In front of me is a woman named Marcia, who is proudly displaying an album of photos she’s collected from her years as a founder of the “Tahoe Angels,” a group of fans that congregates at the American Century Celebrity Golf Championship every year. It’s a huge undertaking, as you can probably imagine, and one that would be an impressive feat of organizational tenacity even if Marcia were going for the golf, which she isn’t. In fact, for all I know, she actively hates the game; she’s just there to see one of the players. To my left stands a pair of men who spent the previous night on the floor of a casino. And to my right stretches a long line of people — mostly women that might be referred to as “cougars” — who have firmly committed themselves to standing, more or less stock still, in the middle of said casino for the next several hours. Next to me is famed producer and A&R man Peter Lubin, who is incredulously shouting, “You mean there are bootlegs of these shows?”
We are deep in Jack Wagner territory, we are in plain view of the stage where he will perform tonight, and excitement is in the air. It’s mingling with cigarette smoke and the scent of Social Security checks being pissed into slot machines, but it’s still there, and you can still feel it.
To explain how we got here, it’s necessary to travel back in time a little — 25 years, actually, to 1984, when anyone with a solid set of pipes and a decent power ballad had a shot at getting on the radio, and, perhaps more to the point, when ABC’s General Hospital was still just three years removed from setting daytime ratings records with the wedding of its quintessential star-crossed couple, Luke and Laura. It was an era when the soaps, though still the subject of just as much ridicule as they are today, were big moneymakers for the networks, and still — under the right circumstances — a valid platform for launching a pop singing sensation. Quincy Jones certainly thought so; his Warners-distributed Qwest label, then still in its infancy, was eyeing ABC daytime for a good old-fashioned teen idol to market, and they found him in the person of Jack Wagner, a Missouri-born actor who was brought onto the show as a sort of foil for the soon-to-depart John Stamos. With an impressive vocal range, an exquisite mullet, and an expanding role on daytime’s most popular show, Wagner was a star in the making.
Qwest set him up with Glen Ballard and Clif Magness, a production and songwriting team that essentially built the songs for Wagner while he taped General Hospital during the day, then recorded his vocals at night. With a team of session musicians, they completed an EP designed to tie in with Wagner’s on-set performances as Frisco Jones, with one song — the pillow-soft ballad “All I Need” — serving as the love theme for his character’s brief infatuation with a woman who eventually married his brother. (To continue the “singing daytime actor” theme, the character of Frisco’s brother, Tony Jones, was played by Brad Maule, who went on to release a number of country albums. Though Wagner departed GH repeatedly, Maule stayed behind, a loyalty that was rewarded when the show killed his character with a monkey virus in 2006.)
As a song, “All I Need” isn’t much more than a trifle, a moon-eyed souffle of synths and sincere, crystalline vocals with a dash of rock guitar; though certainly quite catchy, it’s no better or worse than, say, Bryan Adams’s “Heaven” or Survivor’s “The Search Is Over” — which is at least part of why it ended up becoming a #2 hit (prevented from reaching the top spot only by Madonna’s “Like a Virgin“). It was absolutely perfect for the era — and perfect for Wagner’s voice, which combined the elastic range of Daryl Hall with the polite Midwestern diction of Kevin Cronin. The type of song, in other words, that’s exceedingly difficult for an artist to follow up — something that became apparent the next year, when Wagner released his second album, Lighting Up the Night.
By this time, Wagner’s GH character was a beat cop, making cross-promotional opportunities less plentiful, and since Qwest had never commissioned a video for “All I Need,” he was nothing but an anonymous balladeer to anyone who wasn’t watching the show. By the time he put out his third record, 1987’s cheekily titled Don’t Give Up Your Day Job, he had flown ABC’s coop for the theater — he starred in productions of Butterfly, West Side Story, and Grease in the late ’80s — but his pop career had gone cold; his last charting single, “Weatherman Says,” petered out before it reached the Top 40.
