“Mama, I gotta make my guitar louder”
OK, so, today. Let’s see.
Had lunch with Les Paul, music pioneer and inventor of the solid-body electric guitar. Encountered a Braille edition of Playboy magazine (yeah you read that right) owned by Ray Charles. Ran my hands through the actual straw that filled the costume of Ray Bolger, the scarecrow from The Wizard of Oz. Chatted about abortion with the inventor of Lasik eye surgery. Went home. Responded to some e-mail. Kissed the wife and kids. Went to bed.
Actually, most of the day was spent with Les Paul, an extraordinary, vibrant 90-year-old Renaissance man who is one of the most charming people I have ever met. Known to one generation as the co-host of a TV show with Mary Ford in the ’50’s and to another as the brand on an exceptional type of Gibson guitar, Les Paul understands his place in history, though he is humbled by it, and knows that it is his responsibility to preserve his contribution to American culture. In his home, Les Paul has a Xanadu-like collection of audio-visual media (on a truly bewildering spectrum of recording media) and the artifacts from his career as a performer and inventor (guitars, effects gizmos, recording equipment). This man was a celebrity geek before such thing was in vogue. Musician, inventor, television personality, storyteller, and (thankfully) packrat, Les Paul probably would not even understand the received wisdom of the left-side right-side brain paradigm.
Today one of my colleagues noted that he was going to devote the next few years of his life to becoming as young as Les Paul. To this Les, in a room full of academics and museum-types, leaned back on his chair and mimicked taking a long drag from a joint. This man is 90 years old. He is obviously physically well; Les Paul plays two sets every Monday night at the Iridium club in NYC. But what strikes you is how mentally sharp he is. His stories do not ramble but arc right when they should. His tinkerer’s mind grasps technology concepts that elude people half his age. And his ear — despite hearing aids — detects the textural differences between pianos made a few centuries apart.
Do I have a man-crush on Les Paul? You bet I do.
He told the story today of being hired to play music to patrons at a drive-in movie theater half-way between Waukesha, Wisconsin (his birthplace) and Milwaukee in 1930-something. To amplify his voice he took apart his mother’s phone receiver. He stuck one half of it on top of a broom handle propped upright in a cinder block and wired the other half into a radio. Voila. After his performance he got a note saying, “Good show, kid, but your guitar needs to be louder.” This note changed music forever. Les Paul went home, told his mother that he needed some way to amplify his guitar, and set out to construct what became the solid-body electric guitar that has been so important to the 20th century music. His prototype, a 2.5 foot length of railroad track (!) strung with guitar wire and undergirded with the guts of a telephone magnet like his makeshift microphone, was the first in a series of inventions that eventually became the Gibson Les Paul.
Documentaries are being made. Oral histories are being taken. Strategies for the preservation of his legacy are being executed. Everyone knows that documenting Les Paul’s life is a race against time (though you would not think there was much urgency from his vitality). But all one really wants to do is slow down and sit on a couch and listen to him tell stories. It isn’t the hundreds of guitars in his house or the vintage recordings or the goofy doodads he created to manipulate sound before digital audio made it commonplace. It is the stories in Les Paul’s head that are priceless, Americana if ever that word had meaning. This is what we must document now. The material culture is but punctuation on his extraordinary exposition.