Dick Wagner, a guitarist who was a key figure in the early pre-punk and American glam movements, utilizing his talents for such luminaries in the music world as Alice Cooper, Lou Reed and KISS, has died at the age of 71 of respiratory failure. Wagner had been battling ill health for many years prior to his death.
Born in Saginaw, Michigan, Wagner rubbed elbows later on after the first wave of hard rock music that came from that state’s seminal city Detroit, when Wagner was recruited to play on Alice Cooper’s seminal solo release, Welcome to My Nightmare, a record in which Wagner was heavily involved (with producer Ezrin) with Cooper, eventually sharing songwriting credits. (A highlight is the ambiguous and haunting “Only Women Bleed.”) The 1975 release became a benchmark in Cooper’s career and also showed the embryonic strains of a solo career that would stretch currently into its fourth decade. The muscle and confidence of Wagner’s playing (he had huge shoes to follow after Cooper had been in a band with Glen Buxton earlier, whose playing was signature up and down all over the band) put him as one of the mid-70s post Detroit-rock/pre-first wave of punk music’s heavyweights. In fact, for the next few decades following his successful debut foray with Cooper on record, Wagner became involved heavily with the shock rock singer thereafter, appearing on various subsequent albums and tours.
Wagner also played with Steve Hunter on Lou Reed’s classic live album, and which remains one of the greatest rock and roll live records to this very day, Rock and Roll Animal. The record surprised everyone by becoming somewhat of a hit when released in 1973, and many of its tracks, which are retread and more harder versions of Reed’s Velvet Underground cachet of complexly spellbinding songs like “Heroin,” “Sweet Jane” (with Wagner and Hunter trading exquisite leads at the beginning of the song), and “Rock and Roll,” which are radio staples to this day. Wagner also did some stints in the studio on KISS’ Destroyer and Revenge albums, as well as Peter Gabriel’s first solo record as the 1970s drew to a close.
Wagner was still a musical force in some capacity or another as the centuries shifted from the 20th to the 21st, until he suffered a heart attack and stroke in 2007. A book of his memoirs, penned by Wagner and entitled Not Only Women Bleed: Vignettes from the Heart of a Rock Musician, was published in 2012 and was a critical and financial success out of the gate.
As a guitarist and songwriter, Dick Wagner was, like the late Marc Bolan and like the late Mick Ronson, another instrumental figure in the scoping and shaping of a music and sound and style which endures and will continue to endure. A lot of music and the surrounding vibes around it, are to this day antiquated, stale forms that have been retread and re-retread, but there’s still a freshness about listening to the guitar work of Dick Wagner and the songs he either wrote, co-wrote, or helped shape. Like Tommy Ramone, who died a few weeks ago, Wagner’s passing also closes yet another chapter in the hard rock and roll pantheon, but yet, also solidifies that chapter. RIP to another barely known to the layman, but as talented as any one they might readily know, musical figure, that was the legendary Richard Wagner.