Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

Les Paul—
Les Was More: Les Paul Remembered


The Seth Man, August 2009ce
Whenever outsiders try to talk down my home state of New Jersey (inevitably wheeling in the old and tiresome joke about exits), I patiently remind them that the same state hosted the invention of the phonograph player, hundreds of electric light applications, the solid body electric guitar, and multi-tracking recording. Only two people (or wizards, as they’re also known) were responsible: Thomas Alva Edison for the first two, and the great, now late, Les Paul the other two.

Illumination, sound instruments and sound reproduction all from the same U.S. state? Hey, I feel right at home.

People scoffed when they heard Les had been working on multi-tracking in his garage. He sent them the wax cylinder and a copy of his device to play it. They still didn’t believe it. It was only when the naysayers sent a messenger out to his garage in New Jersey and saw it in operation first hand that jaws dropped along the lines of: “Oh. OK. You. Just. Invented. Something. We. Thought. Was. Completely. Impossible.”

Beyond owning half of the source of my personal homeland pride, Les was more. Not only to me, but just about any electric guitarist of note. First time I saw him was in 1988 when he was but a spring chicken of 73. It was at a small club in downtown Manhattan called Fat Tuesday’s and I had seen the same advert in ‘The Village Voice’ of his Monday night residency for years. It all came about when my friend Jim suggested one night when we were drinking and listening to records, “Hey, why don’t we see Les Paul next Monday night?”

It seemed a reasonable invitation and one of those ideas that are so good on the surface it takes a second to wise up to the realisation that not only is it a GREAT idea but was such a dead natch, why hadn’t we acted upon it years ago? Truly, the time had come and we were ready. Jim was going through a massive rock’n’roll phase (aided to a great degree by working at a huge chain record store in a local mall) and was listening exclusively to Elvis’ Sun sessions, Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry and other guys there at the birth of rock’n’roll. Our mutual friend Jon was well down not only with those guys but instrumental Rock as well and as for myself: I didn’t think twice. I was (and still am) a big Jimmy Page obsessive who had only recently put 2 and 2 together as regards Sun Records and Page’s recording techniques on Zep records. So we all had different reasons for going, but were unanimous in agreeing. Yeah, let’s do it. Let’s go see Les Paul. Without him, there’d be no Zeppelin, among a zillion other things. We also all felt tinged with the sentiment of “Y’know, before he dies we should see him at least ONCE. I mean, at 73 the guy’s getting no younger, so what are waiting for?”

Off we went, and the ambiance was about as far from a Rock venue as I’d ever experienced. It was a far more intimate environment at Fat Tuesday’s and one I’d call ‘low-lit, low-key and low ceiling.’ The show was excellent. Even “Pennies From Heaven.” It was Les, a second guitarist and a stand up bassist. That was it. We were all blown away by Les’s speed, accuracy and timing -- all the more startling given his (even then) advanced years.

I got to meet and speak with him after the show. After I called him Mr. Paul (and he replied with a ‘Please: call me Les’) I proceeded to chew his ear off about Jimmy Page. Les had met him and had high praise for his work both as a guitarist and producer. For the entirety of our seven minute conversation, Les was nothing but engaging, warm and still very on the ball. I asked if he wanted a beer, he said ‘Yeah, that would be great,” related a story about Schlitz and his Mom, then thanked me when I returned from the bar. We spoke a while longer, shook hands and with a thanks, I left with a feeling that I’d be re-thinking several things about music long after the animated conversation with my pals that took place the entire car ride home.

Fat Tuesday’s closed down some time later in the nineties and since then, Les continued his Monday residency at a jazz club on Broadway called Iridium. A little more than two months ago, I found myself heading there one early Monday evening. The weather was perfect for walking through New York: cool, breezy and sunny. I walked uptown from 34th Street, the main train hub that lands one in NY from NJ; kind of like Victoria Station with Madison Square Garden perched right above it. So far, it was one of the most beautiful days of the summer with the remainder of June a wash-out -- the sixth rainiest on record for the region.

I met a friend there and we were seated at these long tables that stretched the length of the floor with the seats faced perpendicular to the stage. It’s a supper club with a minimum food and drink charge, so we supped and drank for an hour until Les and his trio came on.

The lights dimmed with half his band already onstage. The rhythm guitarist who I remembered from 21 years ago came on assisting a Les far frailer than I remembered over to a wide stool perched off to the left side. The lights came on and then they began. The trio was comprised of said rhythm guitarist playing a Black Beauty Gibson Les Paul, a pianist on full length grand piano and an attractive young blonde woman on stand up bass. She was great, and would wind up singing and accompanying herself on her own song called “I Love Big Instruments.” Les was joking a lot, and in fact, he was beaming constantly during the set. In between songs he remarked that he’d missed her when she unavailable a couple weeks back when she was out of town. He said, “Looking at you, I feel like a condemned building with a brand new flagpole out front!” to audience laughter comprised fairly equally between both men and women.

Les himself played a black Gibson Les Paul (‘I guess he was playing with himself then’ I wryly noted to my friend, who wasn’t as buzzed as I was and only frowned) and it was...Well, ’customised’ falls short of describing how finely tuned it was to its creator’s own specifications. All the hardware looked different from all other Gibson Les Pauls I’ve ever seen in my life, and there was a huge face plate over the volume and tone knobs. It was elegant in every degree. A late fifties wood-finished Gibson Les Paul stood on a stand in back of him, but he didn’t wind up playing it. I was gazing at it before the show and damn if it didn’t keep on reminding me of Jimmy Page’s ‘Les Paul #1’ that Joe Walsh presented to him in June of ‘69 backstage at the Fillmore East (the axe Page consequently wound up playing live at every Zeppelin gig until at least 1977. Hey, I told you I was an obsessive, didn’t I?)

They did a Duke Ellington tune, a lot of older popular standards and (I think) “How High the Moon.” I kept on looking at Les’ hands and mused that in this life not another pair of human hands had played an electric guitar more. He missed a couple of notes during the show. Like I cared. He later said in-between songs that “I’m gonna release an album with all these missed notes. It’ll be for people who can’t hear music.” HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA...He was in great spirits, laughing, concentrating and especially: playing. Some passages were ancient ones he wrote that would directly inform the surf instrumental idiom, some riffs Jeff Beck pinched here; some obvious Jimmy Page riffs there. Along with country, jazz. Humourous vamps and flourishes. Outer space filigrees...In fact, seemingly EVERYTHING from 20th Century American popular music (with the distinct possibly that polkas were omitted for the evening.) There was nothing but an easy SENSE OF SPACE and a thorough attention to detail that he missed only because his hands were a week and six years short of a CENTURY old.

They ended with what was probably the most inventive, sweet and tarted up version of “Sweet Georgia Brown” I’ve ever heard.. I knew what it was only a few verses in. It was such a great time, I double tipped the waitress and not wanting to re-bother Les, walked out into the warm dark air of Broadway with my friend and took all the sweet strains of that evening home with me.

Once I got home, I mused that I saw someone who recorded with Bing Crosby and the FUCKING Andrews Sisters. The next time I lamely feel “too tired” to do something or other, I’ll try to remember Les Paul.

The man who played every Monday night, two sets a night, for decades, is gone.

I kept on thinking to myself during the show that ‘he’s not only a guitarist playing a guitar. He’s an inventor operating his invention.’

Now with his passing, no one will ever see the inventor of the electric guitar play the electric guitar ever again.

The man held magic in his broken arm, extended it out to all humanity and kept his sense of humour intact. I mean: who could do the same?

I know: Nobody.


(August 13, 2009)