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Behind the Curtain: Backyard Tennis Duels with Carlos Santana in Marin County
Those of an age likely have one enduring Carlos Santana visual indelibly stamped on their eyeballs. It is an image of the guitarist standing onstage at the Woodstock Music & Art Fair. The date is August 16, 1969 and the time is roughly 2:00 p.m. in on what is becoming a cloudy Saturday Afternoon. He is wearing a sleeveless black vest, sporting a wispy black goatee and mustache, and his head is thrown back in a pose of spiritual bliss.
A closer look at his eyes will reveal not so much an ecstatic reverie as a psychedelic one. He tears through the licks of “Soul Sacrifice” as an ever-increasing wind blows his curly hair around like a nest of wriggling snakes.
Let’s backtrack a couple hours and see what led up to this iconic — and arguably what will become the most important — moment of his life. Carlos Augusto Alves Santana is wandering around backstage, a 22-year old, virtually unknown guitar player from Autlán de Navarro, Jalisco, Mexico. His first self-titled album hasn’t even been released yet and here he is rubbing shoulders with the Grateful Dead, Lovin’ Spoonful’s John Sebastian and other legends.
Maybe Janis Joplin, Sly Stone and the Who are strolling about. They’re headlining later and perhaps they’ve arrived a bit early to get situated and check out what’s happening. He is a boy amongst giants, and in the frenzied echoes of his mind maybe a voice repeats over and over, “What are you doing here? What are you doing here?” Fire-breathing guitar monsters like Jimi Hendrix, Pete Townshend, Leslie West, Alvin Lee and several other already-famous six-string masters have already made their bones and just breathing the same air as these legends must be making him high.
Carlos is not scheduled to perform for many hours yet, so he drifts among his fellow musicians in a state of awe, contentment and disbelief. That he is here at all still blows his mind. Big time promoter Bill Graham has taken the guitarist and his band under his wing and has arranged for them to perform at the festival. Graham, a domineering force in concert promotion and band management, casts a long shadow. Whatever Bill wants, Bill gets, and what he wants is for his baby band to appear at the Woodstock gathering.
When I first meet Carlos about ten years after the famous festival he will tell me, “Bill Graham said, ‘You guys want to go to New York for the first time? I’m from there. You guys have never been there and you have no idea in your wildest dreams you’re ever gonna see a city like this. Plus where you’re gonna play is gonna be a whole other city by itself without buildings.’ We’re lookin’ at each other and he said, ‘If you don’t watch out you’re gonna get all screwed up in the head because people are gonna start saying, ‘Hey there goes that guy. He must be god—he sounds like god.’ And we said, ‘Oh, man, we don’t wanna hear this. We just wanna play music.’ Everything that he said happened. The next two years after Woodstock, everybody went crazy with egos flying all over the place.”
As he checks out his surroundings, maybe the guitar player is thinking about Bill Graham’s sage advice, but probably not. He is certainly thinking how happy he is to be there and not playing songs on the street corners of Mexico for passing tourists at five pesos a song. He has come a long way, and now he is here at the Woodstock Music & Art Fair for 3 Days of Peace & Music.
It has been raining off and on and the wind has been blowing less than gently over Max Yasgur’s 600-acre dairy farm in the Catskill Mountains. In fact, the entire grounds are muddy, rain soaked and barely traversable. The weather is playing havoc with the P.A. and bands are in danger of being shocked to hell standing onstage amidst pools of water while touching electric guitars and live microphones. Still, there is no other place in the world the young musician would rather be. He has no inkling at all of what awaits him in what will be a life-changing performance.
It is 11 AM and Carlos is grooving backstage. Everything and everybody is running late and his time slot later that evening seems like a lifetime away. Way too early to feel any nerves. “It was supremely magical for me, man,” Carlos will tell me a decade later at his remarkable house in Marin County, California. “At that time I was a teenager totally into self-discovery at all costs. We got there and it was a total disaster area so we got in helicopters. They said, ‘You’re not going on until six or eight o’clock at night’ and it was 11 o’clock in the afternoon. Everything is backed up so you’re just relaxing. So I go over and find Jerry Garcia and he’s sittin’ down and he’s got this great smile on his face. I said, ‘Hey, what’s happening?’ We started talking and the next thing I know, I have taken something too. By eight o’clock I’ll be comin’ down so it’s no problem. Wrong! As soon as I came on they said, ‘Change of plans. You gotta go on right now or you don’t play at all.’ I said, ‘Oh, god, just keep my guitar in tune and keep my fingers in the right place. Please.’ That’s a lot of what I remember about it. It was pretty dangerous.”
