"It basically comes from love": John McLaughlin in conversation with Robert Fripp, 1982

Recently came across this piece, originally published in Musician No. 45, July, 1982…

Coffee and Chocolates for Two Guitars
by Robert Fripp

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 Parisian 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 street; 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 Williams’ LifetimeTony Williams’ Lifetime and his contributions to Miles Davis’ epochal Bitches Brew (known forever as the first fusion album) and A Tribute to 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 band. 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 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, some 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 journalistic 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 hard…it’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, God…it 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 was, by 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 possible…to 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 stay 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 thing…you 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.

Fripp: As we’re talking through these heavy things, I’m munching without any guilt at all through my favorite French confection.

McLaughlin: Can I get you more coffee?

Fripp: I should love more coffee. Where do these chocolates come from?

McLaughlin: They come from the Basque coast, where we go a lot of the time. Maybe one day you can come and visit.

Fripp: I should love to do that. I use French confection as an analogy sometimes. People say, “What’s the difference between earning a living, or having a go so it’s more than just a mundane process?” and I say it’s the difference between Hershey bars and French confectionery. You have to know French confection to understand what a Hershey bar is.

McLaughlin: Did you ever see The French Connection II? There’s a scene where Gene Hackman is in France and although there’s all this Swiss chocolate around, he only wants a Hershey bar…(laughs)

Fripp: I never did drugs, you see, so I was only told about the connection. It seems to me that details such as chocolate or clothing give insight to the person…

McLaughlin: It’s the small things, how a person walks, how a person talks, what they say, how they say it. We learn from that. I learn, surely.

Fripp: Do you dress in a certain kind of way to say anything deliberately…?

McLaughlin: Well, let’s look at it in music. I’ll tell you what I’m looking for. I’m looking for eloquence, accuracy, and elegance – among other things such as profundity, pathos, joy – but I think these three qualities, which are written on the back of _Love Supreme_ by John Coltrane; reading those liner notes had a great effect on me. It’s a way of life, a way of being. I don’t think one can strive for elegance and eloquence and purity in music and not in life.

Fripp: Your playing has always struck me as very similar to Coltrane, but I don’t hear a guitarist with mere technique, which you obviously have…it isn’t so much a geezer going through scales, it’s just ripping out…

McLaughlin: Looking for the way, just going through everything he knows to find out what he doesn’t know, and that’s what we’re all trying to do. I mean improvisation. I think it’s safe to say that you’re really happiest when you’ve gone through what you know and…

Fripp: You discover something you didn’t know before.

McLaughlin: Yeah, and suddenly the doors open and you see this incredible avenue with all kinds of tributaries going off…it’s the most incredible feeling that can happen in music.

Fripp: How do you increase the conditions under which it’s more likely to happen? What specific work do you do, what practice or exercises?

McLaughlin: Well, we can include working, playing. If you’re on a tour, you increase the possibility of being in the right place at the right time, rather than being at home and practicing. But I also reflect. I don’t meditate or fast or anything, but I reflect on the ramifications of what I do. For example, there’s a relationship between two chords that you’ve known, that I’ve known, for a long time, and only recently do I begin to discover this more intimate relationship, what it means. Even though I’ve looked at these chords from every possible viewpoint, I’m looking for a way that maybe exists up there, but I don’t know where it is. Then, a little while ago, I discovered it, it just arrived. So the work that we do, I don’t think we benefit from it until later. But once we have colors and palette, the richer the palette is, the richer the music can be.

Fripp: That D major chord which changed you from a pianist to a guitarist, what color would that be for you?

McLaughlin: What color…? (pause) I think it could be green.

Fripp: Exactly what I would’ve said…

McLaughlin: It’s got to be yellow and some blue.

Fripp: A major for me is yellow and A minor inclines toward white, which is my C major. Graham Bond said it was red.

McLaughlin: C major, red? No, E major, I would say, is red.

Fripp: E major for me is very blue, a kind of royal blue, and when you get to E minor it becomes more of a night blue, with kind of stars…

McLaughlin: That’s very interesting…

Fripp: G is very greenish, but not quite.

McLaughlin: I thought about this color aspect of music but I never literally tried to make an analogy. What I have done, and what I still today find very interesting, stems from the Tarot, because they assign twelve astrological signs to the twelve tones of the chromatic scale. Since I know what my own different signs are, I could find out what kind of harmony is, in fact, going on between my astrological signs, or between the signs of other people I’m playing with. There was a time when I was writing solos for people on the basis of their astrological key.

