Santana at Woodstock: An interview

August 10, 2019 • 10:45 am

If you’re of a certain age, and know what Woodstock is, then you’ll know that 2019 was the 50th anniversary of the iconic music festival. And to my delight, I found the following article in today’s New York Times. Though I wasn’t at Woodstock, I’ve heard the album and, of course, watched the wonderful movie (I was at a not-as-famous music festival, “Summer Jam” at Watkins Glen in 1973, where I heard the Dead, the Allman Brothers, and the Band in a crowd estimated to be 600,000 baked hippies. I also own an original Woodstock poster, autographed by the artist, Santana, Richie Havens, Wavy Gravy, and Grace Slick, which I won in a radio “stump the DJ” contest.)

At any rate, there’s some good stuff in this interview, and I’ll reproduce a bit of it.

The band hadn’t yet released its first album. How did you get booked at Woodstock?

Our manager, Bill Graham, was my first archangel. I have certain people who show up at the allocated, correct time and place, and open big doors for me. Bill invited us to his house in Mill Valley. We were still living in the Mission [District] in San Francisco. He said, “There’s going to be a concert that’s going to change your whole life. I need for you guys to really hear me: After this concert, people are going to start looking at you the way they look at the Doors and Jimi Hendrix. You guys will get in trouble because your heads are going to get so big, you’re going to need a shoehorn to go in a room.”

We rolled our eyes and we go, “Bill, we’re from the Mission. We don’t buy into that rock star thing.”

Lots of groups had long delays before their sets. But Santana was rushed onto the stage, right?

When we landed, the first person I saw was my brother and friend Jerry Garcia. He looked like one of those yogis in a cave in the Himalayas. He had that beatific, everything is all right already look. For me, he was like assurance, confidence and a sanctuary.

They’d told us we were going on two bands after the Grateful Dead. He goes, “Well man, you better get comfortable because apparently, we’re not going on until one o’clock in the morning. It’s a mess here. And by the way, would you like to take some of this?” It was mescaline. And I was like, “Let’s see, it’s 12:30 in the afternoon. By two o’clock in the morning, I’ll be all right.” I used to take LSD and mescaline a lot, so I knew the timing. After eight or 10 hours, you’re into what we call the amoeba state. Your thoughts become very galactic and universal and microscoped.

Two hours after I took it, there was a face in my face that said, “You need to go on right now, otherwise you’re not going to play.” By this time I was really, really on it, you know? I just held on to my faith, and what my mom taught me. I asked, over and over, “Just help me stay in tune and on time.”

I assume that in 1969, Jerry Garcia’s mescaline was pretty potent.

Oh, it was. I’d been dosed by them a year before. It took me two to three days to coordinate after that one. I’d been baptized into consciousness expanding, I’ll call it, so that didn’t scare me.

We knew already they had a reputation for dosing other bands and since we were opening for them in Las Vegas, I made sure to carefully wash this Coca-Cola can I was going to drink. But what I didn’t know is, they knew how to put a syringe in the soda can. So we played our set and left, and on the way from the airport to the plane, the hall kept getting longer and longer. The colors in the carpet and in the wall started oozing like lava. I said, “Uh oh, they got me.” When I sat down on the plane, I looked out the window as we were taking off, and the Vegas lights looked like Aztec hieroglyphics. [Laughs] I said, “This is going to be intense.”

When you were onstage at Woodstock, were you hallucinating?

Oh totally. You can tell by my body language. I’m wrestling with the guitar — not wrestling in conflict, but like a surfer, wrestling to maintain and sustain a balance. That’s the key to everything in life. Whether you’re straight or on mescaline, maintain your composure and your balance.

Here are two videos from Santana’s performance. You can hear the complete 40-minute set here, but without video. You can clearly see him “wrestling with the guitar” in the first song, “Soul Sacrifice”, which features a great drum solo by Michael Shrieve (you can see a separate video of that here.) At 20, Shrieve was the youngest person to perform at Woodstock.

I have to say, that if I were a musician, I’d be afraid to play on psychedelics, even though many of them did in the Sixties. I’d worry that the drugs would mess up my playing and my timing, but it apparently had no effect on Santana—or maybe even improved the performance. For surely this is one of the great rock performances of all time:

Who played the best sets at Woodstock, and where does Santana rate?

There was only three bands I recollect that were putting it all on the line. You’re playing like Buddy Rich or Miles Davis; you’re playing for your life. Sly and the Family Stone for me is No. 1. Jimi Hendrix is No. 2. Everybody else has to fight with us for No. 3.

What we brought was basically African rhythms and melody. After Woodstock, every band all of a sudden started getting congas. Miles had congas. The Rolling Stones had congas. Because they saw that mixing congas with guitars is a win-win situation — especially with women!

