Thursday, February 12, 2009

Day four hundred and seven ... Les is more.

I needed to get out of town bad.

My band usually takes a tour of at least a few days over the winter. As we are taking a well deserved hiatus it's been a while since I got out of my familiar but lovely surroundings.

How about New York City? How about the Museum of Modern Art? How about catching the eight o'clock show at the Iridium Jazz Club with the man who practically invented the electric guitar, multi-track recording, and myriad other advancements in music as we know it, Les Paul? 

He's 93.

He's still playing every week.

I'm only 38.

I've got some time on my hands.


Next step: clear it with my dear friend and co-conspirator, Paul; he was a go.

I ordered tickets online, no problem.

Paul checked the Metro North details; I filled up my car and plundered the ATM.

And, on Monday morning, at the heinous hour of 7:45, I got in my car and headed to Springfield, picked up my pal Pablo, and headed down 91 North, to New Haven.

I am now so blown away by how easy it is to get to NYC. Every time in the past it has been with the whole band and it was, more likely than not, in the afternoon. That being the case, of course, we'd hit a bunch of traffic. But this was different. In a little over an hour we were seeing signs for New Haven Center. We found the parking garage with twenty minutes to spare. It cost $11 for 24 hours. How unreal. I figured it'd be at least $20, but more like $50. We were in luck.

A quick jaunt next door and we were at the train station and picked up two tickets. This, again, was another eye opening experience. A round trip ticket to NYC in off-peak hours (which is before and after the morning commute, and after 7 p.m. or so) is $28. So, forty bucks (excluding the cost to get to CT) to get to New York and back. Awesome! I am loving this new discovery as there are many things my newly refreshed constitution enjoys these days. One of which is nice clothes. Most nice clothes I need to try on first and I can't do that online (not yet anyway) so I have to go to Manhattan. Now I can, and not worry about traffic or parking. All I need to concern myself is how boss I look. (and yes, I did say "boss").

So, we caught the 10:10 a.m. to NYC, and at 11:48 a.m. we arrived at Grand Central Station ...

The Grand Central Station.

And all I can think of is all the movies and that one where the bus smashes in through the wall and how they must have spent a ton of dough to put it back together, and I'm saying stuff to Paul like: "Man. It's so crowded ... it's like Grand Central Station in here!!", and he's groaning and playing along with my silly jokes. 

And then, we see this ...

Umm ... yeah! Cool! What the hell is going on?

These days, we--all of us--have cameras. Whether it's an actual camera that says "camera" on it somewhere, or whether it's our phone, it's in our pocket. And, since the internet has turned us all into a bunch of potential reporters (or cringeworthy "iReporters", as it were) when we see news breaking (or anything at all, for that matter) we pull out our cameras and take a picture. Now, I know I'm saying all this while contributing to the phenomena as well, but I couldn't help it. I mean, what the hell is going on here? Dancing with the Stars? A cigarette ad? Jeans? A.A.R.P? I have no freaking idea, but when (and if) I see it in a magazine or on a website I'll know that I took an "alternate angle" that the guy with the camera with the removable lens cap didn't. And so did twenty other people. Maybe CNN will want a composite shot. I'll have to text Wolf.

Next up? Hello, colorfully multicultural taxi driver. Please take me to your sandwich.

Katz's it is. Pickles were quick in arriving, delicious, and I'd say complimentary but I'd hazard to guess they include it into the price of the meal (which is what a new CD costs, but tastes much better).

I had the Ruben with pastrami ...

... and Paul, as I could have guessed, had the three meat combo. I will never need a flash for my camera as long as Paul keeps his hat off.

How about a close-up of my sandwich, eh?

Vegans be damned. You may live longer, but I'll be able to order for Jesus someday.

And, not just to waste your time, but to also give you a glimpse of the inner workings of the Katz's Ruben, ... (click on picture to enlarge ... or just eat one of these a day ... heh, heh).

And then it was time to play "dodge the crack addict" for a while while we made our way to one of my planned destinations for the day: the sample sale.

There's a small designer who has a store on Elizabeth street called UNIS (her name is Eunice Lee, but UNIS is more fashiony). She makes hip, handsome, and simple clothes for men (and a few for women). The items are actually constructed a couple of miles away in upper Manhattan. They were having a sample sale, where they deeply discount the past season's stock, as well as show off some upcoming styles. I found a bunch of stuff for 70% off and a couple of other pieces that made me drool, which, in turn forced me to buy them (there is a strict "you drool, you buy" policy). Katie, who worked there, helped me decide on a few items. She was honest and quite lovely. I make no excuses for my proclivity towards style and fashion. It's a thrilling part of life that most men go through by duress and sheepishly complain about. The ones with refined partners look good while whining.

