“I want to hear who you are. How do you feel right now? Because that’s all that’s real. There’s the moment. This moment. The only moment you’ll ever have. This very moment. In music or in meditation we have the possibility to experience these insights into the magical world that we truly inhabit.”
JD: Today we reach into the archive and revisit our 2015 interview with guitarist extraordinaire John McLaughlin, known for his work with Miles Davis in the ’60s and as the founder of the Mahavishnu Orchestra and shakti in the 70s, John is truly one of the top guitarists of our time. We had the pleasure of speaking remotely with John from his home in Monaco. Viv, what were some of the highlights of the conversation from your perspective?
Viv: Talking to John McLaughlin was like talking to an old friend. Of course, that’s what it seemed like because we’ve been listening to his music for so long. John McLaughlin and the Mahavishnu Orchestra was one of my very first concerts when I was little skinny hippy, back when I was about 14 years old. To have that kind of conversation with him and such immediacy and intimacy even though he was all the way in Monaco and we’re in Albuquerque was just remarkable.
Viv: We are just thrilled to be talking with John McLaughlin today for Art of the Song. Thank you so much for taking time out.
John:It’s quite the reverse. I have to thank you for the opportunity. It’s very much appreciated.
Viv: John, tell us how you got started, would you please? We’ll start way back at the beginning. What motivated you to start playing?
John:Probably my mother. She was an amateur violinist so, from year one, there was always lots of music around the house. I always recall a particular experience I think, personally, that is what made me become a musician eventually. I must have been about five years old and my mother was knitting in the chair and it was just the two of us in the living room and she’d put on Beethoven’s 9th symphony. As it’s going by, she’s saying “You know, he wrote this. He was totally deaf when he wrote this.” And I’m going, “Wow, that’s pretty amazing.” But I’m a 5-year-old boy, what do I know? Nothing. I don’t know if you know that symphony but there’s a vocal quartet and it was the voices, it wasn’t the orchestra, but this vocal quartet appeared and I got goosebumps all over my body and I’m saying, “What’s going on with me, mom?” And she said, “Oh, it’s just the music!” It’s fine. And I thought, “Wow, what an amazing thing to happen to me!” That experience, at such a young age, I’m sure it marked me because to be able to get that experience and to be participating in that experience, I think, of course I had no idea at that time, I didn’t even think about it until years later, but I think that really marked me. I started playing piano shortly after that and all the way until eleven years old. Then, the youngest of five kids, lots of elder brothers, and one of them brought a guitar home. I must have been about 10 at that time. And he’s playing these cowboy songs and I’m not moved. I don’t like it at all. Then, he got bored with it and he gave it to the next brother and next brother is doing his cowboy songs. And I’m like playing Mozart. Not difficult. Easy Mozart. Easy Beethoven, but even so. I liked it. Finally, he got bored with it and the other brother he had taken off for university and boom! It arrived in my hands and I just fell in love with the guitar. I stopped the piano immediately and I actually went to bed that night with this $5 guitar. That’s how much I was enchanted by it and that really was my falling in love with the guitar and a love affair that’s lasted, oh my goodness, well I’ve already hit the biblical age so you can get your calculators out and start looking on them. It’s been a while. I’m still in love with the guitar, I’m still in love with that instrument. It’s just one of the most beautiful instruments ever came down from heaven. However, just to finish my beginnings, from the age of eleven, I was really lucky to have these elder brothers because they were already at university and they were present at the beginning of the blues boom, which swept the UK about 1952. So, by the time I was eleven, it was 1953, and this blues music. I was very happy they didn’t bring in cowboy music. I have nothing against cowboy music or cowboys, but they brought in these Mississippi blues records that just blew my mind because these guitar players…. the singers, great, yes, but the way they played guitar…. I’m talking like Muddy Waters, Big Bill Broonzy, Leadbelly, Son house. Robert Johnson, the great blues players and this music was a revelation to me. I’m coming out of, what I said, Mozart, and Beethoven. It’s nice, but I’m hearing “Hoochie Coochie Man” and he’s playing acoustic guitar at that time, Muddy Waters, before he played electric guitar. And, in quick succession over the next three years, I get exposed to the blues, flamenco music, Indian music, and finally jazz music. But all of these had a very strong impact on me, and I don’t know why. The first time I heard Indian music, it was a nagaswaram. Nagaswaram is an instrument from South India that you find really only in the temples. Just amazing. It’s a reed instrument. It has a sound and they are so soulful. I heard this instrument and this playing with a fantastic drummer whom I later subsequently met. This gave me goosebumps all over too, so there you are. I’m a goosebump guy. This music, I don’t know why these different cultural expressions have had such an impact on me, but they did, and they stayed with me, really, for the rest of my life. I think my recording and my association with these subsequent musicians’ playings, whether it’s Paco de Lucia, or with Shakti, or all the guys who were either in Shakti or remember Shakti. This has been my life played out in a way from all of those exposures in my teenage years. Crazy, huh?
