John Mc Laughlin

on

Crawdaddy

transcribed by

Rod Sibley

rasibley@concentric.net

 

        John McLaughlin & The Mahavishnu Orchestra
      Two Sides to Every Satori

           By Patrick Snyder-Scumpy,with Frank DeLigio
           (Reprinted from Crawdaddy magazine: November 1973)
The combination of McLaughlin's musical excellence and ethereal presence
has proved irresistible but has led to an ego-bruising turmoil within the
bandŠ
   Throughout the day, dark, storm-heavy clouds had brooded over Central
Park, but by evening only a few tattered remnants hung silhouetted against
the stars. Ten thousand people had gathered in this welcome August cool to
hear the soaring music of the Mahavishnu Orchestra. A short time ago, the
size of this crowd would have been an astonishing anomaly, but in the last
two years this unique band has attracted a mass rock audience with
challenging instrumental music whose quality and sophistication are
unmatched in the pop field today. A signal of both the maturing and
broadening of rock tastes, the orchestra's popularity, as well as its
music, revolves around the enigmatic figure of Mahavishnu John McLaughlin.
   At 31, he is one of the few superstars whose charisma is rooted above
the groin; his combination of musical excellence and ethereal presence has
proved irresistible. However, it has led to an understandable but
nonetheless distorted image of the creative interaction on which the music
rests. This has led to exasperating,  ego-bruising turmoil within the band,
but the for time being, the music continues.
   Under the awning of the Schaefer Music Festival stage, the five members
of the Orchestra walked to their places smiling under the pleasing weight
of tremendous applause. With its leavening core of jazz fans, the audience
seemed a bit more sedate than most but in general they were typical: young,
hairy and stoned. McLaughlin stepped to the microphone to thank the crowd
in his thin, boyish voice and then, unlike previous New York gigs, he made
a special point of introducing each of the other band members before they
began their set. "On drums, Billy Cobham. On piano and synthesizer, Jan
Hammer. On violin, Jerry Goodman. And on bass, Rick Laird." After waiting
for the ovations to fade, he asked for a moment of silence. The response to
this varies from night to night and this time the quiet held for a few
moments, only to be broken by a series of whoops and jeers which in turn
were met by an equally noisy barrage of outraged "shhhh's." The Orchestra
smiled again.
   And then the music began. Majestic chords swirling with overlaid
electronic arabesques tumbled from the stage in a steady, turbulent stream
and the audience, so animated seconds before, settled into swaying
contemplation of the holy noise winging over them.
   "My first chords gave me such incredible joy. Three chords on the
guitar. It was so expressive the guitar took over completely in so far as
the direction I should take."
   Squeezing one hand in the other as if a strong sensation in the present
could conjure another from the past, John McLaughlin spoke of his childhood
in Whitley Bay, England, a small town just south of Scotland. He was
sitting in his simply decorated, brightly colored and impeccably clean
storefront restaurant in the Jamaica section of Queens, New York, a few
blocks from the homes and other retail businesses of the Sri Chinmoy
community. He lives nearby in a sparsely furnished two-story home with an
attached garage for his new BMW. The restaurant's menu is Indian vegetarian
(there is also a sign on the entrance reading "No smoking please") but
McLaughlin has ordered Eggplant Parmigiana. The waitress does not seem
surprised, but then, the waitress is his wife.
   McLaughlin began, like most musicians, by playing what he heard, and
what he heard first was Muddy Waters. "It was unbelievable -a revelation-
the way he played the guitar. I didn't know what slide guitar was or
anything. As far as I was concerned, he was just doing that stuff." If
Muddy was a revelation then Miles was a revolution: "Somebody turned me on
to Miles when I was about fifteen. Milestones with Coltrane, Adderley, Red
Garland, Paul Chambers and Philly Joe Jones. All those people completely
blew my mind. All my concepts went out the window. It was exactly what I
had been wanting to hear."
   With all this music spinning through his head, McLaughlin did poorly in
school. "Two of my brothers are Ph.D.'s, professors, heavy brains, you
know. All my family had them but I was a complete dummy," he said. "I just
couldn't pass exams. I failed them all miserably but my mother said, 'Don't
give it one thought. You've got talent in your own way.'" He left school to
work in a music store during the day and to play in various bands at night.
At 19 he met Georgie Fame and was invited to become a Blue Flame.
   "That was '60-'61-the Flamingo days," he recalled. "The Flamingo was
where The Blue Flames got into their own thing and there were some good
musicians happening there: Alexis Korner and John Mayall, Eric Clapton-he
used to play there with John, Ginger Baker, Charlie Watts, Jack Bruce. That
was really the only club in London where you could work. Later, the Graham
Bond Organization came there when we decided to play together. Ginger on
homemade drums, Jack Bruce on upright bass, and Graham doubling on organ
and alto. That, for me, was one of the greatest bands in the world at that
time."
   But great bands do not necessarily make great money and soon McLaughlin
was back day-gigging and night-crawling. When offered money to play -to
play *anything*- he was hard pressed to refuse. "Around '67, I started
doing TV shows and really got swallowed up in that, but after a
year-and-a-half I couldn't handle it. I mean I recorded with Tom Jones and
Englebert Humperdinck, Paul Anka, Dionne Warwicke and Burt Bacharach, a few
good people, Astrud Gilberto, but generally, the majority of the time, it
was just computer guitar. You know, cutty, edgy, toppy, chinky, like press
a button and get a sound. Whatever they want, you've got to do and I
couldn't handle it."
   At the same time he was growing tired of push-button guitar, he was
becoming equally disenchanted with push-button satori. "You start out
smoking pot and you want to get progressively higher. You start taking
speed, methedrine, start mixing a little of this with a little of that.
Before you know it, you're skin popping and next you're putting it into
your vein. I know. I've seen these things happen to myself. So that was
happening to me and I had a few acid trips. They were good insofar as they
made me aware that the reality I felt was...what acid did for me was make
