THRIVE GLOBAL interview with Robert Andrew Wagner of The Little Wretches by Ben Ari

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September 1, 2020 

Robert Andrew Wagner : “Do everything you do like it matters” 

By Ben Ari 

My movement? Be better tomorrow than you are today. Do everything you do with all of your might. Do everything you do like it matters, like the future of the universe hinges on your doing it well. Do it with love. Do it with care. The cumulative effect will be overwhelming. 

As a part of our series about pop culture’s rising stars, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Robert Andrew Wagner of The Little Wretches. 

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, traumatized 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. 

Thank you so much for doing this with us Robert! Can you tell us the story of how you grew up? 

You know what a HUNKY is, don’t you? The word is regarded as a slur by many people of Eastern European descent. There are some people in my extended family who would scold me for using it. They equate it with “the N-word.” 

But my mother taught us to be proud of being hunkies. 

The hunky understands that our world consists of a hierarchy, a pecking order, a class structure. We are born on the bottom — workers and peasants. We came to America for the promise of class mobility. As we ascend, we bring others along. I climb a rung, then I lift you up. 

You’re not living for you. You’re living to vindicate the sacrifices of all the generations that came before you. 

My mom’s father came from what is now the Slovak Republic. He tried to open and operate a gas station but ended up working for US Steel, lost his leg in a work-related accident, and the medal he received when he retired is now mounted on his grave marker. 

My mom’s mother had been the smartest girl in her Slovakian village, and when she was sent to the USA, she thought it was for the purpose of going to college. Nobody told her a marriage had been arranged. She had the mind of an engineer, the mind of a philosopher. She was the most intelligent person I’ve ever known but went to her grave unable to read English, the mother of three kids with a man she couldn’t really love. Talk about having your life stolen from you. 

Not a word of English was spoken in my mother’s home till her older sister started school. My aunt Sue, my godmother, learned how to speak English from a Black kid she befriended. 

On my dad’s side, his mother raised five kids by herself. Her husband died “suddenly,” as the euphemism goes. All we were ever told about him was, “He couldn’t take the pressure.” That might mean suicide, overdose, who knows? 

My dad went the route of delinquency, reform school, the whole bit, the proverbial “Black Sheep.” He grew up in the Lower Hill District of Pittsburgh. The Hill is one of America’s legendary Black communities. 

People used to ask about my dad’s dialect. They said he had a Mississippi accent. That’s because many of the people he grew up with had moved north as part of the Great Migration for job opportunities in Pittsburgh. 

My dad was said to be quite a street fighter. A lot of people say he was the toughest guy they ever knew. 

The streetfighter marries the hunky girl. That’s the zeitgeist I was born into. 

A cousin told me that the day I was born, everybody moved one step down the family hierarchy. I went straight to the top. Who knows why? I was favored. My sister, Lynda, told me it was hard to have me as a brother because I could do no wrong, and by comparison, she could do no right. 

My mom purchased an ornate, deluxe edition of THE HOLY BIBLE, and we were required to wash our hands before touching it. Our bedtime stories were stories from The Bible. One of my earliest memories is running around my cousin’s house and saying, “God always was and always will be! God always was and always will be. God knows what you’re thinking! God sees everything!” 

I loved Popeye the Sailor Man, Mighty Mouse, and Bruno Sammartino, the professional wrestler. What do they have in common? They come to the rescue of the weak and fight the bad guys. 

My aunts got me a little sailor’s cap and a corncob pipe, and my mother would give me an empty spinach can, and I’d walk around the neighborhood NOT pretending to be Popeye, I WAS Popeye. 

My mother finally had to put an end to it, “Popeye is a cartoon! Popeye is made of paper! Do you want to be made of paper?” 

Our parents and older cousins had pretty good collections of vinyl records. I loved music. Wanna know the first records I ever bought with my own money? 45 rpm’s of HEROES & VILLAINS by The Beach Boys, LIGHT MY FIRE, the shortened/edited version by The Doors, and CARRIE ANN by The Hollies. 

