I was Jimmy Page. Every ding and pick mark, every erosion of the sunburst finish on the back of my instrument -- from belt buckles, buttons, stage sequins -- were on the $20,000 Les Paul Custom I cradled on my lap. I riffed through a few lines of "Dazed and Confused," "Heartbreaker," "Good Times, Bad Times," and, of course, "Stairway to Heaven." I stopped because I thought I heard someone over my shoulder shout, "No 'Stairway to Heaven'!" I'm always half expecting that when I'm test-driving a guitar in a music store...ever since I saw Wayne's World. I switched to a little of "Beck's Bolero" (not Beck Beck), but I played it backward -- hah-hah (a little joke between Jeff and me).
I was in "the Marshall Room" at Centre City Music on Sixth Avenue, plugged into a Fender Deluxe. A Fender, usually a Super Reverb or Twin Reverb, had always been my weapon of choice when I swaggered across stages back in the day. Cock of the rock. I was bad. Yes, I was.
I was playing the Jimmy Page model Les Paul, an exact duplicate, down to every scratch mark, of the guitar Page has used so often onstage and in the studio. It was surprisingly lightweight: nine pounds (yes, the guitars are weighed, the weight marked). The 1969 Les Paul Black Beauty I played in the 1970s was heavier. The Page model, which plays, I might add, like butter, is one of a dozen or so for sale at Centre City and really is priced at $20,000. It, along with the others, hang on the top rack, behind the counter and above the Alvin Lee ES-335 model ($8000). Lower down is the dark-blood-red Pete Townshend triple humbucking pickup Les Paul (only 75 made), which weighs in at 10.2 pounds and is priced at $7000.
I had to try the Alvin Lee. This thing is marketed for guys like me...only with money: old baby boomers to whom Woodstock is a groovy memory -- only I was at Altamont, the anti-Woodstock. The Lee is festooned with the same stickers and decals that the blond Ten Years After guitarist had placed all over his guitar. If you're old enough (or saw the Woodstock movie), you'll remember, for example, the peace sign -- and then there's some other crap, all of it, worn or peeled away exactly as it has on Lee's ax. A few years ago, I saw Lee sitting in with Eric Burdon at Humphrey's, and this was a perfect reproduction of the baby he played.
Back in the Marshall Room, I plugged the ES-335 Alvin Lee into the Fender and attacked a little of Woody Herman's "Woodchopper's Ball," which Lee had done, putting an aggressive rock feel to big-band music. The guitar was and is a fine one to play, but my fingers felt as if they were encased in thick, foam-rubber gloves; I had no calluses. My chops were shot. "Goin' Home" sounded ham-fisted in my hams...that is, hands. My fingers had become sausages. "Good Morning, Little Schoolgirl," a much easier song, came out better. I looked over my shoulder, grinning at owner Saul Frank (who looks more than a little like Michael Keaton) as if to say, "Dig this, I've still got it!" but he was on his cell phone. He was probably taking a multithousand-dollar order from some lawyer in West Virginia.
Saul Frank and his mother Esther are the owners/operators of Centre City. Lee Brown is their single employee. Centre City started out as AB Music in 1964 with Leon Frank, who passed away in 2000. The business became Centre City in 1990. Prior to 1964, Leon Frank operated a pawn shop on Fifth Avenue.
I told Saul Frank that I had periodic fantasies throughout my life of working in a music store, a store that specializes in guitars, in particular. To me, the electric guitar is as romantic an object as a tall sailing ship, a jeweled sword, or, had I lived 200 years earlier, a fine violin. What has prevented me from pursuing this fantasy is the recurring experience of young men and boys in such stores playing, shredding, thrashing horribly at high volume for what would seem like hours; the "No Stairway to Heaven" principle.
If a 12-year-old comes in and wants to crank on a Marshall, "They have to go through me first," Frank told me. "I only have one room, and I've got doctors, lawyers, CPAs coming in here. They're ready to buy. I might give a kid five or ten minutes if it's not busy.
