Saturday, April 02, 2016

For Mike Woodhull, Carlos Santana, and me

I don't get out much anymore, but luckily for me, I have friends who make sure that I don't lack entertainment. The other day, Big Mike Richardson -- who knows thousands of songs, and can sing and play them on several instruments -- messaged me that he had just left a care package on my doorstep. How Big Mike, a large man, was able to do so without my awareness while I was sitting right by the window is a puzzlement. But I'm sure glad he did.

Among the goodies that were waiting when I opened the door were Carlos Santana's 2014 autobiography The Universal Tone: Bringing My Story To Light, and a couple of CDs' worth of vintage live Santana from the Fillmore, recorded in '68 and released in '97. I was unaware of the release because I've only been a fan intermittently over the years, but I was as delighted to have the tunes as I was the book (for I devour music books like potato chips, even when my attention span is otherwise about three minutes long, as it is now). So it was that I spent yesterday -- which would have been Big Mike's and my mutual friend Mike Woodhull's 63rd birthday, had he not passed away last June -- reading Carlos' story and alternating sides of Santana's Lotus live triple LP (recorded in '73, released in '74, but only in Japan) and Miles Davis' Agharta, also recorded live in Japan a couple of years later. (Woodhull's wife Kristin says it's better to celebrate the life than mourn the loss, and I'm inclined to agree.)

I always say that Hendrix was the water I grew up swimming in, but in truth, it was more like a marinade, and some of the other ingredients were Jeff Beck, Johnny Winter, Miles, and Santana. (I loved the 'orrible 'oo most of all, but once I started playing, other people became more important to me.) Jimi and Jeff came first, when I was 12. Johnny became really important to me after I met my teenage guitar mentor when I was 15. Miles came later, during my "jazz snob" phase when I was 18.

The first two songs I ever played in a band, when I was 15, were "Oye Como Va" and "Samba Pa Ti." But I was aware of Santana before that. "Evil Ways" got played on AM radio when I was 12, but in my memory, it's eclipsed by two other hits from that year that seemed more foreign to my inexperienced ears back then: Desmond Dekker's "The Israelites" and Sir Douglas Quintet's "Mendocino." Seeing Santana burn through "Soul Sacrifice" while tripping balls on mescaline (the Santana musos, not your humble chronicler o' events) in the Woodstock movie the following summer made a deeper impression. While Carlos writes that Sly, Hendrix, and (probably) the Who owned Woodstock, my most vivid memories were of Richie Havens (my mom, who could clap against any beat in the world, took my sister and me to see the R-rated movie and loved Richie), Ten Years After, and Santana. In later years, my bad-acting buddies and I used to play a game called "Faces and Attitudes of Rock 'n' Roll," which included Alvin Lee ("pretend you're being jerked off with steel wool") and Carlos ("pretend you're being lifted up to Heaven by God, by your mustache").

Thinking about Santana's iconic Woodstock performance while listening to Live at the Fillmore 1968, it's striking how strong of a musical personality Carlos had already formed by the age of 21 or 22. He doesn't need to wow you with speed and flash like Alvin, or blow your mind with showmanship and electronic mastery like Jimi. He just digs in and squeezes only the good notes out of that red SG (which, it turns out, he had trouble keeping in tune and wound up destroying). His idiosyncratic note choices are perfect, and totally distinctive. Sure, there are precedents, and he'll even call their names -- B.B. King, Mike Bloomfield, Gabor Szabo, Robbie Krieger -- but his phrasing and tone are as personal as a thumbprint. More to the point, though, unlike Hendrix, Beck, and Winter, Santana's guitarisms were integrated into a solid band concept (rather than a leader-with-sidemen scenario). The original Santana band was a collective that only took his name by default. One could argue that the percussion section was (is) as much of a draw as the guitar. This has remained true as personnel have shifted over the years, even after Carlos took over no-fooling leadership in the mid-'70s.

Carlos' bio is a lot different than your average rockarolla's. He grew up poor in rural Jalisco, Mexico, and played Mexican music on violin before starting on electric guitar, inspahrd by Richie Valens. As a teenager, he played R&B in Tijuana strip joints, and dug the rawest American blues: Lightnin' Hopkins, Jimmy Reed, John Lee Hooker. Only after he'd relocated with his family to San Francisco did he begin to take an interest in the African-derived musics of Latin America and the Caribbean.

The "learning guitar" parts of his book resonate for me, because as a teenage tyro, I studied some of the same folks he was digging a few years earlier: Hooker, Live at the Regal-era B.B. King, the Paul Butterfield Blues Band with Mike Bloomfield, John Mayall's Bluesbreakers with Eric Clapton, Peter Green's original Fleetwood Mac. (I'll never forget the first time, down in my parents' basement, when I was able to bend a note with vibrato, "like B.B." It felt like some other being had taken control of my hands. These two younger cats from down the street who used to sit outside my house and listen to me practice asked me, "Who was that playing your guitar before? Whoever they were, it sounded good.")

We heard the Abraxas album front-to-back on FM radio before it was released, back when they used to do things like that. Other albums I heard that way: Mountain's Nantucket Sleighride and Who's Next, which I had memorized by the time I saw 'em at Forest Hills in '71. As Carlos describes it, Abraxas was probably the best representation of the original band's gestalt. It's a pity classic rock radio has played it to death over the years. These days, I'll take the third album when it's that lineup I want to hear. But "Incident at Neshabur" from Abraxas really encapsulates everything I love about Santana: intense drive and sensual lyricism. My favorite way to hear it, however, isn't on Abraxas but rather on Lotus, which remains my favorite Santana album. Carlos writes that the '73 lineup with Tom Coster and Rich Kermode on keys was his most challenging ever, and indeed, on Lotus, they take his music as far as it ever went -- far enough to stand up to electric Miles, and that's saying a lot. After Lotus, I kind of lost the thread, but whenever I'd check in (for 1990's Spirits Dancing in the Flesh, say, or 1993's Sacred Fire), while Carlos' thing never changed much, it was kind of reassuring that he was still out there doing it.

Lotus is a product of the early '70s period when Carlos and drummer Michael Shrieve co-led the band through a jazz-fusion phase, and Carlos immersed himself in spirituality as a kind of countervailing force to the pitfalls of ego and hard drugs that dogged successful bands, including his. While he left guru Sri Chinmoy after a few years, he's continued to make music that's as full of positive energy as Stevie Wonder's. In his maturity, he became more focused on his family, never touring for longer than four or five weeks to avoid upsetting the "domestic rhythm."

The Universal Tone co-author Ashley Kahn, who's written books on Miles Davis and John Coltrane's masterpiece albums, as well as Impulse Records, does a good job of capturing the florid, spacey street spirituality of Carlos' speech, with nuggets of earthy wisdom scattered everywhere. And someone -- Carlos? Kahn? an editor? -- was wise enough to realize that Carlos' early life and career are of more interest than his later mega-success; in a 500-page tome, the '80s begin around page 400. Carlos spills the beans about being sexually abused as a kid. He writes warmly and respectfully of his mentors and benefactors Bill Graham and Clive Davis, colorful Santana musos like Jose "Chepito" Areas and Armando Peraza, musical influences like B.B., Miles, John Lee Hooker, and Buddy Guy, as well as his family members. His memories of '60s Tijuana, San Francisco, and Woodstock are particularly evocative. The Universal Tone is a swift read that gave me new respect for its author and subject. And, of course, made me want to hear his music.

Speaking of the city by the bay, also on loan from the Richardson library: Grace Slick's Somebody To Love? Film, as they say, at 11.


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