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The creative longevity of Carlos Santana

Goldmine scribe Mike Greenblatt interviews the guitar legend —  the same creative genius he was enlightened by as a teen in 1969, the year of Woodstock.

By Mike Greenblatt


Las Vegas, Nevada — There’s a palpable thrill in the air just prior to Carlos Santana taking the House of Blues stage. The audience at the intimate venue, located deep in the catacombs of the lush Mandalay Bay resort, is ready to burst. It’s not every day you get to see a star of this stature so close up.

He comes out ferociously charging with “Freedom In Your Mind” as an electric jolt zaps this reporter’s body, traveling up the length of my spine. His instant soloing is one of guitar god grace. The sound system is aggressive, bullish and if it’s too loud for you, you can leave the House. “Foo Foo” from 2002’s No. 1 “Shaman” CD continues the assault.

Carlos, at this point, is, indeed, a shaman. His between-song raps have escalated into a benevolent preacher province. (“Make every day the best day of your life.”) He also knows what the people want. So “Black Magic Woman”/”Gypsy Queen,” “Oye Como Va” and “Maria Maria” come out bam-bam-bam and the place goes nuts. The band is sterling. Carlos is obviously feeling good. His guitar playing is downright spiritual as he channels everyone from John Coltrane, George Harrison, Michael Jackson and Miles Davis.

It’s all one to him.

By set’s end, after “Smooth,” “Batuka/No One To Depend On,” “Europa,” “Evil Ways” (which he melds with Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme”), “Tequila,” the mind-blowing “Soul Sacrifice” (complete with flashback images on the big screen behind the stage of Woodstock in 1969) and the closing salsa rave-up “Saideira” from the current “Corazón,” Carlos had made his point.

It is all one.

"Should I lose my fingers and I couldn’t play guitar, I would still be a creative force," claims Carlos Santana. Photo by Eric Kabik

"Should I lose my fingers and I couldn’t play guitar, I would still be a creative force," claims Carlos Santana. Photo by Eric Kabik

I walk out into the striking unreality of Vegas. The effect is akin to a sexual afterglow. House of Blues GM Tim Jorgensen is well aware of this phenomenon. “You’re not going to be able to see Santana like this anywhere else in the world. It’s like he’s performing in your living room. He’s right there! It’s such an experience. I think it’s great to be able to see the fans as they’re leaving the venue all lit up. They’re going to tell their friends exactly what they saw. We’re very happy to be a part of that.”

Rewind 36 hours and I’m sitting across a table from the man I discovered a week prior to Woodstock opening for Buddy Miles. Check that one off my bucket list.

Goldmine: What an honor and a thrill to sit across the table from the man I experienced at 18 playing The Singer Bowl at the site of the World’s Fair, then again, at Woodstock a week later. You blew me away. I remember it as if it was yesterday, instead of 46 years ago.

Carlos Santana: I don’t even think our debut album was out. I remember that gig, though. Somehow, Buddy Miles was upset that day. And there were these two transvestite Jimi Hendrix lookalikes. I was like, “Whoah! This is a different kind of city!” When we played Woodstock, we stayed in a big house. (The Singer Bowl) was our third gig (in New York City). We were so excited when we heard “Jingo” on the radio.

GM: To what do you owe your longevity?

CS: The tangible reason is my mom and dad’s DNA, strong and healthy constitutions into their 80s and 90s, respectively, with clear minds like a computer with no glitches: strong mentally, physically and in their hearts. The intangible reason is grace. I don’t believe in luck, chance or destiny. If you align yourself with grace — which is like an umbilical cord — then you’re able to understand the fragments of fear which turn into storms. Most of the artists I love became victims of themselves. What killed Michael Jackson? Michael Jackson! What killed Jimi Hendrix? Jimi Hendrix! It’s close to suicide. Whitney Houston: she sabotaged something so incredible. Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison? That was it for me. I started paying attention. You either put a needle in your vein or a line of cocaine (up your nose) or you fold your hands, go inside the center of your heart and say thank you. And that worked for me. We embrace eastern philosophy because western philosophy is based on guilt, shame and fear, which is very Catholic. If you don’t do it this way, you’re going to hell no matter what. That doesn’t work for me. That’s not built upon love. Basically, as far back as I can remember, the modus operandi of the United States has been “the devil made me do it but Jesus got my back.” And I’m like, “Well, wait a minute! What if there is no devil? What if it’s just wrong choices? What if all that stuff is just another word for fear instead of love? Ego instead of humility. So like Coltrane, Harrison and Bruce Lee before me, John McLaughlin and I studied the art of spiritual energy: how to navigate through deception, temptation and dishonorable people. I get asked this all the time. To me, it’s all like a big river and you just have to know how to navigate around the rocks.

