"Thirsty Thursday" Featuring Robert Wagner/Little Wretches
Thank you for talking with us! What was the best piece of advice you've ever been given about pursuing a career in music?
My mother, God rest her soul, knew how much I loved music, and for my ninth birthday, she got me a guitar and my first guitar-lesson. After I’d been studying for a few months, she asked the instructor, right in front of me, if he thought I had any talent. My teacher, Joe Colosimo, told her straight out that I have a very good sense of timing and rhythm, something most kids don’t have, something that really can’t be taught. He said aside from that, success in music is more about hard work than talent, the old adage about inspiration and perspiration. The most talented people I know have no stomach for the rejection, the indignities of working for people who see music as nothing more than a draw for an audience that spends heavily. Joe Colosimo affirmed that I had sufficient talent, and the rest was up to me.
What song that you have recorded means the most to you and why?
I loved what Patti Smith did with songs like GLORIA and LAND OF A THOUSAND DANCES, weaving her own poetry into those songs, so I decided to do the same with Lou Reed and The Velvet Underground’s I’LL BE YOUR MIRROR. The Little Wretches recorded a version of the song interwoven with my original spoken-word poetry. The song contains what should be any artist’s mission statement: “I’ll be your mirror, reflect what you are, in case you don’t know.” The actual poem and the way I perform it has continued to evolve over time, but one of my writing mentors, the poet Peter Oresick, described it as a “working class love poem.” It is a love poem, but not in the romantic sense about a woman. It is about love for family, ancestry, community.
Looking back, what was the first album or "Vinyl" you bought?
When I was very young, I bought seven-inch 45s of HEROES AND VILLAINS by The Beach Boys, CARRIE ANN by The Hollies, SILENCE IS GOLDEN by The Tremeloes, and the shortened, edited version of LIGHT MY FIRE by The Doors. But that money was given to me by my parents.
I saved up a sock full of pennies and trod a mile in the snow on a day that school was cancelled to buy SGT. PEPPER’S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND by The Beatles. I recall the store workers looking at me like I was insane. What is this kid doing here? How can we help you. I pointed to the album, part of a display, and they brought down The Rolling Stones’ THEIR SATANIC MAJESTIES REQUEST. I was appalled.
No! No! Not that one. THAT one.
They got Sgt. Pepper’s for me. They made me spill out my sock onto the counter and count the pennies for them. I didn’t know about sales-tax, and I came up nine cents short. They were torturing me a little, making me squirm. But a guy who was in the store kicked in the extra nine cents.
When I got home, having now trudged two miles in the snow, my mother wouldn’t allow me to bring the album into the house because she heard that the album was full of allusions to the glories of psychedlic drugs, and she didn’t approve.
I trudged to my cousin’s house to listen to the album there. He already had his own copy, but we listened to mine.
If you could only perform one of your songs for someone who has never heard of you, what song would that be?
Have you seen the movie WALK THE LINE? Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash? There is a scene when Johnny Cash is auditioning for the record company. He’s playing what he thinks they want to hear. I’m going to get the dialogue wrong, but the producer basically says, “I can get this stuff from anybody. If you had one song to play that would decide whether or not you get into heaven, that’s the song I want you to play for me.” Again, I might have this wrong, but I think that’s when Cash whips out Folsom Prison Blues.
I think about that all the time. What’s my ONE song?
Well, I have about three or four that I love to introduce to new listeners. DUQUESNE. THE REMAINS OF JOE MAGARAC. THE TASTE OF DIRT. I’m talking about solo acoustic performances. It would be different with the full band. But I think I’d have to go with MAY YOU NEVER BE THE CHILD OF A REALIST.
That song, especially to an unsuspecting audience, it’s like an ambush. Oh, yeah. Here’s another guy with a guitar. Okay. What’s he got? And I hit them with REALIST. It’s not even fair. It’s like a sucker punch.
The recorded version has a straight back beat, kind of an Americana or Country feel. But solo acoustic, I slow it down a little, and there is a tangible gravitas. The title is the opening line, “May you never be the child of a realist / May you never learn to calculate the odds.” It’s really a song about faith, a song about purpose.
