My Brother, The Rock Star
This tribute to Wes was presented by Abe Wehmiller, Wes’ brother, at the East coast Celebration of Wes’ Life held on March 6th at the Lang Music Building at Swarthmore College.
You know I’ve heard it said a thousand times that when you die, your entire life flashes before your eyes. So you can imagine just how fortunate I feel to be standing here, alive and well, looking out on the faces that are my life. Thank you so much for being here, for sharing this time with our family, and for being part of our family.
I have to begin today with an apology. My professional life has required me to become fairly adept at both writing and delivering speeches, and I feel like I have, in general, mastered that task to my satisfaction. But this is one speech that I do not feel I have completely mastered. Writing it has been a painstaking endeavor, and it has not flowed from my mind to the page the way I have become accustomed to having my words flow. The words you will hear from me today are the product of long, reflective runs, multiple plane rides, and insomnia induced spurts. You’ll have to excuse the disjointed nature of the final product. I promise you it makes at least some sense in my own head. I hope it will make some sense in yours.
A few months ago, Lakeside School, the school where I started working this past fall, held a competition called “Lakeside Idol” as part of our weekly school-wide assembly program. The event was a take-off on the popular FOX Network T.V. show “American Idol,” in which singing contestants from across the country compete for a recording contract and a chance at superstardom. Our version of the show was supposed to feature five students performing various musical acts of their choosing, in search of a prize that consisted of nothing more than the thrill of victory.
I say “supposed to” only because the week before the assembly was to take place, someone got the bright idea to add a member of the school’s administration to the list of student performers. Someone else got the not-so-bright-idea that said administrator should be me. And though I resisted as long as I could, I eventually came to the conclusion that, as the new kid on the block and the low man on the totem pole, my resistance was futile. I finally caved, saving face with my usual mantra: “I’ll do it for the kids.”
One week later, I found myself on stage, clad in a salmon-colored, pin-striped, bell-bottomed, three-piece suit I had bought some years earlier for $10 while chaperoning a community service outing. Perhaps possessed by the spirit of polyester, I led the crowd through an atonal sing-along of Rose Royce’s “Car Wash,” the song made so popular by the 1976 Richard Pryor movie of that same name. Though my performance lost out to a 9th-grader’s a cappella version of the Star Spangled Banner, I could at least feel good about my ability to make a fool of myself without repercussion.
As I was walking back to my office, a colleague of mine from our History department stopped me and told me a story about an interview he heard once with pop star Billy Joel about his song “We Didn’t Light The Fire,” which my colleague often plays for his students. In the interview, my colleague told me, Joel talks about how he wrote the song in part because he always wanted to be a History teacher instead of a professional musician. “But with you,” my colleague continued, “I think it’s the other way around. I think there’s at least a piece of you that wants to be a rock star.”
“Nah,” I told him, smiling. “In my family, that’s my brother’s job.”
Rock star. It’s the way I had begun referring to Wes in recent years. We had seen each other so infrequently since we both left the nest that not many of the friends or acquaintances I had made in my adult life knew much about him. So when people asked if I had siblings, and I told them I had an older brother, and they asked what he did for a living, “rock star” seemed to be the easiest way to describe his life.
While some questioned my characterization at first, I found ways to dispel their skepticism fairly easily. Sometimes, I’d have them run the name “Wehmiller” through an internet search engine, and watch their eyes light up when it brought back thousands of hits related to Duran Duran. Other times, I’d show them the picture of Wes with Dennis Rodman at the House of Blues in Chicago – the one I always kept handy in my office specifically for these occasions. Once in a while, I’d even hit ‘em with the story of how, when Wes came through my former hometown of Dallas on tour, I had to contact him in his hotel room using his on-the-road pseudonym of that time: “Herb Tortellini.”
For those who searched the web or saw the picture or heard the story – and by extension, for me – my brother became as much of an icon as he was a person. In our world, he was “Wes Wehmiller, Rock Star.”
Less than a week after Wes passed away, I found myself in Los Angeles for a tribute concert put together by the musicians that formed his community during the decade-plus he spent living on the West Coast. And for the first time, I found myself meeting the members of his crew I had, until that point, known about only through the stories and reputations that preceded them. One by one, we made our introductions.
First it was Colin Keenan, the lead singer, former roommate, and caretaker of the many reptiles that could often be found wandering Wes’s apartment. Then Shawn Pierce, the Canadian hockey fan and sound engineer – probably in that order. Then Tom Langford, the professional landscaper who had recently completed his first album. Then Bryan Beller, the fellow bassist with whom Wes seldom got to play, mainly because he was a fellow bassist. Then Kira Small, the woman with a Texas-size belt buckle that doubled as a bottle opener. Then Griff Peters, who looked as if he could pass as a professor at a small liberal arts college.