Plus, I count my blessings — (promoter) Bill Graham ... Woodstock ... (label head) Clive Davis ... (spiritual meditation master) Sri Chinmoy ... (manager/brother-in-law) Michael Vrionis ... people or events put in my path to pave my way and help me thrive and, uh, go viral, so to speak (laughs) like “Supernatural” — instead of counting my hurts. Once you start counting only your hurts, you become the walking wounded and you only see the bad. And that’s not inspiration. That’s anger. Musicians use anger, I know, but (oftentimes) they feel they have to stimulate themselves to play energetic. I don’t need any of that. Glowing enthusiasm will always be better than all the cocaine in Peru.

GM: I find it interesting you didn’t mention your unbelievable talent. When I hear you, I always flash on Chuck Berry’s line, playing guitar like ringing a bell. That’s you. You are “Johnny B. Goode.” There’s something in your playing that has reached out to numerous generations of fans from rock to soul to funk to world music. Your style has changed and morphed over the years, and every stop along the way has been so joyous.

CS: Thank you so much. It’s an accumulation of embracing life. Growing up in Tijuana (Mexico), you embrace traditionalism. I also embraced Columbian music, European music, blues like Jimmy Reed, John Lee Hooker and Lightnin’ Hopkins. I didn’t particularly care for Elvis Presley. I loved B.B. King. I’ve always been mindful of not playing a specific genre. I can incorporate a little bit of Miles Davis in my own tone with a little bit of Beethoven, Stravinsky and Bob Marley. It’s not like I work at doing it that way. The more I used to try and sound like Otis Rush, for instance, the more frustrated I would get. I used to actually lock myself in a closet, close the door, and in the pitch blackness, I would whisper, “I will see it in here.” And the more I tried to visualize sounding like Otis Rush or Albert King, I just couldn’t do it. Finally, I accepted it.

GM: And you came out of the closet.

CS: (laughs) Yes. I tried to imagine what they were thinking when they hit that note. That’s what you need to do. And in so doing, people will know you’re honoring them. How do you combine Freddie King and Tito Puente? That’s what made Bill Graham famous. I was like a child he nurtured. He protected me from so much and I called him my friend. So my intention to embrace anything and everything — from (flamenco guitarists) Paco de Lucía and Manitas de Plata to the kid in the street just learning to play — has been my saving grace.

GM: Have you embraced your role as “The King of Latin Rock” all these years?

CS: No! It makes me feel like a hamster in a cage. I refuse to be that. I want to be a musician who plays in the key of life.

GM: Surely you are aware of your effect on people’s lives. I loved your first three albums when I was 18, 19 and 20, respectively. “Caravanserai” in ’72, when I was 21, totally blew my mind. I had never heard such music! Because of that, I wound up discovering the Miles Davis Quintet of the 1960s with Herbie Hancock, Tony Williams, Ron Carter and Wayne Shorter. You were the catalyst.

CS: Thank you for saying that, but, no, I have no conscious awareness of that. I am fixated right now on creating new songs with the original Santana band — Gregg Rolie, Michael Shrieve, Michael Carabello, Neal Schon — and taking that music to where it hasn’t yet been: Africa. The first three albums were all about African music. I wouldn’t even call it “black.”

GM: World?

CS: (after a long pause) Yeah, it’s three-dimensional world music. All the colors are there, the flavors, a profound spirit. Within that, I hear Hebrew strains, the Pyramids, the Aztecs, Apache, Comanche, Bob Marley and Bruce Lee. Man! It’s all one breath really. When you hit a note like that — like the three Kings or ‘Trane — you just have to go “damn!” It’s Miles and Wayne Shorter, too. A reporter recently said I “drop names” when I do interviews. I don’t drop names, man! I am them. This is why I mention them. I am what I love: Stan Getz, Wes Montgomery, Kenny Burrell, Gene Ammons, Coleman Hawkins ...

GM: Sonny Rollins...

