A Love Song For Our Beloved Wes
This tribute to Wes was presented by Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, Wes’ aunt, at the East coast Celebration of Wes’ Life held on March 6th at the Lang Music Building at Swarthmore College.
There is a mythology among writers who do whirlwind book tours around the country. At some point in the rigorous travel and performance schedule—in my case 14 cities in 18 days—things fall apart. You find yourself in your bathtub, in some hotel, in some city whose location you can’t recall—weeping. The feelings of dislocation, anomie, homesickness take over, and the bawling starts, the floodgates open up, and the tears refuse to stop. I have heard this story from author friends for years, and always felt it was a somewhat exaggerated, self-important narrative… until I reached Los Angeles, the 10th city on my 1994 book tour, and found myself refusing to adhere to the hectic schedule that had been laid out for me. I was scolded by my escort whose responsibility it was to deliver me to the various television and radio gigs, but I could carry on no longer, and escaped to my hotel room, threw off my clothes, fell into the bathtub, and started sobbing. Within minutes, the phone started ringing, and it rang intermittently over the next hour and a half. Thinking it was my impatient escort, I ignored the calls and continued to soak.
Finally pulled together, I returned to the hotel lobby, and spotted a young man with a strong back, broad shoulders, and a gentle countenance, patiently waiting. His face looked out at the sunny day. “What a beautiful young man,” I thought to myself. At that moment—perhaps hearing my reluctant footsteps—he turned around, and it was my nephew Wes. I threw myself into his big embrace and started bawling again. Amazingly enough, Wes had been the only person that I had notified of my book tour schedule. There is no time to get together with friends and family on these peripatetic escapades. But, for some reason, I had called Wes several weeks earlier to tell him when I would be passing through, and he had arrived—unbidden—at the hotel just in time to save me. Our embrace was timeless. I was home in his arms, comforted by his silence and sturdiness, by his empathy.
There was something about Wes that held the rest of us together; a nonjudgmental quality that allowed all of us to be ourselves in his presence; to feel as if we could be known by him with all of our imperfections and vulnerabilities. All through his life, I watched wonderful Wes taking on these anchoring, caretaking roles. He was the catcher on the Braves Team, part of the Knee-High Baseball League in Swarthmore; encouraging the pitcher and making him look good, quietly razzing the batter with friendly chatter and humorous asides… catching balls that seemed impossibly out of his reach… and watching in awe, and with pride, as his brother Abe earned his stripes as the team’s best base stealer. And Wes was the goalie on his high school soccer team… completely dependable, attentive and present, protecting the goal with his great reach and big strong hands, and expecting protection—always—from Abe, the field general, who was all over the place guarding the flanks. The same was true of Wes’ bass playing, holding the group together, giving the music a firm foundation, being the anchor.
Wes was also a fighter. Sometimes I think that his gentleness and his powerful listening made people miss his extraordinary intensity, focus, drive, and fight. Two years ago, in the darkness of an early morning ride through the California desert, Wes’ van—filled with thousands of pounds of his music gear— spun out of control, veered off the road, turning over eight times before landing upside down at the bottom of a steep hill. Anyone looking at the crushed vehicle would not have believed that someone might have been able to emerge alive from the wreckage. But Wes, bloodied and wounded, with a powerful body and a determined will, managed to fight his way out of the tangle of crushed metal, break through the window, make his way up the hill, and flag down a passing truck. In the darkness, he even managed to recover his camera that was buried in the sand, having been ejected from the van in flight. He took a picture of himself on the ambulance stretcher before being whisked away to the hospital, where he endured the most painful scaling and cleaning of his precious music-making hands; mangled hands whose skin had been completely torn away, bawling, as he told me later, “like a baby,” when the pain got to be too much; and all the while recording the scene for posterity, seeing the humor in it, sensing the fragility and impermanence of life.
Wes brought the same fierce spirit and intensity to his fight for life at the end. He battled the cancer, and then the treatments that were supposed to save him from the cancer, with the same ferocity. But there was beauty and creativity in his battle. He refused to waste away, even when the medicines made eating impossible. Instead, he gave himself the biggest physical challenge; and began a rigorous training, cycling up the side of mountains; climbing above the clouds, loving the feel of disciplined muscles working overtime, loving the views at the top, communing with nature, spirit soaring. Wes turned his fight for life into an extraordinary adventure.
