Dick Wagner (Alice Cooper/Lou Reed)

by Greg Prato

Dick Wagner died on July 30, 2014, about nine months after this interview was posted. He was 71.

When Alice Cooper parted ways with the original Alice Cooper Group to head out as a solo act, he needed a worthy collaborator. He more than met his match with guitarist Dick Wagner. Wagner would go on to co-write some of the shock rock king's biggest hits of the mid-to-late '70s, including the ballads "Only Women Bleed," "I Never Cry," and "You and Me," and the more rocking "The Black Widow," "Go to Hell" and "It's Hot Tonight."

Wagner is one heck of a guitarist. Teaming up with Steve Hunter, the duo was responsible for the tasty six-string work that is showcased throughout Lou Reed's classic live set, Rock n Roll Animal. He also contributed uncredited solos on classic tunes by both Aerosmith and KISS.

So what was it like writing with Cooper and shredding for Reed? Wagner explains, and also tells the stories behind about some of those Alice Cooper songs he wrote, including the one that remains one of the most misinterpreted songs in rock.
Greg Prato (Songfacts): How would you describe Alice Cooper as a songwriting partner?

Dick Wagner: Alice Cooper is a brilliant lyricist. He's full of ideas. He and I get along great. All the writing we did in the '70s, basically he and I have the same sense of humor and same ability to write quickly and make decisions and edit ourselves as we go. So he's the most perfect writing partner I could have ever written with.

Songfacts: Something else besides all the great songs you wrote with Alice, I've also been a long-time fan of the Lou Reed album that you were on, Rock n Roll Animal. As far as the dual parts that you wrote with Steve Hunter, do you think that was one of the first times that dual-guitar harmonies were used in hard rock? The Allman Brothers were around before that, but it seemed like your work on that album is what then led to bands like Thin Lizzy.

Wagner: With the combination of me and Steve Hunter on guitars, it was like that from the very first day. It was amazing, putting together two guitar players, and we made a conscious decision right from the beginning that we would divide up the leads and the rhythms so that neither one of us would be the dominate guitar player. It would be a pair, a duo, and it really worked great. We sounded great together. We have a similar touch of a guitar and our styles are similar, but yet different enough so you can tell.

But I think that, yeah, we were very influential on a lot of bands. We still are - people still talk about Rock n Roll Animal. I'm very proud of that record, without a doubt.

More so than any other decade, the 1970s was abundant with classic live albums by rockers. Case in point, the Allman Brothers' At Fillmore East, Kiss' Alive!, Peter Frampton's Frampton Comes Alive, and Cheap Trick's At Budokan.

But one release that seems to get lost in the shuffle is Lou Reed's Rock n Roll Animal. Before his 1972 breakthrough glam rock hit, Transformer, Reed was best-known for his proto-punk work with the Velvet Underground. But by the time of 1974's Rock n Roll Animal (recorded on December 21, 1973 at Howard Stein's Academy of Music in New York), Reed had embraced classic rock sounds, thanks to the awesome dual guitar lines of Steven Hunter and Mr. Wagner - as heard throughout the overhauled album opening rendition of "Sweet Jane."

Reed later distanced himself from the album as his musical path took him away from guitar solos. Hunter and Wagner exited, and joined Alice Cooper's band. In 1975, Reed unleashed perhaps the biggest "middle finger" release that an established rocker ever issued, Metal Machine Music.
Songfacts: Lou Reed is painted in the press as a difficult person to work with. What is your comment on working with Lou Reed?

Wagner: To me, it was a blessing. Because Lou Reed offered the opportunity to put this band together and for Steve and I to play together, and it really helped make our reputation. He's a great writer, Lou Reed. He's not a great singer, but what is great singing? I mean, Bob Dylan wasn't a great singer, either. But certain people do their own songs really well in a style. So I loved Lou's songs and I loved Lou, but he's not an easy character to understand. Lou was different than most people. But he's a true artist and I loved working with him.