Me and my cousins knew every song in the Hit Parade. We fabricated musical instruments out of scraps from a home-construction project my dad was doing, and we even copied the addresses of record companies from the labels of our albums to send letters asking for a recording contract. 

For my ninth birthday, I received an acoustic guitar and my first lesson. I wanted drums, but drums cost too much. For my thirteenth birthday, I got an electric guitar. Cost my mom $50. Best investment she ever made. 

Until I turned fourteen or fifteen, my childhood was everything you could wish upon a kid, then things started to go sour. 

I’ll spare you the gory details, but my dad was an alcoholic. My mom suffered from mood swings and also drank. Bad mixture. It got to where there were nightly fights, serious stuff, the kind that would make us kids have to call the police, and the whole thing disintegrated. 

My mom started taking classes at the University of Pittsburgh, got involved in a lesbian relationship, weirdness ensued, and my dad moved out. 

Every day, my dad would get drunk and come to the house with a mission. He was going to convince my mom to take him back or he was going to kill her. He’d bring leather straps to strangle her, BB-guns, knives, and it was my job to fend him off, meet him as he got out of the car and not allow him to make it to the house. 

My mom eventually had to flee. 

“What you doing?” 

“Packing.” 

“Where you going?” 

“Nowhere.” 

She drove off in the family car with my brother and sister. What? I’m supposed to be your favorite? Why are you leaving ME? No forwarding number. Gone. 

Oddly enough, the day she fled was the day the cops confronted my dad and told him they’d throw him in jail if he didn’t leave her alone. So he stopped coming around, and she was gone, and I was basically an abandoned teenager, living in the house I’d grown up in, unsupervised. 

When I ran out of food, it didn’t occur to me to ask for help. I felt like I needed to keep everything a big secret. I survived by making a daily visit to the General Nutrition Center at the mall to eat free samples of roasted soybeans. And I’d go to a different grocery store every day so as to not arouse suspicion, and I’d shoplift a package of cheese and a package of lunchmeat. I did this every day for what seemed like months. Never got caught. Lost a lot of weight, but people at school assumed I was cutting weight for the wrestling team. 

I managed to keep my grades up at school, but I think my hygiene wasn’t too good. Somebody told me the teachers were joking in the teachers’ lounge that I was raised in a dog house. The authorities got involved and I had to move in with my grandmother. 

From that point forward, I hated everyone and everything. Hate, Anger, and Resentment. Who is the most hardened and hateful kid in the South Hills of Pittsburgh? Bobby Wagner! 

When I started at the University of Pittsburgh, I met and aligned myself with activists and revolutionaries. It took me about five minutes to be radicalized. What did I want to change about the world? EVERYTHING. How do you do that? I was still seventeen when I started studying Marx and Engels, Lenin and Mao. I was like an evangelist. Born Again Christians want to convert you to belief in Jesus; I wanted to convert you to the Proletarian Revolution. 

In the same way that I had a hard time accepting that Popeye was a cartoon, I had a hard time accepting that Mao and Stalin presided over the cruel murder of millions. 

A friend versed in trauma-theory told me a person under stress reverts emotionally to whatever age she or he was when the trauma occurred. Me, I’m forever fifteen. Me, I’m still looking for someone to love me as much as the mother that left me. 

Is that too melodramatic? 

I’m still growing up. 

Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path? 

Well, as I told you, I hated everyone and everything. The only thing I didn’t hate was playing my guitar and writing songs. I had a fantasy of being in a band, but in order to play in a band, you have to be able to communicate and cooperate with others, and that was out of the question. 

Hey, pleased to meet you. My mom’s a lesbian, my dad’s a drunk, and I haven’t changed my clothes in a month. Wanna be friends? 

I spent a lot of time loitering. I’d take the trolley into town and lurk in the parks, coffee shops, fast-food restaurants. I’d come to recognize other people like myself who apparently had nowhere to go. 

Writing became a substitute for actual conversation. I got good at eavesdropping. 

