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InterviewsLegendary Guitarist Dick Wagner Talks About Full Meltdown

Posted on Sunday, June 13 2010 @ 21:21:39 CDT by Ryan Sparks

The career of legendary guitarist / songwriter Dick Wagner can be traced back to the state of Michigan which is where he put together his first band The Bossmen back in the 1960's. After three albums Wagner formed Ursa Major, a short lived group that managed to catch the attention of a young producer named Bob Ezrin. Through his association with Ezrin, Wagner quickly went on to establish himself as one of the premiere session musicians in the business. He was also responsible for putting together one hell of a killer backing band for Lou Reed in 1973, which also included fellow guitarist Steve Hunter. However it's Wagner's impressive body of work with the master of shock rock, Alice Cooper that stands out as being as his crowning achievement, both as musician and songwriter. When Alice launched his solo career in 1975 with Welcome To My Nightmare he leaned heavily on Dick to assume the roles of guitarist/ songwriter and bandleader. From 1975 until the early 80's Wagner toured with Cooper, appeared on no less than seven albums and co-wrote many of Cooper's most successful songs, including the smash ballad "Only Women Bleed".

In the years since his heyday with Cooper Dick has continued to be active in session and production work, although everything almost came to a tragic end after he suffered a serious heart attack back in 2007. The fact that he has spent the past two and half years battling back to the point where he can play the guitar once again is a true testament to his unyielding spirit.

While he continues to rehabilitate himself both physically and mentally he has just released a fantastic collection of archived recordings called Full Meltdown. I recently caught up with Dick to find out more about how Full Meltdown came about, as well as of course to discuss his past and possible future work with Alice.

Ryan Sparks- Sea Of Tranquility: First of all before I ask you anything pertaining to music, I'd like to begin by asking how is your health these days?

Dick Wagner: I'm actually doing pretty well. I'm still in therapy for my arm and I'm trying to follow of all my doctors' instructions for my heart. My last examination everything was normal.

SoT: For people who don't know you had a heart attack in 2007.

DW: Yeah on July 3rd, 2007

SoT: This also affected your arm as well correct?

DW: I was in a coma for almost two weeks and when they finally awakened me my left arm was suddenly paralyzed. I've been doing therapy because I can't play guitar, which is really a bummer for me because I've made my entire career being a guitar player. I'm playing a bit and it's coming back, I just have a couple of muscles that are basically inactive. My neurologist who I went to see last week told me they're frozen up, but she's doing different kinds of manipulation to try and free up those muscles. She told me that she thought I could be back playing and be pretty close to normal in somewhere between six to nine months, so we'll see. If I can great, but if I can't I will still write and produce records.

SoT: You'll still be involved in music in some way.

DW: Oh absolutely.

SoT: I want to talk about this great new album of yours Full Meltdown.

DW: Thanks. I saw your review, I thought it was fantastic.

SoT: Thank you. Now an argument can be made that usually there's usually a valid reason why so called 'lost recordings' or 'never previously released' music doesn't get released if you know what I mean. However, that being said I was totally knocked out by just how good the material is on Full Meltdown. Armed with such a great collection of songs, why did it take until now to get this stuff out?

DW: Over the last few years I've been releasing a lot of my older material, little by little. Full Meltdown was the last big blast of things that I had sitting on the shelf. So far everybody that's heard it seems to like it. Now I just have the same problem that everybody else has and that's getting enough people to hear it and buy it.

SoT: I mean it's full of hooks and infectious melodies from the first track "Still Hungry" right until the very last song "Feel It All Over". I found it sort of ironic that while the songs on Full Meltdown were taken from different sessions and time periods there's a real sense of cohesion here, as if all of these songs were supposed to go together.

DW: That's just the way I record myself and mix my tapes and stuff. I guess that's just what my ears hear and that's why they sort of sound in the same ballpark. Gil Markle did a real good mastering job on it, so that also helps bring about a more consistent sound. I just try to record things the best that I can as far as the sonic quality is concerned. I'm no genius at production but I can manage to put things together that sound pretty good. All in all it seemed to work out really well. My guitar style holds it together and I think my voice does as well.

SoT: When you go back and revisit tracks like this do you hear things within these songs that instantly takes you back in time or sparks a memory of what you were feeling or going through at that time?