Sly and the Family Stone! I don’t even remember their performance. Here’s Santana with “Evil Ways”:

Bill Graham predicted that the band would become bigheaded after Woodstock. Did it?

Oh, totally. In my case, I fell out soon enough to embrace spiritual discipline. I moved to Queens, New York, and cut my hair. I wasn’t doing drugs, wasn’t drinking, changed my diet. For 10 years. I was devoted to a certain code of conduct that serves me well now. I got more energy than when I was 17.

I’d like to hear a little bit about your bigheaded phase.

[Laughs] Sure you do. You buy expensive, flashy cars, and you waste a lot of time in the mirror changing clothes. It becomes like what happened to Prince and Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston. You create this mask — it’s called persona, like Batman and Bruce Wayne — that is draining to maintain. That’s why I made a change to drop that and become a person rather than a personality.

Long live Carlos, still going strong at 72!

55 thoughts on “Santana at Woodstock: An interview

  1. “… which I won in a radio “stump the DJ” contest.”

    I would love to know the music! How can we do this nowadays? the tune name comes up on YouTube -…. I can promise to keep my eyes closed

    1. The question that stumped him was “Name three rock songs that have the name of an American college or university in them.” I don’t think he got one. I’ve posted that before, but I’ll let readers ponder it for a while here.

    2. I have three after thinking for 15 – 20 minutes.

      1. My Old School (This was easy to come to mind.)

      2. Midd Kidd by The Allen Jokers (Midd means Middlebury.)

      3. We Didn’t Start The Fire by Billy Joel (reference to Ole Miss)

        1. It didn’t initially come to mind. It was good to listen to it. For some reason “Do It Again” and “Reelin’ In The Years” were really the two I knew. I love Bad Sneakers but that happened recently.

          1. Hey, I just thought of another: Louisiana State from Randy Newman’s “Rednecks”:

            College men from LSU
            Went in dumb, come out dumb, too.

            That’s three from the Southeastern Conference alone! 🙂

  2. There was an entertaining feature film by Ang Lee a few years ago, Taking Woodstock, based on the true story of the reluctant scion to a down’n’out Catskills resort and the role he played in organizing the festival. Nice turns by Eugene Levy as Max Yasgur and by Liev Schreiber as the cross-dressing former Marine who provides security.

    1. Just reserved taking Woodstock at my library. Saw a semi-interesting Doc on Woodstock on PBS the other night. Too many interviews with inarticulate attendees and not enough music but the interviews with Yasgur were worthwhile. I think the hog farm was the commune which provided security. I was somewhat appalled by all the trash that the participants left behind.
      Did not go across the country to Woodstock but was very close to going to nearby Altamont. Very glad I didn’t go.

      1. Just saw a riveting new doc, Maiden, about the first female crew to compete in the grueling Whitbread around-the-world sailing race.

        Don’t miss it.

  3. 1969 – Purchased a 1954 Cadillac, with about 30,000 miles on it, for $150, left to a grandson who didn’t want it. Starting from Burlington VT with 2 other guys, toured most of the U.S. and returned solo with 150 mescaline capsules packed in a loaf of bread, sloshing around in a styrofoam chest. With a couple weeks left before the concert, in Provincetown MA, I scooped about 12 to 15 admission tickets. Back in hometown Pittsford NY, I provided them at face value to all my friends. After the event without any ticket collection, some of said friends labeled me a profiteer or crook. (Parked that Cadillac within 500 yards of the stage. Later arrivals parked as far as 25 miles down the NY State Thruway.) (Only scratching the surface here.)

  4. “Long live Carlos, still going strong at 72!” That’s no lie! I wasn’t very familiar with Santana except for the hits that entered my awareness thru radio airplay, so he was never really on my radar, but a few years ago a friend gave me his most recent album, Santana IV (2016). It’s a reunion of most of the original members, and it’s no golden oldies nostalgia trip–it truly rocks! I don’t know if the rest of his albums are this good, but this is a smokin’ album!!!–lU

  5. “Dosing” sounds like it means causing people to ingest hallucinogens without their knowledge or consent. Maybe that was considered OK at the time, but it sounds like a horrible practice, even if you like hallucinogens. I guess Santana took it in stride, but that sounds like a really stupid and dangerous thing to do.

    The only time in my life that I’ve ever initiated violence against someone was against a person who tricked me into ingesting something he called “poppers”. (It was something he told me was “liquid incense” that would smell really good if inhaled.) It was a miserable experience, and the rush from the poppers didn’t help my judgement any, but even though I regretted giving him a black eye and a welt on the back of his head, I think he learned never to do that to anyone else again.

