Memoir

The Tale of the Swamp Beast (or 45 Years In the Life Of A Les Paul)

 

It all began with a broken Fender Telecaster.

My girlfriend and I lived in the attic of an old Victorian on the outskirts of Savannah’s historic district. Outside the attic’s little window the stained glass from a nearby church steeple shimmered through air so humid that some days I’d gasp when I stepped outside, swallowing the thick air like mouthfuls of soup. Everything smelled of swamp, river, and paper mill. I loved that attic. I loved that girl, too.

Who knows what we were fighting about. I might have asked her when she last checked the tire pressure on her hand me down Cordoba, or she might have found a Playboy tucked under the couch that doubled as our foldout bed. All of our fights were set pieces, little sketches that we watched as children and now dutifully performed in our first adult relationship. All I remember about that particular argument was the sound of my Telecaster hitting the attic floor and splitting in two like a piece of dry firewood.

It was heartbreaking, but I had no business owning a guitar that good anyway. I was a front porch player–cowboy chords and the blues scale weren’t just all that I could handle, they were all I wanted to handle. Guys like Artie and Ian at my art school, they were real musicians. Before moving to Savannah, Artie played in a band in New Orleans where he closed every show by hacking at his guitar with a flaming machete. Me, I just passed the time plinking out “Sweet Home Alabama” and “So. Central Rain” for an audience of none.

That’s the real beauty of making music, by the way. It’s not how well you sing or play or what kind of success you achieve, but rather how pleasantly the time passes while you shake the air around you. Plucking a string and moving the thick, swampy air is as close to conjuring spirits as I’d ever get in that sweaty attic, and those spirits made for good company.

Christmas crept closer. The girlfriend shoved me into her hand me down Cordoba and drove me to a guitar shop off of Abercorn Street. She stood proudly in front of a black Kramer hanging from the wall. It had a Stratocaster-style body, a whammy bar, and a locking nut. It was the kind of guitar that guys with teased hair and spandex pants went meedley meedley meedley on before they spun it around their backs and caught it. I must have looked confused, because she said, “Do you love it? It’s yours! Well, it will be. I put a down payment on it, but once I’ve paid it off it’s yours!”

That’s what she said. What she meant was: “I’m sorry that we fought and you broke your guitar.”

“I love it,” I said.  What I meant was: “This is the nicest thing that anyone has ever done for me.”

A few weeks passed, and the guitar shop called. “If you don’t get down here and make a payment I’m putting this Kramer back in stock,” Guitar Guy said. I rode down to the shop and gave him a few bucks. The next week I did the same thing, and then again the following week, and on and on.

“You don’t seem too interested in that Kramer,” Guitar Guy said one afternoon while he was counting my cash.

“What do you mean?”

“You never ask to get it down and play it. You just give me your money and split.”

“No, I’m interested. My girlfriend bought it for me,” I said.

He looked at the cash in his hand, and then back to me. “Looks to me like you’re the one paying for it, dude. Look, if you don’t like it you aren’t going to play it. Why don’t you get something you want? Take a look around. If you find a guitar you like better I’ll apply the payments you’ve made to that one instead.”

I walked down the long row of guitars hanging from the wall. They were the colors of workout gear: neon greens and yellows, pearl whites and fiery reds, the occasional black. Most were shaped like Strats, but a few were Vees or Explorers. They all had whammy bars and locking nuts and waited to go meedley meedley meedley before they were spun around their owners’ backs.

Hanging at the very end of the row was an old, beat up Gibson Les Paul Deluxe Goldtop. “Can I see that one?” I asked.

“Nobody wants those Deluxes,” Guitar Guy said. “It’s like carrying around an ironing board, and those mini-humbuckers aren’t very hot. I guess you could gut it, put in some DiMarzios and throw a Floyd Rose on it.”

“Can I see it?” I repeated. He shrugged and handed me the guitar.

Somebody must have wanted this particular Deluxe, because it bore the scars of a well-used guitar. The binding was nicked up, and the gold paint had almost worn through where the forearm of its previous owner rested on its body. I flipped the Les Paul over and saw the big bare spot where his belt buckle had scratched completely through the guitar’s finish. Its headstock was banged up, the lacquer was cracked all along the back of the neck, and the frets were well worn. All of the Deluxe’s chrome hardware was pitted from years of coastal Georgia’s humid air, its heavy mahogany body probably weighed down by all of the swamp that had absorbed into the wood. I’m surprised there wasn’t Spanish moss tangled in the strings.

This was no shredder guitar. This was a swamp beast meant for a dilapidated front porch, the kind of guitar that suited my cowboy chords and blues scales. This was no meedley meedley meedley guitar. It was a machine meant to conjure spirits and fend off loneliness.

“What year is it?”

“It’s a ’70,” Guitar Guy said.

“How’d you get it?”

“Guy traded it in for a Steve Vai Ibanez.”

“How much?”

“$425.”

“I’ll take it.”