DW: Oh yeah absolutely. I guess with all of them, to some degree I would flash back to when I recorded it or who the people were and what the sessions were like. Even so far as to go back to what I felt when I wrote the songs. Sometimes you finish a song and you know it's a hit or at least it sounds like a hit. It definitely took me back into some different memory banks that I hadn't used in a while.

SoT: I mentioned in my review that if these songs had been put out by yourself or you had given them to other artists at the time, that there's some songs on Full Meltdown that have hit written all over them.

DW: Thank you, I think so too. It was just a case of I didn't put them out. I think I was hoping my publisher would get a lot of these songs recorded by other artists because I had actually given up on going out at being a live solo performer. It's still in my mind and hopefully someday I'll be able to go back and do it again. I'm always writing new stuff. I've got some new songs that I think are particularly good and they're not based around guitars because I wrote them all on keyboards. I can adapt guitars to them. I'm putting together a new concept album that's going to be called El Guitarrista. I've been working with Vicki Blue who was the bass player in The Runaways towards the end. She had the idea for it and I've been writing the songs. It's going to be a small independent film, as well as a book of photographs that takes you though the southwest part of America. It deals with this famous guitar player who injured himself, so there's kind of a parallel with my situation, without using my name.

SoT: So it's very much based on what happened to you.

DW: Yeah, how this guy makes a comeback and the struggle that it is to do all of this without being able to play. So I think it's a good idea. I just keep getting ahead of it because I just wrote five new songs and I have no place to put them right now. I really want to do another album but I want it to be all new stuff, so that I'm not always stuck releasing stuff from the past.

SoT: You mentioned that with Full Meltdown that this was really the last push of older material.

DW: Yeah I have a few more but I'm not really sure if I have enough to make an entire album. If I did it would be Full Meltdown Vol2, in the way that Lou Reed should have had Rock 'n Roll Animal Vol2. Lou Reed Live (1975) was from the same show at The Academy of Music. If he had named that one Rock 'n Roll Animal Vol2 it would have been a gold record like Rock 'n Roll Animal was.

SoT: If we look at the songs on Full Meltdown are they mostly autobiographical or is it a mix of fiction and true to life things that you've seen or experienced?

DW: I think it's a mixture, some of it is autobiographical and some of it is just reflections on moments in my life, where with others it's just made up.

SoT: When you went back and listened to these songs was there anything that really stood out for you or surprised you by just how good it was?

DW: I had written a song back in the 80's for my girlfriend at the time called "I'd Take The Bulllet For You".

SoT: That's a great song by the way.

DW: Thanks. I was living with her and her Mother. I remember sitting on the bed one day and writing that song for her. I always loved that song and I went in and demoed it when I was up in New Hampshire at a friend's recording studio. We just went in and did it. That song comes out of my romantic past.

SoT: The album has a lot of variety to it. You've got ballads like "I'd Take The Bullet For You" and "These Days" mixed with the harder tracks such as "Steal The Thunder" and "Motor City Showdown" which is another great song.

DW: I wrote that one quite awhile ago. I did a version of that song on my first solo album which came out on Atlantic Records. When they released it initially they did nothing with it. I ended up rereleasing it myself, I bootlegged it really. I put it out as the Atlantic Sessions instead of what the album was originally called which was Richard Wagner. Their whole idea was they were going to do a play on the whole Wagnerian thing. What ended up happening is that the album ended up in the musical libraries of classical musical stations, so I don't think anybody ever listened to it. They really didn't have it together as far as what to do with the album. It might have been difficult because the songs on the album did have a lot of variety, but I don't think they really knew how to handle it really.

SoT: Or what bin to put it in.

DW: Exactly.

SoT: You started out in Detroit in the 60's in a band called The Bossmen. Mark Farner was in that band as well wasn't he?

DW: Yeah The Bossmen was my band and it lasted about three years. Mark was in the band during the last year of its existence.

SoT: In the liner notes to Full Meltdown you mention some early recordings made in '65 and '66 with a gentleman by the name of Stan Spindler and that these recordings have seemingly been lost.

DW: Stan was from Detroit, I think he's an attorney now. He and I wrote some songs together and we were financed by Del Shannon's manager to go to New York and record them. I don't have copies of them and I don't know who does. Those are probably just lost in the ether somewhere.

SoT: Those recordings were your professional debut?