me laugh. Really, it was a joy just as natural existence is joyful. Graham
had gotten me interested in occult matters and I began to realize what kind
of thing a human being was and what I am. Anyway, I just left the whole
thing. It was precipitated by my wife, whom I met then. She had a very
profound effect on me as far as opening my heart center was concerned. So I
left everything and everyone in the middle of all that, drugs too."
   After a European tour with Gunther Hampel's Time Is Now Band ("We played
at a fashion show with models wearing stainless steel clothes"), McLaughlin
was in England mixing his first album, "Extrapolation", when he received a
trans-Atlantic call from an old friend, Dave Holland, who had come to the
States to play with Miles Davis. On the phone, he introduced John to Tony
Williams who eventually invited him to come to New York for a recording
date. After a few false starts (they were rejected by Columbia producer Al
Kooper: "That lowered my estimation of *him*."), Tony Williams Lifetime
clicked and Larry Young, Williams and McLaughlin stayed together about two
years. Meanwhile, McLaughlin was simultaneously recording with Miles Davis,
appearing most notably on "In A Silent Way" and "Bitches Brew".
   "For me, it was incredible to work with Lifetime and Miles at the same
time," McLaughlin remembered. "Miles is an extremely soulful musician. He's
not yet conscious of his divinity but his music is almost more conscious
than he is. Miles is from the beyond. He's been a source of inspiration to
me for fifteen years. He's so great."
   The consciousness of personal divinity and the yearning for surrender to
it are the basic themes of McLaughlin's life. He is remembered from his
early days on the English rock scene as an ambitious and frustrated young
man. He had developed his talent into an outstanding command of the guitar
but, because he had shown no interest in academic pursuits, he had not
developed a corresponding intellectual/spiritual overview of life. Drugs
had helped for a while but he had seen the fallacy in their promise of
instant insight and transcendence. He was a highly-skilled actor in search
of a script, and when he found one he liked he committed himself completely
to it. However his intellectual naivete went unchanged and his almost
childlike devotion excludes the possibility of alternate paths, yielding an
unbending metaphysical ethno-centricism.
   "When I was with Tony Williams I became a disciple of Sri Chinmoy. I had
asked him a question about music and spirituality and he gave a very long
answer, a beautiful answer, pure and simple. The essence was if I became
God-realizing, everything I would do would be imbued with God-realization.
If I'm a musician, it will be God-realized music. A week later my wife and
I became disciples."
   Although the music produced by Lifetime completely satisfied McLaughlin,
especially after Jack Bruce joined, outrageous business hassles forced him
to leave the group. Without Lifetime, McLaughlin had few options, one of
which was to join Miles on a more permanent basis. "We toyed with the idea
but he was somewhere else and so was I. I felt a stronger direction in
myself and he said 'It's time for you to get your own band.'"
   McLaughlin had explored the musical concepts that would jell in the
Mahavishnu Orchestra on his third solo album, "My Goal's Beyond", on which
both Billy Cobham and Jerry Goodman appear. Cobham had worked with
McLaughlin on three Davis lps and Miles had advised, "The drummer is
essential to the band. If the drummer is happening then that's it." So,
this excellent drummer was the first person McLaughlin spoke to. The violin
as an instrument had intrigued him since childhood but virtually the only
acceptable jazz violinist, Jean-Luc Ponty, was prevented from joining him
by immigration problems. "So I ended up buying a whole bunch of albums of
groups with violins," McLaughlin explained, "and the second Flock album was
amongst them." He located Jerry in Wisconsin and, although the Flock had
broken up two months before, received only a tentative yes from him.
   Rick Laird was an old friend from England who had shared the bill with
Lifetime in Cincinnati when he was touring with Buddy Rich. They had spoken
about the possibility of a band then, and now the time was right. Jan
Hammer, who had been working with Sarah Vaughan, came by way of Weather
Report's Miroslav Vitous. "It was like chains going out and we finally got
together in July of '71. We rehearsed for a week," he said, "and then went
into a club, that small place that used to be the Cafe Au Go Go. The first
set was shaky but the second set just took off and every night it was
great. They wanted to hold us over and a few days after the second week, we
went into the studio and made 'The Inner Mounting Flame'." McLaughlin
paused and then added wryly, looking down at his folded hands on the table:
"The rest is history."
   We spoke to McLaughlin before seeing any of the other members of the
Orchestra and he studiously avoided any of the current problems that
dominated our conversations with the others. The points were not pressed
because we did not know they existed, but McLaughlin certainly did and he
ignored them completely. Whenever the future was mentioned he spoke only of
musical plans outside of the context of the Orchestra, giving the distinct
impression that all was well with it and that it would continue its
brilliant career. However, it seems they had just made an abortive attempt
at recording a third album in the English studio where "Birds of Fire" had
been done.
   "The studio is so great, the sound was so incredible, but the music, the
band just didn't play well," Jan Hammer explained to us later. "We can't
use any of it because we didn't rehearse. And that's just because we are
playing too much, too many gigs (over 300 in the past two years). We never
sat down and worked it out."
   Rick Laird corroborated Hammer. "We'd come off quite an extensive tour
of Europe and more or less had gone into the studio the next day. We had no
time to rehearse. Some of us had written new material for the first time
and because up to this time John had written it all, there was a certain
amount of unease about the whole thing. As a result, I don't think we got
anything. Well, perhaps we did get something. It was understandable."
   Hammer was asked whose fault this was and he replied, "It's the whole
vicious circle of 'there are gigs, there is this much money to make, so
let's go and play these gigs.' We don't keep contributing new music so the
momentum of the band might very well get lost. Right now we are very far
from that, but we have to see the possibility."

