Carlos’ Cosmic Bummer
Santana prepares for a tour and struggles with the pain of his divorce
On a recent sunny morning, Carlos Santana steps out of a shiny black Mercedes at his headquarters in an industrial part of San Rafael, California. He looks pretty much like he’s always looked, sort of gnarly, sort of groovy and not all that far removed from the soulful snaggletoothed 22-year-old Mexican man-boy who tore it up at Woodstock before he’d released a single album. He’s timeless like that. His personal circumstances might change ”“ most recently and painfully, Deborah, his wife of 34 years, filed for divorce, citing irreconcilable differences ”“ but how he appears to the outside world never really does. The beautiful, far-out Carlos of his two great first albums, Santana (1969) and Abraxas (1970), is basically the beautiful, far-out Carlos of his great comeback album, Supernatural (1999), is basically the beautiful, far-out Carlos of today, about to release his 38th album, Multi Dimensional Warrior, which is half instrumentals, half vocal tracks, all of them little-known songs taken from previous releases.
From his base of operations in San Rafael, Santana oversees his various business ventures: the Milagro Foundation, which has donated nearly $3 million to help disadvantaged youth; his women’s shoe line, Carlos by Carlos Santana, which has racked up $100 million in sales; his signature brand of sparkling white wine; his partnership in Maria Maria, a chain of high-end Mexican cantinas; and his upcoming documentary called Architects of a New Dawn, which advocates global change through the power of positive thinking. Today, a week before embarking on an international tour, he settles into his rehearsal studio ”“ a compact room, four white walls, no posters, functional and to the point ”“ and straps on his guitar. He has a few words he wants to say to his 10-member band.
“As you know,” Santana begins, “the theme of this tour is ”˜live your light.’ I want the audience to be reminded that before they had all this stuff, this DNA and flesh and bones, they were made out of light. And that fighting and doubting and all that shit separates you from your light. And that the real light comes when you forgive and forget. And so what we want to do is not blind people but illuminate people. We want our music to make people’s hair stand on end, and tears start coming down, and they don’t even know why. That’s our goal, man, in each town, each venue, and with each note. We are the architects of a new dawn.”
He looks around.
The guys nod, but no one claps or cheers or starts chanting, “New-dawn architects! New-dawn architects!” Actually, it looks like some of them wish Santana would come up with a new message ”“ and drop the whole Cosmic Carlos thing already.
“Carlos is very spiritual, obviously,” says percussionist Karl Perazzo, who has been in Santana’s band for 17 years. “He speaks in metaphors, sure, but all that is for the best of the music. There are moments when he plays just one note, and he takes everyone who hears it on a spiritual journey with him.”
Santana spends the next six hours practising with his band, working out a set list for the tour. When one or two musicians start to approach the songs too stiffly, he says to them, “Get the fear away. Take the joy back. We’re not selling rugs or teapots. It’s too smooth, like a woman’s breast with no nipple. We need to make it more like water, more like a negligee. It’s not alive. We need to get back to what we are.”
It’s been almost 10 years since Supernatural earned Santana all those Grammy nominations (10) and awards (8), and once again positioned him as a major musical force. He’s happy for the success, of course, and for the successes that have followed, but right now he wants to look not to the past but to the future, to what’s on his agenda seven years from now. That’s when he plans to hang up his guitar for good, start a church in Maui and become its resident preacher.
“I’m going to stop playing when I’m 67 and work on what I really want to do, which is to be a minister, like Little Richard,” he says. “I’m not sick of what I do, but I find that God gave me the gift of communication even without my guitar and with the ability to get people unstuck with certain sections of the Bible having to do with guilt, shame, judgment and fear. The God of that stuff is retarded, demented and not real. The real God is beauty, grace, dignity and unconditional love. And I’m the kind of motivator who can motivate people to believe that what I’m saying is good for them. It’s like my manager Bill Graham once said to me: ”˜Carlos, you have to accept that your music is very sensual and stop apologising for it. People want to have sex to your music, and that’s just the way that it is.’ And once I accepted that, I wasn’t so much in conflict with my Catholic upbringing and thinking it was dirty or against God to have an erection.”
He says all this during a break in the rehearsal, on a patio out back, with his head tilted to the sun and his eyes shaded by his hat. The rest of the guys are scattered around, eating, telling jokes and smoking cigarettes, but Santana sits off to the side, part of the group but separate.
“How’s it going at the new pad?” one of the guys asks him.
A few weeks ago, Santana moved into a new home and is living on his own, as a single man, for the first time in more than three decades, surrounded by lots of unpacked boxes.
“Oh, you know, discarding things,” he says simply. And then he says, “It feels like an incredible blessing from God, that he’s telling me my life is wide open more than ever. The thing I learned is, you have to go through the darkest night of the soul to get to the brightest light of the day, and that’s what I did last year.”
He frowns, and suddenly says, “I’m still not out of it.” Then, without further explanation, he stands up, says, “I better go play,” and heads back inside, back to the music that has sustained and protected him for so long.