DW: Yeah those would be my first recordings and also my first attempts at songwriting as well. I have no idea where they are. Maybe Spindler knows but I don't have a way to contact him. We're not really in touch, but we did speak to each other. The last time I changed my phone, when it rebooted back up I lost a lot of my contact information and his number was in there. I just remember going to New York and doing those songs. I would love to hear them again, and I sort of remember how a few of them went, but I'm not sure how we recorded them or what we did.

SoT: How did you first become associated with Bob Ezrin because you were involved in a lot of recordings that he produced from Kiss and Peter Gabriel to name just a few.

DW: It really started with me meeting Alice Cooper when he came to see one of my shows and came backstage to say hello to me. I guess he and Bob and Shep (Gordon) were really taken with my songwriting. I ended up going to Greenwich Connecticut to the Alice Cooper mansion where I hung out with Alice for a little while and we did a bit of writing. The first Alice Cooper album that I played on was Schools Out but that was by happenstance because at that time I was with Ursa Major and we were doing the Ursa Major album in New York at The Record Plant. Alice was in either Studio A or B, I was in the other one and Ezrin was producing both acts. They wanted me to play some guitar on Alice's album so that's how I first got involved on Schools Out. Meanwhile I was just down the hall doing my own record and I think John Lennon was in the third studio recording at the time. Those were the early days in New York of writing and recording.

I wrote a song with Alice and Ezrin got involved towards the end of it, called "I Love The Dead". That ended up being their theme song for their Billion Dollar Babies tour.

SoT: You sold off your rights to that song.

DW: Yeah I really kind of got manipulated off of that song. Because you can't sell the rights to a song that way, I mean I gave up all credits on it. You're not supposed to be able to do that and it's supposed to be against the law to entice anybody to do that.

SoT: This was done by management?

DW: Ezrin is the one who asked me, he actually approached the subject. They offered me money because they knew I needed some money at the time, so I sold my song for six thousand bucks. Through the years with how many copies Billion Dollar Babies sold I would have made a lot more than six thousand dollars. I didn't know that at the time, but I thought it was pretty cool because I needed six thousand bucks. I was assured that the reason for this was because the credits for this album were all going to be Alice Cooper alone, because they were going to establish him as a writer. When the album came out the credit on the song was Alice Cooper and Bob Ezrin. They know that and I know that. I don't make a big issue out of it but it's something that happened and it was a disappointment, but this business is full of disappointments.

SoT: You of course became a full fledged collaborator with Alice on Welcome To My Nightmare. You had played with Steve Hunter w/ Lou Reed. Tell me about the instant chemistry that developed between Steve and yourself on stage. I've heard you say that the two of you didn't really discuss anything beforehand; it's as if the two of you communicated telepathically.

DW: That's right. We just sort of traded off instinctively and it would end up being a 50/50 split where each of us would play lead or rhythm, depending on what the other guy was doing. It all just fell into place without really talking about it too much. It sounded so good, right from the time the band hit the first note, it was like "Wow what am I in here?" It was pretty spectacular. I began pushing right from the beginning that the band record its own material, but Steve was always reluctant, until about five years ago when he called me up and said "Let's make a record". I said "Sure", so he came up to my studio in Saginaw Michigan. We spent a week up there and tried to do some writing but we didn't really have much success. We could still make the album but the writing would have to come from the outside, or maybe I'll do it, and we'll adapt our playing to it, but me writing with Steve just doesn't work. He's into a whole different kind of expression, writing wise.

SoT: So that chemistry between Steve and yourself was really forged out of the work the two of you did in Lou's band, because you can hear on Rock 'N Roll Animal the prototype for what you'd bring to Alice Cooper.

DW: Yeah you can thanks. The first time that we really played together was in Ft. Lauderdale. My band Ursa Major was playing a two week engagement at this little biker bar called The Flying Machine and one night in walks Hunter and the guys from The Chambers Brothers who he was playing with at the time. He and I ended up jamming onstage for a couple of hours and it was very magical. So after that night I was always interested in doing something with him. When it came time to do Berlin Ezrin had Steve in there first and then he called me up and brought me in to do some stuff, so that was our first thing that we did together.

Immediately after that we put together that European tour that eventually became Rock 'n Roll Animal. When that band was put together it was magic right from the beginning. We rehearsed for two weeks and then we did the European tour. That's how instantaneous it was with that band.