 

   The Mahavishnu Orchestra is a product of John McLaughlin's creative
inspiration. He formed the, band in search of a particular sound, a new
sound of byzantine electronic complexity, to express the wisdom he had
acquired in his life. He needed extraordinary musicians to play the
surging, breakneck tempos, the intricate time signatures, and the whining,
careening melodies that pulsed in his inner ear, and he found them and made
them a band. And they have made music that is probably the most
significantly innovative to reach a mass audience since the halcyon days of
the Beatles. "It's music that people are made to shy away from," Billy
Cobham commented, "because it's too sincere and it represents life in its
real form. The fact that everybody's living a lie on the street, drugged
out, eating corn flakes and thinking they're vitamins, makes it hard to
take in because the music is just the opposite of all that."
   Besides creating an incredibly fluent and versatile ensemble, McLaughlin
showed astute commercial prescience in forming the Orchestra. The intense,
high-volume sound they produce could easily have been predicted to capture
at least the interest of the huge rock audience that had been weaned for
five years on banks of high-powered amplifiers. This audience, unlike
previous generations, had not abandoned the popular music of its
adolescence upon reaching adulthood and because of this, its tastes had
grown in both sophistication and catholicity.
   Of course, as Rick Laird said, "Musicians had been ready to do this for
a long time but the establishment wouldn't buy it. We've given a glimpse of
the possibilities, like Ellington said, 'If it sounds good then it is
good.' That principle applies to the endless possibilities of music.
Influences have been spreading, like Indian music on Jan and John, and
these new things have been creeping in, plus rock in the '60s and the
changing of song forms, 32-bar and 24-bar blues. Forms have taken whole new
shapes now."
   This "glimpse of the possibilities" that the Orchestra represents
transcends the regular definitions of both jazz and rock. The music's
passionate vitality and volume explode over the cerebral niceties of jazz
and its complexities of form and improvisation easily surpass anything rock
alone has yet produced. However, easily 90% of the Orchestra's audience
comes directly from rock and roll, something which the members of the band
seem to truly appreciate. "In jazz, you hardly ever play concerts," Jan
said. "It's mostly clubs and there are very few people there. They don't
really open up either and start yelling and expressing themselves. They
don't let go and that's why the musicians don't let go either. That's why
jazz dried up and came to a screechy stop," he laughed, "after many years
of blossoming. The regenerative circle just stopped functioning. The
feedback wasn't happening either way. Although the jazz audience isn't that
big, a portion of every audience we play to is a jazz audience because they
feel, and I feel it too, that we are carrying on where jazz used to be but
isn't anymore."
   The first attraction of The Mahavishnu Orchestra to rock audiences was
McLaughlin's guitar. He is probably the finest electric guitarist working
today and his virtuosity is easily accessible to the millions of young
people raised on guitar-oriented music. However, it is still difficult
music to really appreciate compared to, say, The Band's, and the Orchestra
seemed aware their concerts were educative experiences for most of their
audience. Replying to a question about the changes in the audience over the
last two years, Laird explained, "They have changed because they know the
music better. They're more familiar with it because we've played the same
material for a long time because...well, that's the reason. We really
wanted people to understand it and know what role each instrument was
playing. It's amazing now. Kids shout out the numbers they want to hear and
they know what to expect. It's really nice."
   When "The Inner Mounting Flame" was recorded a decision was made to bill
the group as "The Mahavishnu Orchestra with John McLaughlin." The contract
under which the album was made is solely between Columbia and McLaughlin so
from a "product investment" point of view, it was to Columbia's advantage
to hype him personally as much as possible. But this was far from the most
compelling reason for that decision. McLaughlin genuinely deserved the
billing he received. At that point, it was his group playing music he
inspired and, from his work with Davis and Williams, not to mention his
three "solo" lps, McLaughlin had gathered a small but avid coterie of fans.
He was a commercial entity in those terms, certainly much more than any
other member of the group, and, crucially, the group's name is his name.
   All this laid a foundation for the superstardom McLaughlin now commands.
However, with the iris of mass awareness closed tightly on his flashing
fingers, the contributions of the other band members have been woefully