    Was dosing considered an acceptable practice at the time, or was it generally considered to be a douche move?

    1. I was surprised that Santana took it so well. I’d be pissed. One of my cousins dosed his own dad with mushrooms. Made him “tea” w/o telling him what was in it. Needless to say, it did not go over well.

      1. I agree it is immoral to slip someone a drug without their consent. But it was the Sixties, man, in the days after the “acid tests.”

        George & John first tried LSD when they got dosed at dinner by George’s dentist. Early on, psychedelics held a fascination for intellectuals, like Aldous Huxley and a coupla Harvard professors named Leary and Alpert. Kesey first tried acid as a volunteer for the CIA’s Porject MKUltra at Stanford while he was there on a Stegner fellowship.

    2. … I regretted giving him a black eye and a welt on the back of his head …

      We’ll chalk that one up to amyl-induced violence. 🙂

  6. “After Woodstock, every band all of a sudden started getting congas. Miles had congas. The Rolling Stones had congas.”

    I recall the great Cuban trumpeter Arturo Sandoval describing something of the opposite happening in Cuba. Before he defected, he and his band wanted to play bebop and hard-bop and post-bop like Miles and Bird and Dizzy, but they always added congas to disguise what was officially regarded as “decadent Yanqui music.”

  7. “After Woodstock, every band all of a sudden started getting congas. Miles had congas. The Rolling Stones had congas.”

    I recall the great Cuban trumpeter Arturo Sandoval describing something of the opposite happening in Cuba. Before he defected, he and his band wanted to play bebop and hard-bop and post-bop like Miles and Bird and Dizzy, but they always added congas to disguise what was officially regarded as “decadent Yanqui music.”

  8. The youngest musician at Woodstock was Henry Gross, guitarist with the forgettable, awful Sha Na Na. He was aged 18 [April 1st, 1951] two years younger than Michael Shrieve.

    1. I agree that Sha-Na-Na was a trite novelty act. But they seemed like an inspired choice to wake up the crowd the morning of the festival’s closing day, right before Hendrix’s grand finale set that concluded with the Star-Spangled Banner.

    2. It’s mind-blowing to me when I see people of that age playing in front of so many people. Especially in individual sports like tennis, where it’s literally just you and your mind and nobody else. The maturity and mental fortitude is unreal. I couldn’t handle 1/50th that pressure at my significantly older age, but we have pro tennis players at the top who are 15 years old.

      Steve Vai was 19 when he started playing on stage with the already legendary Zappa.

  9. I saw him at a very nice restaurant in NYC. People were coming up to him all. damn. night. asking for autographs and pictures with him. Every time, he was so kind and gracious, as if this wasn’t even the slightest inconvenience. I never went up to him, as I have a policy of treating celebrities the way I’d want to be treated if I was them, which is “leave me alone.” Wait, actually, that’s how I like to be treated all the time 😛

    Anyway, regarding strong hallucinogenics and playing guitar: when I was a guitarist and doing a ton of drugs, I found it so much easier for my fingers to flow when I was on a big dose of shrooms, and so much easier to gel with and hear the rest of the band. I can’t describe it to someone who hasn’t experienced it, but it just…works.

    Santana’s a pretty weird dude, though. I remember seeing an interview with him where he said something to the effect of being visited and having his gifts bestowed upon him by the tetragrammaton (I think that was it).

  10. Quite the sound he had for that time. I wonder how he did it. These days you can get whatever sound you want because computers.

    1. I don’t share your pessimism.

      You can’t get the Santana sound, the Peter Green sound, the Otis Rush sound, the BB King sound, the Jimi Hendrix sound, the Jonny Greenwood sound etc “because computers”! Santana had that Santana sound at Woodstock which is before he discovered his trademark guitar & amp. His guitar amp at the festival was a tubeless affair he didn’t like & didn’t keep. His guitar was a Gibson SG, but he switched to something else a couple of years later, but it’s still Santana coming through no matter the base kit.

      The ingredients are I believe 85% Santana playing style, 10% guitar effects & 5% recording engineer magic. Then there’s the distinctive backing band sound such as the Latin percussion poly-rhythms [is that the word?] & the congas. A lot of bands went conga crazy because the Stones’ classic Sympathy & Santana

      Nearly all his effects are from the early rock guitar days – simply wah-wah pedal usually on one setting & a distortion pedal for that growly ‘Harley engine’ sound [both evident on Samba Pa Ti I think]. Santana spent a lot of time developing that smooth, creamy [his word] sustain when he bends a note. Santana is Santana because of all the above & the Latin trills he throws into the guitar pot.