SoT: To be honest I've never been much of a Lou Reed fan but when I first heard Rock 'n Roll Animal I thought that was the best band he ever had.

DW: Thanks I agree.

SoT: Isn't it somewhat ironic that the song Welcome to My Nightmare was created in the tranquil atmosphere of the Bahamas?

DW: Except that it came out of a not so tranquil situation. There was a tropical depression and the winds were up to about fifty miles an hour. Alice and I were sitting on these folding chairs out by the beach with our pads and pencils and an acoustic guitar in hand. We were struggling trying to come up with a song that would set the tone for a concept album, because we were always thinking in terms of concept albums in those days. So I started playing that riff [hums the opening riff] and Alice just said "Welcome to my Nightmare" out of the blue, so it was written right there while the winds were howling around us. It was like a nightmare. We left a few days later to go back to California, because the weather wasn't good and we'd been there a week and that was our only real accomplishment. I think we finished writing the song at Alice's place in Los Angeles.

SoT: So that was the only song to come out of your time in the Bahamas then?

DW: Yeah, we had already written "Department of Youth" and "Only Women Bleed" but that wasn't enough to tell us about a concept. We needed something darker and more sinister so "Welcome to my Nightmare" became the idea, and Alice already had this idea of guy going into this nightmare and what he experienced within the nightmare. Alice is brilliant and he comes up with some real great stuff.

SoT: He is still coming up with great stuff.

DW: He is. As a matter of fact I just finished two songs which Alice had sent me lyrics to. I called him up and talked with him about collaborating on three or four songs for a film company in London that has a horror film in development right now. I was given a couple of titles that they wanted songs written around, so I sent those two titles over to Alice and he sent me back some lyrics, so I wrote the songs. I had to change a few of the lyrics but they're basically done. If this film eventually comes together, we're supposed to have a meeting in a couple of weeks in Detroit to finalize our participation in it. They asked me to ask Alice if he would do a cameo and he agreed. I also asked if his daughter Calico could have a part in it as well, so based on that premise he agreed. I think the songs are real good. If this meeting goes ahead and we sign this deal I already have songs ahead of schedule.

SoT: You mentioned the song "Only Women Bleed" which if I'm not mistaken was the most successful single of his career up to that point. Goes To Hell was a great follow up album and you had another great ballad on there with "I Never Cry" and by the time you got to Lace and Whiskey's "You and Me" you guys really had the ballads down pat.

DW: Oh we sure did. They were all in the top ten. "I Never Cry" was huge all over the world and I don't know if you know this story or not but the only place that wouldn't play it was at WABC in New York. The program director of WABC had gone to an Alice Cooper concert and was beaten up by Alice's roadies. He was trying to get in and trying to tell them who he was, but they weren't listening so it turned into this big fight and he ended up getting beaten up by the roadies. So he vowed that he would never play an Alice Cooper song again. Here's "I Never Cry" being played all over the world and going to number one, but he never played it, so New York City never got it. I think it got to number two in the US; it never made it to number one because of that. The single sold a couple of million by itself which was pretty good at that time. That Nightmare tour was huge. It was like the biggest rock 'n roll tour of its time. We were on the road for over a year and did something like a hundred dates. We went to Australia, New Zealand, Europe and North America.

SoT: What did you think of the shows that were filmed in England that eventually came out as the Welcome To My Nightmare concert film?

DW: It was pretty accurate as far as the show was concerned, but not as far as the sound. The music was poorly mixed. I told Shep that he should let me mix it and I could have done a lot better job than what came out. But he had one of the kids who was actually a roadie, do it. Don't ask me how that happened. Meanwhile it's my music and there was no reason why I shouldn't mix it. Why pick somebody from the crew when you can have the musical director do it. It's water under the bridge now. I think the film is pretty cool though, it really shows what it was all about and it gives you some insight into the concept. It was an amazing show live and it blew people away because they'd never seen anything like that before, with the dancers and the spiders.

SoT: I'm pretty sure that in terms of theatrics no one had put together anything of that magnitude before.

DW: No exactly.

SoT: Correct me if I'm wrong but The Lace and Whiskey tour was the last one you were involved in is that right?

DW: The last tour I was involved in was King of the Silver Screen which was probably the Lace and Whiskey tour yeah.