I had an ear for the language, the cadence and flavor of the words, a knack for creating characters by capturing the voices. The few people I did succeed in conversing with were homeless people or schizophrenics in coffee shops who’d try to strike up a conversation and then ask you for spare change. 

I scribbled these conversations and overheard fragments in my notebook and wrote constantly. Resigned to the likelihood that I could never play in a band, I saw myself becoming a poet, the poet of the damned. Isn’t that romantic? 

At the University of Pittsburgh, professors and other students gave me a lot of encouragement for my writing. Mark Harris, author of BANG THE DRUM SLOWLY and the Henry Wiggins baseball stories, tried to get me to write longer pieces, to take a character and maybe develop a novel, but when he saw that I wasn’t inclined to do so, he suggested that I publish my stuff as a collection of vignettes. A number of songs I currently perform are based on the vignettes I wrote under Mark Harris. 

I got a summer job delivering pizzas and every time I got in and out of the vehicle, I felt like I’d been punched in the stomach. Not having a family doctor, I went to the emergency room. It happened so fast. I was examined, admitted, prepped for surgery and immediately underwent a biopsy for a lump in my groin. I was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer that, at the time, was usually fatal. 

The night before my big surgery, I found myself talking to God. Me. The most hateful, resentful and angry kid on earth. Me, the atheist Marxist. I don’t want to overdramatize it, but I told myself that if I lived, I would spend my life writing songs and playing music, and I would never — not a single time ever — do or say anything I did not believe in. 

I shared an off-campus apartment with John Creighton, the most talented musician I’ve ever known. He and I were sitting in a bar, The Squirrel Hill Cafe, miserable, trying to come to grips with the idea that I might die, and I turned to him and said, “We need to start a band.” 

Playing in a band saved my life. It wasn’t a career path. 

Can you tell us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career? 

There was a kid in my neighborhood, five or six years younger than me, a very troubled person, already battling mental illness and substance use as a teenager. David Allen Flynn was his name. He passed away recently. 

My first band, NO SHELTER, performed at David’s older brother’s high school graduation party. That was the first time David heard us. A few months later, he came to hear us at a public park, Market Square in downtown Pittsburgh, and we let David come up on stage for our encore, a version of Lou Reed’s SWEET JANE. 

The day of his eighteenth birthday — and this is NOT a coincidence, this is DIVINE — I took a trolley back to the old neighborhood, and Dave’s mother, who was a crossing-guard, stopped me at the intersection and told me that she and her husband had placed David in a psychiatric hospital for observation. They could not in good conscience let him become a legal-aged adult without getting to the bottom of whatever it was that was disturbing him. 

Mrs. Flynn said, “We asked him if there was anybody on earth he admired and might want to be like, and he said YOU. Bobby, he looks up to you so much.” 

He went on to become a brilliant, self-taught painter. Mental breakdown after mental breakdown. Crash after crash. Always got back up and started over. Never once complained. His name is David Allen Flynn. Beautiful and tortured paintings. 

There are quite a few live-recordings of The Little Wretches, and you can hear David’s inimitable scream on just about all of them. 

I get it that I’m a grown man living the life of a teenager, living in his own little dream world, writing what will be heard by few and cared about by less. But music saved my life, and my music helped to save David’s. 

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that? 

Oh, dear. I’m kind of a serious person, and I agonize and have flashbacks about some of my mistakes. Funny? Okay, but this is painful. A fashion faux pas. 

The first band I was in was part of Pittsburgh’s early punk scene, and the most charismatic scene-makers were these beautiful rich kids from Carnegie-Mellon University. Many of these people were a few years my senior, they’d been to CBGB’s and Max’s Kansas City, London and LA. And some of these people were gorgeous in punk fashion. There’s a real pipeline from Carnegie-Mellon to Hollywood, so you may have seen some of them in the movies. 

One element of punk fashion was ripped clothes. I was more or less estranged from my family and was still wearing tee-shirts I’d had since I was twelve years old. I remember a girl looking at me, “Wow! You really look like a punk, not in a bad way but in a good way, like Marlon Brando.” Without even trying, I had “a look.” Unfortunately for me, it was unintentional, and I had no fashion sense. 