obscured. Cobham, Laird, Hammer and Goodman are all irreplaceable elements
in the interface that creates the music and the audience loses as much as
they do in its continuing spasm of McLaughlin myopia.
   Billy Cobham and his wife sat together in a small room of their new
apartment on New York's upper West Side balancing the household accounts on
a palm-sized calculator. They had only recently moved and partially
unpacked boxes and rolled carpets still lay in a chaotic heap in the middle
of the bare living room. But in this small room, a degree of order had been
imposed. The walls were lined with expensive stereo equipment which, with
the apartment, testified to the affluence The Mahavishnu Orchestra has
brought to this 29-year-old, Panamanian-born man whose family moved to the
U.S. in 1947.
   I asked if he had expected the Orchestra to be the hit it has become.
   "No," he replied, leaning back in a chair that seemed much too small for
his well-muscled frame. "I got into the band out of musical frustration
with what I was doing and, up to this point, it has never ceased to amaze
me. I'm always expecting the next day for the door to close and for
somebody to say, 'That's it. You got more than you were supposed to get.'
Then I'll say, 'Well, at least I got to see what it was like on the other
side of the fence for a little while.' And then I'd go back and start
playing clubs again. I just get that feeling. Although I'd really feel bad
if it happened at this point after knowing what I could have, always
dreaming that music could be this way and being accepted and all of a
sudden doing it. Wow, it is possible, you know. Then if the door closed I'd
be convinced, as I am anyway but even more thoroughly so, that in the
society we live in certain people run everybody else, certain minds
manipulate to the point that we all end up as marionettes."
   From watching Cobham on stage, it would take one hell of a puppeteer to
run him. Sitting behind his fortress of glistening cylinders, his arms whip
across the surfaces of his drums like angry cobras pounding out an
intricate barrage of rhythms and replies. He is a consummate percussionist
providing both foundation and ornamentation to the music. He describes his
role in the band as "chief cook and bottle washer. I have to make sure,
generally, that everybody's cool. And that can mean many things, making
sure everyone is secure, that they can feel their own pulse individually
and the band's pulse. On the other hand, I feel ideas rhythmically. Many
times, I feel like a recycling unit. What they do I have to take and
recycle to throw back at them to play off of. It's like a spinal column
where everything comes in and goes back out, a reaction center."
   Cobham has just had an album of his own, called "Spectrum", released on
Atlantic. Appearing on it are Lee Sklar, Tommy Bolan, Jan Hammer, Jimmy
Owens, Ron Carter, Joe Farrel and Ray Barretto. With an album full of
original material just recorded, I wondered why none of it had been used
earlier by the Orchestra. "Because I haven't submitted any," he said. "I
have nothing really for the Orchestra. I'm basically funk-oriented and I
haven't felt any compulsion to submit any. I did once, in the very
beginning, but I felt deterred from those thoughts. I felt there wasn't any
reason for me to write. There was music there to be played so I would seek
my own route and follow it through on my own. Then as opposed to giving one
piece, I would be able to develop a multitude of pieces and record them."
   The break-up of Cobham's previous band, Dreams, was the result of "one
guy who swore up and down he had all the answers." Are there problems like
that in the Orchestra I asked?
   "No," he answered adjusting his aviator glasses. "There are problems
stemming from the basic immaturity of some, I think. Some of the cats feel
that they don't get their just deserves when it comes to notoriety and
exposure. On the other hand, they don't try to get themselves exposed, I
feel from looking at it as objectively as I can, which is still 60/40
against me because I'm involved. It's like they don't try, and when they do
try it's totally out of frustration from waiting for somebody to do
something for them.
   Although at 24 Jerry Goodman ironically describes himself as "over the
hill," he is actually just entering his musical maturity. After proving his
talent with the Flock, his years with the Mahavishnu Orchestra have been
ones of growth, not so much in the height of his abilities but in their
breadth. "The group started out with no idea of what it was going to be
like," he said, "but the chemistry was there and the reactions started and
it's just kept going. We've all been learning a lot."
   Goodman succinctly outlined the sensibility he brings to the band,
saying, "I am myself, which is a classically trained greaser from Chicago
into rock and roll, classical music and more recently, Indian music." With
his patched jeans and probably more hair than the rest of the band put
