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The World’s Greatest Unknown Guitar Player Plunges Into the Sea of Light

December 12, 2013  |  6:15pm
The World’s Greatest Unknown Guitar Player Plunges Into the Sea of Light

My friend Paul Mayer, the world’s greatest unknown guitar player, died on December 7.
Never heard of him? Well, let me tell you. For a decade we were neighbors on a street called Vision Drive in Topanga Canyon. If you love music, you’ve probably heard about Topanga, one of those seminal bohemian places where a truckload of the best music of the ‘60s and the ‘70s originated. Tucked into the steep valleys of the Santa Monica mountains right in between its high-roller neighbors Malibu and Pacific Palisades, poor cousin Topanga served as a cheap, funky artist’s colony back in the day. Even now you can see the lean-tos, cabins with no foundation and rickety 1930s mother-in-law “guest houses” spread across those valleys, on narrow winding streets haunted by the younger, wide-eyed ghosts of great musicians.

“Man, can you feel it here?” an overeager realtor asked a Topanga house-hunting friend once. “Neil Young. Linda Ronstadt. Woody Guthrie. Fleetwood Mac. Can you feel it?”
We laughed about that, but Fleetwood really did write and put down the first tracks on Rumours at the house at the end of our street, and Woody really did spend a few years on the grounds of the Theatricum Botanicum, Will Geer’s performance space for McCarthy-accused Hollywood blacklist victims, and Shakey Neil really did live right down the road, too, where he wrote and recorded After the Gold Rush in his basement in 1970. Two of L.A.’s canyons—Laurel and Topanga—together helped give birth to the folk; folk-rock; rock; and singer/songwriter ages in American music. From those two places—dilapidated, sylvan rural homelands for poor creative kids who wanted to start a revolution—American music conquered the world.

One little club called The Topanga Corral hosted just about everyone. Locals Little Feat, Spirit, Canned Heat, Emmylou and a whole passel of other great musicians got their start at the Corral. Etta James sung her heart out there. Jim Morrison wrote the song “Roadhouse Blues” about driving up to the Corral one night. The place launched many a career, then burned down, probably set aflame by all those creative sparks. Rebuilt, it became a punk venue in the ‘80s, then burnt down again. My friend Paul played there many times, usually in the house band, because as one of the top session guys in the country, he could play anything with anyone. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me start at the beginning.

Paul grew up in the San Fernando Valley, an L.A. kid from a blue-collar family, his dad and uncles were construction guys who eventually did pretty well for themselves in Southern California’s boom years. Paul helped out as a kid, so he could throw drywall mud, frame up a house and build just about anything. But tired of manual labor, Paul went off to college, determined to make something out of his life. He majored in finance, found out he was good with numbers, got his degree and became a stockbroker. He made a pile, but he hated it. Meanwhile, here came that big train of the ‘60s down the tracks, and Paul picked up an electric guitar. He quit breaking stocks and started breaking rocks, hammering out those gut-churning chords on his Les Paul, making the world a louder, more elemental and much more dangerous place.

He got good fast. He put together a few bands, sure, and you probably even heard of them, but it was the session work that made him a music industry legend. Often playing un-credited so the famous band members didn’t get too embarrassed, Paul’s guitar graced some of the seminal singles, albums and soundtracks of the era. If you’ve listened to classic rock radio or heard the major West Coast bands, you’ve heard Paul’s licks.

He could make any axe scream for mercy, wail like a banshee or coo like a contented, milk-fed baby. Acoustic or electric, classical, rock, folk, slack-key, flamenco, weird tunings, Paul had ears famous for their acuity, perceptiveness and delicate, nuanced shadings of sound. Blessed with an eidetic music memory, he remembered every song he ever heard, and could play them immediately on request. This made him invaluable in session work, and he got tons of it. He played first guitar in all four of the big film orchestras that scored and soundtracked every major Hollywood movie during the time. Name a major music director or a conductor—Paul had played with them. Mention Paul’s name to the producers who did the big projects, and they knew, right away, that your music industry insider credentials were solidly in order.

Paul loved rock ‘n’ roll, but transcended it. Short, stout, pale, friendly, intelligent, self-deprecating, reliable, always ready with a smile or a bright quip, he didn’t fit the dark brooding rebel guitar-hero image—but he played the solos and lead breaks you thought those guys were playing. Paul was a pro’s pro. Like most great instrumentalists, he eventually wanted bigger challenges than standard three-chord progressions, and the complex siren song of jazz and classical spoke to him. So he got his PhD in guitar from UCLA and began to teach. You’d see the rock gods carrying their git-fiddle cases into Paul’s place in Topanga, hoping nobody saw them, going to get lessons from the master. Also, Paul taught a whole new generation of pickers and players at Santa Monica College, literally hundreds of aspiring guitar virtuosos, where he became one of the most beloved guitar professors in the country.

But as the big-orchestra film score-era faded, as the studio world gave way to sampling and digitized sound, the paying gigs for accomplished session musicians gradually went away, too. So Paul did something he had wanted to do since his brother returned from combat in Vietnam permanently disabled from PTSD—he went to work in a mental hospital, running an innovative and very successful music therapy program. Every day Paul would make the long drive down the dreaded 405 to the hospital in Orange County, and use his remarkable command of rock licks and flamenco trills and classical phrases to soothe the minds and souls of his patients.

And when a bunch of us would get together in the neighborhood to play and sing music, about once a month or so, just to spend a night belting out a few songs among friends for the pure pleasure of it, Paul would tell us about how his music actually made people whole. That’s when he’d smile the biggest. Then he’d tell a self-effacing joke, grin again and play another song, a musician at the absolute top of his form, the maestro and his instrument one. We’d marvel at his abilities. Stunned, new guests at our music nights would whisper “Whoa—who is that guy?” Even the pros who stopped by to jam dropped their jaws when they saw his left hand flash across the frets, or when he travis-picked through a bluegrass tune at triple tempo, or when they heard him play a song from memory that he obviously hadn’t thought about for decades. I saw his speed and his agility and his pure and humble musicianship make more than a few expert players open their guitar cases, put their axes away, and just sit and watch and listen and learn.

The last time I talked to Paul, a few months ago, my wife Teresa and I sat and ate lunch with him at Vern Putnam’s funeral, another wonderful Topanga neighbor whose big heart had suddenly decided to quit at 66. In the shade of the giant oak trees at the Theatricum, right next to Woody’s cabin, the three of us mourned our close friend, reflected on the nearness of the next stage of existence for all of us and contemplated the mysterious ways of the fates. Paul happily told us that his two adult daughters were doing really well in life. Also, he said, beaming, that he had just fallen in love, met the woman he planned to spend the rest of his life with, and was making plans for early retirement. Paul seemed happy and fulfilled.

Then a month ago Paul, only a little past 60, got a diagnosis of leukemia. He died last Saturday, sitting at home. No one knows what killed him—maybe the new medication, a heart attack, or something unknown. Like so many of my generation’s great musicians, he has taken the plunge into the sea of light.

I suspect Paul’s sitting in with the angel band now.

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