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The Little Wretches’ Robert Wagner: “My Heyday Is Right Now”

As frontman and chief songwriter/lyricist for 80s/90s seminal Pittsburgh rock band, The Little Wretches, Robert Wagner rode a wave of local notoriety that led the band to the forefront of the underground music scene. Performing regularly at Oakland mainstays like the infamous Electric Banana (too regularly if you ask the band!) and the incredibly famous The Decade, Wagner and the Wretches built a strong fanbase and flirted with national press, publicists and managers, before calling it quits.

Now, Wagner is resurrecting The Little Wretches on the band’s tenth album release, Undesirables And Anarchists. Described as a cross between the B52s and The Clash or Jefferson Airplane meets The New York Dolls, Wagner and his cohorts Rosa Rocks, Mike Madden (former TLW member on drums), John Carson (bass) and HK Hilner (piano) deliver a collection of upbeat, rocking songs with memorable hooks and literate, character-driven lyrics.

In the middle of a national college radio promotion for the album, Wagner took time out to give us the behind the scenes story of The Little Wretches…

Hi Robert!  Thank you for taking the time to speak with us. We’re a great admirer of your work, most notably your latest release, “Undesirables and Anarchists.”  Tell us the inspiration behind the title.

Thank you for your thank you. As you probably know, I’m trying to promote the album, and artists traditionally tour to promote their albums. Nobody’s touring right now, so an opportunity to get the word out about UNDESIRABLES & ANARCHISTS is pretty important to me. Plus, I love talking about it.

So the album title, UNDESIRABLES & ANARCHISTS, pretty much sums up the totality of the people I’ve come to know and love. I’ve known people in the world of radical politics. I’ve known people in the punk rock and underground music scenes. I’ve known people in devout religious circle who speak in tongues. And in my personal life, I know a lot of troubled people who feel like they don’t fit in anywhere, outsiders who’ve learned how to survive in a world that has no place for them.

The title comes directly from the lyrics of one of the songs, ALL OF MY FRIENDS.

It says:

 “All of my friends are on somebody’s list

     of undesirables and anarchists

It’s not even safe to admit

     that you’re one of my friends.”

There’s a story behind every image in every line of that song. I’m not sure how deep you want me to get. But let me frame it for you, at least.

I’d lived through some pretty harrowing moments when I was a teenager. When I needed them, my family wasn’t there. My school wasn’t there. My church wasn’t there. It was me against everything that exists. I trusted nobody and hated everything.

I’d come to assume that everything I’d ever been told was a lie, so I had an open mind for anything that ran counter to the myths that seem to be accepted by whoever or whatever is the general public. I was looking for answers. You’re all blind, but my eyes are open. That’s what I thought.

The summer between finishing high school and starting college, I spent a lot of time walking and loitering in downtown Pittsburgh. That’s where I worked, and when I got off work, I’d wander through town.

I was just a lurker. But if there was a street preacher, I’d stop and listen. If there was a political protest, I’d stop and listen. Jehovah’s Witnesses. Radical Muslims. Weirdos ranting. Anything. People like that are used to being ignored, so if they notice that you’re paying attention, they sometimes address you directly.

There was some kind of communist group selling a newspaper, and they gave me a free copy. It had articles saying there were slave-camps in Ohio, crazy stuff like that. I read it and thought, “These people are nuts. They’re going too far. They say they’re trying to eliminate poverty, create equality, feed the hungry, stuff like that, but their extremism is going to stop anyone from taking them seriously.”

Rube that I was, I called the phone number from the newspaper to tell them what I thought. Totally sincere. Totally naive. What did I know? These weirdos wanted to change the world. They asked me to read their stupid newspaper, and I called to offer my sincere opinion.

So a couple of months later, I’m a freshman at the University of Pittsburgh, and I’m enrolled in this experimental program based on self-directed and cooperative learning, one of the most positive experiences in my life. Some students, professors and teaching-assistants were unabashed socialists. Having just met these folks, I’m looking for common experiences, common ground, you know, laying the foundation for building a relationship, so I told them about the newspaper and my phone call, and one dude says, “You shouldn’t have done that. Those people work for the CIA. Now, you’re on their list.”

