When a preacher gives her/his first sermon at a church, it often falls into a category I call “Kitchen Sink.” Eager to impress, and a little wet behind the ears, all of the wit and wisdom from life and seminary comes pouring out, and before you know it you’ve sat through 45 minutes of God only knows what, random disconnected stories and anecdotes in the service not of one or two or three solid points, but rather a thousand points of not-all-that-illuminating light.
As an on again/off again preacher, I am more than aware of this bizarre phenomenon, and yet, in a new format, I am as sure to repeat it as Puxatony Phil was to see his shadow before the snow went absolute apeshit. So, for my first offering here at the aptly titled Yes, I Am Cheesy Enough (and, yes, I am, in fact, cheesy enough, in case you hadn’t already discovered that), I’m tossing out my “Kitchen Sink” post, in the service of one of the most interesting records in my collection, Love Devotion Surrender, released by Carlos Santana and “Mahavishnu” John McLaughlin (thank God or whoever or whatever runs this screwy universe he dropped the prefix!) in 1973.
First, let me get out of the way exactly what I mean by “record.” I mean what the word used to mean. I mean 12 inches (30 cm for those of you whose measuring system actually makes sense) of pressed vinyl, spinning ’round a turntable at 33 and a third rpm, with a stylus stylistically sucking out the golden tones (and yes I understand that a stylus doesn’t suck). By record I mean what my Dad means, what my grandfather meant, and what I meant as I watched “All I Want for Christmas is My Two Front Teeth” or some nonsense from Alvin and the Chipmunks spinning around on the cheap plastic Fisher Price turntable that I had as a kid. I mean those black magic discs that gave me the Beatles’ “Birthday Song” on my earliest birthdays. I mean, in other words, what long ago fell out of and back into fashion as we collectively discovered the usefulness and limitations of digital sound.
As my evil twin (yes, I have an identical twin brother, and yes, he will dispute his purported evil nature) says, compact discs are superior to vinyl records in every single way except one: listening to music. There’s just something about the richness of an analogue recording pumping out at a pretty damned high volume through big ass speakers connected to an analogue amp taking its cues from your favorite record player spinning an old piece of polyvinyl chloride with your favorite grooves in its grooves. There’s romance there. Especially if you’ve got hardwood floors like I do, allowing the sound to vibrate through your feet.
Some other day I’ll tell the story of how I crawled back out of the bright warm digital world into the land of Gramophone records and Phonographs (here’s a hint: it involves the Cameron Crowe film Almost Famous and a biography of Miles Davis). For now let me just establish whatever limited cred I might have by saying that my first apartment – picked for the cheap rent and its location a couple of blocks from my first “adult” job – had two stereos before it had a single piece of furniture. A digital amp with a cd player and JBL speakers (I’ve since given the amp and cd player to my five-year-old son, who has begun his own journey through recorded sound), and an analogue amp my Dad discarded, with a record player and Polk Audio speakers. Never shall the digital and analogue meet. And I can sleep on the floor, but I can go without my tunes.
That, roughly 623 words in, brings us back to Love Devotion Surrender, which represents the only collaboration that I know of between two of the greatest guitarists of their (or any other) generation. Carlos Santana and John McLaughlin (I think it’s safe to leave off the “Mahavishnu” now) recorded it less than a year after they each became (thankfully only temporarily) disciples of Sri Chinmoy, an Indian guru who emigrated to the United States in 1964 and promptly started his own cult.
Before I get too hard on him, I should note that there are some aspects of Sri Chinmoy’s philosophy that are truly beneficial. His understanding of God, while monotheistic (in a very generous way, as we will note later) contained both the male and the female, with God serving as both a Mother and a Father (and, as someone who has given a sermon titled “Nursed at the Breast of God,” I can get down with a monotheistic understanding of the divine that isn’t so damned patriarchal). Beyond that, though his background was more in philosophical Hinduism (“Hinduism,” by the way, is a British invention, a linguistic catch-all for indigenous Indian traditions, a way to distinguish them from the Islam also present in India under British rule), his monotheism mirrors that of the Baha’i faith or the most generous expressions of Judaism in affirming that the unity of God can be found in many different religions. He would not disagree with the rabbi who once told me that to say that God is One is to say that, if you’re praying, you’re praying to God – everything else is just a matter of what language you’re praying in.