Fripp: How did the musicians feel about solos given to them because of their astrological sign?

McLaughlin: It wasn’t very significant to them. A lot of people, they don’t consider these kind of things.

Fripp: When did you come to Paris?

McLaughlin: Well, I’ve been coming here more and more for the last four or five years. I’ve been…

Fripp: More French confection, please.

McLaughlin: I’ve been coming here since 1977.

Fripp: Do you find any similarity between Paris and New York?

McLaughlin: Yeah, I do. New York’s more dynamic, more vital, more energetic. It’s more violent, too. I consider myself European, culturally speaking, even though the music that I play is enormously influenced by American music, so I’m a kind of mid-transatlantic person. But I’ve always loved France since the very first time I came here. I love the food. I love the language, the culture, the architecture. So I feel happy to be here. Although I must say, I love to visit New York. I really get a kick, I just feel great, just…whew, I love it. It personifies everything American, from best to worst.

Fripp: What’s the work climate for you here in Paris?

McLaughlin: I play here once or twice a year. We did this television show, and there’s another one coming up. So to be here gives me the possibility to participate more than I can do in New York (laughs), because, you know, the media in America, in relation to music, is much more precisely defined than here. In Europe it’s much more possible for me to appear on television – simply because I don’t play a very popular kind of music. Here there’s less emphasis on what is sellable. And that, I think, is very important. At least, important to me (laughs).

Fripp: At this point, I should love another coffee. What I like about America is, because it’s a commercial culture, it’s very malleable, if you learn that particular vocabulary to do with making money. But you have all these traps. Gurdjieff said, “Make money with your left foot.” That’s about as much of yourself as you should have in there.

McLaughlin: But that’s tricky. Just to keep your left foot in there and not let the other foot get dragged in…

Fripp: Meditation in the marketplace, meditation on your feet, in a way. I did it for a while, I could hold it together for a while but…boy, it’s very difficult. How did you get on with touring? Actually long periods of being on the road. How did you handle it?

McLaughlin: How did I, how do I handle it? It’s my life, Robert. It’s your life, too, in a sense.

Fripp: John Williams (classical guitarist) will only tour for six weeks a year.

McLaughlin: Well, I need to play more than he does, maybe I need to play out for people, and to create the possiblities we talked about before, of things accidentally happening. Because only in playing, when you’re playing every night, do you increase the possibility of this happening.

Fripp: But after five weeks and three days, something changes and I think musicians go crazy. We’ve just done three months and it did me a lot of damage.

McLaughlin: I don’t think it’s so bad. Were you playing the same music every night?

Fripp: Yes. But I mean in the sense that improvisation is a long line from one end to the other. It was the same but at the same time it was completely different.

McLaughlin: Two guitars, more or less the same program every night…you have to be careful because you can even get trapped in improvisation, n’est pas?

Fripp: Yes, or should I say oui.

McLaughlin: But to have one of those nights that we were talking about, where we fly like an eagle…

Fripp: We had four in New York – two shows for two nights, one after the other and all of them were out of this world. Then we did one show in Los Angeles. Boy, that turned me around. It really did.

McLaughlin: Do you take sugar in your coffee?

Fripp: No, only in French confection. I’m surprised that after living in Paris and New York, you still drink tea. By the way, I’m terribly embarrassed about these wonderful Basque chocolates…I’ve ravaged the box! You’ve worked with my favorite drummer, I think: Tony Williams. I mean, you’ve worked with two of the most important drummers of the ’70s, Tony Williams and Billy Cobham. Tony was my man…with no disrespect to Billy…

McLaughlin: No, I understand perfectly. Tony’s an artist.

Fripp: That _Emergency_ album was really a burner…

McLaughlin: Yeah, it was an incredible little band.

Fripp: How long did it take to make?

McLaughlin: Oh, very little time…judging from the sound (laughs). Doesn’t it sound like it was done in one afternoon?

Fripp: Although I’ve read interviews with Tony, I never got much sense of anything…

McLaughlin: Tony’s a difficult person to know…but I have such enormous respect for him as a musician, as an artist…what he does with the drums. I don’t know who hasn’t been influenced by Tony Williams. That itself is…is the mark of immortality, in a sense.

Fripp: What was it like to play with him?