Ooops. Kind of creepy, right? Me? On a watch-list? Because I read a newspaper and made a phone call? You’ve got to be exaggerating.

A few years later, one of my professors, Dr. David B. Houston, economics department, Dave told me that he’d sent away for his FBI file under the Freedom of Information Act. He said that in addition to the file being thick and having a lot of stuff blacked out, it had transcripts of dinner conversations he’d had at restaurants.

Had the FBI been spying on his table? Or was one of his dinner companions working covertly for the FBI?

Federico Garcia Lorca. Salvador Allende. Pablo Neruda. Solzhenitsyn. Dostoyevsky’s THE DEVILS. NOTES FROM UNDERGROUND. Nelson Algren. My dad. My mom. The kids on my street. St. Anne’s School. David Allen Flynn. Dickens’ A TALE OF TWO CITIES. Put it all in the blender of my mind. Add The Kinks, The Who and The Velvet Underground, and you’ve got UNDESIRABLES & ANARCHISTS.

How does a kid from Pittsburgh wind up in a band called The Little Wretches?  And how does that band go on to be one of the biggest bands in the city, during the 80s and 90s?

The Little Wretches, right? “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me.” John Newton, slave-trading sailor that changes his character in a moment of desperation. Victor Hugo’s LES MISERABLES. The ex-convict heroes escape through the sewers of Paris as a revolution unfolds above, except that our Paris was Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the Paris of Appalachia, as it was so aptly described by Brian O’Neill.

I don’t know how I got on these literary allusions. Sorry ‘bout that. I’ll try to restrain myself.

Are you up for a long story? I’ll tell you the whole story, how the band got started,  and I guess you can edit out the parts that don’t matter to you.

It’s like, there are three story-threads that weave together to explain the origin of The Little Wretches—being in proximity with the punk and underground music scenes, enrolling in an experimental learning program at the University of Pittsburgh, being diagnosed with a rare form of cancer that was usually fatal, and my family falling apart under the weight of mental illness and substance abuse. So that’s four threads, I guess.

After my family fell apart, my only friend was my guitar and the imaginary world behind all the music I was listening to. If Patti said, “Rock’n’roll is the highest form of expression known to man,” I believed her. I needed something to believe in, and I believed in rock’n’roll.

Things happen pretty fast when you’re young. When I got to Pitt, I’d already come to think of myself as a writer. I wanted to do is play in a band like Patti and Lou, Pete and Ray, but I was too shy to sing and too anti-social to hang out with musicians. So I was resigned to being a writer.

My first week at Pitt, my very first writing teacher had returned from a summer at Naropa Institute’s Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics. Todd Jailer was his name. He turned me on to all the Beat writers, the famous ones and lesser-known writers, too. I don’t know if Todd really liked my stuff or if it was just his job to encourage me, but his encouragement gave me the confidence to seek a broader platform.

I went to a couple of open readings, seemed to get a pretty strong reaction. The school literary magazine solicited some of my poems for publication. Some of my other writing teachers gave me the sense that I had a little bit of whatever “it” is, you know, that intangible quality that makes you stand out. Let’s just say I was sufficiently encouraged.

Well, around the same time, punk rock emerged in Pittsburgh, and I knew a couple of guys in one of the first bands, The Cuts. If they can do it, I can do it. Right?

Another weird coincidence, my roommate, John Creighton, turned out to be a musician. When we became roommates, our friendship was based on radical politics. My songs BORN WITH A GIVE and THE BALLAD OF JOHNNY BLOWTORCH are inspired by John Creighton.

Anyhow, on top of all this, I was diagnosed with cancer and was undergoing chemo. I expected to live, but who knows? Right? So John and I were sitting in a bar, both of us miserable, angry at God, and I said, “We need to start a band.” And John said, “Yes, we do.”

In retrospect, it’s like the whole thing was designed to put me on this path.

