John McLaughlin: Zen and the art of guitar-playing

John McLaughlin’s new LP was 12 years in the making. Meditation kept him sane, he tells Martin Longley

26 February 2004 The Independent

 The career of John McLaughlin
is full of extreme musical contrasts. When his guitar was electric – as
with the Mahavishnu Orchestra and Tony Williams’s Lifetime – he gave us
frenetic runs at awesome speeds, cloaked in murderous feedback. But when
he moves to an acoustic guitar, he is one of the most delicately sensitive
players, exploring Indian classical music with Shakti, or reinventing flamenco
with Paco de Lucia.

The Yorkshire-born McLaughlin flew to New York in 1969; two days later,
he was playing with Miles Davis on the sessions for In a Silent Way. McLaughlin
stayed in Manhattan for 15 years, but has now lived in Monaco for the past
20. When we meet, his thumbs are encased in sticking plasters. Has he been
playing too much vigorous axe, fast and intricately picked? Er, no: he
hurt them during a spell of DIY.    McLaughlin recently released Thieves and Poets, an ambitious work for orchestra and
improvised guitar that was 12 yearsin the making. McLaughlin considers
it a monumental effort. “That was without doubt my magnum opus,” he says.
“I never worked so hard on a recording.”

    Improvisation lies at the heart of McLaughlin’s playing. “I’m improvising a lot. I’m
not a classical player. I don’t want to be a classical player. I love to
improvise, because things happen that never happen anywhere else.”

    The standards on the album are all identified with jazz pianists. “I started off as a
piano-player,” McLaughlin says. “I was 11 when I started guitar. Blues
came, and I was blown away by that. And then, in the space of four years,
flamenco, jazz and Indian music. By the time I was 16, I was already under
the influence.” All those are improvising forms, of course.

In the late Sixties, McLaughlin and the Wolverhampton-born bassist Dave
Holland shared a flat in London, before both were discovered by Miles Davis.
“Can you get more lucky than that, for a European jazz musician? We were
sitting in this club, and Miles turned round and said, ‘It’s time you formed
your own band.’ This is the most honest man I ever met. Brutally honest.”

    In 1997,
Zakir Hussain was invited to tour by the Asian Music Circuit and given
free rein to choose his musicians. The tabla-player met McLaughlin and
suggested a Shakti revival. “I’m hooked again,” McLaughlin says. “Shakti
are phenomenal players. I have a great affection for Indian culture and
music. They’re delightful people just to be with – there’s a wonderful
atmosphere in the group.”

    That wasn’t the case with the Mahavishnu Orchestra. Between 1980 and 1985, McLaughlin
tried to re-form the original band because it had ended in such acrimony.
“This really pissed me off, because music’s not about that – it’s not about
your ego. It’s about joyful experience or moving experience. We were together
only two years. I think we had too much success too quickly. I’d just finished
this Love Devotion Surrender tour with [Carlos] Santana. All was not well.
Jan [Hammer] and Jerry [Goodman] would not talk to me any more, which was
very weird. We went on stage for the first concert and they still weren’t
talking to me. We had a break and I said, ‘I don’t care if I’m the worst
sonofabitch in the world, but spit it out! I don’t want to play with people
who don’t speak to me.’

But they just turned round and walked out of the room. Next time I saw
them I said, ‘I don’t know what’s going on with you, but I don’t want to
live like this. If you don’t want to talk to me, then we’ll fold the band
and you do what you want, and that’ll be the end of that.’ They went their
own way and formed their own band, but they were soon at each other’s throats.
Human nature!

    “It was
a great band. Jerry came to me some time later and said that he couldn’t
believe he was responsible for the break-up. He regretted it deeply.”

gave up trying to re-form the original Mahavishnu Orchestra. John and Jerry
renewed their friendship, but Jan never called. “I must have been a little
weird at that time,” McLaughlin says. “I was studying meditation with Sri
Chinmoy and had a spiritual name. Maybe that got up their noses, I don’t
know. I didn’t ask them to meditate with me, or pray. I don’t care, they
could have as many girls as they want, do drugs. Everyone’s got to live
the way they want to.”

spiritual quest is central to him. “I have a profound affection for
Buddhism, and Zen Buddhism’s particular ways of meditating. This is the
way I want to live, because it makes me feel good. I’m an old hippie: I
did a lot of acid, a lot of grass, a lot of other things. By
the end of the Sixties it was clear to me that to have an altered state
of consciousness is very important, for sanity’s sake.
my own sanity, let’s say. I can only speak for myself.
I didn’t want
to have an altered state of consciousness by ingesting chemicals, or mushrooms,
or stuff like that. This became part of my life by the end of the Sixties.
I will do it until I’m gone. I’m convinced that it helps me not just mentally,
intellectually or spiritually, but physically.” He must be right, judging
by his trim, youthful appearance.

  Shakti will tour again this summer, probably in a double bill with Jeff

Beck. “My old comrade-in-arms, another one who’s about as deaf as me. Listen,
when you put everything up to 11, your ears pay for it eventually…”

    The two
toured together regularly in the 1970s, and McLaughlin says Beck is his
favourite guitarist. “He’s looking for new formats, and I identify totally
with that. My next record’s going to be completely bonkers. I want to go
more underground. I think the jazz critics will really crucify me this

    All McLaughlin’s
musical incarnations are brought together on a new box set of live recordings
made at the Montreux Jazz Festival between 1974 and 1999. McLaughlin hadn’t
heard that music since it was played. “It was very emotional for me, to
hear this music, these bands. I don’t have time to listen much to what
I do. It was so powerful, very nostalgic.”

McLaughlin is also recording a DVD guitar tutorial, documenting the content
of his masterclasses. “Teaching is a very strange thing. I believe that
all we can do is show how we do what we do, starting with the basics. How
to master improvisation, exercises, development of phrases.

62 years old. I’ve got a lot of stuff in my head and I don’t know when
I’m going to go. Jazz musicians are not known for their longevity. I want
to get it down, so people have access to it.”


Thieves and Poets’ is
out now on Emarcy; Verve is reissuing his 1992 album ‘Que Alegria’; and
the 17-disc box set ‘The John McLaughlin Montreux Concerts’, is available
through Warner Jazz 

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About Jay Babcock

I am the co-founder and editor of Arthur Magazine (2002-2008, 2012-13) and curator of the three Arthur music festival events (Arthurfest, ArthurBall, and Arthur Nights) (2005-6). Prior to that I was a district office staffer for Congressman Henry A. Waxman, a DJ at Silver Lake pirate radio station KBLT, a copy editor at Larry Flynt Publications, an editor at Mean magazine, and a freelance journalist contributing work to LAWeekly, Mojo, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Vibe, Rap Pages, Grand Royal and many other print and online outlets. An extended piece I wrote on Fela Kuti was selected for the Da Capo Best Music Writing 2000 anthology. In 2006, I was one of five Angelenos listed in the Music section of Los Angeles Magazine's annual "Power" issue. In 2007-8, I produced a blog called "Nature Trumps," about the L.A. River. Today, I live a peaceful life in Tucson, Arizona with Stephanie Smith.