He fired me at the end of the tour because he wanted to go in another direction. He claims that he didn't like the Rock n Roll Animal album, but at the time he sure loved it. I was sort of the bandleader and arranger for the band. Did most of the arrangements for the live show.

A lot of the songs were from the Velvet Underground days, and I wanted to take them out of that placid performance of the songs and make it more for the concert stage and the stadiums, so I did some majestic arranging with some of the songs - that's what I do.

Within the context of the band and how to deliver the songs, it really worked. I guess Lou doesn't really like it that much, but that's kind of a lie. You would think he would, but whatever. I don't really care. It's part of history now, it's on record. And Rock n Roll Animal stands very tall, it's a big record.

Songfacts: I agree. Let's talk about some of the songs you've co-written over the years. Let's start with Alice Cooper's "Only Women Bleed."

Wagner: I wrote the music for it in 1968. I was with the Frost, my band in Detroit. I had lyrics for it, but they weren't good enough. I never recorded it because I never really got the song finished lyrically as far as that was concerned. So when I got together with Alice in 1975, seven years later, I played him the song that I had. He didn't like the lyrics either, but he told me he had a title that he'd been wanting to write, but he hadn't been able to find music for it yet. He said it was called "Only Women Bleed."

So we sat down and took his title and my music and he came up with almost the rest of the lyrics. But it's really a song about domestic violence. It was misunderstood when it first came out. It was supposedly about a woman's period, but it wasn't. It was about a woman's subservient position in society to a man. I'm a firm believer that women are the superior sex. "Only Women Bleed" was a liberating kind of song.

The music I had written was a little bit unusual, but it was really good, so the writing was a pleasure. And the actual recording of it was fantastic. Bob Ezrin did a great job with producing that song. It's been recorded by like 30 different artists, so it's obviously got some staying power. Every year somebody records it.

Songfacts: Something that I learned from reading the book is that song was demoed at Micky Dolenz' basement recording studio.

Wagner: That's right. We just went down the hill to Micky Dolenz' house. He had a studio there, so we made the first demo of "Only Women Bleed." I wish I had a copy of that demo, dammit. That's really historic.

Songfacts: One of my favorite Alice Cooper hard rock songs is "The Black Widow." It seems like that song doesn't get much credit. What do you remember about the writing of that song?

Wagner: Well, I remember standing in the studio with Bob and Alice, and Bob said to me, "Can you come up with some kind of mid-tempo heavy rock thing?" And I said, "Let me give it a try." I plugged my guitar in and just messed around and came up with that. It immediately fit, and Alice started singing "Black Widow." And later on he had the idea to bring in Vincent Price to do that talk, which Alice and Bob wrote - they wrote that speech for Vincent Price.

But that initial record, writing the chord changes and stuff, I remember just doing it on the spot; just a momentary inspiration. I wasn't sitting somewhere trying to write a song, it was just spontaneous combustion on the guitar.

Songfacts: And what do you remember about the writing of the song "I Never Cry"?

Wagner: That song we were on Maui. We were there for a month and we were writing. I wrote the music for the song while Alice was off doing something. He came back and he liked that feel - the bluesy ballad situation - and he came up with the lyrics. And, man, we had it. It was a huge hit.

We were sitting on the veranda outside the house we were living in on Maui, right on the ocean. Sitting out there at night with a keyboard just trying to come up with stuff, and it happened. It was a full moon and it was a beautiful night. It's Hawaii - you couldn't get any better. I think we played golf that day. We were there for a month and we really enjoyed it. That song just came out naturally.

Songfacts: You provided the guitar solos on Aerosmith's "Train Kept A Rollin'" and also bits of KISS's Destroyer album. Was it more that the producers wanted you to play on it or was it just that the guitarists of those two bands didn't show up to play on those songs?

Wagner: For some reason they didn't show up. With Aerosmith, Jack Douglas called me and I was living at the Plaza Hotel in New York at the time. He called me up and he said, "Can you come down and play some guitar?" So I said, "Sure." Grabbed my guitar, got in a taxi, went down to the Record Plant, and the band wasn't there. They'd already cut the basic track, but they needed some guitar playing on it. They did the same with Steve Hunter - he played on it also.

