The Epic Life of Carlos Santana

A tale of angels, devils, gurus, Tijuana whorehouses, buried secrets and redemption after thirty years of rock & roll

March 16, 2000
carlos santana 2000 836
Carlos Santana on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Mark Seliger

His meditation spot is in front of the fireplace. On Carlos Santana's property in San Rafael, California, about twenty minutes north of San Francisco, there are two buildings. The house closer to the water is where the family lives: Santana, his wife, Deborah, and their three children. The other house, a little higher up the hill, he calls the church. "Here's where I hang out with Jimi and Miles and whoever, and play and meditate," he explains. The rest of the family likes to be in bed by ten, but Santana is a night person, so he'll come up here until two or three in the morning. A card with the word Metatron spelled out in intricately painted picture letters lies on the floor next to the fireplace. Metatron is an angel. Santana has been in regular contact with him since 1994. Carlos will sit here facing the wall, the candles lit. He has a yellow legal pad at one side, ready for the communications that will come. "It's kind of like a fax machine," he says. The largest candle, whose half-molten remnants are placed centrally, is in a charred tin that bears the logo of its previous, less spiritual use: Mermaid Butter Cookies.

We take the armchairs in the middle of the room. On the table between us sit an empty Seven-Up can, a cigar and some peanuts. He pulls from his pocket a sheet of yellow paper on which he made notes last night, in preparation for this interview. "If you carry joy in your heart, you can heal any moment," he reads. "There is no person that love cannot heal; there is no soul that love cannot save." I can see that there are other things written on the paper, but he chooses not to say them aloud.

We talk of angels and the suchlike. There are few conversations with him that don't lead to a discussion of angels, or of the spiritual radio through which music comes. Santana has been increasingly engaged by angels since the day in 1988 when he picked up a book on the subject at the Milwaukee airport. "It's an enormous peace, the few times I have felt the presence in the room," he says. "I feel lit up. I'm not Carlos anymore, I'm not bound to DNA anymore. It's beyond sex, it's beyond anything that this world could give you a buzz. It makes me feel like Jesus embraced me and I'm bathed in light."

I am, by nature, probably more cynical than most, but all I can tell you is that when he talks about this stuff, it doesn't seem kooky or unhinged or even that spacey. Likewise, in all the time I spend with Carlos Santana, I see no signs that he is unaware of life's mundane realities. Rob Thomas – who sings "Smooth," the Number One hit that has propelled Santana's commercial rebirth – describes the experience of spending time with Santana accurately: "I don't know any other way of saying it, but I always just felt a little bit better after being with Carlos."

Nor does he proselytize. His attitude is: Now, in the wake of the success of his latest album, the 7 million-selling Supernatural, the world is interested in hearing him talk, and he is going to talk about the things he finds important. "What are you going to say?" he scoffs. "'There's no business like show business'?" Not in his case. "I don't care, man, about what anybody thinks about my reality," he says, "My reality is that God speaks to you every day. There's an inner voice, and when you hear it, you get a little tingle in your medulla oblongata at the back of your neck, a little shiver, and at two o'clock in the morning, everything's really quiet and you meditate and you got the candles, you got the incense and you've been chanting, and all of a sudden you hear this voice: Write this down. It is just an inner voice, and you trust it. That voice will never take you to the desert."

He tells me more about Metatron. "Metatron is the architect of physical life. Because of him, we can French-kiss, we can hug, we can get a hot dog, wiggle our toe." He sees Metatron in his dreams and meditations. He looks a bit like Santa Claus – "white beard, and kind of this jolly fellow." Metatron, who has been mentioned in mystical disciplines through the ages, also appears as the eye inside the triangle.

Santana credits Metatron with alerting him to the recent changes in his life. In the mid-Nineties, he met some people in a spiritual bookstore near his home, and they invited him to their afternoon meditations in Santa Cruz. The last time he was there, Metatron, delivered some important messages. "You will be inside the radio frequency," Metatron told him, "for the purpose of connecting the molecules with the light." Carlos Santana understood. He would make a new album and be on the radio again. And he would connect the molecules with the light: He would connect an audience with some of the spiritual information he now had. Metatron offered a further instruction: "Be patient, gracious and grateful," Santana was told, and he resolved to do just that.

When he is here in his church and he is not meditating, often he is playing the guitar. Sometimes he'll scrutinize records by his heroes – people such as John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Bob Marley, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Ray Vaughan. (Today, Miles Davis bootlegs are scattered over the floor.) "There's so much to learn on each person alone," he says. "You really study. How do you get this note to sound like a baby crying in the middle of a nuclear bomb? First you imitate, like a parakeet, then you enter in." Whenever he finds something special onstage, it is not just a happy accident. "The fingers remember," he says. "People say, 'You hit a note last night' . . . " – and he throws a hand around the room – "It started here."

And now, casually, he picks up a guitar, flicks on the amplifier. "Sometimes words get in the way," he says. "But when you go . . . " – he plays some beautiful high, fluid notes - "Palestinian, Hebrew or Aborigine or Mexican or Chinese, this speaks really clearly."

Ask a Rock Star: Carlos Santana

He puts down the guitar and shows me round. There is a photo of his wife taken in the Seventies in Philadelphia, holding a guitar the wrong way. (Her father, Saunders King, he notes, was one of the blues-guitar pioneers, played with Billie Holiday and, he says, "was B.B. King's inspiration.") There is a prized picture of John Coltrane looking stern, thoughtful and dignified. Davis and Coltrane bootlegs burned onto CDs. A shelf of books about jazz. Photographs of his parents from around the time Carlos was born. On the second floor, I point, impressed, to the Spider-Man pinball machine. "Yeah, that's from the early Eighties," he says, dismissively. "I didn't have any kids, so I am like a kid myself." Spider-Man was always his favorite comic as a teenager. He could relate to Peter Parker: "He had teenage problems, teenage doubts and insecurities."

It is at that moment he rushes downstairs, without explanation, leaving me there. He has seen one of his daughters coming up the path with the cable guy.

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