Thursday, September 12, 2013

Interview with John McLaughlin by Robert Fripp I

Coffee and Chocolates for Two Guitars

Musician No.45, July, 1982.

Weather shut England and delayed the jammed flight to Paris by three hours, so I landed at 1:30 pm. A mad taxi driver helped to make up the lost time by driving like a mad taxi driver (the only madder ones than Paris' are in Milan). This guy only hit one car but we nearly collected a second-a young Parisien jumped the light so we took it kinda personal, sped up and aimed. He backed down when he sized the opposition. Then we drove through the No Entry sign to John's streed; his number was inconveniently at the wrong end. I got out at the front door of the quintessentially French apartment building, in what looked suspiciously like a pedestrian zone, a small back lane of one of my two favorite cities in the world.

John McLaughlin should need no introduction, but I suppose editorial etiquette necessitates an exposition of the highlights of his extraordinary career. John probably would be equally admired had there been no Mahavishnu Orchestra - his turn-of-the-decade work with Tony William's Lifetime and his contributions to Miles Davis' epochal _Bitches Brew_ (known forever as the first fusion album) and _Jack Johnson_ would have ensured that - but it is unquestionably the Mahavishnu Orchestra, with its jagged explosions of cosmic fire and odd-metered funkiness that remains McLaughlin's best loved and most celebrated bad. The Orchestra's cheerful acceptance of rock 'n' roll and other non-jazz idioms never diluted the pyrotechnical excellence of its musicians, Billy Cobham, Jan Hammer, Jerry Goodman, and Rick Laird.

Both before and after Mahavishnu, McLaughlin quietly established his jazz credentials as a band leader in a more subdued but more personally expressive medium with such brilliant albums as _Extrapolation_, _My Goals Beyond_(recently rereleased), the underrated _Johnny McLaughlin-Electric Guitarist_, his collaboration-meditation with Carlos Santana _Love, Devotion, and Surrender_ and his latest _Belo Horizonte_. McLaughlin is one of the very few guitarists who have consistently held my respect. Not all his music is my bag of bananas, but I've learned from all of it. And he's still moving. The traditional arguments about technique - no feel, no music - don't work with this man. My hunch is that the streams of notes don't even come close to the tearing, ripping spray of what is trying to get out. Except sometimes.

I am warmly greeted by John and his attractive roommate ( and the keyboard player in _Belo Horizonte_), Katia LeBeque. Katia and her sister are a classical music duo with a four-hands piano rendition of Gershwin's _Rhapsody in Blue_ selling modestly in Europe. John is a dapper dresser; today he's in grey: flannels and pullover, shirt and tie not quite matching and just enough so that either you knew that he knew, or maybe he knew you didn't. This subtlety of stressing the discontinuities, come exquisite Basque confectionery placed between us, the charm of the apartment - in mellowed pink, the ceiling veeing into the roof, spiral stairs - hinted at an intermezzo between the acts of flying. John is straightforward, friendly, and a gentleman. He speaks softly in a curious mix of Scottish, Indian, and French accents.

We discussed the several occasions we had previously met for a time, and then I assumed a more jounalistic role. Fripp: Why do you think you became a musician? McLaughlin: Happily, my mother was an amateur musician; she was a violinist and there was always music going on in the house. We got a gramophone one day, and someone had Beethoven's Ninth, and on the last record, which is at the end of the symphony, there's a vocal quartet in which the writing is extraordinary...the voices and the harmonies. I must have been about six or seven when I distinctly remember hearing it for the first time. I suppose that's when I started to listen. Because when you're young, you're not paying attention. What do you know when you're a kid? It was unbelievable, what it was doing to me was tremendous. I began to listen consciously to music and I started taking piano lessons when I was nine and went on to guitar at eleven...

Fripp: Did anything trigger the guitar in particular? McLaughlin: Yeah, it was the D major chord. My brother showed it to me on the guitar, and I had this feeling of the guitar against my whole body...

Fripp: Did you have the F# on the bottom string? McLaughlin: No, no. I was playing full-note chords. Eleven years old...what are you going to do? You have a small hand and, you know...What about you? Did you have a similar experience?

Fripp: I was ten. Definitely no sense of rhythm, and I spent a long time wonderting why it was that such an unlikely candidate would become a professional musician. But I knew right away that I was going to earn a living from it. Thinking about it over the years, I think music has a desire to be heard, such a kind of compulsion to be heard that it picks on unlikely candidates to give it voice. McLaughlin: Yeah, I think that it basically comes from love. I mean, the kind of attraction that you have when you listen to it when you're young. It's inexplicable in a way.

Fripp: It's a direct vocabulary... McLaughlin: Exactly. Perhaps what you say is truth insofar as the music itself chooses, but it's not a one-way street from music's point of view. In a sense, you know, we fall in love with the muse and the muse falls in love with its prospective voices.

Fripp: The sentence I would add is that the music needed me to give it a voice, but in a feeble way. I needed music more, far more than music needed me. McLaughlin: The most difficult thing, I think, in being a musician is to get out of the way. Fripp: How do you get out of the way? Do you have specific techniques or regimens that you use? Can you just get yourself out of the way without thinking about it? McLaughlin: If I'm thinking about it, I'm in the way. You have to forget, to forget everything. The minute we forget everything is when we're finally found.