The cycling was only one of the many things that Wes learned deeply and well, with a breathtaking focus and discipline. His amazing skating was also self-taught, beginning with early morning gliding, down the path next to the Santa Monica beach, his perfectly balanced body making the long arcs of a graceful dance. And when that no longer offered the challenge or high he was looking for, Wes committed himself to the rigorous training and dangerous speed of ice hockey; dressed up in huge and bulky equipment that made him look twice his size, racing down the ice with Canadian men twice his size who had been skating since before they learned to walk, practicing the skills, strategies, and aggressiveness of the ice warriors; all the time being aware of the fear and risk that comes with learning something new.
The same curiosity, diligence, and focus was there when a few years ago Wes bought a new, super-sophisticated digital camera. He was making a swing through the East Coast and arrived at our door in Boston with the camera around his neck. As he showed me the bells and whistles, and marveled at the subtle and complex mechanics, he told me—without an ounce of bravado—that he had learned to use the camera in about 15 minutes, without the interference of the instruction book. This led us into a big and fulsome conversation about intelligence and learning, about those environments and those crucial relationships that support inquiry and mastery; our conversation culminating in a raging discourse—with fiery talk from both of us—about the ways in which so much of Wes’ elementary and secondary schooling had not been supportive of his curiosity, his thoughtfulness, and his genius.
The irony of all of this is, of course, that this history of mostly inhospitable classroom instruction nurtured in Wes a fierce commitment to life long learning, and a determination to become a teacher who would never let a child or student feel invisible or unworthy, never let a creative and unusual genius go unrecognized. Like so many self-propelled learners, Wes became the consummate teacher… teaching my son Martin how to build his train set, coming to our house, between classes and rehearsals at Berklee, on rescue missions, when the trains stopped running… teaching me about the history of ice-hockey and helping me appreciate a sport that I had—in my own prejudice and elitism—seen as violent and brutish, and helping me know the energy and beauty of the players and the game… teaching my daughter Tolani about the perspective and life of an artist in this culture which refuses to support and nourish creative work… teaching his fellow musicians, through example, about the diligence, discipline, and devotion that must accompany the natural gift. “We just sit there in awe when he plays,” said one of his musician friends to me, about Wes’ elegant and exacting playing, “and we say teach us, Wes… teach us what you know.”
We knew from the start that Wes was a musician; at 8-months-old, sitting in his highchair by the piano with his mother Paula, his plump baby hands improvising a duet… a soulful, intimate duet of music-making and love that would last for the next thirty-three years… Wes, at two-years-old, standing on a box, a make-believe podium, in his pajamas, conducting the Bach Orchestral Suites, his body and baton moving with the music… and over the years… studying classical piano, composing songs, teaching himself the bass, playing in all star jazz bands, working with demanding mentors who taught him about theory, harmonics, and composition, attending Berklee in Santa Fe before his senior year of high school, finally feeling as if he had found his community, a place where he no longer felt like an outsider, no longer felt marginalized.
At Berklee College of Music Wes soared—quietly, seriously, and always with humility—letting his music speak, laying down the bass tracks with the gorgeous restraint of someone who knows what he knows, knows that he is good; never flaunting his amazing prowess, but breaking lose with virtuosity and passion when the spirit and the music moved him. That was Wes’ signature—his rich musicality, his deep listening, his discipline, his devotion to the work, his artistry. Even in the rough and tumble, highly competitive big time LA scene, Wes remained true to the music and true to himself; an exquisite, well-tuned integrity which brought him the trust, loyalty, and love of his musical community.
It turns out that Wes’ eyes were as amazing as his ears; that the auditory genius of his music was matched by the visual aesthetic of his photographs. This is not surprising, I guess, since all of his life Wes had watched his father John behind the lens of the camera, producing magnificent photographs, that captured the grandeur of nature and the poignancy of family stories. But in the last several years, photography became Wes’ new creative frontier, a place to record—in another medium—his sensitivity to things subtle and small and barely noticed by the rest of us, a place to work his unusual wit and funky perspective, a place to see the universal in the particulars, and a place to transform struggle and suffering into pathos and beauty.
This was Wes, laying down his tracks—in sound and sight—leaving an amazing legacy, leaving us with lasting images of strength, creativity, grace, dignity, humor, intelligence, and artistry. Our beloved Wes, thank you for your beautiful and full life, for your teaching, for your anchoring, for your fight and fire. Thank you for letting us know you and be known by you, for your big soaring spirit, and did I mention your gorgeousness. Thank you for all that you brought to our lives in your too-short time on this earth.
We are at the walling wall, weeping tears of grief, loss and rage. We are at the wailing wall singing soulful songs of praise and thanksgiving for your completed life. Our beloved Wes, may you rest in peace.
~ Aunt Sara ~