Thursday, August 27, 2009

“Loving Les Paul”

c. 2009 Rod Ice
All rights reserved

It seemed that he would live forever.

Descriptive cliches lose their usefulness when describing this iconic tunesmith. He was a performer, composer, and innovator. A designer and historian. An inventor. A prophet. A living legend. An icon. A relic of glorious days. And above all, a toneslinging hero.

Les Paul influenced nearly everyone, even those who never heard his music. Even those who never played one of the many Gibson guitars christened with his name. Even those who never played a plectrum instrument at all.

He laid much of the foundation for modern music, through experimentation and brilliance. Yet without the taint of hubris. There was no self-importance in his character. No need to be worshipped. No desire for adulation.

He simply wanted to play guitar.

Pondering his death was a difficult exercise. It seemed proper to mark this passing with recorded music and introspection. Yet I yearned for some sort of personal connection with the man himself. Some tangible way to reflect on who he had been as an individual.

Enlightenment came through friends who shared a passion for music, and the electric guitar. As a group of performers, authors, and adventurers, they provided the perspective I needed. Their stories painted a portrait of Les, with linguistic verve:

JAY WRIGHT (AUTHOR OF ‘GAS-LIVING WITH GUITAR ACQUISITION SYNDROME’) - “John Geraghty and I met him in his NYC Iridium Jazz Club dressing room just before he turned 83. I took him a signed book and got him to sign my copy of my book. John and I had attended his 10pm - midnight show. It had been announced that Les would not be signing autographs since he was tired - he had gone about 30 minutes over. It was a good audience and he just was having fun. Wore himself out. I asked his bass player to take the book to him as a gift and was sorry I wouldn't be able to meet him. She waited until the lounge had cleared, then led us to his dressing room where we visited for about 25 minutes. What a night - beyond all expectations.”

JOHN GERAGHTY – “I guess Jay has told you this, too… but here is a memory of mine. Two years ago, when Jay came up to NY to meet me for a ride up to Chuck Thornton's guitar building shop, which resulted in our owning some we hadn't planned on - no surprise! - we came back to my place in Pearl River, and the next evening, we went to NYC to the nightclub where Les Paul played once a week - a thrilling drive down and through Manhattan in the process. We went to the 10 o'clock to midnight show, because that was the one with the best possibility that he would have the time to meet people afterwards. We brought our copies of GAS and several extras, hoping for an autograph on ours and to give the others to him and his associates. The show was incredible. No reserved seats, but we were at a table next to his stage and less than twenty feet away from him - and cheered when he said ‘two weeks until my ninety-third birthday’. He had great comedians, musicians, and some who could do both, including Nicki Parrott, who played with Muriel Anderson on her DVD, ‘A Guitarscape Planet’- a great DVD, by the way. After the show, we went to the back of the stage along with a group of other fans, and we were all told that Les Paul wasn't feeling all that well, so he wasn't going to meet any folks that night. They all left, but we waited around a bit, just in case. After a bit, Nicki Parrott, who was really friendly, came up to us and said hello. I told her I was glad to meet her since I really loved the Murial Anderson DVD, and she appreciated that, and noted that sometimes the best thing is to wait. So we did, while she went into the dressing room. A few minutes later, she came out, and said that Les Paul was feeling better, so we were welcome to visit for a few minutes. We went in, had a nice chat with him and some of the members of his group. They received GAS, and we received a pair of autographs along with some really nice conversation.”

DENNIS CHANDLER (ELDER STATESMAN OF CLEVELAND ROCK ‘N’ ROLL) – “Les Paul was more than an innovator, inventor and musical genius. He was genuine, an inspiration, an American treasure. He was a musical mentor to me. I will miss him. I met him in 1978 while working for Gibson. We became friends. He taught me how to play Somewhere Over The Rainbow in the key of A! I was with him when he had his bypass surgery at the Cleveland Clinic in the early 1980's. I brought him a Les Paul Recording model at his request so he could entertain the doctors, nurses and patients prior to his surgery… we saw each other several times in the last 31 years. His memory was impeccable. His mind was always sharp. His wit was timeless. His intensity was unrelenting. He was truly a ‘star’ of stars. His achievements on and off the stage will never be equaled.”

BOOBIE AUTEN – “A kid played for him one time in the 80's. (That era) had its share of the new breed heavy metal hair band rock when it came to showing off guitar skills. Thanks to the innovative style of Eddie Van Halen, many guitarists went to finger tapping and dive-bombing. So this kid pulls all the whistles and stops and wants very much to impress Les Paul. When he finished his display of guitar mastery, Les told him he was very good but asked him ‘Would your mother recognize you on the radio?’ The lad sounded like a million other players who had no ‘signature sound’ to be identified with. Les Paul believed in less is more when it is required. He believed in that one good note to be pulled off more than many mechanical doodlings.”

DAVIE ALLAN (LEGENDARY CALIFORNIA GUITARIST) – “He was a hero to all of us guitar hacks! And what about the genius of multi-track recording. Where the heck would we be without that?!”

With these images in mind, I began to sort through my own collection of Les Paul’s recorded works. So many compositions seemed to demonstrate his genius. But a film of him using the ‘Les Pulverizer’ was most perfect. The device allowed him to capture and manipulate tracks while performing live.

I played it over and over.

Though he may be remembered in many ways, by generations of creative souls around the world, one thing endures beyond all else.

Les was a visionary. And we have all been bettered because he lived to dream.

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