Have you ever fantasized about meeting someone you admire, but realize the prospects of that actually happening are pretty slim? The daydream may go something like this. You are sitting in a bar and that person just somehow happens to come in and pull up a stool next to you. You introduce yourself and explain that you’re a big fan and instead of dismissing you offhandedly, they actually engage with you and you end up talking for hours. There may even be a part of this scenario in which they invite you to their next show and you hang out backstage because you are so interesting to them. OK, admittedly, the last part of that is pretty far-fetched. However, if starry-eyed romanticism leads you to endless speculation about that fateful meeting, then this is your chance, kind of. In Wheat’s book Son Of A Milkman, My Crazy Life With Tesla, he relates his life story, up to this point anyway, where the reader feels like that elusive encounter has just occurred.
First, for those that are unfamiliar with the reference to the milkman’s son, decades ago, dairies used to deliver milk and other products directly to doorsteps all over America. Legend has it, that these bovine lactation messengers might occasionally make special deliveries to housewives and single mothers. It’s the old joke, “he’s the milkman’s son.” For Wheat, this is actually the doorway through which he made his entry into this world. Although none of us have a choice as to which portal grants us our initial access to the grand hallway of life, we do get to choose which rooms we enter once in. The choice of chambers we decide to enter is often heavily influenced by who we think we are, for Wheat this seems to be a catalyst for everything he does, “I think if anything, it gives me the drive to do things and try to be the best I can. When I was born, society looked down upon it if your mom had a child and wasn’t married to your dad, the family disowned her. That kind of happened to my mom, so it just instilled in me to try to do things to make my mom proud of me and for keeping me.” His mother wanting to escape the scrutiny of a second illegitimate child, put him up for adoption. He states in the book, “I was on the auction block for about five days, and it bites me to this day.” Having being talked out of that decision by an aunt, his mother chose to keep him. He summarizes, “I think subconsciously it just made me have this drive to do good or become something or somebody, I suppose.”
Growing up with limited means also had a profound effect on him. As cruel as everyone knows kids can be, even in the best circumstances, Wheat understood his circumstances to be different in some way, even at the youngest of ages. “I knew we were poor and just by the way kids treat you in school. They will make fun of you if you don’t wear certain name-brand clothes, or this, that and the other.” At a time where growing up without a father in the household was relatively uncommon, he also felt how he differed from other kids in that, “when it was time for father and son dinners or school meetings or whatever, I didn’t have a dad to go.” That role fell to his brother, Buddy, 12 years his senior, with whom he still has a particularly close relationship. He continues, “My oldest brother took me, so I realized early on I was different than a lot of the kids in the neighborhood.”
Wheat is very candid about his life’s ups and downs, challenges and victories, including the brass rings, both shiny and tarnished. One might worry about the whole “tell-all” nature of a book such as this and how it may be received by people mentioned, including his bandmates. “They told me, ‘say whatever you want to say, it’s all true, tell your story.’ So I told the story of how I saw it. I don’t think there’s anyone in my band that wouldn’t tell you they did drugs. That’s all I really said, was we did a lot of drugs at certain points in our career and it cost us our band.” Alluding to the initial breakup of Tesla, he continues, “We broke up because we had drug problems and couldn’t communicate with each other and that’s all I really state in the book.” Tesla 37 years in seems to be able to relate to each other in a more mature way these days, “That’s what I talk about, because you may read the book and say, ‘Well, Brian says this about Jeff (Keith, Tesla’s vocalist) in 1991 during Psychotic Supper or Troy (Luccketta, the band’s drummer) in 1989.’ But we’re not the same guys today. The band, as it sits, we don’t have much to argue about. We’ve learned how to live with each other on the road. You learn. It’s like a marriage. You learn how to coexist or you end up getting a divorce.”
The music business is after all a business. When first signed to a major record deal, rock bands are quite regularly made up of young men in their early twenties, who don’t have much experience in financial matters. Wheat has been the one within Tesla who maybe not by design, but has always sort of filled the role of the unofficial manager and eventually assumed the role officially. Wheat explains, “Well, I learned that you need to watch and look after your business. The business is full of people that don’t really, they’re musicians, creative types. So they don’t really pay attention to the business end of it sometimes. So I happen to be that guy. I learned it causes me stress at times, but I know when I go to bed at night that me and my brothers in Tesla aren’t getting rake over the coals.” Tesla is not much different than a lot of bands when they first break on to the world scene. It’s not all champagne and caviar, limos and Lear Jets. Wheat shares his account of the business side of music, “We didn’t see any money until the middle of the second album. We were paying everybody back on the Mechanical Resonance record. I mean, people think there’s all kinds of money in this, and there’s not. I mean there can be, but for an average working band like Tesla, it’s a living. This is what we do as our job for a living.”