together, Goodman provides a funky counterweight to McLaughlin's
asceticism. This contrast exists on more than a purely sartorial level: the
passion that guides McLaughlin's playing is spiritual, a deep yearning for
the beyond, while Goodman's is more concretely human, a raunch gutsiness
that transmutes the incoherent energy of the streets into slashingly
beautiful music. But it is a contrast of colors, not a clash, for each can
play sublime parallel lines which perfectly complement the other. In the
past, Hammer often satisfied himself with a harmonic role, maintaining and
augmenting the established melody while McLaughlin and Goodman soloed. A
certain competition necessarily flows from this and it is the source of the
breathtaking tension, the tightwire magnificence of stretching the music's
possibilities to the breaking point and beyond.
   Sitting in the backstage trailer in Central Park, I asked Goodman why,
with all the talent in the band, only McLaughlin had written anything.
"Well, writing in a sense is a really nebulous term. It's not really true
that no one has written anything except John. Although the tunes on the
first two albums were all credited to him, they were actually written by
the band. Legally, well you know...The music is put together by us, in a
sense it's written by us collectively. I wrote a little thing when we were
recording, I had a little idea and I was playing it in the studio. Jan
picked it up and started playing along. OK, so legally it's my piece,
whatever that means, but in reality it wasn't really a piece until the band
started playing it. The band worked on it and turned it into something."
   This, in essence, is the source of most of the Orchestra's present
problems, the question of whether credit belongs to the individual who came
up with an idea or to the group of individuals who made that idea a musical
reality. Jan Hammer is perhaps the most outspoken and articulate defender
of the latter point of view. Born in Prague in 1948, he began to play
professionally at 13. A lively, quick-witted man of tremendous enthusiasms,
he is regretful but optimistic about the band. While sitting in his small
Greenwich Village apartment, which is almost completely filled by a baby
grand piano and a huge waterbed, I asked him what he felt McLaughlin's
reaction to all this was. "John in the beginning...I'm tempted to say he
was innocent of any wrongdoing. He *is* innocent of any wrongdoing except
on the basis of him being promoted out front all the time, which was a
mistake from the beginning. He assumes that the reason he is promoted like
that is not at all commercial. He refuses to see that. The only things he
sees in it is that he is there by Divine Right, and that he's an
enlightened person who is already sort of a guru."
   "What can you do with that?" he asked with his palms up in hopelessness.
"I went for all that but now I'm beyond it. It's very painful to realize
the band could...well, we've been on the rocks quite a few times and it's
only because of that. We all really love the band because it gives us a
tremendous opportunity. Any of us play better with this band than in any
other situation. We were really made for each other and these things just
interfere."
   What about the future?
   "I have a feeling, and I hope I'm right, that the worst is over. Now, it
just demands that we keep after the record company and the promoters to see
it as a homogeneous unit as opposed to a back-up band for a superstar,
because it's just not as simple as that. Within the band, I think we have
ways of dealing with it. Those ways are not altogether kosher but for the
music's sake, and to keep the band together, we've been making
certain...well, you swallow some things. At the same time, you can't do it
forever so I really can't say much about the future. I feel though that the
worst is over and we've made John realize that the band cannot run on his
compositional ability alone. By that I mean, with him getting all the
credit. He would never acknowledge that we were all contributing all along
- ask anyone in the band. So we'll just have our pieces and put them on.
That's just the way it has to go.
   Why did it take so long for this to happen?
   "I came up with many of those melody lines but they were part of his,
so-called, tunes. These things just happen. You're rehearsing and these
things just come to you very quickly and you don't think of any business
part of it because you are making music, but after a year-and-a-half and
there are two records out and they have these credits, man, well, you know,
you just get turned around. I would say in most of those songs that are
credited to him on those first two albums were written about 60% by him and
40% by the other members of the band. That's a substantial part and should
be credited, but it just wasn't able to get through to him or anybody."
   Let's find something nice to talk about, I said finally, and Hammer
quickly replied, "There's very little nice except for the music. Everything
around it is disillusioning."

