.Feature: Carlos Santana

Still searching for—and finding—that ‘Universal Tone’

by Steve Heilig

In the past decade, it was quite possible for virtually any Marinite to have lunch with one of modern music’s biggest legends—Carlos Santana. All one had to do was show up for lunch at the original corner site of Sol Food in San Rafael, and if he was not on tour, chances are he’d be there, eating at the counter. But it seemed even big fans wouldn’t bug him—that wouldn’t be cool, and Marin is—or as Santana might aver, was?—cool. In any event, our most renowned and revered local musician would easily give up a smile and a nod, and that was enough.

Now he lives mostly in Las Vegas. No, that’s not a misprint, and he went voluntarily, although he still keeps a very nice Tiburon home. After the breakup of his longtime marriage, he eventually landed a nice, regular gig in that desert resort town, and married a very talented drummer named Cindy Blackman. He continues to tour the world and draw massive crowds, releases new albums regularly, has restaurants and a shoe company and more, and is a serious philanthropist through his Milagro Foundation—still located in Marin and focused on child health, education and artistic growth.

Santana is also now an author with his new autobiography The Universal Tone: Bringing My Story to Light. At 500 pages, most any book risks becoming too long, especially in the dreaded self-indulgent genre known as “rock bio.” But Santana’s rags-to-glory story is so compelling, and his recall so impressive, that this one is well-worth any fan’s time and money. And sure enough he has recently drawn crowds to local appearances in Marin and San Francisco that were bigger and more diverse than any other “literary” event around.

“No other performer attracts bikers, former hippies, middle-class Hispanics, Chicanos, vatos, lovers of Latin jazz, blacks, curious white college students, whole families from babies to grandmothers,” wrote the late great Peter Warshall as editor of Marin’s late, lamented Whole Earth magazine. Previous biographies and interviews, including an extensive one I conducted with him in 1999, have outlined his path from birth in 1947 in a small town of Autlán de Navarro in central Mexico to selling gum on the streets of Tijuana as an adolescent to washing dishes in San Francisco’s Mission District as a teen. While his band was still forming, he climbed onto the stage at the fabled Fillmore, wowing the crowd and promoter Bill Graham, and then, at 22 years of age, without even an album out yet, found explosive stardom in 1969 at the original Woodstock festival (where, as he confirms in his book, Jerry Garcia handed him a large dose of mescaline before Santana’s stage time). All along he was listening to all types of music, learning to play first violin and then guitar, dreaming of the big time, and 100 million albums and tickets sold, the rest is history—and now all in one firsthand place in his remarkable book.

The original Santana band, so named as it simply seemed the most likely name among the members, released three albums that “sprinkled a little chili pepper into rock,” as the New Yorker put it. The usual mix of money, drugs and ego broke them apart, and Santana himself emerged as not just the name, but the face and most crucially, the lead guitarist of the group. His sound remains immediately recognizable as that of one of the few true living legends of rock, whose early hits retain their freshness and drive over four decades later. He’s won pretty much every music award worth winning, has been feted at the White House, has schools named after him, and much, much more. But he’s still “proud to be a hippie,” prone to baffling interviewers with some of his pronouncements. “In some ways I think I was born tripping!” he reflects in his book. He writes candidly about many personal trials, from childhood poverty in a fractured family to sexual abuse and a very painful divorce. He also stresses that he has been a devoted family man, raising three children in Marin.

Through it all, he has remained very much a mix of streetwise Latino funk and cosmic guru, living to send his long-sustained guitar notes out into the world with a passionate wish to both entertain and enlighten. And as he concludes in his book, “I have never been happier in my life than at this moment.”


So, welcome back home, as it were. What do you miss most about Marin—besides Sol Food, I mean?

[Laughs.] Oh, I think the sunrises and sunsets. Although those can be absolutely incredible out in the desert, too, you know. But wherever I am, that’s where my heart is. I don’t miss … well, there are a lot of angry people in the Bay Area now. Just look at the traffic jams and the way people drive and all that. And in California they keep closing more schools, and building more prisons. So I moved to Vegas, and I can’t tell you how much money that saves me a year, but I give that all away. I call that money “weapons of mass compassion.”

This is through your foundation?