Our band was invited to play at a big punk event, and I decided to dress up. I put on a nice sweater and slacks, something I might have been able to wear to church. One of the most recognizable scene-makers asked to have his picture taken with me. Later, I heard him speaking venomously about the kinds of people who dress in plaid bellbottoms and sweaters, exactly what I was wearing. 

“He’s talking about me,” I thought, “He hates me! He’s mocking me! I’m a laughing stock!” 

I’m not sure about this, but I think I looked so bad that it was a good thing. I apparently passed as “camp.” My clothes were seen as ironic, a comment, a gesture, lampooning all the uncool kids of the world. Maybe. 

I have flashbacks about that event. I still wonder. Am I sure I wasn’t being laughed at? 

What I learned? Well, the experience reinforced what I already believed about the snobbery of the rich and entitled. 

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? 

I have a collection of songs and monologues set in the river towns of Western Pennsylvania, people too tough or stubborn to change no matter how bad conditions become. I’ve been workshopping it as a theater-piece, a song-cycle. Its title is RED BEETS AND HORSERADISH. 

Red beets and horseradish is a dish served by many ethnicities of Eastern European descent. The ingredients are symbolic, the symbolism varies. For my people, the Carpatho-Rusyns, the dish has religious significance. The red of the beets represents the blood of our Savior, and the horseradish represents the bitterness of His suffering. I’m told that for the Serbs, the dish represents the blood of their people and the bitterness of their suffering, dating back to a war in the middle ages. In the Judaic tradition, the beets are merely for flavoring and have nothing to do with blood, but the horseradish represents the bitterness of their suffering in bondage. 

I also have a screenplay called THE BALLAD OF JOHNNY BLOWTORCH, co-written with John Elerick. My current album, UNDESIRABLES & ANARCHISTS, includes the title-song. The screenplay is an adaptation of a bunch of vignettes I wrote about the person who inspired the song. 

And I’m imagining the recording and production of the follow-up to UNDESIRABLES & ANARCHISTS. I have GREAT songs waiting to go. 

We are very interested in diversity in the entertainment industry. Can you share three reasons with our readers about why you think it’s important to have diversity represented in film and television? How can that potentially affect our culture? 

I often open or close my shows with a version of Lou Reed’s I’LL BE YOUR MIRROR, inserting my own poetry in the way that Patti Smith adapted GLORIA and LAND OF A THOUSAND DANCES with her poetry on her groundbreaking HORSES album. 

That song, I’LL BE YOUR MIRROR, should be the definitive mission statement for every artist. What do I do? I reflect what you are. I show you your own beauty. I show you your own flaws. What you do with it is up to you, but my job is to be a mirror for the world around me. 

The world IS diverse. It’s reflection, if portrayed honestly, should be diverse. 

The problem is that the marketplace or the smart people who make decisions about what the public will see and hear have historically AIRBRUSHED entire communities and realms of experience out of the picture. 

To answer the question of diversity, we have to look at what has been covered up and deleted, and though I could write a dissertation on the subject, you asked me to share three reasons, so I’ll speak of three things that have historically been airbrushed — Gender and Sexuality, Racial and Ethnic Identity, and Economic and Social Class. 

I mentioned earlier that my mother came out as a lesbian when I was in high school, decades before such a thing was acceptable or encouraged. When my sister graduated from high school, my mother took her to a drag show to celebrate. Lou Reed was singing about these things. John Rechy was writing about these things — CITY OF NIGHT and THE SEXUAL OUTLAW — but it was not the kind of thing I could even whisper about in my real life. In my real life, it would have opened a can of worms, something to be kept secret or underground, something shameful. 

Imagine being unable to modestly express affection in public for the person you love and share your life with. Imagine being unable to acknowledge who you really are because what you are is regarded as lesser, an aberration, a defect. 