      You can get plug-ins now to get that “Santana Tone” [it’s what it’s called], but it gets you only 10% of the way to Carlos.

      1. Incidentally a lot of Carlos Santana’s blues style is obviously a rip of the Peter Green blues style. Compare the two & it’s obvious he listened & played Peter Green a LOT. And the facial grimaces are B.B King or similar.

        1. Green was a huge influence on Santana, something he constantly acknowledges, but he doesn’t rip him off. In 1998 when Santana were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame Carlos invited Green to play Black Magic Woman with the band. This was at a time when Green had more or less been forgotten, having struggled with his own demons for many years.

          1. I’m using “rip” in a gentle sense, I’m not implying theft – all musicians rip elements from those that came before & their peers.

            Incidentally I saw the Peter Green Splinter Group at Ronnie Scotts almost exactly twenty years ago & it was a shock to see how off his game he was – the ravages of his illness were plain to see & hear. I was glad he was getting funds in by touring it was obviously a dog & pony nostalgia show. He was shadowed by a lead guitarist [Nigel Watson?] who stayed out of the spots & did the difficult, twiddly bits while Green stuck to rhythm guitar – for those moment where guitar magic was expected, Green turned his back to the audience & went through the motions. The audience wasn’t fooled & I don’t believe it was a happy situation for anyone on or off stage that night.

            Ten years later I saw “Peter Green and Friends” & he was more relaxed, but not engaged with the audience. I got the feeling he didn’t really want to be there & he didn’t seem to love his guitar. Strange, flat show. I think he still tours – perhaps for the money or it’s a therapy.

            1. What a good story, even if it’s a bit sad. There’s no doubt that Peter Green was, at one time, a wonderful guitarist. Man Of The World is a stunning piece of music and barely three minutes long. That depth of emotion and the longing in his playing is astounding in one so young. We are so lucky that we live in an age of recorded music and that we can hear these sounds again and again. Imagine trying to describe Beethoven to your friends who weren’t there. Human evolution !!!!

              1. Maybe you know this story, Peter Green gave Gary Moore one of his guitars which was bought at auction by Metallica’s Kirk Hammett decades later for two milski [it is rumoured]. A 1959 Les Paul Standard with one pickup wound the wrong way which gave it a unique tone – a manufacturing fault it that part of the story is true – there’s a lot of bollocks nonsense in the music world – the passage of time & the lifestyle muddy the truth.

                FULL STORY HERE

      2. I think he turned down his tone control on the guitar to get what they call a “woman tone” and then some type of fuzz effect. Sounds almost like it’s a synthesizer because of the “fuzziness”.

    2. Nah, I just don’t think this is the case. You might be able to get some approximation of some different sounds, but you can’t get them via computers. It’s why guitarists still fiddle so much with their rigs, constantly trying to find new sounds, tones, and tricks they like; that’s an art unto itself.

      It’s like drumming and computers: you can get an approximation of a certain type of drummer with a certain type of sound, but the real thing still sounds miles ahead.

        1. I guess what I mean is not that you can’t replicate a sound — computers can replicate any sound in the world — but if you’re a guitarist, you usually don’t want just a single tone. If you’re, say, Trey Anastasio, you’re often constantly fine-tuning your tone throughout a song, pressing this pedal and that at different moments to make slight changes. You can’t write an algorithm for spontaneity and/or improvisation.

          If you think about it, though, most of those pedals are little computers, just not the type we’re talking about.

          1. You can do that on computer with “MIDI foot controllers” that control the virtual guitar pedals in the computer. In fact you can do more with computers. For example you can program it to change a tone/flip a pedal/or whatnot based on how hard or soft you play a note believe it or not.

            1. I am definitely happy to admit when I’m wrong and have learned something new, but I just want some confirmation that computers can do everything a rig can live on stage because it seems all the great guitarists I know don’t use this.

              On a somewhat unrelated note (in that I’d still want to see more sources), do you know of any famous guitarists who use this method? Heck, maybe I can find an interview with them where they explain what you’ve said. Also, if you have any sources where I could read about this, I would love to do so.

              Again, thanks for the education. It’s not a knock on you that I want to read about and have more sources confirm this. I think not relying on a single person/source for information is always good policy 🙂 Thanks, Roger.

              1. No idea who uses what. I’m saying you can get whatever sound you want with computer stuff. I don’t see how that could not be true!

              2. Here’s an example of using the loudness or softness of audio to control something. Parameter Modulation. It can trigger any effect that has knobs or buttons etc., not just that EQ he was using. For MIDI foot controllers, you can search youtube for those. They’re like effect pedals except they can control any effect on your computer you want them to.

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