So Steve and I did it once again, did something really great together. It's historic in a way. In those situations, I get called, I come in, I plug in, and then they show me where they want me to play. Then I just let loose and play.

So far it's really worked out that way. I don't have to have things written down and things structured. It's just like, "Give me something here that really sounds great." I mean, it's pretty simple. But I just get in and play, and fortunately I was to fill the bill.

Songfacts: It always struck me as strange - you would think that if you were a member of a band like KISS or Aerosmith that you would make it a point to actually show up that day to record your part on the album!

Wagner: I certainly would. I don't understand why those guys weren't there. I still don't really know. I've never talked that much to any of them about it. I just did my job, I was a session guitar player. I had just moved to New York and I was doing a lot of sessions around town. Just having a great time being a studio guitar player for a while. I just went down and played the way I play, and it seemed to fit.

Songfacts: For that song, "Train Kept A Rollin'," was it 100 percent guitar solos by you and Steve Hunter?

Wagner: Steve Hunter played the solos at the front and did it fantastic. Then I played that whole section on the end, which is supposed to sound like a live recording, but which really was in the studio. I tried to make it as live and as wild as I could, and it seemed to work out pretty well.

Songfacts: Absolutely. I agree. And then as far as the KISS album, Destroyer, was it just the song "Sweet Pain" that you played guitar on? I've also heard rumors that you may have played the solo on the song "Flaming Youth."

Wagner: I don't remember for sure. I do remember "Sweet Pain," because I can picture it. But I think in my memory somewhere I played on more than that song. I know I played acoustic guitar on "Beth," and I think I played on "Flaming Youth." Gene Simmons lately has credited me with playing the guitar solos on Destroyer. I don't think I did all of them, but I know I was always thinking that maybe I did like four songs altogether, including "Beth." So that would be "Sweet Pain," and "Flaming Youth," and one other that I can't remember the title. My memory's bad when it comes to titles on these tracks, because I'm never familiar enough at the time with what the title of the song is - I'm just concerned with what the music is, so I never put all that into my mind as being important, and it wasn't at that time that important. But it was important enough for them to not give me credit because they wanted to keep the image of the band intact. I understand that, so it never bothered me. But it's nice later on to get the notoriety. Lately things have been building for me, it's been really good. And there's a lot more common knowledge now that I played a lot of that guitar stuff.

Songfacts: Let's talk about your book, Not Only Women Bleed. What made you chose to tell your life story now at this point?

Wagner: Actually, I write poetry and I write songs and I write short stories. So I'm kind of a writer, I guess you'd call me. I was just writing some short stories and just thinking back on certain situations, and I started writing about them. I'd written a few and I realized I was writing a book that was in simple stories and a vignette style. But I thought that was kind of cool, because then people could pick up the book and read it from anywhere, just go to a page, start reading, and then eventually get interested enough to go to the beginning and read the whole thing.

Anyway, I liked the idea, the style, so I started writing it in that style. I went to publishers, and they said, "Oh, you can't write a book in a vignette style. That's just taboo, you don't do that." But I liked what I was doing, and I liked my voice. They were throwing out ideas that were totally alien to the way that I think or write.

So I made a determination when I knew I was writing a book that it was going to be in my voice and nobody's going to mess with it. It's going to be what I have to say. Why put a book out if you don't do that? So rather than call a ghostwriter or an editor from the publisher to "help me," I just went forward and wrote it in my own style and my own voice.

In the end, I did not make a publishing deal - I formed a publishing company for myself. I was able to immediately get a deal with Barnes & Noble and with Ingram, which is the world's biggest book distributor. So I guess I was right in what I was doing, because they loved the book, in vignette style or not.

But it's gotten tremendous reviews. We're on our third printing now and traveling all over the country doing book events. You know, I don't just sit there and read the chapter or passages from my book. What I do is I strap on my guitar, I sing songs that are talked about in the book, I tell the stories of how they were written, I tell the stories from the book. I make it an event, so that that way everybody who gets the music, they get to see the book, they get to pick up the book, look at it, and in the end almost everybody who's there buys one. So my book events are really kind of cool.

