By Quinn Russell Brown <i>For HBJ</i>
Dennis Wagner was a 1960s garage rocker who opened for The Byrds and appeared on television with Sonny and Cher.
But that was a lifetime ago.
Wagner reinvented himself as a fedora-wearing real estate agent known as “Downtown Dennis.” He’s been working in Everett since 1998.
He has slicked-back black hair and a black coat to match — a pair of shades always a reach away.
On his website, he markets the Downtown Dennis persona with shirts, hats, mugs and even a bobblehead of himself clad in a tuxedo with a cane.
He would have left his rocker days behind if he hadn’t tuned his radio to the right channel while driving home one night.
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In the ’60s, Wagner’s long hair made people think he was a bum.
“Some guys were growing long hair in high school, and sometimes the school officials would bring you in and tell you to cut your hair or they would expel you,” Wagner said. “Total harassment about having long hair in ‘64, ‘65.”
Wagner and his bandmates — who went by Ty Wagner and the Scotchmen — took to music to defend their long locks, recording “I’m a No-Count” in 1965.
“Four score and seven years ago, forefathers left their home to roam,” Wagner sings in a twangy tone on his claim-to-fame single. “Light bright is awfully dim. I’m a no-count, just like them.”
“It was kind of a leave-me-alone protest song,” Wagner explained in his office on Everett Avenue. “George Washington had long hair. This is the United States of America, where’s the freedom? That’s what the song was about.”
Where did the word “no-count” come from?
“We were performing once, and they just thought we were a bunch of long-haired bums,” he said. “Somebody called us a ‘no-count.’ I don’t know, it just sounded groovy to me.”
They played at high school dances, battle of the bands competitions. Songs like “Louie Louie” and “Twist and Shout” were their inspiration.
“Stuff that The Beatles or The Stones copied or covered is the stuff we were listening to,” Wagner said.
His brother, Joe, was a member of his band. They came up with the stage name “Ty Wagner” when looking at a Ty Cobb baseball card.
Their parents weren’t exactly their biggest fans.
“They weren’t tuned into me growing long hair and making noise in the garage,” Wagner said.
But other people were into it.
“We were practicing all the time in the garage, and then people started coming. Twenty people, thirty people. And then pretty soon there was kind of a crowd,” he said.
One day a local disc jockey came knocking. He connected the group to a producer at Gold Star Recording Studios in Los Angeles, where countless pop and rock legends had cut their classics.
“I found myself there, where all the hits were being made,” Wagner said. “I didn’t ever really think I was making it, but I felt excited that I was around all these other people that made it.”
“I’m a No-Count” got regional radio play, but it never made the top-10 playlist or caught on nationally.
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The band eventually fell apart. “Guys went into the service, went to other bands,” Wagner said. “I actually ran away, took off and had a band. I was kind of homeless for a while.”
He recorded a new single, “Slander,” in which he moaned about how a girl he dumped was telling everyone that “she up and walked away” from him. But the music wore him down after a while.
“I woke up one day and said, ‘What am I doing? I’m couch surfing. I’m with all these long-haired guys.’”
So Wagner turned to real estate, a gig he thought could suit the creative type.
“It could give you some freedom in life. You don’t have to clock in, that way you can show up late and leave early if you had to,” he said. “So it was a better thing for my personality.”
He took the real estate test in 1977 — a date he remembers because it was the year Elvis died.
“I passed. And that shocked me more than anybody,” he said.
He worked as a real estate agent in Orange County for two decades, during which time he married his wife, Natalie, and had two daughters.
They followed relatives to the Northwest in the mid-1990s. Wagner announced his arrival to Everett by paying a drifter on a bicycle $20 to ride around and slide fliers under doors.
“I gave him twenty bucks. I said, ‘Here’s some fliers, pass them all around. And don’t cheat me.’”
Fliers ended up at the offices above Jimmy Z’s, the now-defunct Everett nightclub.
