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The inspirational guitarwork of John McLaughlin

From rock star to transcendental musician, John McLaughlin is a guitar legend in his own right
 John McLaughlin performs onstage at Royce Hall on December 9, 2017 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Rachel Murray/Getty Images for UCLA's Center for the Art of Performance)

John McLaughlin performs onstage at Royce Hall on December 9, 2017 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Rachel Murray/Getty Images for UCLA's Center for the Art of Performance)

By Mike Greenblatt

No one plays guitar quite the way John McLaughlin does. From his heady rock star days in the Mahavishnu Orchestra to projects with Carlos Santana, Miles Davis, Shakti, The Rolling Stones, Jaco Pastorius, film soundtracks and even ballets, McLaughlin still has his signature sting. On his current Live @ Ronnie Scott’s (Abstract Logix), his lifelong fascination with the music of India returns to the fore. In fact, India has long been his adopted country. He even studied under Ravi Shankar in the ‘70s. Yet he’s humble about his accomplishments (“luck must be my middle name”). As we go to print, McLaughlin is back in India for a series of concerts. We were lucky enough to catch him before he left.

Goldmine: I was 20 when The Inner Mounting Flame came out in 1971 and it changed my life.

John McLaughlin: It changed mine, too.

GM:You were such a rock star!

JM: I was lucky. In a sense, we’re all stars. It just depends what your perception is. I certainly didn’t consider myself a ‘star.’ I never took all that stuff seriously. I think you really should remember, though, that at the time it all exploded for me in the Mahavishnu Orchestra, I had been studying philosophy and meditation for quite some time. I became a Disciple of my meditation Guru. I was certainly aware of the fragility of celebrity. Hey, the tide comes in and the tide goes out, y’know? There’s night and day. The moon sets and the sun rises. Everything goes up and down. So while I was as surprised as the next guy —f ame was truly a very agreeable experience — I never thought it would continue too far into my future. I knew the tide would go back out…and it did.

GM:Can you get specific?

JM: Yes. I remember telling the record company, my manager and my agent that I was planning on dissolving the Mahavishnu Orchestra to go play with a group from India, Shakti. They all thought I was a bit daft. I certainly understood their point-of-view. Success was measured in quantity instead of quality. Not that they were opposed to quality. To the contrary, but their idea of success was primarily rooted in volume of sales as opposed to artistic achievement. I knew I had to abandon that particular musical path in order to pursue this Indian path so I just said, “Listen, this is something I have to do. I’m sorry that you’re disappointed but I will assume the consequences.” Once you have an attitude like that, you don’t really worry about being a ‘star.’ At heart, I’m just a musician.

GM: You used to play more blues.

JM: My love of the guitar and my love of blues came right about the same time. It was a pivotal moment for me when, growing up as a young kid practicing classical music on the piano, getting my first guitar at 11 years old. A year later, I was exposed to the Mississippi and Chicago brands of blues. By the time I was a teenager, that’s all I wanted to listen to and play. Blues, man! In a way, that, right there, is indelible. My discipline, though, has been, and always be, as a jazz musician. Still, in the ‘60s, for me, it was rock’n’roll and R&B that helped me survive. Hey, if you take the R&B out of jazz, you don’t have much jazz left.

GM: I must admit that there was some idolatry going on at the time. Rock’n’Roll kids like me, and I think I’m rather representative of my baby-boom generation, had never heard anyone play guitar quite like you did. There was a hero worship thing going on fueled by a lot of marijuana and LSD. And I stayed with you all through Shakti, on into your wonderful duet album with Carlos Santana (Love Devotion Surrender, 1973), your ‘80s Guitar Trio with Flamenco guitarist Paco de Lucía and Larry Coryell (replaced by Al DiMeola), your 1993 Bill Evans tribute album and beyond.

JM: Carlos is still very dear to me. In fact, we saw each other recently. He came to my Seattle concert. Don’t forget we also did a reunion recording Live at Montreux in Switzerland seven years ago. We’ve been friends for 40 years. Carlos and I have been through a lot together. We’re so different in a lot of ways. He embraces his celebrity. But we share so many common loves. We have many of the same heroes.

You were talking a moment ago about how I play the guitar? One of the things you should know about me is that from a very early age, once I got through the blues, I discovered Miles Davis at 15. His 1958 Milestones album with John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley was my schooling. Of course, I wasn’t happy that there was no guitar player in that band because they all became my heroes. I followed the careers of everyone in that first great Miles quintet including pianist Red Garland, bassist Paul Chambers and drummer Philly Joe Jones. I wanted so bad to be the guitarist in that band.

GM: Besides George Benson being on one track (“Paraphernalia”) on 1968’s Miles In The Sky, Davis hadn’t used guitarists at all up to that point.

JM: Right! So I latched onto Coltrane who brought a spirituality into jazz for the first time that I could relate to. A Love Supreme, in 1965, fit right in with my own path in a quest for self-knowledge and discovery. That album was so important on so many levels. I had already become aware of Indian music and its inclusivity in the sense that it integrates every aspect of the human psyche from the sublime to the capricious. Now here comes Coltrane who brought that dimension in! It was positively sacred. Divine, even. But those words are too religious in context to properly convey what Coltrane’s music meant to me. I don’t normally use such religious imagery because I am against organized religion on the grounds that it divides people. But the work of the spirit has been the work of my life. It’s the greatest adventure of all. Coltrane and Miles had this expression in their music as well as the absolute domination of their instruments. Both of them had an overpowering influence over me. But, still, I wished there was a guitarist in that mix.