Times and mores have changed in regard to gender and sexuality, thank goodness. There seems to be an attempt to “normalize” or desensitize audiences through familiarity, but I’m not sure the real story is being told. 

As for racial and ethnic identity, I think we should look to August Wilson as a model. His language is lifted straight out of real conversation in real settings with real people through the filter of Wilson’s gifted poet’s ear. In music and recorded poetry, I could say the same of Gil Scott-Heron. 

Most of their characters are Black. Should their work be decried because it lacks diversity? Of course not! 

Wilson tells the story of his communities with insight and compassion. I tell the stories of my communities with insight and compassion. You tell your stories. As a culture, our separate works come together to form a composite that is organically and gloriously diverse. 

My first real job was working with my Slovak grandmother in a basement tailor shop, a sweatshop, surrounded by immigrants from Greece, Italy, Hungary, Venezuela, Slovakia, and native Pittsburghers, too, Blacks and Whites, all paid in cash under the table. At night in their homes, they watched public television, “educational TV,” and as they worked the next day, they’d argue about what they’d seen on TV, a big pidgin English symposium. Somehow, they managed to communicate. And I got to partake in it. THAT was diversity in action! 

Let’s talk about diversity in regard to class. Working-class people have historically been portrayed as foils for comic relief, something menacing or to be feared — Oh no! Here come the thugs! Here come the brutes! We’re ignorant, uneducated and judgmental. That, or we are “the noble savage,” the John Steinbeck and Bruce Springsteen shtick about Tom Joad, for example. 

Our culture likes “overcomer” stories, and the working life is portrayed as something to be overcome, something lesser, something to be pitied. What if I love my family and work hard to support them, and I do my best at my job every day, regardless of what that job requires me to do? The most important thing you will ever do is support your family and children. Is that lesser? Is that something to be pitied? Why would you want to overcome that? Isn’t that something that should be celebrated? 

I ain’t your comic relief. I ain’t your noble savage. I ain’t nobody’s triumphant victim. I ain’t nobody’s experiment in social engineering. I’m just a kid raised to believe in and fight for peoples’ right to have a voice. I’m going to use mine, do my best to have it amplified and heard, but the rest is out of my control. 

In the words of Lou Reed, “I’ll be your mirror, reflect what you are, in case you don’t know.” It is my responsibility to reflect my experience in the world. It is your responsibility to reflect your experience in the world. Writers, musicians, painters, dancers, artists in any and every form: Please express truthfully the world in which you live. Do the work. Tell the stories. And don’t look back. The composite — the culture — will be naturally and gloriously diverse. 

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each. 

Bob Dylan has a song with a line about people disappearing like smoke. Patti Smith has a song that says, “Paths that cross will cross again.” Who is right, Dylan or Patti? 

They are BOTH right. Paths WILL cross again, but those crossings are likely to be meaningless if you have not valued the relationships you’ve established. 

My five pieces of advice involve maintaining relationships and building community. 

Number One: Don’t let your people disappear. Do your best to stay in touch with friends and acquaintances. Save phone numbers, email addresses and residential addresses. Send holiday cards, birthday cards and friendly notes. 

Number Two: Don’t let your audience disappear, and don’t disappear on your audience. Even during periods of inactivity, make an effort to reach out and let them know you value and appreciate them. Keep them abreast of your activities. When you’re young, your followers might partake of your work weekly, monthly or maybe a few times a year. When they have families of their own, they might go five years, maybe a decade without checking in, but they still consider themselves part of your community. 

Number Three: Don’t let your business contacts and collaborators disappear. They will go on to other projects. Your collaboration may have included some disagreements and misunderstandings. You may have tried to close a deal that did not come through. Stay positive. Someone who may have been preoccupied or unable to help you may be disappointed in themselves for having let you down. Or maybe they didn’t think you were going to stick with it and become as good as you eventually became. Whatever the reasons and circumstances, smile, say thank you, and you may be surprised when you discover old adversaries now in your corner. 

Number Four: Know what you want. If you do not know what you are trying to accomplish, people cannot help you. People may be rooting for you to get it together, but you have to have specific goals. 

