"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.

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Nov. 4, London: Ginger Baker's 70th Birthday Jam at Jazz Cafe

Mighty Chris Goss will be joining Steve Winwood, Jonas Hellborg, Eric Clapton, Jon Lord, Charlie Watts, Courtney Pine, Kofi Baker, John McLaughlin and of course Ginger Baker at Ginger’s 70th Birthday Party Jam on November 4 at London’s famous Jazz Cafe.

Chris sez: “We’ll be covering 45 years of musical selections that span the career of one of the centuries most influential musical geniuses. It looks like we may be including a song or two from Masters of Reality’s ‘Sunrise on the Sufferbus’ as well.”

The night before the jam Ginger will be honored at a dinner hosted by Classic Rock Magazine.

Goss adds: “Since Ginger has been living in South Africa, this is a rare, mindblowing occasion to reunite with a dear friend and musical mentor that taught me so much.”

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.”


    McLaughlin
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.”


    McLaughlin’s
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.
For
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
time.”


    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.


    “I’m
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