SoT: What led you to step off after that tour ended?

DW: I was finally going to make my solo record. When I got back from Australia with Alice I had an offer for a solo record with Atlantic Records through Ezrin and Shep. I also had an offer from Clive Davis at Arista Records. I went ahead and did the album for Atlantic thinking that would be the best thing to do. Ezrin and Brian Christian were going to produce it. I kind of didn't want to go that route but I did. I wanted the deal and I wanted to make the record but I wasn't so sure about doing it with Bob, I wanted to do something myself. But I went ahead because it was there and it was a good offer with decent money and I could start on it right away. I only had about half an album's worth of songs. I was living in Connecticut at the time, so I went home and Brian came with me and I spent a week downstairs in my music room writing the rest of the album. So it took me about a week to write the second half of the record.

SoT: From The Inside was another great album that you were involved in. What was it like writing and recording with David Foster and Bernie Taupin?

DW: It was great, absolutely great.

SoT: That record was a little more polished though.

DW: Oh it is yeah. That's David Foster. He's a great producer, a great writer and a real nice guy. That was a real enjoyable experience. I was basically hanging out with Alice and Bernie there for awhile. What basically happened on that album was that Alice and Bernie would come to me with lyrics and I would sit down and write the songs. They would spend a day writing lyrics and then bring them to me the next day and we would work on the songs. When they brought me "How You Gonna See Me Know" I knew right away that was going to be a hit. I sat down and wrote the music for that one in about twenty minutes, it was just so natural. That was a real good record and one of my favorites really.

SoT: I think it's a bit of an underrated album of Alice's, especially when you compare it with its predecessors.

DW: I think so too. In the progression of Alice Cooper albums, if you compared it to the progression of Beatles albums, it reminds me of Abbey Road. It has that kind of finality to it.

SoT: You've appeared on countless amounts of sessions in your career, some credited and others not. While on one hand it must have been great to be such an in demand player, but did you ever feel like you were stepping on anyone's toes or walking into an uncomfortable situation when you would show up for a session?

DW: Not really. I think with Kiss I was sort of replacing Ace Frehley at that point in the recordings, but I didn't know that. I was just playing my parts and I had no idea what anyone else in the band was going to be doing, so I didn't really feel like I was cutting anybody out. It wouldn't have mattered anyway because I was being hired as a session player, I just had to come and do what I needed to do, to the best of my abilities and just let the dice fall where they may. I didn't get credit anyway [laughs].

SoT: One session talked about often is your work on Aerosmith's Get Your Wings.

DW: "Train Kept a Rollin" and there's a couple of others on there as well. On "Train" it was me and Steve (Hunter).

SoT: Do you think you were called into that session because at the time you had more experience as a player than both Joe Perry and Brad Whitford?

DW: I think that's exactly it. Joe hadn't yet developed into the player he is today. He's up in the big leagues now but back in those days the stuff was more simplistic. Obviously for some reason he wasn't there to do it and I never really questioned it. At the time I was living at The Plaza Hotel in NYC just waiting for the phone to ring. It was either Ezrin or Jack Douglas who would call me up and ask me to come over. For that session Jack called me up at like ten o'clock in the evening and I went in and did it and that was it.

SoT: The music business has changed so much, are you glad you're not an young musician coming up through the industry today or would you relish starting out and being able to take advantage of some of the technological advances?

DW: I would like that yeah. When I started out in the business there were things that you can't do anymore. I did everything. I wrote the songs, produced the record, managed and booked the band, drove around the mid-west in the van from city to city. I would take copies of the record to the radio stations, drop off copies of singles at the record stores on consignment, with the intention of going back a month later to pick up the money. So I was either travelling or on the phone all the time trying to keep the band busy. I didn't have any problem with that because people were calling all the time. I didn't realize at the time that you couldn't continue to do this all by yourself on a consistent basis. You had to have an organization and they had to be the right people. But it was a good experience for me and I worked my ass off. I had success and I was very pleased by that.

SoT: For people who don't know can you tell me more about your company Desert Dreams?

