ERIC WAGNER: "In Remembrance"
By THE GREAT SUN JESTER
TROUBLE’S “At the End of My Daze” stood out on MTV’s Headbanger’s Ball like a beacon of light in an ocean of black. I heard the song in a Midwestern college town pre-Internet when word of mouth, FM radio, and bad magazines are my sources for music news. I couldn’t believe it. I did have a great local music store, Tracks, and rushed there the next day hoping to find the band’s music. They had cassette copies of the self-titled release and “Run to the Light”. The rest, as they say, is history.
I remember when Eric Wagner softened his voice thanking me after telling him “Simple Mind Condition”’s “The Beginning of Sorrows” always made me think about my daughters. Getting that from his lyrics moved him a little. I remember him agreeing in the same interview that any delusions of music making him boatloads of money had long since sailed. He said perhaps a pipe and slippers would be his reward in the end. It did not turn out that way.
I do not care why it turned out this way. One of my favorite passages from any book comes from the great Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy’s “Resurrection”. He writes in the book about how we are often caging our fellow human beings as one thing such as lazy, or unkind, stupid, etcetera. Tolstoy says we are not like that but, instead, like a river. Currents are fast in one stretch, slow in another. Perhaps the waters are calm or choppy instead. How someone meets the end of their life is not a final verdict on their life.
I don’t know how time will regard him. All but titans vanish from the lips of men eventually. The stature of albums such as “The Skull”, 1990’s “Trouble”, “Manic Frustration”, and “Plastic Green Head” will only grow over coming years. Those final three albums are a creative run few American hard rock or metal bands can match, and Eric is their voice.
The first leg of his public journey ended in the mid-1990s. Middle-aged and running out of commercial road during a rough era for their brand of music, TROUBLE disbanded. I am guessing this is when Eric Wagner, rock god became Eric Theodore Wagner again, for the first time in many years. He didn’t have to come back.
He did. Time tallied enough years that what was old became new again and the second act opened with a TROUBLE reunion. The band’s outsized reputation, given their lack of commercial success, remained intact. They couldn’t build on it though. Times changed in many other ways. The band members, older now and forced to reorient following the band’s initial split, had outside commitments, and the touring schedule bore little comparison to their youth.
“Simple Mind Condition” is a fitting finale to his time with TROUBLE. Overlooked tracks such as “Seven”, one of Eric’s best lyrics, in my opinion, still packing a wallop after hearing them for years. “Arthur Brown’s Whiskey Bar” and “The Beginning of Sorrows” showed the band’s underrated capacity for surprise. I remember Eric mentioning to me his original idea was a concept album. The mind reels.
Personal feelings aside, “The Beginning of Sorrows” is a tour de force, one of his finest moments on record. Eric and original TROUBLE drummer Jeff Olson didn’t just write another song on another album. It’s musical art.
Perhaps Eric sensed his time with TROUBLE ending during the album’s recording. They toured, but it was soon over. Eric, citing a desire to retreat from the grind of road work, withdraws again but not into protracted silence. A song such as “The Beginning of Sorrows” connects with the first BLACKFINGER album in some ways. Eric took his music places with that release that will remain with me for the rest of my life. He played strong live shows supporting the album and the release enjoyed near-universal praise.
I imagine he felt some degree of pride. I cannot picture him as someone crowing about BLACKFINGER’s reception, however. BLACKFINGER brought his music into the 21st century in the manner it deserved. Weeks passed after his death before I could bring myself to play "Why God" from that collection. He found his footing in the scene free from his former band.
His past always called though. A bit of serendipity, perhaps a sense of unfinished business, and a potential dollop of sentiment prodded Eric into forming THE SKULL with former TROUBLE bassist Ron Holtzner. Drummer Jeff Olson joined the band legitimized the band for a lot of high-profile press coverage, but the resulting album “For Those Which Are Asleep” surged with classic doom metal capable of standing with his past work.
Another BLACKFINGER and second SKULL release followed. The voice remained the same over all those years. Sometimes he sang like a modern-day Jeremiah fronting a rock band or a shaman of sorts. On other songs, he sang like someone who looked within, never flinched, and put down in words what he saw. His voice had many more faces.
We will hear that voice a final time soon. I believe there is a reason for what happened even if I am not privy to it. Nor will I assign responsibility; such matters are above my pay grade. It is no stroke of luck or pure accident that Eric finished his first true solo album before passing and I will be there on the first day of its release. A bit intimidated, but ready to listen to new Eric Wagner songs for likely the last time.
I tried to write this. I don’t even care if it’s good or not in the way I usually do, I had to get it down any way possible. For him, for myself. There are other moments this tribute does not cover. His contributions to the PROBOT project and the LID album are one-offs but worthwhile. The latter’s title song opens with the lines “I have learned to co-exist/One hand for shaking, the other a fist…”, a couplet I’d chisel onto my tombstone with a smile.
F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote there are no third acts in American lives. Eric Wagner didn’t get the slippers and a pipe by the fire ending he speculated about with me and that’s okay. He left his mark on bandmates, music fans around the world, family, and friends. Death cannot touch that.