JD: Well, you were doing world music before world music became fashionable.
John:Well, I was lucky because the BBC (British accent) …
Viv: Auntie Bebe (British accent) …
John: Actually, it was really great. There was a guy called Alan Lomax. I think he was American too. He was a real ethnomusicologist and he had a program on the BBC music radio. He would bring music from Pakistan, from Afghanistan, from the Blue Mountains, from the Mississippi Delta, from all over the world. This just was fantastic. What a program. This guy, Alan Lomax, I tuned in every week. I wouldn’t miss it for anything. The world music was born in our living rooms on the radio, basically, wasn’t it? Then, shortly after that, we sought to have these ethnic (sounds). I remember seeing already a long, long time ago on these classical Indian recordings or the shakuhachi flute from Japan or the gamelans from Bali. In a way, with the record shops, and the radio we all got affected by these different musics that were in our living rooms, It was marvelous, really.
Viv: Let’s talk about “Black Light”. Your CD.
Viv: Your new release. It talks about it in all of your press materials that this is the most personal to date. Can you talk about that a little bit?
John:Actually, on this particular recording, it could be construed because there are a number of personal homages on this recording. The opening song, “Here Come the Jiis” is really directly dedicated to U Srinivas, who passed away last year, who is the mandolin player in “Remember Shakti”, I don’t know if you ever saw that band.
JD: That was one of my favorites.
John:45 years old. We had been playing together 14 years. Liver failure and he’s gone in like three days. It was just devastating. I don’t know if you know the word “jii”. Jii is a multiple connotation of affection and reverence. For example, when I’m in India, people call me “John Jii”. They don’t call me “John”. They call me “John Jii” just because that’s the way. All the other people in the band, I call them, like “Shankar Jii”. Zakir, he’s Muslim, so we call him Bahai which, just as nice, is brother. And Shrinivas and Selvaganesh, which is the other percussion player in the band, they always came together. We would be in the hotel and they would be in the hotel when they were starting up and it was like “Oh, here come the Jiis!” So, I couldn’t separate one from the other, but it’s frustrating for us because Selvaganesh is still with us, God bless him, but Shrinivas I miss him so much. Here we have a prodigy. He was touring India at seven years old playing Pure Carnatic music. So, “Here Come the Jiis”. He was a very funny guy. So, the tune is very upbeat, very happy because that’s really the way he was even though I miss him.
John:Well, the next one, there’s another jii involved, it’s Pandit Ji, is the great Pandit Ravi Shankar, whom I had the great fortune of being an extracurricular student in the 70’s. He was already Pandit. Pandit means maestro in a way. But I wouldn’t call him pandit, I would call him Pandit Ji because of the affection and the reverence. That’s the way it is. I had a marvelous time with him. I was living in New York at the time and every time he came to New York, he’d call me up and I’d go over to his hotel and get tea and sandwiches or something for him. Then, one day out of the blue, he said, “John, I’m going to teach you South Indian rhythmic theory.” And I said, “Whoa, wonderful. Fantastic.” Which he did. What a blessing. He was part of my life really until he passed away. Not that I saw him so often after, but we had a wonderful meeting in 2000 in Delhi. It was just marvelous meeting. So, in a way, it’s just a thank you. Pandit ji, he was a funny, marvelous, wonderful musician and human being, so the tune is for him. It’s in rhythmical cycle of 5, just to add a little spice for everybody.
