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Behind the Curtain: John McLaughlin and the Value of a Job Well Done
In which writer Steve Rosen recounts his adventures with guitarist/composer John McLaughlin …
This story was originally meant to begin with a short preamble about how human beings are creatures of habit and how we tend to do the same things over and over — the habits of creatures –because we know what we’ll find on the other side and that makes us happy and content. I was going to say something about being drawn to things we understand and how if we dug dinosaurs and Jurassic Park and spaceships and Star Wars movies that we were unlikely to go and see romantic comedies. How if we listened to Cream, Hendrix, the Who and the Beatles, we probably weren’t going to download the latest Kanye album.
That in a nutshell is what I was going to write but the more I thought about it the more I felt, “What a load of dog poo.” If human beings are anything, they’re adventurous and seek out new experiences and want to see things they’ve never seen and listen to stuff they’ve never heard before whether it makes sense to them or not. If something punches you in the visceral gut or touches an emotional nerve, who cares if you understand it or know why it’s happening? All you need to know is that you’re feeling something.
Which is exactly what I was going through when I went about tracking down John McLaughlin sometime around October 1974. I had seen the Mahavishnu Orchestra play at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium about two-and-a-half years earlier on March 3rd, 1972. They opened for ELP, who were one of my favorite bands at the timem so I was mainly there to see them play songs from the first couple of studio albums they’d already released.
I had only been writing for less than a year at that point, but somehow I managed to score some very cool seats around the second or third row. The lights dimmed, the Orchestra came out onstage and opened with a song I now know was from Inner Mounting Flame, the band’s first album that had been released in November of ’71. I had heard of the Mahavishnu Orchestra but I didn’t have any idea what they sounded like. I looked at my brother sitting next to me — if you’ve read any of my Behind the Curtain stories, you know he often accompanied me — and in unison our mouths fell open.
This was something new. John McLaughlin’s guitar lines snaked in and around each other while drummer Billy Cobham mesmerized with a display of ambidextrous-fueled drum chops that turned rhythms inside out and upside down. Nobody had ever heard music like this and for good reason: Nobody had ever dreamed of it before. “Fusion” was a word previously used to describe atomic bombs and nuclear physics or combining different styles of food like California Cuisine and Tex-Mex. You talked about fusion when you wanted to blow stuff up or stuff your gullet but never as it related to music. That is until McLaughlin came along and virtually single-handedly created what would henceforth be known as fusion music.
When Mahavishnu’s set was over, my brother whispered in my ear, “I would hate to be Carl Palmer after seeing that.” My brother’s observation was a prophetic one but it wasn’t only about Palmer. It was about every drummer and guitar player from that point forward who had just been given notice: There was a new posse of gunslingers in town, and thy name be Mahavishnu.
In some respects, rock writers too now had to contend with this mind-blowing style of music and had to find a way to describe it and give it some shape and form that might allow somebody new to the genre a way of more fully understanding it. Or understanding it at all, because I sure as hell didn’t. I didn’t know what it was. It wasn’t King Crimson and it wasn’t Yes; nor was it Jethro Tull, Caravan, Procol Harum, Captain Beefheart & His Magic Band, Weather Report, Supertramp, Gentle Giant or any of the other bands releasing music around the same time as Mahavishnu’s Inner Mounting Flame album.
So when Guitar Player editor Jim Crockett approached me in late ’74 and asked me if I could get an interview with John McLaughlin — they had been trying for months with no success — I said, “Sure. I love the band” (truth). “I know all about them” (not). I didn’t know all about them. I knew as much about McLaughlin’s guitar playing as I knew about nuclear fusion, which was zero.
But as I laid out in the opening paragraphs earlier, we humans are a hearty bunch and rise to a challenge. By the time I began hunting down McLaughlin, the Orchestra’s second album Birds of Fire had come out and it was pretty much universally accepted as representing the true touchstone of fusion music. I had listened to the record when it was sent to me by Columbia (the band’s label) and was astonished all over again by the complexity, passion and depth of the music but absolutely no closer to really understanding it.
I knew the publicists at Columbia and told them that Guitar Player wanted to do a story with John and asked, “Can we set something up?” As it turned out, the guitarist had a hole in his schedule and I could speak with him in a week’s time.
I began trembling. This was new. Uncharted territory. Virgin wilderness. I had never been here before — musically speaking — and I was unsure of my footing. Sit me down in front of Randy California or Paul Kossoff, Pete Townshend or even Robert Fripp with his strange and beautiful guitar playing within the cathedral of King Crimson’s music and I’ll talk your ear off. I understood that music and I’d listened to it and I knew I wouldn’t make a complete idiot of myself talking to those kinds of players.
But John McLaughlin? I wasn’t so sure. If his music was so profoundly deep and immersive, I could just imagine the type of cat he must be: cerebral, pensive, thoughtful. Someone who wouldn’t take kindly to intellectually-challenged rock journalists posing questions that revealed minimal knowledge about his music. I mean who would? If you’d created something — a painting, a book, a hydrogen bomb or a sushi burrito — and somebody wanted to talk to you about it, wouldn’t you expect that person to have some grasp of what you were doing?
I had listened to the two Mahavishnu records but I knew I was out of my depth. I truly believed that. I envisioned John asking me about a song or a riff he had played and me sitting there grinning like an idiot and drooling down my shirt.
Those were the thoughts running through my head when I drove to the guitarist’s hotel that sunny afternoon sometime in late 1974. I knocked quietly on his hotel room door. John answered himself. The moment the door swung open, I was going to fall down on my knees, prostrate myself and beg for forgiveness. “John, I don’t know shit about your music. I am left speechless by what you do but I don’t get it. It’s too much for my pea brain.” I didn’t do that of course. Falling on my sword as it were. I’m glad I didn’t.
John McLaughlin turned out to be one of the sweetest, funniest and soft-spoken dudes I had ever interviewed up to that point.
He wore this bright red sweater that was more like attire a college student would wear than what one of the world’s truly great guitarists would be decked out in. He encouraged me to ask all the questions I wanted and never once made me feel small or stupid in his response. He spoke in a very calm and subdued fashion, the words tumbling out in precise rhythmic phrases in much the same way the notes fell from his guitar. He was the philosopher and I was the child student sitting at his feet — proverbially speaking — as he held court on the mysteries of the world, the secrets of life and the mind-boggling intricacy of his music.
When I called Guitar Player and told Jim I had scored the McLaughlin interview, he was ecstatic. “Don’t know how you did it,” Crockett wrote in a letter to me, “but the McLaughlin piece is exactly what I was looking for. Cover, for sure. Here’s additional money — the story is one I’ve wanted for four years.”
Some things in life work out. Some things don’t. We plan for the worst, hope for the best and try to land somewhere in the middle. I ended up on the moon, man. I had only been writing for a couple years at that time and to get a letter like that from the editor of GP was, well, how else to say it? Pretty fucking cool.
That story would end up on the February 1975 cover of Guitar Player.
Addendum apropos of nothing: You tell me if there is any more amazing feeling in the world than being respected and recognized for something you’ve done. I can’t think of one. Yes, money is great. Success is right up there. But at the end of the day, it’s the respect from your friends, peers, the people you work with and for and your family. You could be king of the world sitting atop a throne of gold but without someone slapping you on the back and telling you, “Good job,” your life means nothing.
Now go out there and slap somebody on the back …
January 25, 2021