He valued physical fitness and good nutrition, and God knows I need a little more of both of those in my life. He espoused a strict vegetarianism, which shows respect for all forms of sentient life. And, in 2007 (just before his death) he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Mikhail Gorbachev, the Icelandic Parliament, and several others.
Sounds like a nice guy. A real saint. But there’s always a darker side, isn’t there? That darker side, in my view, usually begins with a flawed understanding of what it means to be human. A denial of the physical, the sexual, the natural. Of course we don’t want to be slaves to our biology, but neither do we want to try to invent ourselves as something we aren’t, denying God or Darwin’s design (and yes, I know that “Darwin’s design” is nonsensical on several levels).
Part of Chinmoy’s philosophy involved the pursuit of a hyper-vigilant moral purity, which not only denied one meat, but also alcohol and other drugs, and, most dangerously, sex. Anyone who has tried total abstinence will tell you that it isn’t for everyone, and it isn’t something you want to mess around with. Yet Chinmoy imposed abstinence on all of his followers (though those who were married before becoming his disciples could remain married, hence the children born at his compound). He may not, however, have totally imposed abstinence on himself. Stories have since emerged – as is so common with such cultic groups – of him forcing women to have sex with him, or to have sex with each other while we watched.
This is part and parcel with the denial of one’s own innate sexual nature, and is often connected with the kind of patriarchy that dominates women while also blaming them for male sexual desire. Chinmoy’s sexual deviance is not just an abuse of his power as a religious leader, but is also clearly an expression of his own desire to control and manipulate female sexuality.
And, by 1973, Carlos Santana and John McLaughlin – two brilliant guitarists with a penchant for matter spiritual – were basically convinced that he hung the moon. So, they recorded and released Love Devotion Surrender, an album that takes both its name and part of its content from Sri Chinmoy’s teachings. His writings appear on the insert, and Chinmoy himself makes an appearance on the back cover, his arms wrapped ’round both Santana and McLaughlin, their white garb and prayerful postures indicating their status as his disciples.
But, before we get to the content of the album – which was also conceived as a tribute to the music of John Coltrane, a much more worthy object of tribute than a cult leader who also tried from time to time to pass himself off as an Indian classical musician, despite contemporary reports indicating his extreme lack of skill – let me just say that, whether you’re talking about music, religion, or, in this case, both, the 70s were one screwy decade.
OK, the 70s produce me, so that’s a good thing. And, they eventually produced punk as a reaction to the decades many, many artistic and aesthetic excesses (somewhat different than the excesses that would mark the Reagan 80s). The 70s may be most noted and reviled for producing disco, a sanitized, maybe even bleached, offshoot of funk and soul. (Of course, perhaps disco wasn’t a total loss, as it itself gave us Disco Demolition Night at Comisky Park.) But, before disco, the 70s gave us other forms of since-maligned music, some of which may be redeemable.
In the world of rock, the 70s gave us, among other bits of questionable artistic expression, art rock and/or progressive rock. King Crimson may be the the best lasting example of this fusion of classical music and rock and roll, even if Robert Fripp is the only person connecting King Crimson from the 1970s to King Crimson today. But, perhaps a better example of how this classical/rock fusion was, remarkably, once popular is Emmerson, Lake, and Palmer. Between 1970 and 1973 – when Love Devotion Surrender came out – they produced a remarkable 5 RIAA certified Gold records. And they were perhaps even more noted for their live performances, which helped give birth to arena rock – the strange notion that cramming a bunch of people into a stadium designed for a sporting event and then offering instead some combination of what passes for rock and roll with a theater show that would make Broadway blush is really a good thing.
In jazz an equally dubious if also redeemable genre was emerging: fusion. Now, before I say too much about fusion, I should make a confession. By and large, I actually like it. I know, I know. That’s not the sort of thing you can admit out loud without risking being sent to some undisclosed treatment facility that may or may not remove the part of your brain that led you both to utter and, worse, believe such a thing. But, at least before Chick Correa left both Miles Davis and his senses, fusion was pretty cool. It revolutionized jazz even more than be bop had, changing not only jazz’s rhythms and grooves, but also and especially its instrumentation. Now cats like Herbie Hancock were free to experiment with electricity, and you’ve got to admit that giving a classical prodigy (he played a Mozart piano concerto with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at age 11!) with a degree in electrical engineering, a brilliant mind and impeccable taste permission to plug stuff in and see what happens simply has to be a good thing.