John and I called our band NO SHELTER, kind of a rebuttal to Bob Dylan’s SHELTER FROM THE STORM. Sorry, there ain’t no shelter. You’re gonna have to stand right in the middle of it and weather the storm. If you haven’t heard it, our single, BROOKS ROBINSON’S CAMP and SOLDIER BOY, speaks for itself. It’s the best thing that scene produced. Look it up. Buy it. Stream it. It’s required listening.

The scene that produced NO SHELTER ran its course as all things do. The AC Program was cut from the University. The punk-scene gave way to the music-video thing. Suddenly, bands wanted to be Duran Duran instead of The Clash.

But the biggest change was that my cancer-treatments ended. After about two-and-a-half years of chemo, it took about six months for that chemo-feeling to go away. I woke up feeling good one morning. And the next morning. And the next. Each day, I felt better than the day before. I felt like I could see around corners, like I was one step ahead of everything.

NO SHELTER had been like an apprenticeship, a discovery of what it is that I can “bring to the table” as a songwriter and musician.And now that I’d beaten cancer, I was ready to begin my life’s work.

Similar to my thing with John Creighton, I looked at my little brother, Chuckie, and said, “We need to start a band.” Chuckie played violin. Just like me, he loved Patti Smith, Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, Johnny Thunders. Like me, life had been rough on him.

Every story needs a context. Every picture needs a frame. The Little Wretches was going to provide the context and frame for my songs. In addition to my original songs, we played a bunch of folk songs we’d learned from a book in the Castle Shannon Public Library. We did songs by Patti Smith, The Velvet Underground, The Kinks, The Rolling Stones.

Instead of playing punk clubs and underground clubs, we tried to get into the venues that that so-called “mainstream” bands were playing. We were going into clubs where cover-bands and top-forty bands were playing. We had to be ten times as good or ten times as tough because those audiences sure hadn’t heard anything like us before.

When we started, I’d get comments like,“You’re really good, but your band sucks.” As the band evolved, I started to hear, “Your band is really good, but nobody wants to hear that stuff.” But once we started making recordings, nobody could hear THE LITTLE WRETCHES and deny us. We might not have been everybody’s cup of tea. We still didn’t fit in. But we put ourselves in the ring, so to speak.

If you look at the press we generated, people may have gone overboard gushing about us. I wonder if some of those writers aren’t embarrassed about what they wrote. But taken as a whole, I’ll put our eleven albums up against anybody’s. The material holds up.

That was a pretty long-winded, roundabout answer. You asked a “how” question, didn’t you? How? Put your shoulder to the plow and don’t look back, that’s how.

Tell us about your heyday in The Little Wretches.  What was your experience like?  Was it parties, sex, drugs & rock n roll?

“Heyday?” My heyday is right now. What is you tryna say? But I get what you’re asking, I think. Tell me about the fun times, the wild times.

Let me put this in context. Me and my brother, our family was destroyed by drugs and alcohol, so there is absolutely nothing glamorous to me about parties, sex and drugs. Hedonism. Feel-good culture. I’ve seen way more of it and the damage it does than most people. Drugs destroyed my family and stole my childhood.

I also do a lot of work with at-risk teens. In almost 100% of the cases, these kids’ families were destroyed by the irresponsibility of their parents combined with substance-abuse.

But let’s pull back the wet blanket, and I’ll describe a couple of glorious nights in the life of The Little Wretches, a rehearsal night and a gig night.

There was a long stretch when we rehearsed on Ellen and Jon Hildebrand’s farm in Clarksville, PA. Coal-mining region at the time, fracking, now. Farming. Sheep. Beef. Small, family farms.

Ellen and Jon were city kids that rented for a while in a semi-rural setting, enjoyed the privacy, and discovered they could purchase a sixty-acre farm in Greene County for the cost of a tenement house in the city. Some two-by-fours, drywall, and some elbow grease, and they turned part of one of the structures into a rehearsal studio.

Ellen, of course, switched between bass and rhythm guitar in The Little Wretches and she lived on-site, but keyboardist Dave Losi, me, and Gregg Bielski, our drummer, we lived in the South Hills of Pittsburgh, the neighborhoods of Castle Shannon and Bethel Park.

