JOHN MC LAUGHLIN
AN INTERVIEW WITH BOB KARSTENS
CBC RADIO (Feb?) 1978
EAST MEETS WEST
I'd like to *Thank* Sandy Freeze
for supplying us with this radio
BOB KARSTENS: If sheer technique makes a virtuoso, then John McLaughlin is
certainly one. Few jazz guitarists today can match his lightning speed and
the awesome intensity of his playing. McLaughlin's been exploring music for
25 years: everything from folk, jazz and classical, to the sound of the
Indian sitar. It's hard to put a label on McLaughlin's music because it's
such a combination of different elements.
John McLaughlin was born in 1943(*) in a small village in Yorkshire,
England. His Mother was a violinist, and music was always a part of the
family. When he was young, most of the music he listened to was classical.
(*) John was born in 1942 - RS
JOHN McLAUGHLIN: Well, I really didn't have any choice in the matter, you
know. There was a lot of music played on the radio, we had a gramophone, it
was all Western classical music. And one thing in particular, a vocal
quartet by Beethoven, had a *very* profound effect on me. And another thing
by Mozart had a big effect on me. And to realize that something had such an
effect on you, I think, that's possibly where a secret desire to be able to
create the same effect on other people was born. Probably...I don't know
for certain. In fact: the simple fact I started playing the guitar...there
was nothing else I wanted to do, other than play.
BK: And when did you start playing guitar?
JM: Eleven. I wouldn't particularly call it playing.
BK: Did you start listening to jazz when you were young?
JM: ...Blues was the...Blues was the basic music form of America; which
gave way to, to me, the only indigenous Art form of America. And that is
BOB KARSTENS: By 1969, McLaughlin was a mainstay on the London jazz-rock
scene. When Tony Williams, Miles Davis's drummer, called him to come to New
York, McLaughlin didn't have to think twice. He went straight to the home
of Black music, Harlem, where Miles was playing at the Club Baron. And
within two days, McLaughlin was in the recording studio, with all the
musicians who would later become architects of the jazz renaissance of the
BK: What was it like going from London, to playing in Black clubs in
Harlem, practically overnight?
JM: It's HEAVEN! For a European jazz musician, if you play in Harlem, that
is IT! I mean...really...you made it. I mean...I was so on top of the
world. I met everybody, and I started playing with everybody immediately.
So, I had...I worked in such a perfect situation; as far as I was working
with Miles, whom I'd idolized for years, and to me is just a great, great
artist. So I had the best of both worlds. I was very...I was very lucky.
BK: What did that do for you, musically, to have that group of people
JM: It made me blossom. I would say made me really flower because I played
with some great musicians in Europe; but it's a completely different
environment in Europe. In anywhere other than New York they think, or
America particularly, that it's the Art form of America: jazz music. And
it's such a vital force - not so much now, in fact and unfortunately - but
the spirit is still there, of improvised music.
BOB KARSTENS: In 1971, McLaughlin established his first group. He brought
together four superb musicians to form the Mahavishnu Orchestra; using the
name that his Indian guru, Sri Chinmoy, had given him. Mahavishnu's music
was a dazzling, electric, free-form display of inspired musical power; and
it set the jazz world on it's ear. Some people found it just too intense,
but anyone who listened couldn't help but wonder at the synthesis
McLaughlin had created: a fusion of jazz, rock, Western classical, and
Eastern musical idioms. I asked John McLaughlin how this fusion came about?
JM: That's the way I grew up, you know? In fact, that's the way most of us
grow up, these days. Look at the gramophone. For me, the gramophone is
really a planetary instrument. Because music is the highest in culture; the
highest expression of a culture - which I believe it is - then in your
living room you've got the best of every culture, right there.
BOB KARSTENS: About 1975, McLaughlin parted from his spiritual mentor, and
dissolved the Mahavishnu Orchestra. He formed a new band, called Shakti;
returning to an all acoustic live sound. McLaughlin's guitar is
complimented by the soaring violin of L.Shankar and by two of the very best
Eastern percussionists. More than ever, Shakti's music is a synthesis of
both Western and Eastern musical forms.
JM: I've been listening to the music for awhile and aware of the complexity
and the subtleties of the mathematics of Indian rhythm. The theoretical
side which has fascinated me...still does.