Plus, fusion not only took from rock, it also gave back in the form of, among other things, the earliest Chicago albums. For those of you whose concept of Chicago is a bunch of fat, lame dudes freezing their asses off while lip syncing to synthesized crap from a Thanksgiving parade float this may be hard to believe, but once upon a time Chicago rocked. Don’t believe me? Drop a needle on Chicago Transit Authority or Chicago II (which started their unfortunate Roman numeral obsession) or, better yet, Chicago at Carnegie Hall, or really anything they did before Terry Kath uttered his famous last words (“Don’t worry, it’s not loaded”) and shot himself in the head in 1978. That fateful gunshot didn’t just kill an awesome guitarist who brought the improvisational brilliance of free jazz into the sonic landscape of rock and roll, it also killed one of the best bands ever from America. Since then the ghost of Chicago has been haunting us all with corny love ballads.
So I like fusion. But there’s a reason why it is often muttered as an obscenity. I’ll grant you that. But – except from the lips of critics who just didn’t get it, and wanted jazz to remain forever fixed as an art form, without any life or breath, a musical ode to a sarcophagus – fusion wasn’t uttered as an obscenity in 1973. It hadn’t yet had time to jump the shark or nuke the fridge or go all Sylar on its own ass.
Well, fusion may have been uttered as an obscenity by Santana’s fans, who recently had to suffer through his brief foray into jazz. His 1973 collaboration with John McLaughlin – best known at this point for his work in jazz, with both Tony Williams’ Lifeline and Miles Davis, as well as with his own group, Mahavishnu Orchestra – came on the heels of Santana’s (the band, not the person – hard to keep the two apart, eh?) poorly received departure from the style that dominated their first three albums, 1972’s Caravanserai. Most of the tracks were long, jazz instrumentals, and that didn’t sit well with fans that had come to expect tracks like “Black Magic Woman” and “Evil Ways.” When Love Devotion Surrender emerged, many Santana fans may well have been willing to punch the first person who dared say the word “jazz” or “fusion,” without so much as a second thought.
And that’s part of the problem with fans. We develop expectations, and forget that we can drop the needle on our favorite records whenever we like, but we can’t demand that any legitimate artist make that record over and over and over again. Miles Davis famously refused to listen to anything that he had recorded. He wasn’t interested in what he’d done; he was interested in what was next. That constant pursuit of what’s next defines many great artists, and to deny them that is to deny them the very force that created that record you would love for them to make again.
Carlos Santana’s pursuit of what’s next has led him to make some truly abysmal albums, and Caravanserai may well be one of them (I must confess that I’ve never listened to it, so I can’t say for sure), but that’s just how it goes. If you demand that an artist like Carlos Santana remain static, well… let’s just say that’s a little bit like demanding that the tide not come in and go out, that the waves not rise and fall, that the wind not blow where it will, and that you yourself not age and die. You can do it. It might even fell good, righteous. But it’s every bit as silly as expecting that people not have sex. That is, it isn’t going to happen, and any effort to make it happen will not only look silly and end in frustration, but also manufacture more than just a little unnecessary suffering.
But, whatever Caravanserai successes and failings, Love Devotion Surrender – despite the involvement of Sri Chinmoy, was in my view an unqualified artistic success. Which, by the way, wasn’t a given. My first thought in hearing about this album was something like, “I wonder if John McLaughlin will leave any notes for Carlos Santana.” When one of the composers in the royal court accused Mozart of putting in “too many notes” in the movie Amadeus, I think they must have mistaken young Wolfgang for John McLaughlin. Now there’s a man who uses too many notes!
I love his playing – especially with too other notorious speed merchants, Paco de Lucia and Al Di Meola – but there’s simply nothing subtle about it. He knows what he can do, and he’d like for you to know what he can do, too. So, would he leave some space for another guitarist, some sonic air for Santana to breathe? Shockingly, yes. Yes he would. Yes he did.
Don’t believe me? Here’s one of the better tracks from the album, the McLaughlin-penned “The Life Divine,” which closes side 1:
As you can see, both guitarists are on form, and play nicely together in the sonic landscape created by a combination of members of Santana and Mahavishnu Orchestra. Especially note how Larry Young’s organ kind of glues the two guitar parts together.
This track really is a representative sample of the music on the album, showcasing the two guitarists nicely while also disclosing both the Sri Chinmoy’s spiritual influence and John Coltrane’s musical influence (the latter being more welcome than the former, but at least none of the songs here forced women to have sex with them).