The Epic Life of Carlos Santana

Page 6 of 7

Up the top of a rickety wooden ladder, Carlos Santana and I crawl into his church attic. This is where he keeps the T-shirts he wore onstage until recently: almost all brightly colored and almost all with a picture of at least one of his heroes on them. He has a couple of artists whom he keeps busy with commissions like this (they also do his album artwork). He picks out one T-shirt as an example. "I'll be, 'I want Jimi Hendrix with angels and flying saucers,'" he says.

Before we climb down, he shows me other prints he's commissioned. He'd like to open a version of the Gap or Banana Republic called River of Colors. His own clothes are becoming a little quieter, though; for the Grammys, he's considering black. "I'm kind of weaning myself out of the colors and dressing more straight now," he says. "I'm fifty-two – for ten years I wore mostly these colors, and people used to say, 'Oh, Santana always wears dead people on him.'" He shrugs. "They're not dead. They're more alive than most people you see on MTV today, you know."

After he left home, Carlos barely saw his parents for two years, though they came to see him opening for Steppenwolf and the Staple Singers at the Fillmore. His mother told him that she felt so bad for the hippies, because they were so poor, they were sharing cigarettes. He didn't explain.

He insists that he never wanted Santana in the band's name; he was the guitarist, and his was simply the name that sounded best. Later – when they began incorporating Latin rhythms and chants before the release of their first album – they dropped the "Blues Band." That first album, Santana, was an immediate hit, but it was after appearance low on the bill at Woodstock, and particularly the inclusion of "Soul Sacrifice" in the film and on the soundtrack, that it really exploded. Onstage, he was on psychedelics he'd taken in the mistaken belief that the band wouldn't be on for hours. "When I see it on TV, it's like another guy playing," he says. "He was trying to get in there, dealing with the electric snake. Instead of a guitar neck, it was playing with an electric snake."

He took a lot of psychedelics in those days: LSD, mescaline, peyote, ayahuasca. He considered these sacred sacraments at the time: "I felt it would make it more real and honest. It's a spiritual thing, you know. Maybe my wife won't be too fond of me sharing these stories because of our children; I don't recommend it to anybody and everybody, yet for me I feel it did wonders. It made me aware of splendor and rapture."

Ultimately he decided he'd seen enough. The last time he did anything like that was when he took some mushrooms on a tour day off at Niagara Falls in 1987. He says he can imagine doing it again when his children are grown up. Take something, go down to the beach. "Just to see if it has that innocence feeling," he says.

In the early days, he didn't enjoy success. "I would turn on the radio and Abraxas would be on every station, just about," he says. "And I found myself more and more depressed, and I'd find myself crying. The band was deteriorating, and my friends who I grew up with were total strangers to me. We started sounding like crap. It became all those thing that happen to most bands. It was basically too much too soon: excess, big egos, myself included."

One of your band members said back then that your head "got about as big as Humpty Dumpty." Was that fair?

Yeah. Mine and everybody else's. You're going from a Mission District kid with nothing to having everything – you're Number One, buy your mom a house. Too much drugs, everything to excess. You start feeling really lonely. And for me, it was the beginning of my journey.

What made it come to some kind of crisis for you?

Drugs. Certain people in the band were into heroin and cocaine, and I used to have cold sweats, nightmares, and I would wake up screaming: The place would be packed, 60,000 people, and the band is in no condition to play because so-and-so are fucked up; Bill Graham is screaming at me, "You're nothing, you're unprofessional, you're a piece of shit." That was my recurring nightmare.

It never actually happened?

No. But it was happening every other night in my dreams.

By 1973, he had decided that the band with his name was also his band, and he took over. Though he has worked with some original members since that time (none currently), there has been bad feeling over the years about his coup, and the parallel implication that it was him all along. "I don't want to short-change the original guys in the band," he says. "For a long time I felt, in their minds, that I was riding on a wave that they started. But it's been thirty years, so hopefully this time they will be appeased that I still want to honor their contribution to the band and how we grew up together."

By 1973 he had changed in other ways, too.

As we leave the church, I notice a guitar strap neatly laid out in a cabinet. On it, spelled out in large letters, is the word Devadip. That was the name Carlos Santana took from 1972 to 1981, when he was a disciple of an Eastern guru called Sri Chinmoy.