Despite flying on acid or mescaline or whatever it is Garcia has given to him, Santana’s performance that August morning in 1969 marks the moment of his arrival. Standing onstage with his eyes closed and head tossed back in serene—we now know psychedelic—surrender, he clutches his Gibson SG like it is the only thing rooting him to the earth. The performance is not great—his playing is a little sloppy and the vocals aren’t very tight—but it doesn’t matter. Because the only thing 300,000 zonked-out hippies experience that day is this skinny little kid playing his heart out. That there are bad notes or out-of-tune vocals are of no consequence. They are attracted to the Zen of the moment and the way the staccato guitar notes seemed to have pierced the heavens and stopped the very rain from falling. Or at least that’s what their own high-flying brains tell them.
This is a watershed moment and the kickoff to a career that is still building in momentum when I first meet Carlos around 1979. Flying into the San Francisco Airport, I board a car that takes me to his home in Marin County. Marin County is one of the most exclusive areas in the entire country. If your bank balance does not have a lot of 00000000 behind it, you won’t be buying here anytime soon. As we wind our way up the mountain road, it is impossible not to be dazzled by the natural beauty and beatific nature of the place. No wonder Santana lives here. Who wouldn’t want to live here?
His home resides on the crest of his very own private mountaintop. There is a 360° view of mixed evergreen forests filled with Sugar Pine, Ponderosa Pine and White Fir trees. There are California redwood trees, patches of chaparral and splashes of wild color from flowers and a thousand strains of flora. It is a palace and a refuge, a sanctuary of solitude to which Carlos retreats when he is not touring or recording. This is what Woodstock wrought. This is what sold-out concerts and big-selling albums buys.
I have just stepped out of the car and barely set foot on the driveway when Carlos approaches. I must have said hello but with the words barely out he says, “Do you play tennis, man?”At first I think my hearing is going. I muse, “Did Carlos Santana just ask me if I played tennis, man?” My travel bag is still in my hand and though the flight is only about an hour from Los Angeles, I chalk it up to mild jetlag. Then I take a closer look at his attire and it hits me on the head like a hammer: Dressed in white shorts, some sort of Polo shirt and athletic shoes, Carlos looks like he is ready to hit the courts at Wimbledon.
“Uh, no. I don’t play,” I finally manage to utter. Even if I did, I am not wearing the right clothes. I have jeans and semi-dress shoes on and playing in those clothes would have been ridiculous and impossible. “I’m not dressed right,” I add. Carlos is not phased. “That’s alright, man. I’ll give you a pair of shorts, shoes and a racket.”
A racket? Who said anything about a racket? I don’t want to play tennis even it is with Carlos Santana. I am there to do an interview and then I want to go back home. I demur once again. “Carlos, I’ve never played. I’m no good.” My remark doesn’t even register. “That’s OK. Let’s play.” I counter, “Can we do the interview first and then maybe play?” He shoots back with a quick verbal volley as speedy as the backhand I would soon encounter. “No. First we play.” This isn’t a statement—it’s a command.
We are at a standstill. Deadlocked. Nowhere to go. Athletic détente. It is obvious the guitarist loves tennis. It is also very apparent the only interview I am going to conduct is with the birds in the trees if I don’t agree to play so I do. “OK, I’ll play.”
We walk around to the back of his house and there in all its splendor and netted glory is a full-size and beautifully maintained tennis court. The asphalt surface is impeccable and the net looks brand new. Wimbledon would be envious. Beyond the fences surrounding the perimeter of the court, the mountaintop drops away to nothing down sheer slopes. In other words, if you hit a ball over the fence you are shit out of luck. It is gone.
That’s precisely where most of my warm-up shots land as they sail 10 feet over the top of the fence. Whoosh. Bye-bye balls. I must have sent half-a-dozen to that great resting place where all lost tennis balls go to die. I keep apologizing to Carlos over and over for losing his balls. He has a seemingly endless supply of them and so he nods in a way that says it is alright but something in his eyes say he isn’t real happy with the way I’m shooting the balls over the fence in rapid fire succession. Finally after about 20 solid minutes of practice, I am at least able to keep the ball from flying into space. That is good enough for Carlos.