DW: Desert Dreams in my production company. I came out to Arizona five years ago when I was hired to produce this gentleman, a songwriter and also a real estate agent. All his life his dream was to make an album. Alan Gordon was initially hired as the songwriter. Alan wrote songs like "Happy Together" for the Turtles and "Celebrate" for Three Dog Night, so he's a very successful songwriter and a good buddy of mine. He lives out here and this guy wanted him to write and produce the record and he said "No you've got to call Dick Wagner". So I came out to Arizona and co-wrote the songs with Alan and produced this album. I spent about three or four months here by myself while my wife was back home. When I went home I was telling my wife how much I enjoyed being around the Phoenix area. She said that she loved the West and that we should move out there. Here I was living in Michigan and having a hard time with my studio because after 9/11 there was no business. I had staff to pay and mortgages so I was just trying to keep it together but it was really tough. I gave up the studio and my wife and I moved here to Arizona.

When I got out here I decided I was going to start a production company. I had reconnected with Suzy Michelson and her husband Alex Cyrell who are both friends of mine from many years ago from L.A. They're both real smart and they've had considerable success themselves. So I asked them if they wanted to get involved and they agreed, so that's how the three of us started this production company.

The first thing we did was sign this artist Wensday. She's a great singer and I wrote all the songs and did all the production on her album. We don't get involved with anybody unless they're an extraordinary artist. We're not into producing little bands in the hopes that they might make it. We're always on the lookout for that next extraordinary artist, of which there are very few that we've discovered. Right now we're managing and working with a new artist from Nashville named Adam Smith. We're getting ready to do his next album. He did one by himself but I did the final mixes on it, that's how we got involved with him.

SoT: If you had to play one song of yours that best exemplifies who you are as a musician to someone who has never heard of Dick Wagner what would that be?

DW: That's a tough one. I think maybe "In My Darkest Hour". I know that when I was playing live with my band, when we would do that song that one seemed to always get the best response. I don't know if that's just me or it's because it's a song where I could do an extended guitar solo, but people always loved it. It's soulful enough that it really worked well. I think that song would be the first one that comes to mind off of the top of my head. It's hard to say though because I'm one of these guys who actually likes his songs. I like my own material and I enjoy playing it and different songs at different times really grab me. I love the song I wrote with Alice "I Might As Well Be On Mars".

SoT: Right and your version appears on Full Meltdown.

DW: Yeah. With Alice it was on his Hey Stoopid album. I also love the stuff that Alice and I wrote for the Dada album. I think that is the real underrated album. It was done pretty quick and it was kind of loose. I played bass on that record as well.

SoT: There are a lot of different textures and more of an electronic influence as well on that one.

DW: Yeah but I think the songs are real interesting.

SoT: There's some nice creepy stuff on there. It's not an Alice Cooper record if it doesn't have the creepy stuff.

DW: Yeah there is some really nice creepy stuff on there and some funny stuff as well [laughs]

SoT: Knowing now what you didn't know then, would you go back and change anything or do anything differently?

DW: Well there are two trains of thought on that. Yeah there are lots of things you'd like to change but when you start thinking about changing things, where does it go? Would I end up where I am now or would I end up somewhere else? I guess the thing that I would change would be my years of drug addiction. I ended up spending all my money on that instead of investing it or whatever. Then again if I had invested in the stock market, maybe in the last few years I would have lost everything as well.

SoT: Did you struggle with drugs for a long time?

DW: A long time yeah. I really regret it and I would have loved to have avoided all that, but I didn't and that's just the way it is. I am where I am. I'm semi-retired but I'm working. There's also the experience of having gone through all of that which has really shaped my life as well. I gave up the drugs in 1984 so it's been a long time now.

SoT: Last question; were you a member of the so called Hollywood Vampires?

DW: I think so.

SoT: What were the specific credentials one had to possess to become a member?

DW: You just had to be a friend of Alice Cooper's I guess. We used to hang out at The Rainbow and they had that area that was roped off for VIP's. That was for The Hollywood Vampires. You had to be a certain person to be able to get up into that area where you could sit and drink with Alice. That's really what it was.

SoT: So you didn't have to necessarily be a major league drinker then?

DW: Well that would have left me out because I've never been a good drinker. It wasn't a drinking club although they did imbibe and socialize, so it was kind of neat. I don't know if I was ever a formal member and I was never formally inducted if there was such a thing. I was just Alice Cooper's songwriter, guitar player and bandleader.

-Ryan Sparks

Photo's courtesy of Dick Wagner

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