Before A Love Supreme, there was Giant Steps (1960) and Live At The Five Spot (1958) with Monk. This was totally transcendental music combining the deepest sentiment with such instrumental mastery. This, then, became my overriding goal: to develop my interior in an effort to really know who I was and why I was put here. So how to articulate that? I don’t know if this all makes sense to you but it’s how I see things. To articulate what you truly feel deep inside takes a lot of work and dedication, a lifetime’s worth. I’m still working at it.

GM:You hit New York City running in your 20s and found yourself in the recording studio in 1969 with Miles Davis performing on one of the greatest albums of all-time, In A Silent Way. You must have been freaking out.

JM: I was! I remember sweating a lot. It was the last thing I expected. I came there to play with (drummer) Tony (Williams) who I adored! I had loved Miles Davis In Europe (1964) with Tony. He was 17 when Miles hired him as his drummer! Unbelievable! What he did to Miles! How he pushed Miles to play! It was just out of this world!

GM: So Tony calls you to join his Lifetime band…

JM: It was a dream come true. I arrive in New York to play with Tony unaware that Miles was looking for a guitar player. How lucky could one get? I was sweating blood in that studio. Not only that, it took me years to realize just how brilliant Miles was. Joe Zawinul wrote “In A Silent Way.” It’s a lovely piece. So we play it but Miles wasn’t happy! Now I’m reading from Joe’s piano score, not a guitar score. There were some very beautiful harmonies in it but you can only really hear them the way they were originally written on Joe’s 1971 solo Zawinul album. Miles didn’t like it. He stops everything, tells Joe not to play it, and points to me. I remember saying, “but Miles, it’s a piano part, it’s not a guitar part.” Now I’m thinking, “What does he want from me? There’s no way I can do this.” Miles looks at me and says in that gruff whisper of his, “Play it like you don’t know how to play the guitar.” C’mon! Play it like I don’t know how to play guitar? What? I had never heard of anything like that before. And here I was in front of all these marvelous musicians. So what do you do in a situation like that? It was do or die. So I was forced to throw caution to the wind. I threw out all the chords. I put it in E because everybody knows how to play in E. So off I went in a state of absolute fear not knowing what the hell I was doing.

The light goes on. We’re recording. Wayne (Shorter) comes in. Miles comes in. We finish it, play it back, and Miles loves it. It blew my mind because in just one minute he was able to pull out of me something I had no idea I was even capable of. And I witnessed it on quite a number of occasions how Miles could pull something out of a musician what they didn’t even know they could do. Phenomenal! And he loved it so much he put it on the opening of side one and again at the end of side one! I don’t know how I passed this acid test but from that point on, I became his protégé.

GM: I understand you became really close to Miles Davis after that.

JM: (softly and wistfully) He took me under his wing. I used to see him a lot at his house. What Miles wanted was very different from what Tony Williams wanted from me and I know because I played in both bands. The Tony Williams Lifetime was a real trip, let me tell you! Both in the studio and on stage. But what Miles was interested in since the ‘60s was R&B and funk! I was a mere sideman. I had no reputation to speak of. Miles loved the guitar! Even though he never had one in any of his bands until I came in, he wanted to hear me play funky rhythm and blues. He loved James Brown and Otis Redding.

GM: I know he loved Sly & The Family Stone and Hendrix too.

JM: He got me into funk. I would do anything for him. I revered him so much. He knew I was making peanuts with Tony, about $20-a-night so every time I played with Miles, even after joining Tony’s band, he’d stuff wads of cash right into my pocket. And every time I visited him, he’d stuff a $100 bill in my pocket. “Make sure you eat,” he’d say, “make sure you take care of yourself.” I’ll never forget him. I still dream about him. I owe him so much. He gave me more than I could possibly repay.

GM: Then why did he go so crazy with years and years of nothingness? Did you try and reach out to him between ’75 and ’80 when he disappeared behind the walls of his Upper West Side Brownstone in New York City?

JM: Of course I did! I saw him plenty during those years. I particularly remember one night when I was there with Herbie (Hancock). We thought he was going to die. We had to get him to a hospital. It was painful. Like I was saying, the tide comes in and the tide goes out. The multitude of musicians that he had groomed all took off on their own careers thanks to him. He had that magical touch but as his sidemen all became big stars, he went into a downward spiral.

GM: It was drugs, no?

JM: Yeah, we all assumed such.

GM: How did you survive?

JM: I was just into LSD and pot. Miles was drinking. A lot. He had put on a lot of weight. And, of course, he was taking all kinds of drugs. He finally ended that downward spiral himself which still amazes me. I mean, damn, he was gone for seven years! That’s a long time. But when he finally came out of that house of his, I’d see him. Bill Evans, the saxophone player, hooked up with him in the ‘80s and they had a great band together. Bill, God bless him, was hanging out with Miles at the time and helped him come out of it immeasurably, despite having his own baptism of fire, just like I did in the studio. Bill had it onstage with Miles and, boy, does he have some stories!

GM: Didn’t you move out of United States around that time?

JM: Yes. But I would always come back. One time I was in my Manhattan hotel. It was 11:00 at night and Miles found me. “I’m working on a new album,” he told me, “and you gotta come down.” I told him I didn’t have my guitar with me. He said, “I got a guitar for you, don’t worry.” That was On The Corner (1972). Then I did Aura with him too in 1989. I had been commissioned to do a piece for guitar and orchestra by the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Miles had moved out to L.A. by that time and he came to the premiere. I was moved to tears. I wound up giving him the recording of that night when we were both in Scotland, his band was playing one night and my band was playing the next night. We went back to his hotel together after his concert, and he took out the recording, placed it in his ghetto blaster, and he was eating a salad and listening to it before he looked me square in the eye and said, “John, now you can die.”