Our thing was, we play every night. What are we doing tonight? We’re playing. We are either performing or rehearsing. If something comes up and you need to cancel a rehearsal, everybody knows that it is rescheduled for tomorrow.

On the nights we rehearsed, I’d get to Losi’s house, and we’d head out in Losi’s Wretch-mobile— a white van with a black-and-white decal of our logo on the side— and we’d pick up Gregg. It would take us 30 to 45 minutes to get to the farm. We often stopped at a little market in a town called Ruff Creek to get some snacks and drinks. By the time we arrived at the farm, we’d had enough time to shed the outside world. We’d be in a “Wretch-State-of-Mind,” ready to play.

Ellen, having been a basketball player in college, subscribed to the belief that you will play like you practice, so we practiced like we meant business. No smoke-breaks, no pee-breaks, no drink-breaks. No outsiders. No hangers-on. We’d go two, two-and-a-half hours without a break. We’d run through old stuff, experiment with new stuff, drill, drill, drill. We weren’t a “showcase” band. When we had a gig, we usually played from about 10:30 PM till 2 AM. Our rehearsals were like training for the Olympics.

On rehearsal nights, that 45-minute ride home allowed us to decompress, let all that adrenaline and intensity subside. I don’t know what the other guys did when they got home, but for me, I was ready to crash.

After a gig, it was a different story. We probably had an hour’s ride back to the farm. So, let’s say the show ends at 2:15. We have to break down, load out, we might be leaving the club around 3 AM. We might be getting back to the farm at 4 AM. Soon as we arrive, we load out—quick job, no more than fifteen minutes.

But we’re still too wired to call it a night. Many gigs, it’s just us in the band. We didn’t have “roadies,” but we had a few friends and girlfriends that would have been considered part of our entourage. Sometimes, friends visiting from out-of-town would be invited.

So imagine this. Summer night. 4:30 AM. Farm. Privacy. No need to worry about bothering or offending neighbors. No need to shush or keep your voice down. While we’re unloading the gear, David Flynn is firing up the grill, ready to throw some ribs or steaks over the coals. Maybe a bonfire has been set in advance.

So there we are, The Little Wretches, our husbands, our girlfriends, our closest and most cherished friends, standing around a bonfire, feasting, have a drink or a smoke, watching the moonlight, loving life.

Uh, oh. Do you hear birds? Is that birds I hear? What? Is that light on the horizon? Is the sun coming up? Is this night over?

One by one or two by two, people start to crash.

I was usually among the first to rise. I’d drive down to Clarksville, pick up five or six large coffees, bring them back to the farm, but nobody else drinks coffee so I’d drink all six myself, and we spend the rest of the day getting ready for the next rehearsal or gig.

Did you ever see BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID or any of those old western/buddy movies with outlaws and a hide-out? THE WILD BUNCH? THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN?

I don’t want to overly romanticize it, and the way I remember it may not be how it was for everybody else, but we were like a band of raiders for a rebel army. We’d roll into town, set up our gear, play our gig—that Springsteen line from JUNGLELAND, “The hungry and the hunted explode into rock’n’roll bands that face off each other tonight out in the street down in Jungeland.”—That’s how it felt.

You bleeding? No, I ain’t bleeding. You get hit? No, I didn’t get hit.

I mean, that’s what it felt like. Marauders. Crusaders. Pirates. Living to fight another day.

Stepping on that stage with those people, you cannot imagine the purity and the fierceness of it. When THE LITTLE WRETCHES were on stage, we totally had each others’ backs. We could do anything. We had totally washed our hands of all the bullshit in the world.

Better than sex. Better than drugs. It was a party, all right. But it was a very private, very exclusive party. I don’t think it’s something you can understand if you haven’t been part of it.

So, you bring the band “back to life” with the new music releases you’re putting out.  How has the music been received?  Has the reaction surprised you at all?

I really don’t know how the music has been received. I can speak to airplay, reviews, and comments from people at live-performances.

Airplay, I guess, includes streaming. Does it? What surprises me is that the song POISON has gotten the greatest number of spins and streams. That surprises me. As a fan, I’ve often preferred the album-cuts and B-sides to the hits. So I don’t know. Please, please, please listen to the whole album.