Then it was off to the museum.

We, as luck would have it, were there on the one Monday a month that the museum stays open past 5:30 p.m.. It will take multiple visits to see the whole museum, but this was a nice primer. 

We started from the top and worked our way down. 

The Marlene Dumas: Measuring Your Own Grave exhibit was, as you could imagine, a bit dark. She is an amazing artist, but it wasn't my thing. We checked it out, nonetheless, but none of it gave me a get-out-my-camera-and-prove-you're-an-American feeling.

No, that didn't overtake me until I was in front of paintings which have been photographed a hundred million times. Like this one:

Picasso's "Three Musicians." I like that it has a shadow underneath it. It shows you that I was really there.

And this one of his that I wasn't as familiar with, "Girl Before a Mirror."

I was also quite taken with the work of Dutch artist, Piet Mondrian (below).

This on is called "Composition in Oval with Colored Panes 1".

From the MoMA's placard:

Mondrian moved from Holland to Paris in 1912, two years before he made this painting. The geometry of the composition is derived directly from the facades and remains of recently demolished apartments and refers to their exposed floors, walls, and chimneys. Having discarded naturalistic pictorial strategies, which, he contended, "obscure pure reality," Mondrian employed horizontal and vertical lines, believing they better expressed an unchanging, universal essence. This premise would fundamentally inform his artistic production throughout his career. While in Paris Mondrian regularly visited Pablo Picasso's studio. The oval that circumscribes this work was an unusual format used by Picasso at that time.

This, my friends, is what makes me hum. "an unchanging, universal essence." Magic. Just plain magic.

It also makes nice wallpaper for my iphone.

The same could be said for this Jackson Pollock:

And then for some Monet:

The poster, of the above piece, I remember from my college days. But it was a lot smaller than this (Monet's "Water Lillies").

But I didn't have my own personal photographer back then either. 

The MoMA also has a nice selection of Warhol.

Hmm ... interesting ... the thing I think the artist was trying to convey is three-fold ...

... but jeez ... you know ... all this soup is starting to make me hungry. How about a snack?

Chocolate creme brulee and a cappuccino, anyone?

And then back to some shenanigans.

Here, I'm battling The Invisible Edward Rushca (pronounced Roo-shay, apparently). It's in "The Fantastic Adventures of Fredzo and Pablo" issue #4, available soon.

And then, we had to hot-step it a bit as time was slipping away. Museums have a way of doing that. So, we headed to some of the other floors where they had some exhibits on design and architecture which also gets me hot. 

But before we left I had to take this pic. I find most warning signs amusing, but this one, extremely so. 

Boundaries, boundaries.

After a little more shopping at the gift store we headed out to the bright lights of Broadway.

It was only a short walk to the Iridium Club where Les Paul was playing (you do remember that this was the initial reason for going? I have a way of digressing, I know).

There was no line to get in and we were seated at a great spot fifteen or so feet away from where he was to sit and play with his trio.

Dinner was stellar, and we even got to chit-chat with a woman from New Jersey who remembered my name. I'm sorry I couldn't do the same. She had her own idea of how glass blowing was done, regardless of the fact that Paul made the piece she was admiring, and tried to correct her.

Just let it go ...

The reviews I read about the show online noted that Les didn't sign anything until after the second show as he needed to rest during the time between performances. This made me a little sad as I had bought tickets to the early show; I brought the pickguard from my Les Paul just in case.

He was ushered out to a darkened stage. Before the lights went up the voice of the man in the shadows said, "I feel like Ray Charles." 

At that point, I knew it was going to be a good night.

The lights came up and the applause was generous and genuine; we were seeing a true American legend, a pioneer in music, and someone who any guitarist owes a huge debt to. 

His band consisted of John Colianni on piano, Lou Pallo on rhythm guitar, and Nicki Parrott on bass. All superb musicians with impressive resumes. Look 'em up.

The hour-long show consisted of ten or so classic jazz tunes interspersed with some lengthy and somewhat rote banter. It probably wasn't too different than the second show, but that's unimportant. What was important was that from the first note he played it was very clear that the sound coming from that guitar was generated by one Les Paul. Les has a way of just hitting the string with such authority and determination which I have never heard anyone else accomplish, regardless of age. He may have been faster and more exotic about his playing in his earlier years, but his touch--his attack, vibrato, and release--is one of a kind.

Thankfully, they allowed photographs to be taken during the show. Unfortunately, many people are either not inclined or unable to disengage the artificial sound of the lens clicking shut. "Ka-shhh! Ka-shhh!" 

It was/is pretty annoying.

But that stopped after the first few tunes and folks just relaxed and enjoyed the evening.

