Richard Wagner, the German, is arguably the most influential writer-composer-arranger to have impacted the Western world of music during the 19th century, and, with Lennon-McCartney set temporarily aside for history to have its cool say, the greatest writer-composer-arranger of all time.
Pronounced "Vahg-ner," not Wagner, this man from Leipzig, Germany wrote musical operatic scores for large orchestras which astounded audiences with what then amounted to a "wall of sound," so deep and so resonant and so powerful that critics of the day coined the term "chromatic" to describe it. What they were trying to say was that Wagner's music transcended the realm of the acoustic and auditory — sounds you can hear — and elicited in addition sensations which were visual, and visceral, and emotional, with the result that listeners would often report out-of-body, epiphany-like experiences by which they would say their lives had been changed, forever.
My mother, the then-recently-retired Dorsey big band singer, Connie Gates, would regularly solace herself with the playing of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, and Parsifal, using 78rpm records, and at a time of night when her eight-year-old son had just been sent to bed. She did this on purpose, sensing then what we now know about the programmable nature of young, growing neural networks. She was right. I can still hear faint strains of this music, at night, just when my recollections of the day's events are gently fading into black.
I have since learned that others — including personalities not just of illustrious reputation, but of dubious reputation, including the King Ludwig II of Germany, and the dictator Adolf Hitler — have had similar reports to share about their near-dreaming states. Each of these guys was a great Wagner fan. This has at times simultaneously worried and impressed me.
In any case, all this should explain my reaction when I was told, by my rock 'n' roll studio manager, that the premises had just been booked for a month's time, and deposited in cash, by a group of well-known music business "movers and shakers" on behalf of Tim Curry — the artist fresh off his startling success with The Rocky Horror Picture Show — these movers and shakers captained by the acclaimed musician-composer Michael Kamen, from New York City, and by his friend and colleague from the midwest, Richard Wagner.
"Richard Wagner?" I asked.
"Look," she said. "Here's his brand new LP." And, sure enough, that's what it said: Richard Wagner, right on the cover.
And so it's less remarkable still that I would find an opportunity, shortly after the arrival of the entourage one day in 1979, to have a word or two with Dick Wagner about his German namesake, Richard Wagner. I found such an opportunity in the kitchen of the farmhouse, shortly after dinner one night. There was the clatter of dishes and the humming of a dishwasher and muffled sounds coming from Control Room A, where a 24-track tape of basic tracks was being readied for overdubs. We were filling our glasses, my guest and I, in front of the mirror hanging over the bar by the cassette deck.
"Dick," I said, "you share a name with one of the world's greatest people in music. You've got to have some thoughts about that. You're Richard Wagner, too."
"Not so loud," Dick said. "Got a piano player in the band who's Jewish. She'd flip out hearing us talk about that German."
Ah, the opening! The opportunity to delve in and actually talk about things — to think — in rock 'n' roll. This was a fast pitch that had just whizzed by, thunk, into the catcher's mitt, and I had to be careful. In fact, we had a very serious rule binding on employees at the recording studio, and that was that there should never be any discussions with clients, who were paying us to be in residence at Long View Farm, on any possibly incendiary subjects such as politics, religion, race or — yes — even philosophy. They hadn't come all the way here to hear us proselytize on behalf of our favorite guru. We were show business professionals. However, having been the one who made that rule, I felt free to break it, just this once, and I did.
"Gotta' get past that part, Dick. Sure, the guy had some opinions on what should happen when you get "delivered" by a musical experience, and an appreciation for purity of blood line and national identity figured towards the top of his list. Unfortunately. But the rest of the list is interesting. And what motivated him is interesting. Basically it was the missing female."
This last remark caused Dick's eyes to widen, and he took a long drink out of his glass, glancing around nervously. "Like I said, not so loud. What about this missing female business?"
"Mainly, that the male player alone is flawed, lacking and incomplete. That he needs to be made whole, to be delivered, to be redeemed. And that redemption is something that only the application of female energy can bring about."
"Fucked-up male made whole by the lady in the sky," Dick offered.