"You don't see a lot of kids working for me, for example," Frank pointed out. "There's no music really in the background. We're here to sell Gibson guitars." And he has hundreds of them as well as several PRS, or Paul Reed Smith, guitars; perfectly fine musical devices and very Gibson-like. As Frank is unable to post photos of his Gibsons on his Web page for obscure copyright reasons I did not understand, he displays photos of the PRS instruments. He told me the guitars are so Gibson-like that Gibson is suing PRS over the design of their single-cut model. Frank also sells Epiphones -- good guitars, but a step down from Gibson, of which Epiphone is a subsidiary.
"People call me after seeing the PRS photos and ask, 'What other types of guitars do you have? Do you have Gibsons?' I can say, 'Yeah, we have about four or five hundred Gibsons in stock.' 'Do you have this model or that? Do you have pictures?' I can say, 'Yeah' and e-mail them." Frank then showed me his book of e-mail orders from all over the country. This was a multipaged tome the size of a Tom Clancy hardcover. "I have to have an Internet presence or I'm losing business."
Steering him back to specific guitars, I asked him if he had even more expensive guitars than the $20,000 Jimmy Page I played. "Not at the moment. I had a signed one I sold for $50,000." Apparently, Page played several of the reproductions for (I'm guessing) two minutes each, and if he liked them, he signed them. Boom, another $30,000.
"Who buys these things at those prices?" I asked with real incredulity.
"Collectors," he answered evenly, matter-of-factly.
I began thinking of a couple of collectors I knew. Both were trust-fund hippies who couldn't play their way out of a barn door. One kid, named Reid or Riff or something, taunted me with his Les Pauls, his Rickenbackers, Gretsch Country Gentlemans, and 1950s Fender Broadcasters and Strats. He lived next door and he never let me play them. Instead, he made me listen to his lame, effeminately sensitive compositions on instruments that were meant to roar. Meanwhile, I was duct-taping my Telecaster together after imitating Pete Townshend's guitar violence onstage in San Francisco gay bars -- the only gigs we could get at the time.
I kept eyeing the Townshend model behind the register. I knew Frank would let me play it if I asked, but the idea of playing "My Generation" on the thing at my age seemed ludicrous. "Hope I die before I get old"? Too late.
At one point, Frank produced a Gibson catalog of re-creations, famous models from the past: the 1952 Les Paul Gold Top, the '54, '56, and '57 of the same; the 1954 Oxblood; my old Black Beauty, only a '54 and a '57, one with "Mastertone," whatever that was. Here were Les Paul Juniors, single and double cut. (For the uninitiated, think of a single cut as one horn on a cow; a double, that would be two.) Pages of SG's: Specials, Standards and Customs, a '58 Explorer, a '59 Flying V, Firebirds, a Wes Montgomery, and the other jazz models such as the L-5, the Birdland, the Citation.
I would have started weeping, but I turned the page and began to chuckle inwardly at the idea of rich kids buying the Zakk Wylde (from Black Label Society) "Bullseye" and "Camouflage Bullseye" or the Lenny Kravitz Flying V, the Bob Marley model. All with Dad or Mom's money, no doubt.
Frank had at least one of the Zakk Wyldes and I think a couple of Joe Perry models. Perry's a fine rock guitarist, but his Les Pauls are painted kind of funny. Back to the catalog, and I found an object of such near-erotic affection that it was embarrassing: a pure white double-necked EDS-1275, again something Jimmy Page used (or near enough) with both the 12-string neck and the 6.
Meanwhile, Frank displayed a couple of non-Gibson beauts he had taken as trade-ins; one, a Gretsch hollow-body 6120 in primo condition with a pumpkin paint job. "See, we're like a Mercedes dealership that will take Volvos in trade. If we just had Volvos we wouldn't get Mercedes in trade." He then produced a mint-condition Fender Stratocaster; another trade-in and, coincidentally -- and oddly -- a pumpkin color, only more metallic in sheen.
"People trade this stuff in. They trade toward a Mercedes. I don't need a Fender line." The Gretsch and Stratocaster might be put on display in the ornate wood-and-glass cases across from the counter or they may be placed in a safe. They will not hang with the Gibsons, Epiphones, and PRSs.
I finally cracked and asked to play the Townshend. In the Marshall Room, I went through a few power chords to "I Can See for Miles" and some Tommy stuff. The guitar fought back, it seemed.
When I unplugged and came out of the room, Frank said, smiling, "It's like going back in time, isn't it?"
"Yeah," I sighed. "Yeah, it is."