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Friday, Aug. 15, 2008
'Les Paul: Chasing Sound'
Boy, can he play guitar
Any devotee of the electric guitar soon comes to learn the names of those pioneering musicians who realized the instrument's potential: people like Charlie Christian, who first started overdriving his amps and incorporating distortion into his playing, or Jimi Hendrix, who took that concept to the nth degree, and also threw in feedback, phase shifting, wah-wah and backward effects.
One of the most important was Les Paul, the man who pretty much invented the solid-body electric guitar, and, as if that wasn't enough, multitrack recording as well, two things which every musical idiom since the 1950s has relied upon. Paul's musical heyday was in the '30s and '40s, pre-rock 'n' roll, which means younger generations might not be so familiar with his name. But you would be hard-pressed to look through photos of the top rock guitarists of the '60s and '70s and not see more than a few of them wielding a Gibson Les Paul ax.
A former guitarist myself, I was familiar with the legends of Les Paul: How after a car accident that crippled him, he had the doctors set his arm at a right angle, so he could keep playing even if he couldn't move it; or how his recordings were so devilishly fast, no other guitarist could match them. After seeing the documentary movie "Les Paul: Chasing Sound" by director John Paulson, I learned, to my surprise, that the former was true, the latter, a trick — Paul had recorded at a slower tape speed and sped up his playing (like the voices of the "kids" on "South Park.")
The most surprising thing I learned from the movie is that Paul is still alive, and at age 93, playing once a week at a New York City nightclub (Iridium at 51st and Broadway). And playing well. And that the man still has a sense of humor. As he looks out over the audience in the tiny live house, he smirks and growls into the microphone: "I worked my whole life to be playing here in this basement."
Director Paulson top-loads the film with Les jamming with Keith Richards (it's interesting to see who's aged more gracefully), and he keeps up a steady drum-roll of celebrity interviewees to convince us of Paul's greatness, people like Jeff Beck, Paul McCartney, B.B. King, Steve Miller, Bonnie Raitt, Merle Haggard, Eddie Van Halen and a scary-looking Richard Carpenter. Yet Paul's story speaks for itself, a fascinating trawl through American music of the 20th century.
Paul is old enough to remember when there weren't any CDs or videos; in fact, there weren't even televisions or jukeboxes. Growing up as a boy in rural Wisconsin, Paul caught the guitar bug when he saw cowboy guitarist Gene Autry perform. They say genius is driven, and that seems to be the case with Paul. Even as a boy he was tinkering, putting his father's phonograph needle under his guitar strings for primitive amplification, or constructing a gadget that had guitar strings attached to a piece of railroad track, wired up to part of his telephone, all in the search of a pure, amplified sound.
The movie follows his career through cowboy bands, playing early jazz and country in Chicago during the Depression, and jamming with the likes of Art Tatum, Nat King Cole and Django Reinhardt. Radio success came on the type of shows that "A Prairie Home Companion" now parodies, and, by the '40s, Paul had gone pop, recording with crooners like Bing Crosby and The Andrews Sisters.
In the late '40s, Paul met his mother after a gig, and she told him she heard him play live on the radio the night before. When Paul told her it wasn't him, she said: "Well, a lot of people are starting to sound like you."
Thanks, mom. Paul dropped out of his career, returned to tinkering in the garage, and within a couple of years had invented the portable multitrack tape recorder, the whole art of over-dubbing during recording, and the solid-body electric guitar (an entirely different beast than the hollow body.)
The documentary drops the ball in a few places: Why did Paul's collaboration with singer/wife Mary Ford fall apart? And wasn't it Fender who got the first solid-body electric guitar to market? Small points though, in a pretty informative movie.