“Here,” in this case, is Overture Center for the Arts, the pristine monument to the performing arts built with a single donation of $205 million from longtime Madisonian Jerry Frautschi to expand on the old Madison Civic Center.
“This is a cutthroat industry,” says Cash, a mainstay in Overture’s hidden hallways and backstage areas. “Everyone wants to come for your job. But, I’ve made it all this time.”
He has indeed. For more than 30 years, he’s been making it.
There is pride and progress in his voice as he says this. Not bitterness and resentment. It’s been a long time coming. But it’s here. And he’s proud.
Wes loves where he is at Overture Center so much. It’s all over his face. He makes Overture Center sound as good as gold when you hear him speak of his experiences there.
But, then again, Wes has spent decades making people sound good. That’s his job. Literally. As a sound man in the Civic Center and then Overture, Wes has stories galore about the stars who have represented the pinnacle of the A-list in the music industry.
He has anecdotes about them that make him laugh and cry at the same time.
His own story is that of a black man growing up in what used to be an all-white farm area, going into a tough industry, and watching the community around him catch up with the times ever so slowly. Event by event, year by year, decade by decade. Until we arrive here to an era where he looks out on a Kids in the Rotunda event every Saturday, and sees children of color everywhere, drawn to the open amphitheater in Overture’s lower level by free kid-centered performances.
He sees nearly every passerby on the Administrative Wing of Overture wave to him while he sits in a building that represents a diverse community as he interviews with a black journalist from a black-run local publication. None of those images escape him.
I ask whether he’s got a favorite memory. He sits back in his chair and pauses. He thinks. And then it all comes out.
At sound check, Yo Yo Ma didn’t sound right. There was something that sounded … well … bad. Wes guessed the bad noises weren’t because Yo Yo Ma was playing badly.
After Yo Yo finished his piece Wes walked up to him and said, “I’m going to be switching out your body pack for your instrument. We’re working on an issue.” Ma said alright. After the next song it still wasn’t right and Wes again got to be feet from one of the world’s premier musicians at his apex switching out his microphone.
“I had to walk on stage and talk with him and say ‘I’m going to be switching out your body pack’. Then after they checked that it still wasn’t right. They figured out it wasn’t an irregularity with the microphones. It was an issue with the cello because of the frequencies and harmonics of the cello. So that was a fun one.”
That’s right — Wes Cash had to walk up to the greatest cellist ever and tell him his cello wasn’t working.
But Yo Yo Ma was cool about it the entire time, Wes says. Which reminds him of how Herbie Hancock always was.
“And then I remember Herbie Hancock,” he says, laughing. “He is one of the coolest and most hippest people. Just period. He was always wanting to play and meet people too. That was his thing.”
Which reminds Wes of Arlo Guthrie.
“Then I remember Arlo Guthrie,” he says without a pause from his Yo Yo Ma and Herbie Hancock comments. “The first time I see him, his son is backing up his tour bus into the garage. Arlo is out there in these ugg boots. The original ugg boots, the furry kind. And he’s out there directing traffic and I’m like, ‘Oh my god, it’s Arlo Guthrie’”
Wes says he would listen to Guthrie’s songs when he was younger in North Carolina. Wes was born in Honolulu, the son of a United States Marine. After his first few years in Hawaii, his father moved the family briefly to North Carolina, and then on to Sun Prairie.
“I would listen to Arlo Guthrie’s music and he had a song called The Motorcycle Song,” Wes says, breaking into an impromptu singing of the chorus of the song. “He knew I was going to ask to hear that song. I was doing monitors and stuff backstage that day. So finally he gets his guitar out and he’s like ‘which song did you want to hear?’ He ended up singing both The Motorcycle Song and Alice’s Restaurant. That was a fun time. It was one of those things.”
Wes talks about being backstage while a world famous musician privately plays him their top songs as if it was just one of many times he had this experience — and it was.
“There’s such diverse people who come here,” he says after a brief pause. “Like even the Dalai Lama. That guy for 70 some odd years of age he can be as fun loving as a ten year old. I was doing wireless mics for him because he was doing a big talk-and-question thing at Overture Hall. So I have the body packs in my hand. And the protocol is you give the body pack to the handler and the handler will place it inside a specific pouch inside his robe. Well, when it came time for him to remove the body pack and I’m waiting for it, the handler took the wireless mic and the Dalai Lama just takes hold of my beard and he just yanks me up off the ground by it!
And the next thing you know we are just laughing and we did a head meld. And this is almost like a funny thing because it was like I had the Dalai Lama to myself for the afternoon here. This was a great time.”
Wes Cash flowed from Yo Yo Ma, to Herbie Hancock, to Arlo Guthrie, to the Dalai Lama, to how he looks at Clyde Stubblefield as more like a bad uncle your parents don’t want you to be influenced by in one five minute, uninterrupted stream of consciousness.
These are not run-of-the-mill names he’s dropping. And each story reverberated through the room as he told it filled with laughter and pride and melancholy at once. As he tells them, various people strolling through the Administrative wing of Overture center all give him heartfelt waves as they pass by.
Which is what explains our departure here from the journalistic tradition of using a subjects’ last name throughout an article. With Wes, everyone is on a first name basis.
“I’m getting to that retirement age. I’ve had many a life that’s led me to this place where I’m at now. There are so many ways you can get to where you are,” he says.
Overture Center itself, he says, is a great community center. That’s how he describes it. Much of his adult life has taken place within the confines of the walls there. Sure, it was work. But it was the place where everything happened!
“This space is like a culmination of a need, a dream and an attainable and sustainable path. This is one of the best community centers that money can buy. This always hits me as a community center. One of the venues I work with is Kids in the Rotunda. I’ve seen it grow from two shows a day and most of the shows are filled to capacity. And there are so many beautiful faces when I look out to the audience.”
An audience in which the skin tone and background of the members has changed over time.
“It’s really grown to be where I see every kind of color there nowadays,” he says. “Which is really really cool. I see fathers with their children coming there, just them, because they have visitation and they want to do some quality programming. I see three and sometimes four generations of people coming to the event. And this has been going on for 30 some odd years. And it’s one of the best quality one can get in a venue such as Overture, so that’s a big thing. It’s just knowing there’s going to be a great memory formed here and then you’re waiting until the next time you’re here. It’s one of the reasons why I come to work. It’s the people. It’s one of the enjoyments of my life. Period.”