There’s a moment in life when young people feel like they have to “get real.” Whatever dreams you had, it’s time to accept that those are dreams. Now, it’s time to make money, pay that mortgage, pay those school loans, whatever. And my song says, No. Follow your dreams and the blessings will come. What fate could be worse than to look at yourself and see a broken old fool who sold himself to doubt. You don’t want to be on your death-bed wishing you’d gone for it. Go for it. And if you fall down, get back up and go for it again.
And if you do have children, you will find a way to provide for them as you make your dream a reality. They will learn more from your faithfulness and courage than from whatever niceties your job-of-compromise can afford.
At the end of the day, what do you hope is the message of your music? What do you hope people take away from your songs?
I said that my mission statement comes from Lou Reed’s I’LL BE YOUR MIRROR. I want you to see yourself in my songs, your beauty, your strength, your reasons for being hopeful. I believe eternity exists, God is good, and life is hard but precious. I believe that each person is born in the image of God. Hopefully, when you see yourself in my songs, you also see a little bit of God’s light shining back at you. I don’t preach. I don’t play church music. I’m not trying to convert anybody to anything. But I do want you to know that you are loved. I do want you to know the beauty you are. Much thanks to Lou Reed.
Now for some fun! What is your favorite sandwich?
A little town outside of Pittsburgh along the Allegheny River called Aspinwall has a place called The Aspinwall Grille. Their menu may have changed, but they used to have great burgers. The Grille Burger. The Virginia Avenue Burger. The Gorgonzola Burger. I forget the name of the one I used to order, but their burgers came on onion rolls, and the meat was fresh, not overcooked, and maybe 1/3 of a pound. Definitely larger than four ounces. I always ordered the one with caramelized onions, sun-dried tomatoes, and gorgonzola cheese. Best burger I ever had. Best sandwich I ever had.
There was also Kelly’s in the East Liberty section of Pittsburgh, on the stretch of urban mall called Penn Circle. Kelly’s is still there in name, but it isn’t what it was. The old Kelly’s had a fried fish sandwich with bacon and peanut butter. Bet you never had one of those!
Where is your favorite place to eat in your hometown?
Any musician from Western Pennsylvania who doesn’t say The Starlite Lounge has no gratitude. The Starlite has been featured on TV, Drive Ins, Diners and Dives, shows like that. Big, Pittsburgh-sized portions. Old time Pittsburgh. Steelworker Pittsburgh. Don’t give me no small food.
You cannot go wrong with anything on the menu, but The Starlite is famous for its pierogies, its jumbo fish sandwich, its chicken wings. I like to order one of the salads with all the fixings and have it topped with the portion of fried fish that goes on the sandwiches. It’s not on the menu, but they’ll make it if you ask.
The Starlite Lounge has great acoustic music—bluegrass jam, open-mic, songwriter showcases. And two doors up the street is Moondog’s, the legendary blues club. Before you catch the show at Moondog’s, you have dinner at The Starlite.
What's on your pizza? Do you fold your pizza or eat it straight on? Ranch or no ranch?
There used to be a place called Annette’s Pizza near Allegheny River Boulevard outside of Pittsburgh. They had a specialty pie called, “Annette’s Special.” It was a white pizza, you know, olive oil and garlic instead of tomato sauce. Its toppings were GREEN olives, RED onion, FRESH spinach, and FRESH sliced tomato, and a real, high quality sharp cheese. Romano? Parmesan? Not your typical mozzarella.
The crust, if done right, is too crispy to fold. And you don’t need ranch with this pie.
Annette’s didn’t last long. My last visit, they used CANNED spinach, and the crust was soggy. They closed. I think there is a cigar store in its place.
When I go to a pizza place, I describe the Annette’s Special. You know how hard it is to get a pizza joint to put GREEN OLIVES and RED ONIONS on your pie? Come on, I know you have green olives for your salads. Take some of them, slice ‘em up and put ‘em on my pie!
Won’t make it for me? All right, then. I’ll just eat somewhere else.
If I was a bartender, what would you order?
My mother drank high balls when I was a kid. That was the “Rat Pack” drink, I believe, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr, those guys. Whiskey and ginger ale and ice. It’s a flavor I really love.
If I have a bartender who is generous, I’ll order whiskey and ginger ale. But first the bartender has to pass a little test.