CS: Oh yeah! Plus all the calypso, gutbucket blues, reggae, they all articulate certain phrases at a certain moment that one must master. You must master the art of making a melody true. As Wayne (Shorter) said, “Notes are like people, you must visit them once in awhile.” People are fascinated with The Beatles because of the name but, more importantly, because of the melody. It lingers on. Melody stays after they’re all gone. I concentrate on timeless melody. Joe Zawinul and Smokey Robinson both call me “The Melody Man.” You’ve got to grab on to it. It’s like carrying a glass of water and not dropping a drop. There’s beauty in honoring a melody.

GM: Can you give us a sneak peek at what’s going to happen with that original Santana band in 2016?

CS: I recently downloaded the 40th Anniversary edition of “What’s Going On” by Marvin Gaye, which has 10 or so instrumentals, one of which sounded like it could have been for the Stones or AC/DC. He discarded it but it was like a bouquet to me so I showed it to the band and we put our own spin on it after contacting his family to get permission. We’re calling it “Don’t Get Lonely In New York City.” It’s rock! We were reminding ourselves what New York City smelled like, what it felt like and what it looked like to be back at the Fillmore East. So we started playing it and it was like The Doors, Ravi Shankar, Charles Lloyd and the Grateful Dead all came to life when we channeled The Fillmore East. That was the place to be. You could actually hear the molecules in your brain expand...

GM: Especially with that pulsating Joshua Light Show...

CS: People would be going “Oh my God.” It’s an out-of-body experience, what shamans call “rebirthing”: giving birth to a new perception ... new sensation ... new vision. What is a human being without a vision? A refrigerator! A microwave!

GM: A toaster!

CS: (laughs) To me, no matter what profession you have passion for, you must develop a very, very intense focus as to vision.

GM: How’s your talented percussionist wife Cindy?

CS: Great, thank you for asking. It’s funny. We get in the car and she’ll sing supreme unison to Charlie Parker solos! Every part! I’m like, “Damn!” Her passion, since she was a child, was to be around musicians. She grew up to Art Blakey when I was growing up to (Latin percussionist) Armando Peraza. I have many gurus, as I’ve mentioned. He’s a big one. Him and Miles. Entities. Sentient people who immediately offer me right or left so I don’t come off the rails. That’s what a guru is to me: one who could help you with your peripheral vision in an effort to see it all. Then, and only then, should you make decisions. What’s your destination? Where do you clearly want to go? They help me crystallize my existence. That’s the highest thing any musician can attain:inviting an audience to lift themselves from the muck you may be in, mistakenly convincing yourself of your insignificance. Really good musicians pull people from the muck. Forget your story and live your life! Music is therapeutic healing where you can discover anew the curiosity of your own innocence.

I love performing with Cindy. We’ve been married almost five years now. We’ve even discussed creating together a new “Caravanserai.” It would be an amalgamation of the music she loves and the music I love. She doesn’t ever have to be a back-up to somebody anymore. “Let’s be front people,” I told her. There is music that needs to come out from her. We respect the hits and the radio-friendly material, but it’s time to commit career-suicide again, to go to that place with her where we can invite musicians like (saxophonist) Kenny Garrett and others who could help us reach new peaks of discovery. We both love Herbie (Hancock) and Wayne (Shorter). It’s just a matter of finding the right musicians.

GM: The House of Blues venue is perfect for what you’re puttin’ down: the intimacy, the close-up vibe, the sound, lights, total presentation. Did you have to be wooed to come here? It’s ironic, in a way, you, a counter-culture icon, performing in a place heretofore reserved for our parents’ generation: where The Rat Pack held sway ... where Elvis returned to live performance ... Las Vegas, the symbol of American greed that every self-respecting hippie used to ignore. Yet here you are. It’s a new world.

CS: This particular locale, The House of Blues, is my laboratory. You walk in and the first thing you see are paintings of Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Bessie Smith, all American masters and people I love. I’m in the right place. I’d rather be here than the Vatican. How can I fuse elements of Coltrane’s “Blue Train” (1957) with Michael Jackson? Bob Marley with Marvin Gaye? And I’m too invested for anyone to tell me it’s not working!

GM: How do you reconcile someone like myself — who prefers deeper tracks — with folks who just want to hear “Black Magic Woman”?

