Wes Charlton & OK Fireworks

My brother Wes started learning guitar right about the time I started learning piano - which would put him at about eight or nine years old. Though childhood memories can be hazy, at best, it's the first thing I remember him being totally and devotionally passionate about. It didn't have the atmosphere of being something "else" apart from him that he was joining or participating in, like soccer or Boy Scouts or our lives as kids, in general. It was like he had found himself, or rediscovered his own life, in the guitar. I remember hours and hours and days and years of him listening to music in his room, playing guitar, studying to become himself. He wrote songs from the start, though I don't think he shared them with anyone for a while. But, finding your own identity like that (not just accepting the one the world gives you or tells you you are - which is kind of what I was doing at that time and for several years after) was a remarkable thing to behold, and I learned a lot from watching it happen.

     He started to play music with people. I think I first saw him perform when I was in sixth grade (and he was in tenth). It blew my mind. He would put together these combos of himself and other kids, and they'd just perform... it was incredibly inspiring (and it directly inspired me to start my own first band, Smokehouse, in eighth grade - which would last all the way through high school).

     I always looked up to Wes. He basically paved the road I was to walk, in a sense. He showed me how to take the bull by the horns and just do what you wanted to do.

     After seeing him play, I became a slave to the voodoo of the guitar. I'd sneak into his room when he wasn't home, just to open his electric guitar case and inhale the exquisite scent of his wine-colored Gibson SG and the fragrance of its music-store perfume emanating from the wood and the plush case interior. It was magical. Wes's room actually became like a temple for me to discover and convert to rock music. Until I was about ten or eleven, I was a classical music kid. Wes had shattered this model for my life (though don't get me wrong, I still have classical blood moving through my veins and pumping through my heart), one afternoon, as he came into the family room where I was practicing piano (I was complaining that I wasn't done yet... he ignored me...) and put The Rolling Stones' Hot Rocks vinyl on the record player and blasted side A of the second vinyl - "Jumping Jack Flash," "Street Fighting Man," "Sympathy For the Devil," "Honkey Tonk Women," and "Gimme Shelter." And I sat there, beside him, utterly and completely mesmerized, in a trance of grooviness, as rock music officially infiltrated and seized the rulership of my soul. It literally changed my life, side A of that second vinyl, that afternoon. 

     In Wes's room, when he was gone, I'd put vinyls on his turntable and have holy experiences to them: Derek and the Dominoes, NOFX, The Stones, Dylan... and from his cassette tapes lying around, I'd put in the best of The Doors, Hendrix, Guns&Roses, Green Day, etc. It was an education.

     I'd take the SG out and put the strap on and stand in front of the mirror. Something was happening to me.

     How did Wes react to this? Did he get territorial, defensive, or complain I was copying him? Nah, he gave me a Sigma acoustic he'd bought for cheap from some guy in his class, and he showed me how to play Hendrix songs, Rage Against the Machine, Operation Ivy, and so on. He quietly and subtly guided me, while attending to his own direction.

     When I was fifteen, my brother shocked me by asking if I'd accompany him for a talent show performance in front of his campers (he was a camp counselor for a summer job that summer). On guitar? No - mandolin. I had no idea what a mandolin even was. He borrowed one from some guy he knew, gave it to me, gave me a burned CD with a song I was to listen to and learn the mando part to, and then he just trusted that I would accomplish this. No fear. No anxiety. No doubt. I don't think he even realized this or was consciously aware of it, but he profoundly just believed in me. 

     And I learned it. And we played. And I guess it was good - it got good feedback. It almost felt like magic. I didn't feel we'd really done anything all that special, but it seemed to genuinely impress and affect other people - the campers, mostly. It was an interesting realization for me.

