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Rob Wagner of The Blases

By Gary Wien

originally published: 01/26/2012

The Blases were formed by Billy Donahue and Rob Wagner while  they were high school students in Union County in 1980.  They were originally called the Hernia Boys and also included the bass player, Paul Virdon, who died after being hit by a train.  This experience provided the basis for the songs on their only released CD, which came out in 1989.

The band was a favorite of the Green Parrot crowd and WHTG DJs.  Band members became as semi-legendary for their partying and raucous stage shows as they were for their fine songwriting ability.  With influences from bands the Clash and the Replacements, it’s not hard to see where their “rock and roll from the edge” lifestyle came from.

The band’s CD was released on Permanent Rave Records, a small independent label that had national distribution.  One of the cuts, “Time Walks Away,” became a modern rock hit and was played regularly on MTV, but the band never quite made it to the next level.

I was able to speak to the original two Blases members, Rob Wagner and Billy Donahue, via phone to talk about the story of this great band.

Can you tell me about the band you and Billy Donahue had before the Blases - the Hernia Boys?

I’d hardly even call it a band because we didn’t even have a drummer.  We just sat down and wrote songs, Billy on upright piano, me on acoustic guitar and Rock, our bass player, writing lyrics and singing along.  

Rock (Paul Virdon) was killed after being hit by a train.  What do you remember about the day he died?

We were all abusing drugs in those days.  He was spending the day at my place and I knew he was tripping.  He was on mescaline.  At that point in our lives, that was like a routine kind of deal.  It’s like hey, it’s the weekend... which one of us is going to trip? The other guys would watch out for him instead of the current rave routine where everyone all gets together and does that shit.

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He was acting very strange and said, “I’m gonna go for a walk.”   Our drummer, George, was there too and we were cool about it.  We sort of decided to let him go walking around and follow him.  He appeared fine.  He was just wandering down the streets making turns every couple of blocks.  And so we just said, “Hey what the fuck.  Let’s just go home, drink some beers and watch some TV until he comes back again.”  But he didn’t come back.  So, we went out looking for him and when we saw that train parked there it was like, “No fuckin’ way.” We walked up and the cops right away were like, “Do you know this person?” We were like, “Yeah.”

To this day, I don’t know whether to blame what happened on drug abuse or his depression.  After he died we went through all of his personal belongings.  He was an avid journal keeper and he was writing about how depressed he was and how he wanted to kill himself.  So, honestly, to this day, I don’t know whether he was so fucking whacked out that he thought he could walk in front of a train and not get hit or whether he said, “The time is right,” and did himself in.

The Blases CD was full of songs about Paul and his death.

Yeah, I mean what else is on your mind when something that tragic happens?  We were all looking to do a little musical venting and Billy Shields, who was a good friend of Paul, was also looking to play.  It was only about eight months later that the Blases were already out playing.

So the reputation for hitting things a bit hard was right on?

Oh yeah... We were big Replacements fans and we wanted to emulate those guys. I remember one time we had a gig warming up for Bob Marley’s Wailers.  It was one of those outdoor gigs sponsored by Rutgers.  About two weeks earlier, we played the Court Tavern.  We were semi notorious for doing some heavy pounding before we played, still surviving and getting through it.  But at the Court Tavern I honestly didn’t drink that night, besides the usual one or two beers to lubricate the vocal chords. 

We started playing and I was excited because the place was packed.  I wasn’t paying attention to where I was standing on the stage and three chords into the first song I took a step back and wound up stepping on the monitor.  So, I trip and fall on my back and I think it’s the most hilarious thing in the world.  I just keep playing the song laying on my back.  And Bill, without missing a beat, takes the microphone and sets it up so that I can keep lying on my back.  It was a small stage, so I was like literally stuck into a fetal position and I proceed to play the first six songs like that.  Finally it’s time to take a real break and that’s when I stand up and we finish the set.

Anyway, we show up at this Wailers show about two weeks later and we’re getting out of the car and there’s a whole mess of college freshmen standing around asking if we were in the band.  “We’re not in the Wailers, we’re in the warmup band.” They’re like, “Oh, what’s the name of the band?” We said the Blases.  And they go, “Oh, you’re that band that gets so fucking drunk that you can’t even stand up when you play, right?”

What does Asbury Park mean to you?

First of all, before we could even drive we would go down to Asbury for no other reason than it was a major city on the rail line.  One thing I’ve learned over the years just watching New Jersey grow and change is that whatever’s left of your rock and roll cultures are always in the vicinity of train hubs.  Whether that’s because, like in our case, people were too young to even drive or whether it’s because nowadays everybody’s too paranoid to have a couple of drinks and go out, it seems to me that all best venues are somewhere near a railroad station.  And that’s what led us to Asbury.  We lived in North Jersey and just wanted to get the hell out of the suburbs. 