John:Ok, we’ll come now to the last homage, which is “El Hombre Que Sabia”, which means “The Man Who Knew” and it’s for the late great Paco de Lucia, whom we also lost last year. It was devasting for me. We go back to the 1970’s. We were continuously in contact over the years, so much so that we actually did a tour in the 1980’s, a recording of which is going to be released in January of next year, which I’m really thrilled about. A live recording of he and I. Anyway, 2013, we were talking about a recording that we planned to do last year in 2014. So, we were exchanging music, he was sending me MP3s and I was sending him MP3s and there’s one piece actually that I ended up recording on this album, was one of the pieces that he really liked. Then on the 25th of February, he was in Playa del Carmen when he had a heart attack and, unfortunately, they were unable to save him. Since then, I was thinking, how I have to say something. So, the only thing I thought was he really liked this piece, let me see if I can arrange it for the band just to say, “I miss you. I love you.” I think the band did it very well. I think they did an exceptional treatment of it. Of course, I played acoustic guitar so the whole tune is lighter than the electric pieces, but I thought they did a marvelous job. But then they’re fantastic musicians, all of them, Ranjit, Etienne, and Gary. I mean, outstanding. And not just outstanding musicians, but really great people too. Great humanist. So, that’s it, they’re right about it being a very personal records in terms of homages because I’ve never done so many on a record, but I’ve never lost so many people. It’s growing older, I guess, we tend to lose our friends.
JD: Tell us about the title “Black Light”. Where did that come from and what’s the significance?
John:It’s completely irrational because how can you put “Black” and “Light” together, but then we live in an irrational world, for me. You know I’ve been meditating for a big part of my life and meditation, which is a similar activity to music but more passive, you go into your inner world and it never ceases to amaze me that I hear music that I’ve never heard before and I see things that I’ve never seen before. How is it possible that I can see images and I can hear sound because it’s black in there? When we all look inside, there’s nothing there. It’s all blackness. But it’s not black. There’s light there also. It’s the one place in the universe where darkness and light coexist. I think this is the area where we do all of our creative work. It all is born there, and I guess the art is bringing it to some kind of reality. That’s really what it means for me. Does that make sense to you? You’re very quiet over there.
Viv: We’re just smiling from here to ear. And we’re just staring at each other and this room is so filled with light now.
John:Aww, you’re very sweet. Thank you very much.
Viv: It makes absolute sense and that’s one of the quixotic things about this radio program is 11 years ago we started sort of covertly getting this very message out and now it’s just what we talk about. So, thank you.
John:Wonderful. Well, more power to you both John & Vivian. More power to you because the radio that we hear, it’s really all like hamburgers isn’t it? Do you want some bacon on that, sir? Or mustard?
Viv: Yeah, wrap it up in paper and stuff it in a bag.
JD: Can you talk a little bit more about the relationship between spirituality and music?
John:Well, your question implies separation but, in reality, nothing is separate. It’s like when you have an experience with the oneness, with the unity of everything and everyone, there’s no more division. But we consider them, until actually, we can consider them. But actually, I think we have to remember that it’s a kind of intellectual game, isn’t it after all? That we are considering spirituality as opposed to art or music. But this was one of the great questions. It is a very important question because we are human, and we adore contemplating and playing the intellectual games and wonder and ask these questions. Actually, this was the question I asked my meditation guru in 19…19….1900 and hmm hmm hmm…. a long time ago and far away. His name was Sweechin Roy from Bangkok. I saw him, I was up somewhere in Connecticut, and I went to do a meditation with him, and he said, “Anybody got any question?” So, I said, “Yes, I’ve got one! Can you tell me the relationship between spirituality and music?” And he said, well, presumably you’re thinking about the way toward enlightenment of spirituality and music as an act in there. And he said, yes, music is very close to that. It can be very helpful in attaining some kind of liberation but, he said, you could do similar work sweeping the street. Depends how you sweep. I thought that was a really great answer. So, I stayed several years with him. About 5 years with him until I came to the realization that I had to assume responsibility for my own development because I think we have to agree that when we go to one of these spiritual teachers, the only authority they have is the authority that we give them. We give them the authority to tell us what to do or how to develop, but the authority comes entirely from ourselves, doesn’t it? They don’t have any independent authority. Only the one that we grant them. And after 5 years, I realized that I had to really take the bull by the horns and assume direct responsibility for my internal development or for my way toward liberation. Now, that said, I have to correlate that with experiences