CS: I’ve come to understand the necessity of balance: Charlie Parker playing Mexican songs ... John Coltrane doing “My Favorite Things” (from “The Sound Of Music”) ... Miles Davis covering Cyndi Lauper (“Time After Time”), Michael Jackson (“Human Nature”) and “Someday My Prince Will Come” (from Disney’s 1937 “Snow White & The Seven Dwarfs”). People have to have songs! There’s a lot of people who want you to keep going in the other direction and get lost in the desert improvising because they want to get lost with you. There’s plenty of that. We can certainly go out there enough and people say, “Wow, that’s something I never heard before!” The secret, if there is such a thing to the glory of music, is willingness to be open ... a willingness to trust. All we’re asking when you come out is to bring intense enthusiasm. And don’t let your ego get in the way of the band or you won’t be here long. Keep the water clear of any color. Like a diamond. All the colors are there. Put sunlight on a diamond? Whew! All the colors appear. Take it away from the sun and it’s clear. That’s what I want from the musicians in my band. Bring your clarity and abide by the tempos, the feel and the groove. That’s what creates memorable music. I want everyone to say the same thing you said when you told me you saw me at Flushing Meadows opening for Buddy Miles in 1969. We want to make things memorable.

Carlos Santana and Mike Greenblatt, 2015.

Carlos Santana and music journalist Mike Greenblatt, 2015.

GM: What must have gone through your mind being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1998 and being selected for a Kennedy Center Honor in 2013 and watching those great artists interpret your music?

CS: In 2013, I was thinking, “I wish they’d let me play!” With all due respect to Sheila E., had they let Cindy and I go, it would’ve been on a whole ‘nother level! We had just played with a symphony orchestra in Oakland, and Cindy and I really went at it! We’re so good together.

GM: Well, you certainly kicked out the jams in 1998! What were you thinking?

CS: I was thinking about longevity and how grateful I was. I was thinking about what B.B. King taught me. I thought of guitarists like Michael Bloomfield and Peter Green. I am like them. I am a disciple of the same people they learned from. But I am also a child of Tito Puente. And as I accepted that award that night, I thought of myself as a voice, like Ritchie Valens, only 17 when he took a Mexican folk song and made “La Bamba” out of it. I also thought a lot about Little Richard. I realized that night that I have managed to negotiate through Led Zeppelin and Buddy Guy to stand tall enough so when Buddy sees me now, he nods his head because he knows I am honoring him, just like I honor Jimmy Page. I don’t defile it or use it in a disposable way. That night, with my band, upon being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, we honored not white music, not black music, but the intelligence of the European tradition crossed with the black essence of Africa, yet it’s neither. Get it? We’ve always been a translucent spirit. Anything remotely promoting white or black bores me. Nat King Cole doesn’t sound black or white. Billie Holiday didn’t. To me, neither does Aretha. I’m always looking for Latin music that transcends color. Only then can we rise above race.

GM: You’re also a humanitarian and an activist for causes close to your heart. The 2016 presidential election is upcoming. Are you going to use your position as a cultural icon to sway voters to vote for any one particular party? Political pundits are convinced that the Latin vote will decide who gets into the White House. Who are you for and will you campaign?

CS: I remember thinking in 2008, Barack Obama should have the presidential day shift and Hillary Clinton the night shift. I wish we could calibrate the presidency like you calibrate a guitar or a Mercedes. We’d find out if they are honorable, true, compassionate, and if not, get them the hell out. Same with the Pope. If you’re going to serve in such a high position, you should put your finger in this machine, and if you’re lying your ass off, it will tell. If you are noble and have the people’s interests in mind, it will tell that, too. We’re almost there now! Why not? We have cars that can measure how much alcohol you have in you. If you have too much, it won’t start. There’s other things out there that you just don’t know about but the government does. Calibrating people’s intentionality! Yeah! If you have no integrity, a red light goes off.

But, until such time, I will have to vote for Hillary Clinton in 2016. It’s time for a woman. She’s pretty mind-boggling. She knows how to get things done in Washington. I’ve seen her speak without once looking at that piece of paper. She can articulate. I think it would have been hilarious to see her debate Sarah Palin.

I want to have a meeting here in Las Vegas with Mayor Goodman to work on the muzak being played in shopping malls, elevators, dentist offices and supermarkets. If you play certain songs on a loop, the same 27 carefully picked songs over and over, you can curb violence!

