By Penelope Ross

(Reprinted from Circus magazine: August 1973)

On the surface, it seems like one of the most unlikely pairings in the land of rock and roll. John McLaughlin was born in Yorkshire, England, and raised in an upper-middle class home by a mother and father who loved classical music. Carlos Santana was born in Mexico and raised in the San Francisco slums by an uneducated mother and a father who played in Mexican street bands. McLaughlin begins a concert by requesting his audience to join him in a few minutes of silent meditation. Santana used to open concerts by torturing his guitar strings into a demonic frenzy of high volume sound. McLaughlin and his Mahavishnu Orchestra leap into music that is contradictorily laced with total energy and tranquillity. His long, searing guitar lines - with their references to cool jazz and Indian music - are locked in a contrapuntal embrace with Jerry Goodman's electric fiddle. Jan Hammer chimes in on keyboards; and Rick Laird on bass and Billy Cobham on drums provide the foundations for the band's soaring flights. And while the end product is exhilarating in the extreme, the audience is disinclined to stand up and boogie in the aisles, partly due to McLaughlin's religious attitude and partly because you could break an ankle trying to dance to those complicated, fluid rhythms. Carlos Santana's band races to the other extreme. Santana has had them dancing in the aisles since the group made its first appearance five years ago.
Head hits concrete: As a consequence, a musical union between McLaughlin and Santana seemed as likely as a marriage between Archie Bunker and Maude. Yet the impossible union has just occurred. The street kid from San Francisco and the religious devotee from Yorkshire have gone into the studio together and emerged with a joint album - Love, Devotion and Surrender (on Columbia Records). How did it happen?
Part of the answer lies in two life stories that for all their dissimilarities have a strikingly similar undercurrent. John McLaughlin started life as anything but a holy man. He may have trained in classical piano and violin at the age of seven, but at sixteen he dropped out of high school and a few years later joined the Graham Bond Organization with future superstars Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker. "He was getting very stoned at the time," recalls Bruce, "he actually fell off the stage in Coventry and played this death chord as he landedäkkkrrruuuuuunngg."
Wrenched by the spirit: Then one night in 1963, after reading about the spiritual philosophy behind Tarot cards, McLaughlin was playing with Brian Auger's band when "suddenly the spirit entered me and it was no longer me playing." Six years later in New York, John made his commitment to the spirit formal and became a follower of the Indian guru Sri Chinmoy. Like John, the young Carlos was no saint. When his parents announced they were going to leave Mexico, ten-year-old Carlos ran away from home, and the family crossed the border without him. Six months later his mother came back and found him wandering the streets of Tijuana on his own. By 1968, when he gained success with the first Santana band, he continued his renegade ways, sleeping with as many women as he could handle, dropping acid and dabbling with other drugs. Yet slowly the discussions of kharma and reincarnation he had with his friends began to move him into the realm of the soul.
Backstage summit conference: On a recent stopover at his New York apartment, Mahavishnu John McLaughlin told how the pair of prodigal sons finally met. It happened one night a year ago when the Mahavishnu Orchestra was performing at San Francisco's Winterland. The band played and the audience grooved. One of those grooving was that unlikely fan, Carlos Santana, who not only loved the music, but knew about Mahavishnu's spiritual associations with Sri Chinmoy. Carlos himself had been doing some spiritual investigations - meditating on Jesus and checking out Indian philosophies. So when Santana introduced himself to McLaughlin, they had a lot to talk about - music and spirituality.
They must have seemed a strange pair as they sat in the dressing room talking - Carlos with his velvet shirt and long hair looking ultra-hip and ultra-worldly; John with his peculiarly short haircut and inexpensive sweater looking super-normal and super-subdued. But appearances did not keep the two from seeing all they had in common. Santana invited McLaughlin to his home to continue the conversation, but concert commitments kept the British guitarist from accepting. However, the two met again soon in Los Angeles, where the Mahavishnu Orchestra was continuing its tour, and talked some more.