     Between eighth and ninth grade, our dynamic of hanging out as brothers began to change. He would have friends over on weekends, and I began to hang out with them. Wes got a 4-track, and we started hanging out by recording stuff... loose, improvised jams, mostly. But, before long, he was demoing out songs he'd written and asking me to play on the recordings. Then, when he was in college and I was a sophomore in high school, he asked me to join his band, OK Fireworks.

     Wes had released his first album when he was eighteen, after being discovered and contacted by some local producers. In the following year, he was in a gray zone of continuing as a solo artist but also wanting to have and be in a band. Hence, the blurry constellation of Wes Charlton/OK Fireworks/Wes Charlton and The OK Fireworks and all of the other passing band names that came and went (Alternate Elephant, Rainy Day Parade, Bloodshot Poets, FM Radio, etc) during that era... For purposes of this entry, I'm just going to refer to "the band that was" as OK Fireworks - which was, by far, the most well-known and longest lasting of the band's names, anyway.

     He'd gotten some guys together to perform with him at college. He had a whole scene of friends and fans. It was impressive and cool. They'd gotten the band name off of a trucker hat that someone had picked up at a thrift store. 

     I had just gotten my driver's license and the use of my mom's Buick, so I started commuting to Williamsburg once a week for band practice, which existed within a scene of very intelligent, very talented, and very decadent college people (all three to seven years older than me), and I jumped right in and soaked up the energy and outrageousness of that world.

     We played mostly parties... frat and sorority parties, mostly. We were often paid in whiskey.

     I'll leave details for hypothetical subsequent entries on the subject, I guess. But, yeah, it was kind of like fast-forwarding through high school and diving right into college-age insanity at fifteen. Sometimes, I'm amazed I made it through.

     Dan Jaeger was our bass player. Solid, highly intelligent, quietly and subtly independent, and almost mechanically adept on bass, Dan was like a reliable pillar holding up a roof over the band. 

     Courtney Hastings - the future Chemistry professor - was our violinist. Courtney and I had a kinship and ability to connect musically that was special... maybe it was because we were both classical musicians at heart. We shared and swapped the "lead instrumentalist" role in the band.

     We went through a number of drummers. Stuart Gunter did spectacularly solid work for us on a few demos. The most sustained stretch we had was with Conor Lynch behind the kit, one of Wes's best friends from our home area. Conor entered the picture when I was seventeen, and OK Fireworks segued into a more acoustic incarnation for a while. We also did some demo sessions with Jeremy Nardozzi, a guy from Gloucester who played in another local band. Our friend Kyle Kilduff also sat in on bass for these sessions. And for quite a few of the surviving demos from those years, Wes and I just did it all - the two of us. Occasionally, we'd get Macon Gurley - another local and extremely gifted vocalist/musician - to sing with Wes. Her voice is timeless and legendary.

     OK Fireworks disbanded when everyone needed to move on down separate paths. Wes moved to Nashville to pursue his solo career. It was the end of an era - 2005.

     He asked me to join him in 2006. I did.

     These were fiery, driven days for my brother. This was the era of World on Fire (see Wes's discography via "Associated" on the Home page), an apt title. 

     Despite the poverty and struggle and occasional reckless insanity, we pulled ourselves together enough to find a great drummer named Cliff and to play out often and not badly. And we recorded World on Fire, which, in my opinion, is a great work of art. My brother fought and scrapped and bled and burned himself alive for his art in those days... which is by no means ever a necessity for great art, but, in his case, that was his way, and, man, did he follow where his truths led him. Not just the album World on Fire but the entire saga of those Nashville days and nights were a masterpiece of his making. There were demons and desperation and suffering and struggle, but there was also extraordinary joy, poly-symbiotic accomplishment, wonder, devotion, and beauty. It was a time and place.

     So, I'd like to thank him (my brother) for giving us all that - that dream he shared and included us all in... Wes is a great and true artist. I know this is what he is because I was there from when he was three and I've witnessed the whole story since then. Keep an eye on that dude. You never know what he'll be up to next. 

 

Connor Charlton

 

May, 2020