Saturday, June 9, 2007

Anecdote # 37

A Visit With The Wizard.

last night as I sat in the cool grass clacking two coconut shells together
while some of the elder tribesmen danced slowly around the bonfire
I gazed up at the stars and couldn’t help but wonder: is it possible there
could be another world not unlike ours, a world where people like us
might stick something into a hole in the wall and cause little glowing lights
to blink on and off like fireflies, a place where someone could turn
a knob on a box of some sort and fill the air with great marvelous
clouds of sound, sounds unlike anything the human ear had ever heard
before, the sound of a giant metallic insect grinding through the sky,
the sound of an angel singing underwater, the beautiful smokey wail
of an overblown speaker, and just as I was wondering what a speaker
might be...I woke up.

in my earliest memory of electric guitar I am six years old.
taking in the intense kaleidoscope of Christmas shopping
with my parents at the Newport Kentucky Shopping Mall.
the mall itself was more like a small strip mall than today’s
sprawling giants but still a fresh excitement in the mid- 1950’s.
it was snowing. little speakers in the parking lot were
repeatedly playing this jingle:

"when the values go up, up, up,

and the prices go down, down, down,
Robert Hall this season will show you the reason,
low overhead, low overhead"

a snappy lyric no doubt, but it was the sound of the guitar
accompaniment that excited me. a rich creamy electric guitar
sound. turns out it was Les Paul along with Mary Ford
singing the virtues of Robert Hall clothing.

if we fast-forward a couple of decades, I find myself
talking with Les in his living room in front of the same
Frankenstein-like laboratory of early recording gear
with which Les created his legendary sound:
multi-tracking: a technology that changed
record-making forever.*

here's the story: it's 1983.
I am spending the day in new york city doing
a full day's schedule of interviews and photo shoots.
the last magazine of the day is Guitar World.
my friend bob davis who worked for guitar world
offers to take me and my manager stan hertzman to dinner.
bob davis is a good friend of les paul's.
over dinner he begins to tell some pretty good
les paul stories and then surprises us by saying,
"hey, why don't we go out to les's house?

it's maybe an hour's drive to Mahwah, New Jersey.
we arrive at the door of les's 27-room mansion at 8:00.
we knock and are surprised: les opens the door.
bob says, "hey les, mind if we come in for a while?"
"ah, jeez, I don't know, I'm a little busy, bob," says les.
but then he quickly adds, "what the hell, come on in".
eight hours later at 4 in the morning we are begging
les to let us go back to the city; I had another full day
of interviews and meetings in just a few hours.

what happened in those eight hours was magical.
les ushered us into his living room.
he was alone, like some absentminded wizard.
he had been going through a pile of old tapes
of his television show The Les Paul and Mary Ford Show
which aired in 1951, one of the tv's first shows.
as he explained, television at that time had not yet
even arrived at an agreed upon format.
his shows were five minutes long!

a typical show went like this:
opening music theme and announcer:
"it's the les paul and mary ford show!"
(the music theme featured some blazing guitar
lick from the master, that's all I remember of it)
mary dressed in a lovely fifties outfit would be
stepping out of the kitchen.
les: "whatcha doin' mary?"
mary: " I'm baking a cake, les. I've just put it
in the oven".
les: "well, come on over here, let's do a song
while we're waiting for it to bake".

they would do a song which would somehow lead
into a live spot of their sponsor Listerine
and the many virtues of having fresh breath
which would somehow lead into
mary announcing the cake was magically finished
just in time for them to do another quick song.
(keep in mind, "hit songs" were two minutes long then)

les informed us they usually did five of these a day
for five days which became a whole season's worth.
it was really a commercial more than a tv show.
he also told us the shows were all filmed
right where we were sitting,
the large open living room with a counter top
connecting to an open kitchen.
all done in fifties-style bric a brac.

les launched straight into a story:
"when we first started, the film crew would set up
right here in the living room and everything
would be done live. they didn't bother to tape
the earliest shows, they were done to acetate.
for our very first show we had a live MC
to introduce us, a nervous little guy.
we cut up and cussed like sailors all day long.
finally the moment came, we went live on tv.
the first thing our announcer said was;
"hello fucks".

when les would laugh hard enough his voice
would go silent leaving only a slight wheez.
he could certainly tell tales. we drank some beer
and listened to les pour out the stories and jokes.
he showed us some of the taped versions of the show.
he toured us through the house, showed us the
cadillac flywheel he used to invent a mastering lathe.
he showed us the original version of the Les Paul
guitar know known as "The Log".
that's in fact what it looked like.
I could have stayed there forever.

all around the house lay guitar cases.
he said he had 300 guitars scattered around,
many of the cases had never been opened.
according to les, he made a deal with Gibson
that they had to send him one guitar every month.

back in the living room on the far end of the room
stood a tower of eight recording machines.
it was the original version for multi-track
recording les had invented to do his records.
before the beatles, even before elvis
les had 11 top ten singles and 36 gold albums!
les and mary had their own radio show as well
and constantly toured the country in les's caddy.

"pick one out," said les as he pointed to the
guitar cases strewn around the room.
I opened one. it was a blue Gibson Les Paul.
still in a wrapper, it had never opened before!
suddenly I realized:
les was asking me to play guitar with him!

we sat plugged into the original studio;
les with his recording model Les Paul
and me with a Les Paul not used to being tuned.
I did something les liked and he asked me how I did it.
les had an insatiably curious mind.

bob davis spoke up, "les, adrian makes his guitar sound
like animals. that's what he's known for".
I saw an instant gleam in les's eyes.
he quickly made it back across the room
to the pile of tv videos.

"I gotcha beat", he said and he fumbled through the tapes.
"here it is!" he announced.
"you know jingle bells don'tcha? everybody knows jingle
bells. look at this, we called it 'jungle bells' ".
sure enough there was les playing a song on his tv show
scratching the strings to make the sound of a monkey!
I thought I invented that!

needless to say, it was an incredible evening.
I have pictures of us around here somewhere.
(now I sound like les).

my next meeting with les was at Fat Tuesday's.
he played there every monday night despite
being in his 80's and wowed the audience.
martha and I sat right in front of les,
pushed up against the postage stamp-size stage.
across from us sat an elderly couple.
they looked sweet together.
les dedicated a song to them.
he said, "my old friend Ray, sitting right down
here in front, Ray wrote this song in 1925."
then he played "Somewhere Over The Rainbow".

I saw les many times over the next twenty years.
I don't think he actually knew anything about my
music nor to my knowledge did he ever hear me play
but he was always laughing, happy to see me.
then in 2004 Guitar Player magazine put on an event
in new york city for les's 90th birthday.
I played two songs. I still don't know if he listened.

backstage as I walked by les grabbed my sleeve
and insisted on signing the back of my Parker Fly.
I'm so unaccustomed to having my guitar signed,
most of his autograph wore off during the next tour.
(too stupid to think I should shellac it or something.)
Lisa Loebs walked up to les to say hello
and he grabbed her breast! laughing like a little kid.

I could say so many glowing things about Les Paul.
the world would not be the same without him.
a great inventor, an even greater player,
to me, he was the true King of Pop
long before that other guy.

*this was part of the foreword I wrote for the book
called "Analog Man's Guide To Vintage Effects"
by Tom Hughes.

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