that I’ve had in music going back a long time, experiences of liberation, which I think is one of the essential criteria that pulled me toward Jazz music and, subsequently, toward Indian music. It was the element of improvisation because improvisation presupposes spontaneity. If you’re improvising, you’re being now. You’re playing now. You’re playing who you are now, and you can’t hide anything. So, you’re improvising with all your faults and all your qualities, but you’re being totally yourself and that’s the great thing about jazz music. It’s this honesty that comes with being spontaneous. Ideally, we should all be spontaneous in life because spontaneity is the way of freedom, isn’t it? It’s a gate to liberation. If we’re totally spontaneous constantly, it means we’re constantly free because we’re constantly ourselves all the time. I mean, maybe people will not like it or disagree with it or tell us to take a hike but, nevertheless, that is the case. It’s certainly so in music and even moreso in collective playing. This is the great thing about jazz. Whether or not people say I’m playing jazz or playing fusion, my initial love and discipline are from the school of jazz. As are all the players in the band–Etienne, Ranjit, and Gary. This allows for the possibility of a collective experience of liberation. Of course, it’s non-controllable. You cannot control these experiences like inspiration. If you don’t have it, you cannot order it. Just be there. And, frequently, we can go extended periods of time without inspiration, but that’s part of life! That’s part of existence, that’s part of learning. Anyway, how can we know inspiration if we don’t know what the lack of inspiration is? All musicians know what the lack of inspiration is. That said, we can all have actually performing a collective liberating experience because of the spontaneity. Of course, this means in this recording, I wrote the pieces, I wrote the arrangements, we get in the studio and I say to the guys, “Be who you are.” That’s all I want to hear. I want to hear who you are. How do you feel right now? Because that’s all that’s real. It’s the moment. This moment is the only moment we’ll ever have. This very moment. It’s marvelous. Here I am talking to you on the other side of the planet and we’re experiencing a moment together. It’s really magical. The world is magical. In music we have the possibility, or in meditation, we have the possibility to experience these insights into the magical world that we truly inhabit. Beautiful.
Viv: I just want to move to Monaco and hang out. Is that ok?
John:It’s a nice place here. You’re very sweet. I’m an old hippie, but I think we need some hippie values today. My dear. What is going on the world is just scary.
Viv: On that note, John, do you believe music can assist with the culture of peace?
John:Absolutely. That’s basically all our job. You’re doing that. You’re spreading love. You’re spreading music. You’re spreading affection. You’re spreading unity. Harmony. And, gee, the world needs it. Every little drop that’s possible. We need it. I think we’re really hitting the big time at the moment. I don’t think it’s going to be better. I think things will get worse before they get better, but we need love. We need affection. We need respect. We need people to try to see the divine in each of us. Where’s the difference? It’s just oneness. Ok, you look different. You think different. But you scratch a human being and we’re all the same underneath. But we get twisted by conventions, by groups, by society. Society is founded on not what I would call really admirable values. They encourage egoism, they encourage separateness, they encourage acquisition, they encourage greed. I think of all the really bad problems around the world, greed is up there. And religious hatred. That’s another one that’s really bad. Coupled with racial hatred. There’s some really big ones up there, aren’t there? Music is about love, isn’t it? It’s about being together in harmony. It’s about mutual affection. Mutual admiration. Mutual working together. We can never really quantify what we do. Maybe that’s a blessing. The works that we do, we cannot quantify that effect on humanity in general. But I’m a great believer that the smallest selfless deed has an impact globally, even universally. I know it sounds a little out there, but I actually do believe it. I think since we’re all part of the one, whatever each one of us does has an impact on the whole. Whether we can discern that, the results of that act, that I don’t think so, but I am convinced of it and I will be convinced I think until the day I pass away. So, I think it makes sense for us all not to be just do-gooders, I think the best thing we can do is to be who we really are. But who we really are is part of the Big One. If we all saw it, then we could realize that we’re all part of it. Where’s the big problem, you know? The big problem comes really from the resources that are so badly proportioned, and they’ve gotten worse too over the last 20-30 years. Anyway, I’m drifting away here.
Viv: On really wonderful drift. We like your drift. And we catch your drift.
John:Thank you, I’m sure you know what I’m talking about, Vivian. I’m sure you do.
Viv: We do.
JD: John McLaughlin, thank you so much for talking with us on Art of the Song.
John:John Dillon, thank you for the opportunity. I hope I haven’t digressed too far from where you wanted to go, but I thoroughly enjoyed the conversation. Vivian, thank you. I hope we get to meet one day. I really do.