We end up playing doubles and as soon as he says this, I know I will be on the opposite side of the net. I know he wasn’t going to choose me for his team because he just wasn’t going to watch me stand there while he did all the work. No, Carlos was going to make me man up and face him mano a mano.
I ask, “Who serves first?” “I do,” he responds. There is no volley for serve, no further discussion. Who did I think was going to serve first on Carlos Santana’s private tennis court?
As I stand on the opposite side of the net awaiting his first serve, a voice goes off in my head. “What are you doing here, man? What are you doing here?” The voice probably had the same plaintive and beseeching tone as the one Carlos heard years earlier while rubbing elbows all those musical giants of the time. I barely have a second to answer my own inner head when I see a ball whiz by my ear like a bullet. Actually I don’t so much see it as I feel it accelerate past me. My racket never even moves. I stare across the court and hear Carlos shout out, “15-love.” I never even heard him announce his first serve or that the game had started. It was going to be a long afternoon and I knew he wasn’t fucking around. This tennis ball whacking zealot was coming after me with all the fire and passion he brought to that performance back in 1969. It didn’t matter that now he had a tennis racket in his hands rather than an electric guitar.
This is who he was and for Carlos, he always laid it on the line.
He tosses another ball into the air and slaps a brutal shot directly at me. I barely have time to move when it hits me on the leg. There is no pain other than the humiliation and embarrassment of it. My first instinct was to simply go through the motions of the match but now I am pissed. The hyper-competitive thing comes out in me and the voice in my head is now chanting, “He wants a game? Give him a game.” Adrenalin flows through me and my eyes focus and I tighten the grip on my racket. I follow the arc of the ball as he tosses it in the air, rise to the challenge of what is coming and am at least able to get my racket around and carom the ball off to the side.
“40-love,” he calls out and is he gloating? Is he making fun of me? Whether there is a hint of superiority in his voice or not is hard to tell. Whatever I heard — or didn’t hear — I am now really mad at myself for simply lying down and walking straight into the arms of defeat. I relentlessly pursue every shot that comes my way and am now able to make contact with virtually every incoming shot. On my serve, I bring my arm back as far as it will go and let fly with the hardest, fastest balls I can muster. They still don’t move much quicker than a slow-flying bird but do land in fair territory. I get Carlos on the run once or twice and make him work for every point.
I think we play one set — six games — and Carlos certainly wins every one. But I have scored a few points and tried to prove myself a worthy opponent and hope he hasn’t been oblivious to that. I sweat like a pig on a spit and have blisters on my fingers and am a bit winded but it feels good knowing I played as hard as I could. I tried. We both approach the net and when I extend my hand, he grasps mine firmly and says, “Good game.” I pass the audition and I head out to a private cabana in the back to change back into my street clothes.
We go inside his house and it is as wonderful as you’d expect it would be. Rich woods and astonishing antiques. We sit for a couple hours talking, listening to music and going through his album collection. He has an amazing assortment of Jimi Hendrix bootlegs and we ooh and ahh over the covers.
I played his game and then he played mine by giving me a lengthy, insightful and honest interview. We say goodbye that day for the first of what will be many meetings down the road. Several years later I meet up with Carlos again and ask him if he remembers that day we played tennis together. “Yeah, you surprised yourself and you surprised me,” he said. “If you didn’t try, you wouldn’t ace me. You gotta try or otherwise how do you know what you are capable of? I wasn’t trying to be a bully but it was an invitation to your excellence.”
When everybody else watches Carlos Santana on that Woodstock stage, they see this scrawny kid with the scraggly beard apparently deep in the throes of his own music. But that’s not what I see. As I watch him with his head tossed back and eyes shut as if in supplication, I don’t think he is listening to his own inner rhythms.
Rather, I’d like to believe he is dreaming about a day 10 years in the future when he will meet an unknown opponent on the court of battle. When he will hold his racket high and engage in an athletic duel where only one competitor will emerge victorious. When he will challenge his opponent to bring everything he has to the moment at hand. And when the contest has ended, he will extend his hand, embrace the warrior across from him and declare, “Good game.”
That’s what I see when I picture Carlos Santana on that historic stage. Or maybe it’s just what I want to see—in me.
September 2, 2020