Springsteen was already popular so we went down on our days off to see the boardwalk, Madame Marie’s and just hang out. During that time we were doing the Hernia Boys thing and writing our own material.  We were like freshmen or sophomores in high school and wanted to get out there and show people what we could do.  But we knew there was no way in hell anybody was going to want to hear original music from us.  So, we had to do cover music and the hottest thing at the time was Bruce Springsteen.  We learned every single Springsteen song and we put a band together in those high school days that was just emulating Springsteen.  We had a sax player and played a lot of Springsteen music and the kids loved it.  We were the only local high school band that was playing Springsteen music.  We made more money being a high school band than we did all those later years bopping from club to club playing original music.

Around the time we were graduating from high school all three of the bands being inducted in the Hall of Fame - the Police, the Clash and Elvis Costello - were all playing Asbury.  Those three bands were barely bringing in a crowd because it was something new, but for us it was like a second British Invasion.  Our influences at that point were the Ramones and the Cars simply because they were writing music that was so simple that it made us think we didn’t have to do covers.  To see these bands whip out these three chord songs and have such an emotional impact was an epiphany.  Exactly at the time when those three bands came here, our musical sensibilities just totally changed thanks to seeing them in Asbury.

Are there any Blases shows that stand out for you?

Pretty foggy dude.  The one that stands out in my mind was when we expanded from a four-piece band to a five-piece band around 1987.  When Rock died, his best friend took over as bass player but he had asthma which was getting worse and worse.  It got so bad that he couldn’t play in smoky bars.  And it wasn’t like we were going to play in libraries, so we needed a new bass player.  Bill came up with the idea that instead of just getting a bass player we should go out and get a bass player and a second guitar player.  So he took the job on his own and hunted these guys out, Joe DeLorenzo and Mitch Wilson.

We first met them at the Green Parrot on a Monday night two weeks before we had a gig lined up.  We meet them at the bar and they buy us drinks so it’s like alright we already like them.  Joe looks like a rock star.  He’s got his hair bleached completely white and it’s like down to his ass.  Mitch doesn’t look too much like a rock star but everybody I talked to swore up and down that he was a really good guitar player.  So that’s it, sight unseen, conversation, couple of drinks and we hire them.  We figure what’s the worse case scenario? We play this gig, they suck and we kick them out.

So, we have a few rehearsals and they’re fine, they’re really great.  They learn the music quickly and everything’s cool.  We’re totally set.  It’s the last rehearsal before the gig, we get through the set twice, finish and want to go out and celebrate.  Mitch says, “Wait a second, there’s one more thing we have to talk about.” And I’m like, “What? It was great.”  He goes, “But what about what we’re gonna wear.”  At this point we’re all Clash fans and we’re like, “What are you talking about?” Both Joe and Mitch are just wearing jeans and a t-shirt to the rehearsals so I didn’t

understand.  I’m like, “It’s not about clothes.”

The following weekend we were playing our first gig at the Green Parrot.  Bill and I are late because we have to go out for some cocktails first, as part of tradition.  We fuckin’ walk into the place and these guys have makeup on! They both have eyeliner on, Joe has lipstick on and wearing something I can only describe as maybe “a march of the wooden soldier uniform” made out of plastic.  Mitch’s guitar strap has batteries powering it and little lights going on and off on the strap.  It was too late to do anything.  Frankly, I personally was too embarrassed to say to them you can’t wear that.  So, we just let them wear it and, in hindsight, it was great because it was sort of along the lines of Cheap Trick.  You know how they had the two goofy guys and two regular guys? Well, you can figure out for yourself which ones were the goofy ones and which were the regular guys.

What are you most proud of with your music career?

All through the years our video guy was always the same guy, Paul Devlin, because we were high school buddies with him.  He also makes independent movies, one of which Bill and I actually did the music for.  It didn’t do very well but it’s my proudest thing.  It was called The Eyes of St. Anthony and it was released in 1992.  There’s a scene in the movie where a guy is just looking through his old baseball cards and he sees how his life has just passed before his eyes and he’s just sobbing.  Bill and I with straight piano and real clean acoustic guitar - I tell you man, it will bring tears to your eyes.  I swear that’s the thing I’m most proud of... Just a short two-minute piece. The two minutes in that movie that didn’t go anywhere.  All because I can still watch it and it will still bring tears to my own eyes.

Why did the band break up?

You know it’s a strange thing because we didn’t do the Beatles’ thing and sit down and say, “Ok, as of today we’re not going to be a band anymore.”  It was just that time of our lives between Rock dying in March 1985, in June 1985, I graduated college and in September 1985, I started a full-time high school teaching career.  We got back into it around the time I started my career so there was some stress.

I was always more into recording than anything else, but you’ve got to get the money together and sponsors together.  If we shelled out our own money it was fine but if we got a sponsor the sponsor always said, “I’m going to pay for this recording on the condition that you guys are going to promote it with at least an East Coast tour.”  And that was always very iffy for me.  I could do it as long as it was during the summer months, but let’s say there looks to be a serious possibility here.  Come September, don’t put my back against the wall and ask me to quit my job so I can take this 1 in 75 chance of actually making it big like our idols.  So, there was a little tension happening from that.

From the book Beyond The Palace by Gary Wien

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