Yeah, and I’d rather give my money to where I want it to go than to the Pentagon, or to Barack Obama. I like him still, but I don’t like that he hasn’t kept his promises, like to spend more for education and less on incarceration, and to stop the wars. As much as I love him, that’s where I am.

You and many others, I’m afraid. In your book you go into many deeply personal stories—what were you trying to do by writing it?

There’s a new chapter being written in my life as we speak, a different kind of luminosity, different aspirations, different goals. So it was time. But mainly I needed to share stories I learned to tell—from my dad, Bill Graham, B.B. King—storytellers who can captivate you. A good musician must be a supreme storyteller, like Billie Holiday, Alice Coltrane, John Lee Hooker. I always mention these names because I am them and they are me, as I learned so much from them. And I took so much from them, like I am taking now from Dolores Huerta and Harry Belafonte, who are my left and my right teachers right now, for their values of equality, fairness and justice. They are the Mahatma Gandhis of our day.

In this new phase of your life, are you planning to make less music, different music, or something else?

Some of all that. We are together with the original band for one thing—we’re finally making the album Santana IV! And I’ll be trying to do what I’ve long been longing to do, to make some new stuff that is elevating, transforming. Lately I’ve been really thinking of Alice Coltrane and Sonny Sharrock [a pioneering, hard-edged free-jazz guitarist], and I want to make music that I call “beautiful ugly.” Sharrock can sound like a hurricane or tornado, and I want to use that energy to take a photo of the other side, like Wayne Shorter does when he plays.

So, that sounds to me like it would be a less commercial approach than you’ve done in recent years, right?

Yeah, less radio-orientated, but that’s fine, it is time.

That reminds me of in your book where you write about when the first band was breaking up, you brought in new people and a new sound for the 1972 LP Caravanserai, and your management and even Bill Graham resisted that as being “career suicide.” But many of your fans, myself included, call that their favorite of your work.

Well, I thank you for that! [Smiling.]

And would you be bringing in more new, international, say, African influences and new musicians?

Yes, and I’d love to work with Kenny Garrett, Wayne or Herbie [Hancock] if they are available, and my wife—and I’d allow her to bring in the bass player of her choice. And maybe some African musicians, too.

You started with the blues, and in fact your band was first called the Santana Blues Band.

Yes, and we still sneak the blues into our sound, you know. Look, for me, Elvis was just the “King” of whatever—the real kings are people like B.B., Albert, and Freddie King, and T-Bone Walker and John Lee Hooker.

Your recall and memory in your book amazed me, with so many names, places, events, from long ago. How did you do that?

I got that from my mom—she had that kind of mind, incredible detailed memory about things. And I am hanging around Jerry and Diane [Drs. Gerald Jampolsky and Diane Cirincione, noted Marin therapists and authors], and I have “celestial selective memory” now and I only really remember the good. The bad, you have to say, “You know, I can try to remember it but I don’t have to and I don’t want to.”

But in your book you included plenty of rough times, from your childhood onward …

Yeah—but that was about healing. My publishers were great; they allowed me to tell the story without sensationalism, gossip and dirt—I said, this is about taking the high road, looking at the big picture.

That is striking in the book—you tell of so many people, some of whom it would seem could have been painted in a bad way, but most of it is positive.

The rascal in me wanted to put a line at the end saying, “When you pick up this book and go in the back pages to see where your name is and it’s not there, I did you a favor!’” [Laughing.]

When we spoke for an interview 15 years ago, you were working on the CD that was to become Supernatural and explode you into the big world again, and you mentioned a big secret you didn’t want to come out just yet—your childhood sexual abuse. Then, when you got all those awards and sales, you told your story. I thought this was a brilliant way to do it, to get that tough issue out there when you were already on the front pages everywhere.

Yes, that was a healing, with a high purpose to it, to reveal something, bring to light the problem, and to invite those others who had been violated in their innocence to look in the mirror and say, “I am not what happened to me, I am still as God created me with purity and innocence. And I forgive that person.” In my case, I transfigurated that person into a 7-year-old child in front of me and said, “I forgive you, and will not send you to hell, because if I do that, I will go with you. So I will send you into the light instead, so I can be free.” And it worked.

And did you hear from others with similar experiences, to thank you for that?