Number Five: SUPPORT YOUR FELLOW ARTISTS AND ENTREPRENEURS! 

I read somewhere that Andy Warhol went out seven nights a week with an entourage, often hitting several places per night, and he did this for decades. It is part of the job. You have to be out there, seeing what’s going on, observing, learning, supporting the work of your peers. If you’re a poet, you should be reading other poets. If you are a songwriter, you should be going to hear your peers as often as possible. If you work on engines, you should be going to the races and taking a walk through the pits, shaking the hands of the drivers. 

Genius emerges from a community. Build community. 

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”? 

This is really a question of purpose. If you’ve a calling, if you are doing what you are meant to be doing, you will be recharged and refreshed by doing it. You will forget to get hungry. You will forget to get tired. You will NOT burn out. You will be blessed with all the energy you need. 

But what if I need money? What if I have to work a day job or a side job? 

My advice is to do everything, even those deadly side-jobs, like the future of the universe depends on it. Give it your all. Don’t do it with resentment and bitterness. Do it with passion and love. And guess what? This will be its own reward. You will be refreshed and energized. And if you CAN’T do it with passion and love, QUIT IMMEDIATELY. 

You have a purpose. You have a gift. Every minute of your life spent doing anything else is a minute of your life wasted. 

Your purpose may shift or evolve with time. It may be that your purpose is to teach and raise your children. Don’t see that as a sacrifice. Embrace it. Honor the gift of that blessed opportunity. But it is written that you can only serve one master. Know your purpose and serve it. Everything else will take care of itself. 

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂 

I’m from Pittsburgh, so please accept my apology, but I am going to answer this question with an anecdote about our football team, the Pittsburgh Steelers, and our legendary coach, the Emperor, Chuck Noll. I might get some of the details wrong, but you’ll get the point. 

The team once started the season with two embarrassing and lopsided defeats. Coach Noll is said to have addressed the team, saying each player had a choice. He could respond like a rat, you know, jump overboard and drown in the process, or he could respond like a man and get to work. (Okay, this is a football thing, but this will apply to all genders.) Coach Noll is said to have told the players to stop pointing fingers, looking for explanations and answers. He told them that if each person on the team improved just a little bit, the cumulative result would be overwhelming. The season turned around for the Steelers, and the team made the playoffs. 

My movement? 

Be better tomorrow than you are today. Do everything you do with all of your might. Do everything you do like it matters, like the future of the universe hinges on your doing it well. Do it with love. Do it with care. 

The cumulative effect will be overwhelming. 

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that? 

Jimmy Humes. My Uncle Jim. Uncle Jimmy. My Godfather. 

Jimmy Humes married my dad’s little sister, Essie. Jimmy stood as my Godfather when I was Christened as a baby, which is odd because, as far as I know, he was not a practicing Catholic. When I was a kid, I overheard that he believed in reincarnation and that my Uncle Jimmy was sick. Sick? That was a euphemism for “drug addict.” 

Did you ever see the children’s television show, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood? There’s a character named Handyman Negri. In real life, Handyman Negri was the top guitarist in the region, Joe Negri. My Uncle Jim was to the accordion what Joe Negri was to the guitar. They were well acquainted and played many gigs together. 

Drugs are often easily accessible to working musicians, and Uncle Jim got hooked on morphine. He told me there were times when, as far as he knew, he was on the moon. He had to give up music to get away from the lifestyle and contacts that led to his addiction. 

When my dad got messed up with alcohol, my Uncle Jim stood by his vow as my Godfather and took me under his wing, so to speak. Like my dad, Uncle Jim became a mailman, a letter-carrier, and his daily route was in Pittsburgh’s Hill District. As I mentioned earlier, The Hill District is a legendary Black community. 

Without seeming to make a conscious attempt to school me on race-relations, Jimmy Humes took me to visit his friends in the Hill. Walter Brown. Mr. Banksey. Fried fish. Hard cider. Plates of pepperoni and sharp cheese. Music. Sports. Workingmen’s philosophy. I didn’t ever say much. I just took it all in. 

