LES PAUL: LESSONS OF A LEGEND Guitarist Releases Rock CD at Age 90 – Page 3
LES PAUL: LESSONS OF A LEGEND
Guitarist Releases Rock CD at Age 90
Once the guitar is in hand, the eyes light to a seasoned flame. From the border of his combed-back light-red hair, there is a long slope of forehead, the shingle of a thinking blast furnace.
He straps on the guitar and looks around and smiles. He starts thrumming the guitar and his age vanishes.
“We’re gonna practice for about ten minutes,” jokes Mr. Paul, “and then we’ll start the show.”
The melody of long, rich experience runs through his voice. In the course of the evening, he weaves six decades of know-how into a colorful blanket that warms a music lover’s heart. The moods range from impassioned to ruminative to playful.
“What would you like to hear?” asks Mr. Paul. “We’ll do anything you want.”
Someone says: “‘Summertime.'”
“You got it.”
The lead-guitarist reaches into a subterranean storehouse over brimming with rich melodies and pulls out the chords to the George Gershwin classic.
While George Harrison’s guitar gently weeps, Les Paul’s grandly sweeps. It is a fine-spun sound of astonishing lucidity. The notes flow in a hot, hypnotic, lava-like movement.
The delicacy of touch produces thin, chiming forms swaddled in sharpest clarity. The audience appears borne away on the softly floating notes.
Later in the evening, he plays “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and the sharp blue eyes look upward and go there. Mr. Paul used to perform the song behind Judy Garland at the Palace Theatre.
At Fat Tuesday’s, he treats the piece just as lovingly. The more he plays of the song, the more time slips away, and the living legend seems to return closer and closer to the enchanted young man who always slept with a shiny guitar within eyeshot. He exudes a lantern-soft charisma as the crowd listens with avidity.
Mr. Paul lightens the mood with jocular between-song patter. His audience interaction is as relaxed as a country doctor on a house call.
One night he manages to make a humorous story out of his car being broken into.
Somebody in the crowd hollers: “We’ll get him for you, Mr. Paul.”
“Thanks,” he says with a throaty chuckle, and adds: “It’s just ‘Les.'”
Another night, an elderly fellow in the front row asks:
“Can I touch your guitar?”
“Sure you can touch it. If it wasn’t for the guitar, I wouldn’t be here.”
“If it wasn’t for you,” says the elderly fellow, reaching up, “the guitar wouldn’t be here.”
Actually, it’s something of a long shot that either one of them is here. Mr. Paul owns a past that has been haunted by stunning setbacks. About the only thing in his life that is as astounding as his multiplex work is the life-long battle he has waged to do that work.
He has had to be as dauntless as he’s dexterous. His day-to-day indomitability is a match for his chord-for-chord talent.
Those who know Mr. Paul well think he has more lives than an old tomcat. In 1940 he stuck his hand in a radio transmitter and was put out of commission for a year. In 1948, driving in a snowstorm, his car skidded off a bridge and dropped 500 feet into a river. He lay in icy water eight hours with a broken back, broken ribs, broken nose, broken collarbone, broken arm.
In 1969 a friend accidentally cuffed his ear and broke his eardrum, requiring four operations. In 1980 he had quintuple bypass surgery.
Here in the Twenty First Century there is only one major battle left for this graceful man whom many think of as a myth, and it’s a very human problem.
From “Z” down to “B”—from “Z” as in Zero response of a music teacher down to “B” as in Bypass heart surgery—Les Paul has duked it out with just about every problem in life’s alphabet—all the way down to a big “A”: Arthritis.
“The bout with arthritis,” Mr. Paul once told me, “never goes away. Right today I’m saying, ‘Boy, how much longer have I got with my hands?’ The swelling continues and the deterioration continues and the calcium keeps depositing.
“The pain doesn’t bother me so much. I’m used to pain. All I’m trying to do is figure a way to play without it—not without the pain, but without the movement.
“Somehow, everybody is trying to stick around as long as they can—no matter how great they paint that picture. And I am a religious man. The choice would be if you really want to go upstairs, and I’m in no hurry to go there anymore than the Pope is. My first thing is to battle.”
Besides battling his way to becoming known as a guitar-player, a guitar, an inventor, a sound, a legend, an exhibit and now a rock star worshipped by rock stars, Les Paul has also fought the battle to simply be a good guy.
When he finishes a show, he steps off the stage and heads directly into the audience. He shakes hands, poses for pictures, swaps stories and signs autographs until everyone in the place has been more or less Paulverized by Legend Access.
To re-frame the picture in non-legendary, human terms: a 90-year-old guy with arthritis in his hands signing dozens of autographs after playing a guitar for 90 minutes.
In particular, Mr. Paul gives special time and attention to young people, especially those who tell him they are fellow guitarists. He engages youth in a way that makes them feel more joyous about music and more confident about life.
One night a guy who looked about 20-years-old handed Les Paul a white Fender Stratocaster, of all things, and asked him to sign it.
With a grin that was more ironic than iconic, Mr. Paul wrote his name across the body, then handed the young man the guitar back, smiled brightly, and said: “Now you really got something there. Practice. Don’t ever give up.”
Vaya con Dios, Mr. Paul—I mean, Les.
CD: Les Paul, American Made/World Played. Capitol Records, 2005.
Book: Bacon, Tony, 50 Years of the Gibson Les Paul. Backbeat, 2002.