Hi, this is Robert Andrew Wagner of The Little Wretches, and this is CRASH BANG WALLOP, the podcast.
Anyone who’s familiar with our band knows that THE LITTLE WRETCHES is the perfect name for us. I got the idea for the name when I watching a movie with subtitles. The movie was THE 400 BLOWS by Francois Truffaut, a movie about kids—you know, petty delinquency, oblivious and oppressive adults. Right around the one-hour mark, a couple of kids who’ve just committed a robbery are fleeing the scene of the crime, running down the stone steps outside a magnificent cathedral and they cross pass with a priest who is walking up the steps. The kids say, “Good day, ma’am,” and keep running. The priest, angry at being called “ma’am,” turns around and yells, “LITTLE WRETCH.”
As soon as I saw that, I turned to my friends and said, “That’s the name of our band. We are THE LITTLE WRETCHES.”
We have a long, glorious history, you know. I was part of the the first wave of punk bands in Pittsburgh, but we were never really punks. We were outsiders even in the world of punk. In our region, Punk was already three years behind the times, and it was really all about clothes and hairstyles for college kids at Carnegie-Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh. I’m a REAL working class punk. I’ve been in fistfights. I’ve spent nights on the streets. I’ve had to shoplift food to eat. I’m never going to fit in anywhere. But PUNK gave me a place to start. But I’m really a writer. I see myself as being in the tradition of fellow Pittsburgher, the playwright AUGUST WILSON. I’m telling the stories of my people. I started THE LITTLE WRETCHES as a vehicle for telling my stories through my preferred medium, the song.
My song, ALL OF MY FRIENDS, is an attempt to pay my respects the the people who’ve populated the world around The Little Wretches—the outcasts, people with secrets, people who’ve learned to use their handicaps as weapons, people who never seem to win but never stop fighting and hoping. So I hope you CRASH BANG WALLOPERS enjoy hearing ALL OF MY FRIENDS.
Of all the songs on our album UNDESIRABLES & ANARCHISTS, the song called THE BALLAD OF JOHNNY BLOWTORCH seems to consistently grab peoples’ attention. I mean, it’s kind of calculated to grab your attention. The opening line is, ALL YOU EVER WANTED WAS TO HANG ON A CROSS, and right away you get the image of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. One sure way to get attention is to take potshots at easy targets and say something guaranteed to offend. The risk you run with something like that is that you might alienate people or create such a knee-jerk reaction that they never really consider what you are saying.
One of my favorite artists, Patti Smith, opens one of her best-known songs GLORIA IN EXCELSIS DEO with the line JESUS DIED FOR SOMEBODY’S SINS BUT NOT MINE. Right? She opens by renouncing salvation, insisting on taking responsibility for her own words and actions, then she follows that path to see where it leads. Her third album is called EASTER, right? The resurrection. But a lot of people don’t follow the entire story-arc. They’re focused on her opening line. They think its this bold, sacrilegious statement. I’m with you, Patti, I renounce Jesus, too! Well, I think they miss the point. I’m all about the resurrection theme.
The Ballad of Johnny Blowtorch is, first of all, not a ballad. It’s written around a riff worthy of the early Kinks. When I wrote the lyrics, I was spending a lot of time around kids into hip hop and rap, and I was listening to a lot of PUBLIC ENEMY and ICE-T. So I wanted some lyrics that were direct and kind of staccato, more rhythmic than melodic. And I’m not so much telling a story as presenting a series of snapshots of a friend of mine, the most Christ-like person I even knew. He lived somewhat of an ascetic lifestyle. He was on a path to find enlightenment, rejecting the pleasures of the world, and really paying the price. You’d see him looking like he hadn’t eaten, his clothes worn to the threads, you’d talk to him, and he’d obviously gone mad. But he was going for it. Think I’m a fool? Think I’m crazy? Think I’ve lost my mind? Well, IF I EVER GET LUCKY AND SCORE, YOU’LL WANT TO BE ME! The Ballad of Johnny Blowtorch is, for me, about having the courage to take a stand, rejecting everything false in the world, and being willing to pay the price for it. But you have to make up your own mind.
That’s the thing with The Little Wretches. We’re not trying to convince you or persuade you about anything. We want to touch your heart, and then you can follow your heart. Hopefully, you Crash Bang Wallopers will have a heart for The Little Wretches.
When THE LITTLE WRETCHES release UNDESIRABLES & ANARCHISTS in the summer on 2020, the song, WHO IS AMERICA was timely, though it was one of the songs first performed by the band back in the mid-eighties, strangely prophetic. Images of broken bottles, people being tear-gassed.
The song opens with the lines COUNTING THE BOTTLES, ALL EMPTY AND BROKEN, ASTHMATIC PARASITES SQUEALING AND CHOKING. So there you’ve got Molotov cocktails and teargas, but the next morning, the protagonist has to go to work. She does her best to paint on some make-up, she’s running late, she gets hassled by her boss, docked a half-hour, and suffers the indignities of a working person who has to sell her time to pay her bills. Dispassionate. Disaffected. Alienated. Who knows that the company produces. She’s just very small part in a very big machine. And some people start doing that when they’re in their early twenties, then next thing you know, they wake up and they’re in their fifties. Where did my life go? I didn’t know what I wanted then, and I still don’t know what I want now, but I sure know I didn’t want THIS.
The last part of the song has a few lines I love—WHEN ONE MAN STRIKES IT RICH, NINETY-NINE OTHERS FIND DEPRIVATION. FOR EVERY BEAST OF BURDEN WHO IS UNLEASHED FROM THE YOKE, NINETY-NINE OTHERS WORK TWICE AS HARD, BELIEVING THEY’VE GOT A HOPE. Right? Work all your life and you still end up with nothing. So what are you working for? What is the point of this life? The song ends on a wharf, along the river, walking at dawn, just as a storm is beginning to break.
Hey, here’s the worldview of The Little Wretches right here: ETERNITY EXISTS, LIFE IS PRECIOUS, and GOD IS GOOD. But your life is what you make of it.You were born with a gift. Honor that gift of life. Don’t get lost on the treadmill that goes nowhere. LIVE.
So this is WHO IS AMERICA with the original No Shelter lyrics, shall we say “the unexpurgated version” with the Molotov cocktails, the tear gas, and the reminder to treat your life like it is a sacred gift. Hope you Crash Bang Wallopers dig it.