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The Epic Life of Carlos Santana

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In the early Sixties, the Santana family moved north to San Francisco. The teenage Carlos didn't want to go. He was working in the strip joint, earning money in a grown-up world, and the notion of going to junior high school – of becoming a kid all over again – did not appeal: "I'm hanging around a bunch of older guys and prostitutes, eat when I want, sleep when I want . . . to hang out with a bunch of little kids talking about bullshit stuff? No way."

The first time he came to America with his family, he sulked and was angry all the time. He wouldn't eat. He was even angrier when he discovered that his mother had used the money he'd saved to pay for the immigration papers and for work on his sister's molars. Even so, he knew there was still $300 left, and he asked her not to touch that: It was for his guitar. But when he eventually spotted a Stratocaster and asked for the money, she confessed: She'spent it on rent. They fell out for a long time after that. "Basically from my ignorance," he says.

Eventually, after two weeks of his sulking, she gave him twenty dollars and told him he could go back to Tijuana. He got his old job back and was there another year before his mother and older brother came to get him. "They actually kidnapped me," he say. "My brother grabbed me – my legs were dangling. Put me in a car."

This time he stayed. Went to junior high. Learned English. But he was right in thinking he wouldn't fit in easily. "The stuff they were talking about was silly-ass corny shit," he says. "I'm hanging around a bunch of old guys talking about Ray Charles and blues, and they're talking about playing hooky and stealing cars and doing some pimple Beach Boy stuff that didn't make any sense to me."

Driving round San Francisco, honoring my request to see the sights of his early years in America, he turns off Mission Street in the Mexican part of town and drives a couple of blocks. "This is the house," he says, pointing. He slows down but never quite stops, as though he wants to make clear that he's happy to show me his past but he has no intention of lingering there.

In that house, seven kids shared two bedrooms. That's where he finally got a guitar, a Gibson Les Paul Junior, and where his brother Tony's friend sat on it and broke it in two.

As we drive away, he tells me about the time when Tony came home from a party and needed to sleep before work the next morning. Carlos, his four sisters, his younger brother and his mother were watching a Dracula movie on TV. There were twenty minutes left when his brother turned the TV off. A scuffle broke out, and in the end Carlos hit his brother hard, hard enough to make his eye swell up. That night the brothers slept, as always, in the same bed, and Carlos lay right on the edge, trying not to breathe, waiting for retaliation.

But his brother did nothing. And when Carlos came home from school the next day, there was a new white Gibson Les Paul – the very guitar Carlos would play at Woodstock – and an amplifier. His brother Tony was sitting there, a steak over his eye. "I broke down, man," Carlos remembers. Tony told him, "You gonna pay for it – I just paid the down payment."

We pass Mission High School. "I couldn't wait to get the hell out of there," he says. "I wasn't much of a school guy." In class, he'd think about playing with B.B. King and daydream of being onstage at the Fillmore. That was all he saw ahead of him. Already he had started heading over to Haight Ashbury with his guitar, where he'd find a harmonica player, put a hat down and get some money. A bit of Donovan. Cannonball Adderley's "Work Song." The Beatles' "And I Love Her." "That romantic thing," he says. "Next thing you know, we'd go and get some wine and pizza. That's what gave me confidence that I could make a living with this."

We drive by San Francisco General Hospital. Again, Santana slows but never stops. He points up to a window. "Right up there," he says. "The top floor."

He spent three months in that room. It was the spring of 1967. He was a nineteen-year-old Mexican guitar player whose group, the Santana Blues Band, was beginning to get going: As he remembers it the group had just opened for the Who, playing blues and its souped-up versions of songs like Mary Poppins' "Chim Chim Cheree," and had been invited to do the same for Steve Miller and Howlin' Wolf. Then . . . it all stopped. Perhaps for good. At school, he tested positive for tuberculosis.

In the hospital they treated him with penicillin, and after he developed an allergy, they shot all this streptomycin in his butt. "I couldn't sit for about a month," he recalls. He graduated while he was in the hospital. A tutor would visit him. Aside from that, he says, "there was nothing to do but do pottery and watch TV and just watch people die."

Friends would visit and deliver inappropriate party favors. "To pass the time, they'd bring me a couple of joints and LSD," Carlos says. "And I'm taking LSD like a dummy, watching The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse with Glenn Ford; the next thing I know, I'm inside the bed with my sheets over my head, going, 'Oh, shit, why did I do this, man?'" But in a way this trip was also his salvation. It made him realize that this was no place for a young man with plans. "Everybody there was dying of tuberculosis and cancer," he says. "I said, 'Man, this is hell. I've got to get out of here.'" He called a friend and asked him to bring some clothes. They stopped the elevator between floors so that he could change, and he fled. Everyone was looking for him, a potential tuberculosis carrier on the loose: the police, the board of health, his mother. But they didn't find him. He hid out at a friend's house; he felt fine, he was free, and he had music to play.

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