"...and that was Wes"
Unity Church of Christianity is, perhaps, situated in an odd location for a place of worship: a few blocks north of most of the bars on Lower Greenville, directly across the street from a nondescript gas station, a few hundred feet south of another conglomerate of bars and restaurants. It's the kind of chapel that appears as though the world grew up around it, a neighborhood church that doesn't really fit into its neighborhood anymore.
On this Saturday, it seems a little more ordinary and out of place than usual as it quietly soaks up the remnants of last night's rainstorm. Dozens of people shuffle inside, looking uncomfortable in their suits. It's not the clothes that cause their discomfort, but the reason the congregants must wear them on this damp Saturday morning. No one expected to be here today, and God knows no one wants to be here,saying goodbye to an old friend who was still such a very young man. The only thing that seems to be prepared for today is the weather -- the cold, dark sky and the rain falling out of it are strangely, sadly appropriate, matching the moods of most of the people inside Unity Church.
Less than a year ago, they'd all gotten dressed up to celebrate with Tripping Daisy guitarist Wes Berggren and his new wife, Melissa. Now, they're gathered together again in their dress clothes; only this time, they're here to say goodbye to a friend they thought they'd know forever. Unfortunately for the family and friends and fans of Berggren, forever got too short, too soon. It lasted only 28 years.
Just three days earlier, word had begun spreading through the local music scene. Berggren's body was barely on its way to the medical examiner's office when the whispers began: Wes is dead. The rumors were painfully true: The guitar player had been discovered by his wife, dead in the couple's bed, on the afternoon of October 27.
So here they are, filing into Unity Church past Berggren's past -- photographs of happier times arranged in a collage next to a blown-up portrait of him that looks to have been taken several years ago -- and into a future they didn't plan on facing. Yet as his family urged, today is a celebration as well, of Berggren's life and love. And so Berggren's bandmates -- singer Tim DeLaughter, bassist Mark Pirro, drummer Ben Curtis, and guitarist Phil Karnats -- stand in front of the congregation one by one and tell some of their favorite stories about Berggren, most of them ending with "...and that was Wes." It's the only explanation they can offer to someone who wasn't there, who didn't spend all that time onstage and in the studio and on long van rides with Berggren, who didn't see their friend through their eyes.
While the members of the group and Berggren's family take turns speaking, a few dozen people who couldn't fit inside the crowded sanctuary stand huddled in the doorway, craning their necks around one another so they can see and hear what's going on. Some even press their ears to the wall to try to catch a snippet of the eulogies. A few local musicians are inside and out, including Hagfish's Doni Blair, Calways frontman Todd Deatherage, former UFOFU guitarist Joe Butcher, and Captain Audio's Brandon Curtis (Ben's brother) and Regina Chellew. Curtain Club co-owner Doug Simmons is also in attendance, as is Last Beat Records' Tami Thomsen.
As Berggren's bandmates and family and friends offer their own memories of him, one theme connects them all: Wes Berggren did what he loved, whenever and wherever he wanted to. They all share the same thing, their comments echoing like a strummed guitar: Wes' life may have been a short one, but it wasn't a wasted one. His parents even made copies of one of their favorite stories about Wes and distributed it to the crowd, just so people could find some hope in such a hopeless situation.
"In the early fall of 1985, Wes and his buddies were camping out in East Texas," they wrote. "After a hearty meal of hot dogs and chili, the boys disappeared into the night. For the next four hours there were sounds of young bodies tearing through the undergrowth, and screaming war cries. You remember Rambo, don't you? Finally, the boys came back to the camp site scratched and exhausted and triumphant. What they conquered was a secret never told.
"They were hungry, again, so we whipped up a farm breakfast that would satisfy Paul Bunyon," it continued. "A dozen eggs scrambled together with a pound of bacon and two cans of those little potatoes that are already cooked. Then the kids fell into their sleeping bags, while dad sat by the now dying camp fire, offering a fervent prayer to every God, everywhere. God, please let those kids always come back. Fourteen years later, the message has finally become clear. How can they come back, when they never really left? Dry those tears, good friends. Life is what we're here to celebrate. And love."
However, that doesn't make this Saturday-morning memorial service any easier to take. After everyone finishes speaking, a Tripping Daisy song -- one off of the band's forthcoming album, the self-titled disc that was supposed to be released in a few weeks -- is played, and that's when Berggren's death seems to sink in. The presence of his guitar over the loudspeakers only magnifies his absence. The celebration is over, and the long hangover has begun.
A few minutes later, the service winds up, and the congregation spills into the halls outside, all red-eyed and looking for someone to hug. Karnats paces back and forth, tugging at his too-big jacket. Curtis huddles with his own family, as does Pirro. DeLaughter looks particularly lost, his eyes flitting back and forth as he tumbles into one embrace after the other. He doesn't seem to hear what's being said to him, only repeating his disbelief -- to himself, to everyone. You can hardly blame him for his shock. After all, for eight years, Tim DeLaughter and Wes Berggren were a matched set, brothers first, bandmates second.
"It's very painful," says Julie Doyle, DeLaughter's longtime girlfriend and Tripping Daisy's manager. "It comes in waves. We talk about it, because you've got to take care of things, and then all of a sudden, you're talking about it like something really bad's happened, but not all the way. Almost like you're waking up from something, and going, 'Well, I'll get a second chance.' Then it hits you in waves, and you're like, 'No...it's the same nightmare.' We were like family. [Wes was] more than a friend and more than a bandmate. It's all we've known for eight years. It's real difficult. Wes was extraordinary. Anyone that ever knew him or really came in contact with him can vouch for that. And he was bright too."
