The fascinating story of Wes Brunson

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.

brunsons

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.

13 thoughts on “The fascinating story of Wes Brunson

  1. Dear Deborah/Deby – thank you for writing. You are of course welcome to set the record straight, either here in the comments section, or (through the same process but I won’t make your comment public) to request any changes or additions. I can also amend to spelling from “Debbie” to “Deby” is that’s your preference. [moderator]

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  2. Great blog and great to read the story of such an important character for the development of the “Canterbury scene”. I realize now the importance of Wes Brunson to start Soft Machine career. I heard previous stories (from interviews etc) of this man, but always thought of him as a kind of mythical figure coming out of blurred memories from the musicians. Now the story becomes real.
    PS : I would love to read the recollections of Debbie of her time with the Soft Machine.

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  3. Daevid’s acount for Wes׳s death is diffrent from what you wrote here
    Does anyone know about the recordings of Wes that appear on Bananamoon ?
    His voice. And his words … Its obvious he was under the influnce heh heh

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  4. Thanks for the research on Wes but I must admit that the more I read about Mr Brunson, the more questions I have about him. So an American salesman, selling glasses door to door in a limo, earns enough money to zip off to Spain in order to ‘write a book’? He then decides to sponsor an unknown English band while in Spain. The band have no instruments or equipment to speak of and were not blessed with otherworldly talent (don’t get me wrong, I enjoy Soft Machine musically very much but their early Wilde Flowers chops were pretty raw..) Was he born rich because this all seems rather frivolous of him? If he wasn’t born rich and earned millions by being hard working and savvy, they don’t typically spend their money in this way. How many 30 something year old American millionaires actually get arrested for marijuana while visiting Spain? Maybe bribed but arrested? He goes on to open his own nightclub. How does one say no to the mob and they only need to flash a gun in an upper window to scare them away permanently from your nightclub? I’ve never heard of the mob turning the other cheek. Then later this same millionaire is mixed up in the Children of God cult? This is definitely strange indeed. If all the details of Mr Brunson are indeed accurate, he seems more like an American intelligence asset (a la operation Chaos) rather than an obscure mystery millionaire generously giving his money away to a bunch of young foreign unknowns. The same lads I suppose benefited from similar fortune when they were brought over to America to record and album and tour with Jimi Hendrix no less… quite the achievement for these unknowns at the time. – No offense to anyone is intended by this post and the questions are all in good fun.

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    • Interesting comment, thanks for giving the story some thought. However, your description of Wes’s lifestyle as a sponsor of the arts exaggerates some aspects of the story. First, a lot of people did things in the Sixties that would be considered weird by “normal” standards, that was in the spirit of the times. Second, yes, he spent money on Soft Machine, but not insane amounts – and he had to return to Tulsa to secure more funds. His father’s optometry business was (and remains to this day) thriving. No one here is claiming he was a “millionaire”. Third, Soft Macine toured with Hendrix in the US in 1968 simply because they’d been signed by the same management just before him – when Hendrix was NOBODY (in business terms), and that didn’t make them insanely rich. Lastly, as for Wes possibly being an intelligence asset, what would have been the plan, and was he a “good” or credible asset ? The story in no way makes sense to me as a (successful or failed) “black op”.

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  5. Yes I am fairly certain that I was misled by other websites that do describe Wes Brunson as a ‘millionnaire’ sponsor from America.
    Of course you are right that if we look up the Hicks Brunson eyewear website we can read the back story of Wes’ father and how the family’s business continues to strive today. I also agree that Wes was living (and possibly victim of) a certain 60s lifestyle rather than playing James Bond on the international stage. It’s pretty clear Wes had strayed from the path carved out by his father and he eventually paid a high price. I was only stringing together the more salacious points (Navy background, fights off mafia, children of god cult reference) to create a wildly fictional spin mostly for amusement. In passing, not all intelligence assets are sexy spies but rather simple disposable pawns in a bigger game of high stakes. You disproved it all with ease and I extend my appreciation of your expansive knowledge of the Canterbury scene and it’s history. Hopefully no disrespect was felt to be directed towards the Brunson family. I will say that much of what has been revealed about Wes Brunson still leaves me with even more questions about his life but I will leave it at that. Lastly, I don’t think I claimed Soft Machine became rich from their US tour but said rather they were ‘fortunate again’ to have the connections to tour America. Ive heard many artists claim that touring America ( and recording an album) was a really big thing back then and not every British talent was afforded that opportunity.. Sending Hendrix and Soft Machine to places like rural Texas in 1968 was not a financially wise decision but someone somewhere did spend the money on that with them. It can b rather fortuitous even if it didn’t make Soft Machine rich or successful financially.

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    • Thanks. Really interesting discussion, and I’m open to any suggestions at to how these frankly crazy events can best be interpreted. (As is clear in their statements, the Brunson family never knew exactly what was going on with Wes during his trips to Europe).

      I agree with your argument about intelligence assets – I just don’t see how Wes would fit into such a plan, other than the wider context of intelligence services / drugs / youth culture etc. Of course there are very real links between Hendrix/Softs manager Michael Jeffery (former MI-5 man), and “interesting” goings-on during the Hendrix tour, such as when Vanilla Fudge were imposed as part of the package by, clearly, the Mob. Soft Machine’s presence on the tour was, as Wyatt put it in a song later, “riding on Jimi’s coattails”, ditto the Irish group Eire Apparent who were also along for the ride. And why not ? At this point Soft Machine could still be seen to have commercial potential as a “rock” band. And indeed they made quite an impression on some of these audiences.

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  6. Absolutely, I didn’t mean to imply that the early Soft Machine were not influential and or entertaining.. but they were pretty inexperienced at the time. While I love the dada-esque whimsy of the earlier material, it’s still a little bit rough around the edges in it’s delivery performance-wise.

    Lastly on Wes Brunson, in the O’Dair bio on Wyatt, it does describe Wes as a knife and gun wielding Svengali and that he believed himself to be the 7th incarnation of Christ. I found the choice of Svengali to describe his personality rather interesting and so maybe Wes was not so much a victim afterall. Apparently already a club owner in Oklahoma by the time he visited Spain, he apparently agreed to fund the band simply based on a conversation with Kevin Ayers.

    I need to better understand the relationship between the 60’s artistic migration to the Balearic islands and the London counterculture scene. The scene seemed to draw artists but also others like Wes Brunson to this part of the world. I think that now knowing that Wes was sponsoring a proto version of Soft Machine, Mister Head which also featured an American compatriot in Larry Nowlin helps to put the events in a clearer context. It now makes much more sense to me why he’d sponsor an unknown new start up band without hearing them play first. He was surrounded by psychedelics & artists and possibly saw an opportunity with Kevin (who’s father did have some pretty solid industry connexions I believe). Who knows, with Beatlemania and the upheaval of 60s pop music, it would definitely be the way to go for any aspiring religious figure seeking to attract new young followers.

    I was happy to see that you already covered Larry Nowlin in separate blog entries, I won’t have to go far to learn more about him, thanks.
    https://canterburyscene.wordpress.com/2016/11/07/a-mystery-unveiled-original-soft-machine-guitarist-larry-nowlin-1/

    I’m wondering if you could point me towards a book or resource that really details the origin of the Balearic island scene with Robert Graves and co? This page has a small overview but I’d be interested in more details. This might help me understand a little better how places like dreary London managed to convert into the Summer of Love.
    https://www.charlesmarlow.com/blog/2017/03/31/forever-hippy-mallorca/

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