"Yes," I said. "Not so loud."
In the weeks and months to come, Dick Wagner and I became fast friends. We found ourselves in a seeming automatic agreement on all matters involving activities scheduled at the studio, and flew around in the twin-engine Cessna to weekend ourselves in a big city nearby, or to fly his session-musician friends back into the countryside for days at a time, during which there would occur little sleep for anyone involved.
We had a great time during these heady days of the 1970s, and laughed loudly together as we spent large sums of money and a great deal of energy making music for the music industry as it then existed, billing out our expenses as best we could to the record companies, but even in the midst of this great amount of clamor, and excitement, I for one couldn't stop thinking about the other Richard Wagner, the German, and the music that he made a hundred and fifty years earlier. My two Richard Wagners had a good bit in common, I began to realize, as I learned more about each. Each was in very clear servitude to the missing female.
On the one hand we had the creation of fantastic, musically chromatic episodes involving hundreds of trained symphonic players playing to audiences of thousands in Berlin and Dresden and Herrenchiemsee and other places, reducing these crowds to the wringing ofhands and loud weeping — all this wrought by the power of the romantic rhapsodic artist, Richard Wagner the German, rendering homage to an unnamed Goddess missing — that's what his operas were about. And, on the other hand, a hundred and fifty years later, we have here in the countryside of Massachusetts the pleadings of a sweet American man in his early thirties, able to express in music that same homage so powerfully as to bring himself to tears while tinkering away on the keyboard of a Steinway piano, or while yanking stadium-grade acoustic tumult out of the wire strings and metal frets of an amplified Stratocaster guitar.
In both cases, tears. And the joy which accompanies tears shed in the creation of works of art which the artist himself may not yet fully understand.
Professional philosophers should become the owners of rock 'n' roll recording studios with great forethought and caution, or not at all.
"You going to bed so early?" This was Dick Wagner speaking, sitting on the cat bench in front of the fireplace, one night about midnight. The session had shut down early. Tim Curry had put down a rough reference vocal on I do the Rock, and didn't like it, and went to bed. Mark Parenteau, the celebrated disk jockey from WBCN, in Boston, had just swilled down what was left of his drink, made his apologies, and made his exit. Everybody else was down in the game room, watching videos.
"Come here for a minute, I want to talk to you."
I approached the cat bench, eager to please.
"It's that missing female business. Can't get it out of my mind. I'm seeing it everywhere, now that I'm looking for it. Not just in that German, not just in my own stuff, but everywhere. Take Layla, for example. Filling in that void, with music. Making an appeal, using a guitar. You know what I mean?"
"Redemption hungry," was my off-the-cuff reply.
"Right," Dick said. "And you know, I'm beginning to think that the music itself is the reply we're seeking. When I hear it, when I hear the notes I just played, and when they sound good — that's it for me. That's what the appeal from out there is all about. Makes me want to boost the reverb a notch, and get into it more. For me, that's the message back...
"Listen," Dick continued. "They're all outta' here. It's still early. Let me play you a few tunes on the piano. Piano demos. Couple of them are songs for Tim. We need a quick tape of them in any case. It's what we've been talking about. You game?"
I was game, and that's what happened that night in North Brookfield. Dick went into the studio, and sat down behind the Steinway. I went into the control room, emptied out the ashtrays and put a reel of 2" tape on the tape machine. The piano was already mike'd. All I had to do was bring up the faders and ask Dick to talk to me a bit so I could set the levels. He had the headphones on, so he could hear me. He could also hear himself in these same headphones, and the piano in these same headphones, and just a wee bit of natural echo which had been added in for effect. And effective it was. A Middle C on the piano struck sharply by Richard Wagner would sail courageously out into time — his message back, ready and waiting.
If You Love Me, Leave a Message on my Service
Editor's Note: the recording artist was unable to complete either of these songs to his satisfaction, overcome emotionally, just like his namesake the German would appear to be so often, by the overpowering but very welcome message back.
All original material copyright © Gilbert Scott Markle. All rights reserved.