Les Paul is an old man now, and his guitar playing shows it. He plays Monday nights at the Iridium jazz club in Times Square, next door to the Mama Mia musical. People line up to see him. We were there for the second show of the night, at 10:00, in part because the first had sold out long ago. He’s a tourist attraction, like the Statue of Liberty or Times Square itself, a symbol whose independent meaning is submerged almost wholly in the tourist’s imperative to collect noteworthy experiences.
Tonight he sits on stage in a pale blue turtleneck and loose slacks, arthritic fingers moving over the fretboard with a little shake, wide rimless glasses gleaming in the stage lights. His stage patter is better than his guitar playing now, but that’s OK, people have come to see him, not revel ecstatic in his music. “Is that turkey done cooking yet?” he asks. “It’s hot up here. Is anyone else hot?” He asks someone in the crowd for a napkin, takes it and blows his nose loudly. “How’s your food?” he asks someone else. “We doubled up the last time we ordered something here. But they’re all friends.”
It’s easy to forget that Paul’s primary contribution to the music word is as a technologist. He didn’t invent electric guitars, but helped bring them to where they are today. He was a pioneer in multitrack recording, and in the live overdubbing, or looping, so prevalent today. For that, I can more than forgive a schmaltzy version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”
In the end I am happy to see him, even if the music doesn’t speak to me. A world where an artist and pioneer can be making money from his art at the age of 91 has some good in it.