Oh yes. When I said that first in Rolling Stone, they were flooded with people who were saying things like, “Man, that was me, too.” And at the same time all this stuff came out—people saying they had been abused by priests, you know, and it just went global. So you know, we have the power, like John Coltrane said, one positive thought can create millions of positive vibrations. Don’t underestimate the power of consciousness, how vast it can be in helping people to recognize their own light.

You’ve spoken out a fair bit about the plight of illegal immigrants, especially Mexicans like yourself. This is such a hot issue, especially now. A few years ago at a Major League Baseball game you were booed for saying, “People are afraid we’re going to steal your job. No we aren’t. You’re not going to change sheets and clean toilets. I would invite all Latin people to do nothing for about two weeks so you can see who really, really is running the economy.”

Yeah, well, I try to represent all the people the bigots and Republicans are trying to keep out. Look, I read somewhere that in some parts of the country more tortillas are sold than loaves of bread. Get used to it, man, I don’t think we are going away!

You also said that “the highest thing one can do, whatever your position, is to inspire people to aspire.” That is just beautiful.

Yes. Yes! And what does that mean? To a starving person, food is God. To an aspiring person, who is not hungry for food anymore, only God is the food, you’re not hungry for anything else, you just wanna eat God, to stay in grace and luminosity.

Let me challenge you a bit on one thing; you’ve said, “If you don’t believe in God, you are free to believe in nothing, but that’s what you’ll get.” But so many seem to believe in their God out of fear, out of hope for some reward. But what about those who don’t believe in God but still try to be good, to do right for others?

Oh, you don’t have to believe in G.O.D, some big guy in the sky you know. For me God can be called … the highest good. Or even love. What I mean to say is that if you don’t have faith, or trust, then you’re just not gonna get far. And even if you do get there, you’re not gonna enjoy it. God is in a prostitute as much as in the Pope, or Dalai Lama, or Desmond Tutu—look who Jesus hung out with—Mary [Magdalene]! If you don’t believe that, you just have some issues.

Well I think the world’s negativity can be overwhelming, too. There is so much suffering out there. Do you read newspapers? One hundred and fifty years ago, Emerson said that doing so was “bathing in blood.”

Whoa! No, I don’t read them, never. But you know, all that stuff is not real. There are a lot of different forms of unrealness. The only thing that is real is love. As hard as it may seem for our mind to realize, what God created cannot be altered or changed, it can only be by personal choice created into your own little evolution, because we are only light and love and nothing else. All that suffering can be wiped out, when we reach a point on this earth when we collectively awaken to our own light … [pauses]. Look, this is something I need to say, a highest salutation that I learned from J.J. Hurtak in Los Gatos, who wrote The Book of Knowledge: The Keys of Enoch. He says, “May the heavens open up, and the angels bless each and every one with the deep awareness of your own light.” Once you see that is possible, everything else is like film, like in the old days, when you take it out of the can and put it into the light, it disappears. All the bad stories and suffering on this earth can be like that, as incredible as it may seem. Everything else is E. G. O.-created—Edging God Out—which is impossible, but we live by it every day, promoting fear.

I might also challenge you on the “suffering is not real” thing, but we don’t have the space and time here for a deep debate. I’m also not going to ask you about your divorce, as you expressed all that movingly in your book and the Pacific Sun is not the National Enquirer anyway. People can get the book to read about all that, right?

[Laughing.] Well, thanks!

Finally, you’ve recommended that we change our national anthem from that “bombs bursting in air” song—which you’ve played to open a Giants World Series game!—to Billie Holiday’s “God Bless the Child” or Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World.”

Yes. I just don’t like to celebrate bombs and fear, you know. And I don’t think there is any country in this world that promotes fear like the United States. And really, where has that gotten us? 

Carlos Santana”s “Desert Island Discs”

  • Miles Davis—Sketches of Spain
  • John Coltrane—A Love Supreme
  • Bob Marley and the Wailers—Exodus
  • Marvin Gaye—What’s Going On
  • Jimi Hendrix—”Any of his first three LPs,” Santana says. “Don’t make me choose!”
  • Salif Keita—Soro
  • Aretha Franklin—Lady Soul
  • Miles Davis—Kind of Blue
  • Miles Davis—Bitches Brew
  • Miles Davis—On the Corner
  • “And, could I maybe add Supernatural in there?”

Ask Steve about Santana’s favorite Sol Food dish at [email protected].

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