 

   "We're human beings, man," Rick Laird said with just the slightest tinge
of annoyance in his soft-spoken voice. "We're not saints, and naturally we
have problems communicating. Sometimes we don't communicate at all, but
John needs us and we need him." At 16, he left his home in Dublin to work
on a sheep farm in New Zealand where he learned the rudiments of guitar
simply to amuse himself. Thus began a long odyssey that took him through a
long stay as the house bassist in London's hippest jazz club, through two
years of music theory at Berklee and eventually to the Mahavishnu
Orchestra. He is an even-tempered individual and a highly accomplished
musician. Laird perhaps does not exhibit a burning, inspired creativity -or
its accompanying ego- but, with his highly schooled technical capabilities,
he is perfectly suited to the creative mix in the Orchestra. He brings a
steady, flawless accuracy to their often complex rhythms, providing a solid
foundation for the flamboyance of the rest of the band. It is by no means a
lesser role, simply a different one. As he explains, "It's a supportive
role although it can be a leading one because everybody's leading all the
time in this band because the energy is very forward. My role is to support
the ensemble and the individual who's soloing, which requires a certain
amount of selflessness. You have to put your own thing aside a lot of the
time. You have to not play sometimes what you'd like to play, and sometimes
play what you don't really want to play because that's what's needed by the
other members. Some nights I don't have the capacity to give on the level I
feel is needed by the other people, while other nights I don't feel they
give me the support I need, but it works out in the end."
   He takes a similarly passive approach to the current problems in the
band. "In any family situation of five people, there's bound to be dissent,
there's bound to be conflict because that's the nature of human life. The
whole thing is how you overcome and resolve it. Generally the music is the
cure-all for the hassles. We might not have spoken to each other for two
days and when we finally get to play, it will work itself out and after a
couple of hours we can talk to each other again.
   "As for John's being the star, I've sort of come to my own terms with
it. I no longer fight it. I'm glad to be doing what I'm doing. I see it as
an opportunity for myself as well as for all of us. I really don't feel any
hostility about it because I understand what the game is. Whatever will be
will be."

