Studio Carry On Harry : New Song Release UNDESIRABLES & ANARCHISTS is out now and on this occasion we have Teacher Writer Performer Robert Andrew Wagner , to share with his new song making experiences and chapters from his life to seek wisdom from.
“A song on UNDESIRABLES & ANARCHISTS that I wish more people would notice is called ALMOST NIGHTFALL” – Robert Andrew Wagner
In Conversation with Robert Andrew Wagner
Tell us about yourself ?
I’m a teacher, writer and performer. I teach through stories and tell stories through songs, and I prefer to deliver the songs LIVE, though more people will hear my recordings than will hear me in-person. My catalogue, my body of work, so to speak, is under the banner of THE LITTLE WRETCHES. Why THE LITTLE WRETCHES? “Blessed are the meek…” Jean Valjean and Javert in the sewers of Paris. Oliver Twist among the pickpockets of London. “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me…” Get it? As Patti Smith sings, “Outside of society, if you’re looking, that’s where you’ll find me.”
How long you been in performing arts ?
I got a guitar for my ninth birthday, and my cousin and I performed for the family that same night. I didn’t even know how to make a chord. I just banged on the strings, and if I remember correctly, my cousin pounded on a giant can of potato chips. My first “professional” show was in 1979 at a punk rock club in Pittsburgh called PHASE III. Some of the songs I played that night continue to be part of my sets today. This is 2021. How many years is that?
What was most attractive part for you to be in this industry ?
I’m not part of an industry. I understand what you’re asking, though. I am competing within and against and industry. This is a feel-good culture, and the industry revolves around providing people with diversion, distraction and mood-regulation. Go to a convenience store to grab a cup of coffee for the road, music is playing. Run to the grocery store, music is playing. Music to perk you up. Music to calm you down. Music for romance. Music for dancing. Music for working out. And then there’s me. I’m here to celebrate the lives of my people, to document their stories, to celebrate their beauty, their resolve, their resilience. The most attractive part of the industry is that it provides me a medium, a platform for reaching people I might not otherwise be able to reach. I could be a preacher in a pulpit, but who wants to preach to the converted? I could be a professor in a lecture hall, but that’s deadly. I’m here to get in the trenches, what Jack Kerouac called “the pit and prune juice of poor beat life on the God-awful streets of man.”
Share some experiences ( good or bad ) any that made you grow in life or profession ?
My experiences are well-documented in my songs, I’d like to think, and as much as I’m flattered to be asked about my experiences, my reason for answering these questions is to direct you to my songs. A song on UNDESIRABLES & ANARCHISTS that I wish more people would notice is called ALMOST NIGHTFALL. It’s about wandering the streets all night because there is too much fighting at home. Eventually, they’ll fight themselves out, fall asleep, and it will be safe to come indoors. Till then, I’m out here on the rat’s maze of roads. The future is made by those with no stake in the present. If you are comfortable, if all your needs are being met, why would you ever change or try something new? For some of us, the way things are is unbearable. The world you feel comfortable in has chewed us up and spat us out. We have to find a way. We refuse to quit. In the movie RUNAWAY TRAIN, the character played by Jon Voight, John Manheim, says, “Whatever doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.” I figure if God hasn’t taken me, He still has a plan for me. I’m not sure I answered your question. I hope I wasn’t too far off-base.
Who inspired you ? How do you work on creating your own signature style ?
A lot of my lyrics are pulled from conversations I’ve overheard in the course of ordinary life. I’m inspired by playwrights like August Wilson and Sam Shepard. I like rappers like Ice-T and poets who preceded hip hop like Gil Scott-Heron. I like lyricists like Lou Reed, Pete Townshend, Ray Davies, Michelle Shocked, and Patti Smith. Phil Ochs. Bob Dylan. Bruce Springsteen. John Mellencamp. Bob Seger. Paul Simon. I could go on and on. As for having my own signature style, I’m like Popeye the Sailor Man. I am what I am. I’m not good enough to imitate other people. I can’t sing well enough to sound like anybody but myself. I can’t play guitar well enough to sound like anybody but myself. And I write from experience and imagination. Who else has my experience?
What do you want to convey through your music?
There was a pastor, Rev. John Stanko, at a church I used to attend back in Pittsburgh who did a series of seminars on finding your purpose. He suggested we have ‘MISSION STATEMENTS.” A lot of businesses have mission statements, vision statements, and a statement of their target audience. My mission statement comes from Lou Reed, “I’ll be your mirror, reflect what you are, in case you don’t know.” My vision statement is from Ian Hunter, “I want to leave you in someone else’s dreams.” And my target-audience is found in Isaiah the Prophet, “The Lord God hath given me the tongue of the learned that I may be able to speak a word in season to him who is weary.” If you are weary, if you’ve forgotten how beautiful you really are, if you feel alone and forgotten, I’m got something for you. Look up the music of The Little Wretches.
