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The Epic Life of Carlos Santana

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José Santana, father of seven, was a mariachi violinist. "My father was a musician," his middle child, Carlos, says. "And my first memory of him was watching him playing music and watching what it did to people – he was the darling of our town. I wanted that – that charisma that he had." They lived in a small, remote Mexican town called Autlán de Navarro. There, the young Carlos liked to make paper boats and watch them sail down the street when it rained.

He remembers riding on the back of his father's bicycle to church and to his father's performances. "All of my sisters and brothers were special," he says. "But for some reason, I know in my heart – I hope I don't come out like I'm slighting my sisters and brothers for it – it's just, I felt I was the apple of his eye. I felt like I could get away with more. I don't know if it's because I was lighter in skin, like my mom, or he knew I was going to be a musician. He was less tolerant with everyone else, but he would give me just a little bit more clutch not to grind the gears, you know. And I needed it." His father was away a lot, playing music, and Carlos would miss him. He would imagine hugging him and remember the way he smelled: a combination of flesh and cologne, and a little bit of sweat. Sometimes he'd pick up his father's belt and smell his distant father on that. ("It is true," he now reflects. "Your dad becomes your first God.") He loved his father's stories. The best ones were about tigers, and when he told those his eyes would bulge and you could feel the tiger's breath, and the suspense would build and build and build. "He knew how to create tension," Carlos says. "It just reminds me of where I learned to build a guitar solo. Got to tell a story, man."

There are other lessons, too, from the rhythms and tempos of childhood. He realized in the early Seventies that a certain kind of solo came from the sound of his mother scolding him. "'Didn't-I-tell-you-not-to-duh-duh-duh,'" he counts out. "'And-I'm-going-to-spank-you!' You can cuss or you can pray with the guitar."

Santana, 'Spirits Dancing in the Flesh'

Before all of this, as a child Carlos had to find his instrument. He learned violin, but, he says, "I hated the way it smelled, the way it sounded and the way it looked – three strikes." But the guitar and him, it was love.

The Santana family moved to Tijuana when Carlos was seven, because that was where the money was. "It was a shock," he recalls, "to come to a border town." His father sent the boys out selling Chiclets and spearmint gum on the street. They'd shine shoes. Later, Carlos would play Mexican folk songs for fifty cents a song. He knew that just across the border there was another world. He started learning English by watching TV through other people's fences. His first phrase, borrowed from Roy Rogers, was "Stick 'em up."

For a time he played music with his father. They always seemed to end up in the sleaziest parts of town. "No floor, just dirt," he describes. "Tables black from cigarettes because they didn't have no ashtrays. And a cop with his hat backward like rappers do, putting his hand on the prostitutes' privates in front of me, sticking his hand right in her, and she can't do anything because otherwise he'll arrest her. My stomach just got really, really sick, man, at the smell, the whole thing." One night, Carlos said he didn't want to be there and he didn't want to play that music. It was the first time he had talked back to his father. His father told him he was just like his mother and that he should go. He was fourteen.

He heard about a gig on Revolution Street, playing from four in the afternoon until six in the morning, one hour on, then one hour off, while the strippers stripped. Nine dollars a week, which seemed like a lot. "The first week," he recalls, "you walk around with a hard-on the whole time, like a flagpole. After a while it wears off. It's just watching an assembly job. After a while you learn the most sensual thing is innocence." He worked there for two or three years, and gave the money to his mother.

We are driving around San Francisco, between Haight Ashbury and the sea, when I ask Carlos Santana about the Tijuana strip-joint years.

Had you had much practical experience at that point?

Yeah. You play spin the bottle and sneak in a couple of kisses here and there, and you smell somebody's hair after they take a shower. If you're asking me, "Was I a virgin?" no, I wasn't a virgin no more by that time.

How old were you when you weren't?

I don't remember. I don't remember because it's a subject I don't want to get into. It's a whole other department store that I don't want to . . . 

Fair enough. But by the time you were fourteen, you weren't a virgin?

No, I wasn't a virgin.

For your friends, that was normal?

I can't speak for them. For me, I thought it was normal. My mom or my father, they were very naive, and so I was thrown into the streets in a certain way . . . . Let's say my first encounter with sexuality was not a pleasant one or romantic or tender or wonderful. It was more like a shock kind of thing: gross, disgusting shock.

But that didn't put you off?

No. Women never turned me off. I mean, the smell of men, it makes me sick. I'm not into men at all. That's one thing I could never be in this lifetime is attracted to male bodies.

[Puzzled] Um . . . why do you mention that now? Were they attracted to you?

Who?

Men.

No. Never.

I just didn't understand why you said that then.

Just, women have a different kind of alluring smell.

He drives on, up the hill, away from the sea.

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