 

   John McLaughlin's sincere belief in the teachings of Sri Chinmoy has led
him on to a very narrow path, a tunnel vision, however bright the light at
its end might be. He is completely committed and it seems to have brought a
great serenity to his personal life. Although there are many paths to the
Lord, he is convinced he is on the best. This yields a certain peremptory
and condescending attitude that has become more and more untenable for some
of the rest of the band.
   However, Sri Chinmoy is not, as has been alleged, McLaughlin's financial
advisor, an area handled completely by Nat Weiss, his personal and business
manager since before the formation of the Orchestra. Concerning this, Weiss
said, "Sri Chinmoy is only John's spiritual advisor and he has been a very
positive experience for him. I handle all of the business and personal
affairs of the Mahavishnu Orchestra and deal with all the promotion
aspects."
   McLaughlin sees the Mahavishnu Orchestra as a function of his love,
devotion and surrender to the teachings of Sri Chinmoy. He formed it to
express his experience of his wisdom and chose its musicians because their
talent would help him toward this goal. However, he seems to have failed to
realize that the music would be a product of the life experiences of all
five men and that eventually they would demand that this be acknowledged.
   In the beginning, at the time of "The Inner Mounting Flame" which broke
largely on the strength of his reputation, McLaughlin's music and the
vision it embodies dominated the band. The keynote of its message was
evolution, the striving of consciousness to flow higher and higher and
nearer and nearer to the perfection of the Lord. But the same evolutionary
principle applies to more mundane subjects as well, such as the band
itself. It would be absurd to assume the creative inter-relationships would
remain static, and they have not. The visions and capabilities of each of
these musicians has grown and evolved over the last two years and the
internal dynamic has changed along with them.
   There is a small but, it seems, crucial generation gap in the Mahavishnu
Orchestra. Hammer and Goodman are roughly five years younger than the other
three members and this gave them, when the group was formed, the most room
and, probably, need to grow. And they have, and it is their pronounced
creative expansion that has put the most pressure on McLaughlin's original
concept. For one obvious example, Hammer began in the band as a pianist who
often played a relatively simple chording role re-enforcing the rhythm
section, but now he has introduced a synthesizer and virtually abandoned
the piano. In his own words, "The moog not only enlarges the palette, it
multiplies it to the square. It's unbelievable, astronomical. I've been
hearing these melodies for years but I just couldn't play them on piano."
   With the ongoing individual growth of the musicians, the collective
music they make has also improved. In their first year of touring, there
was a sameness in the sound they produced that occasionally grew boring by
the end of a two-hour set, however entrancing it might have been for the
first two or three numbers. This is no longer the case; they have explored
and incorporated a whole new range of textures and tonalities. The ironic
truth seems to be that they are growing too good for each other.
   Balance, as in most situations, is the key, and in general, the lack of
it has created their present problems. Laird gave an example of "finding a
program that's 80-90% about John and his guru with, perhaps, 5% left after
advertising for the other four members." The band is now an incorporated
entity and billing and the like have all been contractually agreed to.
There have also been significant changes on a more meaningful level. The
credit line on "Birds of Fire" reads only 'The Mahavishnu Orchestra'
(though all the songs are credited to McLaughlin). Introductions of all the
members are made before the set begins and songs by Hammer, Laird and
Goodman are all now part of the Orchestra's touring repertoire.
   However, the elements of the essential problems remain and they must be
grown out of just as they were grown into. McLaughlin is still possessed
with his shining vision and its evangelical imperative. It is difficult, if
not impossible, for him to compromise with what he sees as the path to
ultimate, holy truth. His eyes and soul and artistry are fixed on a goal
beyond. "My music needs me," he said, "Like the highest music needs me. It
needs me to be completely purer and purer, richer and stronger."