He had a couple of guests come out. One of them, violinist, Christian Howes, was amazing. He even hornswoggled $20 out of both me and Paul for his CD's on the way out.

Later, Joey Reynolds was introduced. I had no idea who the hell this meatball was. He had a few jokes about how old Les was, and one that involved New Jersey, Obama, and the KKK.

I later found out he is credited with being the first "shock jock" back in the 1960's. 

Well, he was a guest. I guess that's enough.

Les Paul embodies a spirit that I don't see too often in the elderly. Working with the Young at Heart I do see it, but not too many outside places. It's a sense of wonderment that some of them have that they have been around so long and seen so much ... and they're still here, and they're performing and traveling and making audiences happy. What an amazing thing! Despite any encumbrances that may accompany aging there still lies the idea that the mind controls so much of how we feel. And if we don't let certain ingrained thought processes to exist in our consciousness then life can take on so much more detail and texture. And every day is a chance to learn something and feel something that we hadn't the day before.

It's just that many people choose to just give up and put up the big fight: life is against me.

Well, watching a man who has lived through both World Wars, the Depression, and everything after zip through a set of jazz classics, keeping up and showing off, smiling and goofing around with the crowd ... well it just made me sit there and smile and thank goodness that I'm still here ...

... and that I have friends like Pablo to experience them with.

Well, the show came to a close twenty minutes or so before I expected. I guess, for $50 a ticket and a $25 minimum per person, I thought he'd play for a little longer than an hour. But when the lights went down and his assistant helped him off stage I had a feeling that he wasn't going to be coming back to play Caravan or anything.

I was right.

Then a man came over the PA and said, "Thanks everybody for coming. That's the closest you're going to get to Mr. Paul unless you come back to the 10 o'clock show. He'll be talking to his fans after that, but right now he's got to rest up. You can meet his son, though, and buy the PBS special for a souvenir. His son will be happy to sign it for you."

No. That wasn't going to happen; not tonight.

I sat there for a few minutes while Paul got our coats, and finished my San Pellegrino. 

I checked to make sure I still had my pickguard and marker in my pocket.

I did.

And then, as the dining room emptied out, I casually stepped up to the side of the stage--the side Les had been brought off of. A man came out from the area and I asked him nervously, "Um ... excuse me ... is there any possible way you can get Mr. Paul to sign this for me?"

And he looked at me and said, "Why don't you go and do it yourself? What's the worst they're going to do to you ... beat you up?"

And, to this moment, I don't know two things: if this guy worked at the club, and, if they would have actually beat me up. 

What I do know is that I turned and faced a set of double doors--old, lacquered, jazz club doors with little diamond shaped windows in them; I pushed one of them open ...

... and I walked in.

And there, on a big, old, brown leather couch, sat the man, Les Paul, staring into space. He was smiling when he turned to look at me.

"Well ... who are you, now?"

"I ... my name is Alex, Mr. Paul. And ... um ... I owe you a huge debt of gratitude to you for all you've done for music."

"Well, thank you Alex. What do you play?"

"I play guitar ... I play your guitar ... and I was hoping you would sign this pickguard for me?"

"I don't see why not," he said.

And before I gave him the pickguard and marker I shook his hand; I needed some of the magic. Then I gave him the goods and stood back and watched him fluidly sign that sucker like he must have ten thousand times before, if not many more.

"Here you go, Alex. Nice to meet you."

I thanked him and earnestly--almost with tears in my eyes--asked him if it would be alright if I got a picture with him.

I flipped on my camera and handed it to the man who had told me to come back there moments before, and just emitted what I think were the words, "could you please ... " 

And I sat down next to a giant.

And I don't remember too much after that.

It was a great night. It was a night I had talked about for a while but had kept putting off. "He plays every week ... I'm sure I'll see him eventually."

Well, eventually is a scary word.

And now I have one less reason to use it.

Thanks for reading.


Oh yeah, I almost forgot ...

That's better.

"Keep pickin'".

Will do Mr. Paul ... will do.


Rick said...

Hot damn. Good for you, mate. I've seen him play at the Iridium, but didn't make it backstage. It's an honor to just be in the room and breathing the same air as that man.

Anonymous said...

how fun to take a quick trip to my favorite place in the world through your eyes...and your Les Paul meeting was the icing on the cake..Now having a MOMA craving...

Anonymous said...


Libby Spencer said...

What a great story. You're a lucky man Alex. Wonderful adventures follow you like a puppy chasing his kid.

Anonymous said...

Good for you !!! Your smile says it all Freddy. I wish you many more moments where the freedom of your authentic self takes you to places where you...Shine On!!!

guess said...

That sir was amazing. Thanks for bringing us along.. From the train ride through sandwich..the museum..and finally "Mr Paul"... what a "trip"!