Dick's Head or Bust

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.

His torso landed in some bushes, his head came off and broke into a number of pieces that ended up in the drink. What did Daniels do? "I went in," he says, as if there could be any alternative. "I went in and fished him out."

But trouble rarely comes from any human source.
"At Park Central mall, they had a deal where if you brought a can of food, you got a picture with Santa. [We did it and] it just confused the hell out of Santa.

"I was contacting the head of the Wagner society who lives in Dallas, sending her photographs randomly, assaulting her through the mail, and I couldn't get a response," Daniels says. "I happened to be in Dallas one time, and we went over and took a Wagner picture right in front of her house and mailed it to her. I got a response after that."

Then there was that New York trip.
"I had a photo ID made of him, done by two Pakistanis in Times Square. They never questioned anything. For the most part, no one will ask you what you're doing if you have a camera and a bag and a purposeful step. Or if you just look like you're crazy."

Not too long ago, Dan Quayle himself--in town to pimp his book--had a photo-op with the image of the late German genius/ass.

"They had a bomb scare at Borders," says Daniels, who made the scene with his friend Babs in tow. "It turned out to be a bag of dirty clothes or something, but they had cleared the building by the time we got there. Everybody was outside, and he was just standing around signing autographs and stuff.

"Babs goes, 'Hey, can I get a picture of you and me with Wagner's head?' And he goes, 'I've been waiting all day for someone to ask me that.' And then after about ten or 15 minutes Babs says, 'This is so much fun--I want to do it again!' So we went up there, and she says, 'The picture didn't come out.' He says 'How can you know that?' 'Uh, the flash didn't go off.' So the second time, he was wary. Then we left, and Babs realized that we didn't really get him to touch it. We now had a quest. We went back. This time he said, 'I'm not going to hold it, you hold it.'

"She just stuck it in his hands, and he just kept trying to hand it back to her the whole time. She was backing away from him, hoping he wouldn't drop it, and he was almost pushing it at her. But he still had that big politician-ass grin."

Truth be told, these days Wagner looks in pretty sad shape. Though Daniels is not in the market for a new statue for ongoing documentation, the idea of commissioning a plastic replica came to him after having "this uncontrollable urge once, when we were sailing to the Statue of Liberty, to heave him into the harbor."

I ask him if he has ever brought Wagner to a mystic for Wagnerian messages from beyond the grave. "He's had his cards read, we took him to a gypsy," says Daniels. "She used tarot cards, then when she was finished she sat there and blew smoke rings--'I blow smoke rings to the gods for you.' She said that the statue belonged to an old man who was looking for him."

But what about going straight to the source, W.R. Wagner himself?
"No, because I'm afraid of what he would say. He would not care for this, I don't think so at all.

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Peter Gilstrap
Contact: Peter Gilstrap