GM: What songs would you pick?

CS: “What a Wonderful World,” “Imagine,” “One Love,” “Blowin’ In The Wind,” there’s so many. Music can put you in touch with your immutable self. It’s the part of you that will not die. It cannot be stained or raped. Put it on billboards! Upbeat messages! I’ve been all over the world and I’ve seen how pristine certain cities can be. Everything goes hand in hand. Music ... quality of life ... visuals ... and I want to start it here in Las Vegas. Kevin Johnson, the mayor of Sacramento, heard me make one of these presentations, and he invited me to present this idea to 300 mayors. Let’s play some different kinds of music. Let’s put up some different kinds of billboards that help the mind retain its luminosity.

GM: John and Yoko had a similar idea with their Christmas “WAR IS OVER” New York billboards. Will the mayors go for it, though?

CS: What do they have to lose? I have passion for the music and, yes, I want to make a difference. So, sure, to answer your political question, I will do all I can. Should I lose my fingers and I couldn’t play guitar, I would still be a creative force. It has nothing to do with religion. It’s just a practical application of elevating one’s consciousness. Take the high road! Look at the big picture! This is what we say at every concert: it’s your choice and your choice alone to make every day the best day of your life.

GM: And you back up your words with the obvious boundless energy behind your Milagro Foundation and the River of Colors. Readers can learn more just by going on your website. You’ve been a force for good for so many years. When did you stop just being a rock star to put your celebrity to good use?

CS: In the 1960s learning about Mahatma Gandhi, the Black Panthers, Cesar Chavez, the Peace and Freedom Movement on through Dr. King, Arthur Ashe and Harry Belafonte. These are people I look up to. Then, when I reached the same plateau with humility, I kept looking at them for inspiration. Y’know, it was true what I learned as a child, it’s not so much how many zeros are on your paycheck, what matters is how you carry yourself. Integrity. Elegance. Eloquence. They don’t sell that on Rodeo Drive. There’s no garment you can buy that will bring you those things.

Santana performing at Woodstock in August 1969. Photo by Jason Laure, courtesy of Frank White Photo Agency.

Santana performing at Woodstock in August 1969. Photo by Jason Laure, courtesy of Frank White Photo Agency.

So yeah, my political awareness started when I first protested against California Governors Pat Brown (1959-1967) and Ronald Reagan (1967-1975). There was a lot of visibly hurtful injustice, (including (Robert) McNamara and his boys with what they did in Vietnam before saying, 30 years later, it was a mistake. So I learned not to be shy and fearful. It’s true what the hippies said: you’re either part of the problem or part of the solution. There’s no in-between, y’know? Bill Graham used to stage a lot of benefits, as did The Merry Pranksters. Then there’s Wavy Gravy at Woodstock giving hippies granola.

GM: I saw a big fat woman at Woodstock handing out forkfuls of cold Raviolios from an industrial-sized can. I stood in a line of hungry hippies and those cold Raviolios never tasted so good.

CS: I bet! (laughing) Yeah!

GM: And then some townspeople in a big truck with bread and water helped us out, too. Then that fat woman gave me the brown acid that they warned us about. Hell, I did fine on it!

CS: You took the infamous brown acid?

GM: Yeah, and Joe Cocker was grooving in the sunshine before it rained. But I got to ask you, just prior to your phenomenally successful “Supernatural,” were you in a career lull?

CS: Hardly. We were touring with Bob Dylan. We’d open a show and he’d open a show. Then we did the same thing with Jeff Beck. It wasn’t like I was in the street! We weren’t on the radio, that’s all. When you’re not on the radio, people don’t think you’re relevant. But here, Canada, Japan and Europe, we were selling a lot of tickets. The media propagated the myth that “Supernatural” rescued me somehow. It made for a better story, I guess, in which to sell newspapers. Like those movies about Ray Charles and Johnny Cash? They were portrayed as such wretches, you almost go, “Whew! Good thing he died! Now he doesn’t have to suffer anymore.” I don’t want a movie like that. I want victory, triumph, supreme success. If Hollywood can’t deal with that, take your money and invest it in another Godzilla. There’s no tragedy or failure in my movie. There’s peaks and valleys but we have never ever derailed. We show up and it’s on. GM

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Santana is in the Goldmine Hall of Fame, check it out here