Reviews? They’ve been good to gushing. Effusive praise. I’m not a stranger to good reviews. Writers tend to recognize good writing, and we’ve got good writing. Writers tend to be attracted to a good story, and we’ve got a good story. So I’m happy with the attention so far. Let’s see where it leads.

As for live performances, most of the shows I’ve done since the lockdown have been solo, sitting in front of a laptop. The few shows for in-person audiences have been a joy.

I can’t allow myself to worry about any of that. I managed to get the music recorded. It exists. It has a permanence. I pray that it is meaningful to some who manage to find it.

As for bringing the band back to life, you asked earlier about our so-called heyday. There isn’t a song in our catalogue that couldn’t have been written and recorded yesterday. I’ve got a lifetime of really good songs and two or three albums’ worth of unreleased and unrecorded songs that have been woodshedded and road-tested.

From that standpoint, the heyday is right now.

There are still a few pieces missing. I do not have a booking agent, and nobody is booking. And I have not been good about follow-up with the airplay and positive press we are getting. If I had everything in place from a business-team standpoint, I’d be doing in a show in every town or on every campus that is playing our music. I’d be hustling to solidify and cultivate the new relationships we’ve established. I could be doing more than I am doing, I think.

My goal is to wake up in the morning, thinking about where I am playing tonight. I’d better get to work.

Who would you say is your single greatest musical influence, and why do you think you gravitated towards that person’s music?

When you think about it, really, you might not even be aware of your greatest influence. Right? Think of lineages. The Rolling Stones are influenced by Chicago-style and Delta Blues. The Beatles are influenced by Buddy Holly, The Everly Brothers, Chuck Berry, Smokey Robinson, the girl groups, Motown.

You think you’ve been influenced by The Sex Pistols, then you discover The New York Dolls and Johnny Thunders and The Heartbreakers. Then you see that those bands are influenced by Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent.

I’m not trying to evade your question, but my greatest musical influences stem from lineages, not individuals— seeds from fruits from blossoms on branches of trees with roots that grew from seeds— the big mysterious cycle of creation.

I would never have thought it feasible that I could sing in a band had I not come across Lou Reed and The Velvet Underground, and I’ve said a thousand times that their song I’LL BE YOUR MIRROR articulates what should be every artist’s mission-statement: “I’ll be your mirror, reflect what you are, in case you don’t know.”

But before I ever heard of The Velvet Underground, I’d heard The Beatles’ WHITE ALBUM. Take The Velvets’ output as a whole and The White Album as a whole, and you have the same elements, the same seeds. You have a range of sounds, musical styles, everything from old folk melodies to early rock’n’roll to garage rock to children’s songs to sound-experiments. Lyrically, you have poetry, humor, character-portraits.

The master, though, the person who’s gone the deepest and furthest is Bob Dylan. But ask me tomorrow, and I’ll say Ray Davies.

Do you have a personal motto or creed?

Patti Smith has a song called PEOPLE HAVE THE POWER, and obviously, I’m a Patti fan. In the song, there’s a section where she sings, “I believe,” followed by her manifesto.

As a writer, I’m sometimes tempted to inject my beliefs into my songs, but who cares what I believe? I’m better off keeping my beliefs out of things. Paint the picture. Tell the story. But I heard that song by Patti and thought, “Maybe I should write one song that just comes out and boldly declares my beliefs.”

So I wrote a song, still officially unreleased but you can find performances of it on YouTube, called LOVINGKINDNESS. One word. Apparently, the Jews have an untranslatable word in their scripture that appears a lot in Psalms and is translated as, one word, LOVINGKINDNESS.

Here’s my Patti Smith-style bold declaration:

“I live by the precepts of a poem that survives,

Spoken by the murdered King of history’s hated tribe.

I believe in the impossible, in things I cannot prove:

That oceans can be parted and the hearts of haters moved,

Lovingkindness.”

That’s my creed. If only I could live up to it.