“Jimmy called me and said, ‘Did you put all this stuff under my doors?’” Wagner recalled. “I said, ‘I guess I did.’ He said, ‘I wanna hire you. Nobody works that hard in Everett.’”
Jimmy Z’s was an old building, so Wagner went to the law library to research it. While there he came across old photographs of men wearing fedoras. “I said, ‘That’s it, man. I’ll get one of them hats.’”
And so the Downtown Dennis character was born, though not without the aid of another innovative marketing technique. Wagner made a billboard that he moved to a new location every few months.
“It looked like we had five or six different billboards,” Wagner said.
Since then, Downtown Dennis Real Estate has sold and leased buildings all over Everett.
Wagner uses one of the buildings as a personal storage locker, where he keeps antiques he’s amassed over the years: uniforms from the American Legion, fraying furniture, rows of rocking horses, seven grand pianos. He planned to start a museum for Everett but the idea never caught on.
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Since moving to Washington, Wagner has wrote and recorded music at studios in Lake Stevens and Lynnwood.
He had no plans to perform as Ty Wagner ever again.
Then, a few years ago, he heard “I’m a No-Count” on KSER (90.7 FM) while driving home one night.
“I couldn’t believe it,” he said. “I pulled the car over, got out and walked around and I’m going, ‘What time is it? Where in the hell am I?’”
Wagner, who had brokered the deal on the KSER building, said it felt better than hearing it on the radio in 1965.
The KSER show, “From Here to Obscurity,” plays garage and psychedelic music from the ’60s, what host Jerry Bennett calls “anti-classic rock.”
“I try to not play the same songs too often,” Bennett said. “I have some things I haven’t played since my first show seven and a half years ago. But his song is one I had played two or three times before that, which is fairly unusual. It’s a great song.”
Bennett considers it one of the songs that epitomize the genre: hard-hitting garage anthems, the precursors to punk.
“The garage rock explosion was huge because instruments got really cheap at that point,” Bennett said. “Kids that didn’t have a whole lot of money could get a guitar and an amp and get together in a band.”
Wagner reached out to Bennett, who suggested that the Ty Wagner persona be brought out from the shadows. After some initial reluctance, Wagner started a Facebook page.
“I told him, ‘You’d be surprised who you’ll hear from,’” Bennett said.
“Next thing you know, I got a call from a magazine company that was putting on a concert in San Diego, wanted to know if I wanted to go there,” Wagner said.
The biannual magazine, Ugly Things, tells the stories of overlooked rock ‘n’ roll bands from the 1960s, those who got lost in what editor Mike Stax calls an “avalanche of music.”
“We’re always trying to track down these unknown heroes, and Ty Wagner is one of these legendary guys,” said Stax, who has put out the magazine for 30 years. “He’s talking about how he hasn’t had a haircut in this many years, and he can’t even see his ears. Everybody says he’s no good. Rebellious kids and young people and any kind of outsider can relate to that sentiment.”
Stax says people have tried and failed to locate Wagner for years. Someone even went to the house he lived in as a teenager and knocked on the door.
“This just added to the mysterious, cool quality of this guy, ‘cause no one could find him,” Stax said.
Wagner decided to perform at the Ugly Things concert. Stax said Wagner “blew everybody away,” helping the resurrected rocker score an invite to the Ponderosa Stomp in New Orleans, a three-day festival that promises “the best music you’ve never heard of.”
Wagner played Stax an unreleased Ty Wagner single from 1967, “Misery Train.”
“When he played it for me, I flipped out. We made a deal and I released it on a 45,” said Stax, adding that vinyl records are the ultimate medium for rock ‘n’ roll.
Wagner now has a band in Everett. He said he’s been asked to play at a club in England. It’s safe to say the Ty Wagner cat is back from the grave.
“He knows he’s not going to be as big as Kanye West,” Stax said. “But in Europe, they have a lot of festivals where acts like Ty can come out and play for a couple thousand people. He can certainly count on doing that. He’ll get a bunch of attention.”
Wagner is ready to dig whatever the future holds.
“I’m just trying to ride the wave,” he said.