Santana swaps bands: While Mahavishnu was touring and recording, Santana was going through major changes. Most of his original band had left, there were hassles with managers, incompetent and sometimes corrupt lawyers and accountants and the wrench that comes from changing musical directions as he did in his latest album, Caravanserai. In the midst of all this Santana continued his studies of various religions, removed himself entirely from the drug scene, and generally turned his head around.
Months passed but Mahavishnu had not forgotten Santana. The next event in their journey toward togetherness was a strong coincidence, or, if you are a fatalist, a pre-destined act of the Gods. As McLaughlin described it, "it was really strange the way it happened. No, it was really nice. I woke up one morning with this idea for an album I wanted to do with Carlos. That same day, my manager phoned me to say that he had been having meetings with Clive (Davis, president of Columbia) and that Clive had this idea that I should do an album with Carlos. I called Carlos right away, but he wasn't home, so I left a message and he called me back."
The bowels of the church: With the blessings of all concerned, Carlos and Mahavishnu talked by telephone several times about ideas for the impending LP. Then McLaughlin made another trip to California to visit with Santana, talk some more and rehearse. By November of 1972, both were ready for the studio and made the trek back to New York where they checked into Columbia's recording plant on East 36th Street. Appropriately enough, that massive studio, home of original cast recordings and monster Christmas parties, was located in a de-sanctified church and boasted some of the best natural acoustics to be found anywhere. McLaughlin and Santana each brought with them a very few people from their respective bands. For the first sessions, McLaughlin had Jan Hammer from the Mahavishnu Orchestra, not playing his usual piano but displaying his other talent as a percussionist. "He's very good at it," McLaughlin noted admiringly.
Santana had three from his band - Doug Rauch on bass, Armando Perazo (a veteran of the Latin music scene) on percussion and Mingo Lewis on congas. Don Elias from the Lou Rawls band played drums and Kalid Yasim played organ. Needless to say, McLaughlin and Santana played guitar.
Swept into oneness: One friend, admirer and observer of those November sessions was very impressed with the goings on at East 36th Street. He reported that "Everything was positive and the music just flowed. There was no star ego. The two of them played so well together that often you couldn't even hear which one was which." McLaughlin agrees. "We had a very strong rapport. And neither of us dominates the music. Spiritual harmony creates musical harmony. The result is different from the Mahavishnu Orchestra and different from Santana. I think it's greater than them both."
The bond between the guitarists was phenomenal. And the other six musicians found themselves swept hypnotically into the stream of a totally unfamiliar breed of music. It seemed all the stranger since the two men's styles are miles apart. As the friend pointed out, "Their musical approaches are different, but at the same time they are driven by the same force, so it works. It's like two colors that are put in the proper setting so that they won't clash. Carlos' music was very sweet and flowing, while Mahavishnu has more intensity and, of course, an incredible technique." The combination seems to have produced remarkable results.
Santana strips away the old: But the sessions would do more than just produce extraordinary music, they would lead to a drastic change in Carlos Santana's life. When the first round of recording was over, Carlos and McLaughlin continued to get together. And when Carlos expressed growing interest in Mahavishnu's faith, he was taken to one of the meditation meetings that Sri Chinmoy holds weekly for the U.N.'s staff members. It was at that meeting that Santana received a blessing from Sri Chinmoy. The experience moved him so much that he asked to come to another meeting at Sri Chinmoy's headquarters near McLaughlin's home. Shortly thereafter, Santana became a disciple of Sri Chinmoy. McLaughlin characteristically refuses to take any credit. "I didn't do anything. Sri Chinmoy did it. But it's really God who does everything."
By the time Santana returned from a European tour to join McLaughlin in the studio a few months ago for the sessions that would complete the album, the two were no longer the radically different men they had seemed six months before. Carlos the street kid had traded his long hair, blue jeans and work shirts for short hair and a dignified white suit. Like John McLaughlin, he stepped onstage quietly when he performed and placed a photo of Sri Chinmoy on his amplifier, then bowed his head in a moment of prayer. For like McLaughlin - the man who once fell off a British stage in a stoned stupor - Carlos Santana has been reborn in a new image through his faith in a spiritual master. And the most unlikely pairing of musical personalities this year has turned into the most unlikely transformation of a major superstar.