Wheat lists his number one musical hero as Sir Paul McCartney. So respected is he that Wheat poses for the cover of the book with a Hofner mandolin bass, ala the former Beatle. Having the unprecedented chance to meet his personal hero early in his career, he states, “I thought he was great, he was very nice and he was a gentleman. I was kind of freaking out, to be honest. He let me take pictures with him, which he won’t do today.” He later ran into McCartney again, “The times I’ve met him and talked to him, he’s exactly like he is when you see him talking to somebody on TV.” In addition to certain doors being opened to meet celebrities, when you travel in particular circles, your sphere of friends can also be quite eclectic. Wheat has been fortunate enough to acquire a unique group of friends. He enjoys a close relationship with the members of Def Leppard, with whom they first toured the world.
Another person with whom Wheat has a great friendship is photographer to the rock elite, Ross Halfin. “We worked together, to start. He was the photographer and I was in a band. We just hit it off, we had things in common and we like each other.” That relationship led to somewhat of a cottage industry for Wheat, who through his travels with Halfin, became interested in photography. “Me and Ross, we go on all these trips all over the world. He’s a photographer, so he’s always got cameras with him. One day on a trip somewhere, he handed me one of his point and shoots and said mess around with this, so I did, and I enjoyed it.” Some years later on a Monsters of Rock cruise, he approached an art dealer, who was consequently showing the paintings of Def Leppard’s Rick Allen. The dealer asked if he would consider painting on his pictures. “So I started painting on photographs to make certain things pop out even more, like 4-D, if you will. Now I sell paintings and I’m one of Wentworth Gallery’s artists. I do enhanced photography, it’s part photograph and part painting.” This all arose out of encouragement from his friend Halfin.
One friendship that many of those reading this might find incredibly interesting is his relationship with Jimmy Page. Now if you’re wondering how Brian Wheat from Sacramento, CA became friends with legendary Brit, Page, well, he explains it simply, “I met Jimmy through Ross, they’re like brothers. Through being around Jimmy, we’ve developed to be really good friends as well.” What’s the arguably greatest rock guitarist like? “He’s a nice man, an English gentleman. It just so happens he’s still one of my heroes. Still every time I am around him I get inspired. He was a big hero, right there next to Paul McCartney. I’m not friends with Paul. I don’t know his number, we don’t exchange Christmas or birthday greetings, Jimmy and I do.” Legend has it that getting into Page’s circle is not an easy task. “He’s a very private person. I don’t go crazy around him, you know what I mean? I think that’s what he probably likes about me. I’m just a normal guy and we talk about normal stuff.” Summarizing, he continues, “I will tell you about him, he is an extremely nice, kind man.”
Wheat’s childhood circumstances, his lifelong struggle with anxiety and depression, as well as his substance abuse have all been identified, called out and to some degree had their power stripped away from them. “I think when you let things go into the universe and you’re able to talk about being a bastard child who grew up on welfare and were bulimic and had weight problems and are sensitive to people saying things about you in the press or on social media, I think it frees you from it.” This type of chronicle can also benefit the reader to help them realize they are not the only one who suffers from these things. Wheat sums it up this way, “Life’s funny, it’s a journey and my book, I’m just kind of saying, look this is my journey and this is where I’m at right now in the middle of my life. Here’s a bit of it and hopefully you can relate to it, and if it helps you, I think that’s great! That’s what I wanted to do and if that offends you, I didn’t mean to offend anyone, but this is my story through my eyes. There you go.”
Wheat is as open in discussion of his book as he is in writing it. If you want to gain insight to a very down to earth person, who pulls no punches and tells it like it is, this book is highly recommended. Remember that chance meeting described earlier. Well, in the pages of his memoir, you can come as close to having that encounter at the bar without it actually happening. Wheat will spill the milk of his life on the bar, and he will not cry over it. For better or for worse, this is his story and he owns it, unapologetically!