Wagner continued plugging away at the musical side of his career for a few years — he signed a deal with MCA in 1989, around the time he returned to General Hospital, but left before an album was released, eventually ending up with the tiny independent label BFE Records for 1993’s Alone in a Crowd — but nothing much came of it, and given that he continued to find steady employment as an actor, going from Santa Barbara to Melrose Place to The Bold & the Beautiful over the last decade, music became less of a priority. He became one of those artists people say they’ve never heard of until they hear a few bars of the big hit, and he popped up on a VH1 retrospective or two, but that seemed to be it for his singing career. Until, that is, The Bold & the Beautiful asked him if he’d be interested in cutting a new album, one which would be bankrolled by (and performed on) the show, sold through its website, and — here’s the part where we start making our way back to that casino — promoted with a series of gigs.
That album, Dancing in the Moonlight, is now four years old, and the fact that you’ve likely never heard of it is all we need to say about its commercial fate, but a funny thing happened on the way to Wagner’s re-retirement as a recording artist: He reconnected with the folks who still remembered — and still enjoyed listening to — his records, and discovered that not only were they enthusiastic about coming out to the shows, but they were willing to return every year — particularly at the Mohegan Sun in Uncasville, CT, where he’s been booked every summer for a number of years now.
I’ve always thought (and stated publicly on numerous occasions) that Wagner deserved a fairer shake as a pop singer — partly because my mom’s afternoon viewing habits exposed me to his GH derring-do at that crucial, impressionable age when melodramatic pop songs were like catnip and Shatneresque acting was a pardonable offense, but also because unlike, say, Don Johnson or Michael Damian, Wagner can actually, you know, sing. His first three records were wholly in step with the trends of the day, not to mention impeccably assembled by top-shelf teams of producers and musicians; during the ’90s, when those records were only available on CD in Japan, they commanded obscene prices, even by the usually ridiculous standards of West Coast pop collectors.
As I said, I’ve written about all this before, which is why I was contacted last year by a Wagner fan named Pat who tried to interest me in coming out to 2008’s Mohegan gigs. I declined after learning that Wagner wasn’t interested in doing an interview about his music, but the more I thought about it, the more I became convinced that there was an interesting feature in all this, with or without Wagner’s input — and so, when this year’s engagement was announced, I got back in touch with Pat, as well as his friend and fellow fan J.B., and asked them if they could give the Wagner interview another shot — and, barring that, introduce me to some diehard fans.
Which is how I ended up at the Mohegan Sun on July 31, hours and hours before the show, meeting folks like Marcia, or Chrissy and Caroline, the twins who have seen at least 40 Jack Wagner concerts since falling in love with him at a car show in 1984, or Kathy, the petite, doe-eyed blonde who unintentionally sent our pal Mr. Lubin into near shock when she started casually discussing the underground market for 20-year-old Wagner concert bootlegs. It is, in short, every bit the scene I hoped I’d find — I’m surrounded by people who have devoted their entire day to standing in line for a musical performance by a man whose lone hit is a quarter century old. It’s the kind of thing that fascinates me to no end, and even if I were the type of writer who dons sheep’s clothing in order to trick people into giving me quotes that will make them look stupid later on, I think I’d be too charmed by the Wagner fans’ extreme friendliness to ambush them. Is all this devotion a little weird? Indubitably. But none of these folks have that Squeaky Fromme glaze in their eyes; they’re perfectly aware of Wagner’s place in the pop culture universe, and at this point, they seem to be here almost as much for each other as they are for him. As Marcia puts it, “Whether he realizes it or not, he brought a lot of people together as friends.”
