Researching the early history of Soft Machine led me to unearth some fascinating stories, only a small portion of which survived the editing process. Since this blog was conceived for this kind of material, I will be sharing a lot such stories here.
One of my biggest challenges was to document the life and times of the legendary Wes Brunson, the man who financed Soft Machine in the very early days (1966). I was lucky that a Google search led me to his great nephew Daniel Brunson, who still works for the family optometry business Hicks Brunson Eyewear in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Daniel was extremely helpful and spoke to his grandfather Richard, Wes’s brother, who in turn obtained extra details from Wes’s two daughters who famously spent time living in the band house near Canterbury, under circumstances that required clarification.
A major difficulty in setting the record straight is that Wes’s family in Oklahoma knew very little of his journeys to Europe, but they were able to fill me in on Wes’s background and life story.
The photo above dates from the early Fifties. From left to right : Betty Livingston (Wes’s sister), Dorothy Brunson (his sister in-law), Richard Brunson (his brother) and Wes.
Wes Brunson was born on January 2nd, 1933, and graduated from high school in 1951, marrying his first wife Ann late that same year. In 1952, he joined the US Navy Reserve. Then, while a student at Los Angeles City College, he worked at Solex labs for Kevin Touhy, the inventor of the hard contact lens. Graduating in 1957, he then worked for Hicks Brunson Opticians until 1960. In 1961, he bought a wholesale lab and converted it into a retail optical establishment and named it Fashions Eyewear. He sold eyewear out of a limousine that he drove around the state ! One of his frames was called “Mr. Wes”.
While in that line of work, Wes made history for the first time :
At one point in the history of Oklahoma optometry, Oklahoma optometrists challenged the legal ability of opticians to operate claiming that opticians had no degrees or diplomas to fit glasses and contacts. Wes’s father Hicks took Wes to a hearing at the state capital on this issue. When the optometrists made the claim, Wes stood up and announced that he had a diploma in opticianry and contact lens dispensing from Los Angeles City College and was trained by Kevin Touhy. No one in Tulsa had been fitting this new type of contact lens at the time that Wes began fitting them, effectively making him the first person in Tulsa and probably the first in Oklahoma to fit contact lenses.
Interestingly, while running Fashions Eyewear, Wes also opened a club in downtown Tulsa, which he named Evil Monkey. Daniel had a colourful anecdote about Wes’s time as a club owner :
The mafia stopped by his club to tell him they would be taking a percentage of his profits in return for protection. When he declined their offer, they shot his Limousine tires flat. He spoke to the police who told him they didn’t protect bars, but that they would allow him to get a gun. He got two guns for protection : a semi-automatic rifle and a .45 caliber pistol. Richard, having had gun training from the navy, took Wes to the lake to teach him how to shoot. Wes then sat in his upstairs room above his club in the window with the gun. When the mafia came back by and saw him in the window with the gun, they decided not to bother him again.
Wes had two daughters with his wife Ann, Pam and Deby, but in the early Sixties got divorced and married his second wife Linda, who worked at both his lab and at the Evil Monkey.
Linda was very attractive and was in fact asked by Playboy magazine to do a photoshoot, but she declined.
As I wrote above, little was known to Wes’s family of his forays into Europe. His brother Richard could only remember vague details.
At some point where Richard had not seen Wes for a while, Wes showed up and told him that he was going to Europe to write a great book. I believe this was one of the times he went to Spain, maybe the second time. While in Spain, Richard later found out that Wes was arrested for possession of marijuana and placed in jail.
Another interesting recollection :
A magazine interview with a Paul McCartney quote to the effect that Soft Machine would be “the next big thing” was sent by Wes to his brother Richard back home in an attempt to try to secure more financing for the band from Richard and the rest of the family.
I have no record elsewhere of such praise from the famous Beatle, although it is known that there were contacts between members of Soft Machine (Daevid Allen in particular) and the Beatles in the UFO Club days.
Wes’s encounter with Daevid Allen and Kevin Ayers around Easter 1966 and his subsequent involvement with the early Soft Machine is told in various books – Daevid Allen’s Gong Dreaming 1, Michael King’s Wrong Movements, Graham Bennett’s Out-Bloody-Rageous, Marcus O’Dair’s Different Every Time – as well as my own, but one of the most colourful episodes of the period was the time when Wes had both his daughters, aged 11 and 12 at the time, stay at the bungalow the band were occupying in the Spring and early Summer of 1966 near Canterbury.