As a kid, before moving to San Francisco and earning a living as a dishwasher and then starting a band and becoming the Santana of Santana, he lived for a while in Tijuana, Mexico, with his father, Jose, a mariachi violinist, his mother and his six siblings. When he was 10, he began to be molested by a friend’s father, a trauma that he first revealed in this magazine nine years ago. He married Deborah in 1972, and they lived in a big, open house near the water in San Rafael. It’s where he raised his three children, Angelica, 18, Stella, 23, and Salvador, 25, who is now a musician living in Los Angeles. Salvador remembers the parental drug lecture he got when his folks found out he’d been smoking weed. “My dad: ”˜Sal, you can’t be doing that, your mom’s going to get mad.’ Then she’d leave the room and he’d say, ”˜If you want to smoke, smoke with me.’ That kind of stuff. We clashed the most in high school. One time, just to piss him off, I told him I was an atheist. That really got to him.”
Now, with his children grown and his wife no longer his wife, Santana lives up a hill in a small, affluent town overlooking San Francisco Bay, in a house with a sweeping view of the bays and bridges down below. He meditates here. He also plays the guitar here, usually playing to no one but himself, and it’s OK. One evening at the place, the sun is streaming in, illuminating Santana in his chair. He sips a 7-Up and says, “I like the other house because of the incredible soulful, wonderful memories of the children. It had all the pictures of everybody growing up, and you hear the sound in each picture, of that day, the children’s glee and everything. But I like it better, this house. As you can tell from every room, it’s like my life right now, wide open. There’s no obstructions, no guilt, or shame, or condemnation. There’s still pain. Thirty-four years. And I miss my friend. But I can’t go into it, because I’m into honouring and respecting a person’s choice.”
He pauses for a long while and takes a deep breath. “There were seven times,” he goes on, “seven times when suicide was knocking. It got to the point where I really thought that death would be sweeter than the pain. But each time I would go light up a candle, and I’m still hearing all this inner stuff, a thousand voices screaming at you, accusing you, like, ”˜You’re the lowest, you’re not worthy of anything or anyone around you.’ But then I would look at a picture of Jesus and say, ”˜Help me,’ and then, very clearly, inwardly, I would hear this one voice that’s softer and louder than all the others, and it would say, ”˜I am sitting next to you. Isn’t that enough?’ Once I heard that voice, something would shift, and I’d be able to find joy again in food and breathing.”
During a stay in Maui, Santana was able to find relief not so much from the temporal pain of his marital separation but from something more important: the man who had molested him and the control that man had exerted over his life and all his relationships. “I was carrying what happened to me, and it infected me, and I didn’t even know when it’s healthy to be horny. I was able to remove the anger by forgiving that man. And ever since I did that, my breath doesn’t smell like I need to have a breath mint or something. It changed my molecular structure. Before, you’d brush your teeth but still smell like anger. Forgiveness, man, forgiveness is extremely liberating. And I’m here to tell you, with all my heart and spirit, that it can be done. You can be freed.”
He stands and turns to the bay window. “My God is a god of kindness and compassion, but we as people have free will, including the man who molested me,” he says. “There’s the flesh and there’s the spirit. What happened happened to my body, not to me. It wasn’t about me. You don’t lose your purity and innocence. And that’s the thing I want to say. The purity and innocence is intact. So this is what the spirit has offered me, a way out of the mother of insanity, because otherwise I would be foaming at the mouth.”
The next night, over dinner at an Italian restaurant not far from his home, Santana talks more about life as a single man. “I have gone on dates, and one thing I have discovered is that I don’t need no damn Viagra, that’s for damn sure. I’m very, very active.
“But you know what?” he continues. “I’ve been living like a child in a bubble, trying to appease this other person. I forgot what it was like to be who I was before her. But I’m still hungry for a lot of things. All of us have a child in us that is filled with hunger and curiosity, whether it’s about sex or whatever. I don’t think God’s in another room eating a pizza when Adam and Eve are hanging around with the snake and the apple. Come on, man ”“ God is omnipresent. God’s in the vagina, God’s in the penis, God’s in the snake, God’s in the apple. He’s everywhere. But I’m not a sick pervert. I’m not a person who would do to someone what someone did to me as a child. No, man. No. And I have learned not to let anyone define me or give me a report card.”
It’s the end of a 34-year marriage summed up in a tone poem ”“ a great big astonishing human mishmash. And maybe it’s best to just leave it at that and not press for more, keep the flesh out of it, concentrate on the spirit ”“ the spirit that has led Santana to be called Cosmic Carlos, that has sustained him even when the music couldn’t.
After dinner, driving home in the dark, Santana slows down and points out a park where he used to play the guitar for spare change, before he got famous.
“This is where I got started, man, right in there, with a hat on the ground,” he says. “I’m the same guy. I’m still the Mexican dishwasher that started right there. The hat has gotten big, but that’s just perception. I’m really not into Santana, I’m not into Carlos. I know what it’s like to be playing ”˜Soul Sacrifice’ to 55,000 people and have women bugging out. OK. But right now, I’m still with the dark night of the soul. I’m still with the 40 days and 40 nights. And I don’t know how it’s going to unfold. There is no clock, no script. What happens happens on God’s time. But who am I to myself? That’s the question. I am a child of God,” he goes on, “and God is not done with me.” And after that, it seems like nothing more needs to be said.