The Epic Life of Carlos Santana

Page 7 of 7

In the Santana boardroom, Carlos looks at some new Jimi Hendrix live CDs sent to him by Hendrix's family and studies a letter from Bryant Gumbel, inviting him to a charity golf tournament. He has a contretemps of sorts with some of his staff when he complains that he has no time off before his imminent promotional trip to Europe. He has told me, "This is a new dimension for me. I've been pretty much lowkey, invisible. This is new territory for me, so I'm taking deep breaths." Now he asks those around him for his schedule to be cleared. "It's a little too much," he tells them. "I'm flattered, but I need to see my mother."

He has come into the office to film a public-service announcement encouraging people to become teachers. Afterward he chats with the makeup artist, telling her why he had to move away from the Mission District after he became successful: "People were knocking on my door at three in the morning – 'Won't you do a benefit for me?' And it just became really hard to exist." But that first year out of town was tough. "You're used to hearing people stealing tires," he explains, "and all you hear is crickets."

This is the day of our drive around San Francisco: the house in the Mission District, the school, the hospital. We never get to the site of the recently demolished Tic Tocs, a restaurant where he worked from 1963 to 1967. "The Grateful Dead pulled over in limousines to get some hamburgers," he says. "And I'm in my apron, washing dishes and busing tables, and I said, 'I'm going to do that.' Something in me just said, 'If they can do this, I can do this.'" There and then, he walked out of the job for good.

In Haight Ashbury he shops unsuccessfully for a new hat, and we eat at a Cuban restaurant. Then we drive back to San Rafael, back to the rehearsal room for more incense and conversation.

"A lot of the credit goes to the women," he says. "I don't mind giving the credit to my mom and my wife and Lauryn Hill and my sisters and my daughters, because women are really supremely important for musicians. We all learn from how they walk, how they talk. It's not politically correct today, but in the old days, in the Sixties, if somebody was an incredible musician, you'd say, 'He's a bitch,' and if he was an incredible musician but he has a lot of class and style, then you'd say, 'Oh, he's a lady.'"

He moves on to the link between angels and devils. One of his more recent realizations has been that you need both: "The energy of devils and angels is the same energy; it's how you use it. It's fuel. There is a saying: If you scare all your devils away, the angels will go away with them. You know, the halo and the horns are the same things. I mean, it's OK to be spiritually horny – that's what creative genius is really about. Geniuses don't have time to think how it's going to be received. Real bona fide geniuses of this century – Miles Davis, Picasso – they don't have time to think whether people like it or not, is it morally right, will God like it? If you think, it's like poking a hole in an egg before it hatches."

Have you sometimes thought too much in your career?

Yeah, it goes in and out. That has been my whole journey – to learn to get a lobotomy.

So is "Supernatural" an album made on the lobotomy principle?

Yes. My instructions before I started this CD were: Be patient, gracious and grateful. My instructions from Metatron. There's an invisible radio that Jimi Hendrix and Coltrane tuned in to, and when you go there you start channeling this other music.

He tells me that one of his motivations has been the river of colors you see during the Olympic closing ceremonies, something that first hit him in 1976. "I thought, 'If we can make music to make people feel like that most of the time, then, as Miles Davis would say, "Then you're a motherfucker." You're great.'"

So, if I'm summarizing you accurately, what you need to be is a bitch motherfucker lady with a lobotomy?

Yeah. In the physical sense, yeah, Don't think so much before you play. Just let it flow . . . . That's the best kind of music, when you go beyond gravity and time and thinking. Not many mortals do it. I am just trying to get there. Every night I'm trying to get there, man.

Around the same time as his spiritual awakening and his takeover of the band, the music Carlos Santana wanted to make changed. Albums like 1972's Caravanserai were largely instrumental and ditched the good-time Latin rock for more intense, jazz-infused explorations. Sales dwindled. "You know, I'm fifty-two years old, I've gone through all the valleys," he now says. "Caravanserai, John McLaughlin, Alice Coltrane . . . I made a lot of so-called carreer suicides." The way he says this, you know that the records and collaborations he mentions are ones of which he is proud. But there were other moves that weren't so successful on any level. In the Eighties, like many artists of his generation, he made some uninspired records that tried to engage with the production values of the time. It was a difficult period. "In the middle of the Eighties, I was very much thinking like a victim," he says. "I was angry, bitter, disillusioned." His enthusiasm was also sapped by the deaths of Miles Davis, Bill Graham and Stevie Ray Vaughan. "For a while I felt lost in a creative way," he says.

By the mid-Nineties, he had other problems. "My wife said, 'I'm really worried and concerned, because you only have anger and more anger,'" he explains. "'I think you need to see a therapist to see what's going on with you, if you want to stay married with me.'"

"Carlos has had a very interesting life, and he's always had a secret life . . . . Well, he did until '95," says Deborah. "And it was, 'You go take care of all of your issues once and for all, or you're on your own.'" She remembers that "he was pretty upset – he didn't want me to leave."