Story behind making of your new track / Album?
When I was in college, before I had a band, I used to send poems to little magazines. Some were published, among them something called OLD LILLIAN’S STORY. It was a transcription of a monologue by an old woman who lived next door. Her apartment had no heat. She had no food. She’d visit us just so she could be out of the cold and maybe get a couple slices of bread. I’ve set the poem to music, and we’re recording it for the next album. It’s more like an in-character reading atop a bed of music. It might not be the kind of song you put on repeat and dance to while you’re cleaning your house, but I guarantee you’ll be moved when you hear it.
Any interesting trivia about making of song ?
The song that is the thematic cornerstone of The Little Wretches is called BORN WITH A GIFT. I wrote it about the loss of a former bandmate, John Creighton. He was the most powerfully talented and personally humble person I’ve known. He was an organic firebrand when he performed, nothing stagey or showy. Listening to John was like watching a wild animal in its natural habitat. Captivating. John wrote a song called LAWRENCEVILLE. The instrumental bridge to BORN WITH A GIFT is an homage to the musical chorus of LAWRENCEVILLE. Now, that might be rather uninteresting to most people. LAWRENCEVILLE has never been released. I think I’ll be recording it in the future, though. But if you get a chance to hear BORN WITH A GIFT, I hope the spirit of John Creighton resonates with you.
People who you would like to thank ?
Without intending to sound maudlin, I owe a lot to people who aren’t around anymore, friends and musicians like my brother, Charles John Wagner, former bandmates like John Creighton, Dale Nelson, Ed Heidel, David L. Mitchell, Jon Paul Leone, Don Polito, and friends like David Allen Flynn and Brian Longo. There are people who’ve done more for me than I’ve done for myself. Gregg Bielski, Chuck Parish, and Mark Pinto documented many of our early shows. had no idea how precious those videos and recordings would be to me now. Keith and Mark Golebie. Mike and Tammy Flynn. Dan Serafini. Dave Losi. Ellen and Jon Hildebrand. Darrell Jackson. Dan and Gerry Wasson. George Kazalas. Steve Sciulli. Tony Norman. Rosa Colucci. Rosa’s dad, Cesare Colucci. H.K. Hilner. John Carson. Mike Madden. Gregg Vizza. These are just names to you. There is a story behind each of those names.
People who you would like to work with and people you idolize to be like professionally ?
I don’t really idolize anybody. I wish I could have known Phil Ochs. I wish I could have guitarists like Ivan Julian, Richard Lloyd, Matt Langone or Joey Pinter play on my songs. Ivan’s name you might recognize from RICHARD HELL AND THE VOIDOIDS. Richard Lloyd you might recognize from TELEVISION. Matt Langone and Joey Pinter played for The Waldos, the band Walter Lure led after the demise of JOHNNY THUNDERS AND THE HEARTBREAKERS. The Heartbreakers might be the best rock’n’roll band to have ever stepped on a stage, and I got to hear Matt Langone and Joey Pinter at some memorial shows for Johnny Thunders. Those guys can play guitar.
Where do you see your music 3 years from now ?
In three years, I want to be in the conversation when people talk about great American songwriters. Steve Earle? Ray Wylie Hubbard? I want people to be talking about THE LITTLE WRETCHES. I have about three albums’ worth of songs waiting to be recorded. I also have a lot of in-progress fragments waiting to be developed into songs. As Johnny Cash sang, “The good Lord willing and the creeks don’t rise,” I ain’t going away.
How would you like to stretch your boundaries of gener in future projects ?
I’m like the Three Little Pigs. If I have straw, I build a house with straw. Sticks? I build a stick house. Bricks? Okay, then, I’ll build a house of bricks. So much of what I do depends on the tools and resources at my disposal. I’d love to be doing more expansive, poetic, impressionistic stuff, but I’m also drawn to the very simple and traditional folksong forms. I’m not necessarily interested in stretching the boundaries of the genre. I’m interested in challenging myself and my audiences, feeling the mood of the moment and answering the call of the spirit. Mostly, I want to wake up in the morning thinking about where I’m playing tonight.
Message for Fans and listeners
I was once asked by a potential manager if I wanted to be a rock star. I must have answered incorrectly. I think I was supposed to say that I would do whatever it takes to be famous. But that’s not what I said. I said I wish I had an audience of a couple hundred people in every major city in the world, that I could go from town to town from night to night and do my thing. I want people leaving my shows with the feeling that they just spent a couple of hours with a beloved friend. I am very accessible. Wherever you are, I want to play for you. Reach out to me. I want to play a show in your theater, club, bookstore, living room, and so on.