Uncle Jim loved the outdoors — hunting and fishing — and joined a sportsmen’s club. He invited his Black friends from the Hill to the club. Did it make waves? Damn right, it made waves. Some members of that club were said to be klansmen. Whether it made waves or not, he and they were going to do it. Likewise, his is friends from the Hill would invite Uncle Jim to bring me along on trips to private fishing lakes frequented only by Black people. What are these White folk doing here? These White folk are friends of mine. Okay, then. 

When you asked about a person who helped me get where I am, you were probably asking for something career-related. I don’t know if this qualifies. But I learned as much about life from Jimmy Humes as anybody, and I never got the chance to properly thank or acknowledge him, so thank you for asking. I think Jimmy would be proud of me. 

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life? 

I have some Brecht quotes I like to throw around, a few lines from Shakespeare. 

When I was a world-hating teenager, I would ink what I believed to be profound song lyrics onto the rubber parts of my sneakers. The one quote I most recall is the line from The Rolling Stones’ RUBY TUESDAY, “Lose your dreams and you will lose your mind.” On the occasions I’ve tried to play that song, I’ve gotten choked up at that lyric. When I hear the song — and I listen a lot to The Rolling Stones plus I have two powerful versions recorded by Melanie — I get choked up. 

In the movie, RUNAWAY TRAIN, Manny, the character portrayed by Jon Voight, says, “Whatever doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.” 

How about, “Quitters never win!” The kids in my neighborhood used to throw that one around during kickball games or whiffle ball games. 

Or maybe Cool Hand Luke when Luke is fighting Dragline in the yard, and Drag says, “Stay down, you’re beat,” and Luke says, “You’re going to have to kill me.” 

Is there a theme emerging? Something about grit and resilience. 

Hebrew scripture, the foundation for my belief-system, is loaded with stories of people assigned a task by God, only to stop one day, one mile, one step short. Don’t stop. Don’t quit. 

David DeMichael, the campus chaplain back at Holy Family Institute in Pittsburgh, once a residential program for at-risk and court-adjudicated teens, had a greeting on his voicemail, “If God is with me, who can be against me?” 

Sorry if I seem to be repeating myself, but do everything you do like the future of the universe hinges on it. No pressure, though. 

Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂 

Wait a second here. Is this business, pleasure, or both? Is this supposed to be my big chance to pitch my screenplay? Or is this my chance to ask the hermit at the mountaintop for the meaning of life? 

There is no magic that rubs off on you when you are in the presence of gifted or successful people. They’re not going to be able to hand you the key or the treasure map. Whatever advice they can share is probably advice you’ve already heard. 

I know you asked for only one, but I’ve got no name my “honorable mentions” In music, maybe Steve Earle, Jim Lauderdale or T-Bone Burnett. Michelle Shocked. I could ask Doug Yule or Maureen Tucker a few questions about The Velvet Underground’s live sound. 

I admire the writing of essayist and columnist Meghan Daum. I reviewed THE UNSPEAKABLE for the PITTSBURGH POST-GAZETTE. Insight, humor, focus. Kindness. Decency. Respect for her subjects. Respect for her readers. I hope that I can do for my audience what her writing does for me. 

For her and the musical artists I mentioned, I suppose I would want to explore to what extent they are natural talents and what they have to work at. I’d want to ask about mistakes THEY’VE made, lessons THEY’VE learned, some of the same questions you’ve asked me. There are probably published interviews in which they’ve already discussed these things. 

Would they think I’m lazy for not having done my homework? 

How can our readers follow you online? 

Our website is www.littlewretches.com The Little Wretches have a page on Facebook. Many hours of live performances are available on YouTube. Our albums and songs are available on seventy-something digital stores around the world, outlets like Apple Music, Amazon Digital, and so on. I sincerely hope people will make a few clicks to find us. 

This was very meaningful, thank you so much! We wish you continued success! 

— Published on September 1, 2020

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