He had met Deborah in early 1972, at a Tower of Power concert at the San Rafael Civic Center. The friend he was with noticed the way Carlos looked at Deborah across the room. "I feel sorry for your ass," the friend told him. "It's all over for you, man. That's the one."

She was twenty-two. From her side of the room, she just noticed "this skinny guy standing there with long hair and his guitar"; she had to ask who he was. But she felt the connection too. He knew for sure the first time she came to his house. "She smelled like something I wanted to wake up next to the rest of my life," he says. "This is a person who is very soft outside, very feminine, very sweet, but inside tougher than steel. It's crazy, man, because the same thing I used to run away from home, because my mom's strong character, that's the first thing that I found. I need a woman who's got that General Patton four-star conviction."

"Carlos is a person who comes from his heart all the time, so when I met him he was tremendously soft," she recalls. "He's gotten a lot more assertive over the years."

By the time Santana met her, he was already looking for some spiritual guidance. He had been fasting and praying, and, inspired by the example of John Coltrane, he had started to read about Eastern mysticism and philosophy. Then, when he met guitarist John McLaughlin, McLaughlin had a photo of Sri Chinmoy, and the guru seemed to have an enormous peace about him. The thing that really got Carlos was one of Chinmoy's statements: "When the power of love replaces the love of power." That made plenty of sense to him.

Chinmoy gave him the name Devadip, which means "the eye, the lamp of the light of God." Deborah, who had joined with him, became Urmila. They signed up to a stern regimen. "Cut your hair, no drugs, total vegetarian," he summarizes. "It was like a West Point approach to spirituality. Five o'clock in the morning mediating, every day." Long-distance running was an enthusiasm of Chinmoy's, and Deborah ran marathons. She also ran a devotional vegetarian resturant in San Francisco. "We used to do ridiculous things," she says. "There was always this competition in how much we could do to prove our devotion – who could sleep the least and still function, because you were working so hard, how many miles could you run. I once ran a forty-seven-mile race. It wasn't enough just to run a marathon."

Carlos avoided most of the roadwork: "I was, 'This shit is not for me – I don't care how enlightening it is.'" Instead, he would play Chinmoy's songs at meditations and performances that, to his increasing frustration, were often announced as though they were Santana performances.

The few interviews Carlos gave in those years are crammed with reverence toward Chinmoy. "Guru has graduated from the many Harvards of consciousness and sits at the seat of God. I'm still in kindergarten," said Carlos. Likewise: "Without a guru I serve only my own vanity, but with him I can be of service to you and everybody. I am the strings, but he is the musician."

Eventually, says Carlos, "everything about him turned into vinegar – what used to be honey turned into vinegar." One turning point was when he heard Chinmoy pontificate meanly about Billie Jean King because she'd talked of a lesbian relationship. "And a part of me was, 'What the fuck is all this – this guy's supposed to be spiritual after all these years; mind your own spiritual business and leave her alone.'" Carlos emphasizes that he took much that was good from these years with Chinmoy – "It was a good learning experience about spirituality" – but the end was awkward.

"He was pretty vindictive for a while," Santana says. "He told all my friends not to call me ever again, because I was to drown in the dark sea of ignorance for leaving him."

It was not too long afterward that he and Deborah had their first child. "I look upon the time when we left as such a sweet time as a couple," Deborah says. "I remember ordering my first chicken sandwich in Spain. It was so delicious." Now, she took the spiritual lead, going to a church in Santa Cruz. "I became a born-again Christian to appease her, so to speak," Santana says. She did not subsequently follow him in the way of the angles, but she doesn't doubt his faith: "It blesses him. He's had some wonderful spiritual experiences that he's shared with me that I know are real."

"She has her own feet on the ground," he says. "I'm the space cadet, you know. She gets uncomfortable sometimes. She doesn't want people to think I've lost it, I'm out of my gourd."

His wife has laid down some firm family rules. Since their third child, Angelica, was born ten years ago, she has insisted that time working is followed by sacrosanct time off, in which he takes a full role in family life. "When he comes home," Deborah says, "and I don't want to hear about Carlos Santana.' I want him to hear about the children, I want him to take over some of the responsibility. I'll warn him: 'Remember, when you come home, you are a father. There is recycling to be done, you're going to be driving the car pool.' Because that's my reality."

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