And the book, I'm very proud of it. It's funny, it's profane, it's also profound. It's quite a read.

Songfacts: I just finished reading it today, and I think in addition to fans of Alice Cooper and Lou Reed, others will enjoy the book, because I think it's a pretty honest snapshot of what rock bands of the 1970s experienced on the road.

Wagner: Yeah, it is that for sure. It's got a little humor on there, you can laugh your way through the book, too. So I'm glad you read it, I'm glad you like it. I'm hoping to have everybody have a copy. [Laughs]

Songfacts: Something that I learned by reading your book and also some previous books from rock musicians from the '70s is how prevalent cocaine use seemed to be. Did you guys not understand what a dangerous drug it was?

Wagner: No, definitely we were all told that it was harmless, that it was fine, and I believed it, until I did it for like 15 years. Then it started making me sick. I couldn't handle it anymore.

It's caused me to have health problems. I had two heart attacks and a stroke with a heart attack in 2007, which left my arm paralyzed and left me thinking I was really out of the business, since I'm a guitar player and I couldn't play guitar. So I've had to re-train myself.

And I'm back on the road again, I'm back playing. It's not just of the due diligence of really working at it, because they discovered along the way that I had hydrocephalus, too, which is water on the brain. It causes your brain to swell and in my case my brain moved a little, more toward the right side of my head - which is not my political affiliation. I'm not on the right. But I got the shunt put in, the hydrocephalus is regulated now and I'm perfectly normal, because Dr. Zabramski did a great job. It took a couple of months to adjust it until I felt normal and I could start to play again.

So it's been quite a journey from the day of a heart attack and a stroke to where I am today. I'm a blessed guy.

Then this last Friday I fell asleep at the wheel and I hit a tree. Thank God my airbag went off and saved my life. But I'm just the most lucky guy in the world. I've been near death several times and I could have been killed on Friday. But here I am. I'm a very lucky guy.

Songfacts: What's in store for the future?

Wagner: Well, here's what's going on right now. At this moment I've been asked to write a song for the St. Jude Children's Research Hospital to help raise money. So I've just written a song, and we record it next week. Then we go to LA and I'm doing this autograph thing, three days with a whole group of rock musicians doing autographs to benefit St. Jude Research Hospital. I'm going to record them out there, try to get as many of those people together as I can to do the vocals. Kind of like a "We Are The World" song. It's called "If I Had the Time, I Could Change the World." I'm going to do all the vocals on that stuff out in LA.

I've also signed to produce an artist from Denmark named Maryann Cotton, who is a shock rock 2013. He's a young guy, 21, who is influenced by Alice Cooper and Marilyn Manson and that genre of music. I have written an entire album of songs for him, and I'm just now making the deals to actually get it recorded. But the songs are all finished, the whole concept is in place. And I don't really talk about the concept until we get closer to the album, because it's pretty cool.

And that's what I'm going to be doing, producing and playing and writing. I'm just doing everything.

October 29, 2013.
For more info on Dick Wagner (and to order a copy of Not Only Women Bleed), visit wagnermusic.com.

More Songwriter Interviews

Comments: 5

  • Mário Souto from Senhora Da Hora, PortugalDan, it´s right in the beggining of the piece: Dick was uncredited in both Aerosmith and Kiss.
  • DanI don't see Mr Wagner mentioned in the liner notes from Get Your Wings.
  • Jim from North Billerica, MaGreat Job, Greg! Dick Wagner was always a favorite of mine and it is great that you guys never forgot him.
  • Greg Prato from TatooineHi Dick - Thank you for the kind compliment and so glad you enjoyed the interview!! Look forward to speaking with you again :)
  • Dick Wagner from The HeartlandsGreg, your interview makes me feel respected and happy. No wonder you are known as one of the best. I had a great time speaking with you. Lets do it again in 2014.
see more comments

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