The first time I ask him about this therapy, he tells me that the therapist asked him why he felt the world woke up every morning just to fuck with him. And when he thought about how absurd and self-obsessed that was, a weight lifted off him. "This album is the fruit of it," he says. "I have more of a balance now with the divine and the human, and I can dance with all of it now. That's probably why Supernatural is so powerful, because now it's not in conflict."

I would not have mentioned his therapy again, except that it comes up tangentially when we are discussing his time in Tijuana. I had asked him about something he once said: that in Tijuana he learned how to play guitar so that women's nipples would go hard.

"That's a real thing," he says. "I used to play the violin in church, and playing the music a certain way, people just fold their hands and go wherever they go; when you work in a strip joint, you play music in a certain way, and it's like watching a black panther when it's in heat. I used to be really uncomfortable with the sensual thing, because I wanted to be always on the side of the angels. I'm trying now, very graciously, to balance and validate angels and devils with the same reverence, because they both work for God, I happen to believe. It's OK for your nipples to be hard and for you to be foaming at the mouth and you're really aroused and, OK, what do you do with this energy? Do you defile a woman or make her feel heavenly with it? I'm not afraid anymore of those perimeters."

When did you stop being afraid?

'95. In '95 I understood more, because of therapy that I had, on what happened to me in my childhood with the sensual thing. It allowed me to put things in a place where I made peace with my past. And I don't blame anyone or anything, or life or devils or child molestation . . . . I don't blame anything for what happened to me anymore. I don't have that anger, that bitterness, for what happened to me. I'm able to just say, "Look, to live in the moment now and not to be carrying a cadaver with all the stink and everything is definitely more . . . glorious."

Had you ever done therapy before 1995?


Was it a surprise to you?

It was a surprise to me what I heard myself saying, and how that person . . . if there was cancer, she took about eighty percent of it out. Ten percent I'm working with still. And I have no doubt that the reason Supernatural is what it is is it's a manifestation of what had happened to me. If I hadn't seen her, I don't think I would have been able to be in a position to make an album like this.

What did she think was blocking you, or troubling you?

Guilt. Shame. Judgment. Fear.

And where did she think those things were coming from?

There was a combination of Catholic upbringing and child molestation.

Neighter of us says anything for a moment. I'm not quite sure if he is saying what I think he is saying. Afterward, listening back, I realize how much his frustration at nearly, but not quite, saying something has been prowling through our conversations. "And those are two really powerful, cancerous things," he adds.

Even now, I could just move on and it might float away, unspecified. But, of course, I'll ask.

What do you mean by child molestation?

I was molested. At a very young age. I was seduced by toys, and I was seduced by being brought to America with all kinds of gifts and stuff. And, being a child, I blocked that other part, because there was the other goodies of somebody taking you to Sears and Roebuck.

Carlos Santana takes a breath. "Because I'm so deep off into it, I can't turn back what I'm saying, but nobody even knows about this stuff. It's never come out."

He tells me about it. For about two years, from 1957 to 1959, when he was between ten and twelve years old, Carlos Santana was brought over the border "almost every other day" by this American guy from Burlington, Vermont, who dressed like a cowboy. He'd buy Carlos presents – food, clothes, toys – and abuse him. It ended only when Carlos fell in love with a girl. The man got jealous when he caught Carlos looking at her through a window, and he slapped him. "And I woke up," Carlos remembers. "I looked at him for the first time for who he was: a very sick person." The last time he saw that man, a couple of years later, he was with another young guy.

"You want to get angry with yourself for not knowing better," he says. "The mind has a very insidious way of making you feel guilty: You're the guilty party, shame on you, you're the one who brought this on yourself."

For years he put what had happened out of his head. "All the times I was angry with the orginal band or with my wife, till '95, it was all of that," he says. "I have learned to convert all this energy now into something productive and creative. At the time, I'm sure I made hell for the orginal guys in the band, and the first ladies I was with, because I didn't have a way to express it and crystallize it and heal it. It's just fuel now. You use it to do something creative with."

At this point, Carlos Santana seems as surprised as I am – I by the fact of what he has just shared, he by the fact that he has shared it. He begins to ask questions, and it is hard to judge how rhetorical they are. "What's the point of me going here with this?" he asks. "Do I want a sense of closure? A sense of redemption?" I interject occasionally, but mostly he just talks. "A part of me says," he continues, "there's a lot of people out there who have this kind of pain and anguish, and if you show your face and say, 'I am healed. I can be healed.' Whether you are a woman or man who has been raped or molested, you don't have to ruin the rest of your life and ruin your family's life by blaming yourself, feeling dirty, ashamed. Burn all those things, man. Put all those things in a letter, burn it, take the ashes, plant some roses and put the ashes on it, and watch it grow. And let it go . . . . If it can happen to me, and God has blessed me a hundred times, I hope that he will bless you a thousand times. It has given me a chance to grow roses without the thorns."

How would you describe the change in yourself? More calm? More confident? More whole?