I look at what’s on the shelf. Do I see Old Grandad? Do I see Wild Turkey? Do I see Jamison’s? Jim Beam? For me, whiskey’s got to be Irish or made in Kentucky.
I don’t ask for doubles anymore. I’ll say, “I’d like a glass of…” Usually, the bartender will ask for clarification. How much? I make a gesture or hand-sign, maybe two-and-a-half inches deep, something like that.
Then I look at what I’m going to be charged. I insist on paying the first one in cash. I want to see how much change they are going to give me. I pay with a twenty. It they take care of me portion-wise, and I get more than ten in change, I will tip generously.
Truth is, I can purchase a full bottle for what some places charge for a double-shot. What? I’m paying for atmosphere? I’m paying for the privilege of being in the company of your esteemed clientele? Forget that. I want good music, good times, and strong drinks.
Finally, if you could be sponsored by one food/drink brand who would it be and why?
Jim Beam Whiskey is essential to the lore of The Little Wretches. Our band hails from the working class suburb of Castle Shannon, Pennsylvania, once a coal mining town called, Mollenauer Mine #3. I don’t know how it made the transformation to Castle Shannon, but the kids on our hill liked to drink and listen to music. Southern Comfort was popular, but it was too sweet. Jack Daniels was popular. We drank JIM BEAM because it was good sipping whiskey.
We used to say that the Official Drink of The Little Wretches was a DOUBLE JIM BEAM and GINGER ALE.
Recently, I got a bottle of Jim Beam that was 100 proof, I think it was called, JIM BEAM BONDED. It may have been a limited edition. THAT’s what I’m talking about. I’d want the be associated with the 100 proof stuff.
I once attended a country music concert and came home with a box of boot-shaped Jim Beam shot-glasses, a huge, inflatable Jim Beam boot, and a Jim Beam mirror, suitable for mounting. The Jim Beam rep had consumed a healthy portion of his own product and didn’t feel like carrying all that stuff out of the club. You want it? Yes, I do.
“My songs are mirrors, and I often begin or end my performances by playing a version of The Velvet Underground’s “I’ll Be Your Mirror” extended to more than ten-minutes in length to include some of the images that most shaped my view of the world as a young man—working men and women enslaved in pursuit of the dollar, the now-vacant void from whence the spirit fled filled with the distraction of mindless entertainment, alcohol and assorted drugs, people so numb that self-destructive violence has lost its impact and the only way they can hope to feel anything is to hurt the people they love...God wanted me to grow up to defend the weak and vanquish the evil- doers by writing songs and telling stories. And if I’m wrong, I’ve wasted my life.” - Robert Wagner
As frontman and chief songwriter/lyricist for 80s/90s seminal Pittsburgh rock band, Little Wretches, Robert Wagner rode a wave of local notoriety that led the band to the forefront of the underground music scene. The Little Wretches were founded as a folk/punk band by Robert (guitar) and his brother, Chuckie (violin). The “classic” Mach 2 era of Little Wretches included Ed Heidel (bass), Chris Bruckhoff (percussion, wind instruments, backing vocals) and Bob Goetz (guitar), rounded out by Dave Mitchell (drums), Mike Michalski (bass) and Ellen Hildebrand (electric guitar.) This rock edition of the band performed regularly and helped the band build its massive following in Pittsburgh. Michalski, Mitchell and Chuckie Wagner left the band, effectively ending.
Mach 3 began with the addition of David Losi (keyboards) and Mike Madden (drums.) When Madden couldn’t tour, drum programmer Gregg Bielski took over. When Ellen switched to bass guitar, this version of The Little Wretches entered the studio. They recorded two albums, with Angelo George playing drums and Jon Paul Leone playing guitar on a third. National press, attorneys, managers, and publicists came calling, as did life’s obligations, and the Little Wretches disbanded in the late 90s.
Robert Wagner continues to perform at coffeehouses and small clubs. A Master’s Degree holder, Wagner also counsels abused, neglected, traumetized and court-adjudicated youth. He is the co-founder of The Calliope Acoustic Open Stage, an event that has lasted 15+ years. He has also recorded and released two new albums in 2020: Undesirables and Anarchists and Burning Lantern Dropped In Straw.