Daniel was able to provide background to the story –
Wes had left Pam and Deby in the care of Linda at one point while he was in Europe – their mother had had a mental breakdown. He eventually got involved in a custody battle over them with her where he was ordered not to take them out of the state. That custody battle was taking place around the same time that Linda was filing for divorce over infidelity. While Wes was fitting eyeglasses on a women at Hicks Brunson Opticians, this woman began crying about having recently broken up with her boyfriend. She then started taking her clothes off in the fitting room. Wes told her they could not do that at the office, so he got a hotel room that night. As Wes and the woman were entering the hotel after work, Linda was across the street getting gas, and saw him enter the hotel with this woman whom she did not know…
At some point after this, Wes broke the order not to take his daughters out of the state and traveled with them to Europe. He then came back to Tulsa without them, and when this was discovered Linda pressed charges against him. A judge had him jailed without bail, which the family thought was ridiculously harsh.
Since Wes was out of money, he offered to give an attorney his shares of Hicks Brunson Opticians, which had been incorporated by this point, as payment for legal services. Wes’s father Hicks Brunson later had to buy the shares back from the attorney for roughly $5,000.
The only way for Wes to get out of jail was for his daughters to be brought back to Tulsa. Richard did not know who Wes’s daughters were living with while in Europe. Wes’s parents, Hicks and Rose Brunson, then hired a private investigator to find his daughters. That is probably when the police raid of the house in which they were living in Kent happened.
According to Deby, they were in the house with the band when they got word that the police were coming. At this point, they were relocated to a different house, but the police eventually traced them to the new house and returned them to the US.
Following this brief early flirtation with the rock’n’roll lifestyle, Pam and Deby went on to successful studies – Deby securing a master’s degree and Pam a bachelor’s degree, both in psychology !
Few details are known of Wes’s life in the later Sixties. In Gong Dreaming, Daevid Allen mentioned encountering Wes in Deya again in 1968, following which he left Europe for good and returned to Oklahoma. Allen had what turned out to be fanciful memories of Wes’s eventual demise, and also mentioned his supposed involvement with the Children of God cult. Of the latter, his family know nothing, but here is what Daniel was able to reconstruct of Wes’s final years.
Wes met his third wife Terry while in California, at Berkeley. He was walking the halls of Berkeley when he saw her getting a drink at a water fountain. She was wearing a short skirt and no underwear on underneath ! They got married around 1970.
His addiction to pot became so bad at that point that Richard, along with the rest of Wes’s friends, became concerned and wanted to help him. The only way they could figure to do this was to have him committed. Richard spoke to the police and found out that any little thing he did that might be considered legally questionable would be enough for the police to take him in. One night while Wes was with some friends, he pulled a knife out of his pocket and put it into the back pants pocket of a girl who was with their group that night. Wes was only playing around and did not mean any harm by this action, but his friends used this to get him taken to jail so that they could have him stand trial, be evaluated, and eventually committed to a psychiatric hospital in Vinita, Oklahoma. Wes spent about two months in Vinita where Richard visited him regularly.
When Wes was released, Richard gave him a job working a new branch location of Hicks Brunson Opticians in Tulsa. It was shortly after this that Wes had a heart attack one morning while getting ready for work. He was taken to St. John’s hospital for treatment. It was just a few weeks after his heart attack that, while on doctor’s orders to rest and not even to walk up a staircase, he attended an outdoor rock concert in Arkansas with Terry and died while dancing. This was in 1972 – Wes was 39.
The first time Richard met Terry, she had told Richard that Wes was Jesus – Richard later learned that they were both high at the time – and when Wes died, Terry had to be talked into allowing a traditional burial. She at first refused to allow him to be buried because she thought that he was going to resurrect bodily.
Thus ended the life of a most unusual man whose involvement in the history of Soft Machine and the Canterbury Scene was shortlived, but significant.
When I first received this information, I shared it with Daevid Allen who replied –
That is fascinating indeed !
Some of it may not be entirely accurate, but it is a fabulous insight into Wes’s background.
I always felt there was some kind of rip in the fabric somewhere in Wes’s background and this certainly helps put some pieces together.
A summary of this story is included in my book, but obviously there was far too much detail to include it in its entirety.