Years ago my good friend Dave and I heard that the legendary Les Paul held down a regular Monday night gig in New York City right in Times Square at some place called The Iridium, and we both thought it would be a pretty cool gig to check out. We kept up not getting around to it while we waited patiently for hear news of the aging guitarist’s passing so we could kick ourselves and say damn, we should have gone to see him. Dave played guitar in the band I had been managing and they had recently broke up so we both had a little more time on our hands when he called me and mentioned that Les Paul had just celebrated his 89th birthday. The opportunity was nigh, the trip fell perfectly in step with my New Year’s slogan (“Coming Alive in 2005”) so we made plans. The following Monday morning my alarm sounded at 6am and by 7:30 me, my friend JP, Dave and his lady Lara were on the highway, aimed towards a nation at war.
We cruised the border – always a heart-warmer – and 700 kilometress later we were in the Holland Tunnel eager to get lost in Manhattan, which is exactly what we did for the next forty-five minutes or so. Soon we wrestled our way through impressive traffic all the way to Central Park, and after a quick twenty minute search for a parking spot we were out on the street walking through the cold rain with warm hearts.
Our first stop was the Dakota. Though I consider myself a big Beatles fan I don’t even come close to the love, adoration, and intrinsic knowledge of the band that my friend JP has. Dude’s a veritable amateur Beatleologist. Together we walked to the door of the famous apartment building and the four of us stood there in rain and melancholy, silently taking in the scene where a quarter-century earlier Mark David Chapman had shot John Lennon in the back five times. There was the sidewalk where Chapman stood waiting, there was the concierge booth that John dragged himself to. Sigh, and double sigh. What a tragedy it was that occurred in this place.
After a sad and respectful moment of awed silence we crossed the street and entered Central Park, quickly finding the small memorial to Lennon called Strawberry Fields. The Imagine circle that is marbled into the path had a single fresh rose placed in the centre. Another sigh.
We had planned our trip to coincide with the display of a new Christo art installation entitled The Gates. Christo was the artist who did those big environmental exhibits such as wrapping the Taj Mahal in fabric or covering Caribbean islands with paper. His new piece was a series of 7,500 steel gates that covered over twenty miles of the Central Park, each with a large saffron-coloured fabric panel draped and hanging seven feet above the ground. The installation was twenty-six years in the planning, had no official opening, and was free to all.
“Nice bloody orange curtains.”Overheard in a thick NYC accent
We walked through some of the gates. I was impressed, and I thought it was all quite beautiful but once you get close to one it quickly becomes apparent that a Christo piece is best appreciated in the macro. Though I’m glad I was there, I think the inevitable coffee-table book complete with satellite photos and rooftop fish-eye lens panoramic shots will be more impressive than actually seeing it in person. Especially at dusk on a rainy day.
As we were walking out of the park two locals were walking in, and in a perfect New York accent I overheard the lady express her (and likely most New Yorker’s) opinion of the piece in a simple statement. “Nice bloody orange curtains.”
With several hours to kill before Les Paul’s set we sought and discovered parking near the venue and walked to Times Square. The lights, the constant movement, and the IMAX-like panorama of energy that represents the glowing, pulsating heart of the American capitalist dream is always an amazing sight to behold for we mere tourists. Taking in the enormity of it all JP said he could understand the locals’ view of the Christo piece, given that they could walk through this mass of visual and audio stimulus daily without batting an eye.
We found a place to eat and spent two hours lounging in the restaurant after dinner waiting for our soggy clothes to dry. We arrived at the Iridium at 9:15 to line up for the 10pm show and took our place about a dozen people deep in the line. JP and I left Dave and Lara to hold our place while we went to feed the meter; NYC parking tickets are notorious. When we came back they were gone, there were tons more people waiting to get in, and the line had broken into two indistinct lines and/or pockets of people hugging the doorways trying to keep out of the nagging rain.
The Man came out and told us all to line up a certain way and all hell began to break loose, with everyone complaining that they were here before everyone else. The Man was The Man and was taking nothing from nobody, and as politely and firmly as a high school principal well rehearsed in holding in his temper he systematically put everyone who approached him in their place, both literally and figuratively.