BK: Is there a basic difference between Indian music and Western music?
JM: Oh, absolutely. Indian music is essentially linear, which is melodic,
no harmony. The only harmony you can extract is out of the mode. In the
West, of course, you've got all harmonic - vertical - what I like to feel
is vertical music (versus linear music). But then you see there's a lot of
crossover since Miles and Coltrane. See Miles and Trane, in fact, were
great exponents of linear music; even though they'd grown up in the
vertical school and in the Charlie Parker school of playing. And they still
used, and I still use, chords. I love harmony, it's part of my tradition.
But at the same time the linear concept, for me is - as a player - most
simple and effective. Well, it's a way of thinking, basically; and the two
fascinated me. They fascinated me, not only that; I feel that without
complete familiarity and expertise in the articulation of both schools of
thought, I won't be a really complete musician.
BK: Are you trying to fuse both...?
JM: (Emphatically) I'm not trying to do anything, no! No, Robert, I'm not
trying to do anything. I'm...really I'm just dictated to my feelings
towards music, and, my reactions and feelings towards the different schools
of music; which ...which are generally divided into Eastern and Western
schools. But basically and fundamentally, it's music. And music is talking
about the same thing.
BK: What is music talking about?
JM: Music can say what words will never say, and about where we...where we
really live. You know, you talk, and you talk about facts and information.
But, I mean, our secret life - Who are we? What are we? And where do we
[Various Shakti "Natural Elements" tunes were played as interludes during
JM: Words, basically, skim around the surface; and they always will. Unless
of course, you speak in spontaneous prose to me, and I return. Or, I sing
to you, and you sing to me: you sing a question, and I sing an answer. That
would be closer to the truth; the music approaches the truth. And this is a
beautiful power. I mean...music is an indescribably beautiful and
inefferable power that hasn't been realized, I don't believe, at all. I
think if music...oh, I don't know...I can't imagine...if music was truly
played.... This is my goal: to really and truly play properly. Simply
because music, it doesn't know any barriers. And...and it's pure, it's from
God. That's what I believe.
BOB KARSTENS: Unusual and innovative it may be, the music of Shakti has had
a difficult time being accepted by the record-buying public. I asked John
JM: Because of inertia. Radio stations, the media; they all patronize,
constantly, the listening (record-buying) public. And they don't give them
credit for being able to appreciate what they - what the...usually the
purveyors of the media can - are unable to appreciate themselves. So, they
superimpose their own value scales, and their values on the listener; which
is part of the "Big Lie".
BK: But, are you trying to do the same thing?
JM: (pause) No. If the people who propound the media values were artists,
then I would go for it. But what they're doing is not Art; they're
patronizing the public.
But why should they just have five rock...you know, 98.2? Why can't they
throw in some windharp, or some Stockhausen, or some Stravinsky, or some
Webern? Or some music from Japan? Or some music from India? Or, some music
from Bali? Some music from the North Pole?
I don't care where it's from. It's a beautiful power to bring the world
together; and to realize that the music is all over the world and we really
just live in this global village. And the music is such a beautiful bridge
of the cultures.
And yet, what do they do? It's self-evident. They think the East might as
well be on Mars, as far as they're concerned; as far as a lot of people in
the West are concerned. But it's changing, and I think with people
changing, they will come around to see that it's just...they don't care if
it's East or West or nothing, because the music...who cares? Who cares
where you come from? Who cares what color you are?...Can you play? Don't
you like music? Can you appreciate the other, whoever the other may be;
other than yourself is doing?
BK: What makes you think there is a God, a Creator?
JM: Oh, I don't think it Robert, I feel it. I feel this mysterious power in
me ...(inaudible).... You can call it what you want. You can call it the
Void, because it is the Abyss of your being; unfathomable, unpenetrable,
mysterious, inscrutable depths. And you can call...you can give it any name
you like. You can call it the Void, you can call it the Creator, you can
call it Love. You can call it the Inefferable Mystery. You can call it by
any name you like; "but a rose by any other name smells just as sweetly."
See, we're using words, which are fairly clumsy to begin with; and
hopelessly inadequate. Maybe that's why we play music. Still...still
clumsy, but it's possible to get a little closer.
I cannot deny the depths inside of me. And being a human being, I imagine
that people are pretty much like me; you know, down there in that Abyss.