Everything that you just said. But now I am comfortable in my own skin. When I first met Dave Matthews, I was so attracted to him, even though I'm not gay, because he is so comfortable in his own skin. I was never comfortable in my own skin. I was always crawling out of my skin. Now I am more content with Carlos, and I am more proud of Santana . . . . Supernatural is putting me in a situation where I'm a voice now: "What are you saying, Carlos? What are you saying besides being a groovy pop star?" I never see myself in these terms anyway. I'm saying that I am a multidimensional spirit, and I am not what happened to me.

That night, after our conversation, he stays up late, scared and worried, a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach. "I haven't felt like this since high school, when you have to meet the bully," he will tell me. The next morning, though it is supposed to be his day off, he sends a message saying he needs to talk. He wants reassurance about how I will write about what he has told me; I wonder whether he is really asking me whether I think he should have shared it at all.

"I am not looking for pity, and I am not looking for sensationalism. I'm looking for: My triumph is your triumph," he says. "I feel God wants me to pay him back. He has given me so much, and to pay back is to heal."

We are talking in the archive room at the Santana offices, where I am spending the day doing research. He finds a photograph he wants me to see. It is a photograph of a young boy in a Tijuana school, smiling sweetly at the camera, holding open his science textbook. "This is the guy I want to honor," he says. "Because this is all before that happened. This is that guy. That is Carlos before all that went down."

What do you think when you look at that?

Sometimes it makes me sad, because I want to go back to feeling all the purity and innocence. So somebody throws black ink at you? You're still pure. There's a part of you that can never be a corrupt.

We speak again the next week, in London. "I'd no idea I'd start telling this," he reiterates. "I can only pray that me coming out with this, people who have gone the road that I have taken, it will be invitation for them to heal and be whole. It's the healing process so that other people – molesters and victims – can read it and go, 'Damn, I don't have to be this anymore.' On a spiritual term, connecting the molecules with the light. On a physical meat-and-potatoes reality, rescuing people from the valley of false perception. My job is done – I don't need to win one award, because my victory is won."

For me," says Carlos Santana insistently, "if there is a theme to this, it is a masterpiece of joy. Carlos created through all of these journeys and trials and tribulation, guilt-shame-pain-horror-whatever, he created a masterpiece of joy." That is how he sees his story.

"Metatron wants something from me, and I know exactly what it is," he says. "When you're soldering, you need this silver thing." He means the solder itself, which melts and joins one object to another. "That's what I am," he says. "The people who listen to the music are connected to a higher form of themselves. That's why I get a lot of joy from this CD, because it's a personal invitation from me to people: Remember your divinity."

It's tempting to step back a little more. To speculate on the possible links between traumatic childhood experiences and a lifetime searching for spiritual fulfillment, a passion for healing the world's evil ways. To wonder if the angels really hover, and what it would mean for all of this if you simply couldn't believe they did. But this is Carlos Santana's story – his own strange masterpiece of joy – and I believe he presents it his way without cheating, connivance or duplicity. There are times to speak, and there are times to listen.

On the afternoon when Metatron announced to Carlos Santana much of what would subsequently happen to him, there was another message. He was looking at the light of a candle, and the candle got really big. He was meditating with a group of people, and the group went into this beautiful hall with many rooms where an old Asian man came up to Carlos Santana. He had a question.

"What is it that you're looking for with so much intensity?" the old Asian man asked him.

It was a good question.

"I'm looking for the perfect melody," Carlos told him.

Everything went quiet.

"Child," the old man said, "don't you know that you are that already?"

As he tells me this, Carlos Santana smiles at me, solidly patient, firmly gracious and determinedly grateful. "And I know it sounds really crazy to a lot of people, but it's OK, because I'm not afraid of what people think . . . . My reality is my reality. I'm not going to deny it. I'm not going to deny it all. I stand in front of people. Behold my reality."

This story is from the March 16th, 2000 issue of Rolling Stone. 

To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here

Music Main Next

blog comments powered by Disqus
Around the Web
Powered By ZergNet
Daily Newsletter

Get the latest RS news in your inbox.

Sign up to receive the Rolling Stone newsletter and special offers from RS and its
marketing partners.


We may use your e-mail address to send you the newsletter and offers that may interest you, on behalf of Rolling Stone and its partners. For more information please read our Privacy Policy.

Song Stories

“Love Is the Answer”

Utopia | 1977

The message of the Beatles' "All You Need Is Love" proved to be a universal and long-lasting one, which Utopia revisited 10 years later on this ballad. "From a lyrical standpoint, it's part of a whole class of songs that I write, which are about filial love," Todd Rundgren explained. "I'm not a Christian, but it's called Christian love, the love that people are supposed to naturally feel because we are all of the same species. That may be mythical, but it's still a subject." Though "Love Is the Answer" wasn't a hit, a cover version two years later by England Dan & John Ford Coley peaked at Number Ten on the Billboard singles chart.

More Song Stories entries »