McLaughlin: It was…very difficult, but really an incredible pleasure. Because he too is, was my favorite drummer. So to go and work with your favorite drummer…for a jazz musician is one of the greatest kicks you can get. Tony plays with the time like I’ve never heard anybody play with the time. You have to learn to think like he does, you have to learn his conception of time. It’s impeccable (laughs). That’s all I can say. Impeccable…mmm…and really…very stimulating. Because one of the things I learned from Tony was about breathing, breathing in time. And Miles is a master of that way of playing.

Fripp: With the new Miles band, the guitarist (Mike Stern) has been criticized for playing loud rock ‘n’ roll licks. But when he was asked about that in an interview, he said,”Miles came over, turned my amplifier up to ten and said,’Play rock ‘n’ roll.'”

McLaughlin: (laughs) Yeah…that’s Miles, that’s Miles. Oh yeah. Whatever Miles wants…To work with Miles, in itself, is an experience, unforgettable. And very, very positive. You learn…enormously.

Fripp: Could you say what you learned in a sentence or two?

McLaughlin: (pause) I learned how to direct…how to shape. And, in a sense, how to get from the other musicians what the music needs, while at the same time, allowing the musicians to be themselves. He’s…he’s consummate…

Fripp: I think you…that you were the only guitarist for me who could hold in with Miles or Tony…

McLaughlin: (embarrassed) I don’t know…oh…

Fripp: (quietly but firmly) Yeah.

McLaughlin: Maybe…I’ve heard…I like Miles’ new guitar player, I like what he’s doing. It reminds me a little of the Jack Johnson era. It’s not, I guess, a new conception, a new way, but I enjoy the guitar player. But I have…well, two things: one, I don’t care what Miles does now, he’s already done so much; to me he can never lose the stature that he has, in me; two, he hasn’t played for…a long time. And knowing the kind of person he is, as long as he continues to play, to work, he’s going to do some wonderful things. That I feel for sure.

Fripp: We were talking about touring and so on. I have a lot of difficulty, when I play a show, with cameras and recording machines. Because, at the very least, they seem to steal the innocence available in the present moment. If there were an audience of 1100 people at the Savoy, all of whom could listen without any expectation or demands, without bothering about bootlegging on little machines like this (points to cassette deck) or taking pictures…boy, I think you could make the world spin backwards.

McLaughlin: That’s true, but let’s look at it from another point of view. I remember a couple of years ago, I was at the Village Vanguard to see Bill Evans play. He was playing with Philly Joe Jones, and Chuck Israels was sitting in for the night. I’ve heard Bill play a lot of times, but he was just…transfigured. It was so good, so great. It was so intelligent, so beautiful, so elegant, so eloquent, all those words and all those…so inspired! He was playing like an angel. And believe me I regretted not having a tape machine. I regretted it. To want to be able to hear that again is a perfectly natural thing.

Fripp: Well, yes sure, but…

McLaughlin: I mean, don’t you…do you listen to records?

Fripp: Very rarely, very rarely.

McLaughlin: Anyone? You rarely listen to music of any kind?

Fripp: I mean, you’re not going to listen to Balinese Gamelan unless you have the Explorer Nonesuch series and so on, but otherwise I’d prefer to go and see a live show. As Blake once said, “He who doth bend himself in joy, doth the winged life destroy.” Now if you know that you experience of that will only be in this moment, with no before or after…you’re there, you have to be there, if you knew you were going to go home and listen to it afterwards…

McLaughlin: By listening to the music…I wasn’t thinking about a tape recorder at the time. I was just…I mean…Dave Liebman was there and I was jumping up and down on my seat I was so excited…because it didn’t stop coming…just like a fountain, and I was there with my mouth open, just drinking it in. I didn’t think about the tape recorder until after, but…

Fripp: Some of the most amazing gigs I’ve known weren’t musically very good. Just listening to tapes afterward…I mean there’s a real turkey happening. It wasn’t down to notes, it was down to the energy in the room, between the band and the people and the music.

McLaughlin: Hmm…not in this case. No. Because I’ve heard Bill play a lot, so many times I’ve lost count, and I listen to his records. And it was that night…and it was only that set, because the second set was totally different. It was no longer this magic. And in other cases, I think it’s directly the inspiration of the musician that creates a magical environment. This happens to me in rehearsal, too, when’s there’s no audience, some of the best things I’ve ever played…

Fripp: The quality present making love with someone, I mean, do you stick it on a videotape to play back?