That friendly vibe extends all the way to the performer himself, as it turns out: Shortly after Wagner and his band start soundcheck, his manager informs me that Jack’s made time for an interview, and ushers my party — which now includes Michael Parr from Ickmusic as well as the still visibly incredulous Pete Lubin — into a booth where we can watch a final run-through of a set that includes originals as well as a few covers, some of which come off better than others. Watching a spectacularly square rendition of “Before You Accuse Me,” someone at the table remarks, “It must be hard to get the blues on a Bel Air golf course.”
Which is a pretty apt observation, actually; though his music career may not have had very long legs, Wagner’s been able to land an enviable number of high-profile gigs in an industry where lightning doesn’t often strike more than once. He’s a scratch golfer, he’s been on Broadway, he has a pair of healthy kids, and he’s reportedly engaged to Heather Locklear. Whatever disappointments Wagner may have shouldered, you’d expect him to be a guy who understands that his life is pretty good — and he certainly comes across that way in our chat.
“It was really based around the hopes of combining music and television again, like Quincy Jones and I did in the ’80s,” says Wagner of 1993’s attempted comeback, Alone in a Crowd. “It didn’t work out, and that’s where that album went. It isn’t that it wasn’t a good album, it’s just — you know, pop music had changed by that time, in ’92 or ’93, and the Jack Wagners and Richard Marxes weren’t on the radio anymore. So I kind of just stepped out, and then I started on Melrose Place, and I just had to let go of it. It wasn’t something I wanted to chase. I had young children, and to go out on weekends and play around the country 10, 15 weekends a year would just be taking a beating, especially if you don’t have a hit. Now,” he adds, “music for me is just a gift. It’s always been, but now I can just come out and relax. I’m not trying to sell albums, I’m not trying to get on the radio. It’s much more of an enjoyable process for me.”
Touching on the relative invisibility of 2005’s Dancing in the Moonlight — which isn’t available on iTunes at the moment, as rights to the recordings shift from the original holders to Wagner — he makes no bones about the impetus behind the recording, saying The Bold & the Beautiful “asked me if I’d consider getting back into music and combining music and television again.” Reflecting on the album and its commercial performance, he says, “It was a good attempt, and I think overall it was a pretty good record, and it was used a lot on the show — but the music business now is such a strange business. It isn’t like you get the deal, you cut the record, and the A&R people go push it; now, I don’t know what happens. The managers I run into now, and the guys I worked with in the ’80s — they’re confused too. We had pretty decent success — I think I did eight songs from the album on the show, and internationally, we tried to generate something, but there was never any real quarterback behind it to get it into Australia, or these countries where The Bold & the Beautiful has a 60 share, and that was really the goal. But at least from that, I started touring again, and doing some concerts, which is why I’m here; I think we’ve been here six years in a row now, and it’s one of those little treats that gives me a chance to go out and have some fun.”
Given that tying music into his television roles has been such a recurring theme — and because of my own familiarity with his time on General Hospital — I had to ask him how in the world someone who studied acting could wrap his head around the day-to-day reality of playing characters who manage to sing as they’re doing things like saving the world or running a fashion empire. It’s a question that probably should have been answered with a touch of defensiveness, but instead, Wagner laughs, “Well, on General Hospital, I played a guy who was in a band and joined the police force all of a sudden — the ‘singing cop,’ we called him. And Peter Burns on Melrose Place was the chief of staff of a hospital who never did surgery. All he did was have sex. And now Nick Marone on The Bold & the Beautiful is a sea captain turned fashion mogul-slash-singer. So … you know what I mean? You just go with the flow on TV. ‘Yeah! I’ve got it. That’s what I am! I’m a sea captain!’ I grew out a beard for that role, and I had the alcohol and the cigar — you know, a real man’s man — and then, of course, he’s a fashion mogul now, and I went, ‘That’s absolutely what he is. That is absolutely what he should be.'”