You hold a master’s degree in English, correct?  So, it’s obvious that you’re an intelligent guy. You’re also a teacher. Do you find that kids today don’t take education as seriously as they should?  What is the single piece of advice you offer your students, that will lead them down the path of success?

Let’s reconsider what is meant by “education.” Let’s separate schooling from learning. They are two different things.

I was talking earlier about The Alternative Curriculum, a self-directed and cooperative learning program at the University of Pittsburgh. Between the AC Program, political activism, punk rock and battling cancer, I received the most intensive and extensive education you can imagine.

My Master’s degree is not in English. My Master’s comes from Pitt’s Department of Instruction and Learning. I am certified to teach English and Social Studies, but most of what I know about Social Studies was acquired through “real life” study related to political activism, studying the issues and the history behind the issues, and most of what I know about English comes from my love of music. As ridiculous as this sounds, I’ve studied Bertolt Brecht because of The Doors. I’ve studied Shakespeare because of Lou Reed. I’ve studied Rimbaud because of Patti Smith.

When I originally took my certification tests to be licensed to teach, NATIONAL tests, I scored in the 99th, 98th and 96th percentiles in communication skills, general knowledge, and professional knowledge. Those scores are NOT the product of my schooling. They are the product of my pursuit and exploration of my own interests.

As an institution, school is a mechanism for social-control, mass production, sorting and sifting people into boxes and bins, courses of study, majors, career-paths. Education is supposed to be a means of empowerment, a means to equal opportunity, but schooling is a  system that prepares you to assume a role within a hierarchy.

Compulsory schooling is evil. Imagine handing your children over to complete strangers for six to eight hours every day for programming and indoctrination. But that is the law. Most families don’t know that they have a choice.

Look at Frederick Douglass. Benjamin Franklin. George Washington. They didn’t need public schools, did they?

Children are born learning-machines, hard-wired to seek empowerment in the world. How did you learn to walk? School? No, How did you learn to talk? School? No. Learning begins with natural curiosity, the interests and questions of the child, and you proceed from there. A school should be defined as “a community of learners.”

Compulsory schooling? Read this, or else. Sit here, or else. Hear that bell? Time to stop in the middle of whatever you’re doing and do something else. It is antithetical to the type of learning children are hard-wired to do.

For my entire life, the “experts” in the field of education have been trying to narrow the so-called “achievement gap,” but the gap has widened. Why? Because the system is based on control instead of empowerment. Carrots and sticks. Rewards and consequences.

Children cannot be programmed. Your brain is not a computer, and you will resist being treated like a cog in a machine or a brick in the wall.

My single piece of advice to steer students to the path of success is this: You are responsible for your own learning. LEARN HOW TO LEARN. Learn to understand yourself as a learner.

If you are young, you are in the phase of your life in which you should be exploring the possibilities, opening doors, discovering what you are capable of, what you love, keeping your options open.

Your life is your own. Take ownership. You are not a victim. You are more than the product of your environment. You are responsible for creating yourself, for turning yourself into the person that you want to be.

What’s next for Robert Wagner and Little Wretches?  Any plans on getting the performing band back together, post-COVID?

Some friends say there will be no post-Covid. Covid isn’t going anywhere. Learn to live with it. Life goes on. Covid. Climate-change. Wars and rumors of wars. Don’t matter to me. I have a job to do.

I prefer playing with a band to playing solo, and I prefer playing to a live-audience. I can’t stand sitting in front of a laptop and playing to a picture of myself. Right before the lockdown started, I did a full-band show with Losi, Ellen Hildebrand and Mike Madden, and it KILLED. Recently, I did a duo show with Rosa Colucci for an in-person audience, and it KILLED.

I hope I can generate enough interest in our music to warrant a real, full-blooded reunion. But till then, I’m prepared to perform solo.

I’ll play anywhere, any time. My answer-in-advance to any invitation to perform is YES. I’ve said a thousand times, I want to wake up in the morning, thinking about where I’m playing tonight.

I’m kind of back to where I started. I have guitar and my songs. If God is with me, who can be against me?

Thanks again, Robert.  Much luck in the future!  Please come back anytime.

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