As a guy who has spent many nights working many doors at many bars, I took this as my opportunity to utilize my unique skills. Leaving my now-indistinct spot in line, I approached The Man who sat perched on his chair just inside the doorway and explained that the four tickets I had ordered were in my name, and that two of my friends were missing and presumably inside, and could I please check that they got in okay as their names weren’t on the ticket order, whattya say? After a short consultation with the ticket guy The Man told me to go and get my buddy out of the line and go in to find my friends.
It was with extreme joy that I walked back outside, pointed at JP and indicated that he was to follow me in. The crowd was unpleased, which pleased this little elitist touristo all the more. We go in, find Dave and Lara at the front table holding seats for us, and order ourselves a round of beers from the dramatically overpriced NYC menu.
Soon the real, live Les Paul came out accompanied by his band: another guitarist, a bass player, and a piano player. Les took his place atop a high stool in the middle of the small stage and they started to play. I was immediately encouraged to hear that the music was really good. It was nice to know we were actually going to hear some quality music and not just watch a legend try to keep it together.
As they tore through standard after standard (How High The Moon, Sweet Georgia Brown, Autumn Leaves, Sunny Side Of The Street, Satin Doll, ‘Round Midnight, Blue Skies, etc.) I couldn’t stop thinking that I recognized the other guitar player and it was driving me a bit nuts. At one point Les (who was very talkative between songs and seemed to be having a great time) addressed a fellow in the audience who had brought a guitar with him (obviously in hopes of getting it signed).
“You play?” Les asked him.
“Yeah, a little,” he responded.
“Well, why don’t you get up here and play a song with us?” Oh. My God.
“Nah, I’ll just embarrass myself,” dude said with a nervous chuckle.
Man, he wouldn’t have had to ask me twice! If I had a guitar with me I would have yelled out “I’ll get up and play with you Les!” but I didn’t, so I didn’t. We were in the very front row and everything. I came close to yelling out that I’d love to play with him – maybe they could scrounge up a guitar somewhere, or I could borrow the dude’s at the next table – but I didn’t. To this day it stands as one of my biggest regrets.
Les had some guests that weren’t me join him onstage. First a fiddle player from Chicago, then a harmonica player that was in between tours with Bo Diddley. They were all pretty good but I was blown away by the last guest, a young guy from Jersey who could tap-dance up a storm. This guy tapped along with the band for three songs, he knew the tunes, and he was awesome.
After about 75 minutes or so Les bid us all a good night and he and the band left the stage. The MC stepped on stage and announced that Les was sorry, but he would not be doing an autograph session this evening. That was too bad, as Dave and I had both brought official Les Paul pick guards with us in hopes of getting Les to sign them.
As we were getting ready to leave I noticed that other guitar player packing up his gear so I went over and introduced myself. I told him I was sure I had seen him before and asked who else he played with. Turns out the guy played and recorded with Keith Richards and some other notables. He asked where I was from and told me he met his first wife in Ottawa. A few more words and I thanked him and rejoined my party. But I just couldn’t leave without meeting Les. I grabbed the pick guards and went back over to the guitar player.
“Excuse me, I have a big favour to ask…”
“No problem buddy, just go on back,” he said a moment later, motioning to the stage door. Cool!
I went in and there were a half-dozen or so people waiting to talk to Les and get pictures and autographs and such. I was last in line and when it came time for my turn I walked up and said “Les Paul” (I addressed him by his full name on purpose just so that for once in my life I could say “Les Paul” to a person and not to a guitar), “it was an honour for me and my friends to come down to NYC to hear you play tonight.”
“Sit down my son,” he said, patting the seat on the couch next to where he sat. And just like that I was sitting next to the man who invented reverb. Sitting next to the man who invented multi-track recording. Sitting next to the man who actually literally invented the electric guitar. If there was a more significant person alive in musicat the time, well, I didn’t know about it. I shook his hand, the one that had been mangled in a car accident decades earlier, the hand he instructed doctors to reset in a shape that would allow him to still hold a guitar pick. I got the pick guards signed (“To Todd Keep Picking Les Paul”), and even got my ticket stub signed for JP. Wow.
I rejoined my group and paid the bill ($43, which included a rather frustrating and utterly surprising $23 “table minimum not met” charge) and we got in the car, aimed ourselves back towards home and drove steady, arriving in Ottawa at 9:30am, twenty-six hours after we had left.
It was a journey worth every mile.