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Friday, April 3, 2009

Golden Guitars

The mania of collecting

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Tony Bacon's intriguing book, Million Dollar Les Paul: In Search of the Most Valuable Guitar in the World (Jawbone Press), is based on the reality that one day a Les Paul will sell for a million. But the text is about much more than guitar collecting, exploring the players who made these guitars famous in ways nobody could have predicted. It is ultimately about a generation losing its collective peace of mind and winding up as collectors of nothing but empty, expensive memories.

Million Dollar Les Paulbecomes a music history about guitar culture's bright and dark identities. Bacon's writing is elegant and his attention to detail beyond compare. He has written the finest book on why guitars, specifically the Les Paul, have become more than musical instruments and less than instruments made for music.

The guitar that is central to the book is the original sunburst finish model, known to collectors as the "Burst," produced at the end of the 1950s. This was the Les Paul of choice for Michael Bloomfield, Eric Clapton, Duane Allman, Billy Gibbons, Keith Richards, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page. Notably, the 2009 Gibson catalog portrays Bloomfield on its back cover, playing his 1959 sunburst Les Paul, and quotes from Tony Bacon's book voluminously. The 1959 Burst Reissue, a catalog highlight, is the reason. We have contemporary guitar manufacturing using out-of-reach emotion as a marketing tool.

We also have Bloomfield-one of the world's most uniquely stylized players, responsible for that early Dylan amplified sound and Paul Butterfield's white blues assault-who died tragically and mysteriously, reincarnated to sell a reborn guitar he very well could have pawned for heroin. Bacon carefully cites the '59 Bloomfield Burst as MIA under very suspicious circumstances in his book.

Baby boomers love circumstances fraught with mystery, especially if there is a guitar involved. This is why Burst guitar prices have gone sky-high, beyond earthbound players' hands and into locked display cases in doctors' offices and under Plexiglas behind the rec-room bar in mansions, replete with an alarm that would go off louder than Bloomfield played if anybody touched it.

There is something at once charming and disarming about buying a used sunburst Les Paul "in 1962 for $185.00…and in 2006 [selling] it at auction for $192,000." Charming, in that we have an economic source point for how much popular culture values its icons and disarming in that there goes one guitar that will never be played again.

And it is the latter that ultimately becomes the main character in Million Dollar Les Paul: a vicarious buyer wanting to achieve immortality or somehow get next to somebody who did so through rock music by possessing an item that was once a tool, a practical piece of equipment, used to make the music that seems to be impossible to overcome.

Look at the counterrevolution in guitars today, where the cheap brands of the '50s and '60s are coming back in droves, defeating the higher-priced ones of those times, the better ones, as these collectibles now signify a dead musical idiom to younger players seeking to find new sounds. Canonized rock music is not in affordable, crummy guitars. It is a healthy sign that vintage guitars go to old men and younger men and women do not want them as much. The latter want music. The former want what music once was to them.

In the end, Bacon's research and stories of this Burst and that, so much fun to read, is the tale of sad people wanting to avoid the grave circumstances of either never having been a rock star or never imagining their own middle-aged stars were going to burst.