By Jeb Wright
Dick Wagner is a true rock and roll warrior. From his beginnings in Detroit with The Frost, to his time with Lou Reed, to becoming Alice Cooper’s songwriting partner and lead guitarist in the mid-1970s, Wagner has seen it all, done it all — at least twice — and lived to tell the tale.
Wagner has now added “author” to his resumé by releasing a collection of stories from his lifetime spent on the road titled “Not Only Women Bleed: Vignettes from the Heart of a Rock Musician.” The book, written entirely by Wagner without the aid of a ghostwriter, is an honest memoir that details his forays into sex addiction, cocaine addiction and other stories of road-tested depravity. The book is not all about that, however, as Wagner openly discusses his family, friends and his greatest triumphs and tragedies, both on and off the stage.
Within the pages of “Not Only Women Bleed,” Wagner succeeds in telling the truth without dragging others down.
“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,” Wagner confesses. “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.”
While the book includes highlights from Wagner’s entire career, much of it is focused on his work with Alice Cooper, with whom he co-wrote the classic albums “Welcome to My Nightmare,” “Go to Hell” and “From the Inside.”
Wagner first became acquainted with the colorful Cooper through producer Bob Ezrin, who was pivotal in making Alice Cooper a household name. It was Ezrin who invited Wagner to co-write with Cooper, well before Wagner joined the band. The result was the tune “I Love the Dead.” Wagner was savvy enough to realize he would have to pay his dues, even if it meant selling his copyright to “I Love the Dead.”
“I needed cash at the time,” he admits. “I got paid small money. 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.”
When Alice Cooper the artist decided to step away from his high school friends (aka Alice Cooper the band) to go solo, Wagner was invited to join to write “Welcome to My Nightmare.”
“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.”
But joining forces with Cooper came with a price. Wagner set aside his dreams of a solo career.
“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,” he says. 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 No. 1 in the world, so how could I say no?”
The decision proved to be fruitful, as “Welcome to My Nightmare” went on to become one of Cooper’s most iconic releases. One of Wagner’s solo songs, “Only Women Bleed,” wound up being one of the biggest hits on the album.
“I wrote the music for ‘Only Women Bleed’ in 1968. 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,” he recalls. “‘Only Women Bleed’ is [my] most successful song. It has been covered by 28 or 30 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.”
Eventually, the rock and roll lifestyle got both Wagner and Cooper in its grips. That led to the making of the “Lace and Whiskey” album.
“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,” he says. “We didn’t quite hit a peak on that record; I’ve always admitted that. It is OK, 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.”
While Wagner has played and recorded with dozens of artists — including playing guitar on the KISS classic “Beth” and the Aerosmith standard “Train Kept a Rollin’,” he is best remembered as “that guy in Alice Cooper’s band.” While his time with Cooper led to riches and seeing the world, Wagner would love to be recognized on his own name and merits.
“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.”
Wagner had a lot of hurdles in his comeback. For starters, there was a heart attack and a stroke. Wagner later learned that he also was suffering from a form of hydrocephalus. “It actually kept me from being able to play or walk without falling down. I could not play guitar because I could not feel it. I could not physically do it,” he says.
Surgery helped. Doctors removed a blood clot and put in a shunt to drain the built-up spinal fluid that was behind the hydrocephalus. “The blood clot had actually moved my brain to the right. It was a very dangerous surgery, but I could finally feel a pulse and could feel time and play in time again. I was able to come back.
“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. I thought my career was over, because without playing guitar, what was I going to do?”
“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,” he says. “It was an emotional experience, writing this book. I am very proud of it. I said in the book that I lead an ‘ordinary, but extraordinary, life.’ The actual writing of the book inspired me, as a person, to get back to who I am; it was a big help.”
Wagner’s first test as a guitarist came in 2011. Once again, Cooper and Ezrin came calling, this time for Cooper’s “Welcome 2 My Nightmare” sequel.
“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,” he recalls. “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.”
Wagner’s future is bright. He is still creative, and he would love to do an album where he does a song with Meat Loaf, a song with Lou Reed and a song with Alice Cooper and a song with Suzi Quatro,” he said.
At this stage of his career, Wagner only three things out of life. “I want to go out and play live and make another album. I would also like to have my book sell. If I had those three things, then I could die a happy man.”