Fripp: How do you forget everything? McLaughlin: Oh, it's so's so hard because you're always looking for colors, for new scales, new chords, new ways to say what you feel. But to be able to say "I want to say what I feel" comes >from a selfish point of view. Idealistically, the music should take what it wants and so we should bear it open and allow it to be. That's difficult because it's a paradox, Robert. You have to know everything, then you have to forget it all. Learning is relatively easy. It's difficult to recommend how to get out of the way (laughs). That's what I'm learning how to do myself.

Fripp: For a number of years, you worked with Sri Chinmoy. How did that help you? McLaughlin: It helped me in many ways...because I felt a long time ago that music and being are aspects of the same mystery. I felt I was very ignorant, in fact, about me, ignorant about what is a human being.

Fripp: Was there a time when you kind of woke up one day and thought, "I see things in a different way!" or was it a gradual thing? McLaughlin: I think it was gradual. It started when I was about nineteen or twenty. I had no religious education whatsoever. I was taught religious instruction at school, which was completely meaningless. Christ, didn't mean anything to me. And, in fact, it was my association with Graham Bond that really triggered a desire to know. This must have been around 1962. You know, we were smoking dope and this and that I remember having a few acid trips, and that itself is a very profound psychic influence, I think. Psychological, too. And Graham Bond wwas, bu this time, involved in the Tarot, but, how shall I say, not just the cards, but from a philosophical point of view. He had this book he showed me one day, which I found fascinating. He was talking about what is possible...which seemed science fiction...what kind of powers we're capable of.

I bought the book and traced through the author, discovering through his index that he was a disciple of Romana Maharshi, who was a great Indian saint. So that was my first contact with Indian culture in general and philosophy in particular, and I joined the Theosophical Society in London, since my appetite was whetted. The best thing about the place was the library. They had incredible books in this library by people you don't find in the local library around the corner. And it was through reading that I came in contact with the Indian philosophy. I felt I was walking into a new world. It's a wonderful feeling to suddenly discover after all these years that the world was not how you thought it was. In fact, everything was discover that everything's magical, nothing's ordinary. I've been digressing, What was the original question?

Fripp: How did you get to Sri Chinmoy? McLaughlin: By the time I was 27, I'd already started doing Hatha Yoga and doing mind and breathing exercises. I felt more capable mentally, but I had this feeling I was being tuned up but not being played very well, which relates to what we were talking about a while ago. I felt the need to learn >from somebody who really knows. I arrived one evening at a meditation featuring Sri Chinmoy and he invited questions. I thought, "Great, this is the first time anyone has ever invited questions," so I said, "What's the relationship between music and spirituality?" and he said, "Well, it's not really a question of what you do. It's what you are or how you are that's important because you can be making the most beautiful music sweeping the road, if you're doing it in a harmonious way, in a beautiful way." It sounds so simple, of course, but it was everything I wanted to hear and I felt I should stay with him, which I did for five years.

Meditation in itself is a very subtle and complex process. I have to say that in the first two years, the only thing that happened in meditation was that my subconscious regurgitated everything, all its obsessions and fears and desires...which I think is normal when you try to still the conscious mind. It doesn't like it. It likes to vibrate and think and hook into different emotions, good or bad, so when you force this process and you sstay still for thirty minutes, an hour, two hours, what happens is that the punch starts to manifest itself, and this is sometimes horrifying and sometimes wonderful, but always good, I think, because you start to learn about yourself and you accept the good with the bad.

Fripp: How did your discipline work within the Mahavishnu Orchestra? Was that your band, was it cooperative...? McLaughlin: It was my band in the beginning and it became more and more democratic...but the whole relationship with Sri Chinmoy was a cause of acrimony.

Fripp: I wondered how the other musicians dealt with the ideas... McLaughlin: They rejected them outright. For me, I can still say music is God, music is the face of God. That's everybody, that's the hearts of men. And that's important to me. But that's not the way everybody sees it. And, of course, what happened in interviews, especially in collective interviews, was that people would ask me questions and I would talk about development and ideals, about which I already have talked too much this afternoon, and these questions would be posed to the other musicians and they would say, "We don't want to feel that way at all, we're not into that."

Fripp: Everybody is always asked a perennial question that they wish not to be asked again. For me, it was always why did we break up King Crimson? For Bill Bruford, it was "why did you leave Yes?" What would yours be? McLaughlin: Probably, "why did the Mahavishnu Orchestra break up?" or why did I break it up. Because that...that was a group that people enjoyed. It was loved by a lot of people, in fact, and it's kind of sad to see that happen. I mean, it's like when the Beatles broke up. I was very shaken. This is the kind of just don't think is going to happen. I must say, thought, that I tried to put it together, for one concert, a few years ago, just to show that...that...all bullshit aside, we loved to play. Everybody but Jan (Hammer) wanted to do it. Jan...I...I still can't figure it out. He's a very enigmatic person. He's such a great musician and he's a big, big lover of rock 'n' roll. But perhaps still, there's a certain...I wonder...maybe he still feels bad about something in that band. I can't figure it out. But it was enough for him to say no.

To be continued............................