Les Paul, the internet, and surfing

I am a fully-paid-up faddist. I watched a (repeated – he’s 91 now) tribute to Les Paul, the guitarist and recording genius, made for his 9oth birthday. I’ve always liked ‘How High The Moon’, his duet with his wife Mary Ford, and, like most people, I thought he’d invented a guitar (whereas he gave his imprimatur to one – and later withdrew it). Now suddenly, I am a Les Paul fan. So off I went on a digital surf (the only sort I will ever do. Waves are big and you fall off, and drown).

In no time, I found myself here – at a site which has free, downloadable recordings – eleven of them – of radio shows Les Paul and Mary Ford made in 1950, playing live music against pre-recordings of their vocals and guitar-work, so that the double-tracked harmonies come hauntingly out of the loudspeaker. There can’t be anyone else on the planet who got his career break playing with Gene Autry, but who went on to play with Django Reinhardt, Bing Crosby, and Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck (the latter continuing to look as if he is still under 30). Nor anyone who was as at home in country as in jazz (he claimed Miles Davis had asked him why he, Miles, never had a hit. ‘Play the melody,’ advised Les Paul. The idea that Miles Davis actually wanted a hit record is a curious thought).

But having travelled to the web-site by accident, I found I’d stumbled on a treasure trove of public domain recordings, including a host of 1943 radio shows made for GIs overseas, including some which threw into one mix unlikely couples like (say) Groucho Marx and Judy Garland. So my hard drive is now swelling with old radio broadcasts, and I am not sure I dare to go back to the home-page of the site for fear of what else I will find which uses up my not-very-precious time.

It is of course just a bit wretched to find your hero’s hero some decades after your hero-worship began. Steve Miller was certainly my hero guitar-player in the early 1970s; Les Paul turns out to have been his godfather, and to have taught him to play (Miller’s father was Les Paul’s best man). This is the kind of stuff I am supposed to know off backwards. Maybe all those music magazines I read have started to dwell on the same factoids every month; maybe I am just becoming a careless reader. Or maybe I am just forgetting faster than I am remembering.

Surfing the internet is a killer and a kick-start if you write. I wrote a poem about lungs last year (you heard), but it started out as a poem about leaves. Somehow I got distracted, and found myself reading Gray’s Anatomy, or, more precisely, looking at the pictures. Did you know that lungs are pink when they are young, but turn all too quickly to a vague shade of grey? If that isn’t tragic, I don’t know what is. You get to five years old, and already it looks as if you’ve been inhaling creosote or ash.

So now my head is ringling (the right word, I think) with Les Paul’s nippy guitar-licks and Mary Ford’s harmonies, I’ve laughed at a Groucho Marx one-liner, and I have a vague idea of what my lungs looked like. One of the most common slang phrases of the day is ‘too much information’. Maybe so. Hit the internet, and your brain (always grey, I imagine) starts thinking ‘not enough information’.

Add to that the news today that two Google searches use as much energy as a kettle, and I think that tea may never taste the same again. Hot beverages or a swill of info. That’s the kind of choice no-one in their wrong mind should ever have to make.

And a postcript: in the back of my head, I could hear George Harrison humming the Les Paul and Mary Ford hit ‘Waiting For The Sunrise’. I woke to realise it was George (not playing) watching Carl Perkins do his take on a special recorded about 20 years ago. Youtube, as ever, has it:


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