get inside. So the scout reports back to Kirshner – “There’ something going here.” When we got the record deal we asked Kerry Livgren if he would join. Once we had a great songwriter onboard we started to gain momentum. The rest is history.
Kansas has created several classic songs/albums that stand then test of time. Can you describe the creative process – writing, arranging, producing?
It was not always the same. Steve would come in with a song a lot of times or Kerry would show up with a song. Sometimes it would be written completely, other times it might be an idea. Then what happened is that everyone would put their own little twist on it. It was kind of painful. I think that is why Kerry would like to do things on his own now, like Steve did. They would create this thing which is their child and then they’d bring it to band practice where we would just rip it to fucking shreds.  We would tear it down, reassemble it, and put it back together and then change it again. We self-produced all the early songs. It wasn’t until later that we worked with Bob Ezrin on In the Spirit of Things on MCI. It was the second LP with Steve Morse. It was the first time we ever allowed a producer to come in -in that capacity. He was a cool, guy. Bob was a great guy to work with. We got to trust someone outside of the group. He was kind of the seventh member of Kansas. It was hard but he really got a lot out of us – he had so many great ideas.  It made a big difference in the outcome of the album. It was one of my favorite recording processes we ever did working with Bob Ezrin!

Can you talk about each of your stone classic megahits:
Carry On Wayward Son
The album before we recorded in Bogalusa Louisiana and we found that going to this remote spot was just what we needed - the album before that was done in Los Angeles – too many distractions – and so we found this great studio in Bogalusa so we went there and did the Masque LP. We planned on going back to the same studio for Leftoverture. We we’ve been in rehearsals working on the new material for several months and we were winding down. It was the last day or next to the last day before we were going to pack up the truck and head south. And then Kerry walks in and says, “No, no, I’ve got another song” and we go …”oh fuck.”   We just weren’t in the mood. We had enough but we said,” Ok let’s see what you got.”  We listened and we knew it was a pretty cool song so we worked it out. We finally made it down to the studio and started laying down basic instrumental tracks. The songs are generally assembled in the studio. Then we started working on that new song - Wayward Son. Basically we learned the song in the studio. We had never played it live before. We really didn’t know it well in rehearsals. It came down to the first time that we did it right – take 20 was good. It was just a cool song with the great guitar riffs, from half time to double time, in out between a straight beat and a shuffle. It was interesting to listen to and fun to play. We had a great song. Of course I had no idea that I’d be talking about it thirty some years later.
Dust in the Wind
Next album; same situation. Kerry comes in with a reel to reel tape. But the story of this song goes back several years ago. We were playing at this small club and Kerry and I met a guitarist who was older than us and more accomplished. He was showing us a finger picking style but neither one of us had done any acoustic playing or finger picking. A few years later Kerry wanted to remember how to do it a few years later so he wrote a finger picking exercise, just a pattern just to practice it and it became the chord pattern for Dust in the Wind. As the story goes his wife heard it and said “that’s really pretty – you need to do something with that.” He was reading a book on Indian philosophy which is where the lyric came from. We knew instantly that it was a great song. It was odd as we’d never done anything without drums. At the time there was nothing on the radio that sounded like it.
Point of No Return
The only thing I can relate to it is that we were out on the road, the album was out everything is going great. Our manager wanted us to do a video for markets in Australia and parts of Europe. They sold more music by featuring these commercial videos. They would play it on television and I was thinking. “Like that’s going to catch on.” So we did these videos – a cutting edge, psychedelic attempt at using modern technology. I was stunned when I saw the Point of No Return video. It seemed like it was just a parody.  I couldn’t watch it for years. Now in retrospect I think it’s funnier than shit, it really captures that era.
There seems to be a lot of energy around Kansas. Do you feel it? Can this be another big year for Kansas?
Oh yeah, we have a lot of symphony dates coming up, we have concert, casino dates, fairs and festivals. In the Midwest I love the fair atmosphere and the smell of funnel cake in the air. I’ve always enjoyed that. We are working on 20-30 dates with a solo act called That One Guy. He’s a cross between Frank Zappa and Weird Al. It’s very strange to watch this guy. He’s a trained oboe player - funny but serious. We will do another eighty shows this year. I’m really looking forward to being up there in Saginaw. We are all restless and ready to play!