Doyle's sentiments are echoed by many of the people who came to mourn today, and everyone who met Berggren during his short life. David Dennard released Tripping Daisy's debut, Bill, on his label Dragon Street Records in 1992. He remembers how DeLaughter got much of the credit for Tripping Daisy's early success, but he believes that Berggren was just as important to the group.
"Wes was probably my favorite guy in the band," Dennard says. "I loved him. I mean, I like all of them -- that's not to dis any of them -- but Wes seemed to be the most normal. He was just a real good, regular guy. I could always count on Wes to be sort of the anchor, to stabilize whatever craziness was going off in different directions. Wes was always anchored right there in the middle to keep everyone from flying off the handle.
"He sort of played that same musical role, in that when everything was going crazy in different directions onstage, it was Wes' guitar that was still driving the band," Dennard continues. "Put on 'Blown Away,' and you'll hear this pretty hairy, chunky power chord thing. That's all Wes, steaming through that song."
Patrick Keel, who produced Bill, agrees with Dennard's assertion that Berggren was as crucial to Tripping Daisy's sound as DeLaughter or anyone else.
"When you make a first record with a band and they're still developing their identity, you really do find out where the music comes from," Keel says. "And although a lot of the ideas and the creativity came from Tim, Wes was really the music guy, in a big, strong way. Very creative guy. And really, really pleasant to work with. One of the things David and I really appreciated about Wes was that he was always a steady, centered, eye-of-the-storm kind of guy. He was usually a very sane voice. I thought that you could hear a lot of him in their most recent record. Wes had a real personality in his music." He pauses. "I'm so horrified by this."
It's hard not to be, not only since Berggren's death was so sudden, but also because of the cause, which has yet to be officially determined. Reports were already making the rounds a few hours after his death on October 27, even though few people knew the details, traveling as far away from Berggren's Dallas apartment as Rubber Gloves Rehearsal Studios in Denton. By 3 a.m. Thursday, word had reached the One Ton Records message board, where this message was posted:
please don't pull the shit you usually pull on me. tonight we lost a very valuable, wonderful musician who, i know, has impacted many of us in a powerful way. wes is gone. so all your futile bullshit about tripping daisy put aside, remember that whether or not you were a fan, this was a person with all the feelings we have. appreciate your real friends. they may only be here for a short while. and how empty we are without them...
The message was spotted by KDGE-FM (94.5) later that morning. After program director Duane Doherty confirmed it with DeLaughter, music director Alan Smith officially broke the news during his morning air shift. Smith says the station was flooded with calls from people wondering how this could possibly be true; many of the station's listeners had just seen the band perform five days earlier at Melodica Festival at the Ridglea Theater in Fort Worth. "I'm telling you," Smith says, "there is no worse thing in the world than having to announce something like that."
Though there are rumors, the cause of death remains undetermined, pending laboratory results due in a few weeks. Thus far, the only facts that anyone really knows for sure can be gleaned from the police report filled out by the officer at the scene. According to the report, Berggren and his wife went to bed around midnight on October 26. Melissa, 22, woke up around 4:45 p.m. and discovered Wes unconscious. She called his father, Don Berggren, who immediately contacted the police. When police and firefighters arrived, they were unable to revive Berggren. There were no obvious injuries to Berggren's body, which was taken to the medical examiner's office.
Doyle says that Berggren's father contacted her and DeLaughter about half an hour after he arrived at his apartment and that they rushed to Berggren's apartment. But there was nothing they could do.
"The only thing we know for sure is that he had probably been dead for a few hours," she says. "We're just trying to sort of figure things out, get some answers. It's kind of hazy."
To the band's large and loyal local following, even having the answers won't help much. They felt like members of the family too, since many of them had been there from the very beginning. Berggren formed Tripping Daisy with singer Tim DeLaughter and bassist Mark Pirro in 1991 while he was a student at the University of North Texas. One of his classmates, Julie Doyle, introduced him to DeLaughter, her boyfriend. The band had a few rough patches at first, such as their abortive first tour in Berggren's father's Ford Aerostar, playing gigs that didn't pay much, or more likely, at all. But Tripping Daisy was a local hit almost immediately, selling out Trees on a regular basis and headlining KDGE-FM's annual Edgefest concert.
"When it happened, it was like, Jesus Christ," Berggren said in an interview with the Dallas Observer last year, referring to the band's formation. "It was pretty awesome."
The band signed to Island records in 1993 and put out three albums on the label: the 1993 re-release of Bill, 1995's I Am an Elastic Firecracker, and last year's Jesus Hits Like the Atom Bomb. Earlier this year, the group founded its own label, Good Records, and had planned to release the Daisy's first full-length disc on the new label in late November. Those plans may change, but as Doyle says, "no one's really thinking about that right now." The pair of shows the band was going to play at Curtain Club on November 12 and 13 will instead be a tribute to Berggren and a benefit for his family. Lineups are still unconfirmed.
If Berggren were still here, he'd be the one keeping everyone calm as the band prepared to release its new album, helping to settle any disputes. After all, that's why he was such a favorite of Dennard and Keel. Being in a band for much of the last decade had taught him about who he was as a musician and a person. But it couldn't teach him everything.
"You learn a lot of things," he said then, in that interview that took place just over a year ago. "You age quite a bit. It's like two years per every normal year if you're in a band. It's not dog or cat years -- it's band years. You just learn a lot. Seven years is a long time for a band to be together. I've learned what not to do."
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