Wagner seems to have carried that easygoing attitude over to his outlook on any kind of future for his recording career. When I ask him what the odds for another album are, he shrugs and says, “You know, there aren’t any plans in the works right now, and I don’t know what would really push me to do that. There’s nobody saying ‘Let’s make a record.’ I still write two or three songs a year, and demo them, and play them live sometimes, but … right now there’s nothing in the works.” He adds, “It’s great, though. I’ve accomplished a few goals I set out for myself. For instance, my kids have heard me play my music. Not that it necessarily means anything to them, but I just … you know, like a pro football player who wants his kids to see him play before he’s finished, it may not have an impact on them, but they’ll have an understanding of who their father was. That was a big step for me. Now it’s just about having fun. If I have fun, the audience has fun.”
When I tell him the angle I’m planning for my piece — the idea that even though we like to think an artist’s career is over once the hits dry up, fanhood often proves surprisingly long-lasting, and the fans who are lined up outside the theater to see him perform are an example — he hastens to remind me that he’s been luckier than most, saying, “Well, a lot of that has to do with the fact that I’m still visible. I’m still on TV, and you can never discount that. Everyone will tell you that you always need to stay on the boards. As long as you’re still out there, you’re still alive. If you’re not working, you’re easily forgotten — I don’t care if you had a hit or didn’t have a hit, it’s just a simple fact of the entertainment business.”
He’s certainly right. But as I return to the VIP booth secured by Pat and J.B., I can’t help but be impressed by the sheer good-heartedness of the people I’ve met here — we get a visit from one of the twins, at one point, making sure we’re having a good time — as well as the cuckoo devotion behind it all. One woman, we’re told, straps on a fake neck brace every year, just so she can try and get a better seat; not to be outdone, others fake injuries or disabilities to secure a motorized cart from the casino to make waiting in line more comfortable. Most of these people, as far as I can tell, have been following Wagner’s career for 20 years or more; many of them know each other, and they’re all screaming like lunatics by the time he takes the stage shortly after 8 PM.
Much as I’ve often defended Wagner’s vocal talent, and much as I think he could’ve made a bigger name for himself as a singer if he hadn’t been an actor, I can’t necessarily vouch for a lot of the stuff on those albums; I admit, I was expecting a performance that gave off the slight whiff of Velveeta. But here’s the thing: As I sat at that table with Michael and his wife, and listened to those people scream, and watched Wagner and his band grin and dance like ninnies, any sense of ironic detachment I may have had about the whole thing just melted away. Wagner said it best: If he has fun, the audience has fun, and that’s what that night was all about. Though the set list made room for a deadly run of “unplugged” tunes that included an extremely ill-advised cover of “Down by the River,” there were also a lot of high points, like the new song “John Wayne,” or the unreleased fan favorite “The Right Key.”
The last member of our party, Popdose’s own Jason Hare, arrived too late for the stronger opening set and too early to miss some of the more unfortunate numbers (including, yes, “Before You Accuse Me”), but he didn’t miss the undisputed highlight of the evening, a set-closing rendition of “All I Need” that Wagner performed in the original key — no small feat for a song that was tough to tackle 25 years ago — hitting all the high notes. Jason’s cynicism was running pretty high before the opening chords of “All I Need” — I was actually starting to feel kind of bad for getting him to come out from New York for the show, and I’m the guy who made him listen to Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music — but at the end of the song, when Wagner reached that fluttery falsetto run, Jason jumped to his feet, dropping his phone on the floor in the process and instantly creating an anecdote that’s already been re-tweeted several dozen times.
I repeat it here to embarrass Jason, and also to provide a sort of example of what keeps these folks coming back to the Mohegan Sun every year. Wagner isn’t the world’s biggest star, I’m guessing he probably isn’t daytime’s finest actor, and as a songwriter, he’s no Bob Dylan. But he most certainly is an entertainer, and one whose gifts have most likely never been given their due. I think there might be something sort of noble about that. And even if it isn’t, at least now I can say I’ve seen Jack Wagner floss his crotch with a sweaty towel and throw it to a woman who may or may not have been wearing a fake neck brace.