 

   The music of the Mahavishnu Orchestra is an exotic hybrid, a seamless
joining of many musical and metaphysical disciplines. It is a fusion that
captures the temper of our times and alchemizes its frenetic chaos into
iridescent sheets of sublimely ordered sound.
   Their concert that cool evening in Central Park went well. After opening
with their traditional "Meeting of the Spirits," which by now is so tight
and effortless it isn't played as much as conjured, The Orchestra ground
into Hammer's as yet untitled song. It has a sinewy, funky quality not
found in McLaughlin's material but still it melded perfectly into their
set. All of the material, whomever the legal author, is given by the band
the same diamond-etched sharpness and precision. Moreover, their
improvisation whatever its starting point follows the same cyclically
ascending patterns.
   After "Hope Awakening," with its towering, dramatic crescendos of
whining, marrow-piercing catharsis, they played "Dreams," a McLaughlin
composition he begins on acoustic guitar. As the song progresses and
builds, he switches to his inlayed double-necked electric. The music flows
into a long round-robin improvisation and during Hammer's solo, McLaughlin
and Cobham smiled ecstatically at one another as they batted syncopated
riffs back and forth like birdies in some trans-galactic badminton game.
   The next number, which incorporates Goodman's song with "One Word" off
"Birds of Fire", builds to a blistering three-way exchange among the
soloists. As they blend and bend and burn white-hot together, Goodman
stands far to the left, his bowing a jerky/smooth symphony of dips and
sways. Hammer leans on his keyboard with his mouth open, head thrown back
in almost epileptic intensity. And center stage, McLaughlin's eyes close as
his brow furrows in concentration. His shorn head leans to one side as he
plays until it virtually rests on his shoulder and as the number climaxes,
he arches his back, a time-leaping pilgrim possessed by the music, and
looks up at the stars overhead.
   When this band is on stage making their music, riding its power and
communing with its beauty, they become a single, pentagonal organism.
Unfortunately, this state of unified, interlocking communication can be
maintained only while they are playing. At other times they become normal
men, beset by ambitions and doubts as they struggle to grasp the quick
phantom of personal equilibrium. One hopes for a brighter future and
continued growth but even if it all ended tomorrow, an awestruck gratitude
would linger for the special wonder of the Mahavishnu Orchestra.