Les Bohem

The Gibson L-1

Tim had read once that a songwriter had to be careful when performing an old song—
that they would forget that they were not the person
they had been when they’d first written the song.
This was something that Alex Chilton had told Ray Davies.
He wasn’t just talking about a near eighty-year-old Mick Jagger
singing about not having the “jam” to fuck all night,
or about how lucky Cobain was to have died before he got old,
he was talking about simpler and more honest expressions of art and self.
Of Ray singing “Waterloo Sunset” long after Terry and Julie had gone to the Home,
or of getting lost in his own magnificent body of work–
a forty-five-year-old singing “Thirteen” was either sad or creepy,
even if inside his own head when he sang it,
he was a sad and lost middle-schooler.

Tim, seventy-one now himself,
tried it out alone in a room
singing with all of his heart and sincerely,
a song he had written when he was twenty-two.
For the less than three minutes of the song,
he felt it; he was a young man with his life stretching out ahead,
the mistakes he was afraid of making were all repairable.
When he’d finished playing the song,
he set the guitar back in its stand and let his old age sink back in.

It hurt terribly.
He wasn’t done yet; wasn’t even sure he had started.
Over the last few years, he had begun to do a certain kind of inevitable math—
pick which books you really are going to read—
which music you’re going to listen to
(although in truth, he listened to less and less music now,
as other people’s songs had begun to show him younger worlds,
worlds he would never be a part of,
and that too, hurt terribly).
He knew, with near certainty, that he would never visit India or Japan;
or for that matter, see Duluth or ever go back to Denver, Colorado.

He had mentioned this to a friend who had given him a Harry Crewes novel to read—
that he had to make certain decisions about what books he actually would spend time with.
She had told him he was being morbid.
He had told her he was doing simple arithmetic.
If he was lucky, he had twelve, maybe fifteen years of reading time left
So, let’s say a book every month, less if he went for Dickens, Pynchon, Gaddis.

12 a year.
180 books left, at the outside, in his life.
He could make a list of 180 books he hadn’t read and would like to get to
in an afternoon.

It was a sobering bit of multiplication
and a hard way to start a morning that he had thought would just be him and his guitar
and an empty room with pretty good acoustics
and no one to hear him when his aging voice, never that good to begin with, cracked.

Ten years ago, he had started dropping the tuning on his guitars,
but that meant that while he could hit some semblance of the top,
the bottom was a rusty can,
a grim pocket of phlegm and frayed cords where the low notes had been.

Tim’s guitar was older than he was.
A 1934 Gipson L-1
It had come, like most guitars, without a history.
One owner or ten?
A throw-away guitar for a performer who owned many more expensive models
or an instrument that representing a lifetime of savings and hope?
What songs had been played on this instrument between 1934
when it left to Gibson factory in Kalamazoo, Michigan
(crafted by German violin makers came to the United States
after the First World War,
the market for guitars in the States so much greater than that for violins)
and 2007,
when Tim had bought it on-line from a guitar shop in Philadelphia,
a city where, he was quite sure. he would never go.


Les Bohem is a songwriter with songs recorded by Emmylou Harris, Randy Travis, Freddy Fender, Johnette Napolitano, and Alvin (of the Chipmunks). He played bass with Sparks as well as with his own band, Gleaming Spires. His audible novels, Junk (narrated by John Waters) and Jive, are available on Audible. Junk was a NYT notable for 2019. Please listen to his recent album, Moved to Duarte, available wherever you stream your music. He wrote the movies Dante’s Peak and Twenty Bucks and the miniseries, Taken, for which he won an Emmy. You can find out more at lesbohemswonderfulworldoflesbohem.com.