McLaughlin: Maybe (laughs). If that’s what you like. I mean, everybody’s got their tastes. I don’t think we can really criticize, we can’t impose our judgement on anyone else. If they’re going to do it…I mean, why not?

Fripp: No…well, what I say is this: I find it very distracting to work to photographers and cassette machines. And I feel violated, when having said that, suddenly, there you have it…

McLaughlin: Of course. I’ve gotten really angry with some photographers who just come in and, without one word, they’re like, “Can I take your picture?” It just makes me snap. From anger. But there’s only so much control we have and…also…I have to be able to accept and not be disturbed. I don’t think it’s good for the music. I need to be…self-contained and not dependent upon any exterior environment. And I can’t…I don’t want to get in the way of development of what technology we have because it’s so…it’s part of human nature. I understand it.

Fripp: When you were in Reading in 1975, you were using a guitar synthesizer. Have you taken any interest in the new Roland guitar synthesizer? It’s coming on the market soon…it’s phenomenal. The guitar side of it is sensational.

McLaughlin: No…I know more or less what’s happening with synthesizer guitar. Do you know the Synclavier people? They have a system, in fact, there’s one I ordered that will arrive later this week. It’s a digital synthesizer…

Fripp: Is it polyphonic?

McLaughlin: Oh, yes, it’s quite an extraordinary machine, because it involves the use of a floppy disc computer, with this CRT terminal. It fact, it has sixteen-track digital memory inside, so you can record digitally, directly, what you play. There’ll be a program for the guitar, a software program that will allow the hardware to be used by the guitar. You’ll have access to all the wave forms, which in fact you can create on the CRT screen, because you can show it up visually, or you can show it up mathematically. It’s not…how do they say?…subtractive synthesis; it’s additive synthesis. That means you’re not governed by any fixed parameters. It’s really an extraordinary instrument. Also, they’ll have this transcription program available which means, of course, that what’s recorded can by thrown up on the screen in musical notation…

Fripp: WOW! And these people are American?

McLaughlin: American – New England Digital. I think for the first time there will be a real possibility of the guitar synthesizer. Because up until now what have been put on the market has been, I think, very ineffective.

Fripp: One thing that I didn’t ask you earlier when we were talking about Tony and Miles and so on; what was it like to play with Jimi Hendrix? I heard a tape of a jam…

McLaughlin: If it’s anything I’ve heard…this is what I refused them permission to put out, because what I heard was about three or four minutes of some playing that was really not happening, it was just…

Fripp: I’m inclined to agree…

McLaughlin: Right, and I said,”It’s not possible. You can’t just put this out with the names and rip people off. You can’t do it!” Anyway, that aside, Jimi was…a very,very sweet person. And a really revolutionary guitar player in the sounds that he got out of the guitar. I mean, he shifted the whole course of guitar playing, singlehandedly, in my opinion. Of course, there are now a lot of variations on that, but he did it with such grace, and with finesse, and with real passion. I can’t ask for any more than that.

Fripp: Do you find that listening to a lot of other musicians confuses your own work? If I listen to someone whom I like very much, indeed, so much that I think I could confuse what I’m doing. I stop listening to them. For example, I very much enjoy _Extrapolation_. Did you record that in a day?

McLaughlin: Oh, no. Two or three afternoons, I think.

Fripp: And when Mahavishnu began, I deliberately didn’t listen to it, because I would’ve followed it and I…I was so attracted to it, I thought, “No, this will seduce me.” You know what I mean?

McLaughlin: Yeah, I understand that. But I like to listen to people who I like. I like to, I want to let them influence me. Because I think I learn always. And I’m never going to sound like them anyway.

Fripp: No, but if you were 21, 22…

McLaughlin: Ah, well, when I was 21, 22, unfortunately for me, there were no guitar players that were up to the caliber of Coltrane or Miles or Bill Evans or Red Garner. In fact, I was more influenced by the horn players and the piano players.

Fripp: You were the first guitar player for me that had the chops to meet these people on the same terms. I could hear jazz guitarists kind of taking the easy way, simply because the couldn’t go for what the horn player could get.

McLaughlin: Yeah, yeah. I think it’s a curse and a blessing. The same thing with piano. It’s so difficult to move around on a guitar in the harmonic way one can do on a keyboard. I mean, it requires…it can’t be done…except (snaps fingers) Ted Greene! (whistles) This guy is really unbelievable. He’s the only guitar player who accomplishes this thing that really turns me on.

Fripp: If you listened to the people who you would like to influence you, who would they be?