I couldn’t wait to visit the guitar shop each week with whatever spare cash I could scrape up. I’d sit and visit with my Les Paul, strumming my open chords and fingerpicking whatever song came to mind. Thirty years later, I still can’t play with a pick. Eventually I paid the swamp beast off, and she came home to the attic of the Victorian on the outskirts of Savannah’s Historic District.

We left for Los Angeles a few months after that, the girlfriend and I. We took only what we could fit in her hand me down Cordoba, which in my case included a typewriter, a box of art supplies, a duffel bag, and my Les Paul. As far as I know Savannah to L.A. was the guitar’s first trip across the country. We settled in a cruddy little Hollywood apartment within walking distance of the famous Sunset Strip, where shredders in spandex went meedley meedley meedley on their stunt guitars. Our apartment building was full of guys who said things like “I can play eight notes per second.” Me, I just sat on our little patio and strummed my cowboy chords in the dry desert heat.

The dry air made me feel like my skin was going to crack open. I missed the Southeast’s humidity, and I think my Les Paul did, too: cracks formed in its gold paint. I guess I should’ve been bothered by that, but they just looked like more character to me. I was finally adding a little of my own mojo to the Deluxe’s craggy face.

The girl eventually left me, and coincidentally the era of the guys with the teased hair who went meedley meedley meedley ended, too. Music suited to heavy Gibsons came back in style, be it Soundgarden’s muddy SGs or Pearl Jam’s bright Les Pauls. Alone in the cruddy Hollywood apartment I once shared with the girl, I played along to “Alive” and tried unsuccessfully to fend off the loneliness.

I decided that I had to get out of L.A., but more importantly I had to get rid of anything that might harbor any of the girl’s mojo. I sold everything in the apartment–the furniture, the dishes, the posters on the wall, my books, my stereo. It was a short walk up to the row of guitar shops on the Strip. Given the Grunge wave, I’d have no problem getting my $425 back. I might even make a few bucks.

But I couldn’t do it. The day I saw Dokken’s George Lynch wearing a flannel and a wallet chain I knew that the swamp beast was going to end up in some poseur’s hand, some reformed Sunset Strip shredder jumping on the alternative bandwagon. No, my Les Paul needed to go home where it belonged. I called my best buddy from high school and we struck a deal. The Deluxe took its second trip across country, this time from Hollywood to Columbia, South Carolina.

There it sat for ten years until I found myself trapped on the east coast after the events of September 11, 2001. With all flights grounded, I took the opportunity to drive to Columbia and visit my buddy. We did the requisite catching up, and then he asked me if I wanted to see my Les Paul. “Hasn’t been mine for a long time, but sure,” I said.

“I only bought her because I thought that someday you might want to have her back.”

That’s what he said. What he meant was: “I only bought her because I thought that someday you might want to have her back.”

“Nah” I said.  What I meant was: “That is the nicest thing that anyone has ever done for me.”

After that visit, I began referring to the swamp beast as mine again, even though it hadn’t been mine for years–ten, then 20, then 25, and on and on, each tick of the clock moving the reality of “my guitar” ever farther into the mist.

And then, just a few weeks ago, I received an email from my old buddy. “I’m going to be selling a 1974 Les Paul Deluxe Goldtop soon. You interested?”

“Sounds cool. Does it look a lot like my ’70?” I asked.

“It is yours,” he wrote back. I’d known the swamp beast as a 1970 for 30 years, but I believed him immediately because: A) My buddy is rarely wrong; and B) Guitar Guy circa 1987 didn’t have the benefit of the Internet. These days dating a Gibson is as simple as Googling the serial number.

We negotiated a price, and a week later a cardboard box the size of a small casket appeared on my front porch. The Les Paul had completed its third trip cross country, this time from Columbia, South Carolina to Sacramento, California.  I unpacked her, read the nice note from my buddy, and played the opening riff to “Alive,” a song I hadn’t played in probably 25 years. It took me a couple of days to realize the swamp beast knew where we left off even if I didn’t.

I wasn’t sure that I wanted the Les Paul back, even if I had been referring to her as mine for all of those years. Part of that was concern that such a big purchase was frivolous. You can buy a decent guitar these days for a few hundred bucks, after all, and besides: Why do I need a Les Paul? I’ll never play in a band, never record a song. Me owning such an instrument makes about as much sense as an old fart behind the wheel of a Ferrari. I can’t drive the swamp beast over 35, and I tend to leave her turn signal on long after I’ve changed lanes. In my hands, the Les Paul is a waste of performance machinery.

Part of it was probably concern that some mojo from my first true love still lingered somewhere inside the Les Paul’s worn finish, and to some extent that’s true. I swear I can still smell Savannah’s mix of swamp and paper mill when I take the swamp beast out of her case, though I know that can’t be true after 30 years.

But when I feel her weight on my knee and my fret hand is wrapped around that fat neck I know she’s home where she belongs. That might not be my belt buckle mark on the back of her body, but this has always been my guitar. Those other guys were just holding onto her until the time was right, and I appreciate it more than they’ll ever know.

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