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The head of Wilhelm Richard Wagner is cracked in many places. There are bulging veins of yellowed glue across his cranium, and a hole gapes in his right temple. Also, the head is no longer attached to the upper torso. But wounds like these are to be expected when you're dealing with a Wagner made of cheap plaster, a Wagner that has traveled the globe wrapped in fake ermine inside a handy black carrying case, a Wagner that has been drawn from said case and propped up in hundreds of locations--from the grave of Elvis Presley to the hands of Dan Quayle--so that a quick snapshot can be taken.
Yes, indeed, we are dealing with such a Wagner.
He has been the subject of thousands of photographs over the last eight years, taken mainly by a Tempe man named Godfrey Daniels. And sometimes by his friend Babs. Wagner has been featured prominently in four black-and-white videotapes distributed among followers nationwide, captured on a children's Fisher-Price PXL 2000 camera, mainly filmed by Daniels. And sometimes by Babs. The photos have even been the source of a graduate student's master's project. In homage to Daniels' images, she traveled around photographing a loaf of bread.
The stern ceramic face of Wagner frowns out of shots of '50s bowling alleys, dive bars, overcast beaches and snow-covered mountain logs. His chipped profile is there before the Hollywood sign, German castles, and in a helicopter high above New York City. And there he lies, gleaming white against the dark marble marker at the grave of Carl "Alfalfa" Switzer.
Wilhelm Richard Wagner, German, 1813-83.
Before we continue, here is the story of the man behind the bust, the composer of such brilliant operas as Lohengrin, Parsifal, and the Ring cycle. Noted British music critic John Culshaw has written that Wagner "changed the language of music in a way that has no parallel in history." Oh, all right, I've never heard of John Culshaw, either; just be aware that Wagner wrote the music that played from the American helicopters as they attacked the Vietnamese village in Apocalypse Now.
"He was a real bastard, a real ass," offers Daniels. "He used to steal people's wives, and they would still worship him as a god. And, theoretically, he was anti-Semitic, yet he had all these friends that were Jewish and they didn't care, and his favorite conductor was Jewish. He was weird that way."
And in a few other ways as well. He was a vain man with a huge head and a small body (which is, of course, a boon for bustmakers) and was in serious debt most of his life, living well beyond his means because he felt it was his absolute right. Culshaw writes that while Wagner's "hatred of those who opposed him was boundless," he also had no "hesitation in abandoning his friends once they had served his purpose."
Still, there's no arguing with that music they played on the helicopters. Am I right or what?
Daniels may describe his photo subject as an ass, yet it is an ass he actually likes quite a lot. And it all began back in his hometown of Coolidge, many years ago.
"Some wacky guy gave my parents, as a wedding gift, a stack of beat-to-hell, scratchy old classical records," he says. "And my parents didn't like classical music, but I was just obsessed with these things. Especially the Wagner. Though I didn't really know what it was, I recognized some of it from Looney Tunes."
Time passed. Daniels became a man and purchased a bowling pin. He took pictures of that for a while, traded them with an Iowa couple who would take pictures of their bowling pin standing next to old factories and in fields. These Daniels found "depressing"; he preferred his pictures to be "goofy."
Enter the Salvation Army, which Daniels entered one day and came face to face with a mission. "I saw this statue. It was a buck and a half, but it was half-price day, so I got it for 75 cents."
Yes, that statue was Wagner. Then came a trip to L.A., but "somebody had borrowed my bowling pin. So I decided to take Wagner," Daniels says. "I made this little travelogue, started sending it around and people liked it. Wherever I went, I would take him and take pictures."
Daniels is usually the one behind the camera, but he has allowed Wagner to travel to Europe with friends. At one point, he was snapped in front of Neuschwanstein, the storybook castle built by the eccentric King Ludwig of Bavaria, a patron of the flesh-and-blood version of Wagner. I wondered if Daniels had any qualms about handing over his precious, cracked white friend?
"No. What do I care? Well, I would be sad . . . plus, I've never seen another one. Especially for 75 cents."
Every wound tells a story; once upon a time, Wagner's head was firmly attached to the rest of him. Then a gust of wind toppled him off the Devils Disciples tombstone in Coolidge. Daniels tried Elmer's, Super Glue, you name it, finally took him to a professional porcelain artisan for repairs. Another gust of wind took care of that: This time Wagner fell from a bridge into the Rio Grande, just seconds after the shutter clicked.