McLaughlin: Mmm…I think still my perennial favorites, my perennial heroes: Coltrane, Miles, Cannonball Adderley. Have you heard the live album, newly released? Miles in 1959, with Coltrane, Cannonball, and Bill Evans. Cannonball, Coltrane…whooo, there’s two monsters. I love the interplay, the kind of intimacy they get together. It’s the same of instrument, and they’ve worked a lot in similar environments. I think that’s one of the things I like about playing with Paco (DeLucia) and Al Di Meola, because they’re playing my instrument, and it’s intimate, another guitar. You know what it’s like playing with another guitar.

Fripp: Adrian is the first other guitar player I’ve ever worked with. I’ve never like guitar players, basically.

McLaughlin: Hmm, yeah (laughs). I know the feeling. I just listened to some King Crimson. The new one, _Discipline_.

Fripp: We had been together for six weeks when we did that.

McLaughlin: That’s not you singing, is it?

Fripp: No, that’s Adrian. We’ve some quite a long way since that album.

McLaughlin: Umm-hmm. It’s funny, there were times when I even heard some…allusions to the Mahavishnu Orchestra, in an odd kind of way.

Fripp: Hmm. That wasn’t…deliberate, because, as I said, when I heard the Mahavishnu Orchestra, I deliberately didn’t listen to it, because it…it would’ve seduced me, it would’ve been too close. But certainly, Mahavishnu and Billy Cobham were a big influence on Bill (Bruford).

McLaughlin: Ah-hah. Yeah, he’s playing very strong.

Fripp: I wouldn’t have thought it was a band that would have interested you particularly. I wouldn’t have thought rock music…

McLaughlin: Well, I’m interested in…I mean, you’ve just gone through enormous trouble to come and speak to me, and it means a great deal, it says a lot to me, and I wanted to know more about you.

Fripp: I think, if you wanted to listen to some of my work which I think you might like, it would be…

McLaughlin: Well, I don’t think you should prejudice it in that way.

Fripp: All right, but the expectation’s there, because it’s all improvised, I mean, it’s purely improvised. It’s an album I did with Brian Eno, _No Pussyfooting_. Side one is…I had just met with the fellow and had gone and spent the evening with him with a glass of wine and coffee, this was in 1972, and he had a system of recording with two Revoxes (tape machines), and he didn’t explain it to me and I didn’t know what it would sound like, but I plugged in and played. It was simply, there you are – do it. I had never heard the guitar quite sound like this, yet it provided me with the technical facility for getting a sound which I had been hearing on the inside for about five years, but had never managed to get.

McLaughlin: That’s very good; very helpful, too. So suddenly, you felt liberated…

Fripp: Liberated is the word. I had a lot of difficulty working with other musicians, because I’m not a forceful player, and I have a lot of difficulty with enthusiastic drummers thundering around. So just to be able to develop at my own speed, without any useful suggestions…really was liberating.

McLaughlin: I would like to hear it. You send me a cassette and I’ll send you a cassette of _Epiphany_.

Fripp: Done. A cliche, if you would do it for me: what advice would you give to a young player?

McLaughlin: He has to learn his instrument. He has to learn harmony, rhythm, and melody, the three predominant aspects. I think he should familiarize himself with the various musical cultures that exist in the world, because they are all enriching. I think, also, we come back to this paradox, Robert…he has to learn everything possible, and then be able to forget it all at the drop of a hat. That’s the most tricky thing of all (laughs). But there’s got…there’s always more to know. Advice? Work. A four-letter word. Capital W. That’s the only thing we have finally, isn’t it? We have time, and what do we do with time?

Fripp: (pause) Good. That’s wonderful. That’s very good.

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About Jay Babcock

I am an independent writer and editor based in Tucson, Arizona. In 2023: I publish an email newsletter called LANDLINE = https://jaybabcock.substack.com Previously: I co-founded and edited Arthur Magazine (2002-2008, 2012-13) and curated 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 somehow 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. From 2010 to 2021, I lived in rural wilderness in Joshua Tree, Ca.

One thought on “"It basically comes from love": John McLaughlin in conversation with Robert Fripp, 1982

  1. Very Enjoyable. Great to hear from Mr. Fripp and Mclaughlin. It’s nice once in a while to hear from the musical realm, considering that the spiritual (religious) sphere can get rather stagnant (opinion wise). Keep up the great work, and remember God’s love for you. Peace and Love in Christ, Bro. Dan

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