Most lives are spent judging far too many books by their misleading covers. A person’s hair is just too unkempt. Or perhaps they wear the wrong kind of clothes. Or maybe, just maybe they write “progressive” music – something along the lines of, “I love the dead before they're cold, Their blueing flesh for me to hold.”
Now there’s no denying that that’s a book of lyrics that could easily be misjudged. But it’d be a travesty to never look beyond the 50 plus songs that Dick Wagner has co-written with rock legend Alice Cooper – including the shock rocker’s biggest hits – and completely miss the magnitude of the legendary guitarist’s heart.
The fabled musician helped define rock history by playing lead guitar or writing songs for Cooper, Aerosmith, Kiss, Lou Reed, Peter Gabriel and dozens of other influential artists. Wagner’s songs and lead guitar have been featured on more than 200 renowned albums, garnering more than 35 platinum and gold records, BMI songwriter awards, Emmys, and numerous prestigious international awards.
But ask the mythical axeman about his most enduring – make that endearing – musical contribution and he’ll consider the answer for, oh, a nanosecond before sharing his latest profound creation.
Inspired by a massive gathering of rockers at a recent autograph show, Wagner assembled an all-star band from across the history of rock n roll to record, “If I Had the Time (I Could Change the World),” donating their time and creative hearts to the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. Proceeds from downloads of the song by Rockers for St. Jude (http://www.amazon.com/Could-Change-World-feat-Farner/dp/B00GMFXLBW) will benefit the hospital.
The list of Wagner’s “accomplices” reads like a Who’s Who of Music, including Mark Farner (Grand Funk Railroad), Lee Sklar (James Taylor) Danny Seraphine (Chicago), Trini Lopez (“Lemon Tree”), Elliot Easton (The Cars), Carmine Appice (Rod Stewart Group), Merilee Rush (“Angel of the Morning”) – and a talented army of others.
The bandmaster chatted with me recently about the remarkable collective effort to benefit the St. Jude kids. Wagner has always possessed a remarkable ability to pour his soul into his craft. But even he admitted that he might not have been able to write the affecting song at the beginning of his career.
“Probably not,” he agreed, “because I see the concept of love in a different way. It’s a very simple song. Those draw a little bit from my past experience. But it’s hard to say. Just like your heroes are for each age, songs are for a particular age too.”
“This came about because someone asked me to do it. I just sat down and thought about writing a song with meaning. How do you give in a song, other than maybe you express something right? How do you make it so that it also compels people to want to help?”
“And the idea of St. Jude and what they do to save children was the essential core message in there of course – you can change the world, you can save a child. And that was my direction and I just tried to put together what I do.”
It’s by design – and somehow appropriate – that Grand Funk founder Farner is front and center as a main vocalist for “Change The World.” The veteran rocker has experienced his own trials dealing with a son’s serious health challenges over the past several years. Wagner confessed that there was “method to his madness” in selecting Farner as the lead collaborator.
“Yes, actually there was. Mark was the first person I asked. I’ve known Mark since he was 15 years old. He wrote his first song at my house. I used to give him, I wouldn’t say lessons, but guidance in guitar chords. I finally introduced him to songwriting in that way. He talks about that in a couple of his interviews, so it’s not just me spouting off.”
“But I was a big influence in his early career and I brought him into my band, The Bossmen for the last year they were together. And then he went off carrying the pack and he ran his own career route.”
“We’ve been friends all these years. We don’t talk every day, but we’ve been friends and I wanted his voice on this. I was going to sing it myself and then I thought, ‘No, I really want Mark to sing it.’”
“So I did that and then I thought about all the rest. The rest of them were at this autograph show. I got the list of all the people who were going to be at the show and I picked out the people I wanted for the singers and contacted them and they all said yes.”
“Before I even got to the autograph show, I had my record already laid out in my mind. And so we did this recording on the first day of the autograph show. We did the actual track and then we did some vocals. Then on Sunday night, we did the rest of it, all the chorus stuff, including the children.”
“It was all produced ahead of time and I just had to get everybody to agree to do it for charity. But they were already there at the autograph for St. Jude, so it was just an additional giving to St. Jude, and they all said yes immediately.”
Notwithstanding the thousands of awards and accolades that the members of the extraordinary musical collective have garnered, it’s likely that most, if not all of them have never experienced anything as rewarding as the effort to benefit St. Jude.
“It is rewarding. Not only in the creating of it, but in the interaction with all these people. Most of them I never really met. I had a chance to meet a lot of these folks. And they had been admirers of mine too and got a chance to meet me. So that’s real rewarding, the interaction as well as the creativity in creating the song and the product.
“And just the act of giving to the children of St. Jude and trying to help them in what their mission is – to treat all these kids and find cures for them and never charge them a dime. Do what actually medicine should do, and that is treat sick individuals and not worry about being for profit. Medicine should be free in this country. Everyone should be able to be treated for whatever is wrong.”
The listening public can sometimes view the motives of rock and rollers with a bit of a jaded eye. And so it might astound some that the rockers would throw themselves so willingly into the project. But ringleader Wagner wasn’t really surprised.
“No. I guess I'm really surprised because musicians have egos and you don’t know for sure how people are gonna respond; whether they want to get paid, whether they’re willing to do it for charity or how much they’ll put into it because it is for charity. Will they put their 100 percent effort into it?”
“And with the exception of a few people, who I don’t even remember, not paying total attention at the moment that I needed them, the rest of them were a 100 percent into it and I loved it. It really turned out good. It was so cooperative. Everybody in the crew and the band was just absolutely wonderful and I had a wonderful time.”
After all of the albums, awards and precious metal, “If I Had the Time (I Could Change the World)” looks to be the icing on Wagner’s incredibly tasty cake. “It think it could be,” he agreed. “It just really depends on how it catches on in the country – whether it will be noticeable to people in general or whether it’s gonna be an isolated thing.”
“You know, people are starting to realize I have a heart (laughing). I can do that and also play the guitar. I did have that ‘Remember The Child’ Foundation for a few years. That song’s a part of my legacy too, which I think is very strong.”
“I like the feeling of the body of work that I’ve put together over the years. I think it’s legit and it feels really good to me personally. I’ve got more music coming out yet. I have an all instrumental album that is blues/ jazz kind of stuff and some improvisational stuff. I have a re-master of the ‘Rock History’ album coming out, which is really a big album. It’s my interpretations of the hits I had with Alice.”
Whatever the future holds for Wagner, “Change The World” will continue to enrich his already considerable legacy. And it isn’t a stretch to say that it will change his world. “I feel good. I'm inspired by so many different things.”
“Whether they say, ‘Hey, how about writing a song for St. Jude or ‘Hey, you’re gonna be inducted into a blues museum.’ I just take each moment of my life and I let it be an inspiration in some way. I can draw songs from out of the air from all over the place.”
“I think what it’s going to do is to influence the demand for excellent quality. I've never been able to settle. I've always been a perfectionist in my music. The tale of my legacy is going to be great music, well thought out and well played and inspired by whatever comes along in my life, from St. Jude to whatever.”
“I have a new saying – love is in the air…breathe deep. So that’s my way of thinking right now. Love is in the air so breathe deep.
Gives a whole new meaning to “deep breathing exercises” doesn’t it?