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.
Having descended from Slovakian immigrants that sought fortune in the once-booming steel towns of Western Pennsylvania, I elect to portray the lives of those around me—family, friends, community, work. In literature and art, working class characters tend to appear as comic relief or in the form of "the noble savage." They are cast as victims, oppressed and betrayed. Personally, I'm sick of Tom Joad. I hold my characters accountable.
If you sell your soul for money, don’t come crying that you got a bad deal.
I don’t suppose I’ll ever be accused of telling people what they want to hear. Then again, I’ve crafted some rather compelling musical portraits of my grandparents and parents, my sister and brother, my neighbors, closest friends and fellow travelers. There’s a considerable portion of love and compassion in these songs, though a lot of people tell me I sound angry.
I’m not angry; I just enjoy a good fight.
As a kid, I idolized Popeye, Mighty Mouse and Bruno Sammartino. I ran around the neighborhood, an empty can of spinach stuffed under my shirt and a corncob pipe between my teeth, a super-hero’s cape in the form of a bath towel pinned to my shoulders as I defended the weak and battled the evil-doers of my imagination.
I also loved music. My older cousin said The Beatles were the best musicians because they wrote their own songs, so he and I built guitars from scraps of plywood, two-by-fours, nails and rubber bands and started writing our own songs.
My Catholic parents sent me to St. Anne’s School, where I learned that we can only be happy when we do what God asks of us. The nuns taught that God has a special purpose for each of us, and we will know that purpose by the joy we feel when we’re fulfilling it.
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 A. Wagner
No Shelter was co-founded by John Creighton and Robert A. Wagner while drinking beer in the Squirrel Hill Cafe the night before The Pittsburgh Steelers faced the Los Angeles Rams in the Super Bowl. Wagner was battling cancer and wasn't sure he was going to live. Creighton was depressed and wasn't sure he had a reason to live. Both loved music and agreed that starting a band was the key to survival. No Shelter was part of the first generation of Pittsburgh-area punk bands. The 7" single Brooks Robinson's Camp / Soldier Boy was considered a breakthrough for the "scene," raising the bar for quality and production-values and combining powerful lyrics, expressive performance and a compassionate world-view. "Brooks Robinson's Camp" is the transcribed monologue/rant of a deranged man in the 24-hour fast food restaurant where band-members used to drink coffee and talk. The ascendancy of President Ronald Reagan led to the cutting of social programs for the mentally ill, rendering people like the narrator of "Brooks Robinson's Camp" homeless.
The Little Wretches was co-founded by brothers Robert Andrew and Charles John Wagner. Bob wrote original songs and adapted traditional folk songs, tried to sing and accompanied himself on guitar while Chuckie worked out counterpoint melodies on violin. Chuckie and Bob were joined by former members of No Shelter, Ed Heidel on bass guitar and John Creighton on flute, percussion and background vocals. Religious missionary Chris Bruckhoff was attracted to the group because a lot of the songs seemed to have spiritual content, and he apparently believed he could recruit the members of The Little Wretches into his church by infiltrating the band. Like John Creighton, Chris sang background vocals and played various percussion and wind instruments. Bob Goetz played electric guitar and did some singing. Deena Alansky took pictures, tried to book gigs, and pasted posters all over town. The original line-up of The Little Wretches debuted at The New Group Theater (founded by Martin Giles in the spirit of the legendary progressive theater company, The Group Theater) along with the godfathers of the Pittsburgh hard-core scene, The Five. The earliest version of The Little Wretches came to an end with the sudden death of John Creighton. John never considered himself an actual member of The Little Wretches (he was just helping out), but he was so much a part of the group's sound and persona that his loss was devastating.
The Little Wretches went "straight rock'n'roll," adding Dave Mitchell on drums, Mike Michalski on bass, and Ellen Hildebrand on electric guitar. This generation of The Little Wretches played so often at The Electric Banana, central venue of the Pittsburgh underground, that many came to regard them as the house-band. The Little Wretches felt otherwise and eventually stopped performing at The Banana. Robert Wagner said, "Being content to be the house-band at The Electric Banana is like a family being content to live on welfare and food-stamps." Michalski, who later founded The Heretics and The Kelly Affair and produced recordings for Rusted Root and Get Hip Records, described his time in The Little Wretches as "like going to rock school." Hundreds of bootleg recordings were made by friends and fans of the band. The theme-song of the era was "Born With A Gift," and songs like "Thanks for Saving My Life," "The Taste of Dirt," "Who Is America," and "Let Me Play Your Guitar" sound as vital today as they day they were written. This generation of The Little Wretches ended with the departures of Mike Michalski, Dave Mitchell, and Chuckie Wagner.
David Losi had been living in Atlanta, performing in groups like Sexy Up and B-49. He dropped in on a Little Wretches' recording session while in Pittsburgh to visit his family, played piano on the entire session, and decided to return to Pittsburgh to join the band. Losi was unembarrassedly Beatles-esque could KILL with harmonies, ballads and raw rock vocals. Mike Madden was/is one of the best rock drummers--period. When The Little Wretches performed at The Decade, the legendary Pittsburgh rock club graced by Springsteen, David Johansen and any number of blues heroes, the club's manager asked, "Where'd you get that guy? He's the best drummer to come through here in years!" Unfortunately, Mike was raising a family and unable to tour, so The Little Wretches had to look elsewhere for a drummer. Gregg Bielski, a friend and fan of The Little Wretches, had been attending Indiana University of Pennsylvania and generating an awesome body of work as the founder of Shrink Wrap (see G. G. Allin). Gregg had been working with tapes and drum-programs, started collaborating with drummerless The Wretches, and soon began performing with the band. Ellen Hildebrand switched from guitar to bass, and this new version of The Little Wretches went into the studio to create JUST ANOTHER NAIL IN MY COFFIN and THIS TIME THE REBELLION WEEPS, and a modified version of this band (with Angelo George on drums and Jon Paul Leone on guitar) recorded THE LITTLE WRETCHES. The band rehearsed and recreated at Ellen's sheep farm in Clarksville PA, and a major breakthrough seemed to be right around the corner as the band began to meet with lawyers, managers and publicists. This generation of the The Little Wretches passed when various band-members entered the season of their lives that called for raising children and caring for families. Listen to the recordings. Read the reviews.
As a band, THE LITTLE WRETCHES continues to perform and record, but more often than not, I perform solo and with small acoustic ensembles, stripped down versions of The Little Wretches, usually appearing at "listening rooms," coffeehouses or small clubs. In addition to writing songs and telling stories, I teach and counsel abused, neglected, traumatized and court-adjudicated youth. (I have both Crip and Blood bandanas hanging on my bedroom door, souvenirs from battle.) The season of rock'n'roll having passed for The Little Wretches (It no longer made sense to be carrying amplifiers and unloading trucks at 4:30 in the morning), I had a something of a rebirth after hearing/seeing/studying the live-performances of Michelle Shocked, Steve Earle and Peter Himmelman and the live-recordings of Phil Ochs. I got involved with the songwriters' group at Calliope, The Pittsburgh Folk Music Society back in the mid-nineties. With Gypsy-jazzman James Hovan, I co-founded The Calliope Acoustic Open-Stage. We also founded The Threepenny Opry performance-series at The Starlite Lounge. I've managed to record and release some pretty powerful stuff, and there is more where that came from. I hope I get to meet you and play for you someday. Sincerely, Robert Andrew Wagner The Little Wretches