Chet Greason, Gazette staff
Dick Wagner has collaborated with some of the biggest names in music: Alice Cooper, KISS, Aerosmith, Lou Reed, Guns N; Roses, Tina Turner, Jerry Lee Lewis, Frank Sinatra.
The 50-year veteran is a mainstay of popular music. He also believed, not that long ago, that his career was over. After suffering his second heart attack in 2007, he woke up from a two-week coma to find his left arm paralyzed.
“I really believed my career was over,” he said in a phone interview with the Gazette this week.
Five years of therapy helped his coordination and balance issues. But it was the discovery that Wagner was suffering from a condition called hydrocephalus (water on the brain) that really made a difference. After surgery to install a shunt, Wagner saw his dexterity vastly improve.
His first comeback was two years ago, though Wagner wasn’t happy with it.
“I was only sort of ready,” he explains. “I was anxious, still wasn’t playing as well as I thought I should be.”
This weekend’s Stratford Blues and Ribfest will feature one of Wagner’s first appearances since his rehabilitation. The rocker plays two free shows on the event’s main stage on Lakeside Drive – one at 8 p.m. on Friday and again at 8:30 p.m. on Saturday alongside special guest Miss Wensday Timebomb.
“Finally, this year, I started playing the way that I used to ... I’m back to being one of those top-flight gunslingers again.”
Gunslinger is a good way to describe Wagner’s role in the music industry: that of a lone professional brought in when recordings got tough.
Wagner would record solos that famous guitar players would later be credited with, getting paid but missing out on the public recognition. The guitar solo in Sweet Pain off of the KISS album Destroyer, for example, is Wagner’s. The same goes for the acoustic guitar heard in the song Beth off the same album.
“They didn’t want people to know,” says Wagner, of his work going uncredited.
Wagner, however, was far from a complete unknown. His three-and-a-half minute duelling guitar intro to Sweet Jane, alongside Steve Hunter, on Lou Reed’s Rock N Roll Animal album was voted the 25th greatest guitar solo of all time by Gibson Guitars. He’s also given partial credit on the same list as being the original innovator (along with Hunter again) for Aerosmith’s Train Kept A-Rollin’.
In recent years, Wagner has begun to receive the recognition he deserves.
“I had no problem with it,” he says about his years of behind-the-scenes work, “but now that I’m 70, it’s kind of nice.”
Wagner is perhaps most famous for being Alice Cooper’s right-hand man, playing lead guitar in the shock rocker’s band for a number of years and co-writing many of Cooper’s greatest hits, including Welcome to my Nightmare and Only Women Bleed.
He has high praise for his former bandmate, suggesting Cooper “created glam rock, glitter rock, shock rock ... artists like David Bowie, KISS, Marilyn Manson – they came after Alice Cooper.
“I don’t think he gets enough credit.”
Wagner recently released his biography, “Not Only Women Bleed.” The book has already won a number of awards.
“There’s some great stories from the road in there. It’s pretty outrageous, but its also kind of profound,” he says.
Wagner also plays a major role in the documentary Louder Than Love, which tells the story of Detroit’s Grande Ballroom. Having deep roots in the Detroit rock scene, he is a featured interview in the film. He also composed an original song for the soundtrack.
Louder Than Love will have two screenings at the Blues and Ribfest on June 22 at the City Hall Auditorium at 1 and 3 p.m.
Wagner says he hopes Stratford will be one of his best shows since his recovery from the heart attacks.
“I want to play something that’ll really mow people down. It’ll likely be a surprise to me, as well as them.
“You come up with things in the moment. That’s what happens when you’re inspired musically ... and I think the crowd will inspire me to new heights.”