Then I listened and watched as, on short notice and little rehearsal, they talked about and played for Wes. I heard Colin tell of Wes’s ability to hear God. I heard Shawn recount the hours he spent with Wes building tracks, tearing them apart, and building them again. I heard Tom break down in tears as he asked Wes for just one more song.
I watched Griff transform from mild-mannered professor to possessed rocker as he wailed away on his guitar. I watched Kira belt out a soulful version of Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young,” and tell me afterwards she was channeling Wes’s spirit through her entire performance. I watched all eyes turn to Bryan as he played one of Wes’s favorite licks, and watched as he shot them back a look that said, “That was Wes, man, that was Wes.”
As I lay in bed at the hotel later that night, my mind wandered back to my favorite pieces of the evening, and back to the individuals that had brought those special moments to me. Slowly, I began to fully recognize the magnitude of their gift. They had shown me their collective passion. They had shown me their collective soul. They had brought me into a world I had never known. Their world. Wes’s world.
We all knew long ago that the core of Wes’s world would be his music. Music was mandatory in our house, even at a young age. But what I always considered a chore, Wes always considered play. And what for me included a decidedly mediocre career playing tenor sax in our high school band, for him included the blossoming of a bona-fide love affair with his bass.
His love for the art of sound was present when he laid down his first tracks on our old Casio keyboards. It was present when he left home for Berklee. It was present when he disentangled himself from our family’s deep East Coast roots and hit the road to pursue his music in L.A. – a place that he once told me was so surreal, he had to watch the sun set to make sure he was still on earth.
And if Wes had this much love for what we called his work, he had just as much love for what we called his hobbies. They seemed to change every week, as he fearlessly plunged into adventure after adventure, sticking with that which suited him and discarding all that did not. Eventually, three – his hockey, his photography, and his cycling – stood out amongst all the rest.
Hockey was a way for him to showcase his considerable athletic talent, while at the same time subtly expressing a distaste for the landscape of mainstream American professional sports. After all, he learned to love this sport from Canadians, who see it as so much more than mere sport.
Photography gave him yet another way to ever-so-quietly assess the world around him. His camera was the lens to a world only he could see, and his photos were a way of bringing his vision into our view. An empty studio. A faucet. A turtle named Nikolai walking through the streets of Santa Monica. This was the beauty he revealed to us.
Most thought cycling to be the most recent of his passions. Many of you sitting here today would clearly disagree with that perception. That’s because many of you grew up with us on our bikes.
You remember the Friday night trips to watch races at the Lehigh County Velodrome. You remember how we all pooled our money when someone in the crew had a birthday, so that we could buy that someone their first set of three-piece cranks. (I believe they cost $35.) You remember that the day-long games of bike cops and bike robbers could only be interrupted by three things: bike tag at the old high school, bike races in the woods at the old elementary school, or bike jumps off the make-shift ramp at the bottom of Lars Inman’s sloping driveway. (Man, Wes could get some wicked air off that jump.)
How fitting it is then, that Wes returned to his love of things two wheeled in the final years of his life. First he was emailing me to tell me he had bought a bike and started riding “just to stay in shape.” Then he was calling to say – in the most casual of tones, of course – that he had almost ridden off a cliff, had tacoed his wheels, and had ended up in the emergency room. Less than a year later, he was telling me he was riding with pros and making plans to race – plans we had talked about coming to fruition this spring.
Music. Hockey. Photography. Cycling. In most worlds, these things made no sense together. But in Wes’s world, they existed side-by-side, monuments to the depth of feeling he expressed for each of them. In his world, they made perfect sense, because in his world “sense” was determined less by concrete thought than it was by heartfelt emotion.
And so as we attempt today to make some sense of Wes’s world and Wes’s life, we must fully consider and recognize the multiple dimensions that existed therein.
We must consider, for instance, that we are talking about a man that had to change email addresses and phone numbers like most people change socks. And that he could pull off a look that included leather pants. And that you could ask people where they knew him from and they’d say things like, “I met him when he was coming off the plane in Vegas. We were waiting there to meet the band.” These were the elements of life he lived with for the sake of pursuing his passion.
But we must also recognize that this was a man for whom both work and play grew from the depths of his soul. And who, throughout his life, followed his dreams, even when those dreams led him – metaphorically and otherwise – to the edge of a cliff. And who could, to paraphrase the words of writer Erma Bombeck, stand before God at the end of his life, knowing that he had not a single bit of talent left, and honestly say, “I used everything that you gave me.” These were the elements of life he lived, and the reason I secretly admired him so much.
I have learned from Wes that I do not want to live my life on stage. That I do not want to have the word “idol” attached to any part of my name. That I certainly do not want to wear a salmon suit, except in situations where such attire is absolutely necessary.
But I have also learned from him that I want my life to be defined by its experiences, and not by its years. That I want to love what I do because I do what I love. That I want to have the courage to give the world not just what I have, but who I am.
I guess my colleague was